Opportunity to purchase gutter machine leads to new business /
By Mark Ward Sr. /
That day in 1996 started like any other. Through his 20 years in the siding business, Bryan Thompson had often arranged for contractors to drop off the gutters he needed to finish a job. But on this particular day, the contractor asked Thompson if he knew someone who might buy his gutter machine and truck.
“I said no, I didn’t know anybody,” remembers Thompson, “but as we talked, the contractor explained that gutters were a sideline for him and now he needed to concentrate on his main business.” Nothing more happened, until a few days later when Thompson saw the man again as he dropped off some gutters at another jobsite. “This time, he asked if I was interested in buying his gutter machine and truck.”
After further discussions, Thompson ultimately made the purchase. “At first, my interest was in making gutters for my siding business,” he recounts. “But within a few months I decided to give my gutter operation its own company name and put some ads in the yellow pages.” Thus was born B. T. Seamless Gutters of Templeton, Mass.
Within three years, Thompson exited the siding business and went into gutters full-time. Today he owns two Englert machines and operates two crews that perform between 900 and 1,100 jobs per year throughout central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. About one-third of his volume consists of condominium complexes and other commercial projects, while two-thirds comes from residential work.
“By doing both residential and commercial work,” Thompson explains, “we help smooth out peaks and valleys in our volume. When one segment is down, the other might be up.” Then, too, residential projects at B. T. Seamless Gutters are divided about 60/40 between replacement gutters for existing homes and installing gutters for builders of new homes.
While Thompson has achieved consistent volume by diversifying the markets he serves, one item remains consistent across all his projects. “Virtually all of our projects are done in .032-gauge aluminum rather than .027-gauge,” he relates. “The thicker gauge gives our gutters the added strength they need to survive the stresses of New England snow and ice. Besides, I only get maybe two or three calls a year for copper or steel gutters.”
Fifteen years after plunging full-time into the gutter business, Thompson has found “a business model and a company size that I’m comfortable with and lets me provide the level of customer service I want.” Yet to find that comfort level, he has made continual adjustments along the way.
Seizing the opportunity
Thompson’s initial adjustment was his decision to leave behind 20 years in the siding business and go exclusively into gutters. “But the numbers made my decision easy,” he says. Where a siding job for a typical house costs between $10,000 and $25,000, gutter replacement ranges from $700 to $1,000. “Gutters don’t carry the sticker shock of siding,” he notes, “and so gutters are easier to sell.
Also, the harsh climate in Massachusetts and New Hampshire means there’s a constant turnover and need for new gutters.”
The ability to produce seamless gutters in made-to-order lengths was also a boon to B. T. Seamless Gutters, both in its infancy and today. As Thompson explains, “In New England, gutter jobs can range from a barn, to a 300-year-old house with an unusual roof line, to a new home — all in the same day. The older architecture in our region is a challenge.”
Because B. T. Seamless Gutters met a need in its central Massachusetts market, the company enjoyed steady expansion. But with only one truck in its early years, by 2002 the company’s backlog was reaching 5-6 weeks and 40-50 jobs. That year Thompson decided to purchase a second truck and gutter machine.
When the 2008 recession hit, Thompson’s proactive response kept his company growing. First, he traded in one of his 5-inch gutter machines and instead bought a combination unit that produces both 5- and 6-inch gutters. The move allowed B. T. Seamless Gutters to undertake more commercial projects. “Though 90 percent of our work is in 5-inch gutters,” he notes, “the extra 10 percent of business volume that our 6-inch jobs provide is an important contributor to our bottom line.”
Second, Thompson added the MicroGuard leaf protection system from Englert to his arsenal of services. Today he estimates sales of MicroGuard comprise up to 25 percent of his revenues from residential gutter replacement projects. “The product is great for shedding pine needles and small debris,” he explains, “and since MicroGuard attaches to both the front and the back of the gutter trough, it actually stiffens and strengths the whole gutter system.”
His experience with MicroGuard illustrates the value in working with a knowledgeable supplier. “We get about 85 percent of our gutter supplies from Englert,” Thompson reports. And as the decision to sell leaf protection illustrates, “It’s important to work with a supplier who can keep me aware of the latest products and can help me solve problems,” he adds.
With its proactive strategy B. T. Seamless Gutters made it through the recession and avoided any layoffs. And with its experienced foremen and crews still in place, the company has been well positioned to prosper as the economy has picked up in recent years.
Working on the business
Other adjustments have aided the growth of B. T. Seamless Gutters. For one, Thompson has continually evaluated his marketing strategies over the years. “When I started the company in 1996,” Thompson recounts, “the Internet wasn’t a factor and so we relied mostly on Yellow Pages advertising.” Today though, he says, “Anybody under the age of 40 doesn’t know what a phone book is. So I’m pulling back on yellow pages. We still advertise in the phone book, but not the big — and expensive — color ads we did in the past.”
In print advertising, Thompson gets good results from the spring home improvement inserts that appear in major regional newspapers. At the same time, he is putting more dollars into his website, search engine optimization and social media. His approach to Facebook and Twitter is “not so much to build up big followings,” he says. Rather, as B. T. Seamless Gutters becomes more active online, the more likely the company will show up on Google when potential customers search for a local gutter company.
Nevertheless, simple things still count. Lettering on Thompson’s two trucks feature the company name in which “Seamless Guttering” is far more prominent than “B.T.” In fact, that is why Thompson chose his company name in the first place. “I decided from the start to feature what I do rather than my own name,” he affirms. “That pays off when I get cell phone calls from people who are in their cars and driving behind one of my trucks!”
Still, Thompson says, “There’s still no substitute for word-of-mouth. At least 80 percent of our jobs come to us through referrals.”
As B. T. Seamless Gutters diversified its markets over the years, Thompson determined to spend the capital required to obtain warehouse space and keep at least 15 colors of gutter coil in stock at all times. “Not only can I give homeowners a faster turnaround, whatever colors they may need,” he explains, “but I can do the same for new construction jobs. It’s important to build good relations with general contractors and roofing and siding contractors. Their business helps keep our phones ringing.”
The greatest adjustment Thompson has made over the years, however, concerns his own day-to-day involvement in the company. “For the first ten years,” he relates, “I did installations every weekday, sales calls every weeknight, estimates on Saturdays, and paperwork on Sundays. But after we added a second truck, I couldn’t keep up that schedule anymore.”
Thompson discovered he needed to work “on” his business, not just “in” his business. Though he still goes out two or three days per week on installations, the bulk of his time is now spent on business development. “It’s crucial that I meet homeowners face-to-face,” he says. “Sometimes they just ask me to email a quote. But I always request a meeting. If you don’t see the homeowner in person, your chances to close the sale drop from 80 percent to 10 percent.”
With volume for B. T. Seamless Gutters now running at 5-6 jobs per days and about 40 per week, Thompson’s commitment to meeting with and educating his customers requires a corresponding amount of time. “But what I’ve always enjoyed most about the gutter business,” he states, “is meeting people to show how we can offer them solutions, and providing general coordination for the company.”
Transitioning into his current role was made easier by the fact that B. T. Seamless Gutters employs experienced installation crews. One of these is headed by foreman Ryan Thompson, who has worked since his high school and college days with father Bryan.
Says the elder Thompson, “I’d like to work another eight or nine years and, if Ryan wants to, turn the business over to him. I’m at a time in my career where I’m comfortable with the level of work we do — and the time off I get in the winter. Yet the potential for more growth is there for the taking. So if Ryan phases more into management, our company is positioned in the years ahead to branch out in new directions.”