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Topps Tales: Navigating the Roofing Landscape With Topps Products - PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Topps Tales: Navigating the Roofing Landscape With Topps Products - PODCAST TRANSCRIPT
March 28, 2024 at 12:00 p.m.

Editor's note: The following is the transcript of a live interview with James T. Thomas from Topps Products Inc. You can read the interview below or listen to the full episode.

Megan Ellsworth: Welcome to Roofing Road Trips, the podcast that takes you on a thrilling journey across the world of roofing. From fascinating interviews with roofing experts, to on the road adventures, we'll uncover the stories, innovations and challenges that shape the rooftops over our heads. So, fasten your seat belts and join us as we embark on this exciting Roofing Road Trip. Hello everyone. My name's Megan Ellsworth here at rooferscoffeeshop.com, and I am back for a Roofing Road Trip podcast, and today I am with the one and only James Thomas from Topps Products. So hi, James, how are you?

James Thomas: Megan, how are you doing? I'm doing fine.

Megan Ellsworth: Good, glad to hear it. I'm doing fine, fine, fine myself. I'm so excited to be chatting about you and Topps Products and everything you're doing with the Cool Roof Rating Council. So, I'll just have you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you and Topps.

James Thomas: Well, I'm James Thomas, been around for a while, retired Navy guy, retired from Navy, did 20 years there, and I'm currently the chairman and CEO of Topps Products Group International and Topps Products, our coatings line, falls under that coating and repair products line. I was honored to take over Topps in 2018 and started working for Topps when I retired from the Navy as a vice president of international sales in 2015, but I first met the people, the previous owner of Topps and the family of Topps, because it's a privately-owned company in 2001.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh, wow.

James Thomas: So, we have a long history together and that's when I fell in love with the product. I fell in love with the projects we've done with it, and that's my story. Now, I'm happy to lead this wonderful team of personnel at Topps.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh wow, that's great. So congrats, 2018, so kind of close to 10 years of this new role.

James Thomas: Yeah, don't age me so quickly.

Megan Ellsworth: What am I doing?

James Thomas: What am I doing? But yes, it's been a wild ride, a successful ride and we just continue on making good quality products, meeting good people, training good installers and just going forward.

Megan Ellsworth: That's great.

James Thomas: And I like that.

Megan Ellsworth: No, that's amazing. So, can you tell us a little bit of the origin story of Topps Products and when the company started?

James Thomas: Absolutely. Actually, we've been around for quite a while. Its origins began in 1958 and that's where it started.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh, wow. T.

James Thomas: He gentleman who started it was an Army chemist and kind of started like that. A lot of the focus at that time when it did move into the coatings side of things was asphaltic based coatings, usually made from cut back from oil based products, and that's how it kind of got started. So 1958 in Cleveland, Ohio, and that's where we still have a manufacturing plant there, now in other locations as well, but that's kind of where Topps started, origin is 1958. The name Topps Products, the actual entity Topps Products started in 1994.

And again, it was making mostly asphalt based products, et cetera. And then the company started moving into making solvent based, still solvent based, but focusing on rubber products. And so, the first product that we made that was a specialized rubber based product was a repair product, which we call our universal repair product called Polyprene. It was known as Neoprene 66 when we sold it overseas, but it was Polyprene inside the USA. Now, think about this, this is in the late-'70s, and this product was made, Polyprene, and it's still out in the marketplace today. So, it tells you it has staying power.

So, that was our first rubber based product. Now, the feedback was from the contractors, and I'll tell you about how we worked with our certifying installers, the feedback from the contrast was, "Hey, this rubber based, solvent based repair product you have, it never cracks and it never gets brittle, but these asphalt coatings we're putting on, they tend to alligator and become brittle and start to crack, can you not make a coating or some type of sealant that has a similar properties as this product you have, Polyprene?"

