Hoping to steer him down a different career path than his own, Vladimir Smolyanov — with his wife’s blessing — put his oldest son, Victor, on a rooftop job to get a first-hand look at the business.
The long hours under a hot sun exposed to messy materials while working dozens of feet above the ground was surely enough to change the 13-year-old’s perspective about life as a roofing contractor — they thought.
And it did. Just not in the way they intended.
“It totally backfired,” Victor said, grinning as he recalled the irony of what turned out to be a critical life experience. His first day, after all, was supposed to just be roof recover — the kind of job that didn’t require a tear-off or much of the crew that his father eventually sent home. That was before they were onsite and realized the home already had two layers of shingles — thrusting the young teen into his first major roof replacement.
“My first day on the roof ... it was a long day for me. But I enjoyed it,” he said. “I learned that I enjoyed working with my hands.”
He also liked earning enough money for tickets to Cedar Point, the destination amusement park that many southeastern Michigan residents aim to visit every summer.
Inspired by watching his father and uncle’s success as roofing subcontractors, Smolyanov stayed around the business, working summers throughout high school.
Despite his mother’s emphasis on higher education, he spent just three months at community college after graduating high school at 17 and starting roofing full-time. By age 21, he ventured out on his own, starting Victors Roofing in Canton, about 30 minutes from downtown Detroit.
That was 2008, when the national economic downturn hit the Detroit area especially hard as the auto industry and city teetered on bankruptcy. As the situation seemed to worsen once the housing bubble burst, Smolyanov stayed busy, working as a vendor for general contractors doing any residential roofing projects they could find with a crew of five. He said he remained positive, focused on his customers and determined to build something that he and his family could be proud of.
Though he may be too hungry or humble to admit it, Smolyanov — at just 29 — has already done that. He worked his way slowly, familiarizing himself with the local roofing market and growing to the point where he decided to forgo subcontracting to focus solely on retail business in 2014.
Today, Victors has 35 employees that offer residential roof repair, replacement and maintenance services, as well as gutters and attic insulation.
By focusing on the customer experience and leveraging a targeted marketing strategy in the digital space, Victors doubled sales in each of the last three years and surpassed $6 million in revenue for the first time in 2016, Smolyanov said.
“Our goal was much lower, and we just shattered it,” he said. “But now, our goal for (2017) is much higher. We’re not going to be satisfied because we know that we can do better, that we can take a bigger market share.”
A New Home
Smolyanov’s business sense and drive starts with a true appreciation of the free market system. He’s witnessed the alternative first-hand growing up in Ukraine, where even in the post-Soviet era, the majority of businesses are state operated.
“It’s very different than here,” he explained. “A lot of the industry is government owned. If you work in a factory and they decide not to pay for three months, you don’t get paid. Instead, you get a bag of sugar and a sack of potatoes and are asked to get by.”
Though he never felt like he and his three siblings were unprovided for, Smolyanov said he understood the practical hardships of living in Ukraine and why his parents strived for something more.
To help make ends meet, Victor’s father cultivated greenhouses and grew vegetables that he sold at a local market.
“He did a lot of random things, but we were well off compared to many of our friends whose parents had a normal job,” he said.
Upon achieving independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine experienced mass emigration. Most of Smolyanov’s family was part of the exodus, moving to other European countries or the United States. By 1996, with the majority of his family already gone, Victor’s parents decided to leave.
Through his strong work ethic, Vladimir saved enough to immigrate to the U.S. The oldest of 12, he actually followed his youngest sibling onto a roofing crew in Saline, Michigan, a growing community just south of Ann Arbor. Limited in English but good with his hands, he fed his family of six while working through the visa process.
Vladimir is actively involved in the business today on the production team, and is one of the elder statesmen on the roof, working along crewmembers mostly under age 30. That includes his youngest son, Vlad, now 23.
Looking forward to 2017, Victor said he’s focused on growth, particularly in the maintenance division. Many of the original roofs atop homes that were part of Metro Detroit’s housing boom of the 1990s are coming of age, and present a market that’s currently underserved.
But he’s also looking forward to a personal milestone: turning 30 — for real.
“I started selling roofs at 19, or 20 years old as side jobs, and I’ve been telling people I’ve been 30 for the past 10 years,” he said. “Granted, it helped that I was already losing my hair a little bit. But I had to lie about my age to do business sometimes because people size you up. Maybe now when I’ll actually be 30 I can stop doing that.”
How they Market
What he won’t stop doing is executing a comprehensive and targeted marketing campaign. Victors has become more of a presence in the Detroit roofing market with ads on cable television and local radio. But Smolyanov credits his team’s focus on quality work and leveraging the customer’s response across multiple digital platforms. It’s helped create a strong company presence online, including a digital reputation that undoubtedly improves their standing in the marketplace.
“It’s the customer experience,” Smolyanov said. “If you show them that “wow!” factor, and that you care about the quality service that they’re getting, they’re going to leave a positive review.”
Building an engaging, mobile-responsive website that offers a lot more than just self-promoting tools, photos and award mentions is also part of the winning strategy. The company website is sleek, user-friendly, and well-branded with contact information and a live button to request a free estimate on every page. The site also has resources with interactive videos featuring Victors staff showing their expertise.
Though hard to start initially, the campaign is gaining momentum and continues to breed success on its own.
“It’s a goal for us to get to that high level of customer experience,” said Eric James, director of business development. “We’re customer-facing throughout the entire process to the point where customers feel like ‘Wow, I’ve got to tell people about them.’”
They also utilize social media, offering followers regular posts consisting of an array of photos, videos and articles about home improvement topics that go way beyond the roof, including interior design and do-it-yourself tips.
“At first it was hard, because there’s nothing behind you when you’re starting out,” Smolyanov said. “Now it’s not as hard with the online presence that we have, and because of the reputation that we’ve built. People see the social proof now, and that’s a big deal.”
What you won’t find on their website or their active social media channels are references to major roofing manufacturers, or their association with leading distributors or suppliers in the industry. It’s not because they don’t have them and value those partnerships, but because Smolyanov believes that declaring them publicly often takes the homeowner’s focus away from their most important decision — who can they trust?
“Homeowners can pick any shingle, any model. We make recommendations, but ultimately it’s their choice,” he said. “Any homeowner or contractor can buy the same shingles that we have. The only difference is us. We don’t sell or associate ourselves with any manufacturers. We sell ourselves.”
A competitive person to the core, Smolyanov sets out to differentiate his company in multiple ways beyond marketing. For example, Victors Roofing doesn’t require a down payment or deposit, and Smolyanov advises clients to be leery of contractors that do.
The company also offers financing options and a leak-free guarantee that covers workmanship defects for a minimum of 12 years.
“Being different is important,” he said without hesitation. “The Detroit market is saturated with roofers and showing our clients that we stand above the rest can be a challenge.”
To overcome it — in true Detroit fashion — he established a blue-collar mentality to the job that his employees model and use to work their way through adversity. It can sometimes be taxing on Lily, his wife of 10 years, and their two young children, but ultimately he’s trying to build something big … for them.
“I have a hard time giving myself time off because I feel like if I don’t work today, it’ll be gone tomorrow,” he said. “That’s the mentality. You’ve got to put the work in every single day.”
For Smolyanov, he said it’s pretty simple by staying true to some key, straightforward business practices.
“Built on integrity is our motto. We always do the right thing, even if no one is looking,” he said. “Focusing on the customer experience, and never losing sight of it. That’s just as important.”