The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
Getting outside your comfort zone takes strategy and today’s guest is a pro at doing just that. Bob Lennon, Co-owner and President of ThermalWood Canada explains how he uses indirect marketing strategies to connect with people and create a digital footprint. He provides examples of product storytelling and marketing strategies to get your company recognition and its values exposed.
Going Outside Your Comfort Zone To Create A Digital Footprint Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?
Carman Pirie: Delighted to be here, and you?
Jeff White: I’m very happy to be here, as well.
Carman Pirie: Nice.
Jeff White: Yeah. It’s not often that we get to interview someone in our time zone.
Carman Pirie: That’s true. That’s true. You kind of like hanging out here on the very, very, very right coast of Canada.
Jeff White: Not the rightest coast if you ask Newfoundlanders.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m gonna guess that the podcast isn’t that big in Newfoundland so we will not get any complaints from our Newfoundland audience for me having just dismissed them, and if we do have Newfoundland listeners then I know that they’ll prove us wrong.
Jeff White: Yeah. Well, that’s one thing for absolutely certain.
Carman Pirie: But you’re right. And from my home province, today’s guest, I should note.
Jeff White: Yeah. New Brunswick.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I’m from a part of Canada that almost nobody knows about, including Canadians, and if they do know about it they certainly have never traveled there, and maybe have passed through it or something, which is the thing that kind of stabs us New Brunswickers in the heart the most, when we’re called a drive through province. But it’s actually an incredibly beautiful part of the world and frankly I’m kind of happy that most of y’all have never been there, because it keeps the riff raff out.
Jeff White: It does. I’ve got a biking trip up there twice this summer, actually, so pretty stoked about it.
Carman Pirie: So, I think that that’s one of the things that is interesting about today’s guest, is that they’re very unapologetic about having been located in New Brunswick, so-
Jeff White: But with some global reach.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah, so let’s just jump in.
Jeff White: Yeah. Very cool. So, joining us today is Bob Lennon. Bob is the co-owner and President of ThermalWood Canada. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Bob.
Bob Lennon: Well, welcome, gentlemen. Glad to be here.
Carman Pirie: It’s lovely to have you on the show, Bob. Look, we’ve already done a bit of preamble about New Brunswick, but we certainly have not told the audience anything about you or ThermalWood Canada, so can you maybe just brief us a little bit on what you’re up to?
Bob Lennon: Well, first of all, if I can add a little bit to the New Brunswick side, you were talking about drive through. The drive through of the province of New Brunswick is done on the western and southern part of the province. The northern part nobody drives through. We don’t even come here, so we’re even more unknown than the rest of the province, and so that’s where we’re located. But, as I mentioned to you before, we’re living in God’s country because we’re right on the Atlantic Ocean. We’re in the Bay of Chaleur, and we face the Gaspé coast, so we got a beautiful view. Summers are beautiful. Winters are long.
But other than that, I love living here for everything that’s here and for the opportunities. You mentioned global reach and in today’s day and age with computers, you can reach out to anybody, so that’s the one good thing to do business. Then the other part for shipping, there’s ways of shipping. We’re very fortunate that we have a number of major seaports in Atlantic Canada, between Saint John, and Halifax, and even Belledune, which I would love to be able to ship out of because it’s right next door. It’s 20 minutes from our facility. But it’s all bulk and we don’t ship bulk, we ship in containers, so it’s gotta go someplace else.
But we started ThermalWood Canada back in 2008, which if anybody remembers 2008 of being a great year to start companies… Well, you’re thinking wrong, because we started off in May and by November the economical meltdown of North America had begun, and everybody put on the brakes, and this was a new technology that had been introduced into North America and it was a European technology. Very well known in Europe, but not known at all here, so when the crunch came down we lost all our customers. Everybody left. So, our original business model was to offer the service of thermal modification.
Very quickly, technical side is that we take wood that comes from a sawmill, that’s already kiln dried, and we subject it to temperatures four times higher than you would in a conventional kiln. It makes the wood very, very stable, so there’s no movement whatsoever if you put it in an outdoor application. Humidity doesn’t bother it. We remove all the organic properties, so it doesn’t rot, fungus doesn’t grow on it, insects don’t like it. And it’s a 100% green process. All we use is heat and steam to transform the wood. So, it’s a real wood alternative to exotic woods or composites, or in many other products that we make it is a real wood alternative.
