Cole Roofing Celebrates its Centennial Anniversary

Cole Roofing focuses on commercial roofing work, with a diverse portfolio that includes single ply, built-up roofing, metal, wall panels, and renewable energy systems. Photos: Cole Roofing Company Inc.

Cole Roofing Company is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Founded in 1919 in Baltimore, Maryland, the company currently employs more than 100 workers and focuses on commercial roofing work, with a diverse portfolio that includes single ply, built-up roofing, metal, wall panels, and renewable energy systems.

In 2012, William Robert Cole, known as Billy, took over the helm of the company from his father, William Roland Cole, known as Bill. Billy Cole represents the fourth generation of his family to run the business. As the company commemorated this milestone, Bill and Billy Cole shared their memories of the company and insights on the industry with Roofing.

100 Years of History

Bill’s grandfather, John H. Cole Sr., founded the company as John H. Cole & Sons after World War I. “My grandfather started the business in his basement making ductwork for home furnaces,” Bill says.

The business expanded to include gutters and downspouts, which led to installing shingle roofing. “Near the end of World War WII, my grandfather died suddenly,” Bill recalls. “All three of the older sons were off in the military. My grandmother, Mary Cole, ran the business for about two years until the war ended and the sons returned.”

Two of Mary’s sons, John and Bud Cole, took over the business after the war. In the 50s, the company started installing BUR on row houses in Baltimore. In the 60s, at Bud’s initiative, the company began doing commercial work. Bud bought out his brother in the mid-60s, and the commercial side of the business continued to grow as the residential side tapered off.

John H. Cole Sr. founded the company as John H. Cole & Sons in 1919.

“In the late 70s, I saw an opportunity with the introduction of single-ply membranes,” Bill says. “We shut down our residential side and trained all our steep roofers to install single-ply roofing.”

Bill Cole became president of the company in 1989 and continued to build the company, expanding into metal roofing. After years of being known as Cole Roofing, the company officially changed its name from John H. Cole & Sons to Cole Roofing Company Inc. in 1998. The business has continued to diversify in the 21st century, expanding into areas including green roofs, photovoltaic systems and metal wall panels. Bill served as president until 2012, when Billy was named president; Bill remains with the company as senior vice president.

Following in Their Father’s Footsteps

Bill remembers being exposed to the business at an early age. “Sometimes on Saturdays when I was 10 or 12, my dad would go out and look at jobs, and sometimes he would take me with him,” Bill notes. He began working summers at the company in 1971 after his sophomore year of high school. His starting wage was $2.75 an hour. He was surprised to find out the laborer working alongside him — a college student — was making $3 an hour. “I stormed into my dad’s office to ask him what the heck was going on,” Bill recalls. “My dad didn’t even blink. He said, ‘Well, one day you’ll be able to tell people you truly started at the bottom.’”

Cole Roofing Company is a fourth-generation family business. Billy Cole (left) is the company’s president. His father, Bill Cole (right), the former president, remains with the company as senior vice president.

Bill worked on some of the company’s high-profile projects, including Baltimore City Hall, the National Aquarium, M&T Bank Stadium and the U.S. Naval Academy. “We did almost all of the slate roofs at the Naval Academy,” he notes. “Over the years, we did a tremendous amount of work down there. We don’t do much slate anymore, but back in its heyday, in the late 50s and 60s, we did a lot of slate work.”

Billy got his first opportunity to work for the company at age 13, when he did odd jobs including cleaning up the yard and cutting the grass. “I moved on to destroying things with fork lifts, and then when I got my driver’s license, I moved on to destroying things with pickup trucks,” Billy explains. “Thank goodness my dad was patient.”

Cole Roofing Company’s leadership team includes (from left) Billy Cole, Bill Cole and Jim Layman.

Billy worked summers for Cole Roofing while in high school and continued to work at the company while taking night courses at nearby Towson University. He decided to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, and he’s found it a rewarding experience.

“I had the fortunate opportunity to learn a lot about succession planning and running a family business from my grandfather and father,” Billy says. “I like what I do. Roofing fills this need for people. You’re genuinely helping them when they need it the most. People do need an expert to help them at that point, when water is coming in their building and preventing them from functioning. It ranks high on their crisis level.”

Adapting to a Changing World

Bill and Billy Cole believe the company has thrived by staying on the leading edge — and not the bleeding edge — of change in the industry. “We have always kept an eye toward the future,” notes Bill. “We don’t always want to be the first — let someone else work the bugs out — but we are never far behind.”

