Gaylord Blue, founder of Blue’s Roofing, dreamed of starting his own roofing company shortly after moving his family west from El Paso, Texas, to the San Francisco Bay area roughly five decades ago. He started out learning and perfecting his trade with a large company — Alcal Specialty Contracting — and in 1973 branched out to form his own roofing business focused on values he held dear: hard work, integrity and doing the job to the best of your ability.
Though long-gone from the day-to-day operations of the company, Blue’s founding values still ring true almost half a century later, and they’ve helped establish its reputation as one of the best commercial roofing and waterproofing specialists in the West.
Blue’s is a full-service roofing contractor company with a portfolio of landmark projects that spans across northern California. Dedicated solely to the commercial market, roughly 80% of its operations are new construction and 20% are restoration or reroofs. Though the company had humble beginnings, it carved its niche while the industry underwent transformative changes in the late 1970s. That evolution hasn’t stopped, with specialty areas now including below-grade WP, split slab WP, coatings, grout injection, tile, BUR and modified roofing.
“He’d be very proud of where we are,” said son Tim Blue, current company president. “He was an old tar-and-gravel roofer and we’ve come a long way.”
Now with 70 full-time union employees, the focus on those values that have made Blue’s successful have arguably never been more important. When 2020 began, Blue’s was gearing toward another banner year in terms of business.
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S. before spring, much of the early focus was on New York and the East Coast. But the disease was spreading fast in California, requiring some of the harshest shut-down orders implemented across the country. Like much of the roofing industry across North America, Blue’s benefited from a relentless push for “essential worker” designations, and crews started getting back to jobsites with new COVID-19 safety protocols.
Ultimately, California was hit hard by the virus, carrying the largest number of infections in America, and third-highest number of deaths at the time of publication. Compounding the health crisis was a looming economic freefall and unprecedented wildfires raging across California. The situation called for a calming voice and level-headed leadership. Meet Leo Ibarra.
Ibarra was first exposed to the trades by a neighbor who was a superintendent for a roofing company, and joined Blue’s Roofing in 1991. After about a decade of on-the-job learning in the field, he helped Blue’s transition to more waterproofing specialties and the company began carving its niche in a bustling market driven by the tech bubble and institutional clients with capital projects.
His calming demeanor, ability to tackle problems, and willingness to learn left an impression early on in a company that has historically brought people up to the office from the field.
“Leo started with us as an apprentice, journeyman, and then foreman. And he always had a drive for more knowledge,” Blue said.
Ibarra showed his passion for roofing and his leadership potential when Blue took him along for a six-month crash course on managing jobsite operations in San Francisco. Blue said he was managing multiple jobs within walking distance in the city, and they’d meet regularly with general contractors and superintendents to keep projects on schedule and manage expectations.
“Leo was able to get the feel for what our philosophy was. How we treated our customers. When we stood firm and when we didn’t,” Blue explained. “I also got a good, strong feeling for him.”
Blue — like his father, a long-time believer in the power of professional associations — nominated Ibarra for a spot in one of the initial Future Executives Institute (FEI) classes operated by the National Roofing Contractors Association. The impact it had on his career and professional devotion to improving the industry can’t be overstated, Ibarra said.
“When you’re coming from outside the family, having these opportunities in a family business is not all that common and I knew that if they came my way I’d make the most of them,” Ibarra said. “That program was pretty much the point where I knew that Tim Blue had other things in mind for me, and not to just be part of the office, but take a leadership role.”
Ibarra began making his mark by revamping Blue’s safety program.
Blue’s Roofing uses estimators to bid projects and project managers that oversee jobs once they’re awarded. Crews are split between roof production and service. Being a union company, the focus on safety is crucial to earning and keeping jobs, and is regularly monitored. Ibarra said a risk management company performs bi-weekly safety audits.
The company established Blue’s Safety Committee, which is comprised of company employees at every level, including executive management, office staff, warehouse personnel and field crews.
“We try to keep everyone involved and ask for input,” Ibarra said. “Giving people the opportunity to critique empowers them.”
As a former project manager with the company, Ibarra said not overloading supervisors and finding ways to maximize individual strengths also helps.
Blue said that he and his sister — Tricia Blue, a co-owner with a vital role in office operations — appreciate how Ibarra’s attitude has permeated the company culture.
“He listens. He doesn’t overreact, doesn’t yell, doesn’t scream at the people who work for him and he hears both sides,” Blue said. “We have a pretty harmonious group here and getting input from employees of Leo’s caliber has allowed us to be successful.”
Right Guy, Right Time
Feeding off his FEI experience, Ibarra became heavily involved with the Western States Roofing Contractors Association (WSRCA), and was sworn in as president in June 2019 for a one-year term. Due to the COVID-19 crisis and significant transitions within the organization, he was asked to stay on for another year. Only Chuck Chapman has served a two-year term in the association’s history.
“Leo is the right person for the privilege of a second term. He’s very democratic in his leadership style, is very thorough with researching solutions and does his due diligence before presenting issues to the group,” said Joel Viera, a long-time WSRCA staffer who took over as executive director in August. “He does a great job of identifying the strength of each member of the team, and leans on each specialized member for input during the research phase of any issue.”
Viera also said Ibarra speaks softly and carries a big stick when it’s time to make tough decisions. That became clear as the WSRCA grappled with how to proceed with the Western Roofing Expo, its signature event, amid the health and safety concerns brought by COVID-19.
“Leo’s leadership was so important to navigating through COVID-19. Every day we would get different predictions, new rules, and muddied timelines for whether the WRE would be able to take place,” he explained.
Taking on a second year as president continues a long-standing connection between Blue’s Roofing and the association. Founder Gaylord Blue served as WSRCA president in 1983, and many other company employees have been actively involved in leadership and serve on committees to help solve problems impacting the roofing industry. It’s a natural fit, Ibarra said.
“My intent from the beginning was to help and run the association the same way we run our business,” Ibarra explained. “I don’t micromanage. I think when you have good people involved you allow them to use their creativity and work ethic to propel the association forward.”
As for making tough decisions when the pressure’s on, Ibarra said it’s a matter of perspective.
“I’m a firm believer that pressure is what you make of it,” he said. “Control what you can control, and if you can’t control it, you try and manage it the best you can. Our philosophy is if there’s an issue, it’s not about pointing fingers. Let’s figure out a way to fix it.”
Art Aisner is Editor of Roofing Contractor. Reach him at 248-244-6497 or firstname.lastname@example.org.