Roofing Contractor accepted an invitation to visit with Robert (Bob)Selkirk Watler Jr., owner of Watler's Metal Products in Grand Cayman, British West Indies.



When you combine the long-lasting good looks of standing-seam metal roofing with the rustic charm of a Caribbean island, you indeed have a match made in paradise. To gain a better perspective on metal roofing in the islands, Roofing Contractor accepted an invitation to visit with Robert Selkirk (Bob) Watler Jr., owner of Watler's Metal Products in Grand Cayman, British West Indies.

Mechanics from Watler's Metal Products install an Englert Series 2500 Panel System on the Kirk Harbour Center project.

Another Day in Paradise

The Cayman Islands, situated just to the south of much-larger neighboring island Cuba, celebrated 500 years of recorded history in 2003. Sailors on Christopher Columbus' fourth and final voyage to the West Indies discovered the Cayman Islands in May 1503. They recorded seeing so many turtles there that they looked like rocks on the beach. They gave the islands their original name, "Los Tortugas," which is Spanish for "The Turtles." The three islands that make up the Caymans were uninhabited then, and remained so until the latter part of the 17th century.

Today the Cayman Islands are known for turtles, stingrays, diving, banking and tourism. Grand Cayman is the largest and most populous of the three islands in the chain. Long a dependency of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands received their first constitution in 1959, and in 1962 chose to remain a British Crown Colony when Jamaica became independent from Great Britain.

The Cayman Islands enjoy a special affinity with the United States, from which the Caymans receive much of their diving and tourism trade, and from which the islands purchase most of their goods, including building materials. The visibility of the Caymans was elevated considerably with the enormous popularity of the John Grisham novel, The Firm.

Robert (Bob) Selkirk Watler Jr., owner of Watler's Metal Products.

Born to Roof

Bob Watler was born to be a roofing and specialty contractor. His smile and physical presence is larger than life. He, like many successful roofing contractors, is at the same time warm, charming and all business. His father, Selkirk Watler Sr., was a developer and his mother, Esther, was in real estate. Watler Sr. passed away 14 years ago, but Esther remains and has taken an active role in her son's enterprise. Watler's wife, Wendy, became active in the business seven years ago upon her retirement from Cayman Airways.

Right out of school, Watler worked in the banking industry long enough to find out that it was not for him. Then he worked for Cayman Airways where he had the great good fortune to meet Wendy, then a flight attendant. After that, Watler went to work with his father, graduating to the position of right-hand man, and learning the art of sales, real estate, land developing and deal making.

Watler's Metal Products is so named because of the variety of metal building systems that the firm sells and installs. While roofing accounts for 70 percent of the total sales volume, the company also installs hurricane shutter systems, metal railing systems, guttering and soffit/facia systems. For roofing, Watler is a certified installer for Englert metal roofing systems and Johns-Manville.

Watler began 11 years ago when he bought a gutter machine from his brother, Kevin, who was moving on to other things. From the humble beginnings of one Englert gutter machine, Watler began adding other building products. Eight years ago, he purchased his first Englert panel-forming machine. Watler's Metal Products now operates three gutter and four roofing machines, and owns a series of warehouse buildings, some of which are used to store roofing materials while some are rented to other tenants.

Construction Business in the Islands

Watler explains the basics of being in the contracting trades in the Cayman Islands; "You have to have a trade and business license," he says. All businesses must be at least 60 percent Caymanian-owned. Many of the construction workers on the islands are of foreign extraction. Native Caymanians must go on the company health and pension plans from the day they become employed. This is in addition to workers compensation coverage, which the company must furnish for all employees. Foreign workers are entitled to health and pension benefits after six months on the job. The pension requirement has only been around for a couple of years, and is paid half by the employee and half by the employer. There are no income taxes in the Cayman Islands - no income tax for foreigners and no income tax for natives.

Construction codes on the islands follow the new Dade County-South Florida Building Code. The Dade County Code has been used here for around 15 years. Some parts of the codes are modified, and are generally even tougher than the codes that are widely regarded as some of the toughest in the United States. The Central Planning Authority is a 13-member board that guides building regulations. Watler is a past member of the board.

Roofing in the Islands

Watler's first metal roofing job was the Bodden Town Health Clinic for the Caymanian government. Many government buildings double as hurricane shelters. In addition to the "island look," metal roofing is frequently chosen for its high wind ratings. Roofing government buildings is a significant part of Watler's roofing business.

Watler is joined in the metal roofing business by another half-dozen contractors, but he claims 70 percent of the market. This is borne out when doing the "drive-and-point" tour as Bob proudly points out his firm's many high-visibility roofing projects. Watler is currently busy with three very high-profile roofing jobs: the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, the Meridian Condominium and the Kirk Harbour Centre.

All roofing and building materials are imported. There may be no income taxes to worry about, but a 20 percent tariff is added to all imported goods, including freight, as soon as they hit the docks. That includes all of the metal Watler purchases from Butch Dubecky with Englert in Tampa, Fla., and other roofing materials, most of which he purchases from Dave Clark with Bradco Supply in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Puttin' (the roof) on the Ritz

One of the highest profile construction projects ever undertaken in the Cayman Islands, the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, is well underway. Scheduled for completion in the fall of 2004, the $350 million addition to Seven-Mile Beach will include a hotel and spa, casual and fine dining, a nine-hole Greg Norman golf course, and 71 oceanfront condominiums. Mega-constructor Fluor-Daniel is overseeing this project, which is massive by Cayman Islands standards. Following three years and bidding with three other general contractors, Watler's Metal Products bested no less than 10 foreign competitors to secure the roofing contract for the project. Contracts manager for Fluor-Daniel, Landon Swadley, awarded the roofing contract to Watler. Watler thinks that his company's ability to perform as an authorized installer for Englert and Johns-Manville combined with the fact that they are a local contractor sealed the deal.

