'Getting to know your market will help you'
Small business focus: Alan Royle, The Stove Yard
Wood burning and multi-fuel stoves have become so popular in recent years, it is hard to find a home without one.
Most new builds nowadays are fitted with one and an increasing number of people are putting them in older properties when carrying out home improvements.
More than a decade ago, Ian Royle and Richard Poulter were savvy enough to spot the growing demand and set up The Stove Yard in Newtownards, Co Down.
They started out selling stoves from Ian's living room in the family home in Bangor, but are now one of the UK's leading suppliers of wood burning and multi-fuel stoves, with a showroom in Kiltonga Industrial Estate and another in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire.
Alan Royle, Ian's son, is director of the firm and explains how the business was started.
"It was established 14 years ago in 2005, importing solid fuel and wood burning stoves," he says. "We started out as a distributor to wholesalers but there was such a demand for stoves in the local area that in 2006 we moved into the retail side of things.
"We now have a large showroom where people can come and pick the model they want, and we also have an independent installation service as well.
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"We also have an online presence where we sell spare parts for stoves."
The Stove Yard now imports up to 4,000 units a year from as far away as China - a far cry from its humble beginnings. Alan (30) says: "My dad and Richard worked together in the automotive industry but the company they worked for closed down 16 years ago.
"They were made redundant but had such a good international contacts from their time working in the automotive industry that they were able to establish the supply chain for stoves. There had been quite a lot of international travel in their previous roles and it wasn't such a stretch to go from what they had been doing even though they were importing a completely different product.
"At the time, they recognised the growing demand for stoves, they saw a gap in the market, and knew that not many people had stoves, so they knew it was an area for significant growth.
"I suppose it was a bit of risk starting out, but they'd actually sold their first stove before it had arrived in Northern Ireland.
"I was about 16 at the time and the business started off small - I remember the stoves being sold from our front room, that's where the very first customers came to.
"But they quickly built up a good reputation and the business grew through word of mouth."
Despite the success of the business, Alan was originally planning a career in law. He worked in the showroom in Newtownards while at Bangor Grammar School, but after finishing his A-levels, went to Newcastle to study law.
However, with the success of the business and a realisation that law was not for him, he began working full-time at The Stove Yard in 2012. "I had finished university and there was a huge surge in growth and they were really short staffed and asked me to come in and help out," Alan says.
"I very quickly changed up operations and smoothed things out and I really, really enjoyed working here.
"We decided at that stage that it would be a good idea for me to join the business long-term.
"Dad and Richard knew they had a good business idea but I don't think they could have predicted just how successful it was going to be and how much it would grow over 14 years."
He continues: "To be honest, we don't have to work particularly hard to get people to buy the product, as there is such high demand for wood burning stoves.
"People come into the showroom and they like what they see and they are even more delighted when the finished product is installed in their house."
The majority of the stoves sold by The Stove Yard come from China, where they also work closely with their contacts in the country to design stoves to suit the requirements and tastes of their UK customers.
Alan says: "We have a large range of stoves. All meet the required standards but we do sell stoves at the lower end of the price range so they provide value for money for people who don't want to spend a massive amount of money.
"We also design our own stoves now and they are made in China and imported to the UK.
"This means we are able to sell our own stoves in-house, they are made in China and brought to Europe and tested here and meet all the European standards.
"We have built up such a good relationship with our contacts in China over the years that it hasn't been a very difficult process to design our own stoves.
"It actually works quite well and means we can better cater to our customers.
"We are able to come up with stoves that meet their expectations design wise but also with factors such as efficiency.
"It is myself and Richard who are primarily involved in the design of the stoves and it's very satisfying to see something you have designed selling to customers and even better when they come back and tell you how happy they are."
Alan explains that tastes have changed over the years and most recently, a growing number of customers are asking for stoves with large glass fronts.
He adds: "It's great when you start looking at what is going to be the next big product and you work on something from start to finish and see it in the showroom.
"We stock stoves that are designed and made by the factories but generally they will have things that the customers don't like.
"However, when we are designing a stove, we are doing it from scratch and have complete control and can make sure they best suit your customers.
"In the early days, Richard would have made quite a few trips to China, so the whole design process is quite smooth now."
As demand for stoves has grown, Alan and the team at The Stove Yard have also expanded their premises.
Alan says: "We went from simply Ireland to the UK, so we have premises in England which is really important to our customers.
"It means our distribution customers over there can come into a showroom and actually see the physical stock.
"That opened in 2008 and has been very important for the business.
"We did start off fairly small - in 2006 our showroom was probably about 20ft sq and most recently we bought the unit next door in Kiltonga so our premises are now 4,000sq ft.
"We're working on the expansion at the moment and we're really excited about it.
"Ulster Bank has been instrumental in helping us to expand.
"The main reason for this new showroom is to enable us to display gas stoves because they are growing in popularity and we want to be able to offer a full range to our customers. We don't have a huge range on display at the moment but we aim to open the expansion in September."
He adds: "We're currently working on the showroom that will be very cutting-edge in terms of design, it's going to be very aesthetically Northern Ireland.
"There will be a coffee bar so we will be able to offer that wee bit extra to our customers.
"We believe the new showroom will make us the largest showroom of wood burning and gas stoves in Ireland."
They have already diversified the products that they sell, offering outdoor products such as barbecues and pizza ovens.
And with the greater showroom capacity and warehouse space, they will be able to further grow their seasonal product ranges and year-round gas appliances.
At the same time, they are adding to the existing stock by developing low emission products.
So, as he works to build upon the success of the business to date, what is the advice Alan has for other business people?
He said: "You need to know your market.
"You need to know exactly what people will want to spend and are prepared to pay for your product in relation to your competitors.
"So many people have great ideas for business, you see them all the time on Dragon's Den, but what it actually comes down to is what it is going to cost and how it is going to work.
"Essentially, if your product can't be sold at a price people are willing to pay then your business idea is going to fail."