When Sarah Shippee had a chance meeting with founder Scott Wilson, little did she know then the business would turn into a two-decade family run enterprise that has become a staple of the Deerfield Valley business community.
“I ran into Scott (Wilson) and he said he wanted to sell the business,” said Sara during an interview last week. “He said it was physically too hard on him. I had been waitressing at night, and Roscoe had been working construction during the day. We had two small kids under 2, and they were getting passed back and forth as we passed in and out of the house.”
So the Shippees decided to take the risk and buy a business in a profession they knew very little about. With the help of a commercial broker and the Vermont Small Business Development Center, they ran the financial numbers and decided the business could be viable for them.
“It worked out,” said Sarah Shippee. “His price was reasonable. We had just enough money and decided it was time to make a shift.”
That was in November 1997, and so the Shippees started to learn the business. Suffice it to say there was a big learning curve.
“I was really intimidated by it all,” said Roscoe Shippee. “I was afraid I would make a mistake and burn a house down. I was petrified.”
Lucky for them, the business came with a trained employee who knew what he was doing. Roscoe Shippee essentially became an apprentice in his own business, but that helped him learn the intricacies of the profession with someone who had experience. Wilson also helped with the transition, and gave them plenty of advice during the first year.
The Shippees attended their first national chimney sweep convention in the spring of 1998 and both passed the national certification exam. So by the time their employee left, about a year after they bought the business, they had a pretty good handle on what they needed to do.
“Roscoe became full time really fast,” said Sarah. “But by then we had started to develop relationships with our customers and our vendors.”
The Shippees have formed a reasonable division of labor with the business. Roscoe focuses on the back end, working on the job sites. Sarah runs the front end, interfacing with customers and suppliers and writing reports after jobs are completed. When jobs get bigger they call in their sons Zeb and Wyatt, now in their early 20s, and additional contractors to help out.
Some of the biggest jobs the company has taken on include working with local condominium associations to upgrade and replace older “zero-clearance” fireplace systems. Many have units that were built 30 or more years ago, and their fireplaces have outlived their useful life. Roscoe Shippee noted that sometimes second-home owners don’t realize their fireplaces are that old, and potentially dangerous.
Another big job was for Williams College, in Williamstown, MA. The college wanted the fireplaces and chimneys of 200 buildings cleaned and inspected, which required not only extensive written reports but video inspections as well.
“We had to send a remote camera into every chimney,” said Sarah Shippee. “It took about a year to complete that job.”
There have also been a few surprises along the way.
“Usually I’m met at the door when I arrive,” said Roscoe Shippee. “I went to one job, knocked on the door, and no one answered. I had been given the key, so I assumed no one was home and let myself in. After two trips to bring in equipment, I started up a vacuum. It was then that an elderly woman in a state of complete undress opened the bedroom door and asked why I was there. She said no one had told her I would be there. So I said ‘It’s OK, I’m leaving.’”
“Once in a while stuff happens,” chuckled Sarah Shippee.
When asked about how the business has changed in the past two decades, Roscoe Shippee said the chimney sweep industry is changing from the old-fashioned image of a soot-covered man with a brush and a ladder. While a clean chimney is still important, there is an environmental aspect as well.
“Modern chimney sweeping is evolving. It’s a service industry, based on the idea that you can reduce risk and increase efficiency by doing things beyond just cleaning.”
As a way of celebrating the 20th anniversary, Scott’s Clean Sweep is giving away 20 gift certificates, each valued at $100. Every 2017 customer will be entered into the drawing for the certificates.
For more information about Scott’s Clean Sweep, the drawing or to wish the Shippees happy anniversary call (802) 464-3580.