The Journal of Chimney and Venting Technology – Sweeping, August 2003, pages 22-24, 29, 31-32
A to Z Chimney Sweep
“I feel right at home with the sweep industry,” says Aaron Zambrana, owner of A to Z Chimney Sweep, and Dryer Vent Cleaning.
Inspired by the unique brotherhood of the guild, Aaron has taken full advantage of the camaraderie and mentoring opportunities available to him. He recently returned from a weeklong trip to North Carolina after shadowing Jerry Isenhour and his crew at The Chimney Doctor. “Jerry does a tremendous amount of business. I wanted to figure out how he’s able to spend time traveling and teaching and still effectively run his business.”
Even though Aaron has been in the sweep business for less than four years, he’s tried very hard to learn from those with more experience: “I always try to avoid re-inventing the wheel whenever possible. It only seems logical to seek out others who are successful in their business and try to learn from them. The National Chimney Sweep Guild has been an immense help in this regard.” With this attitude, Aaron eagerly accepted Jerry’s invitation to visit for a week to learn a little about his business. “Specifically, I wanted to know how Jerry was able to troubleshoot, estimate, and write detailed reports without ever leaving his office!”
Aaron discovered that a well-trained staff and a very systematic documentation approach at each home was the answer. This system is how sweeps like Jerry are able to write reports without going to the chimney under evaluation. “I know he also puts a lot of trust in his staff. He’s got a great group of people working with him that I am proud to call my friends,” says Aaron.
A to Z Chimney Sweeping didn’t start out as a chimney sweep business, however. While earning his business degree at California State University Sacramento, Aaron didn’t want to take out a student loan, but he needed a job that paid well enough to live on and was flexible enough to work around his school schedule. Ever the entrepreneur, he discovered that a window cleaning business fit the bill nicely. “I started out cleaning store-fronts and homes and this led to fixing broken window screens.”
A more profitable business service in and of itself, window screen repairs and replacements turned out to be big business for Aaron. “I created a mobile trailer with borrowed tools. Every time I cleaned my customers’ windows, I was prepared to repair their window screens if they needed it,” recalls Aaron.
Aaron didn’t want to stay in the window cleaning business because of the low barriers to entry. “Anyone can get into the window cleaning business with little money or few skills. I didn’t want to build my business around something so easy to get into,” says Aaron. A business owner by the age of 23, Aaron prefers tactical work over technical work: “My first love always has been, and always will be the business of business. It doesn’t matter if the technical work of the business is chimney sweeping, window cleaning or window screening, I just love masterminding and tweaking a business that works! My dream is to improve and streamline our systems until we have created a business hat is profitable, runs smoothly, and delivers a product and experience widely above and beyond what the customer ever expected.” A huge proponent of Michael Gerber’s E-myth practices, Aaron’s enthusiasm is undeniable. He adds, “In America, there’s a myth that people who start a business are brave entrepreneurs. In reality, most are very good technicians who for a moment think they are entrepreneurs. But, in today’s marketplace you must be a good technician and business manager. They’re two completely separate disciplines.”
According to Aaron, diversification is a necessary evil when it comes to seasonal businesses. “In addition to cash flow nightmares (if you have any significant overhead costs), t he headaches and sheer expenses associated with re-training a seasonal work force every year are overwhelming – especially when it comes to a technical service with high liabilities like the chimney sweeping trade. Because we wanted to ease these seasonal ups and downs, we developed a winter business to complement our summer window screening business.”
This business model is paying off for Aaron in several ways. “Having two complementary income streams has really allowed us to grow quickly and become more financially stable in the process. During the summer while some sweeping companies are struggling to keep core employee and make ends meet, we are very busily engaged in our screening business. We are not only able to cross-market our services to our customer base, but we are also not forced to drop prices in the off season, thus keeping the perceived value of our services high in the eye of the customer.”
Aaron admits, however, that running both small businesses at the same time can be a two-edged sword. “One of the most difficult things is trying to give a chimney customer good service in the middle of the summer when our trucks are outfitted for window screening, and we are booked for weeks in advance with screening appointments. Eventually as we grow, we will have at least one truck outfitted for chimney sweeping year-round, and one truck outfitted for window screening year-round. The other truck will flip-flop as demand dictates. But for now, it is very challenging.”
Grateful for his growing success, Aaron remembers A to Z’s humble beginnings. “When I got into the sweeping business, I was financially going under. With our second child on the way and being at the end of my last semester in college (yes, big deadlines and finals galore), we just didn’t know where our next meal was coming from. Out of desperation, I shadowed a sweep for a couple of weeks and worked with him for free – learning everything I could. During that time, the Lord miraculously helped us find a used set of basic chimney sweeping equipment in the newspaper. I borrowed what little money my parents could spare and put the rest on credit cards. We’ve never looked back.”
Just like the window screening business, Aaron solicited door to door passing out homemade flyers and business cards. Soliciting in older, more affluent neighborhoods and networking feverishly with firewood dealers, stove shops, and appliance repair servicemen, Aaron and his family eked through that first winter. “That’s how I got the ball rolling our first year, but what really helped me launch my business was discovering The Golden State Chimney Sweep Guild: a network of professional, technically trained sweeps,” says Aaron.
Even though he was still financially against the ropes and didn’t think he should spend the money, Michaele Dempsey, (president of the GSCSG at the time) literally shamed Aaron into joining the state guild when he arrived at his first workshop. According to Aaron, joining both the state and national guild was life changing for his business. He explains, “One thing I want newer sweeps to know is that there’s a lot of support out there. I’ve never seen an industry that’s as open with the how-tos and trade secrets as this one. The instant I went to that first GSCSG workshop, I felt I was around the kind of down-to-earth people I could truly call my friends. Everyone really went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and help me feel good about myself even though me expertise was so basic in comparison. I will forever love my brothers and sisters in the sweeping industry because of that, and will do my best to perpetuate this great culture.”
