New Brunswick’s Therma-Ray is one of only a few companies in North America delivering a wide range of radiant heating solutions for both residential and commercial customers.
The company’s products are found everywhere from luxury boxes at an NFL football stadium in Indianapolis, to a Bikram Yoga studio in Florida, to a hospital in Abu Dhabi. With customers in Canada, the U.S., Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Japan, Lebanon, and more, Therma-Ray is a great example of the world-class innovation coming from New Brunswick.
Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke with Kevin Kilbride, President, to learn more.
ONB: Let’s begin with an overview of Therma-Ray.
Kilbride: We are a manufacturer of electric radiant heating systems. All of our manufacturing is done here in New Brunswick; we bring in the parts and put it all together in our production line here. We are fortunate enough to have a couple of great New Brunswick suppliers; their service has been great and the product quality has been excellent.
ONB: You’re seeing success on the export front with major projects in the U.S. Tell us about the biggest challenges Therma-Ray faced before reaching this level.
Kilbride: The biggest challenge we’ve faced – and it’s ongoing – is finding good local representation and distributors. When you have products like ours there is a more engineered solution that requires a bit more time and effort in order to close a sale. Radiant heating technology continues to grow rapidly as an option but it’s still not that well-known.
Finding partners to sell our unique offerings and tell our story properly has been an ongoing challenge. Once people really understand what we offer, it’s much easier. More and more we’re receiving calls from architects, engineers, and contractors looking for solutions to their heating challenges. Most of this comes via web searches, and we rank very high in those; that’s how the hospital in Abu Dhabi came about. You really need that network calling on architects, engineers, and home builders in order to make deals happen.
ONB: Let’s talk about ONB’s role with Therma-Ray.
Kilbride: We’ve had great support from ONB. Everyone on the export side we’ve dealt with really get what New Brunswick companies are trying to do. I’ve noticed they really work hard, not simply doing the 9-5 thing. They’re at trade shows, travelling and working on weekends, etc. We’ve been able to take advantage of ONB-organized trade missions and incoming buyer missions. We’ve also received support from them on the financial side, and from being able to take advantage of the expertise and connections they have.
ONB: You’ve taken part in a few of these trade missions now, can you expand on that?
Kilbride: We did a UK mission in March, and along with other Atlantic Region businesses, we’ve done work at Greenbuild. Those types of shows can be fairly expensive to do solo, and you get lost in those large shows quickly, so it’s nice to do some cost sharing with other companies. You can do it on your own, but you don’t always get the best locations, and it can be costly.
ONB: You’ve been active in economic development here in the province. Tell us about that experience.
Kilbride: Yes, I’m a past Chair of Enterprise Fredericton (now Ignite Fredericton) and I served on that board for a couple of years. I’ve also been involved with the University of New Brunswick’s (UNB) NB Exporter-U program.
ONB: Are you optimistic about the overall business climate in New Brunswick and the entrepreneurial ecosystem we have?
Kilbride: The technology sector is really strong in Fredericton, no doubt. There aren’t as many manufacturers, however, in this city compared to Moncton and Saint John. But when you look at a lot of those companies you (ONB) work with, there are a number of successful businesses in New Brunswick on the export front.
In terms of an ecosystem, it’s just a question of getting together with those other manufacturers, but that’s tricky because everyone is so busy. Except for the NB Export Awards, which is great, we really don’t have anything specifically for manufacturing. So for manufacturers it may not always seem like as tightly-knit of an ecosystem as it is in something like the IT. Still, with organizations like Ignite the resources are here for entrepreneurs.
ONB: Are you from New Brunswick?
Kilbride: I’m from Quebec originally but I’ve been in New Brunswick since the company’s founding 30 years ago. My father started the company here; he left Quebec back then as well. Setting up shop in New Brunswick was the best location for us at the time, and still is. We’re halfway between Halifax – which was a big market for us starting out – and another large market in Quebec, and just an hour from the U.S. border.
ONB: You’ve stayed after 30 years, so it’s safe to assume you’re happy with what New Brunswick has to offer. What are some of the benefits of operating here?
Kilbride: For manufacturing, you need lots of space, and land prices have been good. The tax situation is good, labour rates are good, and transportation has worked out well. We don’t have to worry about air shipments because our stuff is bulky, but having access to Atlantic Canadian ports is a bonus. Plus we have good access directly into the U.S. via truck. Having UPS’s custom brokerage services located in Fredericton means easy and timely customs clearing of supplies. Then they handle our smaller shipments leaving the province. The support we get from the public sector has been excellent as well.
ONB: You mentioned teaching export courses as part of Exporter-U. What are some of the most frequent student questions?
Kilbride: One big surprise for me is that when I mention those local companies I’m aware of that are doing well, and who they are and where they’re located, students look at me with blank stares. Many say they had no idea we were doing certain things here in New Brunswick. As such, they don’t know who to talk to for jobs.
There are interesting New Brunswick companies doing work all over the globe. I meet foreign students that speak multiple languages—which is a great asset—or local students with other strong skill sets. They could be useful for these businesses, and they don’t know how to reach these companies. Younger folks don’t tend to read the newspapers anymore; so where are they going to find out about all of these great local opportunities? I try to bring companies to their attention in that educational setting, tell them to pay attention as they may spot opportunities they didn’t realize were already here.
ONB: What is your best advice for other companies looking to see export success here?
Kilbride: First have a plan; know what it is you want to do. For us, it’s about having someone on the ground in the local area. And be prepared to go back. The biggest complaint that I’ve heard from Trade Commissioners and various consulates is that Canadian companies come in once, and then nobody ever hears from them again. It’s a big problem, and I hear it all the time. This applies to Canadian companies in general, not just New Brunswick companies.
You have to do the follow-up. Visiting once and never bothering again just won’t work. You may as well just go for the vacation.
ONB: How important would you say it is to do some cultural research on target markets?
Kilbride: Well first there’s business culture, and there’s local culture. It’s important to brush up on both. When I talk to students I tell them to pay attention to the politics, exchange rates, and to the overall economic situation of any country you’re dealing with. Be aware of how all rules apply. I always warn them about those countries’ definitions of bribery versus North American definitions. You can get into a lot of trouble quickly. Be aware of customs like that and if you’re not sure, ask a local.
ONB: Let’s wrap with what’s in the immediate future for Therma-Ray. Anything you’re working on you’d like to mention?
Kilbride: We’ve got projects in New York now that are interesting on several fronts because it will be our first foray into sustained efforts in that city. There’s a 60 story condo project that will be using our products and the engineers involved on it really like our solution for heating those condos. They want to expand the use of our products in their other ventures too, so that’s exciting.
We also have a tie in with the Hyatt Park Hotel; they’re using us with one of their New York City projects. We just received the order for that one. Again, the engineering firm wants to use us for some other projects now that they have a first taste of our solutions. There’s also a third building that’s going to go up but hasn’t been finalized yet on the design side, but it’s the same engineers so we expect to end up with that job as well.
Once you can start pointing to projects in New York City, you’re accepted. If you can make it there…
Cover image via Thermaray.com