In most areas of the country, making money in the residential gutter business is tough. With home sales down and consumers putting off major purchases, the competition among gutter installers is tight. But some companies seem to survive — and even thrive — during this economy. How do they do it?
“We’ve seen our competition impacted by the economy because, while we split our business between new construction and remodeling jobs, other companies are focused only on new construction,” reports Ray Blaha, general manager for All New Gutter Service in Fargo, N.D. “That means when the builder’s business is down, so is the installer’s.”
Serving customers throughout North Dakota and Minnesota, All New Gutter Service has been around for 30 years. Five crews run seven Eastside machines and install aluminum, steel and copper gutters in K-style, F-style and half-round profiles, as well as the Leafaway gutter protection system. But keeping that many crews busy requires active marketing.
“The upside of the residential market is the quick turnaround that translates into quick revenue. We might do 12 jobs in a day between all of our crews,” explains Blaha. “But the flip side is that you need new jobs every day.” All New Gutter Service advertises the in yellow pages, on the Internet, at home shows and both on and around the jobsite. “In addition to the exposure we get with our truck and trailer signage, when we do a job our salesperson and crew also distribute door hangers in the surrounding neighborhood,” he relates.
On a regional scale, All New Gutter Service “targets older developments for remodeling jobs,” continues Blaha, “and we promote the Leafaway gutter protection product in wooded areas and by rivers and lakes where people have homes and cabins.” The company can also differentiate itself from competitors due to the Leafaway machine’s capacity to produce a one-piece seamless gutter solution in aluminum, steel or copper.
Having to generate new jobs every day means Blaha and his company must choose reliable suppliers for gutter coil. “We’ve got to count on suppliers not only for sharp pricing, but for availability,” he relates. “When turning around as many jobs as we do, we can’t wait around for our suppliers.”
Small is Beautiful
Owner Joe Leming of AW Leming & Son in Rome, Ga., agrees, “Time is money, so it’s important to have a good supplier with people you can trust. They’ll get something for me when I need it. Other suppliers may say they have it when I call, but then they don’t have it when I show up. That’s a day wasted.”
Leming started working for his father in high school and then spent a decade working in another industry before returning to the family’s residential gutter business — now in its 61st year. That experience has taught Leming bigger is not always better. He sells the jobs and an employee does the work using a single gutter machine purchased from Senox.
Staying small means Leming can offer a high degree of personal service, an approach that garners substantial word-of-mouth business. Meanwhile, yellow page advertising generates new sales leads. The strategy has paid off. At one point, Leming reports, AW Leming & Son had installed 80 percent of new and replacement gutters in its county.
Such impressive market penetration is due, in part, because Leming has kept up with changes in the gutter business over the years since he joined the company for good in the 1970s. For example, the trend toward steeper roofs in residential architecture prompted him to switch from 5-inch gutters to a 6-inch profile. The company likewise shifted from traditional spike-and-ferrule installation and today uses hidden hangers. And copper has become a popular gutter material for high-end homes in his market.
The personal touch is one reason Leming likes the residential market. “With commercial jobs, you’re often dealing with out-of-town companies,” he remarks. “But in my experience, many times you don’t get paid. So after being in business this long, these days I can pick and choose my customers.”
Tailored for Success
Mel Mabon also got into the family gutter business when he learned the trade from his father-in-law. After his mentor passed away in 1983, Mabon started his own company, Mabon’s Tailored Rain Gutters in Vista, Calif.
The word “tailored” in Mabon’s company name is apt description of his focus on specialty gutters. Mabon works with custom home builders in the northern half of his county and serves about a 40-mile radius from his home base. He and his three employees operate two half-round gutter machines and one K-style machine, all from Liberty Seamless Enterprises. Much of their work is in copper gutters, often for Spanish-style homes.
Serving the builder community has its advantages and disadvantages. “They know the quality of our work will help them maintain their reputations — which is why we’ve worked 20 or 25 years for some of our builders,” says Mabon. “But even so, they always want the work done yesterday. And with the economy down, that means work volume from our builders is down.”
