Photo by Kris Kathmann
Knack for Vac
Janesville-based husband and wife team have cleaned hard-to-reach places.
Five days after surviving a heart attack, Steve Melcher greets the Connect Business Magazine reporter with a handshake and credits his survival to exercise, a healthful diet, and divine intervention. His heredity gets the blame for the two plugged arteries that caused the attack. He said, “I’m the oldest of four boys, and they all have heart issues. Some have already had surgery.”
Melcher is a man used to living on the edge, from his roof-climbing, chimney-sweeping career to rappelling, geo-caching, and exploring old mines with his wife, Liz. His motto, he said, is “Life is an adventure. Enjoy it.” Just four weeks before the heart attack, the Melchers were hiking in Zion National Park, Utah, where Melcher felt a bit light headed, which he attributed to the altitude. Now he wonders if it was a hint of his heredity rearing its head.
The sense of adventure that put him on rooftops more than 30 years ago has a name—Melcher’s Power-Vac, Inc., a business that provides cleaning of chimneys, fireplaces, air ducts, and dryer vents. Located on Liz’s family farm, on Waseca County Road 17 about four miles east of Janesville, their home, adjacent office, and shop are conveniently positioned 25 minutes from Mankato and central among many towns within a 60-mile radius. Their card lists phone numbers in Waseca, Mankato and Owatonna, all of which ring in the office.
Before getting down to business in the interview, Melcher reached to this shelf and that bookcase to show the reporter several of the 15 printed books of photos Melcher has shot, some of which document Liz doing daring feats on a mountainside, others of flowers in full bloom beauty. Melcher currently has a floral photo exhibit at Christ Community Church in Waseca.
He set the photo albums aside and turned the conversation to the topic of his partner—in the family and in the business. “Liz and I met at a mutual friend’s graduation party just one week after we each graduated from high school,” he reminisced. “It was love at first sight. She’s the only girl I’ve ever kissed, the only girl I ever dated and the only girl I ever married.” They call each other Smokey and Blondie, and at one time had two dogs with those names.
After a three-year courtship, the Melchers wed on June 15, 1974. She had completed a one-year program at Mankato Commercial College and was employed in the Brown Printing Company payroll department; he went directly into the workforce after high school graduation.
“My high school metal shop teacher, Don Siems, told me not everyone needs to go to college,” Melcher said. “He said he’d taught me everything I needed to know to be successful. He told me to do the job nobody else wants to do and become indispensable. The first summer after high school I mowed road ditches, then I became a masonry laborer, and then got a job at Design Homes in Waseca, where I learned to build a house and had a lot of fun.”
A job with an Owatonna siding and window company followed. When the Melchers hired someone to reline a chimney in preparation for burning wood in their home, another opportunity arose.
“It was just a stainless steel pipe down the chimney, hooked up to a wood/gas furnace,” Melcher said. “It was installed improperly, and I figured I could do a better job. A chimney sweep from Mankato, Dave Sorenson of Sweeps & Swaps, came to install a chimney liner for Liz’ mother’s house. I watched him because I was seasonally unemployed at the time. He showed me techniques, told me what books to read and answered my questions. Liz and I started our business in 1982 with a pick-up truck and $400 on a credit card, a card we still have. Our first flyers, which we ran off at the library, said ‘Melcher’s Chimney Safety Service.’”
On Sorenson’s advice, Melcher obtained city permits so he could take his flyers door to door, wearing a donated top hat and tails. “The top hat and tails used to come from morticians,” Melcher said. “It’s a German chimney sweep tradition. The English chimney sweep wears a cap. I went door to door, asking if anyone wanted a chimney, fireplace or wood stove cleaned. There are a lot of fireplaces in Owatonna and Waseca, where we started out.”
The $400 bought the Melchers chimney caps, brushes, rods and a chimney sweep vacuum. Three years later they bought out Sorenson, who moved to St. Cloud to build his business there. It was also in 1985 that Liz left Brown Printing, gave birth to the Melchers’ third child and joined the business as the office manager, an endlessly multi-faceted position.
