Dan Shimek could trace the start of a long and influential career to his brother’s garage, where in 1975 he and Ron began tinkering with ideas for indoor wood and gas fireplaces. Before they were done, the company had become the largest manufacturer of hearth products in North America, and the Shimeks would hold a patent on a breakthrough product that changed the industry.
Shimek, 65, died Oct. 11 at his Apple Valley, Minn., home after a long fight with cancer.
Shimek’s early efforts became Heat & Glo Fireplaces. Two other brothers, Steve and Gerry, joined the firm and by 1996, the four had turned the operation into a $100 million enterprise. Heat & Glo then merged with Heatilator and became a $600 million company that dominated the fireplace market.
Shimek served as president of the merged company, Hearth & Home Technologies, until he retired in 2002.
Dan and brother Ron held dozens of patents, said longtime colleague Ross Johnson, but probably none as important as the direct-vent gas fireplace. It permitted fireplace installations without masonry chimneys in virtually any room in the house with access to an outside wall.
“It literally turned an industry upside down,” Johnson said. “It was a technology that was less expensive, more convenient. I always told them, ‘You could have written a book.’ ”
After beginning his retirement, which didn’t last long, Shimek started a company called Fire Stone Home Products, which originated with grills. But in true Shimek fashion, it soon turned into something larger and more comprehensive — a company concentrating on outdoor living products. In 2008, it had become The Outdoor GreatRoom Co. which Shimek ran until his death.
“Outdoor living” now is an established lifestyle and products category, catering to consumers who want to make the most of their backyard spaces with fireplaces, kitchens, pergolas and furniture. At the time, though, it was a new idea, said Johnson, the company’s manager of sales and marketing.
Shimek foresaw a growing interest in outdoor living and envisioned a firm that would be able to provide consumers with everything they needed, rather than making them go to a half-dozen different retailers. Johnson said.
The company is relatively small, with less than 50 employees, but Johnson says growth and innovation, two attributes that Shimek valued most highly, have made it a success.
A short-lived retirement was typical for someone with a sharp sense for business, and Shimek’s interests weren’t limited to the hearth and outdoor living industries.
He owned two restaurants — one called “Enjoy!” in his hometown of Apple Valley, approximately 20 miles south of Minneapolis — and a second at Balsam Lake, Wis., where he had a lakeside home. He sold Enjoy! earlier this year.
He also owned a winery, Chateau St. Croix, in St. Croix Falls, Wis.
But as much as Shimek appreciated financial success, Johnson added, it was really more than that.
“I always said, his real thrill was the thrill of the game, of business,” Johnson said. “He loved to develop something, grow it. Growth and innovation were always things of great interest to him.
“One of the legacies we’re going to have to keep up with is coming up with innovative products because that was something that Dan always wanted to have. If you’re not doing that, he’d say, you’re not growing.”
Shimek’s brother, Ron, died some years ago. His other two brothers, Gerry and Steve, remain with the company. By all accounts, Shimek built an operation that was not only successful, but a positive place to work.
“He was very kind,” said marketing content specialist Hilary Mays. “He gave his opinion, but he always made you feel your opinion mattered as well. He gave great feedback. I wish I could have known him longer.”
Though Shimek’s health faded over time, he was still at work until shortly before his death.
“He would be in almost every day,” Mays said. “He was in and out. He had a lot of other projects going on. He was an entrepreneur.”
Shimek is survived by his wife, Kay, and four children.