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Lori Swanson transcription
February 21, 2023 at 2:22 p.m.

Editor's note: The following is the transcript of a live interview with Lori Swanson from Guardian Roofing. You can read the interview below or listen to the podcast.

Speaker 1: Welcome to Stories From The Roof, where we tell the stories of roofing professionals from around the globe.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: Hello and welcome to Stories From The Roof, from RoofersCoffeeShop. What is Stories From The Roof? It is when we get to talk to the amazing men and women of roofing and hear their story. RoofersCoffeeShop is all about roofing respect, and we love, love, love our contractors. And so today, Megan Ellsworth and myself, Heidi Ellsworth, we're here to do a joint podcast, one of the few you'll hear, with our dear friend Lori Swanson from Guardian Roofing out of Tacoma, Washington. Lori, welcome to Stories from the Roof.

Lori Swanson: Thank you, Heidi. It's such an honor. Thank you so much for inviting me. I am excited to be here with you and Megan on RoofersCoffeeShop.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: I love it, and it's so much fun to have you to be here. Because you've had such an amazing career in roofing and you're generational in roofing, so you just have such a great story to tell. So, we're going to start off with an introduction, Lori. So can you just introduce yourself and your name, your company, position, all the good stuff?

Lori Swanson: I'm Lori Swanson with Guardian Roofing, and I am currently the president of Guardian Roofing. I think I've served in every capacity at Guardian Roofing since I'm the founder. You wear a lot of hats when you start your own business in the industry, and the last question is how many years you've been in the roofing industry? And I love how Heidi politely said "generational", because I started counting up the years and then I was like, can we leave that question out?

Heidi J. Ellsworth: I'm with you.

Lori Swanson: Actually, I think since I had an official title, it's been 32 years in the industry.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: Wow.

Lori Swanson: Which is a really long time and it is generational. My father started a roofing company in 1975. I was four, but I really actually started working on the roof when I was 12, during the summers of junior high and it's gone from there. So I'm sure we'll get some more questions about that along the way, but thank you again for having me here.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Thank you for being here. I guess this next question kind of goes into what you just said. So how did you get into roofing?

Lori Swanson: So my father started a company in 1975. As I mentioned, I was four, but when I was little I started riding around in the truck with him when he was doing estimates. And then once I was old enough, I was working around his shop and then essentially on the roof. He tells the story that I was too busy to be left at home alone. So his solution for daycare at that time was to put me on the crew with the roof and that's what I did. How times have changed, that would never happen, I'm sure, in these times. We didn't even have safety gear or anything like that. So definitely kind of like the Wild Wild West.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: So Lori, okay, so you started with your dad at 12, which is amazing, but you did a lot. I mean, tell us about your career, because... Kind of take us through from that 12 year old Lori to today. That is quite an amazing journey.

Lori Swanson: So when I was working in the roofing industry, I don't think I really even realized the work ethic or what I was learning at the time, I just knew that I wasn't out at the beach with my friends. However, I learned so much just about the industry as a whole and just the type of people, there's some of the hardest working people you'll ever find in this industry. And certainly, I learned about different roofing applications. So I continued to work on the roof every summer through junior high, high school and in college, and my dad had his office manager transitioned. So I came inside the office and then started learning more about purchasing and scheduling and job costing and some of the other aspects of the industry, aside from just working in the field and learning different applications.

And during that time I was also going to college. And once I finished my degree, I thought, "I'm never going to be in roofing again. I'm done. This is it. I have my college degree, and away I go." And that is not what happened. My dad recruited me to stay on board with the company and then it was... Actually, I didn't realize it at the time, but just a tremendous honor because I learned so much. So I stayed on board with my father and we grew the business from probably about 20 people at the time. And I think before we started Guardian, we had 115 people working at my father's business. And he did everything. My dad was not one to turn away work. So when there was an opportunity, whether it was in the commercial arena, residential, whatever it was, he's like, "Yes, I do that." And we would figure it out.

Megan Ellsworth: I love it.

Lori Swanson: [inaudible 00:05:29] back then.

Megan Ellsworth: I feel like there's usually someone in every contractor's life that is like that father figure for you. But who else taught you about roofing? Was there anyone else mentoring you about the company? Roofing itself?

Lori Swanson: Actually, yes, there's several. I have one to mention. I'd been working for my dad's company for a while and it just really seemed like we never had a plan. We never had goals and we didn't really understand if we were making any money. We were just doing a lot of work. And my dad had a good friend in the industry who had retired from a commercial company and he decided to join my dad's company and finish out his career in the industry. And his name was Art Reid. And Art brought into the organization, just helping... Actually, Matt and I understand what our margins were. It's great to do a lot of business, but are you making any money? Are you covering your overhead expenses?

