Roofing Company President/ Entrepreneur
Mentor, Chris Meyer
Chris is a successful businessman and the owner of Turner Roofing, a company he purchased in 2008. Since he has owned this business, sales and profitability have more than doubled. But Chris never started out with the goal of owning a roofing company or being an entrepreneur. He tried college for six months and then worked at a number of construction jobs before he decided to go to a two-year college in Florida to train to become a commercial airline pilot like his father. He struggled for two years after graduation trying to build enough hours to be able to be hired by a commercial airline. At that time there were just too many people trying to become commercial pilots at the same time there was weak demand for pilots because of consolidation in the industry. So he moved on and with the help of his father started his own power washing company for houses that grew into a business washing fleets of trucks. But he had no business training and did not know all the tax filing requirements for things like payroll withholding or how to deal with EPA regulations. He also found that he was not good at hiring and managing people. So he sold the power washing business and then moved through a series of jobs starting with a local window company, then going to a national window company and then moving to a large roofing company where he worked his way up to a regional manager position earning well into six figures. But he had a young daughter and didn’t like the amount of travel this job required that kept him away from his family. As a result, he asked to take a position as a branch manager in Tulsa, a position that did not require much travel. One of his customers was Turner Roofing, the company he now owns. While working his way through the ranks of the national roofing company, Chris learned all he could about the roofing business. He also read books, attended seminars and learned how to manage and motivate people from running branch offices. Chris’s article will be of interest to anyone considering owning their own business or people who want to learn how to advance through the ranks of a large business organization.
I was an only child and my mother and father divorced when I was only two and a half. My mother remarried and the most important male influence in my life became my stepfather. He was an airline pilot and my mother worked for a national employment agency. We moved a lot while I was growing up with the move depending on which of my parents had the best job offer. We went from Tennessee to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and New York finally settling in Houston when I was fifteen. Because I was an only child and moved often, I had to learn to make friends and build relationships, something that has helped me throughout my life.
When I graduated from high school I chased a girl friend to Baylor University. Because I could not get into Baylor myself, I attended a community college in the same town. That relationship didn’t work out and I returned to Houston six months later and worked on construction. These were hard jobs that I knew I did not want to do the rest of my life. So I talked to my father about becoming a commercial airline pilot. I already had flying experience and had flown solo when I was sixteen. My father liked the idea of me following in his footsteps and sent me to a college in Florida for two years of pilot training and college classes where I got my license and certifications. I liked flying and got all As compared to Bs and Cs in high school and the first college. But before you could be hired by a major airline, you had to build hours of flying experience somewhere else. I took all the commercial flying jobs I could find. But at that time there were a lot of other people who wanted to become a commercial airline pilot. Because so many people wanted to fly just to build hours, the pay for these flying jobs was less than minimum wage and I often earned $5 per hour. I had to work as a waiter to make ends meet.
After two years, I could see that I was not going to be able to make flying a career like my Dad had done. I talked to him and he suggested forming a cleaning business that we called Splish Splash Power Washing that washed houses. He helped me buy equipment and do advertising. The business was initially successful and I expanded into truck fleet cleaning for companies like Borden, Roadway Trucking and Target Distribution. Borden said that because they were in the foodservice business I would have to capture the water when I cleaned their trucks. My Dad and I came up with a solution by using the flexible liners that were put over garbage on landfills. These were 22 by 70 feet and we put them in a frame where we had a sump pump and a vacuum to draw off the water used to clean the trucks. The business seemed to do well. I had four employees and myself working and satisfied customers. But I soon found out that I knew little about business and managing employees. For example, I didn’t know the reporting requirements for withholding taxes for employees and got behind. I was not familiar with other reports that needed to be filed with the federal and state governments. I also found out that I had to comply with EPA regulations and learn to deal with the agency. At that point in my life when I was just twenty-three, I also learned I was not good at hiring or managing people. They stole from me and I could not get them to work as a team. My wife told me that I needed to find something else to do that was a real job. I looked at a couple of opportunities. One was a job as an inside salesman for a mom and pop window company and one was with a national uniform company where I would have started out driving a truck but would have had a lot of opportunities for advancement. My wife told me to go with what I felt in my gut. My instincts told me the window company would be the best opportunity. That was when I learned one of my most valuable life lesions. You should always listen to your intuition. My wife supported me on that decision and has supported me throughout my career helping me set short and long term personal and career goals.
