How a Texas-born roofer built Brothers Services into Maryland’s most-loved remodeling company
By Linda Strowbridge / Photography by Rachel Smith
As a temporary roofer on a startup company’s roofing crew, John Martindale became known for a peculiar habit.
The 25-year-old Texan had recently resigned from his position as vice president of an Austin-based remodeling company when a recession combined with an oil crisis forced numerous contractors, including his employer, to fold. Trying to figure out what to do next, Martindale brought his family to Maryland for a vacation. While his wife and children visited relatives, he picked up a job on a roofing crew. But Martindale was not a typical roofer.
“I had learned customer service in Texas, where there are a lot of people competing for every job,” he says. So when he began working as a roofer in Maryland, “my habit was to get off the roof whenever a customer showed up and tell them I was there to serve them, ask if there is anything else I can do and if they are happy with the work. Most customers weren’t used to that. They would look at me like, ‘Who are you and what planet are you from?’”
Those encounters with bewildered homeowners, however, gave Martindale the insight he needed to figure out the next step in his professional life.
“It became really clear to me that there was a vastly underserved market here that wasn’t used to the level of customer service that I was capable of providing,” he says. “So I stayed.”
Working a dark-to-dark shift six days a week for Brothers Roofing, he patched and replaced roofs while beginning to pursue a bigger, personal goal.
“I told the owner one day, ‘I didn’t come here to be a roofer. I came here to build a business,’” he says.
Within a year, Martindale took over general management of Brothers Roofing. Within six, he bought the company outright. Through a series of business ventures (some successful, some painful), he grew the Hampstead-based contractor into a nationally acclaimed remodeler. Renamed Brothers Services, the firm has attracted more than 60,000 customers to date, developed a distinctive brand and garnered multiple awards as a top remodeler.
The company’s success has been driven by Martindale’s unceasing efforts to hone corporate strategy, develop sophisticated business tools, streamline processes, refine service offerings, and recruit and train a special breed of construction workers. But a core contributor to the success of Brothers Services has been that original gut instinct to interrupt work, climb down off a roof and have a friendly conversation with a single customer.
After nearly a year of repairing roofs, Martindale seized an opportunity to come down off the rooftops for good. Brothers had built sufficient business volume to allow him to step into a management role. The confident, sometimes brash, 26-year-old arrived at his new desk bearing a mission.
“I was insistent that we make progress,” he says. “I was young and immature and had a lot of mistakes in the way I did things, but I did them with a lot of passion and energy.”
That passion was grounded by a deep belief in the power of business systems.
“I am a real systems guy. If there is a five-hour job, I will spend 50 hours doing it in order to turn it into a one-hour job,” he says. “I brought a mindset of systems and process and organizational clarity.”
Soon that mindset began to generate bottom-line benefits for Brothers.
Rummaging through a bookcase, Martindale pulls out a small, black notebook — the company’s original management tool. Inside, handwritten notes sum up the details and financials of each roofing job, in less than two dozen words apiece.
Martindale believed the company needed a superior tool. Although computer systems were decidedly less user-friendly in the late 1980s and Martindale had no formal computer training, he retooled an old relational database to create a customized computer program in which Brothers could schedule work, track job costs and handle invoicing.
“We always knew at a moment’s touch what was happening on any of our jobs,” he says.
That heightened tracking, analysis and projection “allowed us to go to our vendors and suppliers and negotiate better deals,” he says. It also enabled Brothers to “offer levels of service to our customers that put us in a different category than other companies.”
Brothers, for example, implemented a new protocol with builders that guaranteed crews would make a roof water-tight within 24 hours of framing.
Martindale also implemented protocols to ensure customer satisfaction.
“In many cases within the construction industry, the standard is no one complained [about the completed project], so it must be okay,” he says. “We had a standard early on that we don’t ever accept that something is done unless we have checked that it is done to our standards.”
Martindale organized Brothers staff such that employees who were not involved in a job conducted the final quality check on that project to ensure it met the company’s distinctive standards.
