To stay afloat as a roofing contractor for nearly four decades says something. To do it — and do it well — in a market as competitive as Chicagoland speaks volumes.
That’s part of the legacy JJ Kuhn has taken in during his first three official years as a professional at Windward Roofing & Construction — one of the Windy City’s top full-service roofing contractors for industrial, commercial and residential complexes. Kuhn’s father, Randy, started the business in 1978 and carved a niche in installing superior low-slope and steep-slope roofing systems throughout the greater Chicago area.
Fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit and love for sailing, Randy Kuhn steadily grew the company to incorporate sheet metal, masonry and maintenance into the business model. The versatility remains one of the company’s strengths today.
“We preform various projects ranging from commercial/industrial buildings with some of the premier real estate companies in the nation, to high rises in metropolitan areas,” said JJ Kuhn, a corporate account manager.
At 24, he’s keeping his eyes wide open, learning all he can from his father and the team he built to keep the family business moving forward. Younger brother, Michael, 22, is a sales manager, and youngest sibling, Hunter, is still in high school.
“It’s great that our whole family is really involved,” Kuhn said. “It truly is a pleasure to be learning all I can from (Randy) while he’s still involved every day, although I know that as long as he is alive, he will be involved in this company somehow.”
Staying the Course
Windward has between 75 and 100 non-union employees during peak season and is based on Chicago’s southwest side.
Nearly all their projects (roughly 95 percent) are industrial and commercial re-roofing projects. Kuhn said they also do roughly five percent of residential and five percent new construction, but by invitation only.
The company has five separate departments: flat roofing; shingle roofing; sheet metal roofing; masonry; and service.
Like many multi-generation roofing contractors, Kuhn said he practically grew up in the company’s offices and warehouse and watched the industry from an interesting perspective — from the inside.
“I was born into it,” he explained. “At the age of 12, my dad would bring me to the office, and I would work in the warehouse sweeping floors and doing other miscellaneous jobs. When I turned 18 I started roofing in the summers and during spring and fall breaks from school.”
Kuhn said he shares his father’s enthusiasm for sailing and competed in the Chicago-Mackinac Race for four straight years. But he developed a true passion for the roofing business and knew he wanted ‘in’ after college.
He fondly describes the company’s 30th anniversary as one of his and Windward’s proudest moments.
“It was very special to see the company withstand the test of time of 30 years,” he said.
Another was landing the re-roof at Chicago’s Insurance Exchange Building at 175 W. Jackson Blvd. in 1999. It was Windward’s first high-rise building downtown and proved to be a big stepping stone that led to further work.
“It proved that we could perform high profile roofs in a high-profile area,” he said.
One of their larger, high-profile clients is grill giant Weber. The two companies have a long-standing relationship and Windward completed the roof on the corporate campus in Palatine, Ill. That project alone accounted for a roof needed to cover one million square feet.
Kuhn also noted they couldn’t do it without strong partnerships with leading industry manufacturers. Windward is one of the largest installers of Johns Manville in Illinois, and earned the title of a pinnacle contractor in each of the last three years. The company also installs products by Firestone Roofing, GAF and Versico, and has strong relationships with local distributors Gemco and Bone Roofing Supply.
Focus on People, Quality
Kuhn said Windward also emphasizes safety and education for its employees with partnerships with Safety Check. They act as outside field inspectors, trainers and safety consultants on all projects and are visible on jobsites. Windward also hosts quarterly workshops sponsored by their manufacturing partners in their facilities and has experienced crews with foreman and superintendents that offer daily safety supervision and tips to all field personnel.
Employees also benefit from company sponsored healthcare and retirement plans, a bonus program, and standard wages. Kuhn said an unheralded benefit is working on state-of-the-art equipment and all the support and resources needed from management to be successful on the jobsite.
Though they’ve enjoyed a lot of success, the hardest part of Kuhn’s job was having to downsize during the recent economic downturn.
“Like every company, we learned to tighten our belt, do more with less and fight through the hard times,” he said.
Education and training doesn’t stop inside company headquarters either. Windward regularly offers ‘roofing 101’ classes to clients and emphasizes roofing systems, codes and maintenance. Employees also stay keenly focused on customer satisfaction company-wide.
“We do have customer service training. We have quarterly meetings with our service foreman and discuss new programs that we have implemented to better serve our customers,” Kuhn said. Relationships are further built through the quality workmanship in all departments, and constant contact before, during and after all projects.
“Windward takes great pride in every job we complete,” Kuhn said. “We have superintendents and project managers that ensure that safety and quality are kept to our high standards.”
The company uses a variety of marketing strategies to stay atop Chicago’s highly competitive roofing market. Kuhn is a proponent of direct marketing, actively participating in annual trade shows like the Chicago Roofing Contractors Association (CRCA) and International Roofing Expo (IRE), and circulating mailers. Referrals and strong endorsements of Windward employees from satisfied customers are also a big lead producer.
“Our people throughout the company truly are the reason we’re successful,” he explained. “It’s our emphasis on quality and our attention to our customer’s needs.”