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Autonomy in one clean sweep // HOLLY FANNIN: CHIMNEY CLEANING

Holly B. Fannin traded a steady paycheck and good benefits for a top hat, chimney brush and independence.

"It was one of those things where I decided if I was going to be busting my backside, it was going to be for me and not for someone else," she said.

So eight years ago, Fannin quit her job at the former Sperry Corp. in Oldsmar and started cleaning the chimneys of Tampa Bay full time.

"I decided I had had enough of corporate hubbub," she said.

Her job as a production planner at Sperry left her with little satisfaction. The widgets kept coming, no matter how hard she worked. So she decided to turn her part-time winter job into a full-time job.

Starting her company, The Soot Slayer, wasn't easy. "In the first three years, I really wondered if I made the right decision," she said.

The challenge was to make a seasonal job in a warm climate into a year-round profession. After a lot of work, and summers working at other jobs, she thinks she has succeeded.

"I am not rolling in the money, but I pay my bills," she said.

To be successful, Fannin, 42, realized she has to do more than clean chimneys. She also sells fireplace accessories _ glass doors, chimney caps. And she removes pests from chimneys.

"I have removed everything from 'possums to Playboys," she said.

Fannin cleans chimneys in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, averaging two or three a day. She charges between $50 and $75, depending on the type and size of chimney.

Thanks to modern equipment, Fannin seldom has to go onto roofs to do her job. Instead, she replaces her top hat with a respirator and cleans the chimney from inside the house, using flexible extensions to push up her brushes.

Fannin thinks being a woman helps in the chimney sweep business, although her customers are often surprised. "The first thing that they see is the black top hat, and then it's a woman. ... It's like a double whammy," she said.

But once they find out, customers often feel safer having a woman come to their home, she said. And many think women are more careful and less likely to dirty up their living rooms with soot.

"Whether its a stereotype or not, I don't know, but we have a tendency to be a little bit more careful than a man," she said.

Actually, the soot is one of the biggest problems Fannin faces.

"I will admit that is the hardest part of my job, ... getting clean at the end of the day," she said.

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