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Entrepreneurs: Adirondack Chimney Sweep

A chimney sweep in one of America’s warmest cities: Mark C. Keever is the second in Funny’s series of stories about entrepreneurs who find creative and unusual ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Mark and his business, Adirondack Chimney Sweep, in Angie’s List, where a long line of customers had left ecstatic reviews about his work. Not knowing whether the chimney in my 1971 house had ever been cleaned, about the beginning of December I gave him a call, hoping to have the job done before the big Christmas party.

Mais non! The man was booked into the beginning of January! A chimney sweep with personality, it develops, has more work than he can handle. When Mark dropped in the other day to apply his skills to my old fireplace, complete with his broom and old black stovepipe hat, I asked him a few questions.

FaM: Mark, how on earth did you get into the chimney-sweep business?

Keever: Well, I grew up in Queensbury, New York, a small town between Glens Falls and Lake George. Most people didn’t have much, and when you graduated from high school, your career choice was going to work in the paper mills or going to work in the local prison. Because people had to do for themselves, one of the things we learned in our shop class was how to clean potbellied stoves and chimneys.

In my senior year, I got in a motorcycle accident and was seriously hurt: broke my left foot in twelve places, broke my left leg, messed up my knees and elbows. That was the end of my future in the paper mill.

FaM: It must have kept you out of Vietnam, too.

Keever: That’s right. Couldn’t get into the military, either, because the damage to my foot made me unfit for combat.

FaM: So what did you do?

Keever: I came out to Arizona to recuperate and ended up going to work for the Greyhound Corporation. I worked for seven years, and then I went with the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was a good job, but after four years I was laid off—along with about 9,000 other people.

Not knowing what to do next, I looked around and found out that one in four houses in the Phoenix area has a fireplace. Well, that was a natural: I already knew how to sweep chimneys.

I started a business, but by the time we were up and running, it was out of season. Nobody thinks about their fireplaces on a 110-degree summer day. So I was really struggling.

To make ends meet, I decided I’d better take a full-time job with the City of Glendale. I was happy to get the job, but I kept the chimney-sweep business as a sideline.

And I also thought I’d better go to college to learn how to run a business, so I enrolled in a business course at Phoenix College. It only took me 25 years to finish my associate’s degree!

Meanwhile, I kept on working at the city and also kept sweeping chimneys as a side job.

FaM: It’s always a good idea to have a second income stream, isn’t it?

Keever: Yes. I was glad I had it, because last spring the city offered its employees a buy-out deal. I had only just earned the 80 “points” city and state workers need to retire, but there they were: I actually was in a position to retire. I thought it over for a while, and then finally I decided to take it.

So I got a good severance package and plenty of time to make a go of Adirondack.

FaM: That must have been a breathtaking moment!

Keever: I’ve never been happier! No more stress of a day job and a commute, no more working for a big bureaucracy. I’ve got all the work I can do, most of it in the wintertime while the weather’s nice, and the business has really taken off. All told, Adirondack Chimney Sweep  has had 2,187 customers.

* * *

Cleaning the fireplace, a two-and-a-half-hour project, entailed climbing on the roof to brush out the chimney and then engaging in some lengthy and vigorous cleanup with a large shop vac. By the time Mark finished, the firebox and the family room were spotless.

He sprinkled a handful of salt at the back of the firebox. “This brings good luck,” he said. Then he set a shiny copper penny in the front right corner of the fireplace. “A penny in the fireplace not only brings more good luck,” he continued, “but because it’s this year’s date, all you  have to do is look at it to remember what year you last had the chimney cleaned. This one should be cleaned about once every four or five years.”

After a short demonstration of how to lay a fire and how to use a newspaper torch to warm the cold air seeping down a chimney to make the flue draw better, he was off.

And the next time that thing needs to be cleaned, I know who I’m gonna call!

Freedom’s just another word…

In the “just another word for nothin’ left to lose” department, take a look at this excellent post by Curmudgeon at BripBlap. Aside from having delivered an awesome piece of writing here, Curmudgeon is dead center on target. You don’t want to lose what matters in the pursuit of money or career.

