Working Smarter with Spray Foam in the Windy City
Tiffiny Flaim leads the charge to keep spray foam on the rise in one of commercial roofing’s biggest markets.
Tiffiny Flaim’s roofing career began partly out of necessity, and partly out of sheer frustration.
As a licensed real estate agent who made her living on rehabbing older homes for resale in Greater Chicago, Flaim discovered the utility and profitability of using spray foam insulation on her properties. The problem was that, despite the demand, there weren’t that many spray foam installers in the market, and the crop of local contractors that were there weren’t that great — particularly lacking in professional training and customer service skills.
Fed up by the impact it was having on her business, Flaim purchased her own spray foam rig and began installing it herself.
“At the time, I wasn’t thinking I was going into the spray foam business,” Flaim said. “Several years later, as we were continuing to foam our projects and those of other builders, I realized it was time to separate and brand the SPF (spray polyurethane foam) services that we were providing. That’s when I founded BIOFOAM.”
The transition to roofing was just as unexpected, but entirely logical in retrospect.
“Going from being a wall contractor to a roofing contractor occurred primarily because there was a demand and we had the trained staff,” Flaim explained. “We were getting calls about maintaining and fixing spray foam roofs that were 20 or 30 years old and that’s how we really started in roofing. There wasn’t anyone local to handle the existing roofs in the area, and we were well suited to address the need.”
In roughly 15 years, Flaim has built the company into a specialty-roofing powerhouse that works primarily on high-rise buildings, hospitals, senior living facilities and airports throughout the Midwest.
The reputable client list includes: Ford; Wyndham Hotels; Chicago Children’s Theatre; regional amusement parks; several federal and municipal agencies, school districts and universities.
Though the company typically serves commercial and industrial clients, Flaim acknowledges purposefully choosing a few single-family homes every year to stay grounded and close to those early residential roots.
BIOFOAM crews also service clients coast-to-coast and don’t just stay way above ground — they perform work for soil and tunnel stabilization projects, which showcases spray foam’s versatility.
Flaim is hardly the only woman business owner in construction or roofing, but you won’t find another quite as passionate about foam.
“The last thing we wanted was an old spray foam roof to be removed when it could be rejuvenated and given a new 10- or 20-year life. It’s the only roofing system I know of that is designed to last the lifespan of the building,” she said.
Lean and Proficient
BIOFOAM has 30 full-time employees, and all field workers are union members, which is a way of life for commercial contractors in Chicago.
The decision to become a union signatory company was a significant milestone for BIOFOAM.
“The union versus non-union market are essentially two different markets, it was like starting a brand-new company,” Flaim said.
With just about every roofing contractor in a bustling market in need of more skilled workers, being picky might seem like a luxury most don’t have. Flaim’s company isn’t immune from the workforce crunch, but she doesn’t apologize for choosing employees very carefully.
All employees — including card-carrying union members — are screened through a detailed interview process where resumes and work histories are mandatory in advance. Having the “right” answers during the in-person interview is just part of it.
“How they follow instructions and represent themselves during this process directly correlates with how they will be representing BIOFOAM in the field,” she said.
Employees at BIOFOAM don’t necessarily need to share the same passion for the product as Flaim does; however, they do need to be coachable and efficient to stick around, as many of them do. They aren’t chosen on a whim.
After successfully navigating the interview, candidates must complete an online CPI High Pressure Safety test before their first day, and will also be trained onsite. Safety is also an important component of BIOFOAM’s training process and mandatory as signatories with the carpenters and roofers unions. The company has its own safety protocol and adheres to the Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance (SPFA) Professional Certification Program, which is the industry standard for spray foam applicators. Flaim said the company also takes advantage of safety trainings provided by its insurance broker.
As union employees, workers are provided health insurance, retirement plans and pensions. Each team member has uniform shirts with the company logo on them to feel like a team, and they each receive a tool bag as well. Company officials also go out of their way to acknowledge employees for work anniversaries with BIOFOAM, on their birthdays and other key milestones or accomplishments.
“We try our best not to hire people based on projects,” Flaim said. “When we bring someone on, our intention is to keep them employed year-round. This is important to me because it takes a long time to train people and, once trained, they have become a valuable part of BIOFOAM. Also, if your employees feel they have a home it creates a real community in the workplace, it just makes for a much better work environment, culture and improves results and quality all around.”
Flaim has two other requirements across the board: there’s a policy of working smarter, not harder; and employees must take pride in what they do, no matter what role they have within the company.
Heading into 2020, signs are strong that spray foam will continue to gain momentum as a roofing solution. According to survey data collected as part of RC’s 2019 Commercial Roofing Report, more than half of contractors said they expect sales of specialized roofing services like coatings to grow again in 2020. Only metal and single-ply roofing systems were rated higher for growth by survey respondents.
Another 57% of respondents indicated an increase in spray foam roofing sales in 2019, and 35% said they expected sales to increase again in 2020. Though the impact of spray foam in specific markets varies on several factors, the general desire for building owners to become more environmentally conscious and maximize energy efficiency should help the growing segment blossom.
