By Michelle St. Onge | Photo by Jessica McCafferty
Issue: November 2022
Family: Wife Kim, adult children Jacob and Jonah
Occupation: Former owner Lake Champlain Roofing
Community Involvement: Captain and Training Officer Cumberland Head Volunteer Fire Department,
member Professional Roofing Advisory Council
Donny Phaneuf has the North Country covered. You can’t drive far in the North Country without passing a building that features his work and that of his crew at Lake Champlain Roofing. Whether it’s hotels, commercial shopping centers, the Plattsburgh International Airport, or high-end luxury homes in Lake Placid, Lake Champlain Roofing has the area covered — literally.
Phaneuf grew up in Plattsburgh, surrounded by a family of roofers. Spending time on job sites with relatives from a young age sparked his interest in construction. Soon after graduating from high school, he began his career working for his uncle at Andrew Phaneuf Roofing. During that time, he answered the call to do his part roofing in Florida following the devastation of hurricane Andrew in 1992. Years later, and newly married with his first child on the way, Phaneuf realized that a career as a contractor came with the downside of a lot of traveling to job sites. “At that time there were no cell phones,” he recalled, “Since I was about to become a father, I did not want to be away from my family all the time. That is when I decided to start my own company.” From the beginning, Phaneuf had modest goals – to provide work that would allow him to be an active family man and support his family. He did his homework before starting out and knew the odds were against his success, but his strong work ethic and good business sense prevailed. His business grew from a start-up to one of the most trusted commercial and residential roofers in the region. In September of 2021 Phaneuf quietly sold Lake Champlain Roofing, reaching his goal just a few months shy of his 50th birthday. Although he has officially stepped away, he occasionally acts as a consultant to the new owners of Lake Champlain Roofing Holdings.
As for what’s next, Phaneuf plans to travel the country with his wife Kim and visit their children. In addition, he will take time to enjoy the things the couple have and he will devote more of his time to DMP Rentals, their thriving rental property business in Plattsburgh. Recently Phaneuf met with SB to share some of the lessons he learned along the way.
SB: How did you make the leap from being an independent contractor to a business owner?
DP: When I started out, I never perceived myself as a business person. I thought of myself as a roofer. I grew up as a roofer and I still have a hard time describing myself as anything other than that. I took some great advice when I first started thinking about doing my own thing and went to the Small Business Development Center for guidance. They were a big help, giving me a blueprint for starting my business the right way. I did not know anything about insurance, business banking, taxes – there was a lot to learn. My wife Kim is very organized, and she kept me on track the whole way. Utilizing what I learned, I went from being a roofer to establishing myself as a roofing company.
SB: What is one of your biggest challenges as a local contractor?
DP: The biggest challenge I feel local contractors face, particularly in the last few years, is finding and retaining experienced, quality employees. Without these attributes, businesses will continue to struggle to provide a superior experience and product to their customers.
SB: What advice would you offer to someone starting his or her business career?
DP: Hard work truly pays off. When I started my business in 1999, there were eight other roofers in Plattsburgh. I was a nobody in town, and the phone wouldn’t even ring. From the very beginning I believed that if I went to work earlier and worked harder than my competitors, my hard work would pay off. It truly did. When I sold the business last year, the phone was ringing off the hook, which I feel was a testament to all the time and effort I had invested.
SB: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
DP: I remember an uncle teaching me the importance of treating everyone’s property like my own. In the construction business, doing this puts you on a different level. Most property owners need to have construction work done at one time or another. When the person doing work for you delivers a level of service that shows they care about your property as much as you do, that is what drives an individual to become a repeat customer. Because of this approach to our work, Lake Champlain Roofing has maintained many satisfied customers who have come back with new business, all but eliminating the need to advertise.
SB: If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you offer him?
DP: Maybe to slow down just a little and take time to smell the roses more than I did. I was so driven and always looking to sneak in to work a little earlier or stay a little later. When the kids were little, I would get up on Saturday mornings and start working before anyone woke up. I stayed a little too focused. If I could talk to myself 10 or 15 years ago, I would say, ‘Listen, you’ll get there. Just slow down. You’ll be fine.’
SB: What do you do in your free time?
DP: I am somewhat of a motorhead. I love old cars, ATV’s, snowmobiles, and just about anything else that has a motor. We have a camp in Mountain View that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into finishing. My time now will give me the flexibility to be there year-round to enjoy it as well as ATVing and snowmobiling.
SB: How would you describe your first year of retirement?
DP: For the past 25 years, I’ve been putting off projects, telling my wife I would get to them “sometime.” She was ready with her list the first Monday after I retired. Truthfully, I haven’t really slowed down yet. I still get up every morning, go into the rental office, and work every day. The difference is that I now have the freedom to do what I choose to do and not what I have to do.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
DP: There is a legitimate concern not only in this area but all over the country about the lack of control over quality in the construction business. Consumers can hire anybody to do work in their homes and businesses, and there is no guarantee that they won’t cause more harm than good. I’m not usually the kind of person to advocate for more control but I’ve seen too many examples of bad work. This could be reduced if we had some type of licensing. This way consumers would have some protection from poor outcomes. Contractors would benefit too, by having a pool of licensed, qualified subcontractors to hire.