Donnie Phaneuf was in his late teens when he first began learning the roofing trade from family members and other roofing companies. After a decade of learning slate, flat and shingle roofing techniques. he decided it was time to go out on his own.
Now, 20 years later, Phaneuf is celebrating. “I’m a third-generation roofer,” he explained. “It all started with my grandfather who worked under the business name Lake Champlain Roofing. As a tribute, Phaneuf decided to start his new business under the same name.
Lake Champlain Roofing, as we know it today, started in Phaneuf’s garage. The team was small — just Phaneuf and one employee hungry for opportunities to demonstrate their skills. Space was made in a spare bedroom for the office. “That was where it all began,” he said. Although roofing was his area of expertise, Phaneuf quickly recognized the importance of understanding how to lead and grow his business. To do that, he sought out local mentors and business leaders for advice on how to create and grow a successful business.
Phaneuf and his wife, Kim, took advantage of a community outreach program at SUNY Plattsburgh that assisted them with the process of formally establishing the business and gave them some early lessons on how to grow. “That program helped us get in line with what we needed to do to make it official,” he explained, reflecting on the support he received. “In 1999 we made it official.”
GROWING THE BUSINESS & FINDING A NICHE
Once the business was up and running, the real work began. Phaneuf was ready to go but didn’t have a long line of customers waiting for a new roof installation. That meant taking advantage of every job opportunity that arose. “At first I would take any job there was,” he said. During those early years the company’s territory stretched as far as the southern Adirondacks and beyond.
After years of hard work and determination to succeed, Lake Champlain Roofing established itself but it wasn’t easy. Phaneuf explained he worked hard and never looked back. Then one day, several years after starting the business, when he was on the way to a major project at the Clinton County Airport, it finally dawned on him just what he had built. His original team of two had grown to a crew of 20 and the business wasn’t travelling much for job opportunities any longer. “I’m not sure just when I went from being the new kid in town to being a big wheel in the local roofing industry,” he observed with a smile.
His years of hard work were paying off. Lake Champlain Roofing had established a strong rapport with general contractors in the region and, consequently, became one of the leading commercial roofing companies in the Champlain Valley. “When the business started our phone would ring once every three weeks,” Phaneuf said. “Now, it rings 50 times a day.”
FILLING A NICHE IN A CHALLENGING INDUSTRY
How significant is it that Lake Champlain Roofing is celebrating its 20th anniversary? According to industry information, nearly 75% of roofing businesses fail within the first year. Overall failure rate is roughly 50%. Of those roofing contractors who make it, approximately 90% never exceed $3M in annual sales.
“It’s a difficult business to be in but it’s not a difficult field,” Phaneuf explained, referring to the relatively low barrier of entry in the industry. He explained there are many contractors in the region who provide roofing services but it may not be their sole specialty.
According to Phaneuf one of the biggest challenges for Lake Champlain Roofing is operating a roofing company in a competitive landscape that will, at times, support the one or two-man roofer. After the overhead expenses associated with payroll, insurance and equipment (just to name a few), he acknowledged it can be difficult to compete on price with a small operation that has little to no overhead.
However, the challenges of the industry have actually created unique opportunities for the entrepreneur. “When people hire us, it’s a complete package,” Phaneuf said. “We are certified in the product, we are insured, we are trained, and we are accredited.” This has allowed Lake Champlain Roofing to select its own niche market. “We have a strong foothold in the commercial and high-end residential space,” he observed. “The majority of today’s clients expect the quality, efficiency and professionalism of a full-service roofing company.
BUSINESS OWNERSHIP IS 24/7
Phaneuf still has plenty of time left before retirement and doesn’t yet have a succession plan. His focus now is being constantly on alert to ensure his employees are safe, job sites are appropriately cared for and new business opportunities are not lost.
“Being a business owner is 24/7,” he observed. “At times I find myself wide awake at 2 a.m. during a heavy wind or rain storm, worrying about damage to a job site.” Phaneuf also lives with concerns that a missed or unreturned phone call could be a loss of business. “I’ve walked from the front gates of Disney World to the far end with my two kids and was on the phone the entire time,” he conceded.
Now a recognized leader in the greater Plattsburgh business community, Phaneuf is grateful to all the clients who have trusted Lake Champlain Roofing for their homes and/ or businesses. The company manages a full schedule, reserving only a few free weeks to account for bad weather and is excited to continue serving the roofing needs of the North Country. Now twenty years and counting!