Thoughts from the Scanman
It’s Fall in America again. Children are back in school, Friday night football games, hot chocolate and the smell of Fall is in the air. For the chimney sweeping trade, it’s the busiest time of the year. Accompanied by long days, cramped schedule books and supplies being ordered.
For us in Iowa its harvest time, our neighbors are operating 24/7 running combines and tractor trailers filled with grain on its way to the Mississippi to load the barges heading out for export. Living in the Midwest grain belt seems like a funny place to be relation to the chimney industry, but we have been in Iowa now over 30 years from our Pa. roots.
Since 1978, I have been in all aspects of this industry. From a fledgling sweep in northeast Pennsylvania to now owner and operator of an interior chimney inspection camera and accessory’s manufacturer that sells equipment around the world. I still remember the Mass. Guild meetings at the Lennox Inn! To this day I still hold and retest the CSIA certification test. I have taken the test(s) 14 times. My certification number is 210, but at heart I’m still in the field! We have provided vision to thousands of chimney, masonry and HVAC companies.
Keeping up with technology
Since 2014 Estoban went through an extensive change over, in operations and product design. What used to be made with the shears, snips, drill presses and manual lathes, is now done on a CNC machining centers and lathes. This computer operated machinery allows us to create older parts in half the time plus replacement parts are guaranteed to fit. We liked how well the new CNC machine worked that we bought two more. One identical to the first machine center so if one if one didn’t work we had a backup. Sure, enough one part in the machine did go wrong, but we didn’t miss a step.
Through all the ups and downs, we have offered inspection equipment to fulfill many of your needs. Our mission statement has always been to provide quality imagery and support for our customers and continues 33 years later. With continual improvements and Youtube videos helping owners with company training meetings on how to use the cameras is growing. We are just finishing a new 4000 sq. ft. addition to help with our expanding needs.
Beginning with an End in Mind
One area of business that all of us need to address is creating an exit strategy. My wife Esther and I started working together shortly after we were married. In 2004, one of our customers, stopped by our shop in Iowa. He and his brother relied on the Chim-Scan to generate new work. The cameras were a major part of their company. He asked us what our plan was, after Tom and Esther were no longer working? Gee, we had been so busy designing better products for everyone, we hadn’t taken the time to think about “retiring” or a catastrophic health event.
So, we started looking at what options would be available. Sell the company; hire middle management, etc. We hired business advisors who helped us formulate a plan. Yes, this is expensive, but they brought many ideas to the table that we had not thought of. As we set forth a plan, over the next ten years, we hired them back three times. Each time they gave us new goals and projects to work on.
First, we had to decide what retirement looked like? We enjoy what we do and who we work with. So, we made a conscious decision to simply work less hours and hire good people who could run the day to day operations. To try it, we took a week off, and when we came back, we fixed what didn’t work. Then we tried two weeks. Again, we fixed what broke. That meant writing the dreaded S.O.P. etc. We found that power points work great for SOP writing. Set the copy, add a photo, then the next step. The great part is they can be printed and placed in note books, or put on Microsoft 365 to share and update them when needed.
I highly recommend a LEAN process called Streaming. Take post it notes or 3 x 5 cards and go through each step of an operation. Lay them out on a table with all persons within the company watching. Then see if all agree on the steps or the need for more post it notes or cards. Then align them in a sequence to reduce time and waste. For larger companies, only the persons evolved should do this for their department. Then departments share their results with other departments to see if things alien with the company mission.
We have found through trial and error that big expensive relational data base programs require rigid rules to keep them going properly. (YOU NEED I-T PEOPLE) After a while you don’t know if the dog is wagging the tail, or is the tail wagging the dog. We now operate on two programs, QuickBooks and Microsoft Office. Period! The flexibility to do some operations are easier in these programs than a total package system. We even learned how to use QuickBooks as a database for all the language used in our inspection program. We can write an estimate that looks like an inspection form either level 1 or 2 with over 350 paragraphs stored in QuickBooks!
As far as MS Office, SOPs, using Power Point, Excel for production purposes and Publisher for documents. I still believe in Leonardo Da Vinci’s saying” Youth should be taught perspective then Proportion”. It’s a big world out there, at some point you need to figure out who you are, and what makes you happy. From there, work on the proportions needed to make your dream come true. When you reach this point, begin the measuring process needed to fulfill that dream. Until you set up the systems to measure it, your dream can stay just that, a dream. LEAN training and streaming really helps in the area.
Our daughter decided that there were opportunities for her to join the company in 2010. Shelley is now our office manager; after working her way up thru wiring, repairs, purchasing and customer service. As far as our other employees have been here, 29, 15, 8, 5, 2 years and one that just started 6 months ago. Also, the other protection needed was to purchase Key man insurance on principles within the company. Again, another failsafe to be sure of continued support for our customers.
