Working with Jack Pixley
By Jim Gillam
This article originally appeared in The Chimney Sweep News - August 2004
On a bright, crisp morning in the Twin Cities metropolitan area of Minnesota, Jack Pixley, owner and founder of First Choice Chimney Co. / Jack Pixley Sweeps, meets his sweeps Ray Wiedmeyer and Bob Nielsen at their first job. It’s a three-story house with a couple of fireplaces. The homeowner complains of smoke spillage from the living room fireplace.
Ray and Bob already have a ladder set up against the chimney, and inside they’ve spread out a large tarp in front of the fireplace.
Ray removes a wide strip of aluminum foil from across the fireplace opening that had served as a temporary smoke guard and begins sweeping the fireplace from below. It’s readily apparent that this fireplace system has some mechanical design flaws. Jack begins talking with the homeowner, a housewife in her thirties with a baby upstairs.
“I wonder if the lintel bar is low enough,” Jack ventures by way of easing into the discussion. It’s actually above the level of the firebox damper. “That’s definitely a problem.”
“And the firebox is so shallow,” Ray adds, while measuring the firebox opening. “This grate was right up to the front. I suggest building the fire back as far as you can.”
Jack gently offers several options. “The cheapest way to go here would be to get a fireplace enclosure with a wide top panel,” Jack continues. “You’ll lose some viewing, but you don’t see much fire up there anyway. Even when the flames are leaping they are not going that high. And you need a different grate.
Another option would be to install a fireplace insert burning gas, pellets or wood. However, this customer is adamant about retaining her open fireplace.
A third option Jack suggests “would be to literally take off the whole front of the fireplace and have a contractor redo all of this with new brick and make the opening smaller. I wouldn’t worry about trying to retain the lower damper; you have a top-sealing damper anyway.”
Later, while Ray and Bob pack up the equipment, Jack and the homeowner talk it over and he refers her to a reliable mason. Despite just being hit with a figurative “ton of bricks” as far the condition of her fireplace, Jack’s suggestions and reassuring demeanor leave her unpanicked. As he and the crew leave the job he turns toward the homeowner and says, “Thank you very much for allowing us to come here today. It was very nice to meet you. Call me anytime if you have any questions or if things aren’t going right. Best to you and your little one!”
The courtesy with which Jack Pixley treats a customer will come as no surprise to sweeps who know him. They universally describe him as one of the most gracious and generous people they know.
'I Could Do That'
Jack grew up north of Hibbing on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. After obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in technology, he taught high school industrial arts, primarily metal shop, for many years. He retired from Anoka-Hennepin School District #11 in 2002.
In 1976, Jack read an article about Massachusetts chimney sweep Ken Hinckley in his local newspaper. “It was a nice article about this former insurance salesman who had become a chimney sweep,” he remembers. “I still have the article.
“I thought, ‘I could do that!’ I grew up on a farm and we always burned either wood or coal. We put up our own wood and we cleaned our chimney. And,” he smiles, “we would clean Mrs. Waxter’s chimney once a year. We didn’t do it for money. In the country, you just helped out your neighbors.”
Their equipment was primitive. “The apparatus we used was some bedsprings wrapped together with a chain at the bottom for weight, and a chain to lower it down,” he laughs. “I didn’t figure that would be the best approach for going into business.”
Unable to find chimney brushes for sale, “I literally made my own brushes when I first started,” Jack exclaims. “I didn’t know Worcester Brush even existed! You sure couldn’t buy them in stores like you can today. I made my own rods out of ½” diameter hydraulic tubing. I welded 3/8” pipe fittings to them. I was teaching welding so that was easy for me.
After cleaning a few chimneys with his homemade equipment, Jack thought there had to be a better way. About that time he was approached by newspaper reporter about a story. “I thought, ‘I can’t have this homemade garbage if I’m going to be covered in the newspaper!’ So I got hold of Ken Hinckley.
At the time Ken was offering a chimney sweeping course which he urged Jack to attend. “It was $500 for one week,” Jack recalls. “I should have taken him up on it but I didn’t.”
