Following the herd

Every successful business was founded on a better idea. That better idea could be a better product or a better way to deliver a better and faster service. It may be a better idea that increases business with better pricing, better warranties, or a better location.

Sometimes, you have to take your better idea on the road.

Milo Olson has all sorts of better ideas and he’s making them work in the hurricane-ravaged area of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Nine years ago, he started as a roofer in Nebraska and swore it would never be his career. He was working for a company that installed metal — standing seam, 5-v crimp — anything you could put on a pole barn, he says. “Even in 1997, I could see there was going to be a market for residential steel,” Olson says. “I borrowed some money from my mom and got started in my own business.”

That new business, named Lifetime Roofs & Consulting, LLC, became his career.

Olson started installing stone-coated steel roofing products in Nebraska, eventually expanding to cover eight states. Soon, Lifetime Roofs became a successful business.

Olson initially elected to install stone-coated metal products from Dura-Loc Roofing Systems because at the time, the Ontario manufacturer required its installers to go through a training program. “But I had to sell a job before they would train me because they didn’t want me forgetting things in the interim,” he says. “So I did a little home show in Lincoln, Neb., in 1997 and I sold five jobs off that one spring show. Then I spent two weeks in Canada training.”

Another idea
A couple years ago, another idea prompted Olson and a partner to investigate the possibility of setting up shop in a market with a bigger demand. They thought they could create another successful residential metal roofing business in southeast Florida. There was a great need for any kind of roofing, because most roofing materials sustained some sort of hurricane damage — clay and concrete tiles and asphalt shingles among them. Olson believed metal roofing would be an easy and far more abundant sell in Florida.

In late 2004, he moved from Nebraska to Florida. He took and passed his contractors test in December 2004.
When he first moved to Florida, Olson worked for a company called, believe it or not, Aftermath Roofing. It took less than a year to make the decision to branch out on his own.

Olson and his partner initially brought 20 employees from Nebraska to Florida. Today, all of them are still with Olson at Lifetime. He employs six crews, each with 4-5 members and they all stay busy. “I pay them very, very well, but you have to,” he says. “You just can’t take a comp guy or a tile guy and teach them to be metal roofers over night.”

Olson says one of the most valuable tools he brought with him to Florida was his Midwest values and work ethic. “For most people down here, the work week starts about 11 a.m. Monday and ends around noon on Friday,” he says.

To meet the needs of the Florida market, Olson added products from two other stone-coated manufacturers, Decra Roofing Systems and Gerard Roofing Technologies. He says the stone-coated manufacturers have done a good job replicating the tile look so popular in Florida. Everything seemed to indicate that moving to Florida was the best move.

“There are a couple million people in the Palm Beach County area and about 2 million people in all of Nebraska,” Olson says. “Where the people are is where the money is. It’s like the Indians following the buffalo herd.

“It was a big commitment to make the decision to move the family, but when you look at the increase in income, it makes sense. And who doesn’t want to live in Florida? We expect to triple or quadruple our volume of sales in Florida. The future of the industry is more here than in Nebraska, where it’s ag-based. In Nebraska, everything depends on the price of cattle, corn, sorghum, whatever. When those prices fall, everyone gets a little tight with their money. In Florida, they have the money, they’re retirees or they’re getting a check from the insurance company.

“It’s about survival, so I’ve permanently set up here.”

Family support
It takes a lot to entice a man with roots firmly planted near his home — young family, successful business — to pack it all up and move away. Thanks to the need for a more durable roofing product, Florida held that enticement. Olson and his wife, Deborah, have an 8-year-old son, Milo IV, and a 1-1/2-year-old son, Brayden.

“It was tough, yanking up roots and making the move,” Olson says. “It took some time to actually pull the trigger. Deborah was more ready than I was. Most of her family is in California, but mine’s in Nebraska.

“They’re making the permanent move down here as soon as school’s out in Nebraska, June 1,” he says. “Our son will have to establish some new friendships down here, but he’ll be able to do that. He’ll be in third grade this fall.”

