Baltimore is one of the country’s oldest and arguably most important big cities in the Mid-Atlantic, which is why after all this time, the youngest members of the Cole family are proud to say their ancestry had a pretty big hand in its modern development.
Earlier this year, the Cole Roofing Co. Inc. celebrated its centennial — marking 100 years of providing quality commercial roofing services in and around Maryland’s largest and most renowned city. Its employees join a handful of roofing companies that can boast membership in RC’s Century Club, and say they remain just as committed to the core principles today as the founders did when they established the high-demand business in 1919.
The longevity is basically broken down into a handful of factors, said third generation owner William Randall Cole, or Bill.
“We have remained true to our values; integrity, dependability and being team oriented, relationship-oriented problem solvers,” said Cole, who still has a hand in the business while son, Billy, handles the day-to-day operations.
“Over time, company leaders developed a culture of learning throughout our organization which allows us to adopt new products, processes, etc. This change meets a general resistance that comes from being a legacy company creating a healthy friction between new ideas and proven process,” Billy said.
“This is good and bad,” Billy, the current company president, explained. “It prevents us from moving too fast and making the big mistake; it also holds us back from evolving as quickly as we can, usually resulting in price pressure.”
It also shows that company employees are engaged with the business and understand the model for success. It’s part of the internal philosophy to treat your employees right and trust them to do right by your customers, who have grown to become loyal not just for the successful projects they’ve completed again and again. What Cole employees do when they sometimes fall short of expectations is just as, if not more, important.
“We believe that our reputation is built when we make mistakes,” Billy explained. “How you act in the toughest of times shows your true spirit.”
“Spirited” is definitely one way to describe this roofing family.
Billy’s great grandfather, John H. Cole Sr., started the business in the basement of the family home, first fabricating and then installing gutters and internal heat ducts. He recognized a niche market in the city for gutter and spout services, as well as internal heating ducts as central heating systems became the norm. Baltimore was growing and while the work was plentiful, it was hard. The company’s first major challenge came in 1944 when John Cole Sr. died suddenly. With four sons fighting in World War II at the time, his wife, Mary, took the reins of the company and ran the business until John H. Cole Jr. and Roland H. “Bud” Cole returned from overseas.
The business really took off after committing solely to commercial projects, and for showing a knack for high-quality slate roof installations. Under Bud’s leadership, the company flourished throughout the 60s and 70s, as revolutionary advances were happening in commercial roofing materials. He piloted the company to unprecedented success until 1989, when he turned the business over to son Bill. Still called John H. Cole & Sons, it was his decision to change the name, and to keep other aspects of the company moving in the proper direction.
The Cole company’s work is pretty well known among commercial developers in and around the Charm City, as it is known. Its work sits atop many of the state’s landmark properties, such as Baltimore City Hall, M&T Bank Stadium — where the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens play — the National Aquarium and the U.S. Naval Academy.
“From our very first gutter job to today’s solar integrated roof systems — and tens of thousands of projects in between — Cole Roofing continues to deliver on my great grandfather’s original promise,” said Billy, who started working around the shop at age 13 doing menial jobs like mowing grass and loading trucks with roofing materials and tools. He started working rooftops with his first crew at age 17.
Strong on Safety
Cole said the company has emphasized safety for decades, starting in the early 1980’s by instituting a standardized safety program. It’s evolved and been updated many times over the years and is ingrained in the company culture. Today, safe practices and procedures are accepted as part of the roof-building process. A full-time loss control manager and two quality control inspectors are on staff, and all project managers put safety first, provide support, training, and accountability to the field team.
“The field team has a culture of brotherhood,” Billy explained. “They all look out for one another and are encouraged to hold each other accountable, regardless of rank, to be safe and follow the rules. We start with focusing on getting everyone back to their family every day. Compliance is a byproduct.”
There’s also ongoing, regularly scheduled training related to certifications required to perform certain tasks, and company leaders address training needs annually through a review process and management meetings. Both the safety and job training pieces are part of a larger effort to develop and retain a quality workforce. Those, combined with a genuine camaraderie and a knack to not take themselves too seriously all the time, appear to be working, the older Cole said.
“The good work environment comes from having humor with and trust in our teammates,” Bill explained. “We laugh a lot and require each other to be straight forward with one another. This includes the good and the bad.”
Standard benefits include personal time off, holiday pay, health insurance, and a 401k with company match, Cole said.
Despite the company’s age, Cole Roofing is on the cutting edge of industry technology and is savvy with social media on all the major platforms. That said, word-of-mouth referrals are still the primary driver of new leads.
It’s part of an overall philosophy that each generation of Coles has taught the other either directly through instruction advice, and sometimes by example.
Successful projects aside, the company culture at Cole Roofing is based around family — which is why the greatest compliment is seeing another generation of trusted employees come through the front door.
“The best experience is when a long-term team member brings their son in to get a job with us and then watch the second-generation team member grow into a key member of the team,” the elder Cole explained. “The greatest complement is for someone to appreciate their employer enough to suggest to their child to come to work at the same place.”
It comes down to values, Billy emphasized.
“We put our integrity first. All decisions are judged against our core values… shared by all our team and are used to make every decision,” he said. “They have served us well and help as our guiding light through the toughest of times. Our commitment to our values is probably our core strength. Our ability to stay true to our values guides our decisions making the mistakes just another challenge we need to overcome.”