Melcher said, “Liz isn’t just the office manager, she’s the key employee, the business manager, the accountant, the dispatcher, the customer service representative. She is everything in the business. I work for her.”
Liz explained, “He’s the visionary; I’m analytical. What’s really important, though, is to have someone answer the phone who knows the answers.” She’s had first-hand experience for that, having cleaned hundreds of dryer vents in one day with Melcher and two other employees. She also has worked on chimneys and cleaned air ducts.
“I know the process,” she said, “but I can’t carry all the heavy stuff any more. We used to have a telemarketer who followed up on the postcards we sent out. I do that now. Just like the dentist, we make reminder calls. Do you still burn wood? Have you remodeled? Put in a new furnace? Then people think of the dryer vent. We continue to have loyal customers from 1982.”
Melcher said, “That first year in the office, Liz helped triple our business. I did research and learned there was a need for air duct cleaning in the area. In 1988, we bought our first portable trailer-mounted air duct machine, and got many new customers from our display at the Waseca County Fair. In 1991, we added dryer vent cleaning on request from customers. I really hit it off with John Summerlin, owner of Pringle Power-Vac Company out of Walla Walla, Wash., so we became a training facility on the equipment and a sales rep.” The Melchers now own two Power-Vac trucks, one of which sports a sign stating “God Bless America,” as well as a van for chimney sweeping.
They hired their first employee in 1987. Their longest-term employee, Wayne Meyer, has been with them since 1991, and they hire part-time help in the fall, with April through November being their busy season. Even before they had employees, the Melchers found a way to follow a philosophy of putting family ahead of business. Liz explained, “In the summer of 1987 we took a 17-day vacation and camped in four National Park campgrounds with our three small children. They still remember it.”
As with family, there’s a strong commitment to the business. A long-ago headline in the Waseca County News read: “Local man enjoys his 19th-century profession,” but there is nothing anachronistic about the job Melcher does. He sees it as a public service.
He said, “It’s a fire safety issue. My job and that of sweeps across the country isn’t just to clean chimneys. My principle job is to educate the public on solid fuel safety and preventive chimney maintenance. In our other services, we work in a variety of locations, including single-family dwellings, apartment buildings, hair salons, senior living facilities and colleges.”
Melcher has often gotten free publicity because, he said, “Everyone wants a chimney sweep in top hat and tails in their picture. We’re considered good luck.” The company’s first ads were on radio stations, and they still advertise on KJLY, a Blue Earth Christian radio station, Mankato stations KTOE and KYSM, and KOWZ, which serves Waseca and Owatonna. Val Curtis of Advertising and Design, Mankato, directs their marketing campaign. They continue to have a dasher board at the Mankato Hockey arena and maintain a website, but after 29 years of staffing a display at the Steele County Fair and at countless home shows in malls, the Melchers, both 61, have stepped back from that form of promotion. Liz said, “We met a lot of nice people, but decided we’d had enough.”
It was at a mall show that they got an edge on entrepreneurship, and a lifetime philosophy, their first year in business. Melcher explained, “A young man asked me if I was interested in a business, so we became Amway distributors for a time. We had two businesses, three kids and not enough time to do it all, but we learned positive thinking and the business principles of success. We still buy the products.”
Liz added, “I think we already were positive thinkers,” to which Melcher responded, “Without Amway we probably wouldn’t be where we are today. We were taught to put God first, family next, and then business. That’s how we focus. My goal was to bring my wife home so we could work together. My goal now is exactly the same—to move the business into the future together.”