And so, when we started we offered the service, and so that meant that people would send us wood or we would buy it for them, treat it, send it back to them, and then they would develop their own products. Well, November 2008, everybody was hunkering down and not ready to start developing because the cost of developing products can be quite high and nobody was willing to take that attempt, and everybody was gonna try to live with what they had left in their warehouses and see what they could do.
So, that kind of forced our hand. It forced our hand into looking at what products we could manufacture and where there was money in the world so we would chase that. So, it took us out of looking at a fairly small geographic area, because we were focused on eastern Canada and a little bit of the eastern seaboard of the United States, to now all of a sudden going global, and a little bit of a different ballgame. But at the end of the day, once we started digging into it we found out that it wasn’t that difficult.
There are a few things when you are global that you gotta think about. You gotta think about export. You gotta think about the shipping lanes. But if you get the right partners, then that becomes a lot easier, and you don’t try to do it yourself. You try to figure out who’s got the expertise to bring you there and that’s what you do, so here we are.
Roll the clock ahead to 2014, we have a number of different products that we offer and we’re selling to countries all over the world. We’re just starting to look at Asia. I was having a call this morning with a gentleman from France that wants to work with us in Spain and Belgium, France, and Germany. And we’re into the Caribbean. Everywhere. Everywhere that anybody wants to look at the process and the beauty about it is that where we’re located, we are substantially into hardwood country and there’s a lot of hardwood around us, and we’ve taken this technology that was originally designed and conceived for the softwood lumber industry and our primary focus is hardwoods, so we do a lot of ash, and oak, and maples, and birch, and mahoganies, and those types of wood, but predominantly… We do softwoods, but it’s not at the same volume as hardwoods.
Carman Pirie: And to give our listeners a bit more texture, a lot of this comes to life even in the music industry, for example. I think a number of your clients are guitar manufacturers, et cetera.
Bob Lennon: You’re absolutely right. We were one of the first ones to introduce thermal modification in that world and one of the or a couple of the key characteristics, and I mentioned one of them a while ago, was stability. So, if you’re playing in a concert somewhere and they’re set up in a trailer or in a building, and before you go out on stage and it’s climatized inside that room, and then you step outside, it’s not at the same climate, with a higher moisture content, and higher humidity levels, your guitar is going out of tune. So, the first time you go and strum your guitar, you’re already out of tune. You’ve been practicing in a room that was air conditioned.
And so, this eliminates that from happening, and so that’s a major advantage of stability. The other thing, too, is that our process really kind of pulls the grains out of the wood and gives it this beautiful, exotic look, and so something else, the aesthetics of it is great. And the final one that in the music industry is probably one of the most important ones is tone. And everybody that plays a guitar is always looking for that vintage guitar that has that vintage sound, but the problem is to get that vintage sound you have to have a guitar that’s 30 or 40 years old, and most of the time they’ve been beaten up pretty bad. So, to find a good, structurally sound guitar that has that sound even becomes a little bit more rare, and so now we can actually artificially take care of that aging process in 90 hours.
And so, instead of waiting 30 or 40 years, now you can do it in 90 hours, which allows a lot of the big manufacturers or the assembly line manufacturers to be able to do what an independent luthier would do with a piece of wood that was sitting around for 30 years. So, it brings a completely different aspect and has grown the market substantially. When we started off we were very lucky that if we could sell 20 guitar necks a month, but it was the beginning. You gotta start somewhere, right? And so now we’re up to treating 15,000 guitar necks a month.
Carman Pirie: That’s incredible. And look, just to pump the tires of New Brunswick just a little bit more, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add something that Jeff actually brought up just before coming live here is that Sabian Cymbals, one of the two largest cymbal manufacturers in the world is based in New Brunswick.
Bob Lennon: Yeah. And so is Cabos Drumsticks.
Carman Pirie: Yeah.
Bob Lennon: They’re based out of Fredericton, so I don’t include myself into that category in that well-known music instrument groups, but we’re starting to get known and people are starting to know who we are, and it’s nice to be able to be considered in that group.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s really cool. It’s an interesting story from such a small place. People need to understand there’s fewer than a million people in the entire province, so it’s not a big part of the world. Bob, I want to kind of dig in a little bit to how you think about marketing the organization, and largely because I feel like just even in… It’s fairly unique. I think number one, it seems like you very much lead with the fact that you aren’t from a typical geography, and you see that as an advantage and a strength that you bring to market. So, I guess tell our listeners a bit about how you think about marketing the organization and kind of the ethos behind it, if you would.
