CVC Succcess Group coach Jerry Isenhour
In today’s episode of The Chimney and Fireplace Success Network, Jerry brings in subject matter expert Debbie Wiedwald, owner of Blackburn’s chimney in Columbus, Ohio. Debbie not only talks about the challenges and obstacles she may face running her own home service contracting business, but she will share some of her successes as well. Tune in for another great episode!
The Chimney and Fireplace Success Network is a weekly podcast brought to you by the CVC Success Group and hosted by industry expert, Jerry Isenhour. Each week you will find new presentations to assist business owners and managers in turning their business dreams into their business realities.
Jerry I.: Well, good afternoon, and I want to thank you for joining us here today. Every single week we try to bring on what I call a subject matter expert.
Someone that can bring value because our entire purpose in doing this show is to share value with industry members, people in other industries, and how we can help them. So today is no different. Today, I have a superstar guest on here with me, that I think is going to be able to speak very solidly and very knowledgeable about our subject matter.
And the subject matter is the owner and general manager of a home service contracting business in the year 2021. And my guest today, her name is Debbie Wiedwald. I have known Debbie for many years, and she owns and operates a home service contracting business that has her niche in the chimney service business by the name of Blackburn’s chimney in Columbus, Ohio. So Debbie, how are you doing today? Let’s tell folks a little bit about yourself.
Debbie W.: Sure. It’s good to see you; it’s been a while. I own Blackburn’s chimney services, and our company’s been in business; this is our 35th year. I’ve been with the company for 19 years, and my late husband Steve Blackburn started the company. And when he passed, I continued the company on.
Jerry I.: Right. So when Steve passed, you were working in the business at that time? Or you were not working in the business when that fell on you?
I was working in the business.
Debbie W.: I was working in the business. And so actually in 2002, I joined the company to work part-time, so that I could be home and work with the children’s schedule and be home when they got home from school, and have snack time with them and all that other fun stuff you can do as a parent, and when you can have some flexibility with your schedule.
And as they got older, they didn’t necessarily want to have mom around all the time, and so I spent more time at the company. And when Steve passed in 2011, I just continued it on because that was something to do every day as well as what I have known for quite a while.
Jerry I.: Got you. So before you went to work with Steve in the business, what were you doing? You were working before then, you and I knew each other. I met you when Steve, and you were traveling to Florida one time to go on the Disney cruise, and you, Steve, and the kids stopped by my retail store, and that was the first time I had met you. So what were you doing before you got into this industry?
My background is in social work.
Debbie W.: My background is in social work, and I was working in child welfare.
Jerry I.: Okay, got you covered. Because I can remember Steve, and that was one of things when we were in the same mix group, and Steve would always talk about your influence and how you were trying to get him to give employee benefits and other things back in those days.
And how it was going on, how those type of things. So, in today’s world, it is 2021; what is it like to be a female, a lady that runs a business such as this? That’s conceived as something that a man should be doing? How does that feel in this day and time?
Most days I did not notice a difference as a woman.
Debbie W.: Most days, I do not notice a difference. When I first got in the industry, and it may have been just the experience, I remember going to a chimney sweep convention, and at the trade show, I walked around with a gentleman who had been in the industry forever.
And so where I thought he would help me as a bridge meeting people in the industry, I was pretty much, the assumption was made that I was maybe his assistant, an office person that type of thing. And most of the conversations were directed to him, and it was quite frustrating trying to speak with the vendors and getting to know a little bit more about the industry, with not having people really talk or really engage with me. But that has changed, and maybe part of it has to do with the confidence that I have now and people that I know in the industry.
Occasionally, we’ll get phone conversations or calls where let me talk to the owner; they won’t assume or won’t understand that I am the owner. I remember it wasn’t that long ago. Actually, I was at an industry event, and again, this assumption was made that I was an office person only or an assistant.
But for the most part, people maybe will ask me a little bit you’re the owner, that questioning. But for the most part, like people take it in stride that I’m the owner and able to make the decisions on behalf of the company.
Jerry I.: Would you say it was tougher to get vendors and suppliers to recognize you, that it was your customers possibly?