Over time, that commitment to high-quality work and high customer satisfaction led to the creation of the company’s bedrock business tool, The Brothers Way. A declaration of the company’s core values and daily operating principles, The Brothers Way states, “Treat each customer like family and their property like your home. Do what you say you’re going to do.” It then explains — to employees and customers — how Brothers can deliver on that mission by constantly striving to be fair, attentive, innovative, trustworthy and dedicated to high standards.
“I have never been a big believer in mission statements, because it feels like they just become words on the wall that no one actually buys into,” Martindale says. “But I did believe we should create a values statement that became the tool by which we sold our products, as well as the standard to which we held ourselves accountable. It has become part of our DNA.”
The Brothers Way, which is displayed on a plaque that sits on every desk at Brothers’ head office, also serves as the checklist for every after-action review of a project. Its standards, Martindale says, help Brothers staff identify the source of any shortcomings and refine their processes to avoid similar issues in the future.
Brothers, however, was still evolving, and not always smoothly or successfully.
“I had my share of mistakes,” Martindale says. “Early on, the brasher version of me believed that anything I wanted to do, I should be able to do, so I opened up a landscaping division; I bought a franchise installing synthetic putting greens. We went into the commercial space for a while, working with general contractors. All of those things, we just didn’t do well … At times, I had grown too fast and had to fall back.”
So Martindale, who had proceeded directly from high school graduation to jobs on Texas construction sites, decided to equip himself with some enhanced business tools. In 2002, he entered the Executive MBA program at Loyola University.
“One of the reasons I went to grad school was because I felt I had taken the company as far as I knew how to take it, given my skill set,” he says. “It was an entirely new world for me … I was in candy land. I got to be in this environment with 22 other bright-minded, articulate people, and we pushed each other to get our ideas better … It made me into a new person.”
An avid, life-long learner, Martindale had picked up assorted business intelligence by reading widely and interacting with other business leaders. But the MBA program helped him develop “an analytical and strategic tool bag,” as he studied some of the most accomplished and innovative companies in the world. Martindale, who had successfully grown and raised the standards of his business by managing instinctively, began to realize that some companies operated by higher standards, and he wanted to match them.
Martindale quickly impressed classmate Steve Zwagil. Assigned to the same team, “John and I were in the same foxhole for a couple of years, shoulder-to-shoulder getting through a very intense course,” Zwagil says. “The program did a really good job of replicating real-life business situations, so you get to see how someone behaves when presented with challenges. You get to see their leadership skills [and] strategic thought processes. So I got a good window into John’s work ethic, how he thinks about business, and how much of a visionary he is.”
Zwagil, a CPA, had worked in public accounting, private industry, and served as CFO of a mortgage banking company, a high-tech firm and a staffing company. He had never worked in a construction company. Upon graduation, however, Martindale launched a campaign to recruit Zwagil to Brothers.
“The business had gotten to the point where it needed a level of financial acumen, financial discipline, that heretofore it had not had,” Zwagil says. “The top line had more than doubled between 2002 and 2005. When you experience that kind of significant growth, oftentimes your accounting capabilities, back-office function, internal controls, financial discipline, [and] your metrics lag behind growth.”
Martindale wanted Zwagil to create that financial sophistication within Brothers. But he also wanted his Loyola teammate to serve another strategic purpose.
“The company was at an inflection point strategically,” Zwagil says. “It had already experienced significant growth and John had a vision for the future that would take the company far beyond where it was in 2005. In order to reach that next level, there is a significant strategic side to it. While John is very, very good at strategy, he saw the value of partnering with somebody else who could think strategically, shoulder-to-shoulder with him.”
Zwagil, who became Brothers’ CFO and eventual president, and Martindale proceeded to dissect Brothers’ business operations.
“We put the company under a microscope and scrutinized each independent business unit,” Zwagil says.
