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Larry Marshall describes his ideal customer this way: “If I pull up and there is a brand-new American flag flying and a lawn that’s perfectly manicured and a parking lot that’s in good shape, then I know that’s the guy we want to do business with. You know they have a long-term commitment to their customers and employees. That’s what we specialize in — long-term commitment. ”

When Marshall, president of L. Marshall Roofing and Sheet Metal Inc. in Glenview, Ill., says his company is in it for the long haul, he isn’t kidding. The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and it’s growing despite a tough economy. The family-run company has another reason to celebrate in 2013: its history of outstanding workmanship and commitment to helping customers and employees also earned Marshall Roofing the distinction of being named Roofing Contractor’s Commercial Contractor of the Year.

Marshall has been with the company for 35 years, and he chalks up its success to a business philosophy that puts customers and employees first. “My family has a history of embracing the servant-leader model of management,” he said. “It works well with customers, and it certainly works well with our employees. I don’t think I would enjoy the business if it was any other way. It’s been fun to watch that process over the years.”

A Century of Service

Marshall Roofing is a union roofing and architectural sheet metal company that focuses almost exclusively on commercial work, along with a little high-end residential restoration work focusing on ornamental slate, tile, sheet metal work and green roofs. The company was originally founded by William Wente in 1913 in Winnetka, Ill., in a neighborhood called Hubbard Woods. “My dad, well over 40 years ago, became their operational vice president, and when their leadership decided to get out of the business, my dad purchased the company,” said Marshall. “My son Sean is now becoming active in the company, so that’s three different generations of Marshalls.”

Larry Marshall succeeded his father at the helm of the company as it evolved from a $1 million contractor with one truck and one crew to a full-service commercial contractor with 75 employees and an administrative team of eight people. “I don’t say this in a negative way, but moving from the mom-and-pop model to a professional working commercial construction model has been an exciting experience to witness, first as a little kid and now as the president,” he said.

Through it all, the company has tried to foster a family atmosphere. “We’re fortunate in that we have a lot of fathers and sons, and uncles and nephews,” said Marshall. “It’s very common at our company. The greatest reason we choose to be part of the collective bargaining agreement with Local 11 Roofers and Local 73 Sheet Metal is their apprenticeship training program and their commitment to safety and continued education programs. Over the years through that program we’ve had sons and nephews of journeymen come into the company and stay with us. Right now there are at least five family members at the company. It creates a wonderful working relationship — one of real cooperation.”

The company needs that spirit of teamwork to thrive in a tough market. “I’ve got great respect for the keen competition we have in Chicago. We have some of the best darn competitors in Chicago that you could have anywhere,” Marshall said. “They’re very efficient, they are very focused on safety, they are very focused on quality. Sometimes it’s tough to make clear to the consumer — the boss, the building owner — what your unique selling proposition is. You’ve really got to work at that with the competition that we face every day in Chicago.”

Marshall Roofing does its share of historic, high-profile buildings, and Marshall maintains his company thrives on tough projects with tight schedules and complicated specifications. “I sometimes tease our guys and say the customer’s nightmare project is our dream job,” he said. “The more challenging it is, the better it is for us. That’s what our guys enjoy doing.”

The company services major shopping centers and does a variety of church and synagogue work. Noteworthy projects in the Chicagoland area include the Merchandise Mart, Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, the Chicago Botanical Gardens, the Drake Hotel, the Knickerbocker Hotel, the Chicago Sheraton, the Museum of Science and Industry and Union Station. “I can’t let this interview go without mentioning that we put the roof on Halas Hall because we’re Bear fans as well,” Marshall said.

Current projects include the Chicago Board of Options Exchange Building, CNA headquarters downtown Chicago and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Building.

Learning to Listen

Marshall believes success in business means using your ears. After all, if you’re going to serve people, you have to know what their needs are. But it didn’t come easily for him. “For me, the biggest change in my life was really learning to listen,” he said. “I tend to be a Type A personality, as a lot of drivers are who own any business. When you’re a maverick, like most business owners are, you tend to be really focused on your goal. But if you really want to establish your goal, you have to involve everyone else. It has to be a good deal for everyone else. So that’s the idea — serving others as you’d like to be treated. And how else can you communicate if you are not listening?”

