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Stories from the Roof: Kelly Van Winkle - PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Stories from the Roof: Kelly Van Winkle - PODCAST TRANSCRIPT
April 5, 2024 at 12:00 p.m.

Editor's note: The following is the transcript of a live interview with Kelly Van Winkle of King of Texas Roofing Company. You can read the interview below or listen to the podcast!

Megan Ellsworth: Welcome to Stories From The Roof, the podcast that brings you tales from the most unexpected vantage point, rooftops. I'm your host, Megan Ellsworth, and on this show, we'll ascend to the top and explore the world through the eyes of those who live and work above. Join us on this unique journey as we uncover the stories, perspectives and histories of roofing contractors. Let's begin our ascent onto the roof.

Hello, everyone. My name's Megan Ellsworth here at RoofersCoffeeshop.com, and I am back for my favorite podcast show, Stories From The Roof, getting to hear all about great stories throughout the roofing industry, from roofing contractors. And today I am here with Kelly B. Van Winkle. Hi, Kelly.

Kelly Van Winkle: Hi Megan. Thanks for having me.

Megan Ellsworth: Yes, absolutely. I'm so excited. You are such a titan in the industry and-

Kelly Van Winkle: That's sweet.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, so excited to hear more in-depth version of your story. So I'll just let you take it away. Why don't you introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about you and your company and that'll get us started.

Kelly Van Winkle: Great. Well, as she mentioned, I'm Kelly Van Winkle from Dallas, Texas. I'm the president and CEO of King of Texas Roofing. We are a commercial roofing company that specializes in new construction. Single ply is our specialty, although we do re-roofs and repairs as well. We are operating in a lot of different states, but primarily, Texas and Oklahoma has been very busy lately, we've been very fortunate. I'm the third generation in my family, it was my maternal grandfather started in commercial roofing in 1931. It actually started as somewhat residential in Erie, Pennsylvania during the Great Depression. And then my father brought us to Texas, an engineer by background, but then got into the roofing industry. Loved it, started our Texas company in 1982 and here I am, third generation, haven't looked back. Very much enjoy being a family business and continuing that legacy.

And in recent years I've been involved in the NRCA and the various different groups in the industry just to give back to the industry. It's so important to give back because we've all been very fortunate.

Megan Ellsworth: Absolutely. Absolutely. Wow, third generation, that's so cool. 1931, that's really, really cool.

Kelly Van Winkle: It was very different back in the 30s, yes. And then even to the 70s and 80s when my dad started in the industry and then I actually started around 2004 in the construction industry. So even since then, the last 20 years, I've seen differences. So we've come a long way.

Megan Ellsworth: I'm sure. I'm sure. So how did you fall into roofing? Did you always kind of know you wanted to follow in your dad's footsteps or?

Kelly Van Winkle: Well, in the late 70s, I would listen to my father and my grandfather talking. Of course, I really didn't know what they were saying, but I was picking up bits and pieces and I knew I always wanted to own my own business. I wanted to be a business person, to really get in there and roll up my sleeves. I was very interested in kind of day-to-day operations, but listening to them over the years and then throughout the 80s, listening to them, I was a little older, started to pick up a bit more.

And then, actually in 2004, I started as a Leister distributor, so I did that until 2011. So I was actually selling Leister in Texas and the surrounding five states, and that was really, really wonderful. And it helped me understand the culture of the commercial roofing industry. I met all of the people in the commercial roofing industry and that was great. And that was my first business that I had. I started that from scratch and built it up and it was lovely and no problem.

But in 2011, I decided to look at the family business. I'm the only grandchild, the only child and it would be basically, me or me. So I decided to try my hand with the family business came on board. Dad never asked me; it was totally my idea to come along in 2011 and it's been great. I really love the contracting side of things. I think that's where my heart is. Not to knock industrial tool supply, that's wonderful as well. But the contracting, it is such unlimited potential. So that's really what excited me about getting into commercial construction.

Megan Ellsworth: That is so cool. I love that your dad supported you in that as well. That's great.

Kelly Van Winkle: Very much so. And my grandfather was very proud. He was still alive when I started my first business in 2004. He saw that I was selling construction tools, very excited by that, that I had my own business. My grandfather and my father were definitely all about empowering women, empowering me, really not putting any obstacles in my way, making it easy for me to achieve the stars. So I was fortunate to have good mentors and good advisors.

Megan Ellsworth: I love that. I love hearing stories like that. So who would you say taught you about roofing once you got into the business?

