By Rebecca Skilton
Turning up the heat on wood-fired pizza ovens, he’s the Melbourne engineer transforming the much-loved cooking icon into a worldwide phenomenon.
And as the director of the Melbourne Fire Brick Company, Ben Guilford is just getting started.
Only six years young, the Melbourne Fire Brick Company (MFBC) has come a long way in its few short years. Led by mechanical and aerospace engineer, 35-year-old Ben Guilford, MFBC specialise in fire bricks, high temperature insulation and refractory materials for building forges, as well as kilns and fireplaces.
But at the core of their business, it’s their DIY wood-fired pizza oven kits that are putting the Hallam-based company on the international map.
Containing around 400 individual items, a MFBC DIY kit is designed to make building authentic wood-fired ovens as easy as possible. While oven kits aren’t an entirely new concept to the market, it’s the idea that every brick and oven part is cut to size and ready to go that is gaining the MFBC the right type of attention.
And as Ben explained, it’s the concept of this simple construction process that originally spurred the idea behind the Melbourne Fire Brick Company.
“My dad built an oven at home with my little brother and they did a terrible job,” Ben explained.
“But it just grabbed me; the idea of it just caught me. I love a project where I get to build something with my hands and I saw them doing it and I thought; ‘oh I can do this better’, and saw the project from an engineering perspective.
“So now, if people buy one of our brick oven kits, basically they get the entire oven – I think the best way to describe them is as a giant Lego set … (but) we are the only people in the world who are making a brick oven kit where all the bricks are cut to size.”
From inception to completion, the oven kit’s development took roughly two years with a number of trial-and-error exercises taking place. But as explained by Ben, it was the continuous customer feedback and engagement that helped mould his product into what it is today.
“When we first started, of course there were teething issues,” Ben admitted.
“But I was heavily involved with every customer and I’d say to them; ’give me all the feedback you can and I’ll take and we’ll apply it to the kit’.
“It’s certainly helped (taking on customer feedback) but I think any company who wants to succeed has to listen to their customers – that’s basic 101 stuff.”
Not only has that ‘basic 101 stuff’ created an extensive list of satisfied customers, but has also landed the MFBC and their products on American soils.
“We’ve done a whole heap of (YouTube) videos on how to build our oven kits,” Ben explained.
“What we were finding was something like 20 per cent of the views from our instructional videos were from America. And then they started asking – we just started getting like three emails a week – how much to send an oven over?”
“So I figured for every person that’s asking and sending an email, there’s probably a dozen people who might be interested, so we’re giving it a crack.
“We’ve set up an American company called Flamesmiths and we’ve just sent a container load over and sold about half of it.”
Admitting that venturing into the United States was an exciting milestone in the company’s existence, Ben is continuing to make tracks back in Australia with his products featuring in the likes of MasterChef judge George Calombaris’ restaurant Hellenic Republic in Kew and Atlas Dining in Prahran.
But the extent of Ben’s work doesn’t stop there, with the entrepreneur engineer also having begun outsourcing tradesmen to install his ovens for those who prefer avoiding the DIY method.
“If you came to me and said I want one of these ovens but I don’t want to build it, what we do is we take your details and we get one of our flamesmiths to contact you. A flamesmith is effectively a pre-qualified oven builder; someone I can trust to build it for you,” Ben explained.
“I get them to call you, give you a buzz and quote you. So then we focus on being manufacturers rather than doing everything.”
Despite not doing ‘everything’ in the literal sense of the word, Ben does admit that being MFBC’s director and engineer does sometimes require being a ‘master of everything’.
But having recently received advice from a business-minded friend, the 35 year old had some words of wisdom for everyone trying to balance entrepreneurial thinking and sustainable business practices.
“A friend with a wealth of knowledge in business recently came and spoke to me,” Ben explained.
“He said, ‘you’re an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, but you need to be a business manager, you can’t just be an entrepreneur because it doesn’t work. It might work for a little while, but eventually if you don’t balance that with actually managing your business, you just won’t last’.”