The Coles point to three examples of key technological advancements over the years that benefitted the company: embracing single-ply membranes, the early adoption of computers, and taking a leading role in roof-related renewable energy.

The demand for green roofs has surged in the Baltimore and D.C. markets, and Cole Roofing adapted to help customers meet their needs.

“The biggest change during my time was the introduction of single-ply membranes,” Bill says. “We always treated single ply as a separate division because in our opinion the skill set was so different. Retraining our steep roofers to be single-ply roofers was a great move for the guys and the company.”

While some companies abandoned built-up roofing entirely, Cole Roofing’s approach kept BUR as a viable part of the company’s portfolio. “Built-up roofing never went away from Cole Roofing,” Bill says. “As a result of that, we were able to use our single-ply division to grow the company. We never gave up on built-up roofing. It has stood the test of time.”

Bill readily admits that adding computers benefitted the business, but he was not fond of the idea at first. The company introduced computers to the accounting department, and it snowballed from there. “We fought that change like almost every other contractor I know,” Bill says. “Once we got into that world, it was wonderful. Eventually they put a computer on my desk and I became the spread sheet king. For a ten-year period, it really gave us a leg up on the competition.”

Under Billy’s leadership, the company has focused on further upgrading its computer capabilities. Billy also spearheaded a program to focus on living roofs and renewable energy, including photovoltaics.

“Historically, I saw where my grandfather and father felt it was important that if there was a reliable, trustworthy product that got introduced into the roofing universe, we needed to be able to provide that for our customers,” Billy says. “In the early 2000s, vegetative roofs started to pop up, and that made sense to us. We believed there was a way to do it that would maintain the integrity of the roof and still provide some ancillary benefits.”

Aided by legislation in the Baltimore and D.C. markets promoting storm water management, the green roof market surged. “That opened our eyes to the concept of using the roof as a platform — as something other than the roof being just an umbrella for your building,” Billy recalls. “Once I learned about solar and understood the economics and the return, that made me gravitate toward the idea of building small power plants on top of people’s buildings.”

A Culture of Safety

For all of the company’s accomplishments, there is one that stands above the rest, according to the Coles: the development of a comprehensive safety and loss prevention program.

“Cole was a leader in introducing real safety to the roofing industry,” Bill says. “It all started when I met an insurance consultant named Ben Tyler in the late 70s. He convinced me that we should be partners with our insurance companies, not adversaries. I put together a subcommittee of field employees and supervisors, and with guidance from Ben we built a comprehensive loss control program.”

The subcommittee developed two manuals — a company handbook and a safety handbook — and the experience changed the company. “It was an eye-opener, but we saw results,” Bill says. “We’ve been told by the insurance companies that we have dealt with over the years our experience mod was much lower than any other roofers that they knew.”

Cole Roofing was asked to give a presentation about its loss control program at the NRCA convention in the mid 80s. “I got to know some of my competitors, and I began to share some of the stuff we were doing,” Bill remembers. “People asked us to share our program with them, and we freely did that. A lot of companies are probably still running a version of the Cole Roofing safety program today.”

Cole Roofing now employs a full-time loss control manager and two quality control inspectors. “We all put safety first and provide support, training, and accountability to the field team,” Billy says. “The field team has a culture of brotherhood. They all look out for one another and are encouraged to hold each other accountable, regardless of rank, to be safe and follow the rules. We start with focusing on getting everyone back to their family every day; compliance is a byproduct.”

Family Matters

Since announcing the 100th anniversary, the Coles have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from former employees and competitors alike. Bill chalks his company’s successful track record to “keeping it simple.” He also points to a company culture that emphasizes a strong work ethic and a commitment to its employees.

“Somewhere along the line, my dad made it clear to me that our biggest asset in our company was its employees,” Bill says. “Running a family business is not easy. We’ve had our trials and tribulations. I think the answer for us is that we have always treated our employees as family, which better prepares us to deal with our own family.”

For Billy, summing up the formula for the company’s success is simple: “We put our integrity first.”

Pride in Heritage

My American-born father met my German-born mother while he was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany. My parents married, had me and moved to the U.S. to build their family. My dad worked a lot when I was young, so being the firstborn child of an immigrant mother in small-town Iowa often was—for lack of a better term—exhausting. I had to introduce her to everything American, when I was learning myself!