Kelly Van Winkle: Definitely my father and a lot of his friends, people, contemporaries. And a lot of the big names, they're still in the NRCA now. A lot of the guys that were former NRCA presidents, like my dad, they were always good role models, very encouraging, definitely wanted to help me, happy to answer any questions I had. So luckily, my father and all of his friends really were influential. They were great mentors. They would let me bounce ridiculous questions off of them. I really learned a lot from those guys. And a lot of them are still active today in the NRCA space.

Megan Ellsworth: That's cool. That's really cool. That's how I feel a lot of times, seeing my mom's friends around. That's really cool.

Kelly Van Winkle: And it's fun to also have the history from those guys is, they can tell me about some roofing product from the 60s that, I wasn't alive until the 70s, I didn't know about that product. So having the history of 40 and 50 years of technical expertise. A lot of them are engineers by degree, I am not. My expertise is not in engineering. So it's exciting to hear when they've tried a material 30 years ago and it didn't work 30 years ago, let's not try it again. So I get that backstory that I wouldn't have otherwise known.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It's a wealth of knowledge that you have access to. What was the most valuable lesson you've learned about roofing in your career?

Kelly Van Winkle: I think, the importance of reputation. So not over promising and under-delivering, being a person of your word, not giving baloney answers, when, I mean, you're just making stuff up to give the customer an answer that's never the right way to do it because they're going to find out that you made it up or that it wasn't truthful or it was just an easy, convenient answer. It would actually be better to, for reputation purposes, to say to the caller, "I don't know. Let me go find out and I'll get back to you." Much better than making up a story that may or may not be true. And the customer finds out later that it's a bunch of nothing. So I would say, being a person of your word is important in our industry and the importance of reputation because once you sully your reputation, it's really hard to get back in the business community. At least that's what I found.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, yeah, that's so true. And really, with any industry, but I think especially the tight-knit industries like ours.

Kelly Van Winkle: Sure.

Megan Ellsworth: So, I love this question 'cause everyone has such a different answer to it, but if you were to go back and start at the beginning of your career, would you do anything differently? And if so, what would you do differently?

Kelly Van Winkle: Well, I enjoyed the first business that I had, really. The Leister and the tools and everything. I really enjoyed it. It was good for me to start a business from scratch on my own, from the ground up. I think that's a great experience. I also had this experience walking into an already established family business that already had many decades behind it. So it's just two different things. I think that's good to have had both experiences in my life. So now I can start from scratch or I can walk into an existing business. I don't know that I would do that differently. I think it was a good way. In my mind, sometimes I say, "I wish I'd just jumped into the contracting side of things 'cause I love it so much." But I think, you know what, that first seven years of my career, that was valuable, that taught me a lot. It taught me how to stand on my own two feet and so on and so forth. So I don't know that I really would change anything about my direction. I think I'm glad for both experiences that I've had.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, I love that. It's so important to have a wide breadth. And now you're heading up an amazing company and you have all those experiences to take with you into this experience. Kind of going off of that and your amazing company, what is the best thing you've ever done for your business?

Kelly Van Winkle: Best thing I've done? Well, that was actually something we've done very recently, and that is looking at the issues of communication that we've been having and the way we're organized and different work product buckets. So whether it be operations and logistics, or it's safety or finances and accounting or admin, HR, whatever the work bucket is and how we work together. 'Cause we can't all work in silos. So making sure that our departments and divisions, different work areas are communicating properly so that everyone is on the same page. So we've really put a lot of work, a lot of strategizing lately, a lot of work into our leadership team. So I have what's called the Fab Five, and they assist me and they each have a different work bucket area that they're responsible for. And having those just quick weekly meetings just to make sure the five of us are on the same page.

And it's really useful too. So the guys in the field or the other people that work in the office, they can't go to the five different leaders and say, "Get a different answer," right? Because we're all on the same page. So just making communication more effective. We look like a cohesive leadership team because the five of us that are assisting me with these work areas are, I think, thinking along the same lines. So our communication in the last, I would say 18 months, two years, is significantly better than it was. And that doesn't mean any disrespect to my father, my grandfather, those models were great, they were fine. Nothing wrong with it, but we can always be better. We can always improve our communication. That's something that every company can do.

So I think that's benefited us a lot lately. Communications skills, and we all have the same tools in our toolkit now on communication and we know how to speak with each other because the people that I have heading these departments have very different communication styles, very, very different. And we're just now learning to, how do I best communicate with that person? How can they receive the info that I'm saying? So talking even about communication styles between leaders.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah. Oh man, that's so important. Communication styles. I've been learning about those recently and I agree-

Kelly Van Winkle: And one guy and I, who, different. And it took us a couple of years, I'll be honest, to get on the same page and now, we can just finish each other sentences. So I think that's great. It's really useful in a company, especially a family company or medium-sized company. I think it's a good thing to be on the same page with your other leaders.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, yeah. Oh my gosh, so true. And I love the Fab Five name.

