Written by Shawndra Russell | Photos by Anthony Harden
Karen & Tom Wright’s Family Business Keeps The Home Fires Burning.
One envisions Tom Wright, co-founder of Wright’s Hearth, Heat and Home, reading Twas the Night Before Christmas to his four grandchildren on Christmas Eve in front of a roaring fireplace he installed decades ago.
The scene would include his wife and long-time business partner, Karen, and their two sons, now the business’s leaders, Josh and Levi. Or perhaps the image should be of Tom’s late father reading to the whole family, as he was a fixture in the business for over 20 years before his passing in 2012, and whom Tom credits as profoundly shaping the personality of the business. “He was always here. Taking out the trash, sweeping, always going, going, going,” says Tom. The elder Wright had worked at the store as recently as the day before he passed away at age 95.
Tom also radiates that same brand of positive energy and work ethic. He and Karen married when they were just 17 years old, and he spent four years serving in the military in Memphis, Tennessee. After they returned to Karen’s hometown of Arden, North Carolina, he began working as a crown and bridge technician for a dentist, “but my arm [was] worn out from tennis elbow. While I was out of work for three or four months recovering, I started going to the library…and came across an article in Mother Earth News about chimney sweeping. I thought, ‘Wow, I can do that.’” So, he reached out to the North Carolina Chimney Sweep Association, and they put him in touch with a local sweeper named Ken Rutter.
“Ken’s just a super guy,” Karen says. “Tom asked if he could ride around in his truck and he said, ‘Sure, but I can’t pay you.’ Tom responded, ‘That’s okay. I’m on workman’s comp and can’t take your money anyway!’” After learning the ropes with Ken, Tom started cleaning chimneys on Fridays and Saturdays while still working as a dental technician four days a week.
That schedule lasted for about a year while the Wrights worked out of their kitchen and raised their baseball-playing sons. They knew they wanted to carve out more time to support their boys, so they focused on building the business into a full-time endeavor by utilizing Karen’s job delivering newspapers. “That first season, we had some business cards printed up and stuck them in the coin slots [of the newspaper boxes] so that people who got the paper…would see the card,” Karen says. “I’m sure that wasn’t permitted,” she hastens to add.
The first season they had about 40 customers, and when October rolled around the following year, the Wrights decided it was time to make a bigger investment—taking out a $100 monthly ad in the telephone book. “It was terrible, waiting for it to come out—but the day it did, we were overwhelmed with calls,” Tom says. All the tools they needed had been purchased on their credit card with a $5,000 limit. “It was a big commitment at the time to take on all that debt. It was not the way you should start a business,” Karen says with a laugh.
On the other hand, you could argue that it’s exactly how you should start a small business. They grew slow and steady, making decisions that they hoped would pay off later. Tom credits his father for his own approach to building a business. “He used to say, the loss of one, is the promise of two, and the hope of 10,000. You may lose today, but there is tomorrow, and there is the rest of your life. You can’t sit and cry about the process right now.” Karen adds, “We figured we had two choices. We could either grow old and say we wished we would have tried, or, look back and think, aren’t we glad we tried that?”
The Wrights are glad indeed. The business has grown from the small operation in their kitchen to a 19-employee, 10-truck, retail location in Arden with two service arms, Anything Gas and The Wright Chimney Sweep. The retail shop came about, ironically, from a fire at their farmhouse in 2002, where they have lived for 35 years. At the time, they had moved the business out of the kitchen and into their garage, and had hired their first employee, a secretary. The garage-slash-business wasn’t damaged, but the Wrights had to live at a hotel during their home’s reconstruction. Many irreplaceable items were lost, like Karen’s wedding dress and photo albums, however, they also received a small payout from the insurance company. One night, while swimming at the hotel pool, another revelation hit Tom. “He turns to me and says, ‘Why don’t we start a retail store?’ I was onboard because there was something magical – almost romantic – about leaving the business and driving away at the end of the day to our temporary home at the hotel.”
They immediately began looking for a storefront to rent, and the only place they could find in 2002 that came with a long-term lease was their current location on Hendersonville Road. Their biggest concern was entering the retail side of things and not hurting other community businesses. “We’d done business with other retail stores, like The Fire House Casual Living Store, and Dick and Glenn have been wonderful. So, we decided to just not sell things that they sold…and tried to stay true to that,” Karen explains. Tom even talked with Dick before signing the lease to ensure things would stay friendly between them. “We were the only company that sold products and also did installs. So, that was our niche,” Tom adds.
Now, 25 years after initially starting their company, they are preparing to buy the building after having leased it for the past 14 years. The same year they opened their retail location, their eldest son, Josh, returned from his first year at college and decided to join the company business full-time. He’d always been his father’s helper—hanging from ropes in chimneys since the age of 12—and Tom soon began shifting his mindset from business owner to a new role as Josh and Levi’s employee. It was important to Tom not to belittle his sons as they took over the family business. He wanted them to take charge and begin to make it their own, so he is happy in a more subordinate role these days.
