By Frank Mitarotonda, CECS, CESI
1. How and where did your company start?
After graduating from St. John’s University in 1988, I went to work as a Cash Manager for Time Warner, in New York City, only to find I was not cut out to be a pencil pusher. I began my search to become an entrepreneur. I had a former employer who had just purchased a “Mickey Mouse duct cleaning company” called Chief Fire Prevention. Chief Fire Prevention was established in 1979 by a former volunteer Fire Chief in Mount Vernon, New York and only had six employees at the time. In 1989, Chief Fire was sold and I bought into the company as a managing partner at the age of 24 with two other investors. The company grew from six employees to just under 100 today, with a total of 65,000 square-foot facilities. Within several years, our customer base started to grow rapidly; I soon realized there were many other services that we could provide to our existing customer base, thus the birth of installing kitchen fire system, fire extinguishers, exhaust design and fabrication, electrical and mechanical.
2. What area does your company service?
New York City and the Tri-State Area (New Jersey & Connecticut), proxy 100-mile radius of 10552.
3. What does your company stand for?
Chief Fire Prevention has become a ‘brand’ onto itself. We take pride in our work and the positive impact that it has on our clients and the industry as a whole. Not only do we take pride in the work itself, but we relish in the fact that the industry knows “Chief Fire” as a unique brand that is synonymous with other leaders of innovation and service in their respective industries.
4. How did you get started in the KEC industry?
I’m still not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse (insert chuckle here), but it all began 27 years ago when a business partner and I bought out what was then a failing company named ‘Chief Fire Prevention’. From that point on I would visit jobs by day, do the jobs myself at night, sleep an hour or two in the car, and then repeat. The early days were no piece of cake, but I’m happy to look back and reflect on the days when our future wasn’t certain.
5. What did you do in your prior life before KEC?
I worked in the finance industry at Time Warner NYC and as a grocery store manager in a 24-hour open air market in the Bronx during the tumulus decade of the 1980’s. I think this is what laid the foundation to be a fair but tough businessman, and a purveyor of quality goods and services. Quality and dedication to my commitments has always been a badge of honor that I wear proudly.
6. What surprised you most when you started in the KEC industry?
Coming out of St John’s University, I had no idea the industry existed, so naturally the biggest surprise was that this niche market was untouched, untamed and pretty much wide open like the Wild West during the California Gold Rush. The sky was the limit, New York was on the rise, and investment capital was flowing with Trump and other major developers building these majestic castles in the sky. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was cleaning up the city and back then you could see that the pulse of Manhattan was rising again.
7. How did you get your passion for KEC and describe your passion for the industry in words?
The passion I’ve experienced was due to the compassion I felt for the business owners who were getting ripped off by the fly-by-night companies who operated out of a garage and hid behind a fancy business card. The first time I pulled a filter, popped my head in the plenum and looked up into the duct, I was greeted by Mr. Stalagmite and Mrs. Stalactite of grease. I knew this was a severe fire hazard and when I presented my findings to the potential customer he nearly fell to his knees in fear of a fire and the resulting damages, loss of life, lawsuits etc…
Here was a man who had invested everything in his dream, to own a restaurant in the Big Apple, and because of a predatory business practitioner, he could have lost it all in a grease fire like so many have. From that day on I’ve set the tone in my organization that we will never settle for the crutch of mediocrity.
8. How did you go about making the quality control changes that brought your company to where it is today?
I set forth in-house safety and quality assurance standards, adapted pressure washing and invested huge amounts of money (that we didn’t have) and bargained that if we educated our customers, they would pay a premium for the best and most innovative service. It worked!
9. What were some of your goals that IKECA helped you to achieve and how did IKECA help you to achieve them?
IKECA has been a vehicle which has provided a necessary “National Awareness” in regards to fire safe business operations that have been the life-blood of our industry and the businesses it represents. IKECA is a vast coalition of collective partners who strive to be the innovative leaders of a necessary industry. Chief Fire Prevention has benefitted immensely as a member due to the amazing work IKECA has done for the industry as a whole.
10. What do you think is the greatest value of being an IKECA member?
There is immense value in being part of an organization that holds its members to the highest standard. IKECA promotes active and real time information sharing between members and acts as a launching pad for ideas and the shared value that comes from experienced professionals working for a greater and safer industry standard.
11. What would you most want to say to the AHJ’s about our industry?
Our industry exists for the purpose of maintaining a fire safe, hazard free operation of commercial kitchens and industrial exhaust systems as a whole. The industry works to protect both the lives and businesses within the Authority’s Jurisdiction. We see AHJ’s as partners in our quest to ensure that everyone is safe and secure. The importance of what we do cannot and should not be overlooked and\or minimized. We can and should work together as partners with the AHJ’s in good faith for the purpose of keeping our communities safe and operationally efficient.
12. What would you most want to say to the restaurants about our industry?
Consider us an industry a partner, one where we mutually benefit from open and honest communication for the purpose of helping you protect your business, employees, and all who could potentially feel the devastating effects of a kitchen exhaust fire. We are a service based industry as well as a protective force that helps allow business continuity and disaster avoidance.
13. What is your favorite hobby?
Sleep. Working in the “City that Never Sleeps”, I don’t get much time for what was a punishment as a child. It has become a luxury as an adult. So I look forward to my new hobby.