Kelly Van Winkle: Yes, they are... I count on the Fab Five, they're important and I like their viewpoints. You don't just need all of my ideas. I mean, that would get stale, if it was just my ideas. So the fact that I have these Fab Five giving me fresh ideas, that's great. I think an organization can get stale if you just have one idea generator. You need multiple idea generators.

Megan Ellsworth: Absolutely. Oh, I couldn't agree more. Yes, that's so true. I love that. I'm also so glad to hear that it's worked and you've seen the progress in the last months.

Kelly Van Winkle: So much.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, that's amazing. So in one word or sentence, describe the most important trait in an employee or coworker.

Kelly Van Winkle: I would say, enthusiasm. I'm not going to say roofing skill, roofing expertise. I'm going to say, enthusiasm. The reason why I say that is I hire a lot based on attitude. If you have an attitude of learning, if you're enthusiastic about being a part of this business, this family that we have here, this culture, if you want to come to work every day, if you have good attendance. If you're enthusiastic, you want to just come here and learn, we'll teach you what you need to know. Even if you don't know a darn thing about roofing or estimating or you've never picked up a Leister robot in your life, if you know nothing, I would rather hire the person who's enthusiastic with the good intent, attendance, who wants to learn, who wants to make something of themselves. That's a way better candidate for me than somebody with 36 years of roofing experience that has a bad attitude and is grouchy.

Megan Ellsworth: So true.

Kelly Van Winkle: Yeah. And I think a lot of people need to think about that. I know several people out there that are hiring based on roofing experience. Well, that's great, but you have to have the other component, the soft skills and the enthusiasm, the excitement, the passion, the drive, whatever it is that you want to call it, you need both.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, and I love that you said soft skills. I also just learned about soft versus hard skills and so interesting and how important soft skills are and how sometimes, they get overlooked.

Kelly Van Winkle: Communication.

Megan Ellsworth: Yes, communication is key. So really quick, we're going to go for a quick commercial break from our sponsor, Johns Manville.

Relentless Sun, torrential rain, severe heat and cold. Commercial roofs face no shortage of extremes, and the true test of any roofing system is how it stands up to these conditions over a long lifespan. The Johns Manville PVC formulation has proven itself time and again, protecting airports, manufacturing facilities, educational buildings, stadiums and retail structures across the continent and continuing to pass the test of time. Johns Manville offers one of the most comprehensive guarantees in the roofing industry. That's the advantage you can expect from a long-time dependable leader with the financial backing of Berkshire Hathaway.

Okay, so this is kind of a loaded question, but who was the best boss you ever had?

Kelly Van Winkle: Unfortunately, I haven't had many bosses because before this, I had my own company. Actually when I was in law school, and I was clerking during one of the summers in one of the semesters at the JCPenney world headquarters, I guess, legal department. So they had their own corporate legal department at the JCPenney headquarters, which was in North Dallas at the time, almost to Plano. It was so interesting, that corporate beast or whatever you want to call it, the corporate experience is so different. So I had only seen, growing up, family businesses and smaller, medium-sized businesses. And so that corporate environment is so incredibly different as far as politics, and I don't mean left-right politics, I mean, just office politics. I mean, just what's expected in a corporate person's behavior. It's just very, very different. Very, very different style working in a cubicle, it's just very, very not what I was accustomed to.

So it wasn't that it was good or bad, it was just kind of eye-opening to see how the corporate world and especially a legal world is so very different from more of a business or a medium-sized family business, two different beasts. And so again, glad I had both experiences. Really.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow. Yeah, I mean, JCPenney, A, a throwback and B, yeah, what a huge company.

Kelly Van Winkle: That was a long time ago. I was in law school long time ago.

Megan Ellsworth: I also didn't know you went to law school. How cool is that?

Kelly Van Winkle: Well see, actually, I only did half. And because I realized I much preferred the business world to the legal world and I saw myself doing business as a business operator, by then, I had been bit by the entrepreneurial bug, and I saw myself as a business operator, not necessarily a lawyer representing the business owner. I wanted to be the business owner. So that's when I switched to my MBA and I said, "Oh, this feels better." So the business, the MBA was a better probably fit for me than law school. And that's not to knock it because it was a wonderful experience. In fact, things that I learned in the contracts law course or the business law course, I still use those concepts today.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh, I'm sure.