On a typical day during the busy season, the Melchers and Meyer meet in the office before Meyer goes out on jobs and Melcher does home estimates and jobs. Melcher said, “The most unusual aspect of the business is the work we do—the chimney cleaning service. And there aren’t a lot of people with our experience who do air duct and dryer cleaning. Although I may look dirty after cleaning chimneys, and we wear dust masks and cover our skin because the soot contains carcinogens, cleaning dryer vents is the worst. The microbes and skin scales in the dryer lint are irritating and itchy. We turn down jobs if we don’t think we can do a satisfactory job for the customer. I hear a lot of ‘thanks for your honesty.’ I can offer advice, or recommend another company, or suggest they reline a chimney or stop burning wood in an old fireplace. In the last couple of years I don’t feel as comfortable on a roof because of natural aging of the inner ear, which affects balance. I won’t go up on a 1912 three-story home anymore, but most chimney cleaning is now done from inside the house.”
The job is not without its hazards. It has been 30 years since Melcher had a major mishap, but he remembers it clearly. He said, “I fell off a roof in the mid-80s. The customer insisted there was a bat in the chimney, but I knew that in December there was no bat because they were hibernating. I was on the icy roof of that two-story house when I slid off and landed on the hard ground, not in a snowbank. My pliers and screwdriver flew out of my pockets. I was able to climb back up to the roof on a ladder, put on a chimney cap and go inside the house to collect my check. Then I went to the doctor in Waseca, who was surprised that my injured foot wasn’t broken. I came home on crutches.”
Changes in legislation affecting chimney sweeps have led some companies to creative service development. Melcher explained, “Because of government regulations, now it’s illegal in some states to install a wood-burning stove. So chimney sweeps maintain what’s there, but add cleaning of rain gutters or window cleaning,” jobs he has never done.
Melcher has no regrets about his professional and personal choices. “We’re living the American dream,” he said. “There’s nothing I would change.”
Liz’s response was more family-centered. She said, “Our kids worked in the business when they were younger, and they learned good work ethics. Currently our 16-year-old granddaughter, Madison, helps in the office—her first job. Grandma and Grandpa can teach her how to be a good employee. Another grandchild, 10-year-old Jahdyn, helps us with farm chores.”
The farm has been in Liz’s family since 1875. One of the Melchers’ sons, Tim, and his family, also live on the property. The Melchers didn’t want to tear down the barn even though they rent out the land, so they have donkeys, goats, peacocks, ornamental pheasants, and chickens. Melcher said, “We feed them, play with them, eat the eggs—and clean up the manure. It’s fun maintaining the farm. You’ll see notes scratched on a wall in the barn, telling what dates years ago it was minus 20 degrees.”
For Liz, who has never moved from her childhood home, the roots go deeper. She said, “We still have the 1956 Farmall 300 I learned to drive when my dad bought it new.”
What might the future hold for the adventurous Melchers? They have a five-year plan, which Melcher explained. “Now that we’re in our sixties, we plan to sell the business and semi-retire to selling BarleyLife nutritional products. It’s a cleaner and healthier business, and there’s no need to wash off soot or skin cells at the end of the day.”
- Member of National Chimney Sweep Guild
- Members of Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce
- Melcher served nine years on the Farmamerica Board of Directors
Childhood homes: Steve (Waseca, in town), and Liz (rural Janesville).
Favorite school subjects: He, shop and art—“I prefer hands on” and she, math—“I’m analytical.”
Children: Tim, a fuel transporter/Kwik Trip corporate driver; Dan, parts manager at Northland Trenching, Waseca; Kathy, Kwik Trip store manager, Faribault.
Hobbies: Photography, hiking, geocaching, bicycling, camping, gardening our Heritage Gardens, sponsoring auto races in which Dan and a friend drive.
Proudest accomplishment for both: following the American dream to create our business and keeping it family-oriented.
Most valued intangible:
- Steve: My Christian faith.
- Liz: Along with my faith, having children and grandchildren nearby.
Describe each other:
- He: She is beautiful, loving, caring, and dependable.
- She: He is enthusiastic, concerned, honest, and adventurous.
Address: 37339 73rd Street, Janesville, Minnesota