In the long run, the Olsons believe it will be what’s best for their family.

“Personally, with a 14-month-old and an 8-year-old, it’s been tough,” Olson says. “I’ve missed a lot in the last year and a half, including the birth of my second son who was born 10 days early. I just keep looking at the bigger prize. I’m going home May 10 to help with packing and getting everyone down here. On June 1, we’ll be a family again. I’ve got the people I work with to hang out with, do things with, but when my family gets here, I’ll be a better person.”

It’s been tough in Crete, Neb., as well. Deborah has had plenty of help from family, but it’s not the same as having Dad around for the boys. “More than anything we miss him,” she said. “That’s the hardest part. Being basically a single parent isn’t easy either, but we all just miss him.

“It’s about trust and love. I may not always agree with everything, but I support the decisions Milo makes with the business. I know he’s looking out for us and it’s a chance for us to be truly on our own as a family. It’s like a fresh start and I’m excited about it.”

Once the family is reunited in Florida, Deborah will take some time to get the company books organized and will be overseeing accounts receivable and accounts payable. “I’ll be working two or three days a week, because first and foremost, I’m a mom,” she says.

Deborah says it’s important for her to know what’s going on with the business and that she contribute her opinions.

Strong support
By establishing a successful business in Nebraska, Olson cemented his reputation with manufacturers, manufacturers who were also focusing efforts on grabbing a bigger share of the market in Florida and other areas affected by the hurricanes. Those manufacturers also are following the herd, as it were.

Olson says his manufacturers are his best friends in Florida. “My zone reps in Nebraska weren’t too happy about my move because it was going to be harder for them to meet their quota, but the manufacturers were very supportive,” he says. “The manufacturers know I’m waging a one-person war against the concrete tile industry.”

Olson says 100 percent of his customer base is re-roofing for homeowners who suffered damage during the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005. And there is enough business in his part of Florida that he hopes to become a distributor for one or more of his manufacturers. He will supply the metal and train the crews, or lease his crew to those buying metal from him.

“What we do is take the people who are replacing tile roofing and flip them into metal at the same cost,” Olson says. “Tile orders are a year or a year-and-a-half out, so it’s pretty easy to flip them.”

He says 75 to 80 percent of what he installs are barrel tile stone-coated shingles, and 80 percent is on single-family homes.

When dealing with hurricane victims, dealing with insurance companies is part of the equation. Homeowners just want to get a check, get their new roof, and get on with their lives. Insurance companies want to get everything settled as soon as possible as well.

“The insurance companies were and are busy,” Olson says. “They’re desperate to get their clients taken care of. We have 50 people working in the office, from salespeople to former insurance adjusters. The insurance companies prefer working with us because we speak the language and no one here was gouging the insurance companies. Things were right in line with what they expected to pay. We adjust pricing a little in some areas for supply and demand, but that’s about it.

“It gives us a little bit of an edge over the guys out there giving cash bids. They’re leaving money lying on the table, they’re the Wal-Marts of the roofing industry. They’re focused on volume, not quality. We pick and choose our clients, choosing those that are working with strong insurance companies.”

That’s the better idea — giving homeowners what they want, while delivering a fair replacement price to the insurance company.

“Because we know the language, we communicate with the insurance companies,” Olson says. “It’s a case of us taking the headache off the homeowner’s hands.” He says homeowners can end up with a little more expense working with contractors who don’t have the same working relationship Lifetime Roofing has with the insurance companies. “If they take the roof off and see the decking is bad, they’ve got to replace that and someone has to pay for it,” he says. Olson says that once those contractors present an estimate, any change orders come out of the homeowner’s pocket. Working with the insurance companies, it’s called a supplement, and the insurance company pays for it.

Olson is just doing what every successful businessman has done — he’s taken an idea and applied it in a situation where he can be successful. Hard work will make it a good idea.

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