When Sparks Fly: Josh and MaryJean Sparks Continue to Grow Infinity Exteriors in Wisconsin
Putting Reputation Before Profits is this Husband and Wife Team of Roofing Contractors’ Homemade Recipe for Success.
Husband and wife duos in roofing aren’t the norm, but given the proliferation of family-owned and operated roofing contractor businesses across the country, they aren’t as uncommon as many outside observers to the roofing industry might expect. It is rare, however, when spouses who merge their personal and professional partnerships are able to start from scratch, thrive and turn business dreams into a reality.
The team at Infinity Exteriors, LLC seems to have found the right balance between personal and professional lives that continues to breed success in the greater Milwaukee area.
Led by Josh and MaryJean (MJ) Sparks from their hometown of Waukesha, Wisc., Infinity has helped homeowners stay dry, warm and largely ice-dam free for nearly two decades. And the once high school sweethearts are beginning to build a legacy with the potential to last decades into the future.
The company earned $15 million in sales revenue last year, and with nearly 90 full-time employees dedicated to a customer-first approach is looking to have a substantial impact in southern Wisconsin’s primed residential roofing market for years to come.
Infinity Exteriors LLC
Location: Waukesha, Wisc.
Founded: 1997 by Josh Sparks
Current Principal Owner: Josh and MaryJean (MJ) Sparks
Scope of Work: 100% Residential reroof
Company Specialty: Residential reroofing, but services include windows
Number of Employees: 86, Non-union
Did You Know?
In 2013, Infinity became the naming sponsor of Infinity
Fields Baseball Park, a multi-diamond baseball and
softball facility that hosts local youth athletic leagues and
That’s hardly what Sparks, who spent his high school years toiling at McDonald’s, imagined when he took his first summer roofing job after graduation. It paid $9 an hour, and even though he spent much of the time cleaning up the grounds around residential jobsites, he relished being outdoors and seeing hard work evolve into a completed project. Driven to build his own career, Sparks enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville that fall, but left three months into the semester upon realizing academics wouldn’t be his path to business success.
He went back into roofing again and decided to hand out flyers offering his own services, and within a few weeks sold his first roofing job.
“Once I sold that first one, I started looking for more. I never looked back,” he said. Sparks explained that he also never had the formal organizational training and discipline needed to grow a company. That, and southern Wisconsin’s lengthy and relentless winters, proved to be Sparks’ greatest obstacles to immediate success. So in 1999 he joined the United States Marine Corps as a reserve and spent six months immersed in ‘leatherneck’ culture. The influence and resulting changes in Sparks’ approach to business, leadership and life were profound.
“I learned how and understood how to be a leader, and it helped me learn how to be a better businessman,” he said. “When I got back (to work) it was pedal to the metal.”
Sparks was a first-time entrepreneur when he transitioned from contract construction work to residential roofing in 1997. Self-taught with humble beginnings and no independent track record, he focused on two primary approaches to earn business — working hard and cultivating a stellar reputation.
“‘Reputation before profit’ is our motto, so we want to make sure we take care of people,” he said. “There are so many guys out there who start roofing businesses that ultimately shut down and they do horrible workmanship and don’t care. That’s not who we want to be.”
Almost immediately, Sparks recognized the importance of setting his company apart and the nature of building a brand. He did it the only way he knew how, by promising something he saw no one else in the market had the resolve to offer — a lifetime warranty on installation services.
“When I started in this business, my competition offered a one-or two-year state regulated warranty for roofing services, and that always struck me as strange,” he explained. “If I’m installing a product that’s supposed to be there for 20-30 years, why wouldn’t I offer my workmanship warranty to go right along with it? If I install it the right way from day one, then it’s not going to be a workmanship-related issue.”
The approach worked well, and with MJ as his anchor, Sparks said he was able to think bigger about his business. He built it up by expanding Infinity’s service offerings on the belief that once they earned the customer’s trust with a roof, those same homeowners would turn to Infinity for windows, siding and insulation work.
Roughly three quarters of all revenue is still generated by the roofing division, headed by General Manager Mike Sparks, his younger brother. Yet the siding division, led by longtime employee Mike Saglin, continues to surpass lofty stretch goals, Sparks said.
Infinity doesn’t have a commercial division, but Sparks does dabble in that segment of the industry as an owning partner with Roofed Right America, a Milwaukee-based commercial roofing company that generated $14.5 million in 2016, good for 74th on RC’s Top 100 Roofing Contractors list.
