Quantity takes a back seat to quality

For most gutter installers, success is measured in linear feet per hour or in jobs per day. But Michael Houston takes his time and, by emphasizing quality over quantity, “I should make enough to retire by the time I’m 50!”
As owner of C&H Sheet Metal in Elk Grove, Calif., Houston performs custom metalwork including copper roofs, domes, cupolas, bay window hoods, countertops, backsplashes — and, of course, copper gutters. His craftsmanship adorns multimillion-dollar homes throughout the San Francisco Bay area. And though his jobs might take days or even weeks to complete, Houston has billed as much as $250,000 for a single project.
“People in the Bay Area love copper,” Houston says, “and will pay someone to do it right.” For C&H Sheet Metal, installing a gutter involves much more than simply hanging the trough. Instead, Houston provides such personal touches as mitering corners by hand, making elbows himself rather than using prefab parts, and polishing all of the downspouts so they age uniformly.
Between gutter jobs and other sheet metal work, Houston says he performs about 40 jobs per year. A typical year’s work might bring half a dozen mansions, a dozen “average” homes, and assorted jobs that might range from cupolas for horse barns to light sconces for movie theaters. About 90 percent of his work is performed in the Bay Area and the remainder in suburban Sacramento, where Houston maintains his home and workshop.
Why not move closer to San Francisco and the bulk of his customers? “It’s too expensive to live in the Bay Area!” Houston laughs. Yet the city’s high-priced housing market, he notes, has provided his custom metalwork business with a well-to-do clientele.
Houston himself hails from America’s heartland. His hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, is about as far as a person can get from the California coast. Yet it was in Iowa that he first began to appreciate the old-fashioned craftsmanship that has endeared him to California customers. “My dad was an old-time printer who worked by slopping ink on the presses,” he recalls. “But it was my uncle who worked in sheet metal and got me interested in what he was doing.”
Working out of his garage, the uncle created art from sheet metal and gladly shared the hobby with his nephew. When Houston graduated from high school in 1986, his interest in metalwork prompted him to enlist in the Navy. “I got great training in sheet metal, welding, and plumbing,” he says. Assigned to the Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco, over the next four years he worked on more than 100 ships — from tugs to aircraft carriers.
“We often had to make our own fixtures,” Houston recalls of his naval service, “and that was good experience for what I do now in custom sheet metal work.” He got married in 1988 and left the Navy two years later, finding work as a fabricator for Concord Sheet Metal Products in Concord, Calif. During the next dozen years he worked his way up to estimator, production manager, and operations manager.
By that time, Houston had maxed out his company’s salary scale and began to think about a business of his own. “I was doing some custom jobs on the side,” he says, “and was getting to where freelance work was supplying the majority of my income.” In 2001 he started to save his freelance earnings and, once sufficient funds were in hand, in 2002 set up his own custom shop as C&H Sheet Metal.
The venture was successful from the start. “Lots of people knew me from my years at Concord,” Houston relates, “and I’d also built up a base of customers through my freelance work.” In fact, his business took off without Houston having to spend a penny on advertising. And though Concord Sheet Metal Products was sad to lose an effective manager, the company gained a good customer and today is Houston’s principal metal supplier.
In the four years since C&H Sheet Metal was founded, Houston has learned to deal with challenges that crop up in custom projects. “Weather can be a huge issue in delaying some of my jobs,” he points out. “But the biggest thing to impact my business is the rise in copper prices. In the four years since I started, the price has gone from $1.56 per pound to $6.”
Where Houston once gave 30-day price quotes on copper gutter jobs, he explains, “Now I have to get customers to cut me a check up front for enough money to buy the copper before the price goes up again.” For a $100,000 job, he says, the copper alone will cost $60,000 to $70,000. Faced with a requirement to provide up-front money, some customers ask him to re-estimate their jobs in a less-costly metal. “And I’m worried that if the housing market goes soft,” he points out, “people might not have enough equity in their homes to finance any remodeling.”
Yet even though copper and its rising price are a challenge, the metal is also Houston’s ticket to business success. In the entire Bay Area, he believes, “I only know of six or seven other people who do what I do.” The reason? “Working with copper requires more talent than with other metals,” he notes, “because the cost of the material gives you little room for error.”
But when done properly, San Franciscans agree that custom-made copper gutters and other copper appointments add incomparable beauty to a home. “People here like raw copper,” he says. “In the coastal areas it only takes a year to get an attractive green patina. But if you go only 20 miles inland, the copper turns a nice brown because the hills block the coastal fogs.”
The territory covered by C&H Sheet Metal runs from Santa Rosa in the north, to Santa Cruz and Monterey in the south. Some jobs therefore require hotel stays, but Houston’s appreciative customers make his sacrifice worthwhile.
“Being successful with custom gutter projects and with custom sheet metal,” advises Houston, “starts with having the right mentality. I like to get involved in the whole design process of a custom home or remodel. Rather than narrowly specialize in my trade, I like to know everything I can about the design and building process so that I can add value for my customers. I want to know how all the other trades impact my trade.”
While seamless gutter installers may view their products as commodities, Houston believes that “by understanding everything from metal specs to architectural principles to reading blueprints, I can understand how, say, a gutter system can best contribute to the look and function of the house. That allows me to nurture the ideas and dreams of my customers.”
Houston’s own dream is to purchase a home of the motoring variety and, by age 50, travel the country with his wife. “My two kids will be grown by then,” he says, “and after traveling for a couple of years I’d like to move near them, maybe on the East Coast. Besides, anywhere I go there will be people who want custom gutters and metalwork.”

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