Grate Expectations

Chimney sweep 2.0

by Will Lindner

jake_loeffler1016In 2005, pursuing his inner entrepreneur, Jacob (Jake) Loeffler founded Brickliners Custom Masonry & Chimney Services, his high-tech Williston firm that does more than sweep chimneys.

It’s getting harder all the time to cleave to mossy, romantic stereotypes. Compare, for example, the chimneysweep of yore — soot-covered, top-hatted, armed with the rudimentary tools of a rudimentary vocation — with the professionals Jake Loeffler, founder and president of Brickliners Custom Masonry & Chimney Services, dispatches from his company’s base in Williston.

Pierre Samard, owner of nearby New England Chimney Supply, does business with Brickliners virtually every day, providing the stainless steel chimney liners, chase covers, flue caps, and other specialized products that its technicians use and install. Samard services companies throughout the region, and emphasizes that he has great respect for all his customers. But in one way, he says, Loeffler’s company stands out.

“Jake is a pioneer on the technological side of chimney services,” Samard explains. “He has automated a lot of the things they do. When his technicians arrive at a job they scan the chimneys with a camera and send that video to an iPad, which they have with them, so they can show the homeowner what they’re seeing and whether there’s a concern or an issue that should be addressed.

“Then,” Samard continues, “they can take it a step further and use the iPad to do an estimate right on the spot. They can have the iPad email us from the job for materials. They’re very innovative. Only a small percentage of companies in that field use technology to this extent. Jake is a high-integrity person, and he’s also very motivated, very entrepreneurial, with an ability so see into the future and where to take his company.”

So much for the top hat and soot. Yet, antiquated as it is, the stereotype endures, which is why Loeffler says, with a laugh, “Nobody plans to be a chimneysweep!”

Certainly, he didn’t. The career options that he entertained — experiencing some, daydreaming about others — included restaurant management, finance, real estate, and touring the snowy slopes of the great Western ski resorts as a ski-company rep (this was one of the daydreams). And when he did, in fact, enter the profession, it was with a 21st-century mindset and fascination that leaned more toward the intricacies of business than the intricacies of chimneys.

Loeffler puts it this way: “I’m focused on the business, as opposed to in the business. I love the business end of things.”

Far from relegating the technical side of things — the remedial and preventive care of his customers’ chimneys and the masonry work that that sometimes entails — to a secondary status, Loeffler says it leads him to put a greater emphasis on finding, training, and trying to retain technicians who do top-quality work. He has done chimney work himself; it was a skill he developed working for five years for the G.W. Savage Corp. of South Burlington, a firm that specializes in the restoration of fire- and water-damaged homes and buildings.

“They had a small chimney division,” says Loeffler. There, he learned about chimney structures, masonry, and materials, and how to estimate a job and make a sales pitch to customers. Eventually, he was put in charge of the division, and gained experience managing people.

But his entrepreneurial instincts won out.

“I always had a bug to work for myself,” he says. “I had thought about real estate.” But as he gained experience with the broader aspects of chimney services, he says, “I could see myself doing this.”

He went on his own and founded Brickliners in 2005. He knew from the start that his acumen lay on the business side of things, and that he would need skilled technicians to perform the services he was marketing.

“From Day One I was always looking for the right people. That’s my priority. Some would say that the most important thing is your customers, but you can’t service the customers without good employees.”

In a quiet suite of offices above the warehouse and garage, tucked away in a small industrial nook in Williston, Loeffler contends with the rhythms of business.

“It’s always been a steady increase and growth,” he says, “but every stage of a business is different. Like, ‘We don’t have enough trucks,’ or, ‘The technology is antiquated.’ There’s always something new to upgrade or a way to evolve. When you have losses you chalk it up to learning, and get better.

“It’s a constant game,” he summarizes. “And it’s fun.”

It’s serious, too.

“We’re managing the fires people have in their homes,” he points out. “There are codes, standards, ethics, measurements … so you have to train your employees. It takes six months to a year to get someone certified [through the Chimney Safety Institute of America] for us to feel comfortable for them to work without supervision.”