Bob Lennon: Well, one of the big things, and we’ve kind of touched on it a little bit, and it’s what I consider indirect marketing. And in our indirect marketing, and I’ll dive into it in a second, it’s more about showing people what your values are. COVID was one of those times that people reached out and used the internet a lot more to go and search things, and talking to people over the phone, and not being able to go and meet somebody face to face to buy something, you have to figure out how do you build that relationship with the customer, with the client on the other side?
And so, what we’ve chosen to do is build that relationship artificially, but build it by demonstrating our values and getting people to kind of know you in such a way that they feel they know you. You know, like you watch a movie, or watch something, and you see it often enough, and you see actors, and you kind of see how they act, and you get a feeling on who they are, and eventually if you ever did meet them that you could say, “Hey, I know who you are.” And you’d have that relationship built over a screen. And what we’ve done, I’m very community minded, and it’s been part of my DNA for a number of years, and I believe in our community. I believe in our region. And I believe in New Brunswick. I believe that we’ve got exactly what you were saying, Carman, is that we’re a small knit group. Six degrees of separation doesn’t exist in our province. And we can get anything done and it’s amazing what is done in this province.
So, every week, like your podcast here, is that we have a podcast that we call the Northern Heat. And the Northern Heat is all about who are the people out there that are cranking up that heat, that are doing something different? And you know, we’re from the northern part of the province, so that’s why it’s got the tagline northern on the front end, but it’s all about what people are doing, so what I’m trying to do is tell people’s story and to enlighten the rest of the world on who we are and what we have to offer in our province.
But by doing so, and doing these interviews, and we do them… It’s a visual thing, so posted on Facebook, and then we have a YouTube channel under ThermalWood Canada, and anybody can go look at it. And what happens during that period of time of interviewing people, people get to know who we are because of the way we ask the questions, and what interests us, and I only talk to people that are doing positive things, and they’re doing great things for our region, and that resonates and kind of doesn’t always tie into the wood business. Actually, in most cases it has nothing to do with the wood business. But people get to know who I am and now I get people that are calling up and saying, “Are you the guy doing the interviews?” And yep. “All right, good. I feel like I know you already.” So, it’s like going in and buying something at a store. You look around for the person that you know. And you don’t want to deal with a stranger. Well, I’m not a stranger because people have seen me doing these interviews and it has worked out very, very well for us.
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Carman Pirie: It’s like it’s really interesting because it’s nothing about the product, really. At best, tangentially related to a global audience, which as you mentioned, Bob, is increasingly your market. But it’s a fascinating way of just… If you’ll pardon the term, it’s like manufacturing trust, if you will, or growing that level of intimacy and trust so that they probably know, yeah, I haven’t heard Bob talk about ThermalWood yet, which is why I want to-
Jeff White: But I feel comfortable with him. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Yeah.
Jeff White: Yeah. It’s interesting because the only other guest I think that we’ve had from a manufacturer from Atlantic Canada was Darrin Mitchell from Trout River live bottom trailers.
Bob Lennon: Yeah. I know him well.
Jeff White: Formerly of the… I think he’s moved on now. But this was very much his thing, as well, was he really went out there with interviewing his own people, and kind of getting his face out there, and kind of becoming that voice of both his community and his company and used that as a platform to drive growth into new industries.
Carman Pirie: And to drive global export.
Jeff White: Exactly. Yeah. It’s fascinating.
Carman Pirie: From the only province in Canada that’s smaller, basically, than New Brunswick.
Bob Lennon: Here we go. But I’ll let you into a little secret, is that part of this methodology and this concept, I did not come up with this. And my mentor to this is Gair Maxwell, and Gair, again, coming from the province of New Brunswick, and Gair has gone out there and he’s worked with a number of companies around the world helping them understand the power of story and the power of using video and using the tools that are out there and the platforms that are out there. Darrin Mitchell is actually another student of Gair Maxwell.
So, the first… Gair, when he starts off with an organization, he has a bit of a bootcamp that he does with you the first time around. And the first time we did this, we did this in Fredericton at the Huggable Car Dealer, who is another client of… if we call client. Friend, relationship like that, of Gair Maxwell. But Gair invited some of his people that he worked with to be there for this bootcamp for myself and my son, who works with me, that were sitting there. And one of the people that was there was Darrin Mitchell, so Darrin shared a lot of his experience and the things that he did, but it was all about not being the same, but being a bit different. And so, again, it comes back to talking to people in such a way that again you’re bringing back that showing your values and building that relationship, and as you mentioned, it’s building that customer relation trust that is built over time, but we’re doing it in a virtual way.
