Commercial Maintenance

May 23, 2008
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Service and maintenance problems might differ based on what part of the country you’re in, but when you encounter companies that have a great reputation for service, you see a lot of similarities.

Sutter Roofing has established a standardized procedure for leak calls that covers every step from the proper check-in with the site contact to removing all trash and debris from the roof.


Service and maintenance problems might differ based on what part of the country you’re in, but when you encounter companies that have a great reputation for service, you see a lot of similarities. They offer 24-hour emergency service, they stress the importance of maintenance agreements, and they document every service call with photographs. Furthermore, they all agree that a solid maintenance division is not only a highly profitable sector of the company, it is also the greatest source of leads for future jobs.

Roofing Contractor spoke with several companies from around the country to see how they run their maintenance departments. They were happy to share some advice on establishing a reputation for great customer service and expert problem-solving skills.

Coatings are a big part of workload for the maintenance division at Murton Roofing, which restored the roof on this Miami warehouse. The company notifies customers that Florida Power and Light offers a rebate for qualifying roof coatings.

Working as a Team in South Florida

Michael Levine is president of Miami-based Murton Roofing, established in 1975, which became a founding member company of Tecta America Corp. in 1999. Besides the Miami headquarters, Murton has three Florida satellite locations in Fort Lauderdale, Port Charlotte, and West Palm Beach. Each office has its own maintenance division, with four to seven two-man crews, a manager and a salesperson.

When it comes to maintenance crew leaders, Levine looks for a combination of technical expertise and communication skills. “We’re looking for people with experience,” he said. “Quite often we find people in our production crews looking for a change, or perhaps someone who’s growing older. You need someone with a little personality and great communication skills, as interacting with the customer is a big part of the job.”

Warranties are a key selling point for Murton Roofing. “In South Florida, it’s a big part of the sell,” he said. “A 15-, 20-, 25-year warranty is what they want, and everything is done to try and match the specifications for that warranty.”

The company informs owners that warranties call for annual maintenance. “We give them an owners manual, and we point out from the get-go that they need to protect the expensive asset they’ve just purchased,” noted Levine.

All information on the company’s roofing work is available through the company’s new tool called Tecta Tracker. “For multi-unit owners that want the ability to manage several buildings - all across the country - Tecta Tracker is a Web-based, centrally located database,” said Levine. “It helps owners budget future work and plan for roof replacements. It’s not just for single roofs. You can look on a macro basis.”

The company participates in Florida Power and Light’s (FPL’s) incentive program, which offers a rebate of 45 cents per square foot of qualifying reflective roof coating, as long as it reflects at least 73 percent of the sun’s heat and light. The roof must not already have a reflective coat on it. “Coatings are a big part of our maintenance division, and they are part of our maintenance agreement. The coating comes with a 10-year warranty on the coating and leaks, and coupled with the current rebate, it can be an attractive option.”

The company has redundant systems in place in case of a natural disaster, including generators, backup phone systems at its four offices, a national answering service, and the Internet, as well as communication by satellite. “Twenty-four hour emergency service is a big selling point in South Florida,” Levine said. “People down here know that when there’s a hurricane, it can be hard to get a roofer. We have the largest staff, and we can bring down crews from our sister companies at Tecta America to cope with an emergency situation. We’ve had crews in from Chicago, Baltimore, all over.”

Sutter Roofing installs and services several types of commercial roofing systems, and the company’s service crews are cross-trained to repair all types of systems.

Taking Care of Customers in New York

Ken Hoyt, president of Hoyt Building Maintenance Corp., Congers, N.Y., takes nothing for granted when it comes to roof maintenance. “I’ve found every job can be challenging,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 29 years, and there have been hundreds and hundreds of them.”

The company has 30 employees and almost all of its work is in commercial and industrial maintenance and replacement, including built-up roofs, all types of single plies, and metal roofing. The company has eight full-time repair personnel, but depending on the time of year or after emergencies, six more employees can be added to the maintenance crews. Jobs are grouped by geography in order to keep drive time and fuel costs down.

When employees move into the maintenance department, they get additional in-house training. “A lot of our training is internal,” Hoyt said. “I try to pass on my philosophy to the guys. They’re all technically sound. I train them on the best ways to look for leaks and, most importantly, how to interact and communicate with the customer.”

“Communication is the main thing when you’re in the service business,” he continued. “You’ve not only got to determine the problem and do the job right, you have to get the information to the customer.”

The company offers maintenance agreements on every job. “We’ve found it’s the smaller guys with maybe one building - like a strip mall owner - who can get the most out of it,” Hoyt said. “These are the customers that can really benefit from maintenance. We help the owner get the most out of their existing roof and help them budget for eventual replacement. If we can get two more years out of a roof for an owner to allow him to budget for a new roof, they can really appreciate that.”