They analyzed the profitability of each product line and service offering, calculated the cost of generating leads for each, as well as the cost of sustaining infrastructure and operations for each. They searched for ways to improve margins and ways to financially compensate for loss leaders that were key to other business.
The process, Martindale says, helped turn Brothers “into more of a real business, with more of a deliberative approach to strategy and organizational structure.” It fueled growth and helped Brothers make more successful decisions about business development. Coincidentally, it also positioned Brothers to survive the roughest period for American construction companies since the Great Depression.
Beginning in 2007, Brothers, like every other contractor, plunged into a multi-year fight to survive the recession, the subprime mortgage crisis, Wall Street’s financial meltdown, depressed consumer confidence, and skyrocketing oil prices that suddenly made work vehicles painfully expensive to refuel and caused the price of roofing shingles to triple in a year.
“It was constant twists and turns,” Martindale says. “Every three to six months, I was reconsidering our strategies.”
“What we did during the recession, during three tough years, was meat-and-potatoes management,” Zwagil says. “We scrutinized everything. We looked at every penny we spent. John and I weighed every single decision heavily. Our perspective was that we needed to fight to live another day.”
Around them, many construction companies were losing that fight. So while Brothers made painful moves to contain expenses and reduce staff, it also made some bold moves.
“We went on the offensive in terms of our sales and marketing,” Zwagil says. “Advertising is a discretionary expense, so it’s often a knee-jerk reaction by businesses to cut that expense. But we actually saw an opportunity to increase market share in an environment where others were folding up their tents. It ended up being a brilliant decision.”
The heightened exposure landed Brothers new clients for roof repairs and other jobs. It was this marketing initiative that helped build Brothers Services’ current market niche. Realizing that many homeowners were disinclined to sell their houses in such a tough market, Brothers advertised its high-quality, low-pain process of home remodeling.
Not every mid-recession decision proved to be brilliant. But Brothers’ improved business tools helped the company course-correct relatively quickly.
Brothers, for example, branched into roofing jobs on commercial properties.
“Eighty percent of the square footage of the world’s roofs are on commercial buildings, so for me to ignore four-fifths of the surface area of a product I am installing seems really dumb,” Martindale says. “We got very busy doing it. But one day, I woke up after having been awake much of the night and I thought, ‘Where is my stress coming from?’ Almost every job that I am stressing about is on a large, commercial job. Where are most of my problem accounts receivable? On commercial jobs. Where are my most antagonistic customers? Commercial jobs. Where are my lowest margins? Commercial jobs. I made the decision that morning that we were going to move in a different direction.”
Such decisions, says Brothers senior vice president Dave MacLean, ultimately meant that the recession “impacted us in a positive way. We came out of it better than we went into it.”
Brothers, MacLean says, had “improved our bench” by hiring great people who had been laid off by failing firms, further refined its product and service offerings, and put itself on a path to becoming a sought-after home remodeler.
Today, Brothers Services, which still does roofing repairs and handyman services, has become widely recognized for its gleaming interior and exterior home renovations.
Aiming to create a new — and attractive — paradigm for home remodeling, “we have taken most of the things that are hard about renovations and tried to eliminate them,” Martindale says.
By refining work schedules and supply management, Brothers now aims to complete every kitchen renovation in four weeks, and every bathroom in two. Its newly-opened design showrooms serve both as advertising for Brothers’ work, and as an aid to de-stress the renovation process. Brothers clients meet with an interior decorator that helps them select color schemes, finishes, appliances and other features without exceeding their budget.
“We are not trying to give you kitchen envy when you should be at the point of celebrating doing a project that you’ve dreamed of in your house,” Martindale says.
The process, he says, works surprisingly well. When the Martindales decided to renovate their own basement, they visited a design showroom. As a lifelong construction professional, married to a woman with refined interior design tastes, he didn’t expect dramatic results. The Brothers designer, however, introduced him to a flooring product he had never heard of and showed how a few finish selections could add unexpected sparkle to the renovation.