For example, I had to explain extracurricular activities (there isn’t volleyball in Germany) and social events (prom was a doozy). I also learned quickly—thanks to endless teasing—to keep what made me “different” as much of a secret as possible from my friends. I hid the clothes my European grandparents sent because my classmates just weren’t wearing the same styles. I begged my mother to cook “American” foods—burgers and pizza only—when friends came for sleepovers. I never spoke about traditions my mother carried on in our household. Meanwhile, I always wondered why my peers—many of whom were of German descent themselves—didn’t have a clue about any of the customs my family practiced.

Americans aren’t always good at appreciating and preserving their heritage, even when it comes to buildings. Building the most innovative, technologically modern structure almost always took precedence over preservation. The Great Recession seems to have changed that mindset by forcing building owners/facility managers to upgrade existing buildings rather than build new. In this issue of Roofing, we celebrate the historic buildings that tell the story of bygone eras and the existing buildings that have shaped our nation into what it is today. The issue’s articles underscore how contemporary roofing materials can help preserve these structures’ roofs (see “Tech Point”, for example) and artistry that made a particular roof the focal point of its community (see the other “Tech Point”).

I’m happy to say as an adult I embrace my heritage and all the things my mother taught me. In fact, I’m bringing German influences into my own home. My husband Bart is half German, but, before he met me, he knew nothing about Germany. During our honeymoon, we spent some time in Germany, and, today, you can often find Bart using the few German words I’ve taught him in normal conversation (especially with my mother). In fact, he has embraced the culture so much that when he and his business partner discussed how to celebrate Oktoberfest at the bar they own, Bart suggested my mom prepare an authentic German meal for the bar’s patrons. The young me would’ve been mortified by this idea, but these days I’m proud to share a bit of Germany with my friends and neighbors (who predominately are of German heritage themselves). And I’m grateful my husband feels the same.

New Year, New Magazine

Happy New Year, and welcome to the first edition of Roofing!

Although we may be new to many of you, Roofing actually is the next iteration of a successful regional roofing magazine called Carolinas Roofing. (Check out our back issues in digital format.) Since the first issue of Carolinas Roofing mailed in March 2010, we were approached several times to bring the magazine to a broader audience. Last summer, we decided to evolve Carolinas Roofing into a national publication.

The magazine’s goal, which is highlighted in our tagline, “The Industry’s Voice”, is to provide insight from your peers (roofing contractors, architects, roof consultants, building owners and facility managers). We hope as you receive and read each issue of the magazine you feel like you’re having a conversation with other members of the roofing community. We hope their voices inspire, challenge and sometimes even irritate you. With each article and shared experience, Roofing hopes to drive the roofing industry forward.

Roofing will mail bimonthly, and we plan to keep in touch with you regularly. Our dynamic website is updated daily with news and product information. We’ll be posting online exclusives, as well. If you want to be made aware of these updates, sign up for our monthly e-newsletter. And of course you can follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

We know everyone is busy these days, so we’ll strive to bring you the best content in the most efficient manner. You’ll notice the magazine contains many short columns that impart knowledge quickly. For example, did you know someone can be suffering from hypothermia but be fully alert? I didn’t until I read Michael Rich’s “Safety” column. James R. Kirby shares efforts by ASTM D08.24 to develop standards specifically related to sustainable roofing in “Environmental Trends”. Craig Dallas helps you brush up on leadership skills with four great tips in “Business Sense”. And an anonymous author reminds us why safety on the job site is of utmost importance in “It Happened to Me”.

Even our feature articles are short and sweet. Get to the gist of some amazing hospitality and entertainment projects, including the 8-acre Music City Center in Nashville, Tenn. Baker Roofing’s crew was challenged by rolling hills, 30-foot parapet walls and a vegetated section. “Tech Point” explains why penetrations in the roof in the form of skylights and rooftop monitors can be beneficial to buildings. And get Solar Installer Matthew Bennett’s perspective about why roofing contractors and solar installers make good partners in “Cool Roofing”.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this issue but we couldn’t have put it together without help from roofing industry professionals. Therefore, I urge you to contact me with your stories. I know you’ve read that before and probably thought the editor doesn’t really mean it. I do! To live up to our tagline of “The Industry’s Voice”, Roofing depends on your wisdom and in-the-field experiences. If you enjoyed reading this issue, please submit something for the next one. Call me at (630) 308-4602; email me; post a comment on our website; and/or Facebook and tweet us your ideas. This magazine—and your peers—are counting on you!