Gutter Opportunities: Branch out with gutters

Installers who start from scratch in the gutter business face one set of challenges. But existing companies that diversify into gutters must tackle a separate set of issues.

For example, when owner Emmit White of Tidewater Roofing in Hampton, Va., decided in 2000 to offer gutter installation services, his new venture faced a host of questions. “We had to decide whether gutters would primarily be an add-on to the existing roofing business or if we should establish a separate corporate identity for our gutter services,” explains Kevin Hobson, production manager for what is now Tidewater Gutters, also based in Hampton.

At the time White began installing gutters, his Tidewater Roofing was a well-established business with nearly 20 years of experience in both residential and commercial roofing. “Gutters were a natural complement to what the company was doing in roofing,” relates Hobson, so the new venture could potentially prosper as an adjunct of Tidewater Roofing. The latter serves both new and existing residential accounts, plus commercial projects ranging from multi-housing developments to manufacturing plants.

“But we decided to start Tidewater Gutters as a separate company with its own identity,” says Hobson, “so that we could go out and obtain gutter jobs apart from roofing.” The strategy has paid off as Tidewater Gutters now generates some $3.5 million in yearly sales, with five offices that serve customers from the North Carolina border to the greater Richmond area and beyond.

Today, Tidewater Gutters and Tidewater Roofing are sister companies and subsidiaries of the E. D. White Corporation. “In a slow economy, the two companies can share crews so that we can keep our experienced people on the payroll and not lay them off,” notes Hobson, “and we can share job leads with each other. But other than that, Tidewater Gutters is run as a separate business.”

Perhaps the crucial factor that allowed Tidewater Gutters to establish its own customer base was the decision to secure a dealership from a national gutter products manufacturer. White researched various products and chose to represent K-Guard. The Ohio-based manufacturer had entered the market four years earlier, in 1996, with a “fully integrated, leaf-free gutter system” that features several sellable features: high-strength patented hangers, a patented 5-inch wide trough design that handles more water and accommodates large 3×4 downspouts, plus a curved appearance that eliminates sharp corners and vertical faces.

“Because K-Guard uses a specially designed hood that prevents leaves and other debris from entering the gutters, and because the larger-than-average size allows smaller elements, such as seeds or pine needles, to be easily flushed though the system,” continues Hobson, “we’re able to offer customers a lifetime warranty against clogging.”

The Tidewater slogan, “No Cleaning, No Clogging,” has proven a winner. Homeowners and commercial customers are likewise drawn to the aesthetic advantages of the K-Guard products. “The strength of the hanger system means that gutters won’t fall off or sag,” Hobson states, “and with the curved design, the gutters add a neatly finished touch and don’t affect the look of the existing roof. Also, we’ve got more color selection than most brands, plus a 100-percent copper system.”

Because Tidewater Gutters serves a region where hurricanes are a concern, Hobson adds, “Our customers like K-Guard’s two-piece design. Over the years, there’s always a chance that gutters can be dented by fallen branches or hail.” When competing one-piece systems are damaged, the entire gutter and hood assembly must be replaced. “But our products are made with a seamless trough and a seamless protective hood, which allows easy replacement of only the damaged section of your gutter.”

About 70 percent of Tidewater Gutters’ business is replacement gutters for existing homes, while the remainder is divided between new home construction and commercial projects. About one-third of all that volume comes through referrals. New leads are generated through home shows, newspaper and yellow pages advertising, door hangers, yard signs and truck signage. Many commercial contacts come through Tidewater Roofing.

“Our sales reps begin their training by spending a week on a truck and seeing the installations,” Hobson reports, “and then a week traveling with an experienced rep. Tidewater Gutters currently maintains a professional force of three sales representatives at its Hampton headquarters and one based in Richmond.

Hobson’s production department boasts three K-Guard gutter machines in Hampton and two more in Richmond. Crews can install 5- and 6-inch K-style seamless aluminum or copper gutters, as well as half-round gutters and decorative accessories. Yet despite the popularity of colonial styling in Virginia, he adds, “We don’t do many half-round gutter systems, just 10 to 15 jobs per year. People are getting away from half-rounds because, even if they look good, they don’t perform as well as other profiles.”

The current economic slowdown has been a mixed bag for Tidewater Gutters. “Some people can’t afford new gutters and are putting it off,” Hobson relates, “but other homeowners are deciding to stay put and fix up their existing homes.” Despite laying off some help, the company counts itself fortunate to have kept all its experienced crew leaders on the payroll.  “That’s where being diversified — doing existing homes, new construction and commercial jobs — has been helpful in making sure we’ve always got work for our foremen,” he explains.

Happily, Hobson has seen evidence of recent improvement in sales activity. “Our focus on customer service, even in bad times, has positioned us to be the first one to take advantage of any economic recovery,” he believes. “Since we do things right the first time, we don’t have any angry customers out there who are ruining our reputation. Instead, when homeowners start thinking again about new gutters, their friends and neighbors are referring them to us.”

If the short-term outlook is picking up again, Hobson says the long-term outlook — for the company and for himself — is also positive. “The owner, Mr. White and his wife, come to work every day,” he reports. “So they’re involved and excited about the business. With Tidewater Roofing and Tidewater Gutters, they’ve succeeded in bringing operations to the level where we can be most successful. They’re satisfied with the size of the business.”

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