Hearth Services Inc. keeps the home fires burning; Company makes, sells, distributes fireplaces along the East Coast;


At the Howard County offices of Hearth Services Inc., the showroom glows with a certain kind of warmth -- one that the company works to spread along the East Coast, from Georgia to New Jersey.

It's the warmth that comes from a fireplace.

"Ever since caveman days, we've been trying to figure out how to transport fire and burn it inside," said Jim Plazak, vice president of Hearth and Home Distributors Inc.

Hearth Services Inc. is the parent company of Hearth and Home Distributors, as well as AFC Manufacturing, AFC Wholesale and Thulman Eastern fireplace distributors.

All four Howard County companies are in the business of keeping homes warm. Three of these companies do so by distributing fireplaces and the hearths that adorn them, and the fourth manufactures the hearths.

The business began after World War II, when Robert Thulman, who lived in Washington and worked as a mechanical engineer for the Federal Housing Administration, developed one of the first prefabricated chimneys.

"There was a need for a more efficient chimney and a safer one," said his son, Bob Thulman, a Howard County resident.

Thulman said his father noticed the need after seeing so many houses burn because of faulty chimney construction. As a result, the older Thulman developed a cool-air chimney that uses the flow of outside air to keep the outside of the chimney within a safe temperature range.

Father and son continued developing fireplaces for years. After the elder Thulman's death in 1956, the patents to their fireplaces were sold, and the younger Thulman founded Thulman Eastern, becoming a manufacturer and a distributor of his and his father's product.

The younger Thulman carried on the business for about two decades before selling it in the 1980s. He started making mantels, hearths and facings for the prefabricated fireplaces he had developed, and sold that company about five years later, he said.

Now, Thulman Eastern is a part of Hearth Services Inc., which is owned by Hon Industries Inc. Hearth Services projects about $100 million in sales this year for its Howard County businesses, said Mylene Arza, the company's marketing manager.

The Annapolis Junction showroom for Today's Fireplace, a division of Thulman Eastern, shimmers with fireplaces that run the gamut from those surrounded by wood, marble or stone to ones surrounded by an entertainment center to a red cast iron stove -- many of them run on gas.

"Beats the heck out of hauling in chopped wood," Plazak joked.

At the AFC Manufacturing plant behind the showroom, where surrounds are manufactured for all four local Hearth Services Inc. companies, about 50 workers produce between 200 to 250 wood hearth products each day.

About 1,000 sheets of wood and 5,000 pieces of trim line the walls and floor of the factory, where they wait to be cut, nailed, sanded, varnished and shipped to one of about 20 Thulman Eastern locations along the East Coast.

"You can end up with a pretty fancy piece of furniture at the end with very simple repetitive steps," said Medee Dean, division manager for AFC Manufacturing.

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