The mission statement for Minnesota-based Tri-State Commercial Roofing is, “It’s Never Wrong to Do the Right Thing.” It’s one the roofing company takes to heart, especially its CEO, Eddie Swartzentruber.
For him, the right thing to do was running away from his Amish life at age 17.
“I couldn’t see myself living Amish my whole life, there were just bigger things I wanted to do that were not possible in the Amish,” he said.
Those bigger things included multiple accomplishments – such as getting married and starting his own successful roofing company – to some unexpected ones, like gaining thousands of followers on TikTok.
Speaking with a deutsch accent, Swartzentruber takes to TikTok to answer questions about the Amish. In one such video, a user asked how he learned about the outside world to know it would be better than his Amish life. His answer is candid and encapsulates a fascinating journey.
“You don’t know if it’s going to be better. All I know is, it sucked where I was at, and hopefully it will be better on the other side,” he says in the video before grinning.
Finding the Courage to Leave
The Swartzentruber Amish – where Swartzentruber’s name derives from – are among the largest and most conservative Amish communities. His family, originally from Ohio, moved to Minnesota where he was raised and worked in dairy farming. They switched to construction since businesses weren’t accepting non-refrigerated milk.
“It was more local, more just out in the country. When I was still Amish, I think that was the very beginning when barn doors where becoming popular, so we built a lot of those,” he said.
As he grew older, though, he couldn’t understand the reasons or justifications for the strict lifestyle. He became frustrated by all the limitations imposed on him and knew he’d regret it if he didn’t leave. The night of Jan. 8, 2014, Swartzentruber left a note for his family and snuck out.
When he left, he enjoyed his new freedom but had trouble sleeping due to the complications he faced. Having no Social Security Number or birth certificate made his entry into the “English world” all the more difficult. He earned income by performing odd jobs like snow shoveling and splitting wood.
Thanks to his prior experience, he picked up a job at a construction company that he ended up working at for around six years.
“They agreed to help me out. It was a pretty low rate that I was being paid; however, they agreed to pay me cash because I had to work on getting my Social Security Number so that I could legally be hired,” he said.
He decided he wanted to run his own company and eventually parted with the construction company on good terms. Having enjoyed the process of roofing, he thought it’d be better to focus on one trade instead of multiple, so in 2018 he formed Tri-State Commercial Roofing.
Tri-State Commercial Roofing works primarily in the commercial space, with about a third of its jobs being residential. The majority (85%) of its work is reroofing. When he first started out, Swartzentruber relied on door-knocking tactics, stopping at businesses and speaking with maintenance or building owners to provide inspections and repairs.
Naturally, the pandemic took a toll on this strategy, leading to tough times and switching to direct mail marketing. The efforts paid off. Although the company suffers from the industry-wide labor shortage problem, it is busier than ever in both commercial and residential jobs.
“A lot of it is from referrals, even from people that we worked for three, four years ago,” he said. “It’s been a lot better than last year.”
His background has given him a unique approach to his roofing business. He is reticent about borrowing money, so he relies on saved up funds. Even Swartzentruber’s TikTok profile picture shows him smiling and pointing at a sign that says, “Debt is dumb, cash is king.”
This way of doing business clashed with the supply shortages that are plaguing the industry, especially on the commercial side. To get around this, he said the company purchases materials whenever they’re available and store them at a warehouse.
“Sometimes I think it would be ‘fun’ to borrow a ton of money to grow faster, but I’m so insecure about myself I’m afraid I’ll mismanage it and I’ll end up bankrupt,” he said with a chuckle. “At this point I’m just going with the cash that we have.”
Although he left his Amish life behind, Swartzentruber credits it for inspiring a strong work ethic that drives him to do whatever it takes to provide the best services and products. On the other hand, he isn’t as adept at handling office work. He said in that regard, he is hiring someone to help manage the office.
“For me to do spreadsheets and reports, it takes me four times as long as the person I’m hiring,” he said. “I’m not super savvy with technology.”
His TikTok account, however, might beg to differ.
Taking to TikTok
Swartzentruber’s TikTok videos mainly focus on answering questions people have about Amish life. His videos provide an insider’s insight into a community that is otherwise closed off to the rest of society. As a result, he has gained thousands of followers since he began in fall of 2021 – 96,000 at the time of publication. He even attracted the attention of CBS News.
“I set up the app and a couple of me and my friends played around with it, and then I just kind of do it for fun,” he said. “It was more entertaining for myself, and I guess other people found me entertaining or educational.”
Speaking directly to the camera, he answers questions submitted by curious TikTok users, ranging from his background and the rules he had to follow to more bizarre questions, such as whether Amish men “manscape” (Swartzentruber’s answer is simple: “no”). Each video ends with Swartzentruber flashing a charming grin.
@eddieswartzentruber_1996 Amish Cloth #amish #tictok #fyp #examish #clothes #rules ♬ original sound - Eddie A Swartzentruber
He said creating the videos has been therapeutic, but also comes with its own problems. Amish people, especially from his former community, aren’t happy about the way he’s speaking about them.
“Behind closed doors, the amount of hate I get from the Amish is crazy,” he said. “They don’t want you to say anything like that.”
Even so, he still visits his family once or twice a year and keeps in regular communication with his mother through letters. He has even helped other people leave behind their Amish lives, as he knows the difficulties they face firsthand.
Although the videos don’t involve his roofing business, TikTok has resulted in Tri-State Commercial Roofing gaining extra business. Swartzentruber said people have recognized him from the videos and decide to use his roofing services. It doesn’t hurt that he occasionally wears a baseball hat or tee shirt with his company’s logo in videos – a far cry from the brim hats and long-sleeve shirts of his former life.
“There’s been people that call me and say, ‘Nobody’s going to take you seriously, don’t do these TikToks, they look weird,’” he said. “In the last week … people see me on TikTok, they Google me because they’re curious, and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, our roof is leaking.’”