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Hearth & Home March 2018

Being a good sport, Amie let us Photoshop her into this scene.

Meet Amie Ryan

By Richard Wright

The incoming chairperson of the HPBA is the owner of Ryan Brothers Chimney Sweeping in Roseville, California, up north, next to Sacramento.

Amie Ryan is a second-generation chimney sweep and, yes, in the early years she did climb on roofs – but no longer. Now she runs the operation from her office and showroom.

Hearth & Home: “I understand your Dad started Ryan Brothers Chimney Sweeping around 1978. Is that correct?”

Amie Ryan: “Yes. He and my Mom started it in 1978. All three of my uncles did work for my Dad at one point. As a child, I remember my uncles working with my Dad. They were doing stove installs or a reline of a chimney. They all worked for him at some point.

What was your Dad doing prior to chimney sweeping?

Ryan: “He actually worked for Lucky Stores, the grocery chain. Like a lot of guys who started in the industry in the late ’70s, he was reading an article in Mother Earth News and decided to get into the chimney sweeping to supplement his income. He continued to work for the grocery store while he was doing this in order to maintain our benefits, our medical, dental and vision benefits. Then he started the business with Mom and they did cleanings and installs.”

So he basically is self-taught?

Ryan: “Yes.”

Outside of earning some extra money, what attracted him to the business? Was it that he saw a new industry coming on strong with a lot of consumer demand?

Amie Ryan with her father’s top hat.

Ryan: “It was, and he grew up in New York so they had heated with wood. They moved from upstate New York when he was a teenager to California, and liked the idea of being self-sufficient, providing for his family and being his own boss. He also saw the benefit of heating with wood.”

When did he begin selling appliances?

Ryan: “That was probably in the early to mid-80s.”

Educate me a bit. Wood heat has been banned in many places, throughout California in particular. I assume that is not the case around Sacramento, but can you explain the current regulations in your area?

Ryan: “Sure. My office is located in Placer County, but Sacramento County is the largest county that we deal with, and they have an interesting ‘check before you burn’ program. It’s a four-stage program. They have ‘legal to burn,’ and ‘burning discouraged.’ They also have a Stage 1, ‘no-burn unless exempt,’ when pellet stoves and EPA-certified Phase 2 stoves are exempt, and then they have a Stage 2 day when ‘all burning is prohibited’ except for gas.”

Well, that seems reasonable to me.

Ryan: “It is. We worked really hard on that – John Crouch and myself, and HPBA Pacific and some other retailers. Back when they first did this rule in 2007, they did not want to allow an exemption for pellet stoves and the Phase 2 stoves, but they were providing change-out money if people wanted to put in these types of appliances.

“So we went to the elected officials and said, ‘If you’re going to give money to put in these cleaner-burning appliances, you need to give them some type of exemption.’ We actually admonished the Air District staff to go back and come up with a revision to the rule that included a partial exemption for the certified and pellet devices, which we were thrilled with. That normally doesn’t happen. Normally they go with whatever the staff wants to do. It was nice to get that partial exemption for the cleaner-burning devices.”

I suspect that wood-burning appliances are not your strong suit, that you sell more gas appliances these days.

Ryan: “We still service a lot of wood-burning appliances. They may not all be in use, but just in Sacramento County there are over 300,000 fireplaces. Placer County, next to Sacramento County, is a large area and there is a lot of wood-burning there. They have no burn restrictions in Placer County. As far as sales of new appliances go, yes, this year has been a heavier gas year than a wood-burning year.

“But it tends to vary. It’s very cyclical. Last year we sold more wood than we had in the past. It may have been because the tax credit was expiring or they just wanted to get a new stove.

“Probably three or four years before that we had a big run on gas logs. So I think it’s cyclical. There have been a lot of no-burn days this year in Sacramento, and that could be part of it as well. But we have seen higher gas this year. We have also seen a run of electric this year as well, which I think is interesting.”

This seems to be the first year where I can say that the specialty retail network has accepted electric appliances. Up to this point they were just dragging their heels. But you can’t fight it. It’s there and it’s going to improve.

Ryan: “I agree. And I think that the electric industry has come leaps and bounds from what it was even five years ago.”

What surprises me is that so many of the specialty hearth guys still don’t want to carry that product. Many believe they can make more money selling a gas fireplace for six or seven grand. Were I a hearth dealer, I would set up one person and say to him/her, ‘You own our electric fireplace business, now go out to every hotel, every restaurant, every country club, and let’s create a contract division that you’re in charge of. Go ye forth and make us money.’