And it seems so elementary now with the access to resources we have, but my dad didn't run his business like that. It was if there's money in the checking account, we're doing awesome. And so just understanding what our margins were and understanding how to truly cost out the jobs and knowing if we were making any money at all on the jobs we were doing, and he really helped us get a understanding of that. And he also taught the estimators, how to really put together a proper proposal and estimate. So it sounds really fundamental, but it was the first time that we had someone really try to help us understand that job costing and the gross margins.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: That's so important. And everyone still talks about that in the industry. I mean that you have to know your numbers, it's so important. I know we kind of passed this just a little bit, but I want to make sure, so can you tell us about Guardian? How did Guardian start?

Lori Swanson: Yes. Oh, of course. Yes. I stopped right there, I was like, "I don't want to talk too much." So I kind of stopped that story. In 2005, Matt and I had decided that there was a little too much family in the family business, and I'm sure anyone else in the family business has faced similar challenges, and it is challenging to navigate in a family business. So structure's really important. In our case, we had decided that we really loved working with homeowners and that was our passion and we felt like that was where we wanted to take the company. And with that, we had a different opinion, I'll just say that. And we decided to start Guardian Roofing in 2005. Not the best time, because we decided to start it in November, dead of winter, with no customers. So I wouldn't recommend taking any advice out of that page of our book.

However, we did did hit the ground running the following year in 2006. And from there, we grew the business. Really, at that time in 2005, there were a lot of huge companies that had been in business in our market for a really long time, and we weren't sure how we were going to carve out any market share. And the way we did it really was just starting with the idea of client for life. Whatever that client needed at the time, no matter how big or how small, whether it was repairs or maintenance, we were going to plant that seed with that client and care for them throughout the lifecycle of their roof, whatever the needs may be. And I would say it's really been the key to us over the years and our continued growth and how we've built the business. I hope that answers the question.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: It does. It does. But for those listening, Megan and I know, but for those listening, who's Matt?

Lori Swanson: Oh. Matt is my husband. We just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. So I guess I should mention who Matt is. It was interesting "cause you asked me a question about maybe another... Not that Matt's a father figure, but Matt was really key also in the company, of helping us level up from that old checkbook mentality to really getting my dad's company and then of course Guardian, really on the right track of monitoring our KPIs and our metrics and things that are really important for the business from a financial aspect. But Matt is my husband, and he was also recruited into the industry by my father after... He started out as a stockbroker, and he did that for a few years and he's been in roofing ever since.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: That's so cool. Okay, getting back on chorus... Sorry Megan, I got off a little bit, but what were the most valuable lessons you learned about roofing?

Lori Swanson: There's so many, Heidi, I don't... That's such a tough question. Some good, some bad, I think we learned a lot of what not to do. But in all seriousness, if someone was starting a business today, and I could say what lessons that maybe we should have done or should have learned that we didn't, is just making sure that you are surrounded by partners who really understand the legal aspects. We've had some hard lessons, not intentionally, but by accident, because when you're an entrepreneur you're just like a wrecking ball. You're just like, "Let's grow this, let's do this." And you miss out on some of these really key regulatory issues or things like that. So just really knowing the legal arena in which you're working in for the industry and making sure that all your hard work is going to be protected. And again, I think one of the other lessons that I learned is just how recession resistant the industry is and how essential it is.

Megan Ellsworth: That's interesting.

Lori Swanson: Not only just through my experience in the industry, but as we've seen through the great recession and then through the pandemic, I just realized just how important this industry really is.

Megan Ellsworth: I mean, we all saw it when roofing was considered one of those key things that couldn't stop during the pandemic. So that's so true.

Speaker 5: If you love conversations like stories from the roof, you're going to love Roofer's Coffee Shops coffee conversations. This insightful series is now in its fourth season, and features guests that talk all about what is important to the roofing industry, and even delves into topics no one else is talking about, like diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as Pride Month. Listen to these hour long conversations live on the second and fourth Thursday of each month, or on demand at www.rooferscoffeeshop.com.

Megan Ellsworth: If you were to go back to the beginning of your career, what would you do differently?