Leaving the consultation, “my wife looked at me and says, ‘I’m a believer now. Doing this project on our own, we would have had something we would have been happy with, but we would have been blissfully ignorant of what it could be. This is much better,’” he says.
Brothers Services is currently in the process of expanding its network of showrooms and its home renovation services throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The company, Martindale says, is also expanding its work in two major, emerging home trends — renovations that boost homes’ energy efficiency and accessible designs that serve aging or disabled individuals.
From a small band of roofers looking to earn a living to a leading-edge, full-service remodeling firm known for customer service and top-quality work, Martindale has brought the company full circle. Today, it’s his employees who are expanding the thinking of both Martindale and Brothers’ customers, with the dual goal of improving the company as a whole and enhancing the beauty of customers’ homes. CEO
CEO OF THE YEAR
Each year, SmartCEO magazine names a CEO of the Year. In selecting its CEO of the Year, SmartCEO looks for entrepreneurs who are true leaders among their peers. Beyond company revenues, profits and community popularity, these leaders have proven track records of innovation and bringing value to the marketplace. They lead more than just companies; they lead industries in new directions.
Why John Martindale?
In 1985, John Martindale joined a small residential roofing crew after relocating from Austin, TX. What seemed foreign to local roofers was a natural step for Martindale: When an owner would show up to the job, he would get off the roof, greet them and let them know he was there to serve them. That’s when Martindale identified a need in the market and knew Brothers could be much more than a roofing crew. He took over general management of the firm within a year, and within six years, he purchased the company outright. Under Martindale’s leadership, the company has grown into a nationally acclaimed remodeler. Using the core values of constant pursuit of excellence, an intense focus on the customer and providing a great place to work, Martindale has taken a small band of roofers and built it into Maryland’s most-loved remodeling company. For these impressive achievements and more, SmartCEO honors him as our 2015 Baltimore CEO of the Year.
THE HUGGABLE ROOFER
For most homeowners, the expensive, disruptive, time-consuming process of going through a roof repair or kitchen remodel rarely ends with the uncontrollable urge to hug your construction guy.
“But I have had customers literally give our guys hugs at the end of a job,” says John Martindale, CEO of Brothers Services. “As part of our Christmas video last year, we had a customer on tape who says, ‘You know, when the job got done and you guys were gone, we were like, we miss those guys. We should remodel our basement just so we can get them back.’”
In fact, those warm, fuzzy feelings at the end of a job are key to the success of Brothers Services. The Brothers Way, the company’s value statement, promises to treat every client like family, deliver high-quality projects and complete work in a way that minimizes stress and disruption to the customer.
But in the rough-edged world of construction, how do you assemble a workforce of skilled tradespeople and construction professionals who deliver top-quality work, stay on schedule, innovate on the fly, and remain attentive to the client in the midst of all the challenges and surprises of a construction job? How do you foster elite — and huggable — remodelers?
1. Screen for ‘nice’
“First, we hire really friendly people,” says Martindale.
An unfriendly demeanor or lack of empathy is reason for denying or terminating employment. Conversely, the company will provide enhanced training to promising workers who exhibit the desired mindset, but lack certain technical skills.
2. Train extensively, and promote from within
Nine years ago, senior vice president Dave MacLean landed a job with Brothers as a field helper, fixing roof leaks. Martindale soon recognized MacLean as a person with a strong work ethic, a devotion to learning, and huge professional potential.
Brothers cycled MacLean through assorted training — some at the elbow of experienced tradesmen in the field, some in manufacturers’ certification courses or industry conferences, some in long discussions with company leaders. MacLean moved up through field positions and a sales position to head the service division, the entire sales force and, eventually, the whole exterior services division.
“When I sit back and look at it today, it’s pretty mind-boggling. You learn a lot of stuff on the fly,” MacLean says. “But during the last nine years, anytime John has tapped me on the shoulder [with the proposal of a job change], I say, ‘Sure. Put me in.’”
That habit of identifying promising employees and providing them with training and advancement opportunities is endemic in company operations, MacLean says. A field technician that he once supervised developed into a top salesman for Brothers, and recently won the Certified Contractors Network National Salesman of the Year Award.
