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Josh Rookstool, director of sales for SUNHEAT International, talks about the family-owned brand and shares the latest on their plans to hold their 13th annual SUNHEAT Open charity golf event, set for July 31. Head over to sunheat.com for all the details!

Rob Stott: All right, we’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast. And right now, a pretty cool opportunity, excited to talk to one of our vendor-partners here at Nationwide. And Mr. Josh Rookstool, Director of Sales for SUNHEAT International out there in Nebraska, I appreciate you taking time and calling in and chatting with us today.

Josh Rookstool: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Rob.

Rob Stott: No problem. So just to start right off, tell our audience, our listeners, a little bit about you and the SUNHEAT International brand.

Josh Rookstool: Yeah. So, we are a family-owned and operated company and have been since 1954, mainly in Nebraska. We did some different products over the years, and in the early 2000s we got into infrared heaters. And that kind of transitioned over the years into some of the products we have now, which is infrared saunas, massage chairs, air purifiers, lots of different fireplaces. Actually build one of our infrared heaters here, our most popular one, here in our Grand Island warehouse.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome.

Josh Rookstool: Kind of neat.

Rob Stott: Well, you mention all those different products. What’s it like, first of all, as Director of Sales? I mean, that’s a lot of different things to sell. So what’s it like kind of having such an interesting portfolio?

Josh Rookstool: It’s interesting. I mean, it definitely gets, when we’re at the members meetings twice a year, everybody comes up and they look at the different products and they say, “Oh, I didn’t know that you guys had this or that.” So it’s fun. I think it’s all about health. Infrared’s good for you, whether it’s a sauna or the infrared chair or the infrared heaters. Air purification, obviously, with what’s going on at the time that we’re talking about this now with the COVID and everything. The air purifiers certainly are a big, big draw for folks and for our dealers. But yeah, it’s fun, man. And we got our massage chair, so we can sit in there at any time.

Rob Stott: You know, I was going to say, we joked before we came on that sitting in one of those, you walked me around your store, or your office there, a little bit, I got to see some of the massage chairs. Be a pretty comfortable podcast to do that, maybe next PrimeTime when we all get together, we’ll get that rolling.

Josh Rookstool: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: So did the company start with like a particular sort of, not to say that you’re not focused, but like a focus on one product and expand into these things? Like how did you guys expand into so many different categories?

Josh Rookstool: Excellent question. So I’ll try and keep it short, shorter than my dad would have. So my grandparents started in 1954, and it was primarily a hardware shop that turned into a sewing machine, clothing, helping sewing up things at that time, I guess. We got into Singer sewing machines and through the ’90s, we were the largest sewing machine distributor in the country, besides the Walmarts and some of those guys. Sewing machines became kind of a dead-end product, people just don’t use them anymore. So, we were looking for other products and he sold the infrared heaters in the early ’80s. We got back into that and that’s when we started manufacturing the SUNHEAT and it kind of took off from there. So we did really well with those.

It wasn’t long before, just like everything else, there were some folks that wanted to drive the price down, drive the quality down with that, like with any product. And when that happened, that the bottom kind of fell out, there were over 250 brands. So, we were the one brand that was nationwide and then over 250. And when that happened we started looking around at different products, trying to see what the next thing is.

And one of the things that I didn’t get a chance to talk to you about, that maybe I can show you sometime, we can walk over there, is our CoolZone Ultrasonic Dry Mist Fan with mosquito repellent and Bluetooth speakers. And that’s something that we came up with, designed it, brought it to market, and have sold tens of thousands of them. It’s an awesome product. So, always just trying to find something new, something different, so it’s kind of a long answer but… 

Rob Stott: No, it’s cool though, because I mean, you see those kinds of things, and you just rattled off like three different products that you guys somehow managed to figure out how to put them into one, which is incredible. So, I mean, is there like one, if you had to pick the one thing that is kind of like your key product or what people come to you most for, what would that be?

Josh Rookstool: Well, it’s still the made in Nebraska infrared heaters behind me here. As far as the Nationwide members, we sell an awful lot of the mist fans, probably is one of our best sellers at the show each year. Yeah, and then everybody wants a chair, at least for their house, or a sauna, so we do okay with those. But the heaters, the fans, and then the air purifiers too.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. No, it makes sense. And you mentioned it earlier, but I feel like any conversation these days kind of ends up circling back to COVID and everything that’s done this global pandemic we’re all sort of living through right now. But for you guys, how has that impacted your business, and have you had to make a lot of adjustments over these last dozen or so weeks since this really set in?

