Dying for a sweep
It was October, I knew I was tired, well we are all tired in October, right? I just didn’t know I was that tired. Thanks to the skill of the other driver I wasn’t T- boned when I pulled out in front of him on the roundabout on leaving Sainsbury’s petrol station, Fareham, Hampshire at just before 11 a.m. that day. He skidded to a halt, avoiding a collision, and I just stared at him like I had seen a ghost.
It would have been costly, as he was driving a small truck, I had only the driver’s door of a Peugeot Expert van for protection and would probably have faced a fine for driving without due care and attention, the loss of no claims bonus, loss of excess on the policy, loss of business that day and dependant on injuries received maybe longer. I could also have injured Elly, my willing and able Chimney Sweep’s Assistant and wife of 35 years who was sat alongside me.
It’s difficult to explain to you how shocked I was but most of all, how foolish I felt at putting myself and others at risk, and it is entirely my responsibility. Prior to starting my chimney sweep business in 2011 I had served for 32 years in the Police service, so not to put to fine a point on it, having seen one or two consequences of foolish actions in my policing career, I should have known better.
So how was it then, five minutes after this, whilst driving along ruminating about the state I had got myself into, cursing and feeling sorry for myself; that when waiting to turn right across a suburban road into a driveway for my next job, I didn’t notice a car coming the other way. Luckily, he stopped too.
What on earth was going on here?
I had been sweeping for 8 years, and I suppose it took 3 years to get to the point of being happily established and to feel confident that the work would be continuing to come in without fearing it would dry up. I became accustomed to a busy period of August to December, but it began to shift, gradually, and with a concerted effort we moved regular bookers into the quieter months. For the last couple of years I can say with confidence that we have been sweeping on average 5-6 a day from April to February inclusive.
Last year I decided it was getting a bit much for me doing 7-8 a day at peak times (I turn 57 this year) so we promised to reduce to 6 maximum per day and cut to four days a week for 2018.
It didn’t happen, well, it did but not for long. I squeezed a few in here, a few in there, popped an ‘urgent’ one in on a Saturday, ‘so since we are doing one this weekend, we may as well do four’, not an unfamiliar tale I’m sure. Before long, it was back to how it had been before.
In 2016 I had found it getting to be more and more taxing and decided to build in ‘problem days’ once every 3 weeks, where I would book no sweeps, and use this day for problem job call backs, brick and glass fitting where I had ordered bits and pieces, and if none of these got booked on that day I could choose to do admin or have a day off.
Regrettably when planning the 2018 work diary I neglected to diarise any problem days. The bottom line is, I was overworked, I wasn’t sleeping properly as I was constantly thinking about work, and running the business from home I just wasn’t getting away from it.
My biggest problem character trait however, is that I am a People Pleaser by nature. I have an inability to say ‘No’ to a call for help and it’s not about earning every last pound for me, but if I answer the phone, my default position is that ‘I must serve my public and I must prove my worth to this customer by fitting them in somehow. I am the local sweep after all…’
So, through a combination of factors, lack of decent sleep, constantly working brain and tired body, I found myself pulling out in front of another vehicle. I will be honest, I looked to my right as I pulled out onto the roundabout, I saw the van, but I didn’t register it as moving towards me, my brain was simply exhausted, the message didn’t get through. I don’t mind telling you that after these two incidents, I sat in the van and stared ahead and began to weep.
When I reflect on how I have developed my business, I remember in my first year I had a session with one of these business ‘Action Coach’ types. The first question he asked me was this: “Why are you in this business?” I gave a rambling answer about ‘identifying a gap in the market’, ‘giving a good customer service’ and ‘trading on my public service history skills’ …amongst others. He fired back on me and said “You are in this business to make money Paul, first and foremost”. The next question was this: “What is your exit strategy?” followed by “How will you know when to stop?”.
The point he was driving at Is that I didn’t have a fully structured business plan, which had a beginning middle and end. When I started in my first year or two, I took work from any and every point on the compass, distance wasn’t really a factor. Whilst now I have altered the geography, I haven’t yet altered my psyche to recognise that I need to know when to stop and to plan accordingly.
Add in to this mix of course a bit of perfectionism and the most addictive satisfaction achieved from satisfying a call from a customer needing help when in fact it is probably me that needs more help than them!
For 2019…here is what I am planning to keep me safe in the autumn
- My wife will deal with all customers enquiries (she happily says No when required) and what I don’t know can’t hurt me
- Problem Days where no work will be booked will be identified and planned into the diary now, one every three weeks from June. I can always choose to put jobs in as the date draws nearer
- I will work only 4 days a week
- I will mark up long weekends and a week off in peak season
- I will not sweep more than 6 a day
- If I get exhausted, I will talk honestly to a colleague
- I will turn down my ego
I rang Guild chairman Lawson and told him what happened to me, and that I was responsible through my own lack of planning and my own foolishness for endangering myself and others. He suggested I share this story simply as a tale of a busy chimney sweep on a busy day in a busy season. And how for this chimney sweep, as well as checking on customer’s carbon monoxide alarms, distances to combustibles, prevention of chimney fire and everything else to keep them safe, I promise that I will keep a better eye on my own health, safety and welfare in the future.
I had a wake-up call, I need to look after myself. Maybe others reading this will identify with some of it, maybe none of it, I would just ask the reader to take from it what they can identify with and not to focus on the differences.
Paul Clements, Cleaner Chimneys, Hampshire