In the 1950s, George Stephen looked at two halves of a marine buoy and saw the world's best barbecue grill. That vision produced the popular kettle grill and a fortune for privately held Weber-Stephen Products Co., founded in 1958 and named for the metalworking company where Mr. Stephen then worked.
The timing was right. In the last 40 years, grilling has emerged as one of America's favorite ways to cook and entertain. More than 71 million U.S. households own a grill, according to the Barbecue Industry Association, Naperville, Ill.
"The old '50s barbecue is back again," said Williams-Sonoma Food and Entertaining Specialist Donata Maggipinto. "Grilling is becoming a more and more popular form of entertaining."
With modest advertising, Weber has made its name synonymous with grilling and remains the charcoal grill leader, with a 46% share of the market; Sunbeam Outdoor Products Co. follows, with 19%.
Weber concentrates advertising in cable TV and regional magazines like Southern Living, tagged, "If it's Weber, it's great outdoors." One print ad features individual photos of Weber Genesis grills in front of such buildings as the White House, the Taj Mahal, Buckingham Palace and "the Jones' residence," with the tag: "Behind every great home is a great gas barbecue."
The ads, from Weber's sole agency, Bozell Worldwide, Chicago, are not the company's only message to consumers. Weber packs its biggest punch at the point of purchase. The company has befriended choice retailers, gaining valuable shelf space.
Weber's packaging, accessories, hangtags, brochures and videos complement the grills and strengthen the brand.
Weber is reaching beyond traditional hardware channels to department stores and kitchen boutiques. The only grills sold by upscale retailer Marshall Field's 23 department stores are Weber's. San Francisco-based retailer Williams-Sonoma, which sells a custom-designed green Weber grill, is also a big fan.
While current customers are happy campers, Weber may be neglecting one of the industry's most valuable distribution channels-discount stores.
Most consumers buy grills from retailers like Wal-Mart Stores, Kmart Corp. and Target Stores, where Weber is weak. Its low-end charcoal models are available in discount channels, but gas grills are becoming the industry's real moneymaker.
Gas grill sales in the U.S. reached 5.8 million units in 1994, an 81% increase over 1985, said Ann Spehar, executive director of the Barbecue Industry Association. In that period, charcoal sales fell 20% to 6.3 million units.
Weber's performance in the gas grill segment will be crucial for its growth in the industry. While charcoal unit sales still outnumber gas unit sales, the best-selling charcoal examples are inexpensive tabletop models and braziers. The $500 million gas grill industry far outperforms the $100 million charcoal market.
Weber was slow to approach gas grills, introducing its first rectangular gas model in 1985. By that time, competitors Sunbeam, W.C. Bradley Co.'s Char-Broil and Thermos Corp. had already emerged as front-runners. Their gas units retail for about $150, while Weber's upscale models sell for $350 and up. In 1994, Weber's top-of-the-line Spirit and Genesis series had only a 6% share of the gas market.
Grills may be too well-made for their own good. The average life span is five to 10 years, which hampers replacement sales. But when consumers buy a second grill, they tend to upgrade.
"Two out of every three grills sold are to repeat buyers," said Jim Fitzgerald, senior product manager at Thermos. "They are looking for more values, more features, more bells and whistles."
When it comes to bells and whistles, Weber is ready. Beyond the basic Bar-B-Kettle, Weber has a Tuck-N-Carry model for on-the-go grillers, a Ranch Kettle that accommodates 40 slabs of ribs, a portable Outdoor Fireplace, One-Touch cleaning, Touch-N-Go ignition and a Tuck-Away lid holder.
Weber is bringing some innovative marketing efforts to the industry. The company operates a 1-800-GRILL-OUT phone information line from Easter until Labor Day, where professional home economists answer questions, send out free recipe booklets and gather consumer data. The Grill-Line received 50,000 consumer inquiries last year and drew more than 65,000 this summer. Weber also introduced a quarterly consumer newsletter, Weber Grill Out Times, last month.
A number of challenges face Weber in the years ahead. Commodity costs and safety regulations are on the rise, boosting retail prices.
Although Weber hopes to expand business abroad, transporting the heavy grills is costly. The company will battle price wars overseas, where trademarks offer little protection against cheap look-alikes.
The future of the company rests with Mr. Stephen's progeny. The founder died in 1993, leaving the company to his wife, Margaret. Eleven of the their 12 children work for Weber and the third-eldest, James, serves as president.
Headquarters: Palatine, Ill.
Leadership: James Stephen, president; Michael Kempster Sr., VP-marketing and sales; Betty Hughes, consumer affairs director; 11 of founder George Stephen's 12 children work for the company.
Estimated 1994 worldwide sales: $130 million
1994 ad spending: The privately held company would not disclose expenditures.
Agency: Bozell Worldwide, Chicago
Recent successes: Established powerful in-store presence; introduced 1-800-GRILL-OUT line, which received 50,000 inquiries last year.
Challenges for 1995 and beyond: Penetrate discount channels; boost share in the gas grill market; expand business abroad; control prices despite rising commodity costs.
Source: Advertising Age and company reports