Roofing Dog picks up small-business honor
ST. JOSEPH — Cory Swanson is not convinced bigger is always better.
Over his first 12 years in business, he built his roofing company to $2 million a year in annual revenue and about a dozen employees.
But in the four years since then, Swanson — whose company is known as both Swanson Roofing and The Roofing Dog — has been satisfied to keep his company the same size.
"I'm really content where we are," said Swanson, 36, of St. Joseph. "I don't need the stress of trying to get bigger and expand."
He said his staff works as "one crew — that's the best way to maintain quality control."
Today Swanson Roofing will be honored as the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce's "Small Business of the Year" at a luncheon at Champaign's Hilton Garden Inn.
In information considered by the chamber's judges, Swanson Roofing said it doesn't want further revenue growth, fearing it might jeopardize the company's integrity.
If the business can maintain its revenues at just over $2 million a year, it "can become self-sufficient while creating the ability to service past customers, if necessary," the business stated in its nomination form.
Swanson, a former high school teacher and coach, started his roofing company in 1997 — two years after graduating from Rantoul Township High School.
"Roofing was the best way to put myself through college," said Swanson, who earned an associate degree from Parkland College and a bachelor's degree in kinesiology from the University of Illinois.
Swanson got his introduction to the construction business by working for Kenny Carter of C&K Builders a couple years.
But "my goal was to be a teacher and a coach," Swanson said. "I was always into sports."
He landed a job at his old high school — Rantoul Township — as a special education teacher. He later became a strength and conditioning instructor, assistant football coach and track coach there.
But his roofing business — which he operated on weekends and through the summers — was so successful that, after a lot of prayer, he said he decided to plunge into it full-time.
During the early years, some of his former student-athletes worked for the business in the summers. Today, one former student — Garrett Runyon — still does.
"He developed into my main man. He meets with 80 percent of my customers," doing most of the estimating and sales, Swanson said.
About 95 percent of the company's business is residential work, mostly within an hour's drive of Champaign-Urbana. The company's office is at Swanson's home in St. Joseph, and the shop is in Rantoul.
Swanson said he's proud that his firm has had an "A+" rating from the Better Business Bureau since becoming accredited in 2008.
He's particularly pleased about that because roofing contractors, according to the Better Business Bureau, tend to have more complaints than the average business.
Swanson said he finds operating a small business "humbling."
First, "you're serving customers. Things have to be perfect," he said.
It's also humbling because the business continually faces competition.
"We need to be thankful for every job we get," he said.
Swanson said at one time, he thought the business would grow to run itself. But he's learned that could happen only in an ideal world.
"One thing I didn't expect was, as a business owner, you always have to be actively involved to maintain the standards that you want," he said.
Swanson said he doesn't subcontract any work out. He said his employees are paid above the industry average and are provided with health insurance and retirement benefits.
That's unusual in the roofing industry, but Swanson said he hopes it will yield high-quality employees for the long term.
So far, the formula seems to be working out. The average employee tenure at Swanson Roofing is 6-1/2 years.
Swanson said the key influences on him have been:
— His mother, Sandy Ehler of Flatville, a retired director of accounts payable at the University of Illinois, who helped shape "the business side of me."
— The Rev. Robert Freeman, former pastor of First United Methodist Church in Rantoul, "who set me on the right path morally."
Swanson's wife, Melissa, teaches special education in the Prairieview-Ogden school district in the mornings and works in Swanson Roofing's office in the afternoons.
They have two sons — Keanen, 12, and Kyler, 6 — and Swanson coaches youth football, basketball and baseball. Several other employees are also involved in coaching youth sports.