The roofing consists of both low- and steep-slope areas. The low-slope portion of the roof consists of a Johns-Manville UltraGard SR-80 PVC roofing system over polyisocyanurate roof insulation. The low-slope roofing system has mechanically attached and fully adhered portions, all of which conform to the strictest of wind uplift standards. Most of the 75-inch-wide sheets of 80-mil membrane are attached with screws 6 inches on center. On some parts of the roof, the configuration of the "N"-type steel deck took even more intense fastening to meet the 6-inch requirement. The specifications call for a finished system that will qualify for a 25-year NDL warranty.

The steep roofs will be covered with an Englert Series 2500 Panel System. Following two layers of Johns-Manville iso, the entire substrate will be covered with WR Grace Ice & Water Shield followed by the Englert 2500 metal roofing panels. The metal roof will be fabricated from 0.040 Kynar 500-coated aluminum in a "Sandstone" color that mimics a mill-finish look. The metal is fastened at the eaves using a special cleat that is sure to provide the strongest of resistance to high winds. Beefy FM-type clips are used between the panels and all flashing, hip, ridge and valley details call for special sealing and fastening patterns.

At the time of our visit to the site, roughly 70 percent of the low-slope roofing was completed and the metal roofing portion of the work was underway. Most of the insulation and underlayment were in place with the exception of the ocean-side building, on which the roofers were dodging drywall applicators while installing flashing around the dormers.

More Metal

One of the unique facets of the Ritz project is the fact that the ocean-side building is seven-stories high. This building and the Meridian Condominium project are the first two buildings in the Cayman Islands to ever exceed the previous limit of five stories. Both projects had to receive special permitting and required tough construction standards, particularly in the area of fire safety.

The Caymanians struggled with the concept of allowing construction over five stories. There were concerns with fire safety, but there were great concerns with how this would change the look of Seven Mile Beach, not to mention the population density. In the end, Watler considers this progressive move appropriate, saying, "I think the government did the right thing." Citing high real estate prices and the problems with traffic and parking, there was almost no way to go but up. The seven-story variance is only available to certain areas on the island.

The Meridian will receive an Englert Series 1300 Panel System roof made with 0.040 aluminum. The metal will be coated with a white Kynar 500 coating with the cool coat system to add to the reflective quality of the finished roof. Englert recently announced that its entire metal line would convert to high-reflectivity coatings beginning early in 2004.

In addition to the roofing, Watler took the contract to construct the metal truss and deck system that was unique to conventional island construction. This engineered steel truss system was Watler's first. He saw potential in this type of construction and wanted to get in on the ground floor. Time will tell if steel truss and deck systems will be added to the company's family of products. Watler client Brian E. Butler is developing the Meridian Condominium.

Another high-profile project the firm is currently covering with metal roofing is the Kirk Harbour Centre. The Kirk Harbour area has been improving over the past several years and painted metal roofs are beginning to define the look of the area. The Kirk Harbour Centre is located at the main terminal for Grand Cayman where tourists are brought in by tenders from their cruise ships. On our visit to Kirk Harbour there were no less than five cruise ships at anchor.

If you ever have the good fortune to visit this beautiful island, you will not mistake Watler's work on the Kirk Harbour Centre. The main building will sport an Englert Series 2500 Panel System roof painted red. As you look across the district with dive shops, restaurants and retail shops, you can see the handiwork of Watler's Metal Products. One of the more interesting projects the firm tackled a few years ago was for a series of small roofs. The owner wanted a variety of colors, so Watler took him to the warehouse to look at the available coil stock. In a move that turned out to be a win-win, the owner cleaned out all the odd lots and colors of coil using them to create a unique look for his project of multiple rooflines.

Getting the Job Done

Mike Rance, the lead roofing superintendent for Watler's Metal Products, is overseeing the Ritz and the firm's several other jobs. Watler credits Rance with much of the firm's success, particularly in commercial metal roofing. Rance is a 25-year roofing industry veteran from the United States who has been on the island for seven years. He has responsibility for production and all worker training.

So how does one manage to wind up roofing in paradise? Rance had heard about the opportunity here and ignored it until one mid-winter assignment took him from Florida to Macon, Ga., where freezing temperatures made working conditions brutal. He decided that enough was enough, and (to Watler's delight) he headed for the sun.

Down to Business

Watler's Metal Products may be located in what many would describe as an idyllic setting, but it is still a roofing and contracting business. The key challenge for Watler is not bidding and winning jobs. Since 9-11, the economy of the islands, like many tourist destinations, has suffered. The construction business, however, remains fairly strong. Other business challenges such as rising insurance rates are a hassle, but not the main problem.

The biggest challenge for Watler is finding and keeping good help. Grand Cayman is an island with a limited population and a very limited pool of potential construction workers. Hiring people is challenging for him, just like it is for everyone in the roofing business. The difference is that he has to secure work visas and find housing and go through a process that is both time-consuming and expensive. The lack of income taxes and the relatively high rate of pay would seem to be a magnet for others like Rance who would at least want to escape the North during the cold winters

On balance, the Watlers love their work. Wendy loves to see the "before and after" of roofing. Driving around the island, it is easy to see why, as roof after roof is pointed out as "one of ours."

Watler enjoys just about every part of the game, particularly selling and "deal making." He is proud of the success his firm has had, but is very quick to credit Rance for his production capabilities, his suppliers for keeping him competitive and for their overall support for his mission, and his wife and mother for the talent they bring to the firm. He even credits his late father for bequeathing him the skills and talent to run a business. Such a powerful combination should keep this enterprise running for many years to come. No problems mon.