Frank Farmer thinks that metal roofing could be capturing five times the market share it commands right now. And with a zeal that borders on religious, Farmer, owner of American Metal Roofs, in Flint, Mich., is doing all he can to help more homeowners appreciate what he fervently believes are the indisputable advantages of metal products over other shingles or shakes.
Farmer's company is in the initial stages of assembling a network of licensed dealers that would handle sales outside of its home state. AMR has enlisted dealers in Toledo, Ohio, and Green Bay, Wis., and Farmer eventually wants that network to be widespread enough to propagate a national brand for metal roofing.
That goal might seem a bit heady for a six-year-old company that generated $6 million in sales last year. But Farmer doesn't lack for chutzpah or confidence in himself or the products he sells. And his optimism is supported by evidence that homeowners embrace metal roofing when they know more about it.
METAL ROOFING'S GROWTH During the past several years, metal roofing sales have been growing at 15% annually, says Todd Miller, president of Classic Metal Roofing Systems, the Piqua, Ohio–based manufacturer of aluminum roofing that is AMR's main supplier. Metal accounts for about 8% of the national residential roofing market, compared with 2% to 3% in 1998, according to Tom Black, executive director of the Belfair, Wash.–based Metal Roofing Alliance, an association formed by a group of leading manufacturers during the late 1990s to help spread the word about their products.
The Alliance currently includes 450 contractors, to whom, for a fee of $400 per member, it feeds customer leads gathered via its Web site — which last year had more than 1 million unique visits and 30,000 requests for contractor information. Black estimates that his group spends $2 million per year on marketing that includes spot TV and shelter-magazine advertisements.
AMR gets leads through the Metal Roofing Alliance, and “we try to see as many of those as we can,” says Robert LaHousse, AMR's sales manager. The 60-year-old LaHousse first met Farmer a few years ago when they discussed creating radio spots for AMR. He joined the company full-time in 2005, and continues to marvel at Farmer's single-minded intensity. “It's a total commitment to doing metal roofing right, to using employees versus subs [AMR uses its own workers as installers], to training, and to using the best metal products available. When you're around [such intensity], it's almost overwhelming.”
CHANGING PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS Farmer initially wanted to be a doctor, and he completed three years of medical school at Michigan State University. But his career changed course when he left school before completing his education and, in 1986, joined The Burlingame Co., a window distributor that dabbled in metal roofs. He rose to vice president of sales, and took ownership of the roofing division, “which they were doing nothing with,” he recalls, after The Burlingame Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2000.
Since then, Farmer has built American Metal Roofs into a 50-employee operation that installed 240 roofs in 2006. The company's sales that year grew by 42.8% over 2005, and while three-quarters of its installs are residential, AMR also does a thriving commercial business. “We install more roofs on churches than most of our competitors install overall,” he boasts.
Farmer adopted The Burlingame Co.'s method for selling replacement windows and applied it to metal roofing. This “systematic approach,” he explains, targets a specific customer: someone who is at least 55 years old with a household income of $80,000 or more, “who wants a product that's going to last the rest of his life and who has done his homework about the product.”
However, most people aren't familiar with metal roofing, or know of it only as plain-vanilla vertical plates or standing seam. But the production method of press forming — which Black says has been this industry's “major development” — allows metal to be shaped to resemble any kind of shingle or shake. (AMR, Farmer says, is the industry's second-largest press-form dealer.)