And when I say Polyprene, this is just an example, this is done around a pipe and it's flexible, et cetera, but it's 100% rubber, brushable or trial grade. They ask, "Can you make a product like that?" And that's when we introduced our product Topps Seal in 1983. Again, these aren't new products, but we've been in the game for a long time, so that started in 1983. Having said that, Megan, now we're going to take it to the cool roof side of stuff. You asked, how did you guys get started with the CRRC? Well, when we developed a Topps Seal in 1983, that's when we realized that white coatings, white roofs are the way to one, reduce energy costs, two, reduce the thermal movement, expansion, contraction of buildings and simply, even though they didn't talk about CO2 gases back then or something like that, we knew it was about to save energy and maintenance costs, and that's how we started. So, we entered that business in 1983, actually.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow, that's way ahead of the curb, I feel.

James Thomas: Yes, so we've been around for a while and I think somewhere here, I move things around my desk quite a bit, we... I'll show you a sample of top of Topps Seal Excel, and this is a very old sample here. I like this and I know I'm long-winded, so you got to tell me, this is the metal sample. And when you see us at trade shows sometimes, we'll take this... This thing is old. There's a white coating on it, but we like it, because it doesn't break.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow.

James Thomas: So, everyone's doing this.

Megan Ellsworth: At like hundreds of shows.

James Thomas: Hundreds of shows, you can tell, and there you have it.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh my gosh.

James Thomas: So anyway, now for those who don't want white roofs, it comes in 12 standard colors, but the white roof is where you get our most reflectivity and we love it. We love cooling roofs.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow, us too. You guided the question perfectly. What are some other standout products that have played a big role in establishing Topps?

James Thomas: Well, so I mentioned our Topps Seal, which is our solvent based product, and these days everyone is saying, "Hey, lower the VOC better." Same thing, we have similar products, so we stay in that realm as well. We're still the mindset that oil and water don't like each other, so we love to have our solvent based products, cool roofing on metal roofs, because they expand and contract the most, but we have our Topps Seal WB, everybody has acrylics water-based products, but more importantly, one of our products that we have that we really like is for a 20-year cooling is what we call ThermRepel, which is for a metal roof and for a metal roof, 20-year cooling guaranteed.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow.

James Thomas: So that's our ThermRepel, and it's a fluoropolymer formula, and so that's how we enter that market that we think is quite revolutionary.

Megan Ellsworth: No, that is revolutionary. And what's the degree difference, would you say, with that 20-year cooling guarantee?

James Thomas: Well, for the outside temperature, because you never know what's going to happen on the inside. There's so many variables that go with that, but you're really looking at anywhere between this 50 to 60 degree temperature difference, if not more, depending on the climate you're in.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow, that's wild.

James Thomas: So case in point, we've been tested all these products, especially our originals globally throughout, because every extreme climate imaginable, we've done the research station in Antarctica and to several buildings and the Sony buildings in Dubai, all over to Saudi Arabia. Oh yeah, so we have a lot of staying power globally, been exporting basically since the '70s.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow, Antarctica.

James Thomas: 1970s, that is.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh okay, good. I'm glad you clarified. 1870s?

James Thomas: Oh yes, 1870.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh my gosh, wait, you just glossed over Antarctica. That's crazy, wow.

James Thomas: Well, Antarctica, they have nice beaches down there. So, Antarctica and that was some staying power there. So, in very cold climates and up to the hot climates where you have this thermal expansion and movement, Topps has been around. It's been tried, it's been proven.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow, that's super cool. So, how would you say from the '70s to now, Topps has evolved to meet these changing needs and challenges of the roofing industry?

James Thomas: Well, I'll tell you, we haven't really changed much, and I would tell you why is we like being a small company. We are a small company with a big reach. So, we have a flat organization and we are very careful with whom we partner with. And what I mean by that is our certified installers, some of these certified installers that we have, I'm working with their great-grandchildren. That's how long they've been with us. Now, we're not a multilevel marketing company or anything like that, but we are very careful who the roofers that we team up with, that we certify and we partner with, and then we engage with, and that's our staying power there. So even during say the dark times of COVID, et cetera, our partners, our certifying installers and our premier installers, which are ones who have really been with us a long time, they did very, very well.