Debbie W.: Perhaps initially, yes. Customers don’t seem like I said have much problems with wondering if I am the owner or I can address their concerns. I mean, occasionally, you will get somebody who is like okay, you are the daughter of the owner or you are the spouse of the owner, and it is like no, I am the owner.
What about hiring employees, is it tougher as a woman?
Jerry I.: Got you. So what about hiring of employees? What’s it like? And Sheryl, my wife she has a manufacturing company, so it’s kind of a similar thing. In that, she’s running a manufacturing company, and she has guys that work for her in all these different departments.
So, what about from the hiring standpoint, whenever people come in, and they find out that Blackburn’s is owned by a woman
Debbie W.: I do not. And maybe one or two employees may have questioned and asked, am I really the owner? But for the most part, the employees just take it in stride. And quite honestly, if they are not able to really dialogue with me, then I really question if they are going to be able to communicate with our customers since so many of our customers are women, they are making decisions on behalf of the household.
Jerry I.: Yes. I know when I walk through Sheryl’s plant, I haven’t been there in a while, and people see this guy that comes in the back door, and it’s like, well, who’s that guy? And some of his workers that works with him will say, well, that’s Sheryl’s husband, Jerry.
Well, is he the guy that really owns it? It’s like no. Like we don’t ever see him, he got nothing to do with this whatsoever. So would people come in when they look? I mean, Jim is your production manager. Do they understand that this is a hierarchy that you are the top dog in this operation, you are the one that makes a decision?
My leadership style is very collegial.
Debbie W.: I think they do. However, my leadership style is very collegial, and I sometimes will ask questions of Jim in terms of help me to understand why this vendor versus a different vendor or why we’re pursuing this line of product versus a different line. But for the most part, it’s just mainly deferring to Jim and the decisions that he makes with regard to the vendors.
Being a woman is really not a problem like it would have been 40 years ago.
Jerry I.: Yes, I got you covered. And all in all, in running a service business in the year 2021, being a woman is really not a problem like it would have been 40 years ago. Would you agree with that? Looking back and I can remember the stories that Sheryl had shared, what it was like 40 years ago, 30 years ago, to be a woman in that ownership role.
Like did your daddy give it to you or whatever, all those kinds of things, okay? So it’s a really good subject matter when you look at it. I know a lot of my clients and people like Brandi that was just on here. When you look at it, basically, if you go to Flues Brothers, Brandi’s one running the operation much more than Jeremy is as a role.
And you look at it, and that’s not the only place around the country you see this. I mean, I often see that women are so capable in a managerial role, it is unreal. And in hiring GM’s and stuff, many times, a woman is the top candidate these days.
Debbie W.: There really should not be a difference in this day and age. There should be opportunities, equal for women and men, in leadership.
Jerry I.: No, I do not see where it should be a difference; like I said, it is something coming up, and if I am an old southern boy and I can accept this from the deep south where I am from, then anybody I will be able to accept it this day that kind.
So as you’ve done this, Debbie, you have taken this company I’m going to say and describe since under your leadership, you’ve taken it to a very high level. One of the things is you moved from one facility, and you’ve got an extremely nice facility. I guess are you still in the same facility that I visited you in a couple years ago?
Debbie W.: Yes. I absolutely love the building and the location; it is a great match for the company.
Jerry I.: Okay. And the building you are in, is that a building that you purchased or is that a building that you are leasing?
Debbie W.: No, we are purchasing it.
Jerry I.: Okay. So same token, when you went to the bank, and you got your purchase agreement going, do you feel like it was anything held against you because you were a female in this ownership role? Were there any challenges in funding your building?
Debbie W.: No.
What made you decide to take this business to a higher level?
Jerry I.: So, what may what made you decide to take this business to, I am just going to call it a higher level? What was it that drove you there? If we look back at what you all were doing at Blackburn before you took it over and where you’re at today. There’s a big difference, and that’s because of Debbie. And what do you think drove you to do that?
Debbie W.: Well, with my background in child welfare, and at that location, there is so many regulations and just so many requirements and paperwork.
And so, for me to be running a company that’s much more structured feels more familiar, I guess, given my background. In child welfare, you must document, and something was not documented; it did not happen similarly as we do inspections; it is so important to document as well.
Jerry I.: Yes, got you covered. Now one of the things you had, and like said, you brought up that Steve passed away in 2011. And Steve and I were members of a mix group that I had dropped out before you came in, and then you had this mix group.
