Future burning bright

Andrew Munro’s is a true phoenix business. His fireplace firm rose from the ashes of a company saddled with multi-million pound debts.

Andrew Munro’s is a true phoenix business. His fireplace firm rose from the ashes of a company saddled with multi-million pound debts. Having seen fingers burned once, JEZ DAVISON asked, why on earth play with fire again?

THE OLD adage “lightning doesn’t strike twice” cuts no ice with Darlington-raised design engineer Andrew Munro.

He was kicked in the teeth by two redundancies in three years, but rather than let those bolts from the blue shoot him down, he used them to spark a new business into life.

He established Spirit Fires, a fireplace maker-retailer, at Newton Aycliffe industrial park in July 2006. With barely two years’ trading under its belt, it’s expected to hit £2m turnover and there are plans to open distribution lines in Germany and Portugal.

Within five years Andrew hopes to be heading up a £5m turnover business with a manufacturing base in the US and outlets in “every major city in the UK”.

It’s hardly a slow-burn affair, then, but past experience has taught Andrew to be cautious, especially since the number of distressed North-east firms experiencing critical problems soared from 85 in quarter one of 2007 to 328 in the same period this year.

Having been hauled over the business coals once, he’s happy just to be back on an even keel with his sense of humour still intact.

“Life can deal you an unfair hand but you’ve just got to get on with it,” he says philosophically. “If one challenge ends, there will be others ahead.

“Upon starting this business I said to Christine (McLoughlin, his finance director and business partner) that we’d have a fantastic company in 12 months’ time. Now we’ve got one.”

His mood at the start of 2006 was less optimistic. The company that employed him, CVO Fires Ltd, had overstretched its finances and plummeted into receivership. But, rather than run as far as he could from a tarnished brand, Andrew bought the firm’s design and intellectual property rights, which allowed him to sell CVO-branded products across the globe.

“Even though CVO ran into trouble financially, the reputation of its products hadn’t taken a hit,” he says, explaining the logic.

“There was still a market for unique, desirable fireplaces and still is, despite the current economic downturn.”

It’s a bullishness that has served him well on many occasions, most notably when he was made redundant in 2003 after 13 years’ service at Japanese-owned components manufacturer, Tabuchi Electric - an experience about which he chooses to accentuate the positives: “It gave me great all-round experience of purchasing, sales and design engineering.”

The son of a Forces family, Andrew spent his early years in Andover, Hampshire, moving to his Dad’s home town of Darlington at 14. He left school two years later to learn his trade at Edgeworth Electronics, a manufacturer of audio systems, before moving on in 1990 to become a design engineer for the Thornaby plant of Tabuchi. His first experience of redundancy was when he became a casualty of the company’s decision to scale back its UK operation and take advantage of cheaper labour costs in Asia and the Far East.

Three years later he was collecting his P45 again from CVO.

Describing himself as “impatient at times”, he says he nevertheless has the ability to totally switch off from work outside the office “for fear of ending up in an early grave”.

He abhors people who “hide behind e-mails” and is a strong advocate of the friendly handshake and face-to-face meeting as the best forms of communication.

Citing his main strength as “an ability to motivate others”, he will need all his sales and PR patter to convince the environmentally-conscious that gas-guzzling, CO2-emitting fires still have a place in eco-friendly British homes.

He says: “We are developing the next generation of low-emission flueless fires that will pass all the CO2 and NOx (Nitrogen Oxide) tests to meet emission targets in Australia, South Africa and Germany - countries which have more stringent targets than the UK.”

He’s hoping, however, that Brussels and the UK Government adopt a common sense policy to future regulation: “If gas fires had to operate to 75% of their capacity, it would wipe out around 90% of the market,” he says.

But even news that domestic fuel prices are likely to take a 40% hike has failed to dampen his enthusiasm. He’s confident that he’ll continue to keep the luxury home fires burning.

There are around 700,000 gas fire customers in the UK alone, after all... and that’s a figure that gives him a nice, warm glow.

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