Lori Swanson: For better or for worse. Everything that you learn along the way is really important. And having gone through so many seasons of my career, I think they all help you. Definitely understanding the metrics, I don't know that early on, we really understood how important those were and I think I mentioned it a couple times, just really knowing your numbers. And then building systems and a team and the value in your business so that it can continue on without you. I think as owners or entrepreneurs, we are like, "Oh, we're going to start this business and we're just going to kill it and we're going to make it grow."

Initially in the beginning, we're not thinking about, well, how is it going to succeed without us? Or how is it going to take care of the people that helped us build it to what it is today? Or if we should want to exit, how are we making sure that we're building it with the right type of value that's attractive to another buyer? Or if... We just didn't really begin with the end in mind, I don't think, just because you're just in it doing it, it's your baby, you're creating it.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: I can really relate to that, Lori. I like your entrepreneurial thing too. You just go out there and smash it and grow and grow and yeah, it's something we all have to kind of think about. So, in that vein, what is the best thing you ever did for your business or your career?

Lori Swanson: Another great question. Tough, tough questions. For us, when you're not in the habit of maybe having the playbook or the systems in the beginning and you have to do that, it's really important to reach out to your network or the industry for help to do that. And one of the best things, I think, for myself personally, was having an executive coach. Someone who could say, "Okay, I'm going to take this out of your head and I'm going to put it in a format that's a system or a process." And just helping build that playbook along the way and helping extract the stuff that's in your brain that not everybody can read your mind and get that down and document it in systems. And also... Gosh, there's just so many things.

For myself, another thing that has been key since I've been in the role as president is just change management and building a leadership team. The team has been exponentially better together. A lot of times Matt and I, we looked too much to ourselves to make decisions and we didn't look outside to the people that were in it and doing the job and then having coaching, not just for us, but for them, to help them elevate because as they elevated, we all came up together. And the solutions and ideas and the things that they bring to that table every week, it's amazing. I'm so proud of him, it just... And I'm like, how did we ever run our business before without this leadership team? So that's been really key for me too.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: That's cool.

Megan Ellsworth: That's cool. I didn't even know... I don't know what an executive coach is, but that sounds fabulous and I want one now. So that's interesting.

Lori Swanson: Megan, I didn't either.

Megan Ellsworth: That's so cool. What do they do? What...?

Lori Swanson: Yeah. Well, first of all, this is the first disclaimer that I got is, "I'm not your therapist." I don't know anybody that would sign up for that anyways. But as an executive coach, they're really just helping you navigate the challenges in your business and also for me specifically, we wanted to elevate people in the organization and give them the tools to do that. And so we would do things like set 30, 60, 90 day goals, or we create scorecards for them so that we can really help them understand, not just because we're trying to measure everything they do, but so that they can actually see concrete evidence of what they're helping build in the organization and then what the next challenges are going to be.

I feel like if we don't keep people challenged, they're just going to move on. We have a different generation now, and they want to be challenged, they want to prove that they can make their mark and have impact on the business. And this is just one of the ways that the coach helps. I think executive coaching can encompass a lot of things, but I know for myself, that's one of the main things that I get help with.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh, that's really cool. I love that. I think that's something that more people should bring into their company, that's really interesting. And I didn't know that that was a thing, so thank you for educating all of us. So what is the most important trait in an employee or a coworker to you?

Lori Swanson: I really think it's just grit. Hey, that ability to persevere when things get challenging and it seems like you're just stuck and they just power through, that perseverance and tenacity that it takes. I think it was common for people to say, "We hire for attitude", but at Guardian, I would say we definitely hire for grit. Because things aren't always going to go smoothly. And it's how people overcome those challenges and how resilient they are that really makes a difference.

Megan Ellsworth: I love that.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: That is awesome. Yeah, that is awesome. Okay, so along that lines then, what was the best boss you ever had on and what did they teach you?

Lori Swanson: Oh my gosh. When you asked me this question, I was like, what if you haven't had very many bosses?

Megan Ellsworth: Good point. Good point.

Lori Swanson: And then I thought about my husband, I'm like, wait, I can't see this, he was my boss. But I guess I can. I think the reality is, of course, my first boss ever was my dad, and that work ethic, you can't replace it. I feel like anything, if you have work ethic, you're you're going to survive. You're going to make it in this world. And so, just having instilled that work ethic is probably the one thing that's gotten me to where I am today. And then in 2017, Matt and I partnered with an equity partner, Collin Hathaway, and he's the chairman of Guardian Roofing, and really, the only other boss that I've had. And Collin brought so much to the organization.

