Where a New Culture and New Training Meet Traditional Strength

National Roofing
Written by David Caldwell

From its sizable headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where National Roofing has built a reputation for quality service and innovative practices throughout the Southwest, comes the news: a forceful return to the residential roofing sector.

We first spoke with the current president of National Roofing, Jackson Johns, in September of 2019. As we catch up with him in a very different world, he explains how the company is continuing to implement new strategies to both increase productivity and retain its workforce in uncertain times.

National Roofing has accumulated more than 40 years of history since the day when Jackson’s father, Tom Johns, began a simple home re-shingling operation. Johns led the fledgling company with a big name through a rapid expansion, transitioning from residential to commercial roofing in the nineties.

But with such rapid growth, National risked losing the hands-on professionalism and approach to quality which had helped build its reputation. So rather than spinning off a subsidiary or two, National made the conscious decision to trim its sails.

“Diversity is safety”
Today, the company is coming full circle with a recent decision to re-open its residential roofing division. Jackson Johns says that the decision is simply practical: “Diversity is safety.”

While construction overall has remained an “essential” industry, the COVID-related slowdown led National’s staff to predict more service and maintenance calls, and fewer large re-roofing projects. Johns remarks how this is the “standard playbook” under such economic circumstances, but, “That never happened… everybody worked from home and their offices just sat empty. Nobody cared if they leaked.”

To further compound this move’s practicality, Johns maintains a cautious outlook as the US begins to emerge post-COVID. With the specter of possible future pandemics and resulting economic upheavals moving forward, National sees the return to its residential roots as insurance.

“With all the volatility that we’ve witnessed over the past year, the safe move seems to be that the more lines of business activity you have available to you when changes happen, especially when they’re swift and unpredictable, [the better],” Johns explains. “That’s really the safest bet that you can make.”

Re-opening the home roofing department, therefore, was a natural adaptation. As Johns explains, National’s long service record aided in this reorientation and new expansion.

“It became apparent that the place to get into, because we could get into it with very little investment, was the residential marketplace,” he says. Indeed, it was clear to National’s staff that the residential market was open and waiting: “Over the years, we’ve had thousands of phone calls that we’ve had to turn away or turn elsewhere, because we weren’t a residential company, and now we’re finally shifting back into it.”

Building capacity
National’s roofers offer roof installation, maintenance and repair, as well as estimates and evaluations to suit any budget. The company is among a select few in the Southwest authorized to work with all major roofing material manufacturers. In one of its newer additions, the company uses advanced drone-mounted infrared cameras to find moisture leaks.

Additionally, National has added cladding to its list of services, providing roof and wall systems of metal, clay, slate and composite materials. Skylights and canopies offer natural lighting while maintaining structural integrity, and advanced drone-based LiDAR imaging helps National’s team design custom systems down to the finest detail.

These capabilities have boosted National’s workload exponentially. “We went from having one million-dollar job a year, to having several run concurrently in a given quarter,” Johns says.

The company is able to field suitably large facilities for large industries such as biotech research. National is currently re-roofing the production facility of a major pharmaceutical provider, while dealing with the added wrinkle of keeping the building operational during the process. Despite the challenge, Johns feels proud. “We’re getting to work on a building that’s working to solve this pandemic, and there’s a feeling of being part of the solution.”

Another recent success is Albuquerque’s own Children’s Grief Center, a local trauma counseling charity. The Center was moving into a larger facility, and asked National for a patch job.

Johns and his team disagreed: “We looked at it and said ‘if we patch this thing, we’re just going to be out here again patching it in a year. Let’s just re-roof it.’ We were able to do an entire re-roof entirely pro bono.”

He describes the pride the team feels in the work and the challenge: “That’s been a big thing to give our employees meaning in the work that we do.”