Ryan: “We will install wood, gas, pellet or electric, any of them. However, I think the electric market has really come a long way and, is there more money in gas? Yes. However, the electrics take a whole lot less time to install. With a gas one you can maybe do two a day. With electric you can do probably three or four, depending on how close they are located to each other.”

Not only that, but if you go to the contract sector, that’s business you never would have had.

Ryan: “Correct. And we’re finding that a lot of apartment complexes that were built in the mid- to late-’80s have rusted chase covers and the fireplaces have rusted or the pipe is not available anymore. They are installing electric fireplaces because that is a more cost effective option for them than having to run a gas line to the apartment if there is not one there already.

“So we’ve been installing quite a few electric units in apartments this year because that still provides the ambience of a fire, but it’s a cost-effective proposition for them. I think the electric has its place, but I also don’t think that it’s going to replace the wood, pellet and gas market.”

I recall being so impressed when two counties in Utah (Salt Lake being one of them) banned wood a few years ago. When a meeting was held to discuss the issue, citizens came out of the woodwork to protest. The ban was quickly lifted. I’ve often wondered if the same thing would happen in California.

Ryan: “I think they would, because there are enough locations in this area of California that rely on wood burning. They don’t have a natural gas source in the county that I’m in. And there are a lot of cold areas and a lot of people who have property and access to wood. Just talking about Sacramento County, which is a relatively urban area, a lot of people came out when they originally published that rule. We sent out postcards to all of our customers, as did other retailers and service companies. The Air District called me and asked, ‘How many of these postcards did you send out?’ I said, ‘Are you getting some phone calls?’ They said, ‘We are getting a lot of phone calls. They don’t want us to take away their wood-burning.’

“Of course not, because even if it’s just an open fireplace, wood heat is different than any other type of heat. It’s a feeling. There is something about having a fire, and it is unquantifiable in my opinion. I also grew up with a wood stove in my house, but still feel that people want that comfort.

“Placer County was thinking about doing a rule. A lot of people came to the workshop and said the same thing in that county as well and they chose not to implement any regulations at that point. That was several years ago. If people know about it, they will be active and they are not going to let anyone take their wood-burning away.”

I have often wished that people would be a little more gutsy. I would love to see all those old stoves banned nationwide and in Canada. I think they did that in Germany. I think they just came out and said, You’ve got two years and then you get rid of these products or there are going to be steep fines. So during those two years, save your pennies. I believe they even had a little stipend to help people to make the change. That’s the only way we’re ever going to get rid of all those dirty-burning fireplaces that give the industry a bad rap.

Ryan: “I agree. As a society, nobody wants dirty air. We always encourage customers to get the cleanest-burning appliance possible, and we have always maintained that to the different Air Districts. We want them to change-out. We want them to put in a cleaner-burning appliance. If they still want to put in wood, that’s fantastic, but we want them to put in the cleanest possible stove they can. I thought long and hard before I selected the stove that I put into my house; it’s 1.8 grams an hour.”

Let me ask. What brand is it?

Ryan: “It’s a Regency.”

Fireplace in center is from Regency.

Unlike many or most other retailers, you stayed with the hearth industry exclusively. Have you ever really considered getting into other categories, such as barbecues, spas, patio furniture?

Ryan: “We actually carry Louisiana Pellet Grills. We got into those probably within the last year, year and a half. They take a little education for the consumers to get them to work, but yes. Getting into something like that, and the outdoor fireplaces, and the fire pits it’s just an expansion within our industry as opposed to going to something that is totally different.”

So you think the barbecue end of it is within the core?

Ryan: “I do. Maybe it’s because it burns pellets and has similar properties such as the ignitor and the auger. It might be a bit of a leap, but I do feel it’s something that is still within that realm.

“We do everything, from our Thanksgiving turkey to roasting all of our vegetables from the garden, to making homemade salsa. I think they are fantastic.”

Did you ever meet Sharla Wagy? She was the first female chair of the HPBA. She had a team of 20 people when she worked at Hearth & Home Technologies and she was in charge of marketing. She was a sharp young lady (still is) and she fought the vent-free crowd for years. She’s now the general manager of a pellet grill company, Memphis Grills, and that company appears to be growing well.”

Ryan: “Wonderful. I love to hear stories like that, and I love to hear of good products and good companies expanding and being successful. That is great for the industry and everybody.”

