Driving around the sun-soaked streets in and around Naples, Fla., Ken Kelly can still see a blue tarp or two attached sporadically to the rooftops of residential and commercial buildings lining the roads.

It’s a typically hot and humid day in western South Florida for mid-June, and Kelly — owner of Kelly Roofing — cracks a smile when asked to compare the scenery to just six months earlier, when the recovery from Hurricane Irma’s wrath was in earnest.

“There was a lot more of that blue out here, I’ll tell you that,” he said, trying to mask what appeared to be a pained look as he recalled the devastation.

Homes with concrete tile, businesses with standing seam metal, and buildings with synthetic tile and traditional shingle roofs all suffered mightily during the storm, which hit Naples and nearby Marco Island directly in September 2017, causing roughly $50 billion in damage to become the state’s costliest storm on record.

Though he had weathered his share of severe storms in more than two decades of roofing in South Florida, this was different. Kelly knew the mammoth hurricane created major challenges for he and his crews to overcome, but at the same time presented his company with a unique opportunity to shine and solidify itself as a market leader for years to come. If it was done right. 

And that required a major shift that most established businesses with proven track records may shy away from.

“We were a retail roofer for 40 years in this market, and now we had to be a ‘stormer’ ready to respond to anyone that needed help,” Kelly recalled. “We’d been through Hurricane Andrew (1992), and Charley (2004), but it was finally with Irma that we took all that experience and said ‘we’re ready to take charge.’”

The bold move, along with the company’s heroic response to the community following the natural disaster, are just a few of the reasons Kelly Roofing earned RC’s Residential Contractor of the Year Award for 2019.

A New Day, A New Way

Taking charge in the post-Irma environment meant reinventing the entire Kelly Roofing business model into an insurance-system company, allowing crews to capitalize and maximize the plentiful work left in the storm’s wake. Investments in marketing, computer software, new equipment and employee loyalty all seemed to come together at just the right time to not only stay afloat amid the chaos, but nearly double production with the same staff of 265, Kelly said.

The flood of calls after Irma struck was overwhelming. Kelly said he had to double the staff working in the call center and extend hours just to help process roughly 27,000 calls for service in the first 30 days. Crews responded first to the most pressing needs ranging from homes to some of the area’s luxury hotels and tourist hot spots.

Kelly Roofing also had an immediate market advantage. Its new headquarters in nearby Bonita Springs was uniquely positioned geographically in the former home of a local television station. An active signal tower on the property is designated critical for local emergency warning and response, so Kelly Roofing was among the first businesses — and only roofing contractor — in the area to get power back shortly after Irma moved on.

The backlog of Irma-related jobs lasted well into 2019, and helped propel revenue to record highs. In 2018 alone, Kelly Roofing generated roughly $33 million in revenue, which was good for #52 on RC’s 2019 Top 100 List. That demonstrated a revenue increase of nearly 44 percent from the previous year. Kelly said annual sales jumped even higher, approaching $48 million — three times what they sold in 2017. 

Though grateful for the success earned over years of hard work and building trust, the team stayed humble, said Kelly’s younger brother, Joe Kelly Jr., a co-owner and senior project manager. No one lost sight of the suffering local residents and business owners endured, and they all took pride in restoring the damage.

“We helped our town get back to normal,” Kelly Jr. said. “And we learned that being excellent at both the retail and insurance side of the roofing business ensures we don’t miss an opportunity to help our community.” 

Thrust into Leadership

To help understand how Kelly and his team were prepared to not only survive, but thrive in the post-Irma business climate, one has to look where his roofing career all began. His father, Joe Kelly, started Kelly Roofing in their hometown of Naples in 1972, and both Ken and Joe Jr. were involved at a young age. Ken remembers he and his brother being called on as youngsters to help spread mayonnaise on their dad’s tar-burned hands after he’d come home from a full day of installing rooftops around town. 

