Forming your position in your gutter market

Though most businesses have a plan — perhaps a certain business model, marketing strategy, or growth target — success also requires a willingness to be opportunistic. “There are times,” affirms John Troyan, owner-operator of Copper Crafts Inc., in Aquebogue, N.Y., “when it’s now or never.”

Troyan has built a roofing, siding and gutter business on New York’s Long Island that keeps some two dozen crew members busy on perhaps 150 projects a year — including copper gutter systems in a market “where $50,000 isn’t unusual for a typical job.”

Yet along the way, building that business has required several opportunistic decisions — moves that fall somewhere between a calculated risk and a leap of faith. There was Troyan’s decision to leave other career opportunities that seemed more secure and instead pursue his love of sheet metal work — followed in later years by decisions to start his own company, to add roofing and siding to his services and to purchase machines in 2008 that could run seamless half-round copper gutters.

The latter decision makes a good case for “opportunism” as a mix of calculation and faith. “Three years ago,” Troyan explains, “I’d just bid on a couple of really high-end copper gutter jobs, when I heard that my suppliers were going to stop supplying lead-coated copper products. So if I was going to do the projects then I’d have to do my own gutters.”

That led to the purchase of 5-inch and 6-inch roll-forming machines from Denver-based New Tech Machinery — and to some anxious moments as Troyan pondered the new concept of marketing seamless half-round copper gutters to his affluent customers. “Many homes in the territory we serve, the eastern end of Long Island, are very high-end second homes and vacation homes,” he reports.

Would customers think of seamless gutters as nontraditional or even inferior? Since Copper Crafts “does very little advertising and gets our business almost totally by word of mouth,” says Troyan, then any news of dissatisfied customers would travel fast.

Moreover, the 2008 recession hit just after Troyan committed to buying the two gutter machines. “As I thought about this big investment I’d made,” he recalls, “I said to myself, ‘Oh, no! What have I done?’”
As it turned out, however, Troyan’s gamble has paid off in a big way. “Outwardly, our customers ‘don’t’ look at price,” he relates, “but in reality, they ‘do’ look at price. The recession has affected even my market. And rising copper prices are a fact of life. But because of the labor savings I get with seamless gutters, I can pass savings along to my customers and keep a copper gutter system within their reach.” Not only have the gutter machines paid for themselves, Troyan states, “but they’ve basically kept me in the copper gutter business these past three years.”

One factor that gave Troyan confidence is his past experiences with opportunistic decisions — starting with his choice of career. “I got in and got out of the military,” he remembers, “and I even tried the stock brokerage business for about a year. But I’d also done sheet metal work since high school and found that I loved working with the material and being outdoors. Maybe the military is more secure and stock brokerage potentially more lucrative.

But it’s better to take the risks and do what you love.”

When a roofing job for a high-end home came his way in 1996, Troyan took the opportunity to start his own company. But as the years went by, the general contractors for homes he worked complained about the potential for downtime when having to separately schedule both a sheet metal contractor and a roofing contractor.

“So in 2003,” Troyan says, “I decided to become both. But I found out it saved me from downtime since I didn’t have to wait on a roofer. And the reduced downtime also gave me an edge over competitors.”

Five years later, the addition of the two New Tech machines once again proved the wisdom of answering when opportunity knocks. Today, Copper Crafts is well-rounded company with 15 employees dedicated to roofing installation and the remainder of its workforce to flat roofs, flashing and gutters. Its customers are primarily new custom homes and retrofits of existing homes, while its gutter jobs are mostly in led-coated or bare copper.

The long experience of Troyan and his gutter crews are vital to Copper Crafts’ success. Eastern Long Island is a coastal region subject seasonal winds, rain and snow, and to salt spray the year round. “It takes experience to know the right size, right placement, and correct hanger spacing,” he explains, “and to factor in the elements, the roof area and pitch and the capacity of half-round gutters.”

Though Troyan does all the estimating and bidding for Copper Crafts, “I also get to be outdoors every day to supervise all our jobs,” he says. At the same time, he counts himself fortunate to have expert crews — whom he retains by “treating them as equals, providing them good pay and benefits, and profit-sharing with them.”

Currently, Troyan is engaged in not one, but two opportunistic moves. One of these involved the purchase of industrial property and the intention of building a new 4,500-square-foot shop. “We need more space — and I don’t want to rent,” he notes. “The biggest obstacle is the local permitting process. But I hope to occupy the facility by August 2011.”

The second move is related to the first. “Having my own shop, plus the two gutter machines,” Troyan observes, “means that I can also become a supplier — and make money by supplying product to my competitors.”

Lest anyone think, however, that Troyan’s objective is endless expansion, he is quick to add, “My goal isn’t to become the biggest company around. Instead, I want to remain a small company that can cater to our clients and provide them the highest quality — in other words, no complaints and no call-backs.”

Looking to the future, Troyan believes Copper Crafts is fitting itself into a niche where the company is small enough to provide high-quality service and big enough to assure customers it will be around for the long haul.

“The copper gutter business has some challenges ahead,” Troyan suggests. “Global demand for copper is increasing so that price levels are bound to stay high. And those prices are probably going to put a ceiling on the copper gutter business — even though I still believe the longevity of copper will always be a powerful selling point. But with copper prices likely to get higher, buying our seamless copper gutter machines — and using seamless copper as a way to differentiate ourselves from competitors — was a no-brainer.”

To other metal roofers who contemplate entering the gutter business, Troyan’s advice is simple. “If you’re expanding into gutters,” he counsels, “you need a willingness to work and a commitment to listening to your customers. Taking advantage of the opportunities in your market may entail some risks. But dedication to hard work and customer service can see you through.”

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