Wilkins Chimney Sweep shows a new broom sweeps clean

Guiding a business with a 120-year legacy into new territories may seem daunting but Wilkins Chimney Sweep has shown just what new management can do

Wilkins Chimney Sweep shows a new broom sweeps clean

It’s rare one comes across a franchise with quite as rich a heritage as Wilkins Chimney Sweep. Whilst most franchisees buy into a franchise because it is a tried and tested model, few have the opportunity to buy into a business that is over 120 years old. The oldest known record of the business is a photo of the founder Tom Wilkins taken way back in 1895. “We were given that along with an invoice that was raised at the time,” says Louise Harris, franchise director at Wilkins Chimney Sweep. “The business could well be older but that’s the oldest known provenance.”

The quintessential family business, Wilkins Chimney Sweep was passed down from father to son, travelling from Wilkins to his son Bill, before being passed on in turn to Bill’s son-in-law Frank Shurey. When Shurey came to retire in 1998, he had to look outside the family to find someone to take on the century-old business and was fortunate to find a buyer in Harris’s husband Peter, hereto Shurey’s financial services advisor. “Peter had been doing work for him on the financial side and then declared an interest in potentially taking the business on,” says Harris.

Wilkins Chimney Sweep’s long heritage was certainly part of the appeal for the new owners but they were aware that taking on a business that held such long-running associations meant walking a tight-rope. “We often meet people in our neighbourhood who will say ‘my grandma used you’ or ‘I remember seeing you when I was a kid’,” Harris says. “There is an element of keeping something precious going.” But while keeping this connection alive was vital, being able to ensure the business’s ongoing commercial viability was just as important. “That was the approach that Peter took: ‘we’ve got to operate this as a commercial model’,” Harris explains.

Peter had plenty of experience of running commercial concerns, having a background in both retail and financial services, which allowed him to work out a model that would help the business expand. “He had a fairly good commercial understanding that you had to be able to do a good day’s work sweeping, year round and develop the financial model such that you’re following a decent process,” says Harris. He developed this on his own until 2006 and then took on his first employee.

Developing the business hasn’t been without hitches along the way however. With Harris herself taking on the accounting and an additional employee helping out with the admin, Peter trained up the business’s second sweep on everything he needed to know on running a sweeping operation. But this ended up backfiring on them. “At the time, his contract didn’t have a restrictive covenant and so he left to set up on his own,” say Harris. “That was a painful lesson for us.” Fortunately, they learned from the experience and this has helped the iron out some of the kinks in the process.

Chimney sweeping is very much a technical skill and Wilkins Chimney Sweep has worked out a firm process. Once a sweep has checked the chimney is in tact, they will cover the fireplace and use a vacuum to ensure the soot will be collected before entering the chimney. “They work blind in the hole,” says Harris. “That’s the skill concept; it’s about being able to feel where the brush has come through different runs in a chimney.” After this the sweep will check the brush has cleared the chimney before continuing their work. “There’s quite a tradition around that; mums typically liked the kids to go out and have a look and see the brush coming out,” she continues. “It’s fairly iconic.”

Skills-led businesses lend themselves particularly well to franchising and this is why Wilkins Chimney Sweep has chosen the model to help it expand. And they certainly weren’t lacking in prior experience of the model. “I had been a franchisee and had gone on to work for the franchise after selling my franchise,” says Harris. “I had a little bit of insight but a little bit of knowledge is much more dangerous than no knowledge.” They sought out the help of Clive Sawyer of Business Options; Harris admits part of the benefit of external help is having a third party as counterpoint to her and Peter’s single-mindedness. “We had to have somebody who had enough gravitas and enough clout to just say to us ‘you’re wrong; this is how it has to be’.”

With the help of Sawyer, as well as the shared practice picked up from the British Franchise Association, Wilkins Chimney Sweep now has fully developed its franchise model and currently has ten franchisees on the books. But what is it that makes a good sweep?

Harris believes that, beyond being able to pick up the technical skills, there are two factors that make a good Wilkins Chimney Sweep franchisee. “First of all the person we’re looking for really is somebody who’s fit and able, with a business mentality,” she says. Obviously, more than anything else, a franchisee has to be a business owner because they are going to be responsible for their own livelihood. “If somebody hasn’t got the courage to ride the business properly, to set their pricing assertively and to be assertive networkers then I’m not absolutely sure that they’re going to succeed,” she says.

But beyond being technically able and business minded, Harris emphasises that a good sweep has to be a people person. “There is just an element of sensitivity around what you’re doing, not least of course because you are working in a customer’s home,” says Harris. Franchisees need to be able to appreciate that some customers may be rather vulnerable; Wilkins Chimney Sweep has worked with the Home Instead care franchise to provide an education programme to help franchisees treat customers suffering with dementia with care and compassion. “There is every chance that our customers might not have seen somebody for a while,” Harris says. “It’s that interaction with them that is really important.”

In light of this, it’s hardly surprising that Wilkins Chimney Sweep proves to be such a hit with its customers; on Checkatrade, the listings and review service for tradespeople, its franchisees receive average ratings of either 9.9 or ten out of ten, showing just how highly its personal touch rates with homeowners. But this doesn’t mean that the franchise is prepared to rest on its laurels and it’s constantly trying to improve its offering for customers and franchisees alike.

A specific issue it has been trying to address is ensuring sweeps are able to find work and keep their hand in throughout the year, which can be a real issue in an area like sweeping that is traditionally viewed as seasonal work. “The challenge with chimney sweeping is that if you didn’t do any driving of the business into other times of the year, you would only really be busy between September and November,” Harris says. This meant the business had to find ways to extend the service during the quieter months.

One way in which Wilkins Chimney Sweep has been able to extend its offering is by doing more roof work for its customers, alongside sweeping. “We fit cages, caps and cowls and we take out birds nests as well from chimneys,” says Harris. “Some of guys do other things like flashing and repointing where they’re confident.” However, it became clear that there was still a period around the start of summer in which the sweeps wouldn’t have enough work, leading Wilkins Chimney Sweep to last year launch a new power cleaning service. “It’s essentially service deck and patio cleaning,” Harris says. “It boosts the guys’ income stream in the quieter months.”

Beyond this, Wilkins Chimney Sweep is aiming to double the number of franchisees it has within the next two to three years. It has also been lobbying around issues that impact the sweeping service, aiming to boost the industry for its sweeps. “I had breakfast recently with our local MP to talk about trying to get the VAT on the sweeping part of what we do abolished because it’s a safety service,” says Harris.

Lastly, it has been trying to tech up its franchise. “We’re going to try and put more technology in the vans, which hasn’t been possible so far because carbon and technology don’t mix,” says Harris. It’s also looking at automating its processes a little more although Harris is keen to stress that this won’t stop it being very much a people-led business. “Our core is always customer service,” she says. “That’s what we’re all about.”” style=

Josh Russell
Josh Russell