Business View Magazine interviews Brian Bishop, CEO of Gold Heat, for our focus on Manufacturing in the Recreational Vehicle Industry
For two decades, RV enthusiasts have been enjoying a level of comfort and warmth far superior to that experienced with traditional forced air heat systems. It all started back in 2002, thanks to the ingenuity of Ken Millard who developed a method for the design and manufacture of a customized electric radiant floor heat mat to fill a need in the RV industry. Today that innovative system, under the aptly-named brand “Gold Heat”, is a must-have feature in many Class A luxury coach models. A big point of pride, the Gold Heat product and customer service has received six consecutive awards for excellence by Newmar Coaches of Nappanee, Indiana; one of the world’s largest manufacturers of RVs.
According to Brian Bishop, CEO of Gold Heat, “The company began almost 20 years ago with just a single customer and pushed out from there, weathering the storm in 2008/09, when many of our clients declared bankruptcy. Eventually, the industry rebounded and Aries Engineering, known today as Gold Heat, not only survived but lately business has been booming. To clarify, the legal company name is Aries Engineering, but when Ken started it he used the product name ‘Gold Heat’ for our webpage and email addresses. Before long, people started referring to us as “the Gold Heat guys”, so a couple years ago we filed papers and Gold Heat became the legally assumed business name (the Oregon version of a DBA). At that time we completely rebranded to Gold Heat to better reflect what we do.”
The RV industry isn’t the only recipient of the Gold Heat touch of class. With the excitement around tiny houses, the company is now introducing its award-winning, electric radiant floor heat mats to home builders and commercial construction, venturing even further into the custom residential market. Gold Heat’s exclusive products are custom-designed, handcrafted, and supported from the firm’s headquarters in Hillsboro, Oregon – just outside Portland. There, an exceptionally knowledgeable team provides tiny house and residential home builders, and RV/motorcoach manufacturers, with easy-to-install electric radiant floor heat mats, as well as diagnostics help, troubleshooting assistance, and reliable after-sales support.
A skilled engineer with an MBA, Bishop has been involved with the company from day one and was more than pleased to assume the role of CEO when Ken asked him in 2018. Bishop recounts, “The last 20 years has seen ups and downs but the last five have been really up. And we weathered the storm of COVID last year really well. We were shut down for about three weeks because we had no orders on the books, since everything’s built to order. Then we worked half-time for about six weeks because the orders were lower and we had to distance.” But as orders started to pick up, Gold Heat got creative.
Remote work was not an option for a manufacturing company, so they staggered breaks and lunches. Bishop adds, “Our work centers were pretty well distanced already but we had people wear masks on the floor and we complied with all the protocols from the health authority and the Governor, so we could still operate. And we didn’t miss a delivery. The other important thing was that the owner agreed to 100 percent cover everyone’s wages, even when people weren’t working.” That ‘family’ type of caring is a big piece of the company culture and a prime example of why the Gold Heat team is loyal and likes coming to work.
During the worst of the pandemic, Gold Heat allowed customers to reschedule without penalty, and the company stayed on top of the supply chain fairly tightly. Most of the components being U.S. based, made it easier. Among their many valuable suppliers, Bishop notes, “Pelican Wire is one of our key providers and a long-time vendor and they’ve been very good to us.”
Installing Gold Heat underfloor heating is a unique one-step process that only adds 10 or 15 minutes on top of the assembly time for a normal tile floor installation. Bishop describes the how-to of the process: “Each mat is designed to custom fit the precise floor plan and consists of a mesh fabric with our heated wire glued to it, meaning you can take it on the assembly line, snap it out like a tablecloth, and staple down the fabric to hold it in place on the wood subfloor. Then you pour the thinset mortar right through the mesh, trowel it out, and set the tile down on top of it. A cold-lead coming off the mat goes to a thermostat – we put a sensor in to control the temperature of the floor, then hook the thermostat up to a dedicated circuit breaker in the coach and off you go.”
Part of what makes Gold Heat special is that the product is built so a problem can be diagnosed and then repaired instantly. “Every once in a while, there is an ‘oops’ moment,” says Bishop, “when someone is repairing the tile or doing a remodel and they don’t know our product is there, so they might damage the mat. It happens all the time, so we have what the industry calls a TDR (time domain reflectometer). Basically it means we send pulses down the wire and time how long they take to come back. Almost like radar. Based on that time to return, we know how far down the break in the wire is and then we bring up that drawing and go into AutoCAD and it tells us where the break is.”
The company actually has a drawing for every mat they’ve ever shipped over 19 years. They send back a drawing to the tile vendor or whoever is working on the floor and tell them where the problem is – they pull that tile and inevitably that’s where the fault has occurred. Bishop adds, “We send them splice kits, so they can repair the wire and then they’re back in business. Our bigger customers have the TDR tools onsite, the smaller customers, we will overnight them the tools so they can hook up and send us the numbers.”
As well as RVs, Gold Heat customizes mats for tiny houses and they’re now starting to work in residential homes. Because the company has such a large market share in the RV space, the obvious growth opportunity was outside of that market. The tiny homes sector was a natural fit because they are on wheels, very much like trailers, and encompass many of the same features and systems found in an RV. Bishop admits, “That’s an area where we’ve demonstrated expertise; it’s always good to go into a market with credibility and there’s a lot of excitement in the tiny house space right now.”
The very nature of Gold Heat’s signature radiant heat mat realizes a multitude of benefits, including energy and cost savings, because more efficient heating is created with the underfloor electric system. With traditional forced air home heating, the furnace heats the air to a pretty high temperature, which gets blown around to heat the space. “However,” Bishop notes, “hot air rises, so your ankles get cold but not your head. In our case, it’s like the radiant heat lamps at a buffet – the air is not hot between the heat lamp and the food, but the food is kept warm. Another advantage is it starts from the bottom up, keeping your feet warm, so you can set your thermostat lower because the perceived heat and comfort at floor level is higher when you have radiant floor heat. Our product produces between 12 and 15 watts per square foot, but people don’t run it all the time. It’s usually on for five minutes and off for ten.”
The RV business “went gangbusters” last year, bringing a whole new set of enthusiasts into the industry lifestyle. Bishop believes this bodes well for the next two or three decades into the future. He shares, “We have refreshed the interest and gotten a new generation of consumers into our space. So that’s going to be very beneficial to maintain the demand. At the low end, I think there will be a substantial pull-back with people deciding it wasn’t right for them but that won’t really affect our business since we are into higher end vehicles. For us, the RV space is going to have steady growth as the industry grows. Just good solid business.”
On the other hand, accelerated growth is anticipated for the tiny house and residential space. According to Bishop, “It’s going to grow for us as quickly as we can land good, long-term customers – get good industry partners on board and raise awareness that electric floor heat is not difficult to install and maintain. I think the potential there is unlimited when you look at the amount of residential customers versus RVs. We’re very aggressive, we hired a Director of Sales just to grow the residential/tiny house business. It’s important to get our Gold Heat message out to the market. We have a product that doesn’t have to change much… it’s continuous improvement on the manufacturing side, but what it has to do is pretty static. So our ability to adapt is based on serving new customers in new market spaces. That’s where our nimbleness comes in and has value.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: Custom manufacturer of electric radiant underfloor heat mats
Where: Based on Hillsboro, Oregon