Wilkins Chimney Sweep In Overseas Fact-Finding Mission

Peter and Louise Harris, owners of bfa (British Franchise Association) accredited franchise organisation Wilkins Chimney Sweep, have recently returned from a trip to Ohio, USA, to attend a convention organised by the National Chimney Sweeping Guild.

The theme of the event was ‘Innovation’ and over 500 sweeps from across the US and further afield, gathered to attend training sessions, share best practice and hear from industry experts.

The couple, who are recognised in the franchise community for their desire to ‘always do things right’, said they made the 8,000 mile round-trip to ensure the information they passed onto their franchisees was 100% up-to-date in terms of sweeping technique, equipment, technology and safety practices. They were invited to the convention by US company Midtown Sweeps, who made contact with Louise after reading her Linked In profile.

In the US, chimney sweeps are required to take part in Continuous Professional Development, attending training sessions available at this and similar conventions, for which they earn ‘credits’, something Peter and Louise say they would welcome in this country, alongside the current voluntary HETAS registration and trade association memberships.

Peter and Louise, who met when Peter swept Louise’s chimney, report that despite finding some differences in technique, the sweeping skills they are passing on to their staff and franchisees are totally up-to-date and in keeping with modern best-practice.

Peter, who bought Wilkins Chimney Sweep in 1998, still sweeps many chimneys each year and trains all their new franchisees. He said: "The most interesting thing we found is that in America they sweep the chimneys from the top-down, whereas we sweep from the bottom-up. When we asked why they did it this way we were told, on more than one occasion, ‘because that’s how Burt and Co did it in Mary Poppins’. We prefer our method because it means one person can sweep a chimney alone (reducing costs for the customer).

"In the US they need one person to sweep and another to hold the ladder and to ensure that soot doesn’t enter the room; our method also means there’s less chance of making a costly mistake.

"We were also fascinated to learn that in the US a large number of chimney sweeps clean out tumble-dryer vent pipes. In most US homes, they have large built-in dryers which are used extensively and need regular cleaning due to the flammable nature of the lint that builds up on the inside of the pipes; however with the cost of electricity and our desire to use less energy we don’t see this ever becoming a trend in the UK."

During the convention the pair attended lectures on ‘Looking at strategies in a difficult economy’, ‘Things you thought were true – busting the myths’ and a talk on ‘Fire investigation’ by an ex-Fire Chief, who now works for an insurance company, investigating properties that have caught fire.

Louise said: "The lectures were very useful but one thing we learned that really surprised us is that sweeps in the US suffer from the same ‘Mary Poppins’ related issues that we do in the UK; as fun as it may seem to the outsider, chimney sweeps are actually carrying out a vital safety service, protecting homes and families from the risk of a chimney fires and Carbon Monoxide poisoning and much as we all love Dick van Dyke, even the best-humoured of sweeps can get tired of being asked if they can knock out a rendition of ‘Chim Chimenee’ all the time."

Running alongside the convention was a major trade show and the couple identified a number of products they may introduce into their business, after testing, in the near future. Peter and Louise say the trip was a big success, that they have made useful contacts and that they’ll be passing on everything they learned to their franchisees at their annual conference later on this month.