The roofing industry has its group of “lifers” — roofers that started young, often in the family business, and despite the ups and downs of running a roofing enterprise, can’t imagine doing anything else professionally.

Kevin Froeter could be their president. As he approaches five decades in the industry, the owner and president of Sterling Commercial Roofing says he’s having too much fun to stop now, and he still has levels of success he’d like to reach. 

“I have been doing this now for 50 years and I only wish I could do it for another 50 years,” he said. “I love it more today than ever.”

Froeter started working on rooftops in 1974 with his father’s company and in 1989 landed at Sterling, at the time a division of Freeport Industrial Roofing that served western Illinois, where he joined his brother as co-manager. Both he and the company grew for nearly 20 years before Froeter had an opportunity for ownership in 2008. He and his wife, Jean, didn’t hesitate. 

Today, the company that started with just six employees has grown into a commercial roofing force in the upper Midwest with roofing, sheet metal, and maintenance divisions. Its 215 union employees generated more than $62 million in revenue in 2022, good for the 38th spot on RC’s 2023 Top 100 List. 

Four men working on a commercial roofing project

Sterling Commercial Roofing has earned numerous awards for its safety over the years, including accolades from the MRCA and CRCA.

Sterling Commercial Roofing Inc.

Headquarters: Sterling, Ill.; Bettendorf, Iowa

Founded: 1986

Owners: Jean and Kevin Froeter

Specialty: Roofing, waterproofing, wall panels and architectural sheet metal

Number of Employees: 215 union

Safety and Training

Getting to that level of success was no accident. Froeter said he’s helped build a job-winning reputation of high-quality work and customer care by creating an internal business culture that’s focused on safety and training.

Sterling has two full-time safety advisors that make daily jobsite inspections and are at every job start up. Froeter said he also hires the services of Safety Check Inc. for health and safety consulting that includes oversight and additional jobsite inspections. Froeter said he also makes a point of having the insurance carrier visit jobsites quarterly to make spot inspections. In addition, crews hold weekly toolbox talks, monthly safety meetings, and they plan a company-wide annual safety meeting. 

The investment in time and resources have paid off. The company received the Chicago Roofing Contractors Association (CRCA) Gold Medal Safety Award in 2016 and 2020, and finished a close second the following year. Other regional recognition includes the Gold Metal Safety Award from the Midwest Roofing Contractors Association (MRCA) in 2012, 2018, and 2022; and the MRCA Platinum Award in 2019; and the Illowa Safety Award from the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council from 2017 to 2022.

In a career spanning nearly five decades, Froeter said he knows he’s fortunate to have so many positive experiences to reflect on. It is hard to pick just one, but when pressed, Froeter said it was earning the company’s first Gold Medal Safety Award from the CRCA.

“It was confirmation that our safety program had finally reached the level that we were striving for,” he said. 

They also rely on their partners from distribution and manufacturing to further push the safety message. 

Winning the award again in 2020, and consistently finishing in consideration year-after-year is a distinct point of pride, even as the years pass. The memory of what he calls the worst incident of his career also stays clear. A car crossed the center line and hit a truck holding three Sterling employees who were coming back from a jobsite. Two workers were killed. 

“This one will always stay with me,” Froeter said. “Every time there has ever been an incident, I have always been able to produce a solution to prevent it from happening again. I have yet to come up with a solution for this one.”

Froeter said they bring various manufactures in annually to give refresher courses on products and application techniques. They also have field project managers whose responsibility is to oversee quality and help with personalized training as needed. 

Talking about it is key. 

“When people know that next to safety, quality is the most important thing to Sterling, it helps to instill better work performance,” Froeter said. “It is our reputation on the line with everything that we do.”

A man using an indistrial vacuum on a roof

Sterling Commercial Roofing offers everything from single-ply roofing and coatings to bituminous roofing, air barriers, metal shingles and green roofs.

People First, Then Projects

Staying focused on safety and high-quality performance are two factors that also appeal to Froeter’s practical side. 

“A friend of mine told me once that we put enough money into these jobs to do it right once, not enough to do it over, and that has stuck with me,” he said. 

It helps with employee retention and that can be a difference maker when workforce remains the leading challenge in Sterling’s marketplace.

“Every employee we hire, we hire with the hope that they will be with us for their entire career. They are now part of our family, and we want them to feel that way,” Jean said. 

She said it starts by treating everyone the same way she and Kevin want to be treated. During morning planning sessions, each crew has the day’s plans laid out in order to allow all members to give feedback and to get everyone working in the same direction. The Froeters say they also make of point of trying to catch people doing good and verbally acknowledging their work and accomplishments.

Some of that camaraderie and kinship is what kept the company moving through the COVID-19 pandemic. Though identified as essential workers early in the crisis, Sterling had many challenges and safety hurdles to overcome. Adjusting staffing for the amount of work that was coming in was one, and then readjusting during the supply-chain crunch was another obstacle met back-to-back.

Sterling made it through both with minimal layoffs, continuing its commitment to people over projects. They also revised the company’s heat standards to comply with daily masking requirements, and ramped up material inventories as much as 300% in some cases to keep jobs moving. Loyalty was tested, too, as they found new suppliers to be able to maintain their workflow and workforce. 

“Trying to get people properly cared for while torching mod bit in 90-degree temperatures while also wearing a mask? It creates a brand-new challenge that we never had to deal with before,” Kevin said.

The ability to pivot and stay versatile with materials and roofing systems kept the flow of strong projects coming through. For example, Sterling crews recently finished the second phase of a large computer data center in DeKalb, Ill., that was comprised of an SBS modified roofing system, EPDM, PVC and hot rubberized asphalt. They also handled split-slab waterproofing, below-grade waterproofing and foundation waterproofing on the project, as well as terrace pavers and architectural sheet metal. 

With a peak workforce of 60 on an accelerated timeline, Sterling finished the project ahead of schedule, Froeter said.

While those are tangible company attributes, there are plenty intangibles the Froeters rely on. 

“Our greatest marketing tool is word of mouth. Our customers are our best salesmen,” Jean said. 

While getting customers to know and like what your company stands for is usually enough, Kevin said the key to finding new success in today’s roofing industry is about setting and properly managing customer expectations. 

“People buy the most from people that they like. We try to build on that personal relationship,” he explained. “We solidify that relationship by performing to the highest standards in all aspects of safety, quality and efficiencies. We know we must do more than just talk the talk.”