By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
Empire Comfort Systems traces its origins to a small sheet metal shop in Belleville, Ill., opened in 1911 by Henry Bauer, a German immigrant who sold gas, coal and wood-fired furnaces before developing a furnace of his own design in 1919.
The company incorporated in 1932 as Empire Stove Co., producing sheet metal heaters that were less expensive to make than the cast iron models popular at the time.
President Nick Bauer, Henry’s great grandson, said Empire now makes a wide variety of gas heaters, gas logs, fireplace inserts and, most recently, Broilmaster gas grills. The company has two factories in Belleville comprising 550,000 square feet and employing approximately 300 people.
Empire ships its products throughout North America. Though its direct customers are distributors who sell to independent dealers, Empire provides parts and customer service to consumers as well as dealers and installers.
“If we get a phone call, we’re going to take care of it,” Bauer said. That includes providing parts to products such as grills that go back to 1966.
Empire takes customer calls from 7 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily. Each call is answered by a full-time employee. “We like that personal touch,” says Bauer. The company has a parts department of six people and a service department of five plus two traveling technicians who teach classes on Empire equipment to installers.
About 65 percent of Empire’s employees are in production, with about 35 percent in the office or other departments. Empire makes all but about 5 percent of its products.
Empire’s products have evolved as consumer tastes and demands have changed. For example, the company made 80,000 floor furnaces in 1972 but last year made just 400. Empire has its own research and development division that works on new products.
“As consumers’ tastes have changed, we’ve shifted,” Bauer said.
Popular products today include wall-mounted and free-standing furnaces and space heaters sold under the Empire Heating Systems brand. White Mountain Hearth is Empire’s brand for a wide variety of gas logs and fireplaces in styles that range from traditional to contemporary. Other brands include American Hearth, Carl Rose and Broilmaster grills. All Empire products use natural gas or propane.
The bulk dealers are family-owned businesses, including heating and cooling installers, specialty stores that sell fireplaces and patio furniture, as well as natural gas and liquid propane distributors. Few of Empire’s sales are to big-box stores.
“We’re supporting family businesses, like us,” said Bauer. Some customers have carried Empire products for 70 years.
Bauer said the company has four core values:
- Lead with love
- Customer commitment
- Continuous improvement
- We have fun.
Managers teach the principles to employees upon hiring and again after a couple of months. Managers are graded on how well they teach the values.
“We’re very early” in codifying the values, Bauer said. He talks about one of the values every month in employee meetings, but it doesn’t stop there. “It has to be talked about every day,” he said.
Empire provides a scholarship to a local high school student and donates to a variety of organizations, including SAVE, a local sheltered workshop. Company officials serve on the boards of community organizations, such as the YMCA and the Belleville Chamber of Commerce.
Bauer says he believes Empire, like its products, is here to stay.
“I want my great grandson to take over the business,” he said.
Profiles of BBB Accredited Businesses and BBB Accredited Charities are created as part of BBB’s TORCH Award process and are not intended as an endorsement. This year’s TORCH Award Luncheon will be Oct. 14 at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St .Louis. For more information, click here.