Tim Leeper couldn’t get it right. No matter how many hours he put in, the number of splinters that pierced his skin or the depth of the bruises on his knees, learning construction from an ‘old-world’ carpenter set in his ‘old-school’ ways was a regular exercise in hearing more about what he did wrong than what he did right. On every project.
Then he stepped on his boss’ mother’s roof. The job was a large re-roof with asphalt shingles, and it was completed in one day — a rarity on the projects he took on as the carpenter’s apprentice shortly after graduating high school. The precise shingle lines, quick installation and clean jobsite didn’t earn him a compliment or even an “atta boy” from his initial mentor. But it was the first time he didn’t hear a complaint from him. And it felt great for a reason he didn’t expect.
“I’ve been results-oriented from a young age, and the day I saw that roof go on, I felt so proud knowing what we accomplished in one day,” he said. “I liked seeing the completed roof and having that feeling.”
Fast forward roughly two decades later, and Leeper was again experiencing that feeling as he looked out at the crowd of roughly 400 peers and industry professionals at the 2015 Best of Success conference in Phoenix in September. The president of Tim Leeper Roofing in Nashville, Tenn., just accepted Roofing Contractor’s 2015 Residential Roofing Contractor of the Year award, given annually to contractors that employ industry best practices, take care of their employees, and excel at quality workmanship and customer satisfaction.
His company was among more than 150 roofing contractors nominated for the honor and was chosen from a handful of businesses that engaged in the selection process.
“My nerves were getting the better of me, my hands were sweating, and I kind of didn’t feel like it was going to happen,” he said moments after leaving the podium with the crystal trophy in hand. “I was ready to cheer for the winner, whoever they were, but … wow! I’m still shaking.”
Leeper’s ascent to the top in roofing couldn’t have been predicted. He and his brother, Nickey, who Tim calls his ‘right-hand man,’ grew up humbly. Their father worked as an auto mechanic in and around the Nashville area, and their mother worked for a property management company that operated apartment buildings, including the one in which they lived. Leeper said that as a kid he took on jobs such as walking dogs, cutting grass and picking up cigarette butts from porches around the apartments to help out.
The first real job he had at an upscale steakhouse in high school not only provided more pay, but in retrospect, was an important part of Leeper’s personal and professional growth.
“The attention to detail for everything, whether it was how the table was set to how we carried the food, was second to none, and it was so important that it went into my work ethic and always stuck with me,” he described. “Everything mattered, and it either helped you or hurt you when it came to performance.”
Leeper continued to work there and dabbled in meat sales before he was persuaded to think about that apprenticeship and construction as a career. Within another year, he was hired by a local roofing contractor and really dove into the trade by learning how to install low-slope and sheet metal roofs. He also married longtime girlfriend, Alanna, and had two children, which made his decision to go out on his own and form his own company in 2004 much bolder.
“I can’t remember my exact thoughts, but it wasn’t good,” Alanna, also a co-owner, recently recalled about hearing Tim’s decision to start his own roofing business. “We were young, we had young children, and I basically signed my life away — and he signed his away — to do something we’ve never done before. I never even thought something like (Contractor of the Year) would be possible for us.”
The Leepers stayed committed and patient, working and living out of the same 1,100-square-foot home while Alanna balanced some bookkeeping with assignments as a freelance court reporter. The company started solely on residential projects, but now enjoys a healthy, diversified mix of residential (65 percent) and commercial (35 percent), with an emphasis on re-roofing.
Leeper said the company expanded and that the quick growth surprised him. After plateauing for a couple of years, he posted a record year in 2012, earning six times the amount of revenue from prior years. Leeper said he knew then he was really onto something, and the business required a new leadership structure and way of thinking to move forward.
“We were doing well, but I didn’t see what I wanted from our performance,” he explained. “I had to reassess our structure at a lot of different levels and really emphasize our core belief in caring about quality and doing things right.”