The burns, regular heat exhaustion and their father’s all-around stress from roofing were more than noticeable, but not enough to deter either young Kelly from wanting to follow the elder Kelly’s footsteps up the ladder. Though he admired his father’s unflappable work ethic, Ken also noticed certain shortcomings in his business acumen. Ken strived to fill these gaps by taking classes he thought would help him run a better business, such as accounting, business law and computer programming.

The approach was refreshing for both father and son, and seemed like the right steps to take in order to help groom Ken for leadership slowly, learning the ins and outs of the roofing business along the way. But as it often does, fate intervened to speed that process up.

Just weeks after graduating high school, Kelly was on the rooftop and watched in horror as his father fell off a steep slope. The elder Kelly survived, but crushed both wrists — injuries that would take two years to fully heal. Ken took over the reins, aiming not only to maintain operations, but to take the company forward in a positive direction. It wasn’t easy.

“Dad was a great roofer but didn’t understand the business side of roofing. He struggled,” Kelly said. “At 17, I knew very little about roofing and less about how to run a company.”

He persevered, learning all he could from industry resources and seeking out a mentor in Best Roofing President and CEO Gregg Wallick, RC’s 2018 Commercial Roofing Contractor of the Year. Kelly credits that relationship, which began at a manufacturer’s training and continued to develop at industry events like RC’s Best of Success over the years, with helping him implement internal processes and procedures that helped the company grow. It also helped Kelly establish a singular focus on replacing existing roofs on homes and multi-unit condos, and reinforced his closely-held belief that roofing can always be done better.

Another roofing relationship Kelly said was essential to his business growth was partnering with Duro-Last on some of the larger condo and homeowner association-led projects in his territory. Kelly said having a long-lasting, energy efficient and virtually maintenance-free solution for difficult rooftops due to access points and multiple protrusions has turned out to be a great differentiator. That’s exactly what he hoped for, however, it was an opportunity he nearly let slip by.

In 2000, Kelly said he was struggling to meet payroll when he received a cold-call postcard from the Saginaw, Mich.-based manufacturer about joining its installer network. Duro-Last training and certification was a requirement and wasn’t cheap, which put Kelly — who had no cash and even less credit — in a pinch. He knowingly bounced a check anyway in order participate.

“I made a bad choice that turned out to be one of the best decisions of my career,” Kelly recalled. “The training took me from ‘zero to hero’ in the low slope space. The week after I returned, we sold the biggest job we’d had up until that point.”

The roof above the World Tennis Center in Naples is still performing perfectly today, Kelly said, and is a constant reminder of how far the entire company has come. Needless to say, Duro-Last officials didn’t hold a grudge and also appreciate their relationship, tapping Kelly to sit on the company’s contractor advisory board and inviting him to speak at its annual sales seminars.

Geeking Out and Getting Ahead

Bold, calculated moves like that are part of Kelly’s leadership philosophy and laid the foundation for a business evolution spurred by technological advancements sweeping across the industry. Obsessed with technology in his personal life, Kelly carved a path for profitability by first accepting, then embracing and ultimately driving further innovation.

In 2015, Kelly Roofing was among a dozen companies to receive the Visionary Award from Microsoft for implementing technology to ensure customers, sales staff and administrative employees had accurate and ongoing communication about the status of each roofing job’s production cycle. That was the start of a partnership that’s continuing to blossom and generate real, tangible benefits to the company workflow.

The tech giant recently highlighted Kelly Roofing’s use of its PowerApps on the Microsoft Power Platform Solution in a blog post that explained how it keeps everyone involved in the job up-to-date in real time. Instead of spending their days installing the roof and evenings trying to find the appropriate photos and status reports to keep each other and clients up to speed, employees now access an exclusive app that can organize photos, manage scheduling remotely and share data with customers, all in real time.

As a board member of the Roofing Technology Think Tank (RT3) — a group of progressive roofing professionals intent on infusing more technology into the roofing industry — Kelly has also presented publicly about his company’s use of drones and pioneering work with both virtual reality and augmented reality. His vision is not to only help his business, but share what he’s learning in a continued effort to “do roofing better” and uplift the entire industry. 