Josh Rookstool: Yeah. Obviously, with the shows getting canceled, we do the Spring and the Fall with a lot of different trade shows. So we have six or eight of them that we do each end of the year, and when that happened and everything got cut down, that’s a pretty big cut into our wholesale business. That’s primarily what we do. We have a very strict minimum advertised pricing for our products and so we were able to still generate some of those sales online. We stayed open. We were an essential business because we serve the hardware industry as well. So that helped an awful lot for us. We’re very fortunate to be able to come to work every day.

The walk-in traffic was different with the masks and curbside. We made some videos that we put out there saying we’re doing curbside. If you want to call, we’re doing virtual discussions where we can walk customers around, show them the different products, how they work, different things like that. So that was kind of nice. A good thing, I think, for what happened. But yeah, cut back a little bit here and there. We kept everybody on board, fortunately. But it was, make it through it and we get to get back going.

Rob Stott: No, I hear you. It’s strange times trying to work for an industry. I think every industry travels, but especially in this business, it feels like we’re always on the road, and to not be on the road for such a long stretch is kind of crazy. All the significant others around are wondering when the heck we’re going to leave again. Like, “When am I going to get my freedom?” No, I’m with you. I’m with you.

But something cool that you guys are doing that’s kind of flipping the script though. Obviously, COVID has impacted a lot of businesses and certainly in this space. But you guys have a really cool event, and something we certainly wanted to highlight and talk about, and that’s the SUNHEAT Open. So, give me the background on that, and then we’ll dive into kind of what’s happening this year.

Josh Rookstool: Okay. So the background is, this will be our 13th year and we started out with just some friends. I mean, it was a Friday afternoon, we had 10 groups of, I think, we were doing twosomes or maybe threesomes at the start, I think it was two, and it was just a way to get everybody out of the office. Get the production crew and bookkeeping and sales and everybody out there, have a nice relaxing day, hangout. And over the years it’s progressed into, for us, it’s a little charity event that we put on and it’s grown each and every year. We’ve done charity to Big Brothers Big Sisters. TeamMates program, which maybe not everybody knows who they are, but it was Tom Osborne and Nancy Osborne, they offer, for kids, mentoring. Gosh, we did somebody that had a liver transplant. We gave them some money, some other doctor’s bills. So yeah, just things like that. So it’s been really nice. We’ve got a lot of support, volunteers. Even Nationwide’s actually donated the last couple of years that we’ve reached out to John Laing. So, it’s been awesome. So, appreciate that.

Rob Stott: Well, I’ll take the thanks, but I’ll pass them along. No, but that’s really cool and certainly something any … I think as an organization … I’m here less than a year and one of the things that always stood out to me, kind of watching Nationwide from afar, is sort of the commitment to giving back. And you kind of see that at the trade shows and it’s always awesome when you see it also in the vendor and member community as well. So, I know this year … Were there any concerns this year as you were getting close to the event or planning for the event because of the coronavirus?

Josh Rookstool: Yeah, and there still is actually, Rob. I mean, we’ve got some things, we’re not sure how check-in’s going to go. Are we going to have dinner afterward? Normally we have it in the banquet area or on the porch or patio, is that going to happen? Is it going to be a grab-and-go lunch? So we’re still looking into that. It does look like it’s going to happen. Recently, around here anyway, it went from one person per cart into two people per cart now. So that looks like that’s going to happen. But yeah, it was a little bit scary at first. I think getting donations was the biggest scare factor, not everybody has a lot of money right now to just be donating. But it’s been good so far.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. Well, and then also, to the point of COVID, you guys have turned this event around this year. And explain kind of what you guys are doing this year for who it’s going to be benefiting.

Josh Rookstool: Well, we’re going to do, it’s a COVID-19 coronavirus. And basically we’re still about a month and a half out from our actual event, we have not decided on an exact person or group or business or businesses that we’re going to donate to. I think that maybe it’ll kind of come to us here in the next few weeks. But we’ll generate hopefully six to $7,000 or so this year, and we’re just going to find somebody that’s in need or a family in need. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s a home. Like, I don’t know, we’ll see. It’ll happen though. It’ll come up. We’ll think about it. We’re still thinking about it. We don’t want to just pick somebody at random. And if it’s not decided by that particular day, then we’ll find somebody that it goes to a place where it’s going to be spent. And then a hundred percent of the donations, like with Nationwide and the others, they all go directly to the final check that we write.

