Meet long-time member Sally McKnight of The Irish Sweep, Inc. in Alameda, California. As a former board member, Sally is someone you've likely seen around throughout the years and is definitely someone with a unique perspective on what it takes to be a successful chimney professional.
What is a question you get asked most about being a chimney sweep/chimney sweeping/the industry?
How do I know if my chimney is safe to use? Some customers are concerned about fire safety while others are concerned with structural safety and still others are concerned with seismic safety. Most customers tend to overlook the power of wind and rain, which over time causes mortar failure; I like to educate my customers and bring awareness to potential hazards created by our environment.
How did you get started in the industry?
I was hired by the owner of The Irish Sweep, Jim Halloran, as part time office staff. I could not communicate effectively on the telephone with customers, as I didn't know anything about fireplaces or chimneys. So I was asked to go out into the field and clean some chimneys as a means to further my education. Eventually a partnership was formed and in 1988 I purchased the business from Jim.
What advice do you wish you had received when you were getting started?
I wish I were told to become an effective communicator and learn to hunker down and read. It's true we provide service to our customers but education is the other most important aspects of our work. I had no idea I would have to carefully craft my verbal and written skills so I could impart my knowledge to my customer. So I set out on a journey of internalizing fireplaces and chimneys and began to create my own personal dialogue on what I know to be true. I have always called upon my ability to combine classroom education and field experience. After all these years, I have developed a very clear and concise communication style that is very helpful to increase my customer's understanding of our discovery of their fireplaces and chimneys.
What is the biggest challenge you face on the job? What are your best strategies for overcoming it?
There are a couple: 1. Traffic, as we live in a huge metropolis so we schedule all of our appointments via zip codes so we stay in the same location each day and reduce our travel time and fuel expenses. 2. Roof lines. The last time it snowed in the greater San Francisco - Bay Area was in 1977 but you would never know that by judging our roof lines. Architects of the past seemed to have been passionate about the grace of a beautiful, tall roof line and slate roofs. They are so difficult to approach and in many situation we use cranes or man lifts to get us to the top of the chimney. I think most industry professionals would agree, it is one thing to get on a roof but it is an entirely different thing to get to the top of the chimney. Many times once we are on the roof, we construct platforms so we can stand and safely work. And a big thank you to other chimney professionals who have taught us how to work using mountain climbing techniques.
Who was your most famous customer?
Well, the only one I can tell you about is Box Skaggs; he proved to be a true diplomat. A very gracious person.
Have you ever attended NCSG Annual Convention & Trade Show? If so, what was your favorite takeaway?
Yes, for many years I've attended convention and I was even privileged enough to sit on the Board of Directors for six years. I have two favorite takeaways: 1. The comradery and friendship of my fellow sweeping professionals and vendors. 2. I enjoy the Trade Shows at our annual conventions. I like meeting with the vendors, discussing their products, as I am very particular about the product I sell and use with my customers. I like products and materials that are proven and that I can depend upon to do the job as stated in product literature.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Not only being a female chimney professional who has sustained my business for the last 35 years, I'm also the proud originator of the C.S.I.A. brochure program which was started in the early 90's and is still in use today.
Have you ever had to make your own tool to solve a particular problem?
Oh boy, yes! Necessity is the mother of invention! We have a bakery as a customer and everything they bake is done in two large wood burning ovens that operate 24/7. The building was built, the bakery moved in and due to the two stories overhead the chimneys wander around inside the building defying flow before they go straight up to the roof and into a smog hog. The draft hoods are low to each oven and access was very difficult. So after struggling, we decided to cut a piece of 9mm viper rod that is attached to our drill and a power sweeping whip on the other end. Once the bottom of the chimney has been cleaned, we approach the roof and work in the opposite direction.
Weirdest thing you have ever found in a chimney?
A mummified rat and squirrel, glass bottles and a Mylar balloon.
What do you like to do outside of work?
It's family time for me. Being on the front lines all week long, I like to be at home either cooking a family meal or baking a delicious treat. Currently I am needlepointing.
What is, in your opinion, the most valuable part of being a member of the National Chimney Sweep Guild?
Being a part of a national and international community that offers validation, education, mentoring and friendship.
Thank you Sally! If you know someone who should be featured as a Meet a Member, send Annemarie Stockton an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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