Given the current economy, Mabon and his team “do whatever comes available” and are glad to enjoy a steady stream of projects from referrals. “And though the bulk of our business is new construction,” he adds, “we do get work from larger remodeling jobs that involve additions.”
Have gutters, will travel
When Rich Duda, owner of Duda’s Quality Seamless Gutters in Long Island, N.Y., got out of the Navy in 1984 he considered buying a well-established gutter business. But having no experience in the industry, he decided instead to start out small with a business of his own.
He began with a 5-inch machine that produced seamless aluminum K-style gutters, and then later added a 6-inch machine. The business grew and in 1997 Duda expanded into higher-end projects and copper gutters. Today he covers all of Long Island, employing six installers grouped into three crews. The company now operates 5- and 6-inch K-style and half-round gutter machines, all from Liberty Seamless Enterprises.
“Up until this year, a lot of our business was new construction,” Duda notes. “And while most of the requests for renovations are seamless aluminum gutters, copper gutters are popular for new homes or extensive renovations.”
Duda believes the current credit crisis is having an impact on his affluent Long Island market. “Even with the wealthiest of people, most banks aren’t loaning as much money for residential projects — and so homeowners may not be willing to spend more money directly out of their own pockets,” he observes.
While some installers have responded to tough times by reducing their service areas and travel costs, Duda’s Quality Seamless Gutters is traveling farther to generate more volume. “We cover about a 200-mile radius now, since we’re willing to go out further to get the job,” Duda relates. But the extra miles actually have an advertising benefit. “We get a lot of jobs because people see our trucks with the name and number of the company on it,” he adds.
At the end of the day, however, lasting success comes through attention to details. “Things like neatness matter,” Duda advises, “such as having the same shirts on your crews, keeping your trucks neat and no smoking on the jobsite. They all go along with professionalism and an attitude of conscientiousness toward the homeowner.”
Seek the Unique
Another installer who started his business after leaving the Navy is Sal Cangialosi, who in 1969 founded Flo-Rite Gutter Company in Oakdale, N.Y. “At the time, 5-inch seamless gutters were a new concept,” he remembers. “Houses in our market had 4-inch sectional gutters and most of them were ready to be replaced.”
Working with his brother-in-law for the first few years, the two men established a lucrative business since their company was the only one in the market that offered seamless gutters. “Though neither of us had done it before, we were willing to take the chance and hustle,” says Cangialosi. Now 40 years later he serves a 100-mile radius around Oakdale and his five employees operate four Englert machines — one half-round, two K-style and one that produces the Englert RainPro configuration.
Cangialosi’s residential business is split between new construction and remodeling jobs, and he offers both aluminum and copper gutters. Yet his competitors do likewise. What sets Flo-Rite apart, Cangialosi reports, is the company’s decision to offer the newer RainPro gutter style.
Though he agrees that a bigger company is not always better, Cangialosi adds, “You must have a new product that will sell really well.” He has seen that strategy work from the time Flo-Rite was the only local installer with seamless gutters, to today when his RainPro product is winning new customers. “And keep your advertising steady,” he advises, “because people who read that publication will remember it. If you keep jumping around to different publications, they’ll forget about you.”
Having something unique to offer is critical. As Cangialosi points out, “The gutter business has gotten to the point where it’s extremely competitive in our area. If the difference comes down to price, it’s hard to convince a homeowner that you’ll do a better job unless you’re personally recommended. So having a unique product like RainPro gives us an advantage. Since not many companies are offering it yet, we can get the customer’s attention and then sell the value of the product rather than the price.”
To those just starting out in the business — or simply trying to stay afloat — Cangialosi offers some advice. “Go to the new products,” he suggests. “If you start with the old stuff, you’ll just join the pack and you’ll miss the advantage of having your name stand out. And be willing to do the difficult jobs. Those jobs will earn you the recommendations you need to distinguish yourself from your competition.”