Mark Carpenter | Crain's Portland

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark Carpenter

Background:  

Columbia Roofing & Sheet Metal operates in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California with a year-round staff. Columbia provides 24/7 leak repair service, full commercial roof replacement, sheet metal work and roofing, as well as commercial repairs and maintenance.

The Mistake:

Trying to operate a company under a bad business model.

I should begin by saying that the roofing industry is odd, and we all have odd stories about how we got into it. I have a degree in marketing. In the mid-1990s, I bought a small roofing contracting business in Bend, Ore., Whatco Roofing and Sheet Metal.  I moved it to Beaverton and continued to do work.  Most of the work at Whatco was in the Portland area, so moving it was not a big stretch.

Most of the work was new commercial construction, very little reroofing. We did not do residential nor did we do any service work. After about five years it was broke, because of the type of work we did and the market we were working in, i.e. new construction.  But new construction is only about one-third of the industry. It also is the worst-paying, with the worst margins and the worst schedule. I was able to get by for three or four years.

It was a slow choking. You had to be cheap to get the work; it was just a bad business model. I stopped the company and liquidated it, paying off all of the debt that I could, including back taxes. It was a very difficult time in my life.  I was in my late 30s with a college degree and a failed business. 

I then went to work for a new small roofing company, and I was able to help in a manner with that company but it did not have the values that I did in business. Then I sold insurance for a while to pay the bills, but I wasn’t any good at that. So, I got back into roofing. I started another company from scratch, worked out of the old family station wagon, and took one job then the next.

I don’t look at this as a roofing business. I look at us as a business.

The Lesson:

It has been 22 years since I started over with Columbia. I started out by doing small repair jobs, and I had friends in other construction trades who were heavily involved in service and repairs. I just started looking and talking to them about what their trade industries did

This time I stayed out of new construction, which was the way to go. I also provided a good value proposition, figuring out what customers want. They want to be dry and not spend a lot of money. We targeted specific private industries. We stay away from anything with publicly funded money. We also targeted specific market segments, including private colleges, heavy industrial, high-rise buildings, office campuses and elder-care facilities.  

We focused on service, reroofing, seismic retrofits and sheet metal in commercial private-sector work. Turns out it was a good marketing strategy, one that still is quite unique in the roofing business and one that is a success.  I have been at it 20 years now and the combination of having the correct company culture, good employees, top products and great service is always a winning combination. Business has been good, and we weathered the 2008 recession very well. We have 70 employees in three locations.

We are different in that I don’t look at this as a roofing business. I look at us as a business. We ask customers what plans they have, what do their financials look like, and then we match our roofing proposal with their plans based on finances and our technical solutions. Some intend to scrap the facility in two years, and others have buildings that generate $16 million a year with no one in them.

We do not do any new construction. I have been there, done that, and went bankrupt because of it.

Pictured: Mark Carpenter. | Photo courtesy of Mark Carpenter.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email hgamble@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's.