Kelly Van Winkle: So very useful education.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's huge.

Kelly Van Winkle: It made me read contracts like a tiger.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, you're like, "Mm, no. Mm, yes." I love that. I say this every time, but this is my absolute favorite question because it's so happy, but what makes you smile when you think about your job or your business?

Kelly Van Winkle: I know this sounds cheesy, but I love getting up in the morning and coming here. I love the people. I mean, we're lucky in that most people that work in this office, they've been here minimum, 20 years. I have someone who's been here 36 years, and that's pretty much everybody. I think we have one woman that's been here less than a year, and two people that are at the eight or nine year range, but I kid you not, everyone else has been here between 20 and 36 years. And it's, we are like a family. I know it sounds dumb, but what makes me smile is just getting up in the morning and coming here to these people because it's so much more than just coworkers. They're friends, they're people that I care about. I care about their families, I interact with their spouses, their kids, now some of them have grandkids. I mean, we're very much all intertwined.

And so, we actually like getting up and coming to work every day. And I'm appreciative. I know that's not realistic for most Americans. Most Americans go to work because it's the paycheck. They go to work because they need to pay their bills, pay their rent, whatever. They don't love it. I actually like to get up, get a shower, get in the car and come here. So that makes me smile. Just the day to day really. I enjoy actually working, coming to work and doing this business.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, you're so right. That is such a joy and such a gift that you get to experience every day and that your employees get to experience, 'cause I'm sure they would say the same thing.

Kelly Van Winkle: We try to make it a little bit of fun too, while we're here.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, of course. I love that. That just makes me smile. So thanks for sharing that. So kind of moving into talking about our sponsor, John's Manville, how important is a relationship with a manufacturer like JM, to a roofing contractor?

Kelly Van Winkle: It is one of the most important things. Very, very important. Johns Manville is a true partner, and when I say that I say it with all seriousness, they are our partner on a daily basis and we feel very much in sync with them. Communication is good, I can tell you that. Whether it be the people that are the representatives in the city of Dallas, north Texas or whether it's a regional representative that we have for a particular region or even up to the national level. And that goes for everything. It goes for the technical, the accounting departments, the sales groups. Their communication is so good and really is kind of at the top of mind for me, compared to some other manufacturers. And so we really appreciate that ease of use with the relationship so they're efficient to deal with, they're communicative, even if maybe it's an answer we don't like, but at least it's still an answer.

So prompt answers, and then accuracy, accuracy is important. And then user-friendly. So their accounting department, people you deal with on a daily basis, it's not a battle. They're good with taking the orders, executing on the orders, making sure they're delivered, even down to making sure the trucker knows where he's going. When you get in sync with a manufacturer, it's the best thing in the world. I would say, it's of ultimate importance to be in sync with your preferred manufacturer because it makes running the business so much easier. So much easier. It's just like that. I can say something to my city representative, he's excellent and then it gets done and I can count on it. And if they say something, I can take that answer to the bank. It's not wishy-washy, it's definitive, it's correct. So it's just when you have that kind of relationship, it's worth all the money in the world.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah. Yeah. I bet. I mean 'cause you already have so many moving targets and you're juggling so many plates. The last thing you want is to have an additional plate being your manufacturer not calling you back, not being responsive. So, that's just so annoying.

Kelly Van Winkle: And we've had that in the company history when we've worked with some other folks many, many years ago. It was harder. It was a battle, say with their accounting department or it was a battle with the regional guy or whatever it is. We've had those before. So that's why it makes me so appreciative of someone like JM that does have their ducks in a row with us, that when I've seen the not so good and then I see someone that excels like JM at that, that's how I know how important it is, because I've seen the bad and I've seen the good.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, yeah, I'm sure. I'm sure. So how important is ongoing training and continuing education with a manufacturer, that they provide those materials?

Kelly Van Winkle: So, in our particular case, and I can only speak to our particular case, is JM and the Pro Certification Program with the NRCA and us and we've done a whole lot. And then there's several manufacturers that do this that are having their tech reps be the assessors for Pro Cert or their tech reps are helping to train up workers to make sure that they're at the right level for installing their particular product. So a lot of good things there. I think when you have a manufacturer's understand, that is focused on training, making sure all roofers are operating at a consistent level, a level that's acceptable nationwide and it's acceptable to do their product and something like an opportunity for pro certification or even the track program with the NRCA. These programs show the workers not only that we are interested in them, we're interested in investing in them, we're interested in their staying with our company, giving them an opportunity to have a certificate and maybe no other employer has ever given them a chance to have a certificate in anything.

