Q&A: GAF's Jim Schnepper Talks Roofing’s COVID-19 Reaction and Beyond
GAF rode a wave of positive momentum with innovative product launches and major commitments to community outreach announced at the 2020 International Roofing Expo in February. That was before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States that we're still just beginning to fully grasp.
Now in his third year at the helm, President Jim Schnepper is facing his biggest challenge yet in navigating one of North America's largest roofing and building product manufacturers through a global crisis. He recently spoke with RC about his approach, and how the company is balancing the desire to keep an essential business going while focusing on the health and safety of workers, roofing contractors and homeowners around the country.
RC: GAF has had a multifaceted response to this unprecedented crisis, can you sum up some of the key points of the company’s efforts to date?
JS: We’re really focused on the safety of our employees and the people we have some responsibility towards. We’re following the guidelines from the experts, and will continue to take appropriate measures to protect our workforce while continuing to provide this product that the country needs to continue through this crisis.
We also established a website for contractors and homeowners that is all COVID-19 related. It includes news, what to do, how to stay safe, and it’s updated regularly. It’s really important for contractors that are trying to sell virtually that they share that link with the homeowner so that they can get comfortable, still transact and still get a roofing system in a very safe way.
RC: Do you expect any production slowdowns or temporary plant closures?
JS: We’re trying to make sure the people at our plants can practice social distancing and the proper guidelines, and where we can’t, we’ve closed those areas of the business and will work off of our inventory. That’s how we’re thinking about it.
RC: There’s widespread debate about this around the country, but why is roofing essential?
JS: We are rightly viewed as essential to the economy and when you think about all the people working now in their homes, how many hospitals need to operate, and temporary hospitals will be needed. All of these have roofs over them. The critical nature of what we do, and the times we’re in, kind of align.
I couldn’t be more proud to be in a business like this, one that has a purpose and is driven to a purpose. We think about that a lot, but especially in times of crisis. Watching how this was beginning to evolve, this is a page out of a playbook I don’t own, and not a lot of people have lived through something like this on this scale we’re at right now.
RC: Our recent survey data shows more than half of contractors are concerned about supply chain interruptions as this pandemic continues. What’s your message to roofing contractors feeling uneasy about that?
JS: We are open for business! We’re confident in our ability to service our customers and partners. We went into this running very hard to build up an inventory with the anticipation that we would probably have some interruption in our manufacturing processes. We’ve managed to get through this with the ability to scale up production at our plants when necessary to meet the demand. But for the time being, we’re working off of our inventory, with some exceptions.
We have no outages or extended lead times today. We have inventory and are shipping on a regular basis, and contractors can rely on that.
RC: As far as GAF employees are concerned, how long can you operate that way given the longer this all takes?
JS: We have to create an environment where people are safe to operate, and if they don’t, we’re not penalizing them. It’s important for any business leader to understand that in a situation like this you’ve got to have a different tolerance level for what people can deal with, and you have align to that. And give them the options to make decisions for themselves. These aren’t easy decisions for anyone, whether it’s to decide to go to the grocery store, or go to work because your skills are needed, but we’re leaving those decisions up to individuals, not forcing anyone to work outside of their homes. No one.
RC: How did the association with Standard Industries (corporate owner) help?
JS: Standard did exactly what any company would want their holding company to do. We always rely on them for what’s happening five or 10 years out. But in a crisis situation, they saw this and gave us the heads up on what it will mean and how we could prepare. And that’s all we needed to start testing some of the concepts around "what if we have to (shut down headquarters in Parsippany, N.J.)."
RC: How did you have GAF employees prepare for this situation?
JS: At the time, I didn’t feel like we were ahead of the curve of anything, but we asked what happens if they actually stop people from coming in? Or what if we have to close the offices, how can we continue to operate? So we did a test work-at-home day. And it worked marvelously well.
RC: When did you implement work-from-home and what’s been the reaction?
JS: The following week is when the pandemic really hit and New York realized how serious it was going to be for them. Then we decided not to risk any employees and just implemented the work from home. We went into that mode and that’s worked for us. We’re getting more done. When you have to walk to a conference room in our building, which is 350,000 square feet, and you don’t have to be moving from place to place there’s a lot you can do with that time.
RC: What’s been an invaluable tool and what’s the key benefit?
JS: We migrated to Google Suite (G Suite) two years ago, and working on this platform is ideal for this. We have video conferences, live meetups, even social hours. The most important part is communication, communication, communication. If you talked to someone once a day, you’re probably talking to them three times a day now under this format. People need to feel connected, part of the team still. It’s hard for some personalities to not be around their coworkers and they feel isolated, so Google is a great proxy for us.
RC: How are you keeping in touch with customers?
JS: We’ve transferred everything out of the sales department to digital, which means video, and even FaceTime to be able to communicate with our customers. We also increased our iterations of that with contractors like we did internally. They’re hearing from us a lot more often and about how we’re doing things so that we can help them get the product they need.
RC: Tracking how different states are implementing shelter-in-place orders and the impact on roofing contractors has been difficult. How did you meet that challenge with so many contractors around the country?
JS: Our legal team really started working hard going state by state to see if they were putting out orders to shelter-in-place and to close businesses down. But I think most places understood the importance of roofing not only to the economy, but to people being able to weather this terrible crisis. What does that mean? We have to make sure the employees that we’re expecting to operate and still work have safe conditions to do that in, including our contractors.
RC: GAF had a lot of momentum coming out of the IRE 2020 with the launch of Timberline HDZ and other product launches, how do you keep that going now?
JS: The Timberline HDZ has been a huge success. When we thought about this, it was in response to help contractors with the labor-savings issue in roofing. What was amazing to me was how excellent of a product it was and there were a lot of side benefits — the weight of shingles, the speed that they could install this in. It was more than we ever thought when we started and I think you’ll see more iterations of this. We’re committed to making sure that this format continues on.
RC: How has or will this crisis change current products or service offerings?
JS: We were just getting ready to launch our in-home selling app, and pivoted that two weeks ago to an online version. It’s in pilot now with 300 contractors and we plan to scale up by adding 1,000 contractors a month. It gives the contractor the means with which they’re able to continue to work. They can make sure that when a home is leaking or needs a new roof … they can get in there quickly and sell to homeowners in a safe way.
RC: Can you explain the importance of making that pivot right now?
JS: Knowing that roofing contractors couldn’t adhere to social distancing and make homeowners feel comfortable about letting people into their homes that they didn’t know, we pivoted that and we placed it online. So now, a homeowner gets a link and they meet virtually. The contractor walks through the entire sales process and does all the same things they normally would. It allows them to make the deal without really shaking hands, which is what we’ll have to become accustomed to. This changes how we do business transactions on the digital front on video.
RC: What’s next, and how will this be a game changer for business overall in the industry?
JS: We’re always challenging our people, and right now the focus is on what it means coming out of this. We have a "reemergence" team that we just formed to think about all the things we should be thinking about, knowing that this will end. That will be important as we pivot to start thinking about the future. I don’t know when this will be over, I don’t have that answer, but I do want to be able to move out of this quickly when it does.
RC: What keeps you up at night now?
JS: The people, right now especially. Now it’s more important because if we do this wrong, there are real health issues involved, so that takes this to another level. It’s not just people’s livelihoods, it’s their lives.