Courtesy John Ellison
Courtesy John Ellison

If this were July instead of April, Kevin Bumstead, owner of Stan’s Roofing & Siding, Orland Park, Ill., would be looking at a backlog of three weeks work to keep his crews firing their nail guns. But a series of blizzards and bursts of freezing rain, followed by unseasonal warming, has done some pounding of its own to jobsites across the Midwest, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic. 

“We’re sitting on $1.35 million and change in backlog,” says Jeff Moeslein, owner of Legacy Remodeling, Pittsburgh. “That’s three months worth of work.” Moeslein, whose company does both exterior replacement and design/build, recently contacted a bricklayer for work on an addition. It was 4 degrees out, not counting wind chill. “He said his body was willing but his hands would be too cold to do quality work.” Homeowners, Moeslein says, can normally be persuaded to let a window job move forward—one opening at a time—even at 20 degrees. “But if it’s 4 degrees, and wind chill, they’re not letting us come.”


Learning to Say No, and Yes

For Moeslein, the backlog situation is particularly aggravating because he makes a point of being on top of it via six meetings or reports per month. With produced work for February “at an all-time low,” he figures “my goal is to put out $500,000 a month for four months, starting in March.” But since sales in all four of those months will likely be strong—adding to backlog—he has no hope of eliminating it. His aims to keep up with demand while ensuring that customers whose jobs are delayed don’t get upset.

Keeping customers informed becomes a priority for contractors who find their backlog mounting because projects are being stymied by Mother Nature. Tania Goodman knows all about it. When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, the office of her company, Majestic Exteriors, was deluged with requests for service. Which is when she realized the company was at its limit, production-wise. 

“Four roofs a day is the maximum we can oversee properly and ensure that everybody is getting the same level of satisfaction out of the job,” she says. At five roofs, “we were starting to get sloppy.” Six, she says, were unsustainable. Rather than turn away jobs, “we ask people if they can be patient and hold off for a few weeks.” Most homeowners understand, but it’s important to communicate. “I contact them once a week or every other week by phone or email,” Bumstead says. 


Make Emergency Situations a Priority

Since many roofing calls originate with a leak, Goodman and Bumstead make emergency situations a priority. If water is coming into the house, that job moves to the front of the line. And if crews can’t get to that roof for a while, Stan’s Roofing immediately dispatches a repairman to find and patch the leak to tide the homeowner over.

Shifting schedules and keeping customers in the loop is one way of managing excess backlog when weather is the major cause. But other variables besides weather can cause backlog to grow to the point of being problematic. 

A shortage of people has brought Jeff Moeslein to the point of hiring an additional production manager for the design/build portion of his business. Another cause is the job that suddenly encounters unforeseen conditions. Some—wood rot—can’t be anticipated. Others—like a particularly troubling configuration on the roof that takes more time and labor to do properly—can be anticipated and remedied. 

There’s little choice. With 20 roofs booked, if a shingle roof goes on in a day, the roof that’s stretched to a day and a half can throw the entire schedule off kilter. At Stan’s Roofing, where crews work a six-day week, Bumstead schedules jobs on five of the six days and uses the extra day for catch-up. The formula is: one extra day per week per crew.


Constant Communication

But if jobs do back up for whatever reason, he says, the best way to handle it is to be completely upfront and realistic with homeowners. “I tell them: we’re six or seven weeks out and if you can’t wait then I might not be your contractor,” Bumstead says. He’s never had a homeowner change their mind.

Some company owners take comfort in the fact that when the pipeline is full they’re at least assured that crews will be working. Dan Wolt isn’t one of them. At the moment, the owner of Zen Windows, Columbus, Ohio, has 15 jobs outstanding. Wolt minimizes backlog by a high-intensity sales/production process that holds the production manager responsible for all aspects of getting the windows in—from remeasuring to ordering to installing to collecting the check—while the office maintains a step-by-step stream of email communication with customers.

Wolt says that the longer the crew stays in the house, the less pleasant the experience becomes. He’ll use crews who specialize in larger jobs—20 to 40 windows—as well as two-man crews that specialize in smaller ones, to “get in and get out in one day.” Zen Windows, with an “A” rating and enthused reviews on Angie’s List, promises clients that their widows will be installed within three weeks of signing a contract. And that promise is in writing.