How important was this mixed group to you from a support mechanism? And did they recognize you as an individual? Or how long was it before you were not Steve’s wife that you were Debbie?
Debbie W.: Well, as you know, with the mixed group process, you go and visit other companies. And I had met most of the people in the mixed group a few times because they came to our company when Steve was alive.
And so I always felt accepted by the members of the mix group. And so when Steve passed, the group members were extremely supportive, wanting to help. I had folks come and visit me. And as I visited other companies, I felt comfortable with my strengths, and running the offices and just with fresh eyes.
Because I ask a lot of questions, because I was a sponge, just trying to learn everything as well. So I think for the first few years in the mix group, maybe I was receiving a lot more than I was giving back. But I still think I brought strengths and was able to give back through the next group as well.
Jerry I.: Got you covered. So let me ask you this, Debbie, and like I said when we started this, I told you we might get a little emotional in this, and you said I can deal with it and all that. But you went through a horrifying experience in the loss of Steve, I could still remember the night, and I got a phone call from a member of the mix group and like I’m in the floor when I got word of this.
So how does, and this is an important thing realistically, because this could be man, this could be woman. This could be my wife; it could be the same thing could happen to me. How did you bring yourself to term and move forward? Because I’ll be honest, I’m a pretty strong guy, if something happened to her, I don’t know what I would do, Debbie, and I really truly mean that. She’s such a part of everything I do. So how did you gather the strength, Debbie?
Because that’s one of the things, I’ve admired about you. Is right after this happened, and I saw you at a heat shield conference, and it was like you were into doing this. You were into this; this was enough. You were an individual; this wasn’t feel sorry for Debbie; Debbie was a human being that was moving forward. How did you manage to do that, Debbie?
There were a lot of stages.
Debbie W.: Oh, there were a lot of stages. And I think there even continues to be stages in grief; it’s not something that you get over; you just at some point come to terms with and move forward with the loss and the grief. Initially, I was just trying to get by day to day. There was a lot of maybe kind of putting my head in the sand a little bit in terms of waiting for everything to implode.
Having lost a person and losing that direction, and also like that co-pilot in that relationship. There are just so many adjustments, and they talk about that in lost groups as well, all of the secondary losses. And this is a little different than what you asked, but I’m sure you recall, Steve was a phenomenal cook. And for our family, one of the huge losses was Steve’s cooking.
And yes, I visited with my son recently, and he was talking about, oh, am I trying to make food? And he referenced it as an experiment because it was just not the same. And so when you move forward, there’s a lot of changes, and a lot of moving forward had to do with just trying to get through the day. At that time, when Steve passed, I was training for a marathon, and I am so grateful for that experience because I had a training plan.
So every day, there was an expectation out there in terms of what I was going to do, in terms of my running and my training. And the running also provided a great release and exhausted me to the point, so I was able to sleep at night and just really have an outlet for that. And early on, I mean there would be days where I would visit the cemetery and have these conversations with Steve like look what you left me and all that, and it is evolved now to I am responsible, and I have had to rebuild my life.
Anyone who goes through life-changing circumstance eventually comes to terms with that change.
And I think that happens to hopefully. Ideally, anybody who goes through life-changing circumstance eventually comes to terms with that change, that loss, and what does moving forward look like. And even today, we’re in a different stage because right now, I’m working in the company now longer without Steve than with Steve.
And initially, I wasn’t sure I would even get to this point. And so it’s just been really interesting having that mindset of decisions made were really my decisions, and I can’t look back anymore and blame Steve or that type of thing. I mean, we have moved forward; it is a good company.
Jerry I.: Yes. Hey Debbie, the guy that I told you was looking for a chimney sweep, he’s on here right now. He asks your company come to Marion.
Debbie W.: Oh, we do not. And I would have to kind of, I would recommend you.
Jerry I.: Debbie, how important was Steve? Like I said, a group of us got together some years before that tragic day, and we formed the mix group, which is a management information exchange group. And I was one of the original, that’s where I got to know Steve so deeply.
Steve and I used to have conversations. Steve would call me; he would be on the way to go to a movie or something. He’s talking about something, and he just that guy he just talked and talked and talked. But how important was it having this group of people to rely upon in that mix group?