This learning culture is in large part because associations like the GSCSG and NCGS are ever focused on continuing education. “I have heard some sweeps complain about the new logo policy, but I strongly feel it is not only a good move, but an absolutely necessary step in the right direction. By ensuring that all sweeps that use the CSIA Certified Sweep® logo are truly certified (business owner and employee alike), the competence level of our industry as a whole is raised. It is a widely accepted fact that the public values education. The more sweeps become educated, knowledgeable and competent, the higher the perceived value of our industry’s services are raised…as are the prices the public is then willing to pay. If we as an industry wish to earn more, then we must be willing to give the customer a darn good reason to pay us more…and that reason is simply education. The more you learn, the more you earn,” explains Aaron.
At the “Intro to Chimney Physics” class that Aaron recently attended, one motto espoused by Ashley Eldridge (CSIA Director of Education) is that chimney service technicians should be getting paid not only for what they do, but also for what they know. This can only be achieved through ongoing education.
Aaron adds, “I have some competitors who, for whatever reason, won’t certify their employees. I have also heard other owners complain that after you train and certify a sweep, sometimes they go off on their own and become you competition. They often ask, ‘Why bother investing so much time, money and effort into training if they’re only going to LEAVE?’ My only question to them is ‘What if you DON’T train them, and they STAY? Training your team is the only way to grow your business without going crazy.”
To be sure he doesn’t get any crazier than he already is, Aaron recently got his two sweeps (Ronald Vinson and Aaron Adams) CSIA Certified®. “When the new logo policy came out, I knew it was just something we should do, regardless of the policy. We really owed it to our customers and our sweeps,” says Aaron. According to Aaron, a sweep’s job is only half done once the creosote deposits are removed. He explains, “The other equally important part of the job is to inspect the system to the best of your expertise…and if the sweep’s expertise happens to be top-notch, then so will the inspection.” Aaron believes that if “a ‘backyard mechanic’ sweep doesn’t know what they’re looking for during the inspection, or doesn’t have the proper tools to inspect with, then you might as well have the crusty-know-it-all-old-man-from-down-the-street sweep your chimney,” says Aaron.
Clearly Aaron’s attitude toward education draws business. In fact, he asserts that the customers he actively pursues are those who want a professional chimney sweep, and EXPECT to pay a premium price for it. Recently Aaron and his sweeps began scanning every chimney they swept, and as a result were forced to raise their prices considerably higher than any of the local competitors. He recalls, “I was very nervous about such a drastic price increase, but I felt the extra time we spent at the customer’s home (with the video scanning), our CSIA Certifications, as well as the improvement in the inspection process more than merited such an increase.”
And the results?
“I was completely blown away by what happened and what DIDN’T happen! I thought I would lose a significant number of customers, but very few of my customers even batted an eye. Even my regular yearly customers didn’t seem to notice! In the rare instance someone did say something, we simply explained HOW we were offering more value for their dollar than anyone else, and most of them gladly accepted the price increase.”
When asked how he would define the qualities of a modern technician, Aaron says, “I’m still far from where I’d like to be, but I think of a modern technician to be the opposite of a ‘backyard mechanic sweep’ or ‘brush jockey’ who works with rudimentary knowledge and tools. Having cutting-edge education and the best tools to do your job well are the cornerstones of the modern technician. Being willing to sacrifice and invest back into your business is the only responsible way to go.”
Aaron’s actions speak louder than words. Adding to his $4,000 Chim-Scan®, he’s planning on purchasing a manometer to help his staff troubleshoot smoking, carbon monoxide, and negative pressure issues in a customer’s home.
“As Ashley (Eldridge) said during the Intro to Chimney Physics class, when you have the right tools, it’s no longer a game of opinions or speculation. To the average customer, your recommended repairs may be viewed as simply opinions or hunches that you want them to spend money on. But once you get the tools, you are empowered to present – with irrefutable evidence – significant problems with a customer’s chimney. Tools don’t lie. Seeing is believing. Scanning a chimney from below with you customer watching the Chim-Scan® screen as you work is KING when it comes to landing relining jobs.”
Aaron is also focused on leaving a legacy of first-rate training systems for his current and future employees. “I’ve experienced my share of turnover, and to be honest, it is brutal. Having employees is financially and emotionally a huge investment. I’ve learned that if we are to grow, as I would like, we will need to continually develop and improve our training systems. My goal is to streamline our training systems so well that I can get a new sweep trained and certified in a very short amount of time with very little effort or time required of me or other team members. These training systems will all be documented in a training manual, and then videotaped.
Each new team member will be required to watch, memorize, and certify through a written, verbal, or hands-on test in order to pass each stem of their training regiment. Existing team members will also be required to review and re-certify on a regular basis until they have all facets of t heir job absolutely wired. It may sound rote or mechanical to some, but I think it is a good, organized system for helping y our team learn EXACTLY what you expect of them. No guesswork, no ‘he said/she said.”
According to Aaron, the system is taking forever and a day to develop but once it’s completed, it will be a critical SOP and a true competitive advantage. He explains, “We’re going to do this for practically every important thing that goes on in our business, from the person behind the scenes running the office to the guy on the frontlines sweeping chimneys.”
Aaron’s long-term goal is to eventually free himself from the technical work so he can spend all of his time working on the tactical side of the business. “Working on the business full-time, and not in it is where I’d like to be in 5-8 years,” says Aaron. Once he accomplishes this goal, it will take A to Z Chimney Sweeping to a whole new level.