Headed for the Finish Line: Ken Duval Abandons Olympic Dream for Rewarding Career as Roofing Contractor
Ken Duval’s love for the outdoors and penchant for hard work as a roofing contractor developed at a young age. The Massachusetts native grew up near a 75-acre farm where he started working odd jobs at age 14 to help reach his first big dream of buying a truck by the time he could legally drive. Soon that freedom of mobility gave him the opportunity to easily get to the coast, where he developed his love for kayaking in and along the Atlantic Ocean.
What started as a hobby quickly turned to an obsession and lit a competitive fire under Duval that got him involved in the water-racing circuit. Though essentially homeless at age 17 due to family issues, Duval graduated high school and enrolled in night carpentry classes while spending his days laboring on roofs with a company located just outside of Boston.
“I’m naturally an outdoor person, so I was drawn to the trade,” Duval explained. “It was scary but thrilling because of the introduction to heights. This was before fall protection guidelines so it almost seemed like a rock-climbing type of sport, only I got rewarded with good money.”
With those earnings, he had enough to start purchasing racing kayaks and fill the gas tank for regular road trips to competitions along the Atlantic shoreline.
Duval competed in the flat-water sprinting circuit across New England, and he started winning. His quickness and consistency impressed scouts enough to get a serious look from the U. S. national team. After qualifying, Duval now recalls thinking deeply about his life heading in two different directions.
At age 23, and with the country in the throes of a recession, the lure of competing for your country and pursuing an Olympic career was tempting. But Duval said he also felt confident in his abilities to build a business, and that he might regret sacrificing that opportunity in order to make the physical and mental commitment to become a world-class kayaker.
“That was the turning point,” he said. “I thought, realistically, even if I had made it to the top, where would I be working now? No one’s going to be rich and famous being a kayaker. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to do it, it was about keeping food in my belly.”
Duval’s pragmatic approach served him well again in the early 1990s when the New England housing market was hit hard by another recession. Laid off and living in his brother’s basement, Duval poured all his money into his truck and tools, and started doing odd handyman jobs and roofing repairs on his own.
In the tight economy, more people looked for repairs rather than large-scale roof replacements, and Duval said he was able to find steady work and develop his niche in residential roofing.
“Eventually, I got a guy working for me, and a few more guys, and I was able to buy a 1-acre piece of commercially zoned property to hold my equipment,” he said. That investment in a wetland property in North Reading, Mass., that no one else wanted set the stage for his company’s growth over the past two decades. When the 2-acre commercial parcel next door went on the market, Duval grabbed it and was able to leverage the combined space into profits since he can store tractor-trailer loads of materials.
“That’s a big deal, because it means I can negotiate directly with manufacturers to buy roofing materials in bulk and can save up to 30 percent on each job,” he explained. Having more control over the materials he needs allows Duval more flexibility with schedules and inclement weather.
Duval also established a transfer station on the site, making him the only roofing contractor with one in his market, and among the most innovative and green roofing contractors in the state. While most contractors have to pay to transport their waste to landfills, Duval’s crews are able to recycle roughly 90 percent of their debris, and turn the materials into a revenue stream.
“The transfer station saves both time and money, not to mention the environment,” he said. “Almost all our waste is recycled, but rather than having to haul it to a commercial transfer station, I have a recycling company that comes to me and pays me.”
Duval said the savings from recycling and both ordering and storing materials in bulk keeps him competitive. He also uses technology to lower costs and said he wouldn’t have more than 5,000 residential roofing customers without investing in his website, which features testimonials, videos featuring his crew and educational features for roofing novices.
In a Day’s Work
Duval Roofing also sets itself apart from others in the market by completing projects in one day.
That requires meticulous planning, trust and accountability across the entire 10-man crew. It starts at the morning jobsite meeting, when Duval walks the team through a computer-designed diagram of the entire roof. Portions are sectioned off by color and coded for assignment to a respective team member, who’s responsible for completing that section. More experienced roofers receive the more difficult tasks to keep the project moving.
The meetings cut down on time spent discussing roles and responsibilities on the site, and Duval said it also helps him accurately measure and prepare the necessary materials to finish the job. To meet their commitment of being done between the time a homeowner leaves for work and returns at the end of day, he relies on teamwork. Each member buys into the philosophy of striving to do in eight hours what it might take other contractors 10-12 hours to pull off.
They also take pride in a completed job, and that homeowners enjoy the security of knowing their home won’t be exposed to the elements, and don’t have to worry about materials or waste on their property overnight, Duval said.
Accountability is incredibly important to the entire process, too.
“Each roofer or team of roofers is assigned to a facet section. If a mistake is made, it’s easily traced back to the individual,” he said. “The roofer is well aware that he is judged and compensated for his/her efficiency.”
And the accountability starts at the top. Duval does all the estimating himself and saves time by using EagleView Technologies’ aerial imaging and measurement technology to map roofs for pricing and materials. He also uses EagleView maps to help make sure work assignments are fair and precise to the square foot.
Trust and loyalty make a difference, too. Ten of Duval’s employees have been with the company for five years or more, and eight have been there 15 years or longer.
“There’s no way of hiding on the roof,” Duval explained. “We’ve got to work together for it to come out right. We strive to do the job right, and we’re all getting better together. The older guys are getting more efficient, and the younger guys are getting more knowledge and experience by working with them.”
That trust goes both ways. Duval admits he could not have stayed in business successfully through the recent recession had he not lowered profit margins and told his crews they needed to be responsible for more square footage — at the same wage — until the economy improved.
Good communication is key for all of it to work — even when the discussions aren’t easy.
“I’m part psychologist really,” he says of handling employee concerns. “When they’ve got to complain, you’ve got to listen to them. Without them, where would I be?”
On the Water
Duval said he also wouldn’t be where he is today without his wife, Kim, whom he married in 1995. She is heavily involved in several customer-service aspects of the business. They have a son, Jacob, 10, and daughter, Rachel, 8.
His other love — the water — still remains an integral part of his life. He said he kayaks 10 miles a day on his carbon-Kevlar surf ski at least four days a week, depending on workload. The appeal is simple: being so hands-on in his business, it’s the one place where he can totally disconnect from the stresses of his work reality because there’s little room for error when paddling in the open ocean.
“I’m not thinking about any of that (work) stuff because I’m constantly worried about what I’m doing right then,” he explained. “When you’re in that boat…you need to focus more on the water. You’ve got to stay on the ball out there because if you flip over it’s very difficult to overcome.”
Yet even while cutting through salty ocean water and thrashing through currents, Duval, now 49, said he has a water-protected cellphone handy in case an emergency develops. And even then, he doesn’t regret that decision he made long ago to be a roofing contractor.
“It’s happened before, and I won’t be surprised when it happens again,” he said of the rare kayaking intrusions. “I didn’t think of it as a sport or competition, it was just a lot of fun to do. I like doing my own thing at my own pace.”