Innovation built a fire under Mukilteo stove maker

MUKILTEO — Kurt Rumens, president of Travis Industries, is known for his stoves.

Internationally, they are among the best.

Travis’ “Cape Cod” wood-burning stove won Popular Mechanics People’s Choice award last month as part of an international stove-design competition. The competition challenged the world to build a cleaner, more efficient stove that is easy to operate and appealing to consumers.

Industry experts gathered on the National Mall in D.C. to judge the 17 finalists. The Woodstock Soapstone stove company won the $25,000 grand-prize Tuesday for a hybrid stove similar to Travis Industries’ Cape Cod, which until 2012 was one of the most fuel-efficient stoves listed by the EPA.

The Cape Cod is a large stove with soft edges and Romanesque design: buttress-like curves, intricate entablatures and a baked porcelain finish. Capable of heating a 2,500-square-foot home, it burns at 86 percent efficiency and releases .46 grams of emission per hour. That’s 10 times less than Washington state’s strict emissions standards and about 16 times less than federal standards.

Innovation drove Rumens to start his own company and it continues to fuel a factory of 400 people. Rumens is the president of the third largest employer in Mukilteo, after Boeing and the Mukilteo School District. As president, he encourages any employee with an idea to speak up.

In 1979, when he redesigned a wood-burning stove and took his blueprints to stove makers the plans were rejected. He took $600 and started his own company, which he called Lopi.

And it grew like wildfire.

In 1988, Rumens sold Lopi to Travis Garske, a businessman who owns a foundry in Spokane that provides much of the raw material needed for manufacturing. At the same time, Garske bought the Avalon stove company, and they united under a new name: Travis Industries.

Garske provided the business knowledge that they needed, Rumens said.

Now, Rumens has more than 150 patents, and his advances in stove design have led the industry, bringing wood-burning stoves and other home heating appliances out of back rooms and into main living spaces. His stoves have won dozens of awards, including several of Hearth and Home Magazine’s Vesta awards for best-in-show.

When recession hit, the company, which has dealers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and recently Japan, witnessed a 45 percent drop in business. Now, it’s back to pre-recession business levels and is set to do its biggest year since 2008.

Advanced technology has saved on labor costs and kept the company competitive with manufacturers in countries such as China and Mexico. Customizable faces and interiors provide architectural designs that fit the style of almost any home.

In November 2011, they purchased two buildings from Boeing. One sits empty, ready for future expansion. The 11-acre factory runs day and night. Raw steel, bronze and cast iron go in one end and finished stoves come out the other.

At the southern end, a computer guides a laser so hot it can vaporize metal. The operator grabs the steel pieces with a magnetic rod and sends them down the line.

Another computer aligns a bending machine so the operator can work without constantly readjusting. He holds the workpiece in the right spot and down fall the machine’s teeth.

In locked chambers, robots execute thousands of tedious welds.

Near the end of the factory, the metal pieces begin to take shape. But something is missing: They need some flair.

Just before shipping the stoves, craftsmen in leather aprons heat stove-faces until they are red hot and hammer a unique finish into the surface.

In one area, a low fire has been burning in a Cape Cod stove for nearly seven hours. A worker is conducting a slow-burn test. Rumens kneels down next to the fire to illustrate how their patent-pending “Green Start” ignition system works. He hits a button, and like a bellows to a flame the “Green Start” sparks the fire.

“It gives it that jolt of air and temperature,” Rumens said.

The rascal’s done it again — the seven hour slow-burn test will need to be restarted.

“I’d probably be in jail if I didn’t get this job,” Rumens said, flames flickering in his eyes. “I love playing with fire.”

At home, his family farm lights up with fires nestled in the different rooms. He lists them off: a wood stove, two gas stoves, an electric fireplace, some torches.

It’s called Fire Run Farm.

He and his family recently returned from Oklahoma City, where they were showing horses in the Grand National &World Championship Morgan Horse Show. Their 3-year-old mare, Fire Run Fairytale, took first in nationals and third in the world for its performance pulling a cart and rider.

Even horses have helped fuel Rumen’s obsession with fire.

One day, Rumens and his wife were talking around a communal table at a bed and breakfast they were staying at to ride horses. When the proprietor learned that Rumens worked for a stove company, he took him through the rooms, asking: Do you have a stove for this room? All of Travis Industries’ stoves were too big. Rumens tried to explain: They build stoves for heating houses, not space heaters.

Then one day, sitting on the covered porch at his farm, Rumens was cold. He could use a little heater to warm the patio.

“Now there were two of us that wanted this thing,” he said.

So he built the “Bed and Breakfast,” a small stove designed to fit in a corner about three feet off the ground.

“It’s a little fire for little rooms.”

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