So we play lots of games. I’ll just tell you real quick because it’s kind of fun. We have like a golf pong where you got to chip the balls into the buckets. We have Wheel of Fortune. We have yard darts. We have Baggo. All sorts of things. Yeah, we’re doing a new one this year is Plinko. And we donate like fire pits or infrared fireplaces or some different things. So it’s kind of fun.

Rob Stott: You got as many games in this SUNHEAT Open as you do products in the SUNHEAT catalog. So it sounds like a fun time.

Josh Rookstool: Absolutely. You’re welcome to come.

Rob Stott: Well, hey, I wish. If traveling was an option, it’s something I would absolutely consider. I know this year is tough, but yeah. And Nebraska is a place I’ve never been, so in the future, that definitely sounds like I’ll have to take you up on that. And then kind of looking ahead, previewing the second half of this year, whether it’s this event moving forward or just business in general, what’s the outlook like for you guys? As 2020 can’t quickly enough get into our rearview mirrors here.

Josh Rookstool: Yeah. Well, I think that the trade shows are certainly going to help, if they go on, and the virtual trade shows and the ones in person, of course, everybody wants. That’ll be important for our business because we are primarily generated through wholesale. With the MAP pricing that we have online, we do very little business online. It’s strictly, mainly for a retail price point. So, I don’t know, I’m not saying that that would change, but I sure hope that the wholesale business continues.

And we’re probably going to be doing a little bit more reaching out to some of the members, hopefully getting on some video chats with them. We’re here, one-on-one conversations with them, coming up with specials that maybe we hadn’t run before. Maybe smaller quantities specials that we hadn’t done before. Because frankly, we call the members and we say, “Hey, are you ready for your 10 chairs?” Well, maybe they can’t bring in 10 chairs right now because the retail customer is not typically coming through the door like they used to. So, it’s just going to be a learning curve a little bit for everybody as everybody’s going through it. So we’re no different.

Rob Stott: Gotcha. Certainly. And to your point about talking to the members, what kind of messages are you getting from them? Just what are you hearing from them as you’re in contact?

Josh Rookstool: Oh, I think most of them seem to be doing fairly well. I’ve definitely heard that the appliance dealers are doing very well with online sales. So, the ones that have been able to transition to that and have their … Well, actually, one of our local members recently, they had a sale and they did it all online versus like a normal, weekend Memorial Day sale and they did really, really well. Their sales were up, so that’s good. I think your hometown appliance dealer, the customer, they know him. Everybody knows who they are in their town. They want to support them, versus the Walmarts or Home Depots or somebody like that, I think, and we’re certainly trying to do that here. So, I think it’s been pretty good. I think it’s been tough at the beginning, but I think a lot of them that we’ve spoken to are really rebounding good.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome to hear. And certainly doing everything we can on our end to make sure that they get through the rest of this year as successfully and smoothly as possible. But no, it’s awesome to hear from you, Josh, and everything you guys have going on. And certainly about the SUNHEAT outing. Sorry, the SUNHEAT Open, I should say. So I look forward to, fingers crossed that everything goes off smoothly and that you guys can have, sounds like you will. But look forward to kind of hearing how it goes and pictures of the event. I want to see how these games unfold.

Josh Rookstool: Absolutely, man. That’s the best one. It’s the funnest ones. And I don’t mean the sand.

Rob Stott: No, it’s awesome.

Josh Rookstool: I appreciate you having me on, I really do. And we, the members and Nationwide, since you’re new to the group, honestly, it is, it’s a family feeling. Even when you’re one-on-one working on the final numbers and writing up a ticket or entering it in, it’s still that family feeling. And that’s why we continue to want to be a member of the group, or vendor, for the group. It’s awesome.

Rob Stott: It’s always good to hear that. Yeah, it’s always good to hear that. So, we appreciate it and nothing but the best with this event. For those that want more info, where can they go to find out more info about SUNHEAT and the SUNHEAT Open?

Josh Rookstool: Well, you could go to our Facebook page, which would be @OriginalSunheat. Or you could just email me, it’s moc.taehnus@hsoj, S-U-N-H-E-A-T.com.

Rob Stott: Cool. And we’ll share that info in the description. In video version you can check it, it should roll across your screen. So no, it’s awesome. Josh, appreciate it. Great catching up. Hope to do it in person here soon once all this gets behind us, but appreciate you coming on.

Josh Rookstool: Hey, appreciate you, buddy. Take care, man.