And what I mean by that is when you see us marketing who we train, you'll see either myself or one of my other guys or one of my other guys training a contractor one-on-one. You will seldom see us in a room training multiple contractors at one time, because we're very careful and we want to know whom we're working with, and it is a family in the truest sense of the word. So, that's what makes us different. We don't sell to everybody. So, we're only in a few distributors that we team up with and our certified installers purchase our... If they want a warranty, they have to be certified with us. So, they purchase through those distributors, and we're very careful. That's how we go to market and stay to market, and we're still growing into market still, we're growing.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow. Well, this is so cool. So how did you get involved with the Cool Roof Rating Council and are you a member? What does that involvement kind of look like?

James Thomas: Yes. I would tell you when CRRC formed, Topps was a member of it, the previous owner was a member of it, and I think we let our membership lapse. And I don't know why, and I have a feeling after all the testing was done and we kind of just forgot about it. For me, like I said, I knew Topps in 2001 when I met them in Kansas, when the headquarters is in Kansas, but I became a believer of Topps when I actually started using it myself, Topps Products. I had several container units, 40 foot and 20 foot container units with equipment and air conditioning systems, et cetera. And let's just say case in point where I became a believer of cool roofs. This is where the cooling comes out. I'm going to get there.

Megan Ellsworth: I believe in you.

James Thomas: We had three air conditioner units in this 40 foot container unit where we're doing some work out of, and it had leaks in it, et cetera. So, I was only looking at it from the water situation or waterproofing. That's the only thing I was looking at. We coated five sides of this container, and then we realized it started freezing on the inside. So, instead of using those three air conditioner units, we went down to one. That's when I actually felt it. I was like, "Hey, there is something to this. This is not a joke. Cool roofs do matter."

They matter, and that's when I reengaged with the CRRC. I love the mission, I love the vision they have. My vision for the company since the beginning for Topps and working hand in glove, or hand in hand, as they say with the CRRC, it's a mind meld, we're together.

Megan Ellsworth: I love that.

James Thomas: And I enjoy it, so that's what we do, and that's how I want to grow CRRC, like I said, I love the mission and then I want to work together with architects and building owners to look at employing people to go into the industry, but also using cool roofs as a way to save energy costs, to reduce maintenance on their roofs and also just to do well for the environment.

Megan Ellsworth: Absolutely. I can't believe you went from three to one. Well, I can believe it actually. Air conditioning units, like you said, that just shows the power.

James Thomas: That's what made me a believer, and then secondary to that, I was like, "Oh, yeah, we can also seal leaks, too." So that's what came up-

Megan Ellsworth: And that's nice, too.

James Thomas: That's nice, too.

Megan Ellsworth: You're going to be comfortable and dry.

James Thomas: Comfortable and dry, and since then, we've actually taken it further than that.

Megan Ellsworth: Amazing.

James Thomas: Like I said, cool roofs are global now. It's growing in Europe, so our European team is working that. Our South Africa team and Africa team is working... Our Asia team has been on from the get-go, and of course the United States here, but we work with nonprofits as well as part of our corporate social responsibility.

Megan Ellsworth: Very cool.

James Thomas: And we call it thermal comforting, so we bring in our thermal comforting, we do a cool roof. Case in point, we did an outdoor nonprofit... Basically, it's an outdoor market in Da Nang, Vietnam, and people bringing in their vegetables and their wares, spices, et cetera. Our team in Vietnam coated that roof, and the people actually felt the difference, even though there's no walls, it's open air, but also their vegetables did not wilt as quickly, and that was something I thought was pretty nice and pretty good. And then we go into some dangerous areas, too, in Bamako, Mali, in Africa, we did the Mercy House projects there, cooling, providing thermal comfort. People felt it right away, they got it. And we're doing several more in the USA and also South Africa, et cetera. Cooling with me is global.

