By his own admission, Rob Miller struggled to break into the distribution industry when working for Bradco Supply in Charlotte, N.C. He needed a breakthrough, which came to him in an unexpected form: a 100-year-old clay tile.

The tile arrived in the hands of a customer who needed about 25 more for a repair job. Accepting the challenge, Miller dove in, calling and faxing people around the country to see who might have it in stock.

“It turns out I found it for him and he bought the tile from me and I ended up getting his shingle business going forward,” he said. “I got my foot in the door and a light bulb went off.”

The experience served as the catalyst for Miller’s commitment to what he calls the luxury roofing market. Miller wanted to start a luxury division at Bradco. Fate, however, had other ideas in store. Around that time, ABC Supply Co. Inc. was in discussion to acquire the company, making it tough to implement a new division.

Instead, Miller started his own business in 2008, forming Worth Roofs in Mount Holly, N.C. to help supply customers with what they need for the most demanding roofing jobs.

“I was 40ish years old, so I was like, ‘I’ll just give it a shot and see,’ and here we are 16 years later,” he said.

A Roof Detective

Miller entered the construction industry at age 14, working on a farm doing general maintenance. After high school, he earned an undergraduate degree, and following academia, he worked as an independent rep for building supply products. He sold everything from Ridge Vent to MFM Building Products and Simpson Strong-Tie.

In 1998, Bradco Supply brought Miller onto its team at itsCharlotte, N.C. location. He spent the next decade working there, saying he tended to encounter more failures than successes until his eureka moment with the historic tile.

“We were sort of a greenfield operation and I had a lot of doors shut on me, trying to break into accounts and sell them truckloads of Timberlines and truckloads of ISO,” he said. “So I got into the luxury roofing segment and solved some problems, and that just really opened doors.”

At Bradco, he started small, working locally with contractors seeking products like slate, clay and cedar. He would find samples to send to customers and inform them about various details, such as which vendors to call or the types of nails to use.

Forming a business that focused on high-end materials at the beginning of the Great Recession proved challenging. While Miller can look back and laugh now, it put his convictions to the test.

“I saw permits declining in 2007, so of course, I decided, ‘What’s the best time to leave a great job with people I love and a great company? It’s 2008, right in the middle of a recession,’” he said with a chuckle.

Worth-Roofs-Tile-3-1.jpgThe 100-year-old tile that launched Worth Roofs. Photo courtesy of Worth Roofs

Relying on profits and self-funding versus investments, Worth Roofs slowly built itself up. Worth Roofs presents itself as the go-to company for when a distributor or roofer needs particular products. Worth Roofs does the legwork to find those materials, specializing in unusual or high-end products, ranging from cedar, shake and clay tiles to concrete.

A large portion of the business comes from reclaiming roofing materials. If a home or building is being torn down, Worth Roofs will purchase the materials, process them, do quality control, and repackage them for resale.

“We also supply for repairs – say a tree clips a 100-year-old house in the corner, and they need four or five starters,” he said. “We very well may have that in the yard here to match that exact 100-year-old tile with the dirt and everything.”

The internet is a huge boon when it comes to sleuthing out materials. Still, for materials that may predate the creation of the web, Worth Roofs has a veritable library of manuals, sample boards, and more that date back to the early 1900s that it can reference.

“We need to capture this history. We knew how we need to know where we came from, because some of these old roofs need maintenance,” he said. “Some of these materials last hundreds of years ... they need respect, they need certain care.”

Creating Opportunities

Catering to the luxury and hard-to-find roofing market has paid off. Worth Roofs does business around the country, from local jobs in North Carolina to shipping materials to California, Texas and Florida. Miller says part of why he does it is because he understands the difficulties distributors face.

“I'm a fan of distribution. I came from distribution. I understand distribution. I believe in the power of distribution, but distribution really hasn't embraced this particular market segment,” he said. “I think a lot of manufacturers have reacted accordingly and not embraced distribution. I just think there's a ton of upside to really looking at this and expanding and expanding it.”

The idea of diversifying into luxury roofing has some merit. According to a recent BBC story, in Northamptonshire, England, a local library needed to repair its leaky roof. Only one supplier was able to provide enough of a unique type of roofing slate in the required timeline, practically guaranteeing that supplier the business.

Miller notes that Worth Roofs imports slate from Europe and Argentina, as well as clay tiles from Spain, to keep up with demand.

“This is not a specialty product in Europe. They're putting slate and tile on so they know how to do it. You have economies of scale. It's a very high quality product. They're cranking it out … like we’re cranking out three-tab [in the U.S.],” Miller said.

At the moment, Miller said there aren’t any products that are notably more popular than others, though notes that slate is making a comeback while demand for cedar appears to be leveling out.’ As many in distribution know, he said it also relies on what market they serve.

For instance, someone in South Florida may not require as much help locating tiles, but larger, independent distributors needing of special orders won’t have to turn down those opportunities. These products not only bring in large sales numbers, but they also help branches stand out from the pack.

“Everybody's competing with one another, and I believe this is a differentiator, because you're handling someone that throws a 100-year-old piece of title on the counter at a branch, and you can say yes to that, versus throwing your hands up the air. That that gives you value,” he said.

However, the mission goes beyond sales opportunities or honoring roof types from the past. Miller says, ultimately, it’s about coming together as an industry to provide the best services.

“That’s my mission is to bring more awareness to it, make it easy, and lift all ships – distributors, manufacturers, architects, builders, roofing contractors – lift us all up in community and helping one another get better,” he said.