It’s taken some time for spray foam to catch on in the Chicago market, where Flaim estimated about 40% of BIOFOAM’s work is retrofit, and the remaining 60% is new construction. While the company has found work in many of the region’s old factories and warehouses that are being converted into residential properties, convincing commercial property owners about spray foam’s value was more difficult than expected.
Mass media exposure and the resulting perceptions have helped in that process.
“I think this may likely have to do with advertising and shows like HGTV,” Flaim said. “These home and DIY shows exposed spray foam to the masses. But they were only featuring the product in residential settings, so it took me a while to get clients to understand that even though the product is associated with residential applications, it can do the exact same thing in commercial projects.”
Educating facility managers and their bosses on spray foam and converting them into customers can be a long-term effort. Flaim said she’s learned never to take a potential job lead or networking opportunity for granted.
“People always laugh when I pull foam samples out of my purse, but it’s really helpful,” she said. “It gives my customer a hands-on idea of how the BIOFOAM approach works. A sprayed applied roofing system should never need to be replaced if it’s properly maintained. That in itself is amazing!”
That passion, again, isn’t a job requirement for BIOFOAM’s staff, but Flaim believes deeply that effective people are lifelong learners, and that by expanding their knowledge base, the company is training employees to also be differentiators with clients.
“My team really understands building science, they are inquisitive and ask a lot of questions,” Flaim said. “They want to know the thought process and reasoning for product specifications. I believe this makes us a stronger partner; a true partner and resource for our clients. Our employees are strongly encouraged to bring their ideas to the table. We really appreciate thinkers.”
Flaim brings that same attitude and hands-on approach as a way to improve the industry by belonging to multiple professional organizations. In 2018, she became the first female president of the SPFA, and is an active board member of the Federation of Women Contractors.
She said she immediately saw the value in connecting with other strong women in command of their own successful businesses.
“As soon as I joined this group, I felt I had found my tribe, in the sense they are all women construction business owners,” Flaim said. “The funny thing is their businesses are 25 to 100 years old. When I think about my business being 15 years old and I consider these other women, I realize I have only just begun.”
Though she’s the only spray foam roofer among a group that includes the owners of trucking operations and landscaping companies, Flaim said she feels empowered by being among other leaders who are true problem solvers and willingly share advice.
Flaim’s association with the SPFA, the educational and technical voice of the spray polyurethane foam industry, began in 2013 when BIOFOAM earned the organization’s annual Award for Excellence for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) project outside Chicago. The job, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, remains one of Flaim’s favorite and most notable challenges.
“I still think it is one of the coolest jobs BIOFOAM has performed,” she explained. “That particular roof system was a difficult one, it had been leaking for years. They tried many solutions to fix it, but spray foam was the only thing able to solve the problem.”
Shortly after receiving the award, officials urged her to become more involved, and she hasn’t looked back.
“It’s important to be involved in your industry on both a national and a local level,” Flaim said. “In terms of a national level, the SPFA has introduced me to a community and wealth of knowledge. The only way I would have been able to tap into that community and its resources was by spending time and volunteering wherever I could.”
Flaim also has a hunger for learning, which she is constantly trying to maximize and use to her advantage. She said one instance came about 10 years ago when she thought her business was at a crossroads and went through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.
“This was a turning point for me,” she said. “Going through the program required me to step back from working in the business and to start work on the business. I was able to reflect on the past, how I got from point A to B, and was able to map out where I wanted to go from there.”
Being exposed to other top roofing contractors on a national level is paying off. Flaim said she’s constantly seeking out information of how others conduct business, operate their warehouse or onboard employees. She also finds it fascinating to learn how others may be using the same products but in different ways and how regions of the country play into that.
It’s a welcomed approach driven by a leader committed to propelling the profession forward and making it more diverse. It’s also a trait the industry needs to perform better and reflect a changing customer base, SPFA officials said.
“There’s hope that Tiffiny and other females, including our veteran and minority leaders, will inspire a continuation of this movement, as an industry that serves a diverse population should ideally reflect that same diversity,” said SPFA Executive Director Kurt Riesenberg.
While she didn’t anticipate the slow pace of implementing change in a large, national organization, Flaim is proud of helping change the culture of the executive team and develop a shared vision for where the organization should go moving forward.
“I ask a lot of questions and want to hear a lot of opinions. In a sense, as a leader of the SPFA, I have become an interviewer,” Flaim said. “I have tried to create a culture where everyone can share their viewpoints and ideas and feel valued. I believe I have put the next group of leaders in the right position to succeed.”
With the Me Too and Equal Pay movements getting more attention across several industries, it’s no surprise that the lack of women in leadership positions among roofers and specialized contractors is crystalizing. But Flaim said she’s never felt like she didn’t belong.
That message, and exposing young women to the potential career opportunities in an untapped field, could be the keys to developing the next generation of roofers — and women contractors in particular.
“As for the next generation of women, I hope that by leading I’ve set an example that anything is possible,” Flaim said. “Surround yourself with good people and don’t be too hard on yourself. Look for fulfillment in the journey and celebrate small successes.”