Debbie W.: Oh, phenomenal. I mean, I was still emailing people from the mix group today. It’s having a group of supporters and people who have your back, and where you can just go for advice is so important. And I think that was one of the first or very early lessons after Steve passed, was just the importance of building your people. And who is going to be there for you and build that team is extremely important.
Jerry I.: Well, I know at the time it’s a little, that was when I was just starting in the coaching and different things, and I can remember these guys were really, and guys and girls in that mix group, they were so supportive of you. And it was more than just a friendship, and it was not a sympathy thing; these guys really cared about you. I can remember talking to Clay Lamb because Clay’s right over in Cincinnati. And remember conversations like, and I would ask him how’s Debbie doing?
But I looked at a time, and those guys and girls in that mix group had to be a tremendous asset to help you move to where you’re at. So one of the things that mixed groups do is you go to other locations, and you visit other businesses. Do you feel that the employees at those other businesses value your input just like they did the guys that were in the group?
Debbie W.: I would like to say yes. However, when we are looking at the truck and we are looking at the warehouse, I think maybe some of the other company’s employees maybe look more towards the other male business owners, feeling probably because they are in the truck and they operate in the warehouse more than what I do.
Jerry I.: Yes. Well, it is like Brandi that is on here right now, Brandi works with our company, and that means she is doing coaching. It was really a kind of a funny story, but about six months ago, she made an initial visit with a new client; this was or might have been a year ago. It was for COVID because I haven’t been able to get her out of Kansas City since COVID hit, okay.
She is locked down until this stuff’s over with; she isn’t traveling the way it is. But anyway, I remember that she went into their morning meeting, and this guy was giving her a fit because he thought she was just some lady that the owner had hired.
And when he found out that she owned and she was part owner of a chimney sweep business that was very successful in Kansas City, he was blown out of the water because he thought she was just some college-educated coach, didn’t know that she was coming in with the experience that she does.
And that’s kind of where it is because, like I said, a lot of guys are hard to get through to and that kind of stuff. But it’s really like I said, I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of you of what you’ve done in that company. So what does the future hold for Blackburn’s? I mean, how many people are on your workforce right now?
Debbie W.: We have 20 employees.
Jerry I.: Okay. And then how many were there in 2011?
Debbie W.: Maybe 15. And we have had some turnover, I mean, we have some employees that have been there the last ten years, and it has been weird too that the majority of the employees did not know Steve, didn’t know Steve.
Jerry I.: Yes, that is what I mean. But his effect’s still there. Have you still got the 56 Chevrolet?
Debbie W.: It is a 57 Chevrolet.
Jerry I.: 57, okay, I thought it was 56. But you still got that, right?
Debbie W.: Sure do.
Jerry I.: I can remember when I visited you all that Chevrolet was in his showroom. When I walked in the door, it’s like, Steve, what are you doing with the car in your showroom? You’re not in the antique car business, you’re in the fireplace business. I’m trying to understand, but I can remember, do you still keep it in your building now, in your showroom? Or what do you do with that thing now?
Debbie W.: We do not. So we ran out of space, and actually, in 2016, I moved to a new house and remarried. And so the 57 Chevy is here at the house, my cat’s visiting, sorry. But the funny story is that my new husband actually has a 57 Chevy as well, and that was partly how we met because his profile; we met on online dating. But his profile had a picture of a 57 Chevy.
And so I figured well if nothing happened out of this friendship or relationship, I would know maybe perhaps what to do with this 57 Chevy because I don’t know if you know, but I can’t drive my 57 Chevy. It is a manual, and so I can’t drive it.
And with getting to know Mike, my husband. His Chevy is actually automatic. And so when we go to car shows, I drive his Chevy, and he drives mine. And so, it works out really well.
Jerry I.: That’s phenomenal. Well, Debbie, I said I think that’s been a great call; I think that you’ve shared some things here that are close, that are personal. Like I said, I just want to let you know I am so proud of what you’ve done.
And knowing Steve as I did, I know how proud he would be now. I can remember he, in fact, I’ll tell you I used to give him a hard time because he would bring in the mix group, and it was the input of yours, and it’s like you got to do this, you got to do this.