Most employees at the window company got there at 8 and left at 5. But I wanted to learn everything I could about the business. I got there at 7 and stayed until 6 or 7. I helped people working in other parts of the business to learn about their jobs even though I did not get paid for this extra effort. But I felt that I was not working for free but getting a business education for free. It also showed the owners that I was interested in what I could do for the company not just what the company could do for me. A couple of years later I moved to Pella windows, a national company where the same strong work ethic got the attention of my manager. He sent me to a seminar by Bryan Tracy, a sales motivational speaker. Bryan said that most people go into sales because they cannot find anything else. But he said that you should understand that sales is actually a profession that wage and salary studies show can be one of the highest paid professions if you are motivated. I learned that to be successful in sales you have to be comfortable and confident just like to be a successful golfer you have to be comfortable and confident swinging a golf club. I also got in the habit of immediately going after another sale after I had just made one because that was the time that my confidence was at its highest. The next year after that seminar I doubled my sales. Since that time I make it a point to go to four seminars a year on a variety of business topics and read four books as part of my continuous self-education.
While working for Pella, I made a proposal to a roofing company to partner with us in window sales. I went in with an agenda and a list of goals and was in and out in the time I told the manager. He called me back in a few days and said that he was not interested in the partnership but that he wanted to hire me. He said that mine was one of the best sales presentations he had seen. I took the job as an assistant manager at his branch office because it paid what I then considered a good salary of $50,000. When I got there I tried to learn everything about the roofing business just like I had done working at the two window companies including what every employee did. After a year and half, I was recommended by my manager to become the manager of the Corpus Christi branch. To advance in a large organization, you need somebody to sponsor you. My branch manager was more interested in helping me advance than keeping me working for him at his branch. Find these kinds of people and show them that you can perform.
The Corpus branch was losing money when I got there. By the first year it was at break even and by the second year we were making money. Turning around that branch is where I learned to become what I call a “Servant Leader”. When I went in I made no changes for thirty days and just listened. I then looked for ways to give my people better tools to do their jobs and conveyed to them that I had a genuine interest in them as individuals. Because of that success, I was promoted to the regional office where I was in charge of $400 million in annual purchasing. This was a large, national roofing company that had their own management development programs. They sent me to an eight-week training course that covered all aspects of business like how to read a profit and loss statement and not just parts of the roofing business. I spent two and a half years on the regional staff. But I traveled four days per week. My wife and I just had a new daughter and I wanted more time to be home with my family. The Tulsa branch had an opening for a manager and I asked to take that job. Tulsa was one of our larger and better performing branches. But I was leaving a job that paid $180,000 where I was being recognized by top management and could have moved further up in the organization.
When I got to the Tulsa branch, one of my customers for roofing materials was Turner Roofing, a company that had been in business for almost forty years. The older partner had retired and the younger partner was almost sixty. One evening when he was at my house for dinner, I told him to keep me in mind if he ever considered selling his business. I did not hear from him for three months and was worried that asking that question might have done something to a relationship with one of my best customers. But after three months, he called me and said he wanted to talk about me buying the business. After a few meetings, we were able to agree on terms and I went out and looked for financing. I didn’t have a relationship with a bank loan officer and didn’t know anything about buying a business. So I got a book and began studying how to purchase an established business. I found a bank that was willing to do a SBA loan that was 80% guaranteed by the government. But I still needed to be able to come up with 10% of the purchase price. I had always saved money including all my bonuses and although my wife and I lived well, we lived below our means. As a result, I almost had enough saved for the down payment. But it was not quite enough. To get the rest of the money, we sold our house, moved to a smaller place and used the equity for part of the down payment. By the time we closed on the business six months later on January 1, 2008 I only had $5,000 to my name and a huge business loan.
Two weeks after I bought the business, I got a visit from my bonding company. They said that the company was too leveraged and that they would not bond our jobs anymore other than the ones already in progress. Without a bond, some of the most profitable business the company did would be lost. I went out and looked for another company and finally found one I would describe as a subprime bonding company and was able to get back to bidding on new work.