Jack counts that as one of the worst business decisions he has ever made. “I would have learned so much!” he exclaims. “I had to learn all those things the hard way! It took me forever. Remember Star Wars, where the spacecraft is going one speed and then they put it into hyperspeed? That’s what it would have done to my business!
“But Ken was very kind to me,” Jack says gratefully. “He told me about Worcester Brush where I could buy my brushes.”
After sweeping for a couple of years, Jack offered week-long training sessions to a number of sweeps. “Kind of like what Ken was doing,” he recalls. “They came from five different states.” Jack ultimately found it “depressing,” however, because within a few years most of his students were out of business.
“It’s tough to make it,” he acknowledges. “So many of us, at the beginning, we were going by the seat of our pants. We didn’t know. I had the advantage that I was in a metropolitan area. Most of those guys weren’t.”
Over the years Jack has generously shared his hard-won expertise. He has offered dozens of seminars and workshops, most recently offering a seminar on Hiring, Training and Retaining Employees at the 2004 National Chimney Sweep Guild convention in Myrtle Beach, SC. He has also authored a number of magazine articles.
“It’s amazing what we have today,” he says of the current availability of educational opportunities such those offered at the CSIA Tech Center. “It’s just wonderful! It makes it so much easier for people today. Not to say that it is an easy job; it’s still a difficult profession.”
National Chimney Sweep Guild
Jack has been a devoted member of the NCSG since its inception in 1978. He served on the Guild’s second board of directors from 1979 to 1982, and served another three-year term from 1999-2002. He has attended all but one NCSG convention, missing only the 2003 convention in Hershey, PA while taking treatments for multiple myeloma (cancer of the plasma cell).
“There’s so much you can learn!” Jack exclaims. “Every year I learn so much!”
Jack’s service has been extraordinary. He formerly chaired and has served for over 20 years on the NCSG Technical Advisory Committee. He was NCSG’s representative to the NPFA 211 committee for over eight years. He served on the board of directors of the Wood Heating Alliance, a predecessor organization to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA). He helped author Successful Chimney Sweeping, the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s instruction manual, and assisted with subsequent revisions. He served on Minnesota’s State Committee for Wood Heat Safety in 1982. He has served as the National Guild’s historian. The Guild honored him with their very first Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
Employees Represent Quality
Since he was also a full time teacher, Jack made the decision to hire employees early in his sweep career. He treats his employees with respect and in return they give him complete loyalty.
“I trust them,” he says. “I know that when I leave everything will get done. Sometimes improvements are even made!”
Sweep Ben Cardelli, who had his own business in Cloquet, MN prior to working for Jack, developed a new proposal form with assistance from Shirley Graham, the company’s general manager. “I was up at my cabin in the woods and I had a bunch of proposals to do,” he shrugs. “I didn’t have any proposal forms so I made one.” When he came back to the office, he and Shirley fine-tuned it and it became the company’s standard proposal form.
“I was in Florida,” says Jack. “I didn’t know anything about it.”
One of the major advantages of having trusted employees is that Jack is able to leave the business for extended periods of time. He fondly recalls answering his cell phone in Florida in December to hear Ray Wiedmeyer calling from atop a chimney in St. Paul.
A discussion he had over twenty years ago with fellow sweep Ron Mazzeo of Maine during a break at a NCSG board of directors meeting in St. Louis exemplifies Jack’s employee policy.
“He said he tries to hire the ‘dumbest, dirtiest chicken pluckers’ he can find,” Jack laughs.
“I grew up on a farm. I plucked chickens. I knew exactly what he was talking about. I said, ‘Ron, I try to find the neatest, cleanest, most conscientious and knowledgeable people I can find.’
“He said, ‘You are just going to train your competition!’
“I said, ‘I don’t want someone representing me who doesn’t represent the quality that I think I have to have.”
