‘Independent retailers will always be a key part of our journey,’ says Riobel

Canadian brassware brand Riobel is making a play for the UK market. Rebecca Nottingham spoke to Steve Geary, general manager for parent company Fortune Brands, to find out more about its strategy to win over independent retailers.

Of all the things us Brits associate with Canada, it’s fair to say that brassware manufacturing prob-ably isn’t high on many lists. However, as it prepares to launch into the UK market, French-Canadian brand Riobel is looking to change that.

“The story behind Riobel is quite unique,” explains general manager for Fortune Brands, Steve Geary. “The brand was established by Mario Bélisle in St Jerome, near Montreal in Canada – a plumber who was so frustrated by the quality of products available on the market during the 1990s, he decided to set up his own distribution company. 

“He started by buying products in and ended up designing and manufacturing his own products under the Riobel name in 2002. Almost 20 years on and the brand has a significant share of the North-American market.”

For those of you wondering whether the months following a global pandemic is perhaps the right time to introduce a brand to a new market, there is a little more to this launch than meets the eye. 

Five years ago, Riobel was acquired by Fortune Brands (FBHS) and the brand now sits alongside well-established names Perrin & Rowe, Shaws of Darwen and Victoria + Albert in the division called House of Rohl. This autumn, Riobel is being launched in the UK, and selected other EMEAA markets, and will join the family of brands at the new House of Rohl showroom in the Design Centre, in London’s Chelsea Harbour. The launch ranges include four bathroom collections: Parabola, Paradox, GS and Venty, plus five kitchen taps: Mythic, Solstic, Ludik, Azure and Trattoria.

The Riobel launch ranges include four bathroom collections: Parabola, Paradox, GS and Venty, plus five kitchen taps: Mythic, Solstic, Ludik, Azure and Trattoria

“Fortune Brands is a publicly listed American business,” Geary explains. “It has a plumbing division and, over the last five years, has acquired the Rohl business – a luxury distributor based in California, Riobel and, from the UK, Perrin & Rowe, Shaws of Darwen, and Victoria & Albert.

“I joined the business three years ago to bring those three UK acquisitions together under the umbrella brand – House of Rohl. Riobel is our latest addition to the UK division of House of Rohl. The fact that Riobel’s introduction is supported by a multibillion-dollar company makes it a bit of a different launch story.”

Having the support of a company as robust as Fortune Brands, and sitting alongside such well-established British brands, are obviously huge plus points, but the fact of the matter is that the UK isn’t short of a brassware brand or two, so what can Riobel do for retailers that other brands aren’t already?

Installation expertise

“From an aesthetic perspective, because of the brand’s French-Canadian roots, the contemporary design of the Riobel products is very European without actually being European, which does distinguish it from some of the big brands in the market,” Geary says. “The other main plus point is that the products have been designed by a plumber, so the designs benefit from that functionality and installation expertise as well. The support we will give to installers and retailers is a big part of the story too.  

“Riobel has a very close relationship with the trade in North America and that’s certainly something we’re looking to replicate here in the UK. We strongly believe that this attention to detail from the professional’s perspective gives us a special edge. Naturally, if an installer has an easy time fitting a product and a retailer gets great customer service, then obviously they are going to use that particular brand, so it’s an absolutely key part of the development to market journey of a product.”

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House of Rohl

Of course – considering the boom the KBB industry experienced during the pandemic – you could argue that now is as good a time as any to launch a new brand and, as Geary points out, aside from the brand-specific advan-tages, there are other reasons why a new brand, like Riobel, could do well in a busy market. 

“Like the other brands under the House of Rohl umbrella, Riobel is aimed at the luxury end of the market and the products rely on consumers being able to touch and feel the quality,” he explains. “These are considered purchases and they need to be displayed in showrooms so,
for this reason, independent retailers will always be a key part of our journey. 

“Our criteria for a Riobel retail partner are simple: we’re looking for people that understand the bene-fits of handcrafted, artisan products and those who are willing to commit to telling that story to their consumers. When we find the right partners, we will invest to help them tell that story and that investment will be tailor-made for each individual retail partner that wants to come on board.

“We’re taking a long-term view. We’ve committed to the House of Rohl initiative for decades to come – we’re starting with the concept in the UK, followed by the rest of Europe.”

Talk inevitably turns to the internet and as a brand that is said to champion independent retailers, I’m keen to understand where it stands on the online
vs showroom argument and how it aims to support retailers against heavily discounted
online products.

“As I’ve said, the strategy for Riobel will be a showroom-led one,” he says. “We obviously recognise that online is a key business channel, but our products rely on consumers being able to see the product for themselves. 

“A lot of the retailers we deal with already have their own web presence and many do sell online as well. It is a part of modern life, but the showroom retailers will still lead our strategy. We are actively seeking to work with people that can help us tell the brand’s story and those that can give us the display space that we need to do that.”

So, what are Geary’s aims and objectives for Riobel and the rest of the House of Rohl portfolio in the UK?

“It’s hard to talk numbers at this stage, but what I can say is that we really are at the start of something here,” he says. “Riobel was the missing piece for House of Rohl in the UK and sits alongside three established brands each with a great heritage of their own. 

“We’re looking to get the infra-structure right, get the displays in showrooms and get the House of Rohl concept set up as an entity to allow us to build and we’ll see where it takes us. This is the luxury end of the market, we’re not a volume business and our route to market will reflect that.” 

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