East Coast Systems Inc. is a metal roof contracting firm in Jacksonville, Fla. Over its 13-year history, owner Frank Christian has shaped the company into one that puts on quality metal roofs as promised — and at a fair price. In spite of the simplicity of this vision and his easygoing way of doing business in the midst of the highly regulated Florida construction industry, Christian has built a thriving business with the kind of reputation any contractor would desire. Roofing Contractor recently spent a day with Christian to find out how such an enterprise is built.

Frank Christian.

Humble Beginnings

Christian has never learned about his trade or business from books. A ninth-grade dropout, he rather claims the ability to “do something once,” and then be able to improve on the process and repeat it while training others to do the same. By age 15, Christian was involved in the construction industry, working mostly in the concrete and paving side of things. After working various jobs as a construction foreman and subcontractor, Christian signed on with PCB National Roofing of Greenville, Tenn.

PCB stood for “Poor Country Boy” according to then-owner Butch Hicks. The primary focus for the firm was installing and troubleshooting installations of “Microzinc” metal roofing projects. At the time, Microzinc was produced and marketed by the Ball Corp., and Hicks worked with Ball to install the system and assist other contractors in the installation of Microzinc roofing. While we can’t be sure about the “poor country boy” part of the name, the “national” part was for real as the work took them all over the country. According to Christian, Hicks now works for a large national roof contracting firm and Ball sold the Microzinc system to another firm that has since taken it out of production.

Working with PCB took Christian to a job in Pensacola, Fla., where the company was assisting Jacksonville contractor Beacon Sales. One thing led to another, and Christian went to work in the field installing metal roofing for Beacon Sales. After a number of years in this position, he saw an opening and decided to go out on his own. The plan was to go into business with two other partners, but they fell by the wayside on the way to start-up. Christian decided to go for it anyway, and started East Coast Systems Inc. back around 1989.

Mechanic installs Berridge metal roofing system on the Anne Rose Building.

A Simple Formula

East Coast Systems Inc. employs an average of 10 to 20 and has a target volume of between $1.5 million and $2 million in annual revenue. The scope of work is metal roofing and soffit systems, primarily new construction. While larger jobs are sometimes bid (and won), the focus seems to be on jobs from around 100 squares and down. Christian likes the “niche” job that no one else seems to wants. Tapered and curved panel jobs, and small, detailed jobs, while complex, fit in nicely with the “simple” hands-on approach that Christian takes on all of his work.

The operations of East Coast Systems are very tight and neat. Christian’s wife, Brenna, keeps the books while working in the office only two days a week. Tim Irish has been with East Coast Systems for around 11 years. In his role as superintendent, Irish is responsible for training and running crews while performing much of the shop work and site work as well. The bulk of their key staff is comprised of people performing production work. Christian does his own estimating, sales and purchasing, as well as performing oversight on all work.

The shop is small and neat with enough room for the hand-operated sheet metal equipment that they prefer along with several lifts and roll formers. Christian recently invested in a hydraulic press and a new shear, but does not envision a highly mechanized fabricating facility.

Around eight years ago, Christian purchased his first roll-forming machine. He decided to go with the system furnished by Berridge Manufacturing Company of Houston. Christian chose Berridge because of its unique approach to marketing and customer support. He relies on Berridge not simply as a supplier, but as a business partner. East Coast Systems now has two of the Berridge roll formers capable of forming several architectural and structural panels, as well as tapered and curved panels. In addition to marketing support, Christian appreciates the engineering and technical support he receives as part of his arrangement with Berridge.

On top of providing a first-rate roofing system, Christian can offer his customers optional warranties from Berridge. Literature, sales support and shop drawings that come from a vendor are key to keeping the overhead and fixed costs of the operation very low. Christian also credits his local sales representative, Eddie Sims, for help with contractors and architects.

While selling and installing the lion’s share of his work under the Berridge scheme, Christian is also an installer of roofing systems by Innovative Metals Company Inc. (IMETCO) of Tucker, Ga. East Coast Systems installs the “upper-end” systems as manufactured by IMETCO, popular with specifiers, notably the local school systems.

Christian credits IMETCO with excellent technical support, especially in the area of shop drawings. He says, “I haven’t done a shop drawing in over two years.” That may not seem like a big deal, but when you have made the decision to run a lean, simple shop, things like shop drawings tend to come home with the boss and get taken care of during time that is better spent with family. Christian has a special appreciation for this service for that very reason.

Christian also credits the local IMETCO sales representative, Kim Miller of Southern Roof Center, with having the ability to quickly come up with solutions and answers. According to Christian, Miller has relationships with all of the “old-line” architects in the local market, and most of the younger ones. To Christian, this means fast answers to questions that could otherwise stall jobs or even shut them down altogether.

A Few Not-so-simple Jobs

Asked about any significant jobs, Christian responds, “We… try to take pride in every job.” Jobs that involve tapered panels typically take the kind of dedication to detail on which outfits like East Coast Systems can really shine. While traveling with Frank, Roofing Contractor was treated to a look at several examples of work that we would hardly describe as “simple.”

A good example of this is the flat-lock copper roofing and siding on an office building for architect Ted Pappas. The building, part of a broad reconstruction and revitalization project in an area known as “LaVilla” near downtown Jacksonville, is a designer’s dream and a contractor’s nightmare. The job could only have been completed by artisans with a true dedication to detail. The compound angles and curves in a locking system had to be made and installed virtually one at a time.

At the End of the Day

The best thing about East Coast Systems? Christian says it is the people who are both the best thing and the biggest challenge. He is proud of the group of individuals who make up his staff. He says East Coast Systems runs as well as it does in a large part because of the work of this team, but he wishes it were easier to add to their number. Echoing the sentiment of contractors everywhere, Christian says, “The help … situation is horrible.” This is one area where competing with the larger companies can be difficult. Offering a broad benefits package is difficult and expensive. Christian has successfully employed an employee-leasing firm for the past three years and sees no reason to return to the old way of doing business.

As for what Christian looks for in people, “I try to keep everybody easygoing … don’ t like foremen who throw their weight around.” This philosophy would seem to work out very well. Keeping people of a like mind makes for a staff that works together better.

For the future, Christian is satisfied to keep it simple. He is in the midst of a move to another city as most of his work has moved to the west and south. He has an eye on his bottom line which, like many businesses, has been battered over the past year. Simple, yes, but change remains part of the equation.

Christian has found success in metal roofing because he likes his job. He says, “When you ride around and look up at buildings … when you drive down the road and see a metal roof (you did), that’s something to be proud of.” Way back when his job was underground or paving level that wasn’t the case. A humble man with a simple vision, he says, “I know when I do good … I can sleep at night.” And, “(I) give God all the credit.”

The model Christian has built may not be for everyone, but it certainly works for him. Hard work and dedication to details and a simple game plan can work in this business. And on top of that you get people talking about you. People like Kim Miller, who says, “I am glad to work with him … (he is) a pleasure to do business with.”