Once we had our plans in place, we realized that many of our customers would need to be thinking the same and way. Some companies would simple stop working because they never set up their own exit strategy. Others, had family members who would like to continue the business. Our equipment was now such an important part of many companies daily work. The question is no longer, why do I need to buy a Chim-Scan; but how can we make sweeping and scanning easier, quicker and with less stress on the sweeps body.
As with every trade, the tides of change are on the rise. As some companies grow, others are starting to retire. Some will leave with a legacy, others just close the doors. As we attend the variety of trade shows, it’s comforting to have our older customers come to our booth to introduce a son, daughter or partner who is going to take over the business.
It’s interesting to see new and old companies begin to grow way past the expectations of many, sometimes even themselves. They now have segmented operations in place; field personal, staff meetings, human resource, marketing plans and operations managers.
It’s a far cry from the top hat and tails, “sweep you chimney for $40.00 with the big red vacuum”. And the goal then was to make van payments, repay student loans, and mortgages. Maybe this is too much organization in your life? Maybe just enough. You be the judge. I know many 1-2 truck operations that lead a life they feel comfortable with. Others aren’t comfortable until they reach 25-50 trucks with a goal for the stock exchange.
Making Sweeps Life’s Easier
We looked over the data we had been collecting to find what part of the equipment needed the most repairs. We realized that most companies were not using the centering device to protect the camera and that the cables were most vulnerable to damage.
In 2013, we created the lighthouse camera with its 360-degree, continuous variable rate pan camera to help prevent cable twisting and stop the operator from having to twist their wrists all the time. No more twisted cables, and easier on the operator’s wrists. Plus, the add in cable reeler corrected cable storage problems.
When we added the Enviro camera to view straight up, this combo camera system included the stabilizers. As we tested this in the field, we created a way sweeps could look straight up the flue (viewing offsets, misaligned liners, crack liners and blockages in real time) as they went up the flue; then they could switch to cam 2 and view the side walls (open mortar joints, cracks in liners, missing liner sections) as they pulled the camera back down the flue. We then stored these two cameras along with the attached stabilizers in its own caddy. All the sweep has to do is connect the 50’ cable and they are ready to scan. Plus we make the adapters to any rod system you currently have, no more switching rods! This rugged two camera system, cut the scanning time in half, yet you can see twice as much of the interior of the flue.
Even though just one crack in a liner can justify a repair or reline, scanning the rest of the chimney to some appears to be a waste of time. By 1985 our Pa. sweep company had placed in 260 liners. I have stories of liners not fitting, a stainless bone yard and all the head aches involved in NOT scanning all the chimney to see what was down there to hang liners up! Now with this system the time spent looking for one crack or defect, I’ll have the entire flue scanned and record either in video format or still Jpegs.
The lighthouse combo camera answered many of the repair issues that we had; this in turn increased reliability and reduced down time.
The lighthouse camera has an acrylic lens cover; the unit was designed for easy change out in the field. Also, there is a replaceable flexible shaft between the two cameras that allow easier access up thru a thimble chimney and prefabricated fireplace dampers. Also, the new designed stabilizers, can be easily fitted in the field.
Now in 2017 we wanted to address safety and fatigue of our customers. So, we accomplished the goal to reduce camera repairs, stop twisting rods in your hands, offer better vision through better resolution; use specialty adapted LED lights to create a full spectrum light array. Plus, our goal was also to build a camera that can be placed on our newest product “the raptor: so that sweeping and scanning at the same time could be accomplished.
All concepts are designed for the consideration of the chimney sweep’s time. Roll in, set up, sweep, scan, use the Flue & Hearth notes as your check list, so when it is time to be with the customer, you are ready and have collected the information necessary to explain your findings in the level 1 or 2 inspection. The Flue and Hearth Notes™ are segmented so that you can direct the customers’ attention to a certain area of the chimney to reduce confusions and promote trust.
By segmenting the inspection, we found out how much faster and complete inspections could be done, and many new opportunities it created. By going through the checklist, all the defects are noted along with what’s operational. Plus, the uniformity provides the office or manager to have the same info as the sweep sees. (collect data, train techs, engage managers, create a uniform platform to measure in one step). We have our own system we have used for several years. The checklist gets the data, Quickbooks with the 300+ paragraphs has the explanations. The Flue and Hearth Notes™ are available in a paper triplicate form; or use the fillable PDF to use on a computer, Android pads or IPads.
We have not done articles for some time, to the point there are industry rumors, that we are no longer in business. It takes time to walk the walk and place these changes into place and make them operational. This family’s business plan has positioned itself to be here another 35 years. The other rumor concerning that Chim-Scans cost over $5000.00 is also exaggerated. With the process of high technology machine works we now offer units starting at $1995.00. Check out our website: www.chimscan.net Text photos or questions to cell phone 641-919-4896. We have full time personnel answering the phone from 9:00 C.S.t. to 6:00 p.m.
Esther, Shelley and I want to thank all of you who have placed your trust into our products. As Red Green would say,” if you can’t be handsome, be handy. And remember to keep your stick on the ice!” Have a great holiday season. Take Care.