Knickerbocker Roofing and Paving Co.’s name might have a hint of New York in it, but it has been thriving in Chicago for more than a century. According to the company’s president, Chris Cronin, his great-grandfather Bernard Kelly bought the business in 1886, and it’s been run by the family ever since. That’s the kind of longevity — and family cooperation — that people notice. “I’ve been with our company nearly 40 years, and I realize it is rather unique,” Cronin said.
Knickerbocker was founded as a road repair company and that helped rebuild Chicago in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. After Kelly took over, the company branched into roofing and achieved success re-roofing railroad terminals throughout the country. Kelly’s business grew as his family did. His daughter Emily married Mark Cronin, and their three sons all joined the company. Chris Cronin and Vice Presidents Robert Cronin, Paul Cronin, and Mark Cronin III represent the fourth generation to enter the business. Vice President Mark Moran represents the fifth.
The company now focuses on projects in the vicinity of its headquarters in Harvey, Ill. Knickerbocker has 100 employees and does all types of commercial roofing and sheet metal work. Roof replacement, maintenance and repair account for the lion’s share of revenue, but the company still does some new construction and has a full-time crew handling high-end residential and slate and tile roofs. The company has a large service division (with 12 two-man crews) and its own sheet metal shop, where skilled workers fabricate ornamental and architectural sheet metal. They even still pave a parking lot once in a while.
High-profile customers include Lake Point Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Chicago Botanic Garden, Tootsie Roll, Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, Prudential Tower and Merchandise Mart. They have re-roofed the Wrigley Building twice — the first time in 1948.
Cronin points to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago as a project that demonstrates the company’s versatility. Knickerbocker handled removal of existing tile and structural concrete slab deck, then installed steel deck, fireproofing, plywood and Ludowici tile that was matched to the original. They also fabricated the copper gutters, cladding and ornamental sheet metal.
Cronin and Moran believe everyone at the company works well together because they are in pursuit of a common goal. “We all have a shared focus of where we’re going and we all want to see the company do well,” Moran said.
“We have a great deal of respect for each other,” noted Cronin. “We don’t always agree, but we know we all bring strengths to the business. And we can manage our accounts to build on those strengths. We have a shared approach to everything.”
That includes the profits. “We all share in the pie at the end of the year,” Cronin said. “We don’t have a real rivalry — just a subtle one about who has the best sales. It’s like a baseball team — someone is on a hot streak for a while, and then someone else has a hot streak. It’s the success of the team that really matters.”
The company strives to provide a great work environment for its employees, and that begins with a commitment to safety. “We partner with a third-party safety company to continually improve our safety program,” Moran said. “Just last week we had our company-wide safety meeting, where we continued our focus on fall protection — the biggest challenge in roofing.”
Besides the annual meeting, the company has quarterly sessions and monthly meetings that analyze challenging safety scenarios and explore how to best handle them. There are also jobsite meetings and toolbox talks.
“The individuals on the roof are all encouraged, allowed and enabled to address safety and do whatever is necessary to make sure workers are in a safe environment,” Moran said. “If they feel they have to stop work, they have the power to do so and contact the office.”
Issues and appeals are handled by a joint safety committee, which has the final say on how discipline is administered. “That’s been very successful,” said Cronin. “People might be laid off for a day, for example, but everyone knows the rules and knows the consequences.”
When it comes to ensuring a safe work environment, everyone has to be involved. “It’s important to have everyone participate — not just the foremen,” Moran said. “You need all eyes focused on safety.”
Communication is encouraged at all levels of the company. “Employees are free to walk into our office and talk to us about any details,” said Cronin. “We have a liberal open-door policy, and they can call our cell phones any time.”
“We recognize that we are in this together,” Moran said. “People appreciate each others’ contribution and realize they make a difference.”
The company strives to put its people in the best place to succeed. “We support our workers in every aspect of the job. Whether it’s for safety or equipment to do the job right, they have the tools and training they need,” said Moran.
“They are respected as well-trained tradesmen and tradeswomen, and we recognize that,” Cronin said. “When we drive around, I bore my wife by pointing out the many roofs we have installed, and I want our employees to share a similar pride.”
In a tough economy, relationships and referrals are crucial, and Cronin believes Knickerbocker’s proven track record helps give them an edge. “The relationships we’ve developed over the years give us the opportunity to bid on work and showcase ourselves,” he said. “Building owners and managers talk. In downtown Chicago, the offices are in close proximity, and they talk. A lot of our business is through word of mouth.”
In the end, the key to referrals is great customer service. “We make sure we get the job done right, and we make sure it’s a long-term solution,” Moran said. “If it’s a repair, we make sure it’s a quality repair that will last. If it’s a new roof, we make sure it’s installed correctly.”
“We focus on quality,” Moran added. “We have talented foremen and they know how to do it right and how to make it last. One key is keeping the long-term view on things.”
And when you’ve been in business more than a century, the term “long-term view” takes on a whole new dimension.