Whether they are big or small, urban or rural, one thing is certain: contractors have to keep on learning and improving to stay on top. Travis Nelson is living proof of that. Along with partners Mike Boodt, Steve Bushman and Willard Felt, Nelson owns Brown Roofing Company in The Dalles, Ore., and Palmer Roofing Company, with locations in Kennewick, Wash., and Pendleton, Ore. The companies excel at fulfilling the needs of their rural communities, and Nelson gives a lot of the credit to the industry associations that have helped him along the way.
He’s a member of the Western States Roofing Contractors Association, National Roofing Contractors Association, and the Associated Roofing Contractors of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Nelson is the current president of the WSRCA, and he will be on hand for the Western Roofing Expo this month in Las Vegas. He urges other contractors to follow his example and embrace educational and networking opportunities at conventions such as this one to help them broaden their expertise and improve their businesses.
Together, Brown Roofing and the two Palmer Roofing branches have a total of 60 employees, and their work is evenly split between residential and commercial projects. “We are in a rural, small town setting, so we do most everything,” said Nelson. “Commercial, residential, low-slope asphalt and single ply, steep-slope composition, cedar shakes and shingles, tile, commercial and residential metal roofing, custom sheet metal, roof maintenance and repair.”
The area has its challenges, including a shortage of qualified workers and far-flung customers separated by mountainous terrain, but Nelson’s companies have evolved to meet and exceed the needs of their customers — all of their customers.
“We live and work in a rural area where a big town is 12,000 people, and most towns only have a few hundred and are fifteen to thirty miles apart,” Nelson said. “However, living in small areas can be successful if you pay close attention and are involved in the community. When you do those things, your job list will be made up of people who know you and trust you. You have to fulfill the needs of these customers because you see them every day at the store, at your kid’s school, at church, at the restaurant — everywhere. If you left one disappointed person, it would probably get around town in a matter of hours or even minutes.”
Joining the Roofing Fraternity
Nelson was introduced to the roofing industry when his family moved from Minnesota to Oregon. His father, Terry Nelson, was looking for a business to invest in that could support his growing family. The only two businesses he found for sale were a furniture store and a roofing company. “My father grew up on the farm, and he was not a suit and tie guy, so he bought the roofing company,” Nelson said.
The old owner, Brem Brown, was retiring, so Terry Nelson bought him out and kept the Brown Roofing name. “I started with him the next summer when I was 12 years old, running the kettle on a school job,” Nelson recalled. “My dad wanted me to learn to work like he did. He wanted me to work hard, and I did. Those are great memories for me, roofing with my dad.”
But as a young man, Nelson never thought about joining the business as a career. “Like many kids growing up in the family business, I thought I was going to escape by going to college. After that, I worked in politics for a bit. Then I worked for Evergreen Airlines managing a ground handling hub in California, which taught me a lot about managing people. I went to Phoenix to try the investment and insurance business. Somewhere during this job, I was realizing my true calling was smaller towns and being a contractor. Eventually I just realized that I was homesick for roofing. I made my way back here, and my dad was happy I did.”
His timing was excellent. His father and a new business partner wanted to bring someone else on board to help position the business for growth. Another nearby roofing contractor named Warren Palmer was retiring, and they purchased his Pendleton business and sent Nelson to start it back up. They added an office in Kennewick as well and they had all he work they could handle. Finding qualified workers remained a struggle, but the three locations made travel much more efficient.
Some of the typical situations Nelson faces are different from those most roofers face. Much of North Central Oregon is a National Scenic Area, which has a lot of restrictions on building heights and materials; for example, highly reflective roofs and metal roofs are not allowed. On the other hand, the tallest building in many of these towns is only four stories tall, and usually access is not a problem.
That’s not to say that there aren’t the occasional challenges. “We had a built-up project at a college that required us to load and unload the roof using a helicopter,” he said. “That kind of project makes the next one you load with a crane seem like it is loading itself.”
Other recent projects include a commercial building renovation project that required design and installation of an exterior sheet metal and insulated single ply-roof system that helped qualify the project for LEED certification.
The company also completed the tear-off and replacement on a group of flat roofs at a hospital in the dead of winter. The roofs were over areas including the operating room, recovery, diagnostic imaging, nuclear medicine, the OB ward, part of emergency, and the doctor’s lounge and the administration offices. “I am proud to say we did not have one leak during that time due to the roof work, but my wife will also add that I may be the only human being who has ever gone 5 months without sleeping,” Nelson said.
