This year will not be one Letitia Hanke forgets easily. Like many roofing contractors serving both residential and commercial markets across the country, the president of ARS Roofing in Santa Rosa, Calif., faced unforeseen challenges that could either make or break her business.
Already dealing with a skilled worker shortage exacerbated by historic wildfires in her region, Hanke’s company faced some of the harshest shutdown orders and business restrictions in the country due to COVID-19.
As soon as she and her crews adjusted to the new safety procedures and other ways of doing business, protests demanding social justice and systematic changes to law enforcement procedures were cropping up around the country and impacting her jobsites locally. By late summer, the surge of protests — and looting in some cases — seemed to slow down, only to be replaced by stop-work orders due to the heavy smoke from more wildfires.
“It really has been very hard,” Hanke said. “Once we just got used to the pandemic, and then you add protests, rioting and multiple historic fires … I’m almost speechless.”
But 2020 also came with hope, and a few surprises rewarding her for years of determination, resolve and confidence in her own abilities. Among them — RC’s 2020 Residential Roofing Contractor of the Year award.
“This was my team that did this!” she said upon accepting the award via video chat. “This is such an honor, and I can’t wait to share it with them. All these years, you know? It’s been almost 25 years.”
To say the award was unexpected is an understatement. But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either. This year alone, Hanke has proven to keep her employees safe, placed ARS on a course for accelerated success and inspired the next generation of roofers, other skilled tradespeople and musicians to reach their full potential through innovative philanthropic work.
From Broke to Busy
Like many of RC’s Contractors of the Year that preceded her, Hanke is passionate about her roofing business, feels fulfilled by a satisfied customer’s smile, and is electrified by the positivity of helping and motivating youth. However, the twists of fate drawing her to her true calling through roofing was somewhat of a fluke.
A struggling musician studying performing and recording arts, Hanke needed solid footing and found it as a receptionist for a local roofing company in 1996.
“I was a starving student in college and in my senior year I realized working three jobs and gigging as a musician wasn’t cutting it. I was broke all the time,” she said. “I knew I needed one good-paying job.”
Over the next four years, Hanke learned the ins and outs of the roofing business on the job. She soon became the office manager, then the overall manager, when her boss approached her about his pending retirement. He wanted her to take over the business, and spent the next four years tutoring her on the roofing process. When the time came, Hanke — now knowledgeable and confident in her abilities — earned a contractor’s license and started ARS Roofing on her own with a Small Business Administration loan in 2004. She hasn’t looked back.
“I knew for sure I wanted to be a business owner,” she explained. “I knew how to run a roofing company. I knew how to roof, so this was a perfect opportunity. I love helping people at the same time, so I gave it a shot.”
Tune of Her Own
Hanke also had something to prove, which hasn’t changed much in about 25 years in the industry, or really any time since she was a teenager. Spending her formative years in Northern California’s Lake County, Hanke didn’t grow up around a lot of minorities and naturally stood out. Unfortunately, that also made her an easy target for bullying. Hanke said she found a release, as well as a personal drive and purpose in music — first in high school marching band and then after when she pursued it as a profession.
As difficult as those years were, the challenge tested her resolve and set the stage for her leap into entrepreneurship.
“I started the company because I wanted to simply prove to the female and minority community that you can be anything you want to be if you just set your mind to it,” she said.
Any dissolutions she may have had about the perception of women in the male-dominated constructions trades at the time vaporized at her first local networking event shortly after launching her company.
“I walked in and saw a couple of general contractors there who recognized my company polo and asked what I did for ARS Roofing,” she recalled. “When I told them I was the CEO, one them responded, ‘From the kitchen to the rooftop, huh?’ That was my first experience in the industry, and it was like that for me for many years after as contractors were trying to get to know me.”
Over time, Hanke proved herself and said she now has a great group of contractors that she networks with, including other roofers, and she found a few general contractors that she leaned on as mentors.
While she still plays music in her local church band, Hanke this time found solace and inspiration from other female business owners outside of the trades who encouraged her stay focused on her goals and keep pushing herself.
“Women are capable of doing anything, and for me, it’s about showing the young people that they can really be anything they want to be. I can be an example of that,” she explained. “When they see me, and see a black female roofer, they’re like, ‘What?’ It blows their minds. But it’s just me telling my story and showing them they really can do anything they want to do.”
Those experiences were critical in learning the ups and downs of business and dealing with customers — including those with their own prejudices and pre-conceived notions. One incident seven years ago stands out.
Hanke established a rapport with an older couple that agreed to go with a $25,000 reroof over the phone. At the time, Hanke said she was ‘hiding’ in her business — signing her initials and keeping her face off her marketing so people didn’t know her race or gender. When she arrived at the home to complete the contract, the couple invited her in but made a slew of excuses about why they changed their mind. She got the hint and was on her way out the door within less than 10 minutes when the husband added a warning about how superior and loud their alarm system was.
“I got back in my car, drove around the corner, parked and cried,” Hanke said of the experience, which she calls the worst of her career. “It was the first time I had experienced that blatant racism to my face in my business.
“When I went back to my office, I shredded their proposal, told my staff about it and then re-branded my business. I put my face on our website, all of our marketing tools and signed my name ‘Letitia Hanke’ from that day forward.”
Building a Pipeline
Now two dozen employees work on commercial and residential projects primarily in Sonoma and Marin counties in the greater San Francisco area. Though commercial projects dried up during the pandemic, Hanke said residential work flourished, and they creatively worked around stay-in-shelter orders that allowed exceptions for emergencies or unsafe structures. Jobs may be taking longer with reduced crew sizes and other safety protocols, but they’re still coming in and building a backlog into 2021, Hanke said.
Right on par with her passion for the roofing business is Hanke’s penchant for giving back to her community.
She started the nonprofit LIME Foundation as an avenue to expose teens to the arts and empower them to dream big about their futures. A big component of that is the NextGen Trades Academy, where she and about a dozen other contractors commit time and resources to training young people getting started in the trades.
“I wanted to start a nonprofit to help young people that are struggling with something, whether it be bullying, or obesity or sometimes it’s substance abuse. But give them a chance to channel a lot of that energy into something positive through the arts,” Hanke said.
That first year in 2017, Hanke said 17 of 20 students in the program were hired for skilled laborer jobs.
“When that happened, it really started to build up,” she said. “Now all these contractors have heard about the program and are ready for these kids coming out. It’s been really great.”
She doesn’t shy away from the notion that her work with local disadvantaged youth and exposing them to the trades is a bit self-serving when it comes to her business. She and the other contractors involved have a pool of job candidates in the pipeline that are continuously learning and honing their skills.
The effort — and success — hasn’t gone unnoticed. Over the past few years, Hanke received numerous local and regional awards including the Walmart Community Playmaker Award from the NBA’s Golden State Warriors; the Nonprofit Leadership Award from the North Bay Business Journal; and recognition from multiple small business and women’s entrepreneurial groups.
This year alone, she appeared on the “Kelly Clarkson Show” and on Mike Rowe’s “Returning the Favor” show on Facebook Watch. Rowe dropped by her office by surprise in February with a camera crew, which brought her to tears even before he presented more than $61,000 worth of tools, 20 iPad Pros, a $35,000 donation to the LIME Foundation, and a new electric drum set.
“I do these things because I care, and am really trying to help these disadvantaged youth in some way,” she said. “We’re trying to help them change their lives, and to get this kind of recognition was really huge for me to realize that I’m on the right path and doing the right thing.”