Finding a niche: a faltering economy led roofer to gutter opportunities

– By Mark Ward, Sr. –

Many roofing contractors have discovered that buying a machine and fabricating your own gutters is an elegant solution. “No building owner or general contractor wants to delay completion just for the gutters. Doing our own lets us control the schedule and costs,” said Dennis Jones, president and CEO of Airtight Construction Inc., Concord, Calif.

Elegant Gutter's display at Ace Hardware in Alamo, Calif. - Elegant Gutters photo

Elegant Gutter’s display at Ace Hardware in Alamo, Calif. – Elegant Gutters photo

But while many roofers fabricate gutters for their own use, few have taken the next step and produced them for others. Jones did just that when in January he launched Elegant Gutters as a manufacturer and supplier of gutters and decorative accessories. Though Elegant has been in business less than a year, its products are already carried throughout California by several major building supply companies.

“And within 24 months, we expect our products will be picked up by all the building supply companies and carried in all the Western states,” he said. “At the same time, we’re also looking to make dealership opportunities available to contractors.”

Jones’s confidence in the future of Elegant Gutters — and his reason for launching the venture in the first place — is “due to the fact that we found a niche in the marketplace which wasn’t being filled.”

The recent recession is still wracking the Golden State economy and housing starts remain below 2007 levels.

“A lot of gutter supply companies closed their doors,” he said, “and decorative accessories became especially hard to find. Now that word is getting around and that builders know we’re taking up the slack, we’re growing fast.”

But to understand why Jones’s gutter venture comes at the right time and place — both for his market and for the core strengths of his own enterprises — requires some background.

Roofing runs deep in Jones’s family. His father and uncle entered the business in the 1950’s and a decade later moved their operations to California.

“I graduated from high school in 1979, decided college wasn’t for me, and asked about getting into the family business,” Jones said. “So my dad and uncle decided to split their company. My father formed Bob Jones & Sons so that I could come in with him.”

The company's first truck load of Elegant Gutters is shipped to RSG Supply.

The company’s first truck load of Elegant Gutters is shipped to RSG Supply. – Elegant Gutters photo

Over the next 20 years that company prospered and employed up to 150 staff and crew members. The senior Jones died in 1999 leaving son Dennis to take over the reins. But because the firm’s large size was becoming unwieldy, he decided in 2001 to sell.

“I had a deal all set up,” he recalled, “but it fell through at the last minute. So instead, I took the opportunity to reorganize, downsize, and get control of overhead and operations.”

In 2002 the reorganized company and became Airtight Construction.

“My dad would have sympathized with the move,” Jones said, “because he always said, ‘Big means big headaches.’” Also competing for his time was a sheet metal company Jones helped establish in 1997. Though partner Todd Gomez is — both then and now — president of the venture and oversees its daily operations, Jones’s silent participation still required his attention.

Over time, however, Jones’s decision to downsize and reorganize enabled him to control overhead and streamline operations. Brother Bobby Jones joined him for several years, left for another opportunity, and returned in 2010.

“By then, with Bobby’s help the company was positioned to grow again. Bobby handles the residential and small commercial side of the business, while I do the larger commercial projects and manage the company overall,” he said.

Today’s Airtight Construction is a wide-ranging enterprise whose projects include commercial, residential and multifamily roofing, gutter systems, waterproofing, deck coating and walkways, siding and stucco, sheet metal services, concrete, reconstruction and renovation and preventive maintenance. With seven full-time sales reps to drum up business and more than 20 crew members to perform the work, Airtight covers a territory from Fresno to Reno to the Oregon border. Projects run the gamut from bank branches and municipal buildings, to medical suites and homeowner associations.

Earlier this year, his wife LaRae entered the family business as vice president of marketing and advertising.

“I’d always just spent the money to advertise as needed, using the money for print ads and mailings,” Jones said. “But LaRae is putting our marketing program on a businesslike basis. We set up a budget based on a percentage of our annual sales, we’re tracking our spending and the results it brings in, and we’re shifting 95 percent of our marketing dollars to the Internet and social media.”

Also this year, Jones brought in another family member to help handle Airtight Construction’s fast-track growth. Depending on project volume and the seasons, the number of crew can expand as high as 40. Cousin Douglas Gunnels is now on board to manage the work as crew superintendent.

“We make the family dynamic work,” Jones said, “by giving each family member his or her own sphere of responsibility. Yet we also meet at least once a month to discuss the overall direction of the company. At the same time, the family atmosphere carries over to all employees. Kevin Lewis is a valued member of our leadership team as vice president of sales and operations.  And we’ve got crew members and office staff who’ve been with me for 20 years.”

With the company in growth mode, Jones sought ways to keep operations under control. In researching the possibility of bringing gutter work in-house, he connected with Denver-based New Tech Machinery and purchased a Mach II combination 5- and 6-inch gutter machine. When he added New Tech’s GutterArt dies for embossing troughs with decorative patterns, Jones discovered he had become the West Coast’s only contractor to offer the profiles.

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Jones uses a Mach II combination 5- and 6-inch gutter machine from New Tech with GutterArt dies for embossing troughs with decorative patterns.

The plunge into decorative gutters sparked more research, as Jones found that decorative accessories — from leader heads to rain chains — were difficult to source in California. Companies that had formerly supplied the accessories were no longer in business. From there, the next step was easy to imagine. While Airtight Construction could install gutters and accessories fabricated in its shops, a new venture might be launched to manufacture and supply the products. In January 2013 that venture became Elegant Gutters.

“Starting Elegant Gutters was just a great fit that leveraged the strengths of my other companies, both Airtight Construction and All Spec Sheet Metal,” Jones said. “It gives Elegant Gutters the ability to supply gutters of any material — aluminum, steel, copper, zinc; in any profile, whether k-style, half-round, or custom; and in any size, whether 5, 6, or 7 inches. And we complement that with a full line of accessories.”

Within months of launching Elegant Gutters, its products were picked up by Ace Hardware, Allied Building Products, and Roofing Supply Group. Each is now selling the Elegant Products brand to contractors and consumers. (Contractors can also buy direct from Elegant Gutters.)  Prospects are so good, Jones now has three full-time Elegant sales reps.

After less than a year, Elegant Gutters now accounts for about 10 percent of the revenue brought in by Jones’s various enterprises. Though that number may sound incidental, anyone in business knows that a 10 percent increase in the bottom line is substantial. “And we expect the numbers to grow every year,” he said.

Now in his early 50’s, Jones believes Elegant Gutters can help him achieve a personal goal. “Before I’m 60 I’d like to bring my employees into the ownership of our companies, turn the day-to-day operations over, and focus myself more on the big picture,” he said. With a boost from his gutter business, the pieces of that picture are falling into place. GO

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