Megan Ellsworth: Global and social and community-based. Wow, that's so cool. That's a whole podcast in itself, everything you guys are doing. That just makes my heart warm.

James Thomas: And we talked about the cooling on that side, but we're also looking at... For the future, if you go into global cities and cooling, et cetera, we're looking at ground products as well, like pavements. There are companies, our products already in the market, we're looking at working with them to still focus on roofing, that's our main thing, that's our main roofs and coating roofs and otherwise repairing roofs. That's our core competencies and training installers to do that and working with distributors, but I'm very interested in going into the cool pavements routes, cool roads routes where we can really start affecting the global footprint and reducing our CO2 emissions, and it's a passive way of really getting things right.

Megan Ellsworth: Those heat islands. I live in a city and the summer is just brutal, and then you go out of the city, not even five miles, and it's like 10 degrees cooler.

James Thomas: Cooler, exactly. It makes a difference. It does make a difference.

Megan Ellsworth: It does. I live in Denver. I would love them to have cool roads, that'd be awesome. So, we kind of touched on this a little bit, but how does Topps Products prioritize sustainability and environmentally friendly practices?

James Thomas: Absolutely, as matter of fact, I brought on... We take it so seriously, and like I said, we're a small company, big at heart, and we are global, like I said, but I can't do it all myself. So, I had to bring on Ms. Sarah Mark. Sarah Mark is head of our corporate social responsibility and our sustainable development goals. Basically, what we want to do is wherever we operate, we want to practice what we preach. So, some of the buildings that we've acquired, because we do have a commercial real estate side of our company. We want to ensure that they have cool roofs, number one, so practice what you preach, that's what we're doing. And then also from the sustainable development goal is preaching and actually expanding and marketing cool roofs globally, meeting with architects, building owners especially and just show them the benefits of cool roofs, and to that regard.

In addition to that, just to let you know, we have partnered with... It's called the Kingspan Group, but they have a tubular day lighting design product called Solatube. Now, what that is, it takes natural daylight and brings it into the building, so during the daytime, if you bring in these TDDs, tubular daylighting devices, roofers can install them on roofs. You can bring in natural light. Why do you have lights on during the daytime if you can use what God already provides us? So, imagine having a cool roof and day lighting systems already on the roofs to bring in, which are more than skylights. Skylights are there, that's okay, but with these tubular daylighting systems, they don't attract the heat. They don't bring the heat in as well, so you remove that heat.

Megan Ellsworth: Nice.

James Thomas: So, the cool roofs with the tubular daylighting devices, that's our way of marketing it together, is a way of really bringing in our SDG goals.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow.

James Thomas: That's what we want to do.

Megan Ellsworth: That would be a game changer. I would love that. I have lights on right now.

James Thomas: Exactly, and truth be told, I do too.

Megan Ellsworth: Well, we have to have good lighting,

James Thomas: But you have to have good lighting, yes, but in this particular building, I'm speaking to you from now, which is a recent acquisition of ours, it will have a cool roof on it and these tubular daylighting devices installed. So again, we practice what we preach, and that's the passive way of reducing energy dependency. And then as we move into solar as we are there, that's the active way of generating energy and reaching our sustainable development goals that we want to do.

Megan Ellsworth: Yes, absolutely.

James Thomas: Now, if I can, let me give you a quick plug if I can, Megan, is what we do on our corporate social responsibility side, which there's an organization, if I can, nonprofit that I've teamed up with and bless their hearts, I love working with them. It's called GraceWay Village in Fort Pierce, Florida, and so they serve meals together. I'm a proud member of the board. I love working with them, and I sit on the board as a board member. Annually, average 60,000 meals per year that they serve.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow.

