by Ranger Kidwell-Ross
Although Tim Skinner has operated his sweeping company for over two decades, his first ride in the sweeper occurred almost twenty years previously. After dropping out of college and spending time at home, his stepmother gave him three choices: go back to school, get a job or join the Army during the Vietnam conflict.
"I worked for two seasons as a laborer," said Skinner. "The company had a fleet of Pelicans and two Murphy sweepers, which were standard chassis mechanical broom machines. They eventually put me in as an operator on one of the Murphys because I had previously worked as a messenger so knew the freeway system. If I screwed up, though, my boss would put me into one of the older, rough-riding Pelicans for awhile as punishment."
Skinner's fortunes changed for the better a couple years later when his young son, Tommy, wanted a sweeper toy for Christmas. Although wanting to get the toy for him, he had no idea where such an item might be found. However, one of the local radio stations was broadcasting listeners' hard-to-find present requests out to its audience in hopes that other listeners might be able to help. When his wish for a toy sweeper was aired, he was out snowplowing so wasn't at home when the radio station called. Skinner says they left a number for him to call, though, which he called the next day.
As luck would have it, the person who he reached – the one who knew where to procure a toy sweeper – was the President of Elgin Sweepers, Roger Parsons. He had happened to be listening due to the company being shut down due to there being so much snow. "When I called, Mr. Parsons invited me to come to the Elgin plant with my son, which was a thrill for both of us. We had a very nice time; he was quite gracious. Then, about a week later Mr. Parsons called and asked me to come in for a job interview. The next thing I knew, I was working for Elgin as part of their introduction team for a brand new sweeper model called the 'Eagle.'
"I ended up traveling all over the country representing Elgin. I demo'ed the Eagle for their regional sales representatives, showing interested parties how to operate the sweeper. I very much enjoyed my time working for Elgin." Skinner related several stories about those times in his audio interview, which is linked at the bottom of this story. One tale about a woman operator in Seattle's difficulties with her current rough-riding Pelican, especially, on its own makes the audio well worth a listen.
By this time, Skinner's wife was working full time even though they had two small children and he was often on the road for two weeks at a stretch. That's when a sweeping company owner he had demo'ed to in Goshen, Indiana, offered him a 'no travel' job with promise of a future company partnership, so the family made the 150 mile move to Goshen.
Within 18 months – during which time Skinner says he was doing the selling, the billing and the sweeping – he had increased company sales from $40,000 per year to $400,000. However, when he then approached the owner about his partnership promise, the man reneged. To add further insult, that winter he cut Skinner's hours and then finally laid him off.
Although no bank would give him a loan, Skinner's brother-in-law did. He determined to set up shop in direct competition with his former employer, who by then had expanded – largely courtesy of his sales ability – to four sweepers. "I am proud to say," relates Skinner, "that within two years I had put the gentleman out of business. And, although when I started the business it was basically a matter of doing what I had to do for survival, today we have 14 sweepers and are the most well known sweeping company in our market area."
Given his relatively small service area, Skinner is proud that he has grown his company almost entirely by word-of-mouth. Because his customers are very satisfied with his company's work, Skinner says, they recommend Best Sweeping Specialists to their friends and business associates. As a result, he has done almost no advertising to spur the years of growth.
"I credit my wonderful employees," said Skinner. "I'm fortunate to have such a great team of people, most of whom have been with me for many years. Although I get on someone if they need it, for the most part we treat everyone like family and they, in turn, are very conscientious and proud of their work. We also pay well and provide as much insurance coverage as we are able. My wife and I may not have made as much money as we could have during the years, but I'm very proud to be providing a living wage to a wonderful group of people."
Through another curious coincidence, Skinner's company is well known for the rainbow of colors that comprise his sweeper fleet. "My first sweeper," said Skinner, "was a Schwarze 346 in the standard white color, as were the next two. However, I needed my fourth sweeper right away and the only one Schwarze had available was bright red. Because of my circumstances, I had no choice but to take it.
"Although at first I thought this was a negative; to my surprise, what I started hearing from my customers was 'Congratulations, I see you got a second sweeper.' Although at the time we had three white sweepers, whenever anyone had seen one of them they figured it was always the same machine."
Since then, when the time has come to get another new sweeper – which Skinner has done every year except for 2011 – a new, different color has been chosen. Skinner usually allows one of his operators to choose the color and the name the sweeper will be known by. One, though, is 'Hummer Copper' to commemorate one of his customers, the Humvee factory.
Today, Best Sweeping Specialists' multicolored fleet has become a recognizable fixture throughout its service area. In addition to each sweeper being a different color, each also has been given a unique name that typically correlates to that particular color.
The name is always put onto the sweeper, along with a reflective image of the company's distinctive logo, company name and contact information. Skinner is very proud of his company's image and the unique image .
One of the high-profile jobs the company handles is sweeping around Notre Dame University after their sports' matches. The photo shown to the right is the company's copper sweeper, "Little Copper Litter Stopper," shown cleaning up around the Notre Dame campus after a USC football game.
Another unique factor in the area where Best Sweeping Specialists is located is that it is in the midst of Amish country. This creates another unique set of sweeping challenges. For one, a number of stores in the area have hitching posts for the Amish to tether their horses while they are in shopping. As you might imagine, these collect manure pretty quickly.
"I was asked to sweep a bank parking lot in a town called Shipshewanna," said Skinner. It is mostly rural with a population under 1,000. However, on Tuesday and Wednesday there is a huge flea market that draws people from several states. There may be as many as 15,000 at the event each day and they have horse auctions as well. There are lots of tourists and lots of horse and buggy tours in addition to the normal Amish traffic.
"I swept this particular bank on a Saturday afternoon and afterward, on the way home, I passed an Amish bake sale. They make great pies so I decided to pick one up for home. I pulled into the gravel drive, ordered my pie and was asked what I use that truck for. I told the lady it was a sweeper and that I had been sweeping up horse manure in town. 'Ah,' she said, 'I thought that was the aroma surrounding your sweeper.'
My first thought was that she was going to upset that I dragged the odor in to her sale. Instead, she asked me if she could have all the manure! I dumped it all about 20 yards from her pie table. She was thankful and offered her property for any more 'plant food' that I might need to dispose of."
When asked about any unusual situations he has encountered in his years of sweeping, Skinner sent me the photo you see to the right. In mid-shift one night, one of his operators found his sweeper would no longer pick anything up. When an investigation was conducted back at the shop, they discovered that a hapless raccoon had somehow gotten into the pressure side of the fan housing and then lodged there. It was both the end of the raccoon and the end of the sweeper's ability to sweep.
In the approximately 45-minute audio interview with Tim Skinner, you will hear details about all of the above and much more. The interview is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable I have conducted for this series and I'm sure you will find it well worth your while to listen.
Note: The audio interview with Tim Skinner will play without downloading any files onto your computer. If you hear the interview at 'chipmunk speed,' you will need to download the latest version of Adobe's free Flash player.
Tim Skinner is seen to the right with his first sweeper in a 1992 photo that includes his wife, Ingrid, along with his son Tommy and daughter Kelsey.
If you have questions or comments about this article and interview, please, let us know and we can add it in as an addendum to this article.
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