It also shows the manufacturer that we know what we're doing, in theory, if we're certified, that we're a good installer of their product. The manufacturer is helping with their tech reps to make sure that everyone is working at a consistent level of acceptability. So I just think those partnerships, when you have the industry and the manufacturer and the contractor partnering up on these training opportunities and these educational opportunities, I think it's a win-win for all involved. And even the customer wins, right?

Megan Ellsworth: Yes.

Kelly Van Winkle: Because the customer, at the end of the day, if you have certified workers or you have workers that have been approved by a manufacturer to do a particular type of system, it gives them some comfort. The customer knows that they've hired quality workmanship and a quality product, right? Because again, they have both, right? So they know that their product's good and their workmanship is good.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, no, that's so important. And also, the connection with the industry too, and all the work you do with the NRCA and Pro Cert and all these workers, when you continue the education, it's giving them pride and joy and more enthusiasm, like you said before.

Kelly Van Winkle: Yes.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah. So we only have two more questions left, but our second to last question is, what tips do you have for new people starting out in roofing?

Kelly Van Winkle: Well, a little bit, I always tell people that I mentor, I think what I told you before, about the importance of reputation.

Megan Ellsworth: Yes.

Kelly Van Winkle: Not over promising and under-delivering, but younger people, I would tell them that, please join our industry, first of all, because this is actually a very welcoming industry. I was very welcomed. I was lucky maybe, I didn't have people trying to prohibit me from entering the industry. People came to me with open arms, my dad and many people from his generation, very, very welcoming to me. I'm lucky, not every industry is that way. Sometimes it's cutthroat, sometimes people don't want to. I didn't face the resistance, so I would tell people that it's welcoming. We want the young people, and that's why we do a lot of things we do with the Alliance, for example, with the student competition or with Skills USA, for example, to get field workers interested in being in roofing. So all of these things that we're doing, I want the young people to know that there's a career here.

It's not a dead end street. Construction is not a dead end street. Construction is the ultimate opportunity. I have many people here that have brand new trucks, mortgages on houses, their kids are in private school, whatever it is, iPhones, that are nicer than mine. So if you're willing to put in the hard work and the time and the interest, that enthusiasm I talked about, a young person could have this career. I have people that started as roofing laborers that are now the director of operations. So there is a lot of upward mobility. People think there's not, but there is.

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, absolutely. It's so true. So I mean, everybody says, once you're in roofing, you can never leave. You're in it for life. So everyone out there listening, you heard it here first. Okay. And lastly, a fun question is, how long have you been following Roofer's Coffee Shop and what's your favorite thing about RCS?

Kelly Van Winkle: Well, I met Heidi when she first came to some of the meetings with the NRCA and the Alliance, and I've been watching you come on board in recent years and do so much. You guys are growing so fast, the Roofer's Coffee Shop, and I actually just complimented Heidi when I saw her at the IRE. I mean, it's great. And your brother, he's been a great add to the roof pack committee. We've really appreciated you guys' support and just the involvement. And you all jumped in with two feet, and I've been a fan for a while. I see you guys constantly growing. And by the way, I like your pet competition.

Megan Ellsworth: Me too.

Kelly Van Winkle: I submitted a picture years ago of Baylor with a hard hat, my little doggy, Baylor, with a hard hat and I guess it was a pretty popular picture. He had a King of Texas, the safety vest and a hard hat and he had little glasses. Yeah, so that's always a win. Keep the pet contest going, please.

Megan Ellsworth: Okay, yeah. That's my favorite thing that we do also.

Kelly Van Winkle: But no, but all the Alliance podcasts and the Alliance interviews, you guys have really done a lot with that too.

Megan Ellsworth: Awesome. Well, we're so glad to be a resource for the industry and to cultivate this amazing community that the roofing industry has, and we're glad that you are a part of our family as well.

Kelly Van Winkle: Oh, yes. It's so good to know you. And thank you again for inviting me today.

Megan Ellsworth: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing your story and talking about Johns Manville and your work with them. So everyone out there listening, make sure to go to rooferscoffeeshop.com/Storiesfromtheroof to learn more. You can also find the King of Texas directory on Rooferscoffeeshop.com to learn more about their story. Kelly, thank you so much. This has been great.

Kelly Van Winkle: Thanks again.

Megan Ellsworth: Awesome. Everyone out there, thank you. This has been Stories From the Roof.

If you've enjoyed these unique rooftop stories, be sure to hit that subscribe button so you don't miss a single episode. Go to Rooferscoffeeshop.com to learn more. Thanks for soaring with us on Stories from the Roof. We'll catch you on the next one.

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