Taking the Long View: At Waterproofing Associates, the Motto Is "Never Arrive"
Dennis Ryan believes in taking the long view when it comes to his business. He always has. Ryan, the president of Waterproofing Associates, co-owns the company with Steve Nash, its vice president, and they have kept their focus on the future since they joined the company.
“When we got into this we decided we were going to think long term,” he said. “It might hurt us right now if something went wrong and we needed to take care of something, but in the long run, it’s going to be good for us. So we just developed a long-term strategy and a do-the-right-thing mentality, and it’s something we’ve kept as our business model since July 15 of 1995.”
Ryan believes that the business strategy ensures top-quality workmanship and provides numerous benefits, including great referrals from clients and an energized workforce with minimal turnover. “Our clients appreciate the quality of the work we do, and our employees subscribe to it,” he said. “The people that are here want to be here because of the way we do business. They want to do it right, and they want to have good relationships with people.”
Headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., Waterproofing Associates (WA) was founded in 1992. Ryan and Nash came on board three years later. There have been some significant changes at the company over the past 19 years, but the emphasis on doing the right thing and taking the long view has never wavered.
The company averages about 100 employees and specializes in commercial and industrial roofing and waterproofing, both retrofit and new construction. Waterproofing Associates handles almost every kind of roofing system out there, and its versatility gives the company the ability to handle below-grade, above-grade and roofing work on any given project.
In August of 2012, the company signed a union agreement, and the move has allowed it to expand its reach. “We had talked about it for a long time, but we didn’t want to do it until it made business sense and we felt we were ready to compete in that market,” Ryan said. “It got to the point where we were banging our heads on the ceiling and we wanted to expand into that union market, and it has been a good move for us.”
Waterproofing Associates is a member of several industry associations and organizations, including the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), the Western States Roofing Contractors Association (WSRCA), National Roofing Legal Resource Center (NRLRC), Roofing Contractors Association of California (RCAC), Associated Roofing Contractors of the Bay Area Counties (ARCBAC), and Construction Finance Management Association (CFMA). Ryan is also the current president of the WSRCA.
An Industry Veteran
Ryan grew up in New York and got his start in the industry in the summer of 1974 when he joined a two-man roofing and siding company. “I started working for them, and the first project we did was a 12:12 roof on a bait shop in Yonkers, New York,” he remembered. “My job was to carry the shingles up the ladder. I was never in better shape in my life than I was at the end of that summer. Those guys taught me the trade — how to do the roofing, repair work, siding work. I worked with them a couple of years and I learned a lot from them, but I kind of had wanderlust, and because of that I traveled a lot.”
Ryan went through the union apprenticeship training program and became a journeyman, and his trade background came in handy during his travels. He worked in California, then traveled to Europe and did some slate work in London. He returned to California and lived in Lake Tahoe for a few years. “When my daughter was born I said, ‘OK, it’s time to get real,’ and I moved back down to the Bay Area,” he said. “That was in 1983, and I’ve been here ever since — and I’m still in the industry.”
After more than a decade working as a project manager for other large commercial roofing companies, Ryan decided to join WA in 1995. Ryan and Nash leveraged their experience and their relationships to expand the company’s commercial business. “The first year we grew from a $1.5 million company to a $3.5 million company, and the next year up to a $5 million company,” he said. “Because of the background Steve and I had and the contacts we had with clients, manufacturers, consultants and other people we knew, we slowly took hold and started using those relationships to grow the operation.”
Within five or six years, as the company continued to grow, the previous owners moved on. “It just came together,” said Ryan. “There was a lot of hard work and a lot of luck involved. We had a lot of good luck, good fortune and good people that we worked with. We were very fortunate. We still are.”
Committed to its Workforce
Keeping employees safe is a responsibility everyone at WA takes very seriously, and a rigorous safety program is a key component of its long-term strategy — and the right thing to do. “We just want to make sure there is no compromising on safety,” said Ryan. “I once read that for every dollar you spend on safety, you get four dollars back, so I said, ‘We’ll go with that. Don’t worry about what it takes to be safe — just do it.’”
At the beginning of the year, each foreman is given a package of 52 toolbox talks, and the foreman is responsible for conducting a weekly meeting and documenting the results. Daily job-specific site meetings are also required before work begins every day. The company also holds bi-monthly breakfast safety meetings at a local hotel ballroom and quarterly safety meetings for the entire company. WA also takes advantage of outside opportunities to attend safety programs offered by associations, unions and other organizations.
“We have two designated safety supervisors here that we use as contact people for outside inspections, insurance and local entities, but we consider everyone here at this company as a safety supervisor,” said Ryan. “Everybody is responsible for safety. As owners of the company, we are very serious about it and we hold everyone to the highest standard when it comes to safety. The message from me to all of my superintendents and especially our foremen on site is if you need something to get a job done safely, talk to your supervisor, ask for what it is you need and get what you need. If you don’t get it, talk to me and I’ll make sure you have what you need to be safe. No one has ever had to come to me, ever.”