Some years ago I connected with an old acquaintance. She was an associate professor in the Speech Department when I was in graduate school. Shortly after I finished the degree, she disappeared from the scene. She started a business of her own, catering to large corporations: basically what she did was hire out to teach the subject matter she’d taught in the classroom, only tailored to employee development. Before long she expanded the business to D.C. By the time we touched base again, she had farmed out the Washington office to a partner and moved back to the desert, where she continued to direct the operation. When we met for lunch, she was wearing more on her back than my entire net worth.

Like Curmudgeon, she had undergone a life-threatening medical experience while she was hitting her stride as a young professor, one that forced her to think about whether she really wanted to keep on with her job. When this happened to her, she was tenured and set for a perfectly fine academic career at a time when academic jobs were hard to come by. Her decision? She thought not.

The insight she gained from a dangerous health crisis was much the same as Curmudgeon’s: trading off your health for money—or for a job that makes you unhappy, for whatever reason—isn’t worth it.

Interestingly, after my friend started doing what she wanted to do with her life, she started to mint money. She loved what she was doing, and people paid her well for it.

The money will take care of itself. You have to take care of yourself.

Entrepreneurs: Your Auto Network

An auto mechanic turned radio personality and Internet entrepreneur: Cary Lockwood is the first star of Funny’s new series interviewing men and women who find creative new ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Cary after finding his website, At first glance, it looks like an Angie’s List for car mechanics, except you don’t have to pay for it. On closer inspection, some differences arise: all of the businesses listed are local companies, and unlike Click & Clack’s reader-driven listing, the site offers few consumer reviews. Thinking what a great idea to bring in some side income, I gave him a call. Turns out the story is a lot more complicated.

FaM: Thanks for chatting with us, Cary. Would you tell us how you came to start

Lockwood: I  spent 20 years working for General Motors, at the automobile proving grounds here in Arizona. When GM closed that facility, the company asked me to move to Michigan. Well, I grew up in the East, and my wife and I decided we didn’t want to move back in that direction. So I started a repair shop. It did well, because we emphasized customer service and did honest, high-quality work.

One day a friend and local talk show host, Charles Goyette, invited me to do a segment on his radio talk show. I said I’m not very political and might not fit in. He said they had a Saturday show that didn’t talk about much controversy. So I started doing it.

Pretty quick I realized we were getting a lot of calls from people wanting to know where to get their cars serviced and repaired. There’s a huge need, because—well, to tell the truth, people do run into dishonest shops, and that’s left them untrusting and wary.

That’s when I started the auto network.

The radio show, which evolved into Your Auto Network’s Calling All Cars, began to get bigger. It grew from a Q-and-A segment to a twice-weekly show that covers  everything automotive, covering everything from fuel and batteries to windshields and tires, from gas-saving strategies to laws affecting car owners.

Meanwhile, the list kept growing, too.

After a while I had an offer to buy the shop. My wife and I decided to sell and go with making Your Auto Network our business.

FaM: How does an automotive shop get on your list?

Lockwood: I seek out the proven performers, but listeners and friends recommend them. I check them out personally, along with doing a lot of research. The shops can be doing any work related to automotive upkeep—repair, bodywork, painting, parts operations, window tinting, tires, and the like—but they have to be locally owned independent businesses, not chains or big-boxes.

I check out their experience, because that’s one of the things that makes a great shop: we have minimum requirements for the number of years they’ve been in business. They have to have an A rating with the Better Business Bureau. Often I’ll call without identifying myself, to see how they answer the phone or whether they shunt you off to an answering machine. Then I observe the shop itself and study the operation.

The standards are high, because my name is on it.

FaM: One of the problems with Angie’s List is there’s no way to tell whether an owner has had all his in-laws, cousins, nephews, and nieces send in glowing reports.

Lockwood: That’s right. And that’s why we don’t have a lot of customer reviews, although we do make it possible for people to comment.