Carman Pirie: Look, and I really appreciate the shoutout to Gair, actually, who has built I think a good business really bringing this methodology to life, and one thing I find interesting about him is that… Well, there’s an awful lot of people out there, actually, from a marketing perspective, talking about the power of story. You can almost… An old buddy of mine used to say, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting,” and then he would say whatever he was gonna say. I don’t know if that saying resonates anywhere outside of New Brunswick, but basically you can’t swing a dead cat around without hitting a marketer that says, “Oh, story is everything.” But the one thing that I think Gair has managed to do in some interesting way is convince some others about it and to convince people in very non-traditional industries, or non-typical industries from a marketing innovation perspective, I should say, to kind of take that leap.
And Bob, so I guess initially, did it almost feel like you had to kind of buy into religion a bit? Because there’s not a lot of proof in the pudding until you get into it, right? How did you get over the hump and say, “You know what? I can just start telling people, showing my values, and really putting myself out there, and it’ll actually indirectly result in what I want.”
Bob Lennon: Well, that’s a great question because how the… Gair and I have known each other for years. I worked in a previous industry, in the mining industry, and I hired Gair to help me put a training program together, so that was our humble beginnings, and then Gair became speaker of the year for tech five or six years ago. I can’t remember now. Time flies. And so, when I seen that on LinkedIn, I reached out to him. I said, “You still talk to the little guys?” And so, he immediately gave me a call and then he invited me to a workshop that he was delivering to MBA students at UNB. So, I went down. It was a big snowstorm. I went down and listened to what he had to say and I’m always open to different concepts, and so started thinking about how I could link that to what we were doing.
And still, as you mentioned, you gotta jump into it. You gotta drink the Kool-Aid first before you can figure out how this is gonna work. I still had difficulty making the connection but at the time I was president of the chamber of commerce here in Bathurst, and so I invited Gair up to do a workshop for the local entrepreneurs and then I put a team together to figure out how could we use this methodology to improve our tourism and everything else around the Chaleur Region. And so, we put a team together, but the team was too diverse, and again, as you mentioned, it’s kind of it’s not easy to grasp the fact of talking about somebody, about how a new book that they wrote, or a business that they’ve started on clothing, how that has to do with the wood industry, and so we really weren’t able to get that team off the ground, so I got ahold of Gair again and I said, “I want to hire you to work with ThermalWood Canada and if you can show me how this is done and how to apply the tools, then I can be a model for other people to do it.” And that’s how it all started.
Reading some of Gair’s book, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about his latest book called Big Little Legends, which helps you and gives you all kinds of stories about the big legends out there, but how you can bring that to the non-traditional or the smaller groups in smaller areas. And so, all of those things started to catch on. Listened to the stories of the Trout River bottom truck dump and how they could use video to be able to increase their business. All those things started to make me think and so our first video that we did, it was immediately after we did this bootcamp with Gair. We went to a trade show in Boston, so we took this video of after the trade show was over, we’re loading up the truck, bringing it back to the hotel, loading everything into the trailer. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies and it was my son took his phone out and filmed me going back as I was giving some little spiel, but that was the first time that I was doing it. It felt uncomfortable. Tell you the truth, it wasn’t… You know, you’re stepping out there and you’re not sure what you’re doing, and you put it out there, but it’s like… If I can use the analogy, it’s like gambling. And you put a quarter into the slot machine and you see those things turn, and then they get close, and you go, “Well, look at how many views I’ve got or how many…”
Jeff White: Oh, boy.
Bob Lennon: And then you guys must know what that’s like, right? And it’s just that it kind of drives you and we’ve been doing this since 2019, really is when we started. We do these interviews every Friday and post them. They last between eight and ten minutes. No longer than that, so there’s not a whole pile of expansion in the story. We try to get right to the point. And we’ve reached out to well over a million people in that period of time.
The other nice thing about it is that anybody has a website. Websites after… I don’t know, four or five years, are redundant. And you’ve got new technology, new pictures, stuff that you gotta add to them, so you gotta continuously work on them. And if you want to be able to keep people coming and checking out your website. But with all the interviews that we do, and we start off by… We’ve got a sign that says ThermalWood Canada and I’ve got a sign behind me in my podcast room that says ThermalWood Canada. And I announce myself as ThermalWood Canada, so that’s the only subject matter that we talk about it. But then people go, “Well, who the hell are these guys?” And then they go Google.