“That’s never, in any scenario, been my style. Even with a new crew manager, I let them take the lead. I always feel like I can do more from an assistant’s position,” Tom explains.
During the 2008 recession, Tom and Karen stopped taking salaries so that their employees wouldn’t have to go without. “They didn’t miss one,” Karen says proudly. Part of the reason they survived the economic downturn was another “ah-ha” moment from Tom. “The advice back then was to cut personnel immediately, since it’s your biggest expense, and then wait it out. It can be good advice, especially for big businesses…But the strength of our little business is that we don’t make decisions based on profit line. We can make decisions based on a human line, and that’s just a great position to be in,” he explains. That “human line” decision was to expand into a second location at the old Biltmore Square Mall, now home to the Asheville Outlets.
“I got another one of those Tom phone calls—I love these calls. They’re expensive, but I love them!” Karen jokes, “And he said he was sitting at the mall eating lunch and counting people. ‘There’s activity here. I think we should put a store in.’” Karen got onboard once again, and they immediately reached out to their manufacturing contacts, who agreed to give them product for .25 cents on the dollar. They quickly secured a spot for only $700 per month. At the time, they were spending $4,000 per month on print and other advertising, so they shifted some of that budget to paying for the new space. “If we sold just one large job per month, we more than paid for the salaries and everything. Tom was creative, and that’s the key to how we survived,” Karen explains.
They stayed in the location for three years, shifting some of their employees from the Hendersonville Road location and maintaining the original store. Many of their employees were against the idea, but the Wrights kept the faith. “On paper and with education, it doesn’t always look like something will work. I think people look at us sometimes and think we’re idiots!” Karen says through laughter. Tom chimes in: “Sometimes
2 + 2 = 4 in math. But with exponential ability and the attitude that no one is going to outwork us, sometimes 2+2 equals 40, 60, or even 120.”
Tom often mentions having planted seeds that grew into things that have helped the business 5, 10, and 25 years down the road. Taking a chance on opening a second location was one of those seeds. “We bought this massive fireplace that was the focal point for that store. When the mall got bought, we had a liquidation sale. I was actually at an auction one day during this time, trying to buy a truck for the business that I knew I didn’t have the money for. I get a phone call, and one of our employees said a guy wanted to buy that big fireplace. So, I’m negotiating on the phone while bidding at the same time” he says, chuckling at the memory and animating the situation with an imaginary phone and raised bidding hand. They ended up selling the fireplace for $4,500, and Tom bought the truck that they still use today. “Something we did in 2010 to try and stay alive is still serving us today,” he says.
Around the same time, they approached Tim Dearman, their longtime friend and residential subcontractor, about working for them full-time. Four years later in 2014, Dearman decided he was ready to take the Wrights up on their offer so he could focus on his craft instead of the business side of things. “He went up and down just like we have, and we were turning people down daily who wanted a fireplace, but also needed a room to put it in. It has been a good fit.” They hope that adding remodeling as a featured service can help balance out the slower summer months, since they still do 75% of their business between October and January.
Karen notes that while they lack an official mission statement, they “have always asked the Lord to send people that we can take care of for a while and provide for, like Tim. That’s how Levi got trained and earned certification as a gas piper; when a retiring plumber wanted to finish his last three career years with us and trained him.”
The Wrights are the type of people that perhaps could have made any business work. It’s not necessarily a passion for fireplaces that have kept them in business all these years, but their passion for people. However, wanting the best for your employees can also mean letting them go on to pursue other business opportunities. “When people move on to the next level, it leaves a hole, but it’s still a tremendous success to us,” Tom says.
Viewing themselves as a sort of training ground for some employees hasn’t always been easy since they’ve cultivated a tight-knit culture—even taking all their employees and their spouses on a five-day cruise a few years back. “We used to be offended when people left. It has been a learning point for us. It’s not personal. At our little family business, you might have a particular skill, but you’re going to wear a lot of other hats too, and some people want to be more specialized than that and get offered wonderful opportunities,” Karen says.
One of the ways they’ve helped ease the impact of turnover is by viewing their hiring process differently. “In the past we’ve grown out of need, and I would say we weren’t successful with that,” Karen explains. “Only in the last two to three years, [have] we gotten to the place where if a great person crosses our path, we think, ‘Hey, they’re special, how could we fit them in?’ We’re just now at a place where our growth has a profit…either in people or in monetary value.” Tom nods his head. “Growth in business is the sexy side. But they forget to tell you that it might not be profitable. Growth is very expensive.”
After 25 years, they seem to have hit their stride in a lot of ways and feel comfortable with where they are and what the future might bring. “I think we’re in a great place in Western North Carolina, with people still coming to this area to live. I think we have another ten-year spot where we can grow through this next stage, but it all depends on our people—both customers and employees,” Tom shares, adding, “Our business is no different than anyone else’s. It’s all about our people; our customers.”
Maybe Tom’s right—there’s not necessarily a secret sauce in their success. But a strong work ethic and the determination to put respect at the forefront of your relations with your family, employees, and customers, seems to be enough to create a business that can be passed down for generations.
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