In New York, harsh winters can take their toll on a roof. “There are three major problems in winter,” stated Hoyt. “First is ice buildup, which restricts the flow of water to drains. Second is extreme cold weather - some older built-up roofs can split right before your eyes due to heat and thaw. Third are heavy snow loads. We often have to do snow removal and make sure the drains are clear and the water is flowing.”

The company has been forced to use a crane to remove several feet of snow from 500-foot buildings in years past. “There have been instances where we’ve had to go to that extreme,” Hoyt said. “It doesn’t happen often, but it’s something you just have to handle when it happens.”

A sevirce technician from Hoyt Building Maintenance Corp. checks a drain on a service call.

Building Relationships in Kansas

Jay Harrington is president and co-owner of Great Plains Roofing & Sheet Metal in Kansas City, Kan. He and co-owner Kevin Scanlon, vice president of operations, each have over 30 years of experience in the industry. The company has 112 employees and does only commercial work, 65 percent of it in new construction.

The company’s maintenance division is headed up by Service Manager Terry Smith, and includes nine two-man repair crews, a full time service manager, an assistant service manager, and administrative assistants. “We always send our crews in teams of two for safety reasons,” noted Smith. “We try to keep crews with the same buildings if we can.”

Harrington credits his personnel for the company’s success. “We have a great group of employees, many of whom have worked for us for 15 to 20 years. These years of experience create a good knowledge of roof practices and enable us to maintain a high level of expertise as we continue to grow the service department.”

Occasionally a maintenance crew will finish up minor details like punch list items on a larger project so a crew can move on. One important source of work for his maintenance division comes from additions done on a building after new tenants move in. “In the case of a retail shopping center, a new tenant can mean more penetrations, HVAC units, and in case of a restaurant, the work can be extensive,” said Harrington.

Harrington noted the maintenance division generates in excess $2 million in revenue annually. “I think we’ll do $20 million in revenue this year. If you’re the size we are, you have to keep score on each of your divisions.”

“Service has a little bit higher profit margin, but you’re sending two great employees out there, and there’s travel time involved,” said Harrington. “Our goal is to build really good relationships. We have a good track record of finding and solving problems, and people don’t mind paying a bit extra for that.”

The company has had more success with maintenance agreements in recent years. “Preventive maintenance is a lot more popular now as building owners have become more educated,” said Harrington. “We always let building owners know the value of an annual inspection and preventive maintenance. We’re dead certain preventive maintenance will make your roof last longer and prevent minor issues from becoming major ones.”

Large-scale projects in the Kansas City, Mo., area tackled by Great Plains Roofing include the Sprint Center Arena.

Displaying Versatility in Illinois

“Service work requires a different mentality,” said Jeff Lehmann, vice president of sales for American Roofing and Repair Co. in West Chicago, Ill. The commercial and industrial roofing company traces its roots to 1891 and currently has 50 employees. The maintenance division includes five foremen and three journeymen, as well as a full-time manager and dedicated sales rep.

The company handles a variety of types of roofing, including built-up, single ply, modular bitumen and metal roofing, so their service techs have to be versatile. “It takes a different type of individual to excel in service work,” Lehmann said. “You have to be a chameleon who can shift from one job to another quickly.”

The company usually promotes from within, typically employees who have been journeymen for at least 10 years. “Most of our service people have more than 15 years of experience,” he said.

The Chicago Energy Code has mandated white roofs, so reflective coatings have become a bigger part of the maintenance crews’ workload when the weather is mild.

In storm situations, it’s vital to assess the extent of the problem, according to Lehmann. “Rain is a funny thing; it creates work, but nothing will stick when it’s wet,” he said. “We try to gauge the severity of the call and whether it’s in an area with sensitive equipment, such as computers. We offer 24-hour emergency service, and we often send the office guys out to look at the problem first, especially with a new customer because sometimes the owner doesn’t know what type of roof system he has and we want to make sure we have compatible materials, as well as access to the roof.”

Snow and ice are a fact of life in the Midwest. “Single-ply roofs can get really slick when they are wet and icy, and so does metal, so safety is always a concern,” said Lehmann. “This past winter was our snowiest since 1979, and we spent more time shoveling snow this past winter that anytime I can remember.”

The company always points out that manufacturers’ warranties call for annual maintenance, and Lehmann compares it to servicing an automobile when talking to customers. “Even though you have a warranty with a new car, you still have to rotate the tires and change the oil, and people can relate to that,” he said. “Building owners are also getting more information from the Internet.”