James Thomas: And we also have a boutique area where people can come in and choose the clothes, especially teenagers. It's in a private setting, so that when they do go back to school, people don't know, "Hey, you got your clothes from here, blah, blah, blah." We reduce this bullying, but that's one of our corporate social responsibilities, CSRs, that we're doing in the USA, and there's countless others that we have overseas that we work hand in hand with, too, but I want to just put that quick plug in there for GraceWay Village, Fort Pierce, Florida.

Megan Ellsworth: Fort Pierce, Florida. Wow, that is so cool. And with everything that's going on, people struggling, and I think that's so important and powerful. And for a company to really put their money where their mouth is or walk the talk or talk the walk, I think that's so important, so thank you for sharing.

James Thomas: Thank you and that's just one of our things that, again, I'm a veteran as well, so we do also take pride when we hire veterans and we do our best to bring on veterans either to our sales force or in our manufacturing facility, especially guys who have fallen on the hard times, particularly. We want to give them a second chance. We provide a second chance, and so we do look at that. Like I said, we're very small clique, a squad and we're in motion.

Megan Ellsworth: I love that. So, can you highlight any specific projects or success stories? I know you've already mentioned a few, but that Topps Products have made a significant impact and maybe how that has helped the CRRC and their goals and their projects?

James Thomas: Absolutely. I don't know if I'm supposed to mention the customer, but it was a major multinational corporation, and we started on their buildings in Japan, and they started realizing cool roofs were a thing and talking about a major impact, we started working on the roofs in 1993, and it took their... That was in their offices in Japan, their manufacturing plants in Japan. Recently, this company, I can't name them. I think my person over here who's pointing at me says, "No, I can't name them." Their North America offices have made us a product of choice for their buildings, for energy savings and cool roofs.

Megan Ellsworth: That's amazing.

James Thomas: So, it's spreading. This company has committed to it. I have to let them do their own announcements about how they want to incorporate tubular daylighting designs and cool roofs into their sustainable development goals, but they like Topps, they have history with our products. Our certifying installers are not fly by night guys. Some of them are family owned, they've been with us for a long time and then even the new ones we bring on, we provide a lot of oversight to them, so to ensure that as applications go as well as inspected. You get what you inspect, not expect.

Megan Ellsworth: I love that.

James Thomas: Like I said, we're very careful with that, and for the most part, it's a good job that happens. So that's one of the... Also, I will tell you this, the city of Hiroshima, Japan is working with us on some of their pseudo subway/public transport. So, that's an SDG thing that's really going to be huge. So, we're doing stuff in the USA, but believe it or not, since we've been around, we're small, a lot of people don't know who Topps Products is, that's okay, it really is okay, because the coatings are out there, they're a diamond dozen now, they're out there, but like I said, we go back to the origins of the '50s. We've moved on, we've seen things, we've done things we've failed, we've learned from failures and all along as we've been going on this adventure.

Megan Ellsworth: Wow. Oh my gosh. Well, it also just goes to show the global interest in cool roofs and sustainability practices, which makes me feel good and I'm sure all you listeners out there, I'm sure that makes you feel good, too. So, that's just really exciting to hear.

James Thomas: And the thing is, believe it or not, I'm not wedded to my own products. What I mean by that, if it's a cool roof product, I will help, even if people say we're competitors. No, I'm in the game for everybody. There's room for everybody. I actually will help manufacturers find customers overseas. We have a separate division, an export division for US companies to export overseas. We'll help them export their products, especially cool products. And at the same time, we have a veterans sales group domestically, which don't have to just sell my products, but they can sell and/or promote other products in the cool roof or cool spaces realm. I am happy to help. Again, there's so many products out there, and there's room for everybody, and however we can do it, the mission, I love it. I'm wedded to the mission of cool roofs, cool spaces. I'd like to do it.

Megan Ellsworth: That's what I love about associations like CRRC, because it's just a place for competitors to sit down without the facade of being competitors and help each other and talk about how we can all move this impact further.