Dan Rich, chief engineer at Stowe Mountain Lodge, believes Loeffler is doing something right, to provide the kinds of employees Rich interacts with when they service the hotel.

“They’re engaged, they seem happy, and they do a good job,” says Rich. Just as essential, “They know where they’re working: in a luxury hotel. Propriety around our guests is extremely important to us. The people Jake sends are professional and courteous.”

They’re there on a regular basis. The hotel is a six-story building with two fireplaces in its lobby, which Brickliners’s techs clean and inspect monthly. This year, Rich expanded the contract to include biannual service of the gas-burning fireplaces in some 139 of the lodge’s guest rooms.

“Another great thing is that I can call them for work outside their normal scope,” particularly for challenging tasks upon the lodge’s daunting, dramatic rooftops. “When I can just push the ‘easy’ button for a major responsibility like that,” says Rich, “it’s something I cherish.”

Besides chimney cleaning (Loeffler employs the term of art: “sweeping”) and inspections, Brickliners performs small to medium masonry repairs, even some unrelated to chimneys. It provides similar services for dryer vents, and lest anyone consign Brickliners to the woodstove contingent, Loeffler points out that the chimneys and vents for oil-, gas-, and propane-burning systems “need love, too.”

It’s no surprise that Loeffler’s inquisitiveness about the workings of business has led him into other ventures. Not long after starting Brickliners he visited his brother, Patrick, in North Carolina and discovered a world of pristine, well-appointed garages with slatwall panels, cabinets, and above all, epoxy flooring that’s easily cleaned and resistant to most household chemicals, road salts, and chemicals.

“Man, I‘d love to have this stuff in my garage,” he thought, so he came home, made connections, and founded Garage Outfitters. “It’s a niche market in Vermont,” he says, “but it’s growing.”

Around 2011 he expanded on the flooring concept by purchasing A&G Flooring from Gary Alberts, which he markets as A&G Seamless Flooring Inc. These are specialty epoxy floors that, because they stymie bacterial growth, are particularly suitable for institutions like food-manufacturing plants, commercial kitchens, schools, and hospitals.

“It’s nice having these two businesses that complement each other,” he says. “Combined, they’re about one-third as large as Brickliners.”

Loeffler attributes his entrepreneurial bent largely to his parents, Edward and Dale Loeffler, who owned What’s Your Beef and What Ales You in downtown Burlington when he was growing up in Shelburne. (They later opened Jake’s Bar & Grill on Shelburne Road.) He calculates that he did nearly every restaurant-related job there is during that period.

In 1992 he graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School, then took off for Colorado, where he spent a year as a snowmaker at Vail before entering Fort Lewis College in Durango. There, he studied psychology and met his future wife, Kacie. They moved to Queens in New York, after graduating in 1998.

“It’s a tradition in my family,” Loeffler says, with a touch of sarcasm, “You go live in New York for a while, to get some culture, to see what you’re made of.”

In fact, he enjoyed it, finding work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. But in 2001 when they decided to start a family, Vermont seemed a better option. They married in August 2001 and live in Jericho. Loeffler found work at G.W. Savage, which propelled him into chimney work and all that flowed from that.

Kacie, who recently started Vine of Design, a home staging and interior design company, and Jake have two children: son Jackson, 11, and daughter Blake, 7. They hit the slopes every winter (skiing having been Loeffler’s main attraction to Colorado), and in summer they cruise Lake Champlain in a Chris-Craft berthed at the Shelburne Bay Boat Club.

Loeffler is never short of interests to pursue, nor is he short of appreciation for the steady, reliable employees who have helped him in his quest. Among those are office manager, Sara Leduc, and production/sales manager, Brad Coulman. Loeffler also mentions Tyler Weeks, general manager for Garage Outfitters.

“We have an amazing group of people here who have helped make the companies what they are today,” he says.

Given Loeffler’s bent for innovation, what the companies are today might not be exactly what they’ll be tomorrow. But having spent many years working with him, these folks are probably ready for what comes next. •