“Above all, you’ve got to be flexible in the service department,” said Lehmann. “Things are changing constantly, and it can really make things difficult. Everyone seems to throw around the word ‘emergency’ to the point it’s lost the meaning it used to have.”

It’s essential to pinpoint the urgent problems, explain the situation to customers, and, if necessary, calm them down. “You’ve got to know what you’re talking about,” cautioned Lehmann. “You never know who might know more than you do.”

Tip Top Roofers’ Estimator/Project Manager Jonathan Glisson and crew member Carey Andrews discuss the day’s service projects.

Maximizing Profitability in Georgia

All of the contractors contacted for this story asserted that the service department must be a separate entity to succeed, but Tip Top Roofers of Atlanta has gone one step further. The 82-year old roofing commercial and industrial roofing company made its service division into its own company - Tip Top Roofers Service Corp., which was founded in 1992.

“We are a totally separate company from management to field crews,” said Karter Thomas, manager of Tip Top Roofers Service Corp. “If you don’t do that - if you don’t make that commitment - it just doesn’t work. You have to make a commitment to build a separate service department or service company. You just can’t do it part time.”

Tip Top Service Corp. handles all roof maintenance issues, and when it comes time to do the reroof, jobs of 50 squares or more are referred back to Tip Top Roofers. “It’s no industry secret that service work has a higher margin of profit, but you have to do a lot of volume if you want to succeed,” said Thomas. “You need to be on the jobs early in the morning and quickly in the afternoon. You don’t make any money riding around in the truck.”

The weather in Atlanta helps Thomas keep his crews on the job, and he conducts safety training on rainy days. “When it comes to weather, we’re in a much friendlier environment than most of the country, to be honest,” he said. “We can roof year-round. There are tremendous temperature swings in the winter, though. It can be 26 degrees at 7 a.m. and 75 or 80 degrees at 3 p.m.” This can cause delays in the morning due to frost or when using materials with temperature constraints.

That’s not to say the weather is always wonderful in Atlanta, and that’s why Tip Top offers 24/7 emergency service. Earlier this year, a tornado swept through Atlanta during the NCAA basketball tournament, giving a new meaning to “March Madness.”

“The tornado during the Final Four made the national news,” said Thomas. “We got a good bit of work out of it. It came through about nine or 10 at night, and about midnight we started receiving calls. We were out there as soon as the police let us through the barricades at first light.”

The problems they encountered weren’t ones Tip Top’s crews see every day. “The bulk of what we dealt with - and still are - is broken glass in roofs,” said Thomas. “We have roofs with 400 holes in them. The panels in some of the high rises were blown out, and it just rained glass.”

The company is working with owners and manufacturers on warranty issues and making recommendations to owners about repair and replacement. “With problems of that magnitude, it’s often easier to replace it than to repair it,” he said.

Thomas believes that educating building owners and property managers about the benefits of preventive maintenance and roof coatings is part of the job, but cautions employees not to “drown them with technical information.”

The key? “Train, train, train,” Thomas said. “Professional training is very helpful, even for a natural salesperson. It takes more than just a good personality to close a sale and follow through with production. We have weekly sales meetings, and once a month we have a professional coach come in to tutor the salespeople and assist me in evaluating sales reports and close ratios to see how we can improve.”

Educating Owners in Florida

Brad Sutter is vice president of Service, Maintenance & Special Projects at Sutter Roofing Company of Florida. The company has been in business for 106 years. “That’s not a typo,” said Sutter. “It was founded 1902 Clarksburg, West Virginia.”

The company has 250 employees and does 90 percent of its work in the commercial sector, 70 percent of it in new construction and 30 percent in reroofing. Sutter has offices in Sarasota, Tampa, Fort Myers, and Naples.

“We have separate service departments in each of our offices with dedicated service technicians,” said Sutter. “All of the departments work off of their own project schedule and with their crews. We have regular meetings to stay on top of the schedule and really work hard to communicate with our coordinators. We monitor the status of multi-day jobs and update the schedule at the end of each day so we don’t get overcommitted.”

In Florida, you have to be ready for anything, said Sutter. “In case of emergencies, we have a disaster preparedness plan in place for any major event that might come our way,” he said. “For the smaller events like a heavy rains or thunderstorms, we adjust our crews and try to keep an appropriate number of crews available so that we can schedule them on the fly to handle a critical situation that may be interrupting our customer’s ability to conduct business. We are also lucky that we have the other offices to rely on for additional manpower that may not be affected by weather or other events in our area.”

