To call the relationship between Guardian Roofing’s Matt and Lori Swanson just a true roofing love story doesn’t do it justice.
The couple — now married 25 years with two grown children — certainly love and respect each other, and have built a special partnership that’s sizing up to outlast the strongest shingle or long-term roof warranty. Yet beyond their emotional connection, the two have developed a formidable business collaboration that’s growing their roofing company into a regional powerhouse.
“We’re a well-balanced team and we each have different strengths that complement each other,” said Lori Swanson, who in addition to co-owner is Guardian’s vice president of operations. “We’re both family-oriented people, and I think that provides for a natural family environment, and healthy moral and company culture.”
In 2016, Guardian generated $11.25 million in revenue and earned the 90th spot on RC’s 2017 Top 100 Roofing Contractors list. In 2017, the momentum continued to build with the expansion of the company fleet and growth of a more-responsive service department that handles repair and maintenance work.
The fast track to success is far beyond what the couple anticipated and certainly hoped for when they began dating after meeting at age 19 at Tacoma Community College.
Lori Swanson believes roofing is in her blood. She practically grew up in the roofing business her father, Dean Thompson, owned and operated for years.
“I worked on the roof during the summers and all the way through college,” she explained. “After I earned my degree in business (from Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash.), I went to work for his company fulltime and I’ve been in the roofing industry for my entire career.”
Matt got his start in roofing on the distribution side of the business, and then left for a concrete tile manufacturer. A few years later, he was recruited back into roofing by Lori’s father.
As Swanson’s father prepared for retirement, the couple decided to start their own business in 2005. The local building market was booming, and roofers were keeping plenty busy. However, getting a jump on any competition was difficult without visible, trust-building jobs. At the start, the Swansons went the old-fashioned route to help build a reputation and initial client base. They focused on customer service, and didn’t mind doing the roof-repair work that the more-established companies in the region just wouldn’t do.
“We went above and beyond with everything we did,” Lori explained. “We worked with a couple of lead services and had to do a great job selling, since our company was new to the market. Even though we’d been in the industry for a long time, we had no branding or name recognition when we founded Guardian Roofing.”
Looking back, the Swansons refer to this era as the company’s toughest time. Worrying about making payroll and paying vendors was a daily occurrence, and though they were never late — they admit there were some close calls in those early days. The company found a niche doing repair work and unknowingly laid the groundwork for future success at just the right time.
In the winter of 2006, a major windstorm with hurricane-strength peak wind gusts of 114mph struck the Pacific Northwest, leaving behind a swath of damage exceeding $267 million. Vast numbers of fallen trees and punctured rooftops proved to be fertile territory for Guardian’s sales team, which was able to capitalize on the severe weather event and turned it into a five-month backlog, Swanson said.
The storm-related opportunities not only kept them busy, but helped them fulfill one of the Swansons’ missions of helping people that lived and worked in the local community.
It’s part of their company-wide mindset that they’re taking care of the homeowner for years and decades to come.
“We focus on having a client for life,” she said. “We’re a full-service roofing contractor, so we can take care of a roof at any stage of life. Even new roofs still need to be maintained for their manufacturer’s and workmanship guarantees.”
While they continued to build their business on the momentum created by the storm damage, the ripple effects from the Great Recession started to rattle the regional roofing market. Several roofing contractors in the market — just as in many regions around the country — went out of business, leaving those committed to sticking it out with an opportunity — if they looked at it right.
The Swansons did. Despite the financial carnage surrounding them, they continued to market hard and innovated, understanding that the company needed to evolve quickly and meet a new wave of customer demand in order to persevere. They developed the ‘Roof-Last’ concept where crews would clean, repair and apply a moss preservative to help extend their client’s roof life.
“At that time, homeowners didn’t have the money to replace a roof, so they were excited that we were willing to help them with repairs,” Swanson said.
They also became digitally savvy, and focused on growing their online presence with a highly-engaging website and strong social media presence, where their knack for referrals and generating repeat business has gone to a new level.
In 2016, the Swansons took an aggressive step toward improving their market share by acquiring Jorve Roofing, a long-time Seattle-area residential roofer. Founder Ted Jorve was looking to retire and opted to sell to a one-time competitor.
“As an iconic Pacific Northwest brand with a strong reputation, Jorve was a natural fit for acquisition to help us grow our local footprint,” Matt Swanson said.
The move indeed extended Guardian’s footprint into King County and the Seattle residential market, which meant a larger sales territory — and more demand. Along with acquiring the older roofing company’s assets, Guardian instantaneously grew its workforce and enhanced productivity with the addition of 25 Jorve employees.
The company is now 86-people strong split into three roofing divisions: replacement, repair and maintenance. Each week, employees are train on safety, technical techniques and customer service. Industry consultants are brought in roughly every quarter for specialized training, and safety training gets a renewed focus. Employees also sign a safety pledge each and every quarter, and any new hires must complete a comprehensive and rigorous onboarding process.
Once they’re in place, full-time employees are eligible for medical and dental coverage, a 401k, and other benefits including paid time off and holiday pay. In addition, company officials regularly present employees with awards for days without injury, customer reviews and great install pictures.
“We work extremely hard and have a lot of fun,” Swanson explained. “Not a day goes by that each one of us doesn’t have a good laugh.”
At the same time, three field supervisors keep a close eye on quality control, and the Swansons strongly believe in seeing results for themselves. They said they use the CompanyCam app to document the work they do in real time and as a resource for troubleshooting and training on the rooftop.
The key to keeping crews efficient and happy is pretty simple, because the Swansons said they take the time to listen.
“We work hard on listening,” Lori Swanson said. “It seems that every time we identify a problem and work together to fix it, it galvanizes the team.”
The Next Step
With an established team in place that’s proven Guardian to be a company that lives up to its name, the Swansons said they’re ready to grow and expand — beyond just the roof.
Earlier this year, they launched a fourth division focused on pest control. After repeatedly coming across pest-control issues on the homes they serviced, the Swansons said they saw a unique opportunity to meet a growing consumer demand. They hired a full-time entomologist who holds licenses as a commercial applicator and structural pest inspector.
Guardian Pest Control focuses on finding and eradicating rodents, termites, ants, roaches, bees, bedbugs and spiders. The service is comprehensive, in that Guardian provides not only inspection and location, but also exclusion, extermination and future prevention.
“We’re now proud to be able to say we can and will address these problems and do so with the same level of quality and professionalism we’ve been providing to our community for the last thirteen years,” Matt Swanson said.
It’s just the latest example of how they try and stay connected to their clients and show that they’re listening to their needs. Both Swansons said they believe client engagement and feedback is vital to continued improvement in any organization, and theirs in particular. The idea is to let pest control become another avenue they can explore to have more client touches to help build a pipeline of repeat and referral business that ultimately leads to their bread-and-butter: a roof replacement.
Lori credited the employees, recognizing that it took a lot for them to embrace the challenges brought about by this new opportunity. But she was hardly surprised, given their continued role in the company’s overall success.
“I passionately believe it’s our team,” she said when asked about Guardian’s strongest attribute. “We focus on what we do best, being a full-service, residential-only roofing contractor. We’re the company that’s truly invested in being experts.”