Every business has a story; at Lon Smith Roofing, we have more than that. We have a legend.
What began in 1974 as a modest remodeling operation has grown over the years into the largest roofing contractor in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. But the story of the growth of this unique company can’t be told apart from the story of the unique founder. And to appreciate how much Lon Smith achieved during his life, it’s necessary to first appreciate how little he came from.
Lon grew up in Fort Worth and had to earn everything the hard way. One of the searing memories of his younger days was when he was scheduled to pick up a date who lived in a large house on Bellaire Drive in the Overton Park area of Fort Worth. Lon had never been inside a house that large. But what made an even larger impression on him was how the girl’s father treated him. He talked to him like an equal. And Lon never forgot that special feeling—the feeling that he belonged and that he too could be successful. He declared one day he would live there… and by 1990, he did!
And so, he set out to make his way in the world. Like so many other Americans before him and after him, he started out owning little more than his dreams of a better future.
“He started out selling Fuller Brushes door to door,” says Lon Smith Roofing President, David Cox. “He learned the basics of sales the hard way—by knocking on doors and interacting directly with people.” These initial sales skills would eventually carry Lon far beyond selling brushes. This is where he learned to “sell them in bunches.” And it would be a technique that he would perfect years later.
In 1974, he founded his own company and began installing fireplaces. It was difficult, time-consuming, labor-intensive work. After a few years of slugging it out competing for business and building fireplaces, he was still standing; but he wasn’t standing still.
In 1981, a major hailstorm hit the Metroplex that damaged houses all across North Texas. “Lonnie’s customers asked him if he could fix a roof,” remembers Lon Smith Vice President, Scott Hamilton. “He said he didn’t, ‘but I’ll help.’” The entrepreneur in him decided to sell the leads to the most trusted contractors in the area, Boogie Robinson and Max Eubanks. The response he got surprised him. They laughed and said “Lonnie, are you crazy? We can’t even get to the ones we have.” So, he decided to do it. As he got into it, he discovered he liked it. Plus, he saw who he would be competing against and got excited. He loved to compete…AT EVERYTHING, especially if he thought he was better. A lot of mistakes were made along the way. More than a few lessons were learned. But he kept working and he kept getting better at it. “Lonnie was tough and had thick, thick skin. He wasn’t afraid of ANYTHING”, said Hamilton.
What really separated Lonnie from anyone else is that he did things differently. As he shifted into roofing, Lonnie refused to do business the way everyone else did. From the start, he insisted on separating the roofing construction teams from the sales department. “He was a natural salesman,” Cox remembers. “And even though he didn’t know much about operations management, he knew how to sell. And he knew salespeople should be working full-time on sales while construction crews were working full-time on roof-construction.”
This innovation ran counter to how most roofing companies worked then and work now. To this day, most of our competitors salesmen handle all aspects of the job; including work crews, billing and collections. But at Lon Smith Roofing, the sales team and the production team have a division of responsibility that serves both sides well. Salespeople sell. Field inspectors manage installation, production managers handle purchasing and scheduling and the accounting/collections department does the rest.
“He was a forward thinker,” says Vice President of Sales, Shawn Michael. “He was always thinking about what was coming next. He was a true visionary.”
This vision included identifying potential leaders and cultivating them.
By 1995, Lonnie had built a successful construction company using his unique abilities. In May, DFW experienced the largest single hail event ever reported in Texas. Over 8,000 jobs were sold by Lonnie’s salesmen. Unfortunately, all the operational systems were stretched thin and hemorrhaging money. Instead of panic, Lonnie sought to hire someone who could manage the growth. Utilizing a local recruiting firm, Lonnie found David Cox who not only had a CPA but had most recently been an executive with a Fortune 200 company in the area, managing supply lines, distribution and transportation. In the months to follow, they worked to upgrade and streamline all aspects of the operations. Cox remembers, “When Lonnie made me an offer to join him, I told him my only concern was that I knew nothing about roofing. He laughed and said, ‘don’t worry about that, I can teach you that. I don’t know anything about managing operations!’. I knew what he meant.”
Cox, Hamilton and Michael would be just three of the people that he invested in and cultivated as the next generation of leadership for his company. As he did, he gave practical advice. “When it hails, it’s like gold falling in the streets,” Cox remembers him saying, “and I like taking dump trucks when that happens, not wheelbarrows.” The team knew this meant that they had to be ready to mobilize once a storm hits so that they could get as many roofing projects going as possible.
Along the way, his team grew to love its leader. Lonnie was an unselfish advocate. Always empathetic to those with life struggles, he was quick to share what he had learned to be successful. Hamilton remembers him saying, “I’m no smarter than you. I just have more experience.” Lonnie believed in goal setting and was convinced that it was key to achieving all you desired. “If you didn’t have any written goals, he would pursue you until you did,” said Hamilton. “While pushing you to be more than you thought you could be, he was always available for lengthy conversations wherein he would evaluate your efforts, share his observations and challenge you to greatness. One of his favorite quotes was, “if you help enough other people get what they want in life, you can get what you want.”
“He had a magical insight into what would happen next,” Michael says. “And he had an uncanny ability to see a person’s potential better than that person could. And once he spotted this person, he would mentor them. And sometimes they didn’t even know he was doing it.”
He also gave personal advice. “If you’ll stay with me three to five years,” he once told Michael, “you will get an education that you can take with you anywhere.”
This unique combination of innovative business practices and investing in people led the Lon Smith Roofing Company to unprecedented success that continues to this day.
Lonnie would go on to reach even greater heights; but he would not be there to see it. In 2002, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Yet he faced this final challenge with the same courage he had faced all the previous challenges in his life—without fear and without regret. When he died a few months later at age 58, he left behind a legacy of excellence that carries on.
Lon Smith Roofing continues today in the image of its founder—using innovative business techniques, investing in its staff, and taking care of its customers. It’s the Lon Smith way of doing business; and as Lonnie Smith might say, it’s the only way of doing business.
Today, the company remains committed to living up to the standards of the man whose name the company bares; a legend in business and in life, Lon Smith.