Putting price in its place
Thanks to sheer size, National is in the rare position of being able to afford such projects. This reflects its philosophy: an unwavering commitment to quality, regardless of cost. “When we start to go over budget on a job, there’s a tendency to find a way to do it cheaper,” Johns remarks. “We’ve always tried to do the opposite.”

This philosophy is also practical, as a solid job done right limits warranty calls. In the end, Johns says, National treats mistakes as teachable moments. “I think the real secret to quality isn’t not making mistakes; it’s owning up to them and fixing them when you do.”

As well as National’s wide array of services and long and distinguished service record, its company culture remains a strong draw for both clients and employees – and it is evolving. “Times have changed, the industry has changed,” Johns says.

He notes that, compared to the 1970s, both acceptable workplace behavior and management practices have improved: “The way that a company in the construction industry interacts with its labor force has changed dramatically.”

Nevertheless, Johns remarks wryly that still, “There’s a certain element of this industry that mistakes kindness for weakness,” but he says the company is fostering a more supportive intra-office environment to remedy this. In fact, in response to peers complaining of high employee turnover, Johns is known to ask, rhetorically, “Have you tried being nice?”

Acing it
To better facilitate a ‘nicer’ working environment, Johns relates how he and his staff updated National’s core value system. The traditional model acronym of ACE, for Achievement, Consistency and Excellence, had one problem: “If I asked people about them, nobody could tell me what they were,” Johns says with a dry chuckle.

But adding two letters to create a new system solved the problem. “When we added in the concepts of Gratitude and Resilience being core concepts of our company, then people started to get into it. That was really what got people’s attention.” The newly re-branded GRACE system has noticeably improved National’s resilience, and has brought a great sense of camaraderie to the company.

This camaraderie has been further enhanced by the decisive steps the company took to combat COVID-19. Johns relates how National had previously experimented with telework and a less restrictive approach to work, but with the pandemic, “it accelerated ten years of change in about a month.”

More than a year on, the results are clear: “I think that we will eventually see movement away from compensating people on an hourly basis,” he says, “as we aren’t really interested in how long something takes, we’re interested in the product that they create.”

COVID-driven changes are likely to stay. Johns highlights how National is enjoying both higher productivity and a safer work environment. He predicts that new developments such as ‘hot-desking,’ or multiple employees sharing a desk on different shifts, are here to stay.

Hybrid workforce
National’s new, larger headquarters facility, into which it was moving at the time of our previous article, will further aid distancing. Some employees have already asked to be allowed to work from home permanently, and Johns says this new hybrid workforce may better accommodate a diverse employee base. “If we thought that the pace of change was shocking at the start of the pandemic, I think people are going to be stunned at how little changes back once we finally put this mess behind us.”

But while National’s core workforce remains steadfast, roofing remains a high-turnover occupation. While Johns admits this means there will always be work for National due to a shortage of roofers, the company is not spared from this ongoing problem.

National now has a new and evolving training program, including both classroom and on-the-job training. As part of this, Johns says National’s new philosophy is to constantly search for teachable moments to bolster new recruits. “If you run into a problem that you’ve solved before, grab someone who is new and younger, and walk them through it. Don’t just solve it yourself – walk somebody else through it so that they can replicate it,” he says. “All the problems we have are learning opportunities.”

In addition to these training programs, National is now working to encourage positive reinforcement to help mitigate the demands of roofing. The company hired tutors to help employees’ children with homework for those employees working from home. “Everyone is only as happy as their least happy child,” Johns remarks, “and so we had to provide this additional help if we were going to have any reasonable expectation that people would stay productive during this crisis.”

A vaccine raffle enters those employees who have been vaccinated into the draw for a prize, which Johns hopes will reduce opposition to vaccination. He believes that, while vaccination will eventually be mandatory, these measures can help positively retain employees into the future.

National continues to look to the future. Johns and his staff are examining new opportunities such as augmented reality to increase efficiency. This ongoing drive for innovation, along with National’s long history of dedicated service, should bring the company continued success for decades to come.

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