And I’m telling Steve, you’re crazy. What are you talking about? You can’t stay in business with those ideas, but your ideas work there because you’ve been very successful with them; they really have. So I want to appreciate you coming on here today; I appreciate the hound out of this.
And to the people that have joined us, like the Brandi Bissell said, I love the 57 Chevy story. But tell me this, Debbie, how come you’ve never learned to drive a straight drive since you’ve owned a 57 Chevrolet that is a manual shift? You have never tried; you don’t want to or what?
Debbie W.: Well, that goes back a few years as well. And my dad was a car collector, and so we actually bought the 57 Chevy from my dad when he was downsizing and moving to Florida. And we need to talk about that partnership; I never had to learn how to drive it because Steve drove it. And so once he passed, that didn’t seem like the time to learn how to drive the 57 Chevy.
And then my brother-in-law Bill would drive it and get it out, and so now I got Mike that’ll drive it. But it’s what is it, the three on the tree, and it’s more complicated, and it’s touchy. But anyway, my dad, through his collections of cars, he tried to teach me how to drive a stick shift; I think it was on a corvette when it was an older corvette.
And my dad has all these rules about corvettes, and when you drive them and don’t, and how you park them and all that. Anyway, so it started raining, and the windshield wipers had never been used because you don’t take corvettes out in the rain.
Yes. So the windshield wipers were clapping and not adjusted properly, and so it was just such a nightmare experience that I never felt the desire to learn how to drive a stick shift after that. Nor will I probably ever buy a corvette because there are just too many rules around those.
Jerry I.: Well, I have had seven or eight corvettes in my life because I was a corvette freak at one time. So I had them one right behind the other. I tell Sheryl I’m getting you a new corvette, and she know it isn’t for you, it’s for me, so I kind of hit it that way.
But even my first wife, I told her I was getting her corvette back years ago. But I never knew the rule that I couldn’t drive it in the rain, though. So every one of mine, to be honest with you, they were driven in the rain. So I guess I broke the rules with corvettes. Maybe that’s why I don’t have a corvette today; maybe you took my right away to have corvettes; what can we say.
Debbie W.: Those were my dad’s rules.
Jerry I.: So, Debbie, let me ask you one last question. If somebody faced because you have a significant story here. If someone were to face the adversities that you faced, what would be your advice to that person? Of how to move and live on?
Debbie W.: Definitely look at self-care and reaching out to people. And they were very helpful and continue to be helpful and the mix group. And the importance of building that network and having other folks provide support is so important nowadays with social media and Facebook groups, and there are so many different groups out there to provide support as well.
When you are grieving and experiencing such a horrible loss. So I mean, I think trying as much not to isolate is important. And I think really, it is important to feel those feelings, and accept them, because I think that helps with moving on to next steps with the quality of life can be both great and sad at the same time. And life doesn’t have to end after tragedy, and you can use the lessons learned. I try to always remember to find the points to be grateful about and the positives because there’s a lot of gifts and blessings even in the midst of tragedy.
And I mean, facing those awful experiences after Steve passed, good things came out of that in terms of my relationship with Steve’s brother is phenomenal. Shortly after Steve passed, my dad spent two weeks at my shop just being present and helping.
And my brother came up and helped as well. And there is always, I think yes, if you can look for them, then they may not see them initially, but even in tragedy, you have to, I think, look for the positives.
Jerry I.: Yes. That’s some remarkable thoughts, Debbie. I don’t know if you saw what Brandi put in there, but she said Debbie needs to write a book. But I’m going to also tell you that’s what I’ve been telling Brandi for a while.
So Brandi can’t tell other people to write a book until she can write a book. But since I’ve wrote books, I can say, Debbie, you need to write a book, okay. Because seriously, it is like I have told Clay and other people, the challenges you have been through this can inspire other people.
Work towards every day inspiring people.
And that is what we work towards every day is inspiring other people, helping them get to their dreams doing those kinds of things. So you, my young lady, you are an inspiration to myself and to so many others. And I just want to thank you so much for spending your time here with me this afternoon on this broadcast; thank you very much. We appreciate you more than you know.
Debbie W.: Thank you, Jerry.
Jerry I.: Okay. And with that, my name is Jerry Isenhour; tune us in next time as we have another episode of the chimney and fireplace success network.