Once you enter the Ecofuel HQ at Ballybane, you get that rich smell of fresh kiln dried timber; evenly cut logs, cylindrical wood briquettes, all holding their original scent — the woody aroma of the Latvian forests from where they came. There in beautiful pallets and bags lie the finest sustainable firewood; so dry you want to touch it, to lift it to your nostril and smell it.
This is the wood that will burn in Galway fireplaces and stoves this winter — creating sources of heat and also memories for the families who will gather around them. And it is that dual concept of creating memories and creating a future that is at the core of the thinking of the man behind it all — 34-year-old Yanis Vitols who aims to turn the sustainable fuel business into a global brand.
This week the company celebrates five years in business in Galway, supplying homes across Ireland with certified sustainable firewood and wood briquettes — and with plans to expand nationally and across Europe, it is an exciting time for the passionate Yanis, who extols the virtue of living a sustainable life.
The timber is exported from licensed state forests in his native Latvia — forests where every tree felled is replaced by many more, making the timber the biggest export from the country. The biomass from the timber industry is used to make sustainable wood products such as the Ecofuel wood briquettes.
Yanis is a man who believes in living a sustainable life — He proudly shows me his eco-briquettes which come without plastic packaging and which have a greater energy output than regular peat briquettes. Having used the Ecofuel products for the last few years, in which a pallet lasted me more than ten calendar months, I can testify to its quality and durability and heat-giving qualities. The way it creates an open fire is both visually and actually warming.
Now in its sixth winter, Yanis is excited by the progress of his company.
"We are a very young team so we are obviously thinking ahead to the future where our needs will be met the most when it comes to future vision where everything will be built around the issue of sustainability.
"I like to look at things with a global view and climate change is such a dominant topic. We have started a bi-weekly column in the Galway Advertiser about sustainability, to help show people how to live a sustainable existence, using products that can be renewed and replaced."
Now the company is the biggest supplier of sustainable firewood in the country— but it was not always easy.
"When we started up, we were selling everything, so we had no brand differential. At that point we said, that we cannot compete with a guy who is selling bags of coal for 40 years. They have the established customer base and loyalty. We started thinking about what products customers want and the level of service they deserve. So we decided to position Ecofuel as a lifestyle company — Fuel is something that we sell, but really we are selling the service and the experience.
"The best way to show this is to look at our website and see all the various product reviews for each product, you will see genuine feedback from existing customers. We have a high number of repeat customers who know they are getting excellent customer service and a quality fuel product- one that fits in with their desire for a sustainable lifestyle. There is a necessity today to have an alternative product, like our wood briquettes where the wood is not purposely used for the product, but is the by-product.
"We are still a traditional business selling a modern variant of a traditional product. "Eco briquettes are unique in that they are made of 100 per cent natural finest grade hardwood with none of the trees purposely processed in the making of the product — they are produced from the byproduct of the forestry, and in the end provides powerful stove fuel with the least damage to the natural environment. "At the moment, all our kiln-dried wood is sourced from suppliers in Latvia who get the wood from state forestries. By buying from here, we are guaranteed they are from a sustainable and managed forestry.
"We are also a logistics company in terms of how we deliver the fuel, in various bags and pallets, small or big van delivery, trucks etc. We have three sizes available when it comes to firewood and a variety of shapes and sizes to suit the individual needs of our varied customers.
"We are selling nationwide with orders in Dublin, Cork, and Donegal and every county in between, but everything is delivered out from here in Galway. We are developing plans to open a Dublin warehouse and grow our brand nationally in 2020, and then the dream is to expand into other countries where there is a market for sustainable fuel products.
"We are looking at countries like Germany, Austria, Holland and France where there would be big wood burners and who have an interest in sustainable products. But we are not a tech company that can push a button and become bigger overnight. We have to build our product supply chain and delivery teams patiently to ensure we have the best platform for growth.
"The bulk of our business is delivery-based and I choose my team for the excellence of their personality. People can come here and see the store to build up the brand and the information. People like to come in and talk to a human and touch the wood for themselves and meet us face to face. This connection is still such a big part of retail business. So much depends on the person to person experience of ordering fuel from Ecofuel, says Yanis.
"With my wife, I started out from a small takeaway in Castlelawn Heights and I worked there from 2009 to 2014. But I always wanted to have a business that I could build from scratch and grow. It was my brother's idea to make use of the fact that the biggest export from our native Latvia would be timber, not firewood, but timber. So that gave us the spark — it was a way for us to keep up our connection with our native country.
"For the first three years we were losing money on this business. We could have closed the doors at any time and walked away, but it was my drive to succeed that kept us going, and my other small jobs that were feeding me. My accountant was raising his eyebrows at me during those years! But I am still not taking a salary from the company because I want to reinvest in the company and make it as far reaching as it can be.
"One mistake we made in the beginning was charging the wrong price for our products and services. We were trying to compete with everyone, so we were positioning our high quality product below it's value. We had no branding and we were trying to be everything to everyone and that was never going to create a successful business. With the coming of the fourth winter, we know what our brand is about and we are seeing progress and how far we have come.
"Now we are doing very well and we are self sustained, with self growth. My advice to any business is to look at the competition and don't try to be everybody. You have to see the little gap. When we started out, we tried to be a regular fuel depot, selling all fuels, but we restructured and specialised and established Ecofuel as a company that sells only good quality clean renewable products."
The seasonality of the business is always a concern for someone in the fuel industry.
"In summertime, we offer discounts to those who want to be prepared and buy their fuel in the off-season. In addition to this, we supply logs to the wood-fired pizza ovens in restaurants and now we are one of the top suppliers in the country for this market, which is always growing," he tells me.
Yanis and his team are an inspiring group — allowing their customers to live a sustainable living while enjoying top quality fuel. Ecofuel is a company that is going places. This winter, you should fill your home with the sweet smell of top quality sustainable kiln-dried logs — see Ecofuel.ie to see the wide variety of firewood and delivery options that suit you best, whether it be crates, bags, or pallets.
For your taste of sustainable firewood, see Ecofuel.ie or contact [email protected], or on Lo-Call 1850 940 080 where lines are open from 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday; and 10am to 4pm on Saturdays. Ecofuel is based at Unit 32, Ballybane Industrial Estate, Galway.