The company was put to the test by the recent recession. When the economy started to falter, Ryan and Nash knew they had to make some tough choices if they wanted to avoid layoffs. After taking a 25 percent cut in salary themselves, Ryan and Nash proposed a 10 percent salary cut for all employees, eliminated bonuses and stopped the company match on the 401(k) plan. But they kept everyone on staff. “When 2008 came, we had to circle the wagons,” Ryan said. “We had to do what we had to do to survive, but to a person it was, ‘We don’t want to lose anybody here.’ And everybody bought into it. Everybody wanted to stay. Everybody wanted to work through it.”
Ryan cites weathering the downturn in the economy and coming out of it a stronger entity as simultaneously one of the best and worst experiences for the company. Last May, the previous salaries were reinstated, and the 401(k) matching is scheduled to resume on June 1, 2014.
The switch from a non-union shop to a union shop was another big milestone. “We needed to do it because of the type of work we were doing and the type of work we were missing out on,” Ryan said. “There were a lot of dances we weren’t invited to, and there were contracts we didn’t get because we weren’t union.”
When they crunched the numbers, everyone agreed with the plan to sign on with the union. “When the time came, our field people said, ‘If you think this is the right thing to do, we’re good with it.’ It became a mutual agreement with us and everybody decided to do it, so I think it’s just been a positive thing,” he said.
He credits his talented, creative staff and its positive attitude as integral to the company’s success. “They don’t have any problems rising to challenges on the job,” Ryan said. “They don’t have any problem with the task at hand — to stretch a little, to learn something new that they might not have been comfortable with at the beginning. We’re all continually learning things that help us all get better at what we do. I guess you’d call it teamwork. Everybody here just works well together. It’s a good group mentality with a positive approach to things.”
One way the company keeps everyone growing and improving is through ongoing training. “You have to continue to learn and educate yourself and the people you work with. It’s an important element in being successful,” Ryan said. “There is always something new taking place with products, applications, codes and other legal matters. Staying as informed as possible helps you keep that cutting edge — and that cutting edge is always moving. If you stop, it’s going to get away from you.”
As president of WSRCA, Ryan urges all contractors to take advantage of the opportunities at the Western Roofing Expo. “I have 10-15 people there every year,” he said. “The trade show always has something for everyone. I just have to get my sales team to stop thinking about the expo as a mix of Oktoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day at the same time. But they still come back with things we can use; they do utilize their time there and their relationships with some of the manufacturers and consultants and whoever else happens to be there. So we do get something productive out of it every time. And for me as a leader of this company, as the president, I’m proud of them. What they do is great. They know how to have fun and they know how to do their job and it does work out. So other contractors just need to figure that out — how much fun it is and how much you can learn from it.”
Ryan has been a board member of the WSRCA for more than 10 years. He became president last year, just as the association’s new executive director, Tom Pappas, came on board. Ryan’s top priorities as president included ensuring a smooth transition, and it’s been beneficial that the new association office is in nearby Morgan Hill, so he can meet regularly with Pappas.
Other priorities for the association during his tenure included continuing to improve technology. WSRCA has revamped its website and continues to build its presence on social media sites including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Ryan also wants to spread the word about the wealth of technical information the WSRCA provides its members. “We produce bulletins on a regular basis with technical information contractors need, and that information is getting out to our membership more efficiently in email blasts,” he said. “Having that information and knowing about it helps other contractors. It’s helped us. It’s kept us up to date with what’s happening. If you’re aware, you want to take advantage of it. So we want to get that message out to people.”
Ryan commended his co-workers for pitching in to help him embrace the challenge of serving as WSRCA president. “It’s been a great experience, a chance to work with some really great people,” he said. “We have a great board of directors. The staff has been great. The former executive director, Arlene Lawson, was great. The new executive director, Tom Pappas, is great. All of the people on the associate advisory board — it’s been a great opportunity to meet these people.”
Looking back at his 40 years in the industry, Ryan sees proof that long-term thinking drives people to keep learning and growing. He sums up the commitment to continual improvement as a “never arrive” attitude, noting that people who think they have arrived — who think that they’ve reached the pinnacle of their profession — are making a crucial mistake. “You do that and you’re finished,” he said. “You’re done. You’re not going to keep up with that cutting edge. Steve and I hold ourselves and everyone that works here to that ‘never arrive’ standard. It keeps everyone on their toes.”
“Never arrive” has become something of a company motto, and when someone falters, the toughest criticism one can level is to say, “I see symptoms of arriving here.”
On his birthday last year, Ryan’s sons presented him with a gift that now hangs in his office: the original hammer he used on his first roofing job in Yonkers, N.Y., framed below a brass plate that reads “Never Arrive.”
“I think they get it,” Ryan said. “Keep after it — never arrive.”