SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Albie and Cheryl Barden never have been concerned about business competitors. In fact, they have gone to exceptional lengths to pull others into their craft.
In the mid-1970s, schematics of a European wood heater published in a book caught Albie Barden’s eye and triggered a lifelong passion for building custom, highly efficient heaters and masonry ovens.
“It was a moment when I felt that I was called to do this,” said Albie, who had already been constructing wood stoves as a vocation.
Albie and his then-wife Cheryl, who is still his business partner, set off for Europe to learn more about a craft that had little presence in Maine. Before long they wound up in Finland where they gained not only knowledge, but business partnerships that survive to this day.
From the start — even before their business, Maine Wood Heat Co., was in full operation — the Bardens sought to share their new-found knowledge. Albie has written two books on Finnish fireplaces and has traveled extensively to teach the craft to others. What may seem like a risky business decision was nothing of the sort, said Cheryl.
“It wasn’t a business decision at all,” she said. “It was a philosophical decision to spread the word about the cleanliness of the burn, green technology, the concept of small is beautiful and living gently on the Earth.”
“The idea was not to have an exclusive business. The idea was to make the concept stick,” he said. “We have created our own competitors, in a way.”
Since those early days, Maine Wood Heat Co. has built heaters and ovens that have been installed in numerous states from Maine to Hawaii. Scott Barden — Albie and Cheryl’s son, who was an infant for those long-ago trips to Finland — is now a business partner. And after more than three decades of running the business out of their Norridgewock home, the Bardens have entered a new phase with the purchase of a 12,000-square-foot building in the Skowhegan Industrial Park.
Ironically, it was the slack economy of the last few years that has pushed Maine Wood Heat Co. more toward masonry ovens that are built in Skowhegan and then shipped to their destinations. That is what necessitated the Bardens’ purchase two weeks ago of their new building, where they intend to build the masonry stoves and what they call the “Albie Core,” the inner workings of a wood heater designed by Albie Barden.
“It’s just easier all around to do turn-key oven products,” said Scott Barden, though he said the heater side of the business is far from defunct and will pick up again when the home construction market rebounds. Scott Barden said he expects profit margins to increase even if sales remain the same because of the efficiencies associated with building units in a factory as opposed to on site, which often means extended stays in other states.
“We don’t hope to lose that; we just hope to limit it,” said Scott Barden. “We can be more methodical about the production process here.”
The move to Skowhegan also puts the business closer to some other like-minded institutions such as the Skowhegan Kneading Conference, an annual event for artisan bread makers, of which Albie Barden is a co-founder.
“The kneading conference has created another avenue for us and our ovens to gain some attention,” said Scott Barden. “This move was for a number of reasons and it all seemed to fit together.”
For more information about Maine Wood Heat Co. visit www.mainewoodheat.com.
For information about the 2011 Skowhegan Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair, visit www.kneadingconference.com.