James Thomas: Absolutely.

Megan Ellsworth: And so, that's so cool.

James Thomas: No, I really enjoy it, and again, like I said, the CRRC's mission and my mission are hand in hand, and I don't see competitors. Basically, what I mean by that is name the competitor, "Oh, your product's better than mine." I don't do that, and there's room for everybody. There's good products out there. It is just a matter of getting the people to install it properly.

Megan Ellsworth: Absolutely.

James Thomas: And that's where, like I said, we are very careful. We don't sell to everybody, and we're very selective who we engage with and partner with and move forward.

Megan Ellsworth: That's good to know. So, if a roofing contractor out here is listening to this, how do they get in touch with Topps to become a qualified installer?

James Thomas: That's an excellent question. One, reach out to us via phone or email us at support@toppsproducts.com. And like I said, we maintain a certain number of contractors per state, and that's all we work with. And then if that contractor is licensed to work in multiple states, they can carry on in multiple states, but just know that we sell to you, that's it. So, we're very careful how we do that. A lot of people see that as a bad strategy because you've got to sell to everybody, you got to grow, you got to be everywhere. No, our quality control is not with just the product, it's also with the installations, it's who we work with and we grow through those contractors, so we grow through that. We dedicate our time to them, and they got us and we got them, let's make it-

Megan Ellsworth: I love it. Are there any states that you're looking for contractors in?

James Thomas: I think you're in Washington State, right?

Megan Ellsworth: Colorado. Washington, yes-

James Thomas: That's where mama is.

Megan Ellsworth: Actually, mama's in Oregon.

James Thomas: Oregon.

Megan Ellsworth: We're all over the place.

James Thomas: You're all over the place. Well, listen, Oregon and Washington State would be great places, where we have two openings now for those states and there are several other states, just we can't name them offhand, but definitely. And in Colorado, I think we have one more opening there for a certified installer for Colorado, possibly two, I got to see.

And now that's a good thing to bring up is the landscape and roofing is changing as some of these... What's happening is some companies are being bought out by bigger companies. You're getting these mega roofing companies. So, we've had some smaller companies get bought out by a bigger company, but so in that situation, I have to replace it, because we like working with a smaller company. We can work with the big guys, we can do that and that's great, but usually they're doing their own things, but we love working with small, commercial contractors and we will help. If you're a residential contractor and you want to move into the commercial business and cool roofing and waterproofing, we'll help you. We'll help you with all the training and to get there, because we want to see their success.

Megan Ellsworth: That's amazing. Well, James, this has just been the best podcast, so I've had so much fun. Thank you for chatting with me.

James Thomas: You're just trying to flatter me.

Megan Ellsworth: I'm not.

James Thomas: No, listen, this has been great for me as well. I am camera shy, as you know, and I don't have a lot to say.

Megan Ellsworth: Oh, yeah, I've definitely noticed that.

James Thomas: But no, I thank you very much for having me, Megan, and again, good wishes to everyone, and I'm looking forward to it. And I guess I'll see you in June?

Megan Ellsworth: Yeah, see you in June at the CRRC annual meeting, and then where can people find information on Topps Products? What's your website? And we'll close out.

James Thomas: Www.toppsproducts.com, T-O-P-P-S-P-R-O-D-U-C-T-S.com. That's where you can find us.

Megan Ellsworth: Awesome. Amazing, well, you can also find all sorts of information on the Cool Roof Rating Council on rooferscoffeeshop.com, on their directory and everyone out there, make sure to go say hi to James and check out toppsproducts.com. This has been a fabulous Roofing Road Trip. I've had so much fun, and we'll see you on the next one.

If you've enjoyed the ride, don't forget to hit that subscribe button and join us on every roofing adventure. Make sure to visit rooferscoffeeshop.com to learn more. Thanks for tuning in, and we'll catch you on the next Roofing Road Trip.

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