When I bought Turner Roofing I handled my relationship with the employees the same way I had when I first started managing a new branch. I just listened for the first month and found out what I thought I could do give my employees the tools to do their jobs better. The first thing I did was bring in computers to help the estimators bid jobs. A lot of the specifications were being sent by e-mail and the customers expected the bids to be returned that way as well. I also got all the sales people and supervisors company cell phones and turnpike passes so they could communicate and travel in the field more efficiently. It was also clear that everyone was underpaid. The old owner was trying to sell the company and was not paying a competitive wage to make the books look good. Consequently, I found out that a lot of my employees were looking for jobs with other roofing companies. To make sure I retained them, I raised their wages and put in an incentive bonus program. These changes motivated everyone.
But I also got lucky. It turned out that 2008 was the year that Tulsa had a severe hailstorm. A lot of roofs needed to be replaced. We did over 800 that year and on some days as many as three. That year our sales more than doubled and the employees got bonuses. Even without another unusual year like 2008, we maintained our momentum and continued to have much better sales performance than the previous owner.
Key Point To Successfully Running Your Own Business
- There is always going to be a business cycle, which means there are going to be ups and downs for any business. So when times are good, don’t change your life style. Reduce your debt and build up a cash cushion before you go out and buy that bigger house or expensive car. As I mentioned earlier, as we became more successful, my wife and I live better but still below our means. When we buy toys like cars and boats we pay cash.
- Invest in yourself. I make it a point to go to four seminars a year on business subjects that will help me become a better manager as well as read four books per year.
- Give your employees the tools to do their jobs, pay well and then get out of their way. As part of my employees pay package, I have established a bonus pool based on the company’s profitability where bonuses are paid on a formula that takes into account their jobs and their longevity with the company.
- I also pay my salesmen a salary rather than pay them on commission. That way everyone feels like they are on a team rather than competing against each other to make a sale.
- Take time to understand your employees and build lines of communication. In my business two thirds of my employees are Spanish speakers with a different culture than my own. To be able to work with them more effectively, I have brought in people to teach myself and my supervisors more about their culture so that we can create effective management policies.
- Take calculated risks but control the downside with strict budgets. For example, I hired two new employees to go after an area of commercial business we were not covering. I set a budget and a time frame. That worked out well and after a year they were bringing in over $1 million in new business. But I also tried to expand into another city. I set a strict budget and when we reach that limit withdrew rather than continue to invest with the hope that just putting in more money might make the expansion work.
- Establish short and long term goals for yourself and your business. Review them and modify them as you accomplish them or if conditions change. I feel that knowing where you want to go is an important part of business success. My wife has been a big part of this planning process.
- Stay with what you know. I have had opportunities to invest in a restaurant and in the oil and gas business. I had no experience in either business and neither one turned to be a profitable investment for me. To successfully manage a business, I believe that you have to understand all aspects of the business and the jobs your employees are doing. While people will tell you that you can hire the right manager to run these business for you, when problems arise you have no way of evaluating if the manager is making the right moves if you don’t know the business yourself.
- I would suggest that you try to find businesses like roofing that sells a product or service that people must have. Everyone at some point is going to need a new roof, HVAC equipment, etc.
How to Prepare Yourself to Run a Business or Advance in a Company
- If you have an interest in a particular trade, go to some kind of trade school to learn about it whether it is carpentry, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, automotive, masonry, etc. before you start working or get an apprenticeship and earn while you learn.
- If your ultimate goal is to manage a business even involving a trade, go to college if you can and take some management courses. While I learned a lot about management by having several differ jobs in each company I worked for, I also taught myself by going to seminars and reading a lot of books. A structured management program can be useful and a good way to learn the basics of business management even if it is only for a couple years at a community college.
I was successful advancing in companies because I would go to work with the idea of doing my best and also learning about the overall business. You may have to work extra hours like I did where you don’t get paid. But think about the long term and not the short term. You will get back this investment of your time. Plus, if times get tough, you will be the last person they would consider laying off. It was also important to me that I learned to save. If I would not have saved my bonus checks and lived below my means I would not have had the money to buy Turner Roofing. While I like owning and running my own business, don’t pursue owning a business with the idea that it is going to give you freedom and you are going to work less. Most business owners I know work longer hours than an employee. I think about my business seven days a week even if I am not there. But if you are determined and willing to work hard, owning your own successful business can be one of the most rewarding things you can do.
Here is a link to the Turner Roofing Website: http://turnerroofing.com