Last October we introduced the Young Guns series, which puts the spotlight on roofing professionals in their 20s and 30s. As part of our second installment in the Young Guns series, Roofing Contractor asked these next-generation roofing contractors to provide their perspective on a rapidly changing industry and share their insights on key issues including generational differences, social media and recruiting new employees.

A tough economy and a rapidly changing world can increase the tension between members of different generations. But in an era marked by rapid change, the younger generation of roofing contractors we spoke with expressed a genuine appreciation for the strengths of co-workers from the previous generation.

Cheryl McGlothlin of Empire Roofing said her company was very fortunate to have both seasoned veterans and younger people working together. “I think it is a perfect balance,” she said. “We both need each other to learn from. The seasoned veterans have the knowledge and the young people have the energy. It works out!”

Kevin Gwaltney of Diamond Roofing also commended his company’s sense of teamwork in a rapidly changing environment. “When my father started his business in 1979, the customer basically had to decide if they wanted three plies or four plies and if they wanted an aggregate surfacing,” he said. “Today, we have so many options and ways to apply that it has made it very difficult to transition from one culture to the next. Technology is everywhere and our field has had to embrace it. A Hispanic workforce has created challenges to culture and communication they must be dealt with in a positive manner. Our company is young, energetic and motivated to be successful. We do not have generational differences, but we do have a need for a training and development plan to educate field and front-line managers.”

Dane Bechtholdt of Douglass Colony Group pointed to radical changes in processes and procedures inside the office as well as the products installed in the field. “The adoption of new technologies has streamlined many processes and eliminated the use of paper in most reporting,” he said.

Since Douglass Colony is a 65-year-old company, the range of time people have been at the company varies greatly, mentioned Bechtholdt. “You have some people that have been here over 30 years and this is the only job they’ve ever had, to younger college grads coming in with fresh ideas and a firm grasp on new technology,” he said. “The biggest generational differences within the company is the guys that have been here for a long time are more reluctant to embrace the newer technologies versus the tried and true way they’ve used for years. Both the younger and older generations can add great benefit to the organization.”

Tracey Donels of KPost pointed out that his company draws on the strengths of its founders, but building a core of younger workers was a priority from the start. “When Keith started KPost he went out and got the best and brightest to build his company. He put together a great team, and often the best aren’t spring chickens,” he said. “We really have an older generation and younger generation working at KPost. Luckily one of the vice presidents, Brent McFarlin, is right in between those two sets, which gives him a unique placement to continue the growth of the company. I hope I can assist in fostering the younger generation, which I am a part of, into the future of KPost.”

Geoff Mitchell of Mid-South Roof Systems believes the biggest change he’s seen in the business culture is a level of openness among groups of contractors. “From the NRCA’s FEI (Future Executives Institute) program to the Best of Success, the level of openness in the business is unprecedented in my experience,” said Mitchell. “I believe that a large driver of this is the desire of Generation X and younger generations to compare notes with their peers across the country. This desire, combined with the ease of communication through the Internet and e-mail, has resulted in a network of contractors and consultants willing to compare best practices. I believe that this raises the bar for all contractors and improves the industry as a whole. This is an inspiring group to be part of, and I am very interested to see where it leads next.”

Reaching Customers in the Digital Age

The ways customers get their information have been changing, and marketing has changed with it. The need for reaching them hasn’t changed, and neither has the importance of customer referrals — no matter what form they come in. Shelley Metzler with Interstate Roofing noted that 72 percent of their volume of work is made up of referrals and previous customers. “We see anything that that gets our name and logo in front of our potential customers is beneficial,” said Metzler. “We spend a lot of time and money on customer-service related applications. We just invested in a program that brings the roof to the customer. We are also still very involved in good old-fashioned networking. We find that people want to do business with someone they trust — and like.”

Metzler notices one key difference with today’s customers. “Everyone wants everything now,” she said. “Think about how infuriating it is to wait on a slow Internet connection. Just 10 years ago we would have been amazed at the speed, but now we’re irritated if it’s anything less than immediate. We are seeing a lot of that within our regular customer interaction. Consumers are much more educated (since everything you could possibly want to know about roofing is on the Internet) and their expectations are higher.”