And then, so once they’re there, now all of a sudden it’s building our digital footprint and so once you build on the digital footprint, and this is where the indirect marketing comes from, is that when they are looking for wood, they Google us and we’re already at the top on the rankings without having to pay for those. We’re there. And so, people find us.
So, during COVID, I hate to say this because a lot of people had really hard times during COVID, but for us it worked out really well because we had a digital footprint. People, when they Googled us, we floated to the top. They got to know who we were. They listened to the videos. They got to know who I was. Built trust. And therefore, called us up and placed orders.
Jeff White: Have you found, because you’re in some pretty diverse categories too, from interior and exterior building supplies, and kind of value added wood products like that, as well as the musical instrument neck blanks and stuff like that. Have you found it plays better in any one category over another? Or are you trying specifically to target any of those?
Bob Lennon: At today’s point, I don’t think there is a big difference in which markets that we’re looking at, but looking into the future, though, I see a bigger opportunity that’s going to link us even more together than just our values. And over the years, we’ve been listening to what our clients have been saying, and I’m gonna go into the music industry for a second, and one of the big things that was an issue out there was the fact of ebony, which is extensively used for fingerboards for guitars, was going into extinction. And so, that meant that it became part of the CITES list of species that need to be protected a little bit more, so a lot more rules and regulations come around that. A lot more paperwork. A lot more administrative stuff needs to be done. And so, the music industry is looking for alternatives.
And so, we listened to them. It took us five years, but we’ve actually created a product that we’re calling obsidian ebony, and obsidian has got a bunch of interesting concepts around it, one of them being it’s a gem. It’s very hard. It’s like glass. And it’s got healing powers. Well, instruments have healing powers as far as I’m concerned. Music heals a lot of things. And so, I’m kind of linking this new product of obsidian ebony to healing powers and putting it… making sure that when it’s on guitar, people know about it. And so, one of our concepts, and this is a future of growing our podcast and growing our indirect marketing, is if we can figure out a way, and so if any listeners in there know how to do that, please get ahold of me, figure out a way in how we can track this piece of wood that’s 21 inches long, three inches wide, and 3/8” thick, how we can track that to an end user, to a person that’s actually picked it up any in the world, that picked up a guitar that has obsidian ebony on it, and what I’d like to do is be able to contact them in a year’s time and say, “What’s your story?”
So, now all of a sudden I’m still talking about story. It’s linked to the obsidian, a product that we make. But I’m talking about their story. I’m still not talking about the wood. I’m talking about what the guitar brought to them and what kind of a story do they have, and how has that changed their lives going through? And I’ll be totally amazed on what will come out of this and my imagination runs wild on what those stories could be. But it’s taking it from where we are today to another level and really tying it all in together.
Carman Pirie: That is really cool. Well, first off, I’m excited if one of our listeners is able to get in touch with you and give you some ways to track that. That would be very cool. And I look forward to seeing how it works out. It is taking your concept of storytelling and if you will, kind of exposing your values to a broader market, and it’s taking it down a different path, so I’m excited to see how it plays out.
Jeff White: I wonder if… Do you remember the name of this guest? He helped Honeywell with blockchain technology in order to be able to track aircraft parts. But I wonder if that kind of blockchain sort of thing could be used to track these guitar pieces.
Carman Pirie: Well, Jeff, you used the word blockchain, at least.
Jeff White: Three times.
Carman Pirie: So, you’ve got a marketing buzzword into the-
Jeff White: Yeah. There we go. Finally, the episode, this one’s really gonna take off. We’ve gone Web 3 just like that. Well, Bob, it’s been absolutely fascinating having you on the show. I really enjoyed your story. Really like how you’re integrating your products and your personality and everything along with your marketing to grow ThermalWood. It’s fascinating. Thanks for joining us.
Bob Lennon: Well, thank you very much for inviting me to the show. I think that any opportunity when we can talk about the different things that we do, and how we do it, and how we can… It comes back to the size of our province or side of Atlantic Canada, you know? We can all help each other out. We have the knowledge within here but we always look outside. We always think that it’s better if it comes from Upper Canada, because there’s so many people there. But we have all that knowledge here. We just… What we don’t do is we don’t talk about it.
Jeff White: Quite right.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think you’re right.
Bob Lennon: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Thanks so much, Bob.
Bob Lennon: Thank you very much.
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