Reliable Roofing

Nelson Roofing and Sheet Metal

Nelson Roofing and Sheet Metal specializes in the installation, maintenance, and repair of all types of commercial and residential roofing systems and wall cladding. Through careful strategizing and hard work, the family owned business has grown rapidly in recent years to become the industry leader in British Columbia’s North Island and Sunshine Coast.

Husband and wife team Russ and Sharon Nelson launched the company in 1980 with just a handful of employees. Their son, Lyle, grew up in the industry, and after graduating at the top of his Roofing Apprenticeship class and winning Top Apprentice for both BC and the whole of Canada, he took over the company in 1999. Since then, Lyle has successfully grown the business into a thriving, six branch operation with over 125 employees, while still staying true to the core values that made Nelson Roofing and Sheet Metal a success under his parents’ ownership.

“My dad’s big thing when he started the company was a real focus on quality,” Lyle explains. “Even today, and certainly going back 20 years ago, [roofing] had a really bad reputation. [Customers expected that] if you hired a roofing company you got a bunch of scary looking guys out of jail,” he laughs. “It was almost an expectation that things were going to be poorly done.” The company’s focus from day one therefore, has been on providing the best service possible. “When we say we are going to be there we are going to be there. When we say it is going to take a week to get done it gets done in a week – and it is quality work.”

Of course, offering superior quality doesn’t come cheap, so the company is typically not the least expensive option for the job. “But we get a lot of call back work and a lot of references because of how happy the customer is with us at the end,” partner Chris Smith points out. “I think that speaks for itself.” Indeed, a high percentage of the company’s work comes from repeat customers; homeowners regularly call back twenty years after their home was roofed to have it reroofed by the same team.

The focus on quality work and customer service has helped the team maintain a strong workload throughout the Global Financial Crisis. Lyle acknowledges that the industry has been more competitive since the slowdown began in late 2008. But, he adds, “I think there is still a good market for real quality work.” Chris believes that a quick reaction to industry changes during the turbulent economy has also helped the company stay afloat. “Four years ago, it was all new construction. Now it is more renovation work and reroofing. You just go from one focus to the other.” Fortunately, he says, “We are good at doing both.”

So good in fact, that the company has actually expanded during the economic slowdown. The newest branch office just opened in Vancouver, a major move that will expose the growing company to a much larger market. Until recently, the team has been operating out of fairly isolated areas. Vancouver Island, the base of operations and the company’s primary market area up to now, is an hour and a half ferry ride to the mainland. The team began its expansion about five years ago in the nearby Sunshine Coast, which Lyle says is actually more accessible from the island than from many parts of Vancouver. The newest branch opening marks a more significant strategic change, however. “It’s a huge, metropolitan area,” Lyle explains. “We went from a much more isolated market to a very big market.” The move has paid off, and business has skyrocketed as a result.

Opening a new branch in an unfamiliar market is just one of many innovative, and often risky, moves the team has made. “We are not afraid to try something new,” Lyle says. In fact, much of the company’s success has come from leaping into new challenges. “A lot of people might walk away from something that seems too complex, whereas we are always willing to go out and try something.” This forward thinking and flexibility applies to individual jobs as well as to the company’s overall strategic vision. “We’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve of where our industry is going, which has enabled us to get into some areas ahead of other companies,” Lyle explains.

Adding wall cladding services to what was once only a roofing company is a prime example. “Fifteen years ago it was unheard of that you would combine those two.” In fact, the concept is just beginning to take off. “The architects and designers are starting to look at the building envelope as one unit rather than as a roof and a wall separately,” Lyle reports. “We were ahead of the curve a little bit when we went into that market.”

Chris explains that combining roofing and wall cladding services can save the customer and contractor unnecessary headaches. “It’s about peace of mind,” he explains. The team provides one point of contact for multiple services – as opposed to having three or four separate contractors involved – which simplifies the overall building process. Whether or not it is appropriate to combine roofing and wall cladding depends on the job. For new construction, the company typically takes care of both services, whereas most retrofit jobs require just one or the other.

The company has also stayed on the cutting edge of sustainable building. The team joined the Green Roofing movement around seven years ago, and one of its early projects earned awards and recognition as Canada’s largest residential green roof at the time. “In the past, roofs have always just been something up there to keep water from getting in the building,” Lyle explains. Now, however, environmentally conscious designs add layers of earth over a special roof membrane to support a variety of plant life. The results are remarkable, and can include anything from native grasses and flowers to full size trees and functional kitchen gardens. Although Green Roofing constitutes only a small fraction of the company’s overall business, the team is committed to staying on top of the movement. “We have been proactive as far as keeping our staff trained and working with different manufacturers, leading that curve,” Lyle reports.

Staying a step ahead of the industry is important, but Lyle and Chris also give ample credit to their employees for the company’s success. “I think probably the key to it all has been that we have been able to find good people,” Lyle remarks. Company loyalty runs both ways, and many employees have been with Nelson Roofing and Sheet Metal for over a decade. Several staff members have worked there for more than twenty years, and at least one employee has been on the crew for over thirty years. “Obviously, to have long term employees like that, you are doing something right.”

There is a serious employment challenge facing the company, however. Nelson Roofing and Sheet Metal, and other companies like it, simply can’t compete with the resource sector in terms of employment packages. “They’ve got a big draw for labour there. They are offering big dollars for work in the oil fields,” Chris reports. “We are a union company, and we have a great benefits package, but unfortunately we can’t even touch what some of these companies offer.” Resource salaries in remote areas can be as high as $100,000 for relatively inexperienced labourers, “So it is a challenge for us to try to keep our younger workers from going there.” The team works to keep the younger guys on board by offering them a long term career rather than just a few years of fast money. “It’s about what you are going to offer them in the future,” Chris explains. “That’s what we try to emphasize to them.” The team mentors and trains its young employees and offers the apprenticeships necessary to succeed in the industry long term.

From a “Mom and Pop shop” to a leading name in Canadian roofing, Nelson Roofing and Sheet Metal has come a long way. By continuing to rely on its foundational principles of high quality work and superior customer service, the team plans to maintain its growth. “It’s always growing,” Chris remarks, adding that Lyle’s commitment to innovation has provided the necessary drive. “I ask him sometimes, ‘why do you want to move ahead and do something like this? You could just sit on easy street.’ And the way he always puts it to me is, ‘the minute you start to think that you don’t need to do any more is the minute you may as well shut down.’”

August 21, 2017, 7:53 AM EDT

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The Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) is a National Union representing over 500 000 members – over 110 000 in Canada with an International Office in Hamilton, Ontario. It has Local Unions across the country and is the most common union of construction, healthcare, waste management, and show service workers in this country. In fact, LiUNA, established in 1903, is Canada’s largest Building Trades Union.