But as far as “high-profile” projects go, Nelson points to the town’s iconic pizza restaurant as the job everyone remembers. The building has a unique design and the roof is a hodge-podge that required the replacement of PVC, custom sheet metal, cedar shakes and cedar siding. “We did everything, and we had to do it in sections,” he said. “It was like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle piece by piece, and you had to put it back together piece by piece. We’re very proud of that job.”
The restaurant also had to stay open during the process, so crews worked from 3 a.m. until just before it opened for lunch. “The job took about three months, and I am pretty sure every person I know and about two-thirds of the people I don’t know started every conversation for those three months (and probably a month afterward) with a comment about that job. Most people wanted to know why it was taking so long.”
Broadening His Horizons
Despite the companies’ success in the 1990s, Nelson couldn’t shake the feeling his way of doing business was stagnating. He joined WSRCA in 1998, and the experience changed his entire outlook. “It’s been a huge eye-opener,” he said. “WSRCA gave me an opportunity to become more involved in the roofing community outside of our local region. When you live in a small area, with very little contact with other contractors or designers, you can get exposed less and less to the huge variety of materials and methods that are available. In other words, it is easy to get into a rut and that is bad for both the contractor and customer and narrows the skill set of your employees.”
He found that the educational sessions and just sharing experiences with fellow contractors immediately improved his business. “The things I have learned at the Western Roofing Expo and Trade Show have been a huge value to me and our company,” he said. “Among these things are better ways to improve our safety culture or the importance of paying attention to insurance and legal issues. Also very helpful to me are the marketing, sales, profitability and time management training. With all that said, the technical information has been the best for our company. The membership benefit through the WSRCA that allows access to Jim Carlson of Building Envelope Technologies and Research has been huge for our business.”
When he first joined the WSRCA board, he was awed by the other board members. “I couldn’t imagine how all these people knew so much about the roofing industry and the workings of the association,” he said. “As time went on, and I learned more and more, there came a time when it made sense for me to start using what I had learned and give it back to the association as well. I was honored that the executive committee leadership at the time felt like I could contribute and lead the association as senior vice president and ultimately president.”
Nelson points to several key problems facing contractors today:
• Finding qualified workers. “I think the recruitment and retaining of quality workers has been, and is going to continue to be huge in the future. Our culture has been shifting in recent decades to where younger people are told that if you don’t go to college, you are not going to be successful. The truth is that trades such as roofing do offer a bright future and there are youth that should be encouraged to look for and find success as a trained roofing professional.”
• Natural resources and the price of materials. “Resources will be a concern in the future. Sources for asphalt, for instance, are getting harder to access for our industry as a whole. With refineries being closed or being overhauled to re-refine the sludge used in asphalt production, demand is going to increase. Asphalt is still the backbone of the roofing industry so this will be something to watch.
• Government regulation and legislation. “Regulation in general is always a concern for roofing contractors. While thoughtful regulation is inevitable and good, excessive and poorly planned regulation is harmful to our industry and consumers. We will need to continue to band together as an industry to find ways to make sure our influence and collective voice is heard by those that are passing laws that affect us and our consumers.”
Advice for Contractors
Nelson urges contractors to not only join associations but make the most of the experience by attending conventions and trade shows, as well as participating on committees and on the board. “The more you participate, the more you will get out of it personally,” he said. “If a company wants to improve and become better, involvement with an association like WSRCA is by far the best way to achieve your goals for success.”
According to Nelson, industry associations not only help each individual member, but elevate the industry as a whole, “I have seen firsthand how important it is to have local, regional, and national associations be the eyes, ears and voice of our industry,” he said. “Each has specific strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. The Western States Roofing Contractors Association watches and studies industry trends in the West, and our committees work hard to make a difference for our contractors in the region. The Western Roofing Expo is still the largest roofing show presented by roofing contractors for the roofing industry, and that is of great value to our membership. What if the WSRCA did not exist? What would we have to bring us together at the same table, face to face, to address concerns, issues, and for sharing of successes and encouraging the development and use of best practices and methods?”
His message to his fellow roofers is this: “Always try to become better at what you do. I had been through a time when I was content just to do what I had always done. It was working OK, so why learn something new or change the way I marketed our company? Then I started to see the industry begin to catch up and zoom past me. Luckily for me, this is when I chose to get more involved in the WSRCA and my I saw the roofing world in a whole new light. It excited me and made me want to improve and move forward with myself and my business.”
Western Roofing Expo 2012
Western States Roofing Contractors Association’s Western Roofing Expo 2012 will take place June 23-27 in
Las Vegas. For more information,