Timing can be a funny, unpredictable attribute both in life and in business.
That was certainly the case for Greg Carlson, who grew up around his father’s roofing company, serving Hillsboro and the greater metro area surrounding Portland, Ore. Though growing up he seldom dreamed about becoming a business owner himself, the opportunity to lead his own company in a field he grew to love arose in 2004. Whether he felt ready or not, Carlson took it, and hasn’t looked back since.
“I think initially I was not prepared or even wanted to actually run my own company,” explained Carlson, who was 30 years old at the time he started Carlson Roofing Company, Inc. “I remember feeling like I was a bit overwhelmed. It took a gradual transition of about four to five years for me to feel comfortable and realize I could do it. It definitely was not an overnight thing.”
Frankly, Carlson admits his choices were limited.
Carlson’s father, Bob, started his roofing business in 1971 and grew it to be among the leading commercial companies in the area. Greg started working with the company at age 14, assigned with cleaning up the warehouse and roofing trucks coming in from the field. He was on a roofing crew by age 18 and from there steadily rose through the ranks. After moving away for a few years following college, he came back to the family business as an estimator — determined to learn all he could from his mentor in business and in life.
By 2004, Carlson’s father neared retirement age and his company’s insurance carrier eliminated all policies for residential projects — a segment of the business that Greg was largely responsible for incorporating into the business model.
As his skills in the trade developed, so did the younger Carlson’s ideas for helping the company grow.
Timing was critical. Not only did the formation of a new company coincide with the insurance shift, but Carlson said, in retrospect, it also helped him establish his business in the market before the housing crisis and related economic downturn started in 2008. Although the financial crisis decimated many small businesses, Carlson’s retained its solid revenue stream. The business not only survived, but grew by diversifying into waterproofing, specialty jobs and custom roofing projects. It also didn’t hurt that the Portland area — particularly the industrial corridor near Hillsboro — continued to be a haven for high-tech companies and drew residents that needed residential options and commercial services.
In the past two years, in particular, Carlson said the company’s growth has continued steadily, largely due to exceptional talent hired both in the office and in the field.
There are currently about 60 employees, the majority of which are members of the Roofers and Waterproofers Local #49. A four-member sales team serves residential, multi-family, and commercial roofing clients. The administrative staff consists of a bookkeeper, safety and project coordinators, a production manager, and two superintendents. A service manager position should be filled shortly to help manage three service crews. The company also has six steep-slope crews and two low-slope crews.
Staying versatile is essential in remaining successful in the market, and is one of the benefits of maintaining a union affiliation, Carlson said. Members receive high-quality training in multiple aspects of roofing, and participate in an apprenticeship program.
“It’s a big key to our success,” he explained. “It boils down to being able to service the customers. They may have several types of buildings and all different types of needs or situations. We want to offer a customer a full range of services and have the workforce with the skillset to do different systems.
There are a lot of companies out there that will say they don’t do cedar shakes, or flat roofs, or hot asphalt. I don’t want to tell a customer ‘no’ as much possible.”
In addition to the invaluable technical expertise and commitment to high-quality craftsmanship afforded by the apprentice program, Carlson said he believes strongly that the best tool graduates come away with is far less tangible.
“The apprenticeship program really tries to put in this mindset that this is a career, and that you’re going to be trained in all aspects of roofing, not just one specific skill,” he said. “They’re really about trying to train people to do the various different types of projects. We have such a wide variety of skills, we can complete just about any project out there.”
Field employees receive a union pension and health insurance, and office staff members are also eligible for the union health plan and 4 percent company match for 401k accounts. While the union is active in local schools promoting the field as a viable career option, Carlson said he still faces the same workforce challenges other contractors have, and that having the manpower to meet demand is among his chief frustrations. He’s had success building his team in different ways.
“We’ve been able to find some younger guys that are new to the industry and basically start them from scratch, but sometimes it doesn’t always work,” Carlson said. “The majority of recruitment comes via networking.”
Carlson said that happens in both formal and informal settings and by staying active in local and regional trade organizations. Carlson was a member of the Western States Roofing Contractors Association board for six years and served on the organization’s steep-slope committee.
Part of the appeal from outsiders is the conscious effort Carlson and his team put toward developing a family-like culture across all aspects of the company. It starts with he and his wife, Sarah, who officially joined the company in 2006 to handle several administrative duties and company promotions.
“Construction wasn’t foreign to me, but he knew I’d be driven to help the company succeed and take advantage of the opportunity to develop and grow the business,” she said.
The company recently hosted its annual summer picnic and, in an effort to help employees bond, regularly hosts afternoon barbeques and annual holiday parties.
“We want it to be a family atmosphere and those events help foster that,” he said. “It’s about trying to work together and build a team together as a group.”
Safety is also a priority. Company-wide safety meetings are scheduled each week, and Carlson utilizes outside sources such as the Associated General Contractors and specialized vendors for regular training. The company’s in-house safety coordinator administers safety plan on every job.
“We’re offering a career that you can have a good life, raise a family of your own on, and find a company that you feel at home with and stick with over the long-term,” Carlson said. “We have exceptional people and a great team atmosphere, that helps us succeed.”