Opportunities, missions keep family business going strong /
By Mark Ward Sr.
No business can survive without a profit. But neither can a business survive without a reason, something that goes beyond money, to keep the owner motivated. Over the years this column has profiled gutter installers who stay in business because they enjoy being outdoors, enjoy working with customers, enjoy seeing projects through to completion or enjoy running a company of their own.
Owner Derek Chute of Hydra-Flo Guttering in Sperry, Okla., is motivated by his own sense of calling. After circumstances compelled him to give up pastoral ministry, he admits, “I struggled for a few years about putting my whole heart into the gutter business.” But in time he discovered that owning a successful business afforded him new opportunities to follow his heart — having more time for family, meeting new customers, becoming a local business leader and even using his construction skills in short-term overseas missions.
As these opportunities unfolded, Chute was motivated “to spend more time ‘on’ the business, rather than tied up ‘in’ the business.” For one thing, he is the only gutter contractor among the nearly 150 members of the Tulsa Executives Association. “The contacts I’ve made have generated a significant amount of work,” he reports, “and at the same time, I’ve learned a lot of best practices from my peers that have helped my own company.”
Chute does his share of sales presentations; last year Hydra-Flo Guttering performed more than 700 jobs that generated some $615,000 in sales. But he goes a step further and talks to community groups about what homeowners need to know when it comes to gutters. Though he is not directly pitching his own business, he explains, “If I can educate consumers then they’ll be more likely to make decisions on quality and not just on price. When low-ball gutter installers get a bad reputation, it hurts all of us in the business. So someone has to set a standard.” Audiences include homeowner associations, realtor groups and home show attendees.
Then there are the overseas mission trips Chute and his children have taken. In the summer of 2009 the family spent a week in Ecuador, working with missionaries to install the roof and gutter system on a new church. Two years later they performed a similar mission for a church in El Salvador. This summer the Chutes are hoping to assist missionaries in Guatemala. Though these missions are volunteer work and generate no profits for Hydra-Flo, they provide personal satisfaction that keeps Derek Chute motivated.
When he entered gutter work in the early 1990s, Chute’s motivation was simply to take the first job he could find. “The transition wasn’t easy,” he recounts. “Before that, I’d been a pastor for 10 years. But my dad had done construction in addition to being in the ministry. As a kid I enjoyed going with him on projects. So when a job came up to install gutters, I took it.”
Chute quickly saw the possibilities of the gutter business. Located in the growing Tulsa metro market, he decided to make a go of starting his own business. Scraping together what money he could, Chute founded Hydra-Flo in 1992. Two years later he was doing well enough to also buy the gutter company for which he had previously worked.
“I found that the people skills I’d learned in the ministry were transferable to the gutter business,” Chute continues. “As a church pastor, you often ask people to do something which, at first, they’re reluctant to consider. Pastoral work also involves visitation ministry, which often means ‘cold-calling’ people to tell them about your church and invite them to come. But when you call on people, you must first of all listen to their wants and needs.”
Perhaps most important of all, Chute discovered that being a pastor and owning a business have in common “an absolute commitment to really caring about your personal relations, to having integrity in all your interactions and to working toward mutual benefit rather than winners and losers.”
For example, to ensure integrity Chute says he “committed right from the start to hiring a bookkeeper and handling our finances the right way.” And to enact the Golden Rule (“Do unto others . . .”) in Hydra-Flo’s customer relations, he ensured customers who called his office would always talk to real person and never an answering machine. “I hired a secretary who works for us and knows our business,” he says. “But more than that, I made a promise that I would promptly return every message she leaves for me.”
Since Chute learned about installation on his first job, the biggest adjustment in starting a new company “was learning how to estimate and price our projects,” he says. But he quickly got the hang of it and Hydra-Flo Guttering prospered through the 1990s.
During his first decade, however, Chute admits, “I wasn’t sure if it was God’s will for me to be in the gutter business long-term.” Yet by 2000, he became convinced that Hydra-Flo is his calling. Now the long-term prospects of Hydra-Flo include a second generation. Son Zach Chute works in sales and information technology for Hydra-Flo, while son Nich Chute is an installation crew member and helps with marketing. Daughter Michal Haddock is an administrative assistant, and son-in-law Cody Haddock is a sales representative and installation crew foreman.
“But I haven’t wanted them to join the business because it’s all they know,” Chute adds. “It’s important for them to go to college. One of my sons has completed a business degree and the other is working on one.” Family members gather at the start of each day, outline what needs to be done and then open things up for general discussions about how to improve the company. “I encourage them to have ideas — and then encourage them further by trying to implement their ideas as soon as possible,” he states.
Today, Hydra-Flo primarily installs residential gutters for homeowners but also works with Tulsa-area roofing contractors, home builders and remodelers. Chute generally operates two crews but can add a third as needed. Two machines from KWM Gutterman run 5-inch aluminum and copper residential gutters, while a machine from Jobsite runs 6-inch commercial gutters. Working through its distributor, All American Building Products, the company uses gutter products from Senox, ABC Supply and Custom-Bilt Metals.
Sales leads are generated through several channels. Chute estimates that nearly 60 percent of Hydra-Flo’s projects last year came from previous customers and referrals, about 20 percent from its website and 20 percent from yellow pages advertising and homeowners who saw the company’s boldly lettered trucks and its headquarters on a busy highway.
Looking to future, Chute has a new mission. “We’re about half the size we need to be,” he declares. “For the business to have enough room so that each of my children can have the position and earning potential they aspire to, we eventually need to be about double in size. So my goal is to grow the business for their futures.”
To achieve that goal, Chute has a sound business model in place. But ultimately, his trust is in a higher power. “If business gets slow,” he explains, “the family gets together, we pray and then we pass out fliers and let God provide.”