Navien took its top North American contractors for a trip to South Korea, Feb 18-24, which included two days at the Winter Olympics.
It marked the first time Navien took contractors to the international company’s home base. In this case, eight “All Stars” and their guests were chosen as a result of selling the most products through the NavienRewards loyalty program. (Two years ago, the company treated a select group of U.S. and Canadian distributors for a similar extensive trip also for the first time.)
The combination of corporate presentations and Korean hospitality underscored the company’s long commitment to wholesale distribution and professional installation – a commitment that helped Navien celebrate 1 million condensing units sold in North America as of earlier this year.
The business highlight of the visit occurred on Feb. 19, the first full day, for a trip to the company’s factory in Seotan, about a 90-minute drive from Seoul. The company bills the site as the single largest boiler manufacturing plant in the world.
“When I get back and say to customers that I saw this product built and describe all the work that I saw that goes into not just putting it all together, but how they inspect every unit made, that’s going to make a huge difference in selling more equipment,” said Eric Silva, who runs Silva Mechanical outside of Detroit.
The thorough tour included all aspects of production and inspection as well as an impressive automated warehouse with robots moving up and down tracks between narrow aisles either placing or picking for shipment products on racks that stretched up to 30 feet high.
“The fact that literally everything in the box is made right in the factory and doesn’t come from any third-party meant a lot,” said Greg Hunsicker, who owns McElroy’s Plumbing, Topeka, Kansas.
Hunsicker sold about 70 Navien products last year, including a boiler he strapped behind him in the cockpit of his acrobatic plane that he then piloted to the jobsite.
“They have total control of their equipment,” Hunsicker said. “And that way, if the company needs to make any changes they can do it almost on the spot rather than waiting months for some other company to figure out how to make a component.”
The factory image accompanying this article came directly from Navien since we weren’t allowed to take any ourselves. But suffice to stay the inspection process in which the company inspects every one of the 2 million units it produces annually was a highlight for the installers.
Steve Egner, who runs Steve’s Plumbing, Mill Creek, Washington, told us afterward why that commitment to quality meant everything to him. His first foray into selling tankless water heaters (NOT Navien) ended up with him replacing some 60 units (WITH Navien) when every single one of the units failed.
“Your credibility as a contractor means everything to the business,” Egner said who added that he anticipates installing 100 Navien units this year. “Seeing the extent of the inspection process with my own eyes is a huge plus.”
One of the most memorable stops along the way was at an automated station at which units are twisted and turned while about 50 images are taken inside and out.
Egner also told us that the performance of the Navien equipment eases the sale of what still remains a higher-priced piece of equipment than a traditional tank-type water heater.
“Even a starter home these days has a soaking tub,” he explained. “Many homeowners figure that a 40-gallon tank will work since it must have 40 gallons of hot water at the ready. But not all of the water is hot enough to fill that tub.”
As a result, he always asks potential customers whether they enjoy taking baths.
“And if they don’t, the next question is do you have any teen-aged daughters at home,” Egner said.
While a lot of the contractors in the group like Egner did mainly residential installation, the factory also included a stop at the facility’s working cascade system display.
“Cascade is the way to go for commercial,” Hunsicker said, whose 150 employees actually do 80 percent commercial work. “Commercial owners are enamored by the single half-million Btu boiler. But if something were to go wrong with that one unit, there’d be some big problems. With a cascade system, you have many units working in tandem. If there is a problem with one, then you’ve got that many more that can still deliver until you fix the problem.”
If the contractors didn’t know the international scope of Navien, they definitely did by the end of the day. Before an hour-long walk through the sprawling complex, the contractors heard presentations presided over by Jaeyong Lee, managing director of Navien’s global business division.
In 1988 KD, Navien became the first company in Asia to develop and produce a highly efficient, environmentally friendly condensing boiler. Not just wanting to limit itself to a domestic market, Navien has been exporting its products to some 30 countries for the past several decades, including North America, Europe, China and Russia. In recent years, Navien has established sales and marketing operations in even warm-weather regions, such as the Middle East, Kazakhstan and South America.
Lee and his Navien colleagues described these other markets that continue to be bright spots for the company. We’ve been to these presentations before but never seen a company provide a wealth of sales and marketing data before, and with every PowerPoint slide marked “Confidential” in the upper right hand corner we can’t say much. Let’s just add that the sales figure for China looks like a rocket launch.
After lunch, the group took a look at a historical display of the company’s achievement over the decades for a business that started out mining coal in 1978. It was yet another stop that got the group talking in particular about the number of products the makes for sale outside of North America.
KD Navien has expanded its business areas to zone control systems, ventilation systems, home network systems, and various other focuses that provide a more pleasant and greener living environment for our customers.
One intriguing product combined heat and power by creating its own electricity with what’s called a Stirling engine that essentially uses a piston to compress and expand air or another gas at different temperatures. (The system wouldn’t generate nearly enough electricity to power the average North American home.)
The Navien Mate, a hot water mattress warming system, also earned buzz with the installers. Marketed with the tagline “just another boiler made by the country's best boiler maker,” uses a modest-sized unit to circulate warm water with precise temperature control.
We imagine the crew would have gladly headed home afterward that didn’t see us return to our hotel until 8 p.m.
However, we were just getting started on the trip that included memorable lunches and dinners and Korean culture including a tour of a folk village in which one building incorporated a traditional ondol, a form of radiant heat; Nanta, a popular drumming show, the Nakasna Temple, a Buddhist center established in 671 and the Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395.
And if that wasn’t good enough, the group traveled to PyeongChang, a three-hour drive from Seoul, and watched three Winter Olympics, including a quarter final hockey match between Norway and OAR; the half-pipe freestyle skiing final; and short track skating, including the men’s 500 meter final. Trust us when we say that short track skating is the World Series rolled into the Super Bowl for South Koreans.
“The hospitality everyone showed us was absolutely amazing,” said Duke Gutierrez, Duke’s Plumbing, Reno, Nevada. He brought his son, Giovanni, along for the trip. “Gio is the future of the company so for him to see all this while he’s still young and learning was a great part of the experience for me.”
The trip even produced some after-effects, at least for Laura Wood, who along with her husband runs Boston Standard in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
“Being on the factory floor,” she said, “really hit home. Just seeing the attention to detail was tremendous. One of the core values we’ve built the company is based on quality so what I saw fits right in with us.”
She shared that sentiment with her crew when she returned. And when we called a couple of weeks afterward, she told us one of her techs had just sold a tankless replacement for a tank-type water heater.
Her company is on track, she says, to sell 100 Navien products by the end of the year.