And sometimes as business owners, we don't have that accountability and it's really, really helped. So whether it's your boss or a coach or someone, having that accountability will only make you that much better. He has taught us a lot about how to scale the business and how to elevate the team. A lot of things that we didn't understand about building a business, he's really helped teach Matt and I a lot about that. And so that's really been great. Not just for us, but again for the team of people that have helped build Guardian to what it is today, because they now have transparency, they know the company's healthy, they know where we're going, and it gives them something to believe in besides just doing the day-to-day work.

Megan Ellsworth: Awesome. I love that, that's really cool. So I love this next question. I think it's my favorite out of all of the questions, what makes you smile when you think about your job?

Lori Swanson: So much. Oh my gosh. Two things that come to mind right away. And that again is the team and just seeing the sense of pride and watching them elevate, watching them... I mean, we have one individual I think of all the time, his nickname is Shorty, he is four foot five roofer. He's been working for us since we started, he has a family of five and his daughter just graduated from college, the first in their family to graduate, just the lives that we impact. So, for sure, the team. And then secondly, after I'm done with this podcast, I'm going to be working on the roof at our Halo project, so helping the community has been really close to a passion of mine and just really close to my heart because I don't think that we have success in our lives without giving back and really paying it forward.

I know that we've had a lot of help along the way and just helping others in need is really, really important. And so I'm really excited about that, that we don't have to worry about our finances. We can just go and help people in the community in so many different ways, but what better way than giving them peace of mind with a new roof on their home? So super pumped about that. I'm getting excited to get on the roof. It's been a couple years since I've been up on the roof, so this could be interesting.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: You'll be great.

Megan Ellsworth: That's awesome.

Lori Swanson: Might feel a little sore.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah. That's probably the main thing that will happen.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: I have to say, when you talk about a smile, because Megan, that's my favorite question too, that we see a smile. So Lori has been on our media kit covers, you have been on our website, you have been on everything and we have the most beautiful picture of you on the roof with whole safety everything smiling up at... I'm not sure who it was, but you were smiling up at somebody and it is the best picture ever. So, when I think of you smiling, I always think of that picture. So we'll have to-

Lori Swanson: Oh, thank you Heidi.

Megan Ellsworth: You'll love it.

Lori Swanson: That's so nice.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: We'll have to pull that out of the archives.

Lori Swanson: Pass that off.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: Yeah. So-

Lori Swanson: You might have another one after today.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: Yeah, take some pictures and send from Halo, that'd be awesome. Yeah, you guys do so much up there. I love that. And so along that lines, any tips for new people who are just getting into roofing, whether it's as a career or starting a business, what would you share with them?

Lori Swanson: Another long list. I thought about this question a lot, and I know personally, I can really only speak to the residential side of things, but aside from making sure that you have ironclad legal guidance and things like that, you need to really, before you start a business, understand your market and understand your competition. And you better have a really good marketing team behind you in this era and manage your reputation. Those reviews are so key in your presence on the web. I mean, we all know everybody just goes to Google.

I mean, "Roofer near me", and you need to be there and you need to have a marketing team that you can trust and make sure that you are visible to those people. I think that over the years, so much has changed in that space, but if you don't have a good team, making sure that you're visible and that you tell your story and your reputation is really good in the marketplace, it's going to be really hard to make the phone ring and grow your business. It sounds really like obvious, however, it's really important. And we've had great marketing people that we've worked with over the years, but I'd say they were never more important than now.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: And I want to say on that, that's good for whether you're starting a company or you're going into the industry, your reputation and your brand is always the most important.

Lori Swanson: Yeah.

Megan Ellsworth: So true. So true. Well, we've come to that time. It's the last question of the podcast, and that is, how long have you been following RoofersCoffeeShop and what is your favorite thing about RCS?

Lori Swanson: I've been following it since you started.

Megan Ellsworth: Yay!

Lori Swanson: What I love about it is all the resources. We didn't have that when I was early in my career. And I would be hard-pressed if you were someone in the industry trying to find resources for whatever, if you could not find it on RoofersCoffeeShop. And I bet you, if you couldn't find it, Heidi will find a way to get it for you, because that's how she is. And so that's how the entire RoofersCoffeeShop team is. It's just a wealth of information and resources for roofers. This is such an incredible industry. Everyone who's in this industry should be so proud of the work they do, and it's amazing to me to see how much it's leveled up in the last five years. So it's exciting to be a part of it and watch RoofersCoffeeShop grow.

Heidi J. Ellsworth: Thank you, Lori.

Lori Swanson: You're welcome.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to Stories from the Roof.

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