Ray Wiedmeyer, like Jack, began his sweeping career in 1977, initially working for Dennis and Connie Conroy of Windy City Soot Suckers in Chicago. After moving to St. Paul, he worked for Jack for one year. “I quit because I had to drive up to Jack’s place [in the northwest suburbs],” he explains. “It took about 45 minutes to make the drive. I would go up in my car, get the truck, do the jobs, take the truck back, and come home in my car. It was crazy spending all that time on the road.”
After working as a pastry chef for 14 years, he met Jack again at a home show, and Jack invited him back to work.
In the interim, modern technology had provided a solution to Ray’s commuting problem. “The fax machine had been invented,” Ray smiles. “So they could fax the jobs to me. I keep the truck at my house now.”
First Choice covers the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area – “anywhere you can dial without a long distance call,” Jack says. Doing sweeping and restoration jobs, including Ventinox and Ahrens relining, the company’s 8 field employees service 15-25 households each day. Although it’s 60 miles from one side of the metro area to the other, the company does not impose mileage charges. “The drive time just kills us,” he laments.
“We try to keep the jobs close to each other because of the price of gas,” says Shirley. “And we try to keep them from crossing the Mississippi River too often. Getting across the river takes some time because it’s really busy. There aren’t that many crossings, and sometimes you have to drive quite a ways to get across.”
In order to avoid no-shows, “we always confirm the appointment two days in advance,” notes Jack.
In the Office
Shirley has been with the company for 14 years. “I was about ready to retire when Jack became ill, but I decided to stay on,” she shrugs. There’s no doubt that she loves working for Jack.
“I’ve run many other businesses so none of this is new to me,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for over 47 years!”
The other four women in the office also boast admirable longevity. Two of them have worked there longer than Shirley. “We know more about chimneys than we thought we would ever know!” exclaims Miriam Dreyer, who has been working with First Choice for eleven years.
First Choice has a client base of 24,000. “We send postcards to them every year, during the off-season,” Shirley says. “We try to keep the crew busy. They all have mouths to feed. “During the slower months the guys are given the opportunity come in the office to do postcards. That’s also when we get our supplies organized in the garage, do our trucks – things that you don’t have time to do when it’s busy,” she adds.
Working with Family
Initially, Jack envisioned his chimney sweep business as a part-time job, something to do in his spare time while teaching. “I was going to go out a couple of nights per week and take my daughter, Lisa, with me one night, and my son, David, with me the next,” he says. Lisa was never interested, but David worked with Jack off and on for several years. Eventually he decided to create his own company, Second Generation Chimneys, Inc. His name, David Pixley, is prominently displayed in his advertising.
“It has caused some confusion,” Jack acknowledges. “Many customers have called who thought it was us. It has not been good that way. Though if someone is going to take some of our business, I would rather it is my own son. If that’s something I can give him, that’s great. Life is too short to worry about it.”
Jack has been battling multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cell, for the past two years. “People talk about the curse of cancer and how bad it is. It’s not something that I really like. But one thing that has happened since the cancer is that David and I have a better relationship than we ever have had. So, good things can come out of things that are not real pleasant.”
Bring Some Joy
“One of my goals is not simply to clean the chimney but to have some fun,” Jack says. “My favorite song in Mary Poppins is not ‘Chim-Chim-Cheree.’ It’s the one that starts out, ‘In every job that must be done, there’s an element of fun.’ If you find the fun, the job’s a game.
“I remember going to a home where the child, who was probably in second or third grade, was not doing well in school,” he continues. “I arrived at their home when he and his parents had just come home from parent-teacher conferences. He was crying. I was cleaning the fireplace from inside, so I was able to overhear much of what was going on.
“So I got him involved in helping with something that was really unimportant, but he didn’t have to know that. I made him an honorary chimney sweep’s helper. He was smiling when I left that night. I felt I had accomplished my goal.
“Regardless of what we do for a living, we can have fun with it,” Jack believes. “Each of us has a wonderful opportunity to bring some joy into people’s homes and make a positive difference in their lives.”
Jack Pixley passed away on December 30, 2010.
This article originally
appeared in the August 2004 issue of The Chimney Sweep News (SNEWS).
The Chimney Sweep News is an independent trade journal for chimney professionals.
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