Over-Communication Breeds Accountability

That philosophy holds true internally and is woven into the culture at Kelly Roofing. Kelly firmly believes he’s fostered the professional growth of the company staff at all levels and established employee loyalty by simply opening up the lines of communication.

Each employee has the opportunity to air issues and contribute topics to weekly gatherings called “L-10” or Level 10 meetings for each division. They’re called that because each attendee grades the meeting on a 10-point scale on whether it was useful, relevant or a waste of time. Issues discussed at those meetings are either resolved, or designated for further discussion in the appropriate department and/or with the Kelly leadership team, which includes both Kelly brothers and Operations Manager and co-owner Eddie Guevara.

The entire process is tracked by Kelly’s internal software program, ensuring no issues — whether related to personnel, projects or products — fall through the cracks. Weekly and monthly performance in the production and sales departments is also tracked and displayed on two large white boards in the main hallway for everyone to see.

“We believe it’s best to provide constant feedback about performance and train/correct quickly when needed,” Ken said. “Sugar coating or overlooking an issue is a recipe for disaster.” 

Though somewhat skeptical at first, company leaders learned there’s a lot more team building opportunities and buy-in when everyone in the company knows who’s performing well and who may need a little boost.

“We’re trying to hit goals as a team, and there’s a level of accountability there that the guys love and respond to,” Joe explained. “This system is a motivational boost and takes all the emotion out of the process for us because the numbers cut right into what the issues, obstacles or barriers are that are keeping you from your goal.”

The Kelly Roofing culture also emphasizes quality workmanship and strict compliance with safety standards.

Each and every roof is graded by supervisors, and crews have the opportunity for a production bonus of up to 6 percent (replacement crews) and 2.5 percent (repair crews). Full tie-offs are mandatory and one percent point is deducted for any safety violation. Crews can also lose the bonus entirely if there’s a poor installation, messy jobsite or damage to a customer’s property. Both the installation and repair divisions have weekly safety meetings that include 15 minutes of roof-related training covering code updates, manufacturer specifications and other specific jobsite issues.

And Kelly requires every new employee — whether expected to be on the roof or not — to complete a safety program upon hire that consists of videos, harness fitting, driving (for drivers) and an interview with human resources administrators on personal protection equipment.

Giving Back

That part of the business strategy focuses on giving back to the employees, but Kelly Roofing doesn’t stop there. The company sponsors local youth sports teams and multiple charitable initiatives that keeps Kelly Roofing visible and connected to the communities it serves.

Kelly, a licensed pilot, is also committed to giving back broadly. He serves as wing commander of Angel Flight Southeast, a nonprofit organization that arranges missions and recruits other pilots to transport supplies and people in need of medical attention. Kelly himself has flown approximately 12 flights annually since 2009, but recently stepped up big to assist with Hurricane Dorian relief in the Bahamas.

Dorian was a Category 5 storm that devastated the Bahamas last September, killing more than 60 people and causing roughly $7.5 billion in damage. Experts say it is the strongest hurricane on record to ever strike the tropical islands, which likely won’t recover for years.

To help Kelly’s relief efforts, BNP Media, RC’s parent company, handed Kelly a $2,500 check upon accepting the Contractor of the Year award at RC’s 2019 Best of Success conference in Miami in September. Inspired by the act and Kelly’s mission, Michael and Linda Olen, owners of O’LYN Roofing of Norwood, Mass., matched the donation while sitting in the audience.

Kelly said he gets similar satisfaction giving back to others within the roofing industry. As an RC columnist, a regular Best of Success attendee and former presenter, he’s willing to share his company’s successes and failures, and is known for inviting other contractors to his headquarters to see how his company operates.

“Giving back, through writing, speaking and hosting contractors at our location, is my way of helping others that were in my position not all that long ago,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Ken Kelly is a member of RC’s Editorial Advisory Board and a regular contributor as a columnist on technology and best business practices.