I want to tell a different kind of story in this month’s column. I dedicate it to all the roofing contractors who get discouraged and sometimes feel like giving up. We have all had those days where the bird of paradise has taken a dump on our head and it just doesn’t seem worth it. The tendency is to feel a little self pity, moan and groan about competitors, complain about employees, or whine about the lack of rain or too much rain.

Well, maybe you don’t have it so bad.

One Fateful Day

I got to know Steve Sutryk in the fall of 1998. Steve was in PROOF Management’s first roofing Prosult™ group and the first person to sign up for our roofing networking groups. We had conducted networking groups for painting contractors, and with the help of CertainTeed Roofing Products, we jumped headfirst into networking for roofers. Steve’s CertainTeed roofing rep recommended him to Prosult as part of CertainTeed’s effort to support contractors.

Steve is a clean-cut guy in his early 30s, with a wife and kids. He is just the kind of guy we want in a group. He is somewhat modest, and the last thing I want to do is swell his head, but I want to tell his story.

In 1985, when Steve was 19 years old, he and his dad started a roofing business. His dad also worked at the post office and his mom did the bookkeeping in an extra room of the house. Sutryk and Sons started as a typical family business. Steve worked hard on the roof with a crew during the day and his dad sold roofs at night. The Sutryks were a typical family pursuing the American dream in the small town of Waverly, N.Y.

All this changed Jan. 19, 1994.

That day, Steve, being the good guy he is, rode his snowmobile over to his sister’s house to help her when her car wouldn’t start. When he realized that he didn’t have the proper tools, he went back home to get what he needed. In the flying snow, Steve hit a white van. He just did not see it.

A New Beginning

I will never forget Steve telling this story at the opening night of Prosult. All of our meetings start with a working dinner at a nice downtown club where participants share their information. Our goal is to provide contractors with first-class treatment and help them build a first-class organization. As the introductions go around the table, each person tells his story and says what he want to get out of our networking group.

I remember this diverse group of roofers, all with different stories and needs. I also remember the looks on some of their faces as they saw filet mignon on the menu and wondered who would pay, not realizing that dinner was paid for by PROOF Management. Each one talked about his or her business problems — employees gone bad, cheap customers, not enough money, long hours, etc., — stories all too familiar to contractors.

When Steve started to talk, he was obviously a little shy about his accident and the fact that he could no longer work on the roof the way he had in the past. He mentioned how he died several times on the operating table and how doctors had to reconstruct his leg and face.

Only later did I learn that Steve had been written up in a national medical journal. He was in the hospital for three weeks and has a body full of titanium. Though Ripley’s Believe it or Not did a piece on a person having his face rebuilt with plates and recreated to look much like it did before; the truth is that Steve was the first person to have such surgery. Doctors used 46 plates to rebuild his face. Interestingly enough, Steve would have died had he had a helmet on. Why? His face took the brunt of the trauma much like a sand container along an interstate highway.

Steve spent three months in a wheelchair and eight months on crutches. He went back to work while still on crutches because he had to eat and keep the business alive. He knew something had to change. Ironically, Steve says the toughest part of the accident is that he had his jaws wired shut for eight weeks and his two-year-old daughter was scared of him because he looked like a monster.

Though only 27 years old, with a plastic knee and lots of metal parts, Steve simply could not stand the stress of being on the roof each and every day. He said that he joined Prosult to learn to be a businessman and get off the roof. Suddenly everyone’s problems became trivial and not so important.

Be a Hero

Prosult does not ensure instant success and there are no guarantees. We start by teaching contractors to learn their numbers. We want them to clearly understand where they make and lose money. According to Steve, he began to discover that: “I was paying people to let me do their jobs.” He quickly realized that some of the jobs he was doing were just not profitable. He began to change prices and track costs, but the story does not end here.

Steve’s Mom was a nice lady but she did the books her way, not his. Dad was a good guy but he sold jobs the same way he had done for years. As Steve worked more and more on the business, he realized that things had to change. He replaced his mom with another office person. His dad was taken out of sales. All of this did not come easy. Both parents had strong personalities and were worried that their son had joined some cult that was filling his head with nonsense. Change is never easy, but when parents are involved it can be even tougher.

Today, Steve’s mom and dad are retired and living out of state. Life is great for both of them and they are very happy. Steve works fewer hours and makes a good living; in fact, it’s more than he ever dreamed. His brother, Frank, now helps with sales and management. Also, the company has a modest showroom and shop near Steve’s house. There is a solid backlog of work and a good name, something Steve built with help from his mom and dad. However, a good name and quality work is not enough. Without knowing the numbers and being a good student, he would have still been in the same old rut.

When I talked with Steve, I asked him what he thought about business, roofing and the need for change. Steve’s reply was that he gets a little frustrated by some of the other roofers: “You just got to do what you got to do.” Roofing is not rocket science but you have to know the numbers, make the tough decisions, be able to talk with customers and have a career opportunity for employees.

Steve is a pretty straight-up guy, a little on the quiet side, and has been known to sip on a Coors Light now and then. He is a roofer through and through.

Steve is also a hero, and it’s not because he survived a snowmobile accident. Any idiot can wreck a snowmobile. Rather, Steve is a hero because he had the courage to change. He built a better business and can spend more time with his family.

The moral of this story is: Hang in there and don’t give up. Change is never easy. Steve and I both encourage you to have the courage to change. Only a fool does the same thing year in and year out and expects different results.

Have the courage to do what you need to do. That is what makes you a real hero.