The company keeps the lines of communication open, highlighted by a series of key meetings throughout the year, beginning with a managerial meeting in the first quarter. “The accounting, sales and operational teams go up to Lake Geneva, and we spend two days. We talk about where we’ve been, and we bring hard statistics and hard measurables with us, and we talk about where we want to go. It’s a good time to catch our breath, become a little of more aware of where we’re at and collectively agree where we want to go. And we really prepare for that. In the construction business, you just can’t wing it anymore. You have to embrace all of the information technology that’s available today.”

Back in Glenview, the sales and operations teams meet every Tuesday. “We go over all of our work in progress and what we’re about to start,” he said. “We look at it from a safety point of view, an efficiency point of view, and a customer request point of view. Job by job, we go through that with the whole team around the table. It can be brutal, but in the end it’s a very refreshing way to avoid playing the blame game.”

In addition, company-wide meetings are held nine times a year to address issues such as safety and to conduct hands-on training with manufacturers’ reps. “It’s a great way to serve each other by getting everyone on the team involved,” Marshall said. “Think about it. Seventy-five percent of the costs are involved with the guys in the field and the foremen. They need to really feel they are part of the company — a huge part of the company. They have to feel — and it’s one word — appreciated. It’s all about the servant model. It’s much easier to listen if you feel appreciated. I don’t think it’s that complicated, but you have to live it, day in and day out.”

Marshall noted the company shows appreciation for employees by doing “the little things,” including providing a company newsletter, birthday cards, and logo items like caps and jackets. Four social events are the highlights of the year: a Cinco de Mayo barbecue, a Fourth of July company breakfast, a family outing at a White Sox game in August or September, and a holiday party in the shop in December.

When it comes to motivating employees, it all goes back to that one word: “Appreciation, appreciation, appreciation,” Marshall said. “As Mr. Peters says, catch your employees doing stuff right, over and over again. That’s what I embrace — continued education for myself and everyone else in the company, creating an environment where everyone from the first-year apprentice on up to myself feels they’re part of the action, they’re part of the process, and they aren’t just going through the motions of their job. If the sweeper around our dumpster can’t tell my customer what we’re doing that day and what progress we’ve made or not made, then I’m doing something wrong. I want every one of our employees to have that sense that in a way they are working with us, but they are also working for themselves. We want them to know they are that good, that they are appreciated, that they are never dependent on this company, but we are dependent on each other. That’s the type of environment I try to create for our company.”

Marshall is also active in the National Roofing Contractors Association, the Chicago Roofing Contractors Association and the Midwest Roofing Contractors Association. As a member of the executive committee of MRCA, he’s extending that servant model of communication to his peers in the industry. “It’s fun to be in a position where I could be of some influence in our industry that we all love and be of some service to my fellow contractors,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see the developing professional relationships — the collegial relationships — between the manufacturers, roof consultants, architects and the contractors.”

Building for the Future

Asked about his favorite memories at the company, Marshall again pointed to spending time with his employees. “I feel my greatest accomplishment at Marshall — the one I’ve enjoyed the most — is being a mentor to our next generation of leaders in the company,” he said. “As I see guys retire, and as I see their sons and nephews come up, it’s fun to be able to take the best of the past and the technology and new ideas of the present and help mold our future leaders.”

Putting customers and employees first appears to be working well for everyone, but the company is not about to rest on its laurels. “We’ve been chugging along in the down economy. In fact, we’ve been growing,” Marshall said. “But think about it — our clients have similar philosophies of doing business. They are in business for the long haul, as we are, and through word of mouth and through a commitment to taking on the most difficult challenges you can pose, we’re one of the privileged few contractors that gets the phone call to attend the pre-construction meetings, to offer our suggestions, listen to theirs and come up with our bid. You earn that. Over the generations, we’ve been able to earn that seat at the table, and I think all those customers know we keep on earning it as we go forward, day in and day out.”