The other thing I happen to think is wonderful is greater numbers of women, on every level, stepping up and breaking that glass ceiling. You’re only the fifth woman to take the chair at HPBA, but there have been 35 men over the years. I’m sure you’re well aware of that.

Ryan: “I am, and I feel lucky to be in that category because I have immense respect for the women that have come before me, from Ingrid Schroeter, to Loretta Dolan, to Wendy Howells and Sharla Wagy. It’s very good company to be in.

“I think it’s great that more and more women are getting into the industry, whether it be on the retail side or the service side, or what not. Someone told me that I will be the first chairperson from a service company, and that is definitely exciting. I think that’s pretty neat. There are more women getting into the service industry as well, so I think it’s an exciting time.”

At your coronation at the show, I think you should wear the traditional chimney sweep outfit, with music from Mary Poppins playing in the background.

Ryan: “At our showroom there are two pictures of my Dad from circa 1980 where he has the top hat and the tails and everything on. Yeah. A little going back to my roots.”

What do you consider to be the biggest problem facing the HPBA right now? It could be the NSPS, DOE doesn’t seem much of a problem anymore, Net Zero in California or Zero Net up in Vancouver. Or is it something else?”

Ryan: “I have great faith in Ryan Carroll, John Crouch, and their team as far as dealing with the legislative issues and litigation. This gets into my pet project. I really want to focus on membership, educating the other retailers and service companies, and anyone that could potentially be in our industry, the value and importance of being a member of HPBA – whether it’s at a manufacturer level or an affiliate level.

“I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to take shape, but I’m on different membership committees and I work with the affiliates. I think membership and the value of what HPBA can do is really what I want to focus on.”

To accomplish such a project, you’ll have to handle it beyond the hours required to run your business. How many days a week are you open?

Ryan: “From October through March it’s six days a week. The rest of the year it’s five and then we will do Saturdays by appointment in our showroom. One of our service techs does work on Saturdays all year. But as far as the showroom and the office goes, we’re five to six days depending on the time of year.”

That’s tough.

Ryan: “It can be, but I do love it 99% of the time.”

Well, I haven’t seen such enthusiasm in a long time.

Ryan: (Laughing). “I love what I do. We’ve been talking about Government Affairs and Air Districts, and my degree is in Government, so I enjoy working on stuff like that.”

I’m referring back to Ingrid Schroeter right now. She told me that, “Also on my agenda is increasing the membership. The HPBA Canada has developed a program that I hope to move to the U.S. affiliates and help them increase membership. The manufacturers would be paying 50% of the fees of the retailers by using co-op funds. Every year a lot of co-op funds are not used, so why not utilize them to get additional dealers on as members?” I thought that was a brilliant idea. Did it happen?

Ryan: “It did, but not all manufacturers do it. They don’t have to. But there are a lot of manufacturers who are doing it. I know for my affiliates, including the Pacific, that was something that we talked about through the year and we have implemented it. If retailers want to take advantage of it they can use their co-op dollars for their membership fees, and we are happy to do it. I think that is a great idea. Might as well use the money if it’s there and you’re short for your dues.”

On your site it said that you had moved. Is that recently?

Ryan: “Yes. It will be two years in May, so I can probably calm down now. We moved to a larger location.”

What do you have for square footage for a showroom now?

Ryan: “Between our showroom and our offices we’re about 800 to 900 sq. ft. So it’s not a huge showroom, but probably 80% of our business is still service, and 20% is installation, new products, things like that. I think we have 13 units on display, something like that, in all fuel lines including electric. So it’s been great. We’ve got more warehouse space, more showroom space. It was a good move for us.”

How many total employees do you have?

Ryan: “Four right now, and we are actually trying to hire at least one, if not two, more right now. It’s been busy and I just want to continue that and get some more people hired.”

What have I not asked that you would like to get out?

Ryan: “I’m really excited about working with the affiliates next year, and with national as a whole, working on membership and kind of reinventing it.

“There is a great energy about the show this year, and I’m really excited. The registration is up. They have extended the deadline for exhibitors because there has been such a demand. So I’m really excited to see how the show does this year and then, even going further than that, in Dallas in 2019, because it’s a new city. I think there is good energy. So I’m excited to see how the show is this year because there has been a great buzz about it.”

Would you prefer being called chairwoman or chairman, or something else?

Ryan: “Jack (Goldman, president & CEO of the HPBA) and I talked about that. I think I’m going to be chairperson.”

So be it.

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