Making it on your own can be exhilarating and profitable, but has its share of risks.

Roofing contractors have always been an independent breed, but many are taking that streak to another level by making their own materials. Beyond weaving together various materials and wholly being responsible for the outcome, contractors take on even more responsibility — and profits — for their roofing projects.

Of course, built-up roofing and shingles are givens, but those materials are supplied by manufacturers who join the contractors on the responsibility ride. And there’s no guarantee that even a great innovation will garner attention because of limited resources (see Roofing Contractor, July 2000, pg. 66). But that doesn’t stop contractors who go the entire process alone, whether it’s concrete tiles, rolling metal panels or developing and selling equipment. Making it on your own can be exhilarating and profitable, but has its share of risks.

Trial by Fire

Northwest Shake Tile Inc., Gervais, Ore., made its name by manufacturing and installing flat concrete tiles that simulated wood shakes. In 1980, the company began to address homeowners’ concerns about more fire-resistant and longer-lasting materials, but the company never thought it would have to face a catastrophic fire itself. In July 1999, a dump truck that was parked next to the manufacturing plant caught fire and the entire building burned down. At peak season the company had no product for its own crews as well as clients awaiting orders. Add to that a nationwide tile shortage and the picture was bleak.

“It was really devastating at first,” says Sharon Standley. “We thought, ‘What else are we going to do? We have to rebuild.’ We had to start from scratch.”

The company had come a long way from the days when her father-in-law made tile by hand in his garage. The system was soon automated with a used Duntex machine from Texas. Spare parts were made by hand and the company balanced manufacturing with installation, selling excess materials to other contractors. “We were the only ones selling the flat shake tile,” recalls Standley. “We kind of introduced it to the area.”

The company survived competition from a plant in nearby Salem, which beat them up for a few years, then closed. Even though fires can destroy a business, the company had just purchased business interruption insurance so regular obligations could be met. It also had just recently been buying some tiles from competition so it already had a pipeline to materials. By December, the company was back in operation with a slightly larger building and a brand new tile-making machine from Europe. They’ve been able to maintain a strong relationship with local builders through the entire ordeal. “We work for certain general contractors and they don’t go looking around much,” says Standley. “We’ve kind of evolved along a path. We didn’t come into it brand new.”

The Hard Way

Another long-time tile producer is Currier Roofing Co. Inc., Fort Myers, Fla., just outside the center of the tile universe in Southeast Florida. Since 1960, the company has been making and installing its own concrete roof tiles. For years, they’ve been using an old Duntex machine with a limited capacity and lengthy drying time. This year, the company is installing a new automated system from Vortex of Italy that will provide as many as 120 flat or S curve tiles in a minute. The $4 million investment, financed through tax-exempt bonds approved by the county Industrial Development Authority, is in response to growing demand for premium roofing in the booming South Florida housing market. With a local unemployment rate of around 2 percent, officials at Currier sought a system as automated as possible.

“What really impressed us was the revolving kiln technology and the automation, where we could achieve production with a minimal amount of personnel,” says company principal, Deborah Currier-Liftig. The plant expects to require 15 to 20 workers initially, with additional job gains planned for future development.

The new facility — a rarity on the west coast of Florida — will be online by December, fully commissioned by February and even selling to other contractors by March. It will produce tiles on demand to maintain continuity in color. The intent is to keep the tile in the yard for less than 10 days, with overage only kept for repairs. The company isn’t bashful when it comes to losing business and will install tile from competing manufacturers. Quality, consistency and integrity got the company this far and will guide it into the future.

“It’s a very different thing to be a part of the community,” says Liftig. “When I go to a chamber function, it’s real important that we do a first-rate job. We’re very sensitive to that.”

Roll In

Another type of do-your-own roofing that is gaining in popularity is job-site roll forming. Introduced in the mid-1980s, manufacturers began offering smaller roll formers to meet the architectural demand for longer runs of metal roofing panels. That way, contractors could take a prepared coil and run lengths longer than shipping restrictions and without end laps. Wayne Threadgill, president of Threadgill Sheet Metal Works Inc. in Cypress, Texas, remembers the first job-site roll former he bought in 1985 because he’s still using it today.

Since the company’s founding in 1964 by his dad, all the metal panels were formed by the hand break in lengths no longer than 10 feet. The portable roll former by Roll Former Corp., Willow Grove, Pa., was rebuilt two years ago and creates batten T-panel and double-lock profiles. He gives his own 5-year warranty on the double-locks and offers extended warranties for up to 30 years on some of the panels through agreements with the coil producers. “We don’t have problems with our roofs,” says Threadgill. “We do a lot of work directly with the homeowners.”

His local reputation for premium roofing has him considering purchasing another roll former. Lately, he’s been installing a lot of copper roofs for homeowners who are unconcerned about upfront prices. “I think it’s a function of our market — very high-end residential,” he says, adding that quality, appearance and longevity are big sales points. “When you start considering all the factors involved, copper is really the cheapest roof you can find.”

A good deal of contractors have also made their own equipment, some even taking the step to market it outside of their own company. When Rick Sydnor of Evergreen Roofing made his own shingle remover three years ago, he wasn’t sure he wanted to plunge into making, selling and protecting his invention. Still, he knew he had a winner. “We couldn’t find one that worked as good as we liked,” he recalls. “We improved on some of the ideas and had our own ideas.”

The result was a shingle remover that pulls out the fasteners with the shingle, can pull backwards and weighs only 7 pounds. He decided to form a company called S&C Metals and patent his product in order to protect it. Sydnor mostly sells directly to contractors because shipping is cheaper, but he’s been exploring partnerships with some distributors.

So the risks are high but the rewards are great. Going alone is not entirely foreign to most roofing contractors and in this fragmented market of shortages, transportation interruptions and price hikes, making your own may be the only way to go. “We’re doing our own thing,” says Liftig. “It’s fairly unusual for people to take this kind of step. It’s a natural step for us because we’ve been manufacturing all along.”