Testimonials are great if they’re fair and honest, but they don’t give enough information about the business. We go there to meet them, and we work hard to make the listings accurate.

FaM: It’s hard for the average consumer to get a good picture of an automotive service outfit. Often it’s by guess and by God.

Lockwood: I’m on the Auto Repair Advisory Committee for the Better Business Bureau. We review and advise about consumer complaints to the BBB. One of the first things I do when we get a case is to check out the company’s BBB rating. It’s unbelievable! People will go to F-rated places!

It’s really important to check out service providers before you do business with them. If you find a good independent shop, you save a lot of money—and you have greater peace of mind.

FaM: Other than the obvious publicity, what benefit do the shop owners derive from making the list?

Lockwood: We’re trying to offer benefits that come from the power of collective buying and pricing. For example, we’re now working to get collective pricing on parts and auto supplies. And we’re looking into ways to offer members group health insurance plans.

FaM: Do you charge shops for listing on

Lockwood: Typically, we charge a small fee. Most of the monetization is coming from ad revenues, especially from the radio show. We now own the show’s air time.

FaM: It’s quite a leap from auto engineer to radio talk show host!

Lockwood: Well, I didn’t expect to be on the radio. When I was a kid, I took acting lessons and actually got parts. Then I got picky about what I’d do—decided I only wanted to act in Shakespeare plays—and also, I was very interested in mechanical things.

The show started live, and it’s now recorded. My wife and I do the editing. That helps a lot–it makes me sound a lot better, and also our guests.

One of the things I’m most proud of is the show’s community activities. We started a partnership with the Salvation Army, and network members have joined in a clothing drive. Shops have collections boxes for customers to donate. We sell a car care rewards card to consumers, and for each purchase we donate $4.00 to the Salvation Army, about 13 percent of gross revenues from the card sales.

We first got interested in helping the Salvation Army because of the economic downturn, with so many people out of work and being turned out of their homes. We like the Army’s emphasis on building self-sufficiency. They do more, though, than helping people who are down on their luck financially. In addition to the Family Center, for families who are facing  a crisis, they have a shelter for abuse victims, they do drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and they provide care for the elderly.

FaM: These two enterprises—the radio show and the network listings—must be an enormous amount of work.

Lockwood: It really was a lot of work at first. It’s tapering off now, partly because we’ve achieved one of our goals, which was to have coverage for the entire valley. And over time we’ve learned to work more efficiently.

The big challenge is trying to get the data perfect, before it’s published. My wife helps with getting the information accurate, and we both work at proofreading and checking.

FaM: What advice would you offer a Funny about Money reader who might be interested in doing a similar website in another city?

Lockwood: To do it at a level that offers real value to your readers, you need to be very expert in the business you’re reviewing. Not just anyone can do one of these sites on automotive service. You need many years of experience to understand how these businesses work and what makes them successful, from the owner’s and the customers’ points of view.

I’d suggest that if you want to create a really useful consumer service website, you should pick a business that you truly know something about. If you’re an expert, if you know customer service well, and you know how the businesses operate, you may be able to pull it off.

It’s a lot of work, and you have to be fully committed to accuracy, honesty, and fairness.

FaM: Were you at all nervous about selling the shop to become a full-time radio personality?

Lockwood: No, but you have to be confident and hard-working to insure success.

FaM: What steps did you take to ensure that you could make the transition financially?

Lockwood: We never lived over our heads, so that wasn’t an issue. We did things like building our own house—I helped to build it myself. We didn’t want to get tied down with a large mortgage and other debts. We look at things this way: Say we’d like to get new furniture for the living room. It’s going to cost $4,000. So we ask ourselves, “Do we need it today, or are they still going to be making couches in six months?” If the the answer is “yes, living room furniture will still be around,” we save up and pay for it in cash.

FaM: What’s your strategy for retirement?

Lockwood: Hasn’t entered my mind, because we still have more to achieve. We diversify our investments. And besides, enthusiasm keeps you young.