After being made redundant from a 20-year career in the retail industry, Mark Fenton re-trained as a Chimney Sweep. Now, working for himself and with a growing business, Mark talks to The Industry Leaders about how his decision to re-train has changed his life.
How did you end up sitting where you are today?
After 20 years working in retail design, I was made redundant.
Previously, I worked for myself as a designer/maker in a craft discipline, and I yearned to be my own boss. Redundancy was the opportunity and the push I needed to make this happen.
I didn't want an office job; I wanted a better work-life balance. I like solving problems, being hands-on, and I love fire! Having researched the service industry, becoming a chimney sweep seemed a good choice. I used my redundancy pay to train with the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps.
What kind of work does your role involve?
The sweeping of chimneys for open fire, inglenook fireplaces, log burners and removing birds nests, rescuing live birds, fitting chimney cowls, carrying out repairs and maintenance to stoves, and helping customers with problems, giving advice, installing chimney liners and stoves. I have also carried out CCTV inspections and helped customers with damp and rain ingress from damaged chimneys.
I even offer a bespoke wedding service as chimney sweeps are often called upon to attend weddings due to the belief that they bring good luck to the married couple!
What gets you excited about your industry?
I have been in business for two and a half years, and there is still a great deal to learn. As I learn more about my trade, I realise there are different disciplines I can venture into, such as chimney inspections after a fire for insurance companies. In fact, one of my hashtags is #morethanjustachimneysweep.
I love that no two days are the same and that I can draw on my previous design experience to solve 'chimney problems'. You could call it "working outside of the fire box". There is a lot to learn, and I'm excited that I will never be bored.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
It wasn't personally to me, but this quote from Anna Wintour, Editor in Chief at Vogue Magazine, is valuable advice that I try to remember:
"Just be true to yourself, and listen, as much as one is able, to other people whose opinions you respect and look up to, but in the end, it has to come from you. You can't really worry too much by looking to the left and the right about what the competition is doing or what other people in your field are doing. It has to be a true vision."
What, or who inspires you?
I have been strongly inspired by a couple I met at a craft fair. They are leather workers and made a unique range of handmade goods using leather offcuts in a patchwork style. They made the decision to stop working their 9-5 jobs so they could concentrate on their passion.
It took a lot of dedication, and money was tight, but they found the results were well worth the sacrifices. This made me reevaluate my priorities in life and gave me the courage to leave behind a regular wage to pursue a goal that will give me personal satisfaction.
How do you keep up to speed with what's happening in your industry?
From the start, I thought it would be essential to get the backing of a trade group or organisation, so I decided to train with the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, who are highly thought of. I received industry-leading training and regular correspondence through the website and through the Guild Members' Facebook page. This means I receive support and updates on progress within the industry.
The Guild also requires you to carry out refresher training regularly to ensure its members are fully up to date with the latest rules and regulations.
What was the most challenging project or situation you've overcome?
Covid had a big impact on me. I had a workmate who helped me out on large jobs and installations, but he could no longer work with me during the covid restrictions. I had to devise ways of working alone that would allow me to carry on as much as possible with tasks that would normally require two people.
It has involved a lot of trips up and down ladders, moving between roof to fireplace but it keeps me fit. It's been hard, and I have suffered physical injuries as a result, but I have seen progress, and I can now do more on my own than I thought was possible.
You finish work today and step outside the office to find a lottery ticket that ends up winning $10 million. What would you do?
Buy the log cabin of my dreams. A secluded spot in the woods with plenty of outdoor space. I'd have a big workshop and space for my wife and I to indulge in our craft hobbies. Ever since training as a designer-maker back in my art college days, I have always created. I love working with wood, metal, leather. An outdoor workshop and a forge and I would be in my element.
How do you switch off after a day at work?
Days can be long during "silly season", so switching off is normally catching up with our latest box set. Out of the main season, I like to get out on my bikes as much as possible. I have been a keen mountain biker for some years, but I have more recently rediscovered road cycling after a 20 year break. We have two dogs, Bonnie and Tegan, and the four of us are members of a local flyball team. We complete nationally and find this is a great form of exercise and also a fun social event.
If you had one wish for the future of your industry, what would it be?
Presently anyone can call themselves a chimney sweep. The professional training I undertook with the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps taught me not only the various method of sweeping but most importantly vital safety information. Without professional training, this is not always the case, and it is common for me to encounter stoves in a dangerous, even life-threatening condition.
The Guild has a strapline that I wholeheartedly agree with :
"You expect your Gas Engineer to be a certified professional. You should expect nothing less from your Chimney Sweep".
What book or podcast should everyone know about?
Improv Your Life by Pippa Evans.
'An Improvisers guide to embracing whatever life throws at you'.
It is a fun, realistic book on how to deal with pretty much anything thrown at you.
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