ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. - Multifaceted roofing and sheet metal contractor Allen Brothers Inc. is operating in one of the toughest local economies since its inception in 1952. In southeast Michigan, new home construction rates plummeted in the first half of the year. The number of construction permits issued for condominiums and single-family homes in the nine-county region dropped 50 percent compared to 2005. Through August, Metro Detroit had the highest unemployment rate for the nation's 49 largest metropolitan areas. While some competitors flocked to the storm-ravaged South, Allen Brothers elected to pursue a different business strategy: expansion. The company launched its new division, Retrofit Roofing Inc., in 2006.
Smart MarketingAllen Brother's Retrofit Roofing is aimed at commercial customers, many of whom are looking to reinvest in existing structures rather than build or occupy new facilities. Specifically organized to work above occupied buildings without interrupting workers inside, the new branch's slogan is "You do your work while we do ours."
"We are anticipating expansion will slow and the state will go into a maintenance mode," says president Robert Allen. "We want to not only be able to replace old, leaky roofs but to replace them while the business is uninterrupted."
For the business to succeed, he is convinced it must have a clean-break mentality. Working around an operating business requires different methods, material and labor hours. To avoid toxic fumes, crews will refrain from using tar or glue. As an authorized Duro-Last Roofing contractor, Retrofit will use its prefabricated membrane systems as one alternative. If working during business hours proves too invasive, the roofing contractors are prepared to break out the generators and lights. "Our people understand the day won't always end at the four o'clock whistle," says Robert Allen.
In terms of marketing, Retrofit Roofing is only the latest in a series of successful strategies employed by Allen Brothers. Since joining their father Don's primarily residential roofing business, Gary and Robert Allen have seen the business grow to 50 employees generating $7 million in annual revenue. The company is divided into five departments: new commercial flat roofing, new commercial steep roofing, commercial repair and maintenance, residential repair, and residential new roofing. Each department has its own manager, foreman and crews.
"Separate personnel means each department is an expert in their field," explains the company's marketing manager, James Riashi. "It's a selling point that your guys are certified and know the latest methods and materials for a customer's particular job. It also improves quality control and reduces mistakes and the labor costs that come with them."
Other business-generating initiatives include a 24-hour emergency hotline, direct mailings, fax blasts and an interactive question-and-answer Web site. The company also brings in business through it relationships with architects and general contractors, such as Templeton Building and King Ventures Inc. Allen Brothers even continues to operate two prior incarnations, Birmingham Roofing and Rochester Roofing, as separate entities. "The quality associated with the names are worth the referrals and repeat business," says Riashi.
Investing in the BusinessThe new division embodies Allen Brothers' commitment to reinvesting in the business. The company has purchased new chutes to control debris, sealing equipment and a 26-ton crane. "The ability to work over the top of an occupied building without disturbing the work environment is a challenge we already face," says Robert Allen. "We have purchased new equipment, retained new crews and brought on new product lines to take on this challenge successfully, and we intend to do just that."
Investing in the latest tools and software is a staple of the brothers' success. They operate Metal Merchants of Michigan Inc. out of their in-house metal shop and warehouse. The 12,000-square-foot area houses a 10-foot CAD-operated Schechtel automated sheet metal former, a New Tech portable roll former and a Schechtel hand brake roller. "Without the ability to design and fabricate the products right, the equipment would just sit there," says Robert Allen, "There has to be a mind behind the machine, and that has been Gary Allen."
Retrofit also benefits from the company's commitment to high-tech software. To design and quote a job, project managers utilize the Edge estimating software from AES. "The digitizer is its best feature," states Brian Marceau, an estimator with Allen Brothers. An electronic measuring device, the digitizer allows users to import blueprints directly into the program. "It can figure the area, lineal footage, materials and labor," says Marceau. The software's customized database saves time by allowing estimators to compare similar jobs. Allen Brothers' estimators annually attend intense, two-day training sessions to learn the latest updates to the program.
Another software program paying marketing dividends for Retrofit is EnergyWise, which evaluates the thermal efficiency of a customer's roof and the subsequent effect on annual energy costs. The software summarizes a proposed roof's assembly design and estimates heating and cooling costs. Comparing various roof designs to the minimum thermal requirements under ASHRAE standard 90.1-1999 can show clients how increased insulation costs are offset by energy savings, often in the first few years of the roof's life span. According to Robert Allen, "It's a great sales tool because older buildings often don't have architectural designs for roofing energy concerns."
Success from Preparation and KnowledgeTo overcome the complexities of replacing commercial roofs, Retrofit will rely on training and experience. Allen Brothers maintains annual certification for its employees to work with Duro-last, Firestone and Carlisle products. The company is also among the two percent of contractors certified by GAF Materials Corp. as a MasterElite contractor. Beyond teaching the latest products and installation methods, the GAF program focuses on providing contractors with comprehensive business building tools. It provides resources and education in five key business areas: generating quality leads, reinforcing trust, closing more sales, reducing costs and increasing capabilities. Riashi describes their contribution as more than just a supplier. "They are more like a business partner. They can even provide six-month no-payment plans and other financing options to your clients."
One of the principles GAF preaches to reinforce trust has always been policy at Allen Brothers. "We try to meet with clients in our offices," says Riashi. "It gives them a sense that we will be there for them for a long time." The company's traditional specialty, high-end market projects, serves them well in this capacity. Potential Retrofit clients will encounter office walls lined with photos of prominent local structures the company has reroofed, including nationally renown Oakland Hills Country Club, the Townsend Hotel, and the Booth Mansion at the Cranbrook Institute. Other images portray the company's propensity for working with a variety of materials, from the imported Spanish clay tile on St. Paul's church to the slate, copper and rubber roof of the Royal Park Hotel to the metal wall cladding and membrane roofing of the North Oakland YMCA.
"Our ability to do the work has never been and issue; however, there is less and less of these kinds of projects getting built now," says Robert Allen. "Our solution to Michigan's changing economy is to specialize in taking care of what is already here in our own state - the roofs of existing schools, businesses, institutions and churches."