Sunny days for the Solarium industry
Roger Lavoie, president of Zytco Solarium, drove slowly through a tony Laval neighborhood proudly pointing out his conquests among the luxurious lakefront properties.
"A lot of these places are worth $1 million," said Lavoie. "And when you spend that kind of money on a house, you want all the amenities that go with it. A solarium is a natural fit."
While Lavoie was naturally inclined to point out Zytco's top-of-the-line products, it's not just the rich who are buying them. Sparked by low interest rates and an aging Quebec population that spends increasingly more time at home, companies that sell household improvement products are booming.
Solarium makers are no exception. Lavoie estimates that annual demand has more than doubled during the past five years to about $20 million. And Zytco, which according to Lavoie, supplies about 40 per cent of the market, has gone a long for the ride.
"Finding well-located plots of land is getting harder," said Lavoie. "So instead of building their dream homes, many people are putting money into their existing properties."
There are several benefits to owning a solarium. The obvious one is that unlike a typical room, a solarium's vast windows provide users with natural light. But solariums also give a feeling of space and the impression of being close to nature.
"I love it most of all in the winter, when I can come and watch the snowflakes fall," said George Battikha, a Beaconsfield resident. Battikha had been thinking about building a conventional extension, but opted for a 15' x 14" solarium instead, after seeing a Zytco ad in the newspaper. "It cost a little more but it was well worth it."
Lavoie was an early entrant into the solarium business, designing his first model, during the late 1970s, based on an American design. After several attempts at partnering, he finally teamed up with then-salesman Laurent Moquin Jr. in 1981, to form Zytco.
It was good timing, because the industry was about to take off in a big way. Unfortunately booming demand attracted many new entrants into the market. "At one point, it seemed like everyone was coming out with a new design." Moquin said. "But not all of their designs worked well."
Building a good solarium is tougher than it looks. If you don't choose the right materials, sealants and construction techniques, condensation and leakage can occur, rendering the entire investment worthless. "During the late 1980s and early 1990s we were tearing down and re-building about five or six solariums a year made by sloppy competitors who had gone out of business," Moquin said.
According to Yvan Thibault, vice-president of Prelco Inc., which supplies glass components and sealing units to several Quebec solarium manufacturers, Zytco is the biggest. "They have good products, good service and an excellent installation team, which makes a big difference."
Although Lavoie knew he had a growing product in a growing industry. he took nothing for granted. He realized that if he was going to grow his company effectively he was going to need solid management skills. So in the early 1980s he began pursuing his MBA at night, while working full time, a slog that took several year to complete.
"It was a lot of work, but it was worth it," said Lavoie, grimacing as he remembered the sacrifices. "You can learn a lot of things on the job, but there is no substitute for formal training."
A key decision Lavoie and Moquin made early on was to opt for a high-end product, which worked in all weather conditions. A Zytco solarium may be a bit pricier they figured, but it would hopefully generate word of mouth advertising, as the number of satisfied customers increased.
Three years ago, the pair took a slightly different path by launching a more economical line of three-season solariums called Panovision. The new line comes in standard sizes that are easy to install and sell for about $4,500, far less than the $15,000 to $45,000 for a traditional four-season solarium. The line was an immediate hit, with the company selling 400 units last year.
Zytco is currently in the midst of its busy period, which is a poor time to reflect on the future, but Moquin was willing to give it a go. "We have a good position here in Quebec right now, so we are getting ready to start looking outside the province," Moquin said. "We'll start with Ontario, and then maybe we'll head into the United States."
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|© 2005 Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.|