You’re finally out of the city and amongst the evergreens, enjoying a beautiful sunset at the cottage.
The air is fragrant with a spicy blend of pine and flora. The lake is like a mirror, reflecting the setting sun and in the distance, a loon’s distinctive warble is rudely interrupted by your loud, stinky gas-powered generator turning on at the worst possible moment.
Enter Unique Gas Products. Their “off-grid” appliances allow you to enjoy the natural beauty and soundscapes of your surroundings, without the never-ending whine and smell of a gas-powered engine.
Objective 1: Increase U.S. market share
For Unique, inspiration struck in April of 2015 at an EDC breakfast about the U.S. housing market, which was led by EDC chief economist, Peter Hall.
During that morning session, Mr. Hall mentioned that the U.S. housing market was strengthening and poised for growth. He also stressed the urgency for Canadian companies to take advantage of the opportunities for success in the housing market, where the potential for profit was great for the right products.
Influenced by Mr. Hall’s words, Steve Petersen, President of Unique Gas Products, sharpened his focus to increase his company’s market share in the U.S.
And he succeeded.
“We had 51 per cent growth in the U.S. market in 2015” says Petersen. “Compared to 13 per cent growth in Canada, so that was a fantastic year for us. And I’m emphasizing that focus again this year.”
Yes but, where’s the plug?
“Off-grid” simply means that there is no conventional means of accessing a power supply, such as areas where it is too expensive to bring in hydro, or isolated or difficult-to-access areas like islands, remote lakes, and camps.
Their slogan says it all: “No power…no problem”. Unique Gas Products are proud of their over fifty-year history as a leader in the North American “off-grid” market, offering over 30 different off-grid products including propane ranges, cooktops, propane refrigerators, freezers, and a future line of solar DC appliances.
The off-grid market was a sector that hadn’t seen technological advancement in many years. Unique tuned in to their customers and found an opportunity for innovation. They were the first manufacturer to bring to market a 9-volt ignition for cooking products, which eliminates standing pilot lights and wasted fuel.
“For decades, our customers were people whose cabins were located in isolated areas too expensive to provide electricity, like crown land, islands, or mountains.”
“Life has become busier and busier, so more and more people are attracted to slowing down and we enable that” says Petersen. “It’s a very attractive lifestyle and we’ve incorporated off-grid living in our family for almost forty years…so on weekends and vacations, we live it.”
The future is sunny
Solar-powered appliances are another off-grid alternative that Unique has been developing to satisfy that increasing segment of the market. “This year, we’re introducing a ten cubic foot solar fridge to complement our existing 16.6 cubic foot model.”
“The growth is going to be more rapid for the DC solar products, but we forecast the propane market will remain strong. Propane products aren’t going anywhere.”
Unique is also the only manufacturer of off-grid appliances in North America that offers consumers matched pairs of off-grid appliances. “That is certainly a comparative advantage for us” says Petersen. “Consumers are used to buying their appliances in pairs and that transfers into the off-grid market.”
Unique exports with the help of EDC
“At EDC, our commitment is truly to encourage and support Canadian companies, particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises to go, grow and succeed in foreign markets” says Eric Agyemang, a small business account manager at EDC. “And Unique Gas really exemplifies that mantra. We are thrilled about their impressive success in the U.S. and we will continue to serve as a trusted partner as they take on new markets.”
“EDC has been very important to us” agrees Petersen. “We’ve got a dominant position in the Canadian market, but in the U.S. we are still increasing our market share. The advice from the breakfast with EDC chief economist, Peter Hall, really helped us gain momentum on our growth curve.”
In addition to the North American market, in the past few years Unique has been shipping containers of products all over the world, including sending propane fridges into the toughest application on earth: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where the ambient temperature is a sweltering 45°C/110°F.
5 Questions for Steve Petersen, president of Unique Gas Products Ltd.
What was your first export sale?
I purchased the company thirteen years ago and at that time, twenty per cent of our sales were international. In 2015 fifty-five per cent of our sales were outside of Canada, including some great business in the Persian Gulf two or three years ago, which I consider to be our first big score.
How did that first export opportunity arise?
Through word of mouth! We formally sourced some products from Brazil and when they stopped producing propane fridges for their customers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we were successfully referred.
When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Over the years, we’ve increased our knowledge of North American and international standards requirements and built up our access to human capital. To acquire and access that insight takes time and mistakes…so I wish I began with that knowledge already in place.
How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
The world has become a lot smaller and people move faster and have access to more information, so you need continuous improvement and to be able to adapt quickly. If not, you’ll be out-competed.
What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about exporting and trade?
Ask questions. And get involved with EDC – go to their breakfasts and seminars, and align yourself up with a manager and see what they can offer.
Bonus question: What do you do when you are not working?
Travel is my passion. My wife and I have travelled to 89 countries together and we brought the kids with us to 53 countries. When the kids were 11 and 14, we went to Nepal and trekked to Annapurna base camp and back. We were told that my 11 year old was the youngest hiker to ever accomplish that.