Bechtholdt explained that while social media plays a part in Douglass Colony’s marketing plan, they have achieved the most bang for the buck with other digital media and search engine optimization. “Douglass Colony maintains a Facebook and a LinkedIn page; however given the nature of our business (commercial, not residential) and the narrow demographic of potential clients, it is not the ideal marketing tool for us,” he said. “However, Douglass Colony does focus much of its marketing efforts online through search engine optimization, website updates, press releases, online articles, monthly e-newsletters/blasts and more.”

Bechtholdt noted that these online efforts have been highly effective in moving the company up the search engine rankings and improving their visibility online. “More people than ever visit our website and jobs have been landed as a direct result of this online optimization,” said Bechtholdt.

Mitchell noted Mid-South is also exploring the best way to leverage social media. “Since we are 100 percent commercial and typically B2B, social media’s role is even more difficult to understand,” he said. “A residential contractor has a pretty clear-cut mission with his social media presence. The goal of social media and the target market in a B2B environment with a broad customer base (GCs, owners, consultants, etc.) is still unclear to us. At a very basic level, we use LinkedIn as a tool for individual employees to track their contacts (our customers) as they move around their industries,” said Mitchell.

Recruiting New Employees

The digital age is also affecting the way the roofing industry reaches out to find new employees. Many of the contractors we spoke with were exploring new methods of finding workers, while others stressed the importance of marking out a solid career path.

“Be honest about the opportunities out there and make sure they know what they are getting into,” Donels advised. “You need to make sure they will work hard and learn the business from the ground up. Working in the field, I think is important to get the respect of the rank and file. You can get that without working in the field, but I think they look at you a little differently when they know you’ve swung a mop as well.”

Bechtold believes his company does a good job of reaching out to the younger generation. “Douglass Colony works with Colorado State University’s Construction Management program and their internship program,” he said. “Many of our project managers are under 30 years old and one was hired on straight from the internship program. Douglass Colony does on-the-job training and pays for any necessary job certifications (OSHA, sales, etc.). Douglass Colony also is participating in local career fairs, which attracts younger audiences and currently has many positions posted on many job boards.”

Mitchell pointed to the big picture. “I think that this battle must be fought in two locations — at the local level and the national level,” he said. “The NRCA and other industry-related organizations need to continue to increase their relevancy to younger workers and potential workers. They also need to help their member contractors retain their younger workers in all areas of their organizations (field and office). At the local level, contractors must work to improve their own recruiting programs so that they are tapping into sources of younger potential workers prior to these workers entering the workforce. This looks different in each market depending on many different factors (demographics, population density, cost of living, etc.). However, some of the best organizations to partner with are local high schools, trade schools, churches, returning veterans programs and local civic organizations. True involvement in the local community can allow a company to tap a valuable source of potential employees.”

McGlothlin serves on board of directors for the Midwest Roofing Contractors Association and heads up its Young Contractors Council, and she’s actively involved in paving the way for the next gerneation of industry leaders. “It has been a wonderful experience. I am blessed to have been considered and to know be part of a wonderful board that has so much knowledge to share with me,” she said.

Gwaltney wants to pass on his father’s knowledge to the next generation. “The roofing industry is a great industry and I am proud to be working in it,” he said. “The older generation speaks of times when they thought it was more fun, but I do not pay much attention. Government regulation, taxes, litigation have all added complexity to this industry, and it is not just about putting on a good roof. This complexity wears many business leaders out and can be terribly frustrating. At the same time, roofing is in my blood and is my trade that I am very proud. It is important, as a roofing professional, we run our companies with the highest integrity and professionalism. We all have the responsibility to improve the industry and make it attractive to next generation to become involved with integrity and professionalism.”

Stephanie Fujiwara is associate editor and Chris King is editor of Roofing Contractor. If you’d like to be featured in a future Young Guns article, send an e-mail to kingc@bnpmedia.com.