The combination of technical expertise and customer service skills that make a great technician are hard to find, noted Sutter, but even for excellent employees, systems have to be in place. “It also is extremely important, we feel, that we have developed a procedure for every single leak call that we expect all of our techs to follow,” he said. “From proper check-in with the site contact through to ensuring that we remove all trash from the roof area, whether it’s ours or not, we want our guys doing the same thing on every call to build standardization and consistency. The result is fewer callbacks and a higher level of customer satisfaction.”

“There is special training needed because in the commercial segment of the business where we operate our techs are often calling on end users and tenants that may not be the owner or owner’s representative for the property,” he continued. “We train our people in customer relations and communication so that they can handle someone who is angry or has damaged merchandise. The last thing we want to do is cause problems between an owner and tenant, which might make them reluctant to use us on the next service call.”

Sutter noted that there are educational resources available to help make the case for a maintenance agreement. “Almost all major manufacturers have information on proper roof maintenance,” he said. “You can look through the archives of this magazine and find many articles on roof maintenance. When you start putting a library of information to use in your meetings and everyone is firing on the common theme that preventative roof maintenance is a win-win for contractor and owner, it’s makes a powerful impression that’s hard to discount.”

Some Parting Advice

The keys to maintenance success aren’t secrets, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to master, either. “You have to have good people in order to make it work,” said Harrington. “The right people, the right equipment - wireless radios, digital cameras - you’ve got to have them. Digital cameras are the greatest things ever for roof maintenance. If you get a call about a roof leak and the problem is with an HVAC unit, you can have photographic proof on someone’s desk in New York in less than half an hour. And, you have to make sure the foremen of your crews have excellent communication skills, so they can explain the situation clearly.”

“You can’t fall asleep at your desk. You have to get out in the field and see your customers,” advised Hoyt. “The personal contact is essential. Get out there, be hands on, and let the customer see who you are. It’s those relationships that result in the reroofing job when the time comes.”

“One of the best things that has happened in the industry over the last 10 years is that the manufacturers and suppliers have embraced the concept and importance of roof maintenance,” Sutter said. “They have all started to produce and carry products geared for this market and have increased the support and marketing materials available for this type of work. All of these materials are available and can help sell more maintenance and repair work. Just ask your local supplier or manufacturer’s rep and they are more than happy to help. It’s one more way to enhance the relationships we all rely on to make our business run.”

Gary Martin, president of GM Roofing and Maintenance Inc. in San Diego, specializes in roof maintenance and repair. He services all types of commercial, industrial and residential roofs, including tile, metal, and wood shake.

Sidebar: Specializing in Repairs in Southern California

Gary Martin is president and owner of GM Roofing and Maintenance Inc. in San Diego. He’s been in the roofing industry for 33 years, but he switched his entire company over to roof service and maintenance around 1990 after he tired of competing against low bidders for reroofing jobs and saw an emerging niche: fixing poorly executed installations. “I decided I’d fix the jobs the low bidders did, figuring there has to be a reason they got the low bid,” he said.

Martin services all types of commercial, industrial and residential roofs, including tile, metal, and wood shake. More than half of his work is in high-end residential homes. “If you go into this business, you have to be comfortable in all areas, and we can take care of all of our customers’ waterproofing needs,” he said.

At the jobsite, before and after photographs are taken, and meticulous records are kept. Work is computerized under the building’s address for further reference. “Addresses never change,” said Martin. “Owners and phone numbers change all the time, but the address is one thing that will stay the same.”

A two-year warranty is given in the area of the repair only. The company offers various maintenance programs, with inspections one, two and four times per year. Martin won’t complete a repair unless he’s sure the roof is in adequate condition and that he can guarantee his work for at least two years.

“Because I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I have a good feel for this,” he said. “The warranty on repairs is a big selling point.”

One tool Martin finds indispensable is his infrared (IR) camera. “I’ve had it for four years. It sells itself,” he said. “Once you find your first leak behind the wall without tearing it out, it pays for itself.”

When it comes time for a new roof, Martin is one contractor who doesn’t want the job - he only handles repairs. “When it comes time for a reroof, I’ll offer to set myself up as a project manager, and offer the job to other contractors,” he said. Martin recommends contractors he has had good experiences with in the past, and the relationship benefits both companies. “I only recommend roofers I’ve personally seen work,” he said. “I’ll recommend some bigger contractors for reroofs, and they will recommend me for repairs, because we aren’t in competition.”

Martin points to his breadth of experience as an important factor in his company’s success. “I don’t get jobs because I’m the low bidder. I get the job because I’m the high bidder,” he concluded. “I get the owners who are sick of fooling around with the problem and want it solved.”

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