Gutter demand meets supply

Gutter installation and cattle ranching — a natural combination, no?

Yet the work of Shannon Wheeler Construction in Edgerton, Wyo., illustrates a side of the gutter industry that often doesn’t get much attention.

“There are lots of small towns in Wyoming, just like in other states, that are too far from more developed areas for full-time installers to service them,” explains Shannon Wheeler, who owns the company together with his wife Perri. “It’s not economical for them to travel those distances for the occasional job. But then, who’s going to serve the gutter needs of these remote areas?”

The Wheelers have an answer that is a win-win proposition for contractor and customers alike. The Edgerton couple are full-time proprietors of Salt Creek Ranch, a 35,000-acre spread where they raise calves for sale. But the seasonality of ranching provides opportunities for Shannon and Perri to pursue other enterprises — so long as the work is flexible and they can control the time and volume.

Installing gutters fits the bill while providing a needed service for residents of Edgerton and surrounding towns who might not otherwise have a viable option when they need gutters repaired or replaced. “The volume is enough to make it worth our while,” explains Shannon Wheeler, “but not so much that I can’t scale back when our ranch takes priority.”

Wheeler has installed gutters for 20 years, first in partnership with his father and then independently since 2004. Last year he purchased a 5-inch K-style gutter machine from Denver-based New Tech Machinery that he puts in an enclosed trailer and takes with him to jobsites around Wyoming.

“The gutter business is great for Perri and me,” says Wheeler. “We get about 20 residential jobs a year, each one takes about a day and a half and after it’s done you walk away with a check in your hand.” For the full-time gutter installers who service the big cities and more developed areas, that level of volume and travel distance would not pay. But for the Wheelers — who have little overhead, get immediate payment and can choose when to take jobs — the gutter business is worth it.

“Even the marketing doesn’t really involve any expense,” continues Wheeler. “News travels fast in small towns since everybody knows everybody else. And when word gets around that we’re willing to service these remote areas, we get word-of-mouth advertising. People call us because they’ve heard we’ll come to their area.”

Of course, word of poor workmanship and shoddy products would also travel fast. So Wheeler benefits from his two decades of installation experience. And he knows the area he serves — an area where gutter systems must withstand high wind and snow loads. “Experience has taught me ‘what works’ for the conditions around here,” he relates.

Wheeler always opts for .032-inch aluminum coil rather than .027-inch to give his gutters more strength. His experienced eye can look at the pitch of a roof and decide whether hangers should be 2 feet on center or 16 inches and whether the installation should be reinforced with screws. Snow guards are often installed, he adds, “especially on metal roofs. Around here, if the snow suddenly slides off then it could easily take the gutters with it.”

Just as Wheeler must prepare his gutter systems to withstand all kinds of conditions, he and Perri must ready themselves to undertake jobs in all types of weather. “In Wyoming,” he points out, “you learn it’s better not to install gutter troughs in lengths of more than 50 feet on a windy day.”

The need for flexibility — when to accept jobs, when to scale back — is dictated by the Wheelers’ full-time work at Salt Creek Ranch. “We’re in the cow/calf business,” says Perri, whose family has been in ranching for nearly 80 years. The yearly cycle starts in summer when the bulls, about five for every 100 cows, are let into the herd. Activity then ramps up in April and May when the cows give birth. “We’ve got to do all the branding,” she explains, “and we’re out every day, even in snow, feeding the calves.”

After the spring calving, the Wheelers’ herd of about 400 Black Angus cows is put out to summer pasture. “In July they’re moved again to another pasture,” notes Perri. “It takes three or four days to gather all the cows. We get up at three or four in the morning and take our horses out to the pasture, since we’ve got to move the cattle before it gets too hot.”

About that time, buyers put down deposits on the new calves and then in October take delivery once the animals are weaned. “The cattle industry has many different levels,” explains Perri. “After the buyers take our calves, they grow them to about 900 pounds. Then another buyer takes them at that point until the cows are ready for slaughter.”

After weaning in October, all the cows — who spent the summer pastured with the bulls — are tested for pregnancy and the cycle starts over. Cows and bulls are sent to separate winter pastures, waiting for the following spring when the annual birthing season begins. Meanwhile, the Wheelers earn extra income over the winter months by guiding elk and mule deer hunters across their property. “And then, too,” adds Perri, “we’ve got to keep salt in front of the cows all year long.”

Considering the Wheelers’ demanding schedule, the surprise isn’t that Shannon Wheeler Construction performs only about 20 gutter jobs per year — but that they find the time at all. And not only does the company install gutters, but erects pole barns as well. Yet the Wheelers’ construction activity continues long family traditions for both Perri and Shannon.

Perri’s grandfather started a Wyoming ranch business in the 1930s that was later taken over by her father. Then in 1970s he launched a construction company to service the state’s oil industry. “My dad built the sites that the oil rigs sit on, as well as the roads going into the sites and the pipelines coming out of them,” she recounts. Income from the enterprises was then plowed back into ranching.

“One day after I’d finished college,” Perri relates, “my father called me up to say he’d bought two ranches — and would I like to run one of them? In Wyoming, if a ranch property comes up for sale then you must be prepared to act. Ranches tend to stay in families. So once they’re sold, you never know if and when they’ll be offered for sale again.”

That was in 1992 and Perri has been running Salt Creek Ranch ever since. She and Shannon started dating in 2001 and married four years later. Since he combined ranching skills with a decade of construction work with his own father, Perri and Shannon have enjoyed a productive partnership.

“Even though we only install seamless aluminum gutters,” notes Shannon, “we bought a gutter machine that can also run steel and copper without having to adjust the machine. We figured it would give us the option to expand, if that’s what we choose, or to sell it since it’s a versatile machine is more likely to hold its value better than a machine that can only do one thing.”

Though the Wheelers have scaled back a bit of late in the number of gutter jobs they have accepted, Shannon believes, “Expansion is a possibility in the near future. There’s always a market because gutters are always needed. And as I said, the work doesn’t tie you up for a couple of weeks on a jobsite like other kinds of construction. Also, you get paid right away. So gutters will always be part of our overall operations.”

In 2011, Wheeler continues, “We might even cut back on other types of building we do and just install gutters as our sole construction activity. Customers like — and need — our service. It gives them options they might not get otherwise so that we fill a niche. And for us, gutter installation is a good fit with our primary business.”

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