The process, company leaders say, not only helps Brothers attract, develop and retain great employees, it also provides the company with deeply knowledgeable staff.
“I started at the very lowest spot on the totem pole. I was the cleanup guy for a roofing tear-off crew,” says Zack Martindale, the CEO’s son. “I got trained by some real professionals in the installation and technician world. I tried to soak up as much knowledge as I could, both in the field and through manufacturers’ certification courses.”
That deep training proved to be particularly helpful when Zack Martindale stepped up into a sales position.
“I had a soft sales pitch, but it worked because I had the experience and knowledge to back up everything I was telling the customers,” says Zach Martindale, who is now a service manager at Brothers.
3. Trust but verify
While Brothers’ leadership is committed to empowering employees and avoiding micromanaging, they believe that a final, independent quality check of each project is an effective way to sustain high, individual performance.
“It’s sort of like the second law of thermodynamics: Everything left to itself will entropy over time,” Martindale says. “If you don’t check people’s work, if you don’t hold them to a standard that is unwavering, then their standards over time are going to go down. So we try to have unwavering standards that we hold people to. That assures an outcome that is consistent with our values.”
IRON SHARPENS IRON
Why John Martindale surrounds himself with people who challenge his ideas
Amiable, intellectually curious and driven to do the right things for his company, John Martindale, CEO of Brothers Services, found himself on an unusual quest to find an entrepreneurial sparring partner.
“Many times you reach a certain size as an organization, and you reach a certain title, and you start becoming a little more isolated. People are afraid to tell you what you need to know, or people give you lip service and say your ideas are great, even when they’re not,” he says. “I have always worked at not having that kind of culture, but one of the sadnesses for me as we got bigger was I almost couldn’t avoid it.”
Martindale knew that constant questioning and vigorous debate were essential to honing strategy for Brothers Services. Intense discussions inside his Loyola MBA classes had demonstrated that. So he went on an active search for debate partners.
Brothers joined the Certified Contractors Network, an association of about 400 companies around the country that share best practices. Martindale landed an appointment to the Owens Corning board of directors for its Platinum Network — a position that enabled him to interact with 300 of the best contractors in the country. And he joined CEOIQ — an executive coaching organization that enables clusters of CEOs from different industries to mentor each other.
“The CEO group gave me a place where I could go where no one respects me,” Martindale says with a laugh. “Their mantra is, ‘It’s where your answers are questioned.’ They respect, but they’re not intimidated. You can put forth your ideas and people can say, that’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Martindale also hired his Loyola classmate, Steve Zwagil, in part to debate strategy.
“They say iron sharpens iron,” Zwagil says. “When John and I get together and talk strategy, it’s one plus one equals five. We make each other better. We have complementary skills and we constantly challenge each other. Our conversations often get intense and can be frustrating at times. There are times when you just have to walk away from each other, like a husband and wife. But we take a breath and collect ourselves and we always come back to the table.”
As a direct result of its unmatched level of customer service and industry-leading quality, Brothers Services has racked up numerous industry and business awards. Here’s a list of the company’s most recent accolades:
- 2015: John Martindale named EY Entrepreneur of the Year Maryland Award winner in the Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction category by EY
- 2015: Awarded Guildmaster Award for customer service by GuildQuality
- 2013: John Martindale elected to the board of directors of the Better Business Bureau serving Greater Maryland
- 2012: Featured in BaltimoreSmartCEO magazine’s “Leaders We Admire” issue, May 2012
- 2011: Ranked #50 and #6 in the U.S. and Maryland, respectively, in Qualified Remodeler’s Top 500 Remodelers program
- 2011: Named Carroll County’s Best Roofing Contractor by the Carroll County Times
- 2010: Ranked #35 in the Top 100 Roofing Contractors in the Country by Roofing Contractor
- 2009: Voted Best Roofer in Baltimore by Baltimore Magazine