It still all starts and ends with reputation. Infinity is an Angie’s List award winner four years in a row; has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and typically draws four or five stars on major review websites.
“Infinity was built one roof at a time starting with friends and family and moving on to paying customers,” Sparks said. “Our greatest source of leads is from the mouths of our happy customers.”
A True Partnership
Right beside him the entire time was MJ, who put the impact of her husband’s military training into perspective.
“I think Josh has always been a natural leader, and the Marine Corps really just honed those skills and gave him confidence in those natural abilities that he already had,” she said.
MJ supported his roofing aspirations, but stayed completely out of the business — until fate intervened. Sort of. The couple married in 2002 and their first child, Tyson, arrived in 2005. That primarily kept MJ at home, which at the time also doubled as company headquarters.
With a background in the hospitality industry and a knack for customer service, MJ said she felt compelled to pick up the business line. She soon found a niche.
“Josh was out selling all the jobs and doing all the work, and the phone kept ringing,” she explained. “So I started talking with customers and got involved.”
Her role expanded to invoicing, accounting and ultimately managing an office staff of roughly a dozen people.
“She really owns this company,” Sparks said matter-of-factly. “She added stability. She really knows how to manage cash flow, the office staff and the high-level customers.”
Keeping the balance between professional and personal lives is a priority the two have worked hard to control. It helps that the company is no longer based in the home. They said they designate the mornings for discussing major issues and planning business schedules, and allow each other time to feel like a family in the evening, usually pushing aside work that can wait until the next day.
“It didn’t happen overnight and took a little while to find that balance,” MJ said. “We just try to leave work at work in the evening and minimize that impact at home.”
MJ’s two younger brothers also work in the business and Sparks said all employees are valued and treated like family. It’s helped them sustain downturns like the Great Recession and retain crewmembers to tackle their backlog.
After 90 days of employment, employees receive dental and healthcare benefits, as well as 401k plans. Infinity also rewards employees with bonuses and earned personal days. Safety is also an essential element of company meetings. Sparks said managers work closely with their insurance carriers to conduct biweekly safety meetings, organize surprise site visits and mandate regular OSHA trainings. That includes lead abatement and asbestos certification, which is coming in handy in the Milwaukee area’s mature housing market where retrofits and remodels are becoming more popular than new construction.
One example, the Jenkins Mansion in nearby Wauwatosa, became one of Infinity’s signature jobs. The 5,200 square-foot Gothic home was built in 1874 and in 1980 became one of the few homes in greater Milwaukee listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.
The existing cedar roofing was hand-cut into diamond shapes, and Sparks said he originally planned to replicate the design. However, after much back and forth with the owner and officials with the historical societies involved, they decided to go back with standard cuts of machine sawn Western Red Cedar shingles. Eight crew members completed the project in less than two weeks with all new copper flashings and other intricate details.
Another challenge on that job, and in the greater Milwaukee market in general, Sparks said, is code compliance.
In a region that takes a pounding from frigid snowstorms during long winters, and manages high humidity in the summer, proper construction to meet the elements is key. Many roofing contractors in the area don’t install an adequate amount of ventilation, they don’t properly account for ice and water protection, or really adhere to building code at all, he said.
“It feels a bit like the wild west,” Sparks explained. “At Infinity, on the other hand, our staff educates our homeowners on compliant roof systems and then offers different products that cover the entire scope.”
Though roofing has given him a lot to be thankful for, Sparks said he’s in no rush to get either Tyson, or youngest son Wyatt, now 9, out on jobsites. His overall goal is to build Infinity into a family legacy.
“I will try to make this business a lasting legacy for them, and a lot of people in my position will say ‘Let’s get them on a rooftop, let’s get them trained,’” he said. “The way I look at it, I want them to have a great education so that they can take this over when we’re doing $30 million and be able to run it better than I ever have.”
It may already be working, the couple said, noting that Tyson has already shown great interest in learning about business, asking questions about capital expenditures like company trucks and equipment, and even about their operating income.
“Tyson has said ‘Don’t worry dad, I’ll be smart enough to take over one of your businesses’ when he gets older,” MJ said. “And when we ask Wyatt in the same breath about what he’s going to do, he chuckles, points to his brother, and says ‘I’m working for him!’ That sums up their dynamic.”