He sought help from peers at industry events like Best of Success, and coaching from experts outside of roofing that focus on leadership and business strategy. What resulted was a better, more efficient workforce that embraced accountability from Leeper on down.
“We build relationships based on a single thing ... trust,” he said. “Without trust, nothing ever thrives. It can limp along but you can never get the most out of a relationship without trust.”
Leeper, like many roofers, acknowledges that the negative perceptions of the profession overshadow the positive ones, particularly in the eyes of the public. But he believes it can be overcome and turned around with big and small steps.
“Perception is reality, and if you and your company have a bad one, that can change, but often it doesn’t,” he said. “You basically write your own ticket by what you put out there and being in charge of where you want it to go.”
Small gestures — like waving to passing motorists while heading to or from jobsites, or holding doors open for people while representing the company — mean a great deal to Leeper, and he firmly believes it can lead to future business. That’s when he and his team are already in front of potential customers. To get there, Leeper said he doesn’t rely on traditional marketing campaigns, but instead employs a guerrilla marketing concept; using the free or low-cost media platforms to target, reach and engage specific audiences.
He self produces short videos that generally range between 45 seconds to two minutes on any number of topics and posts them on the company’s website (www.timleeperroofing.com), YouTube and other social media channels. At 39, Leeper is just as comfortable on camera dousing himself and a co-worker for the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ as he is providing detailed demonstrations on how to handle pipe flashings and vents on a roof replacement.
He’s also continuously tweaking and improving the company’s website and regularly creates social media content. It all helps with the company’s exposure, but nothing has been as beneficial as the work with video, he said.
“The videos are so powerful and just a way to get your message out,” he explained. “I’m an extremely social guy, and compared to traditional marketing platforms, there’s something to be said for doing things yourself and having your hands on the pulse of what you’re putting out there.”
Bottom line, he said it’s proving to be a big lead generator in ways he didn’t expect.
Part of the strategy now is to also let the viral nature of Web marketing help build his customer base. Leeper said he also leverages the medium to allow current customers to talk directly to future customers through testimonials. Asking in advance for honest reviews once the job is completed is part of every sales call. Despite the potential for damage, Leeper said he doesn’t worry about bad reviews.
“We always talk to and listen to what our customers say,” he said. “When you have the right approach with the right outlook and perspective of what a customer is and can be, you do things with the customer’s best interest at heart. And they see that.”
Giving back to the community is also a big part of Leeper’s personal and professional philosophies.
Leeper and the company were instrumental in growing the annual Music City Guitar Tour, where organizers collected signed guitars from celebrities across the region to compete for votes from the public. Charities were nominated and mobilized their members to vote online over a 30-day period, and the winning nonprofit received the guitar as well as cash prizes from local sponsors.
Guitars autographed by The Black Crowes, Rickey Skaggs, Kings of Leon, Dave Ramsey, Trace Adkins, Pat Summitt and the “Duck Dynasty” family are among those that charities received.
The company also founded Help Cycle, which assists local nonprofit organizations that don’t receive government funding. In 2014, the organization sold out its first golf tournament to benefit four local charities, including a shelter for families in crisis and services for those with developmental disabilities. He’s also very involved is supporting church events in Nashville and sponsors local softball teams.
“These people who live in our community support our business when they can choose anyone they want. We have a responsibility back to them to support things that are important,” he explained. “When someone does something for me, I want to do something likewise for them.”
Fostering goodwill and ‘seeding back’ to the community in different ways has a positive impact on the bottom line, too. Sponsoring several little league baseball and softball teams has helped create deep relationships that led to more than $30,000 in work this past year, he said.
“Thankfulness and appreciation are lost arts in business today,” he said. “I think a lot of businesses have lost the concept of being thankful for the people that drive their business. I want to be a giver. I don’t just want to be a taker. We get paid for our services, but we’re not in it just for us. That’s why we have good relationships.”