When Ken Gascoigne realized he could make more money installing roofs than working in the atomic energy sector, he set his physics degree aside and started his own company.
He began with two employees in 1986. Windsor-based Empire Roofing has since expanded to almost 150 employees. Its clients include Lowe’s Canada, Walmart Canada, Caesars Windsor, Fallsview Casino, McDonald’s Canada, hydro generating stations in Niagara Falls, Atlas Tube, the Southwest Detention Centre and Chrysler Canada.
Back 1993 when his company was just getting established, Gascoigne was recognized as the Young Entrepreneur of the year at the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards.
“It gave us a great boost when we really needed it,” he said.
Gascoigne was the third recipient of the award that was given out annually until 2007. It was revived in 2012 as the Rising Star award to recognize blossoming young entrepreneurs and business professionals.
Some, like Gascoigne, may not have started out with the intention of going into business for themselves.
Gascoigne was attending McMaster University in the mid-1980s when a classmate asked him what he planned to do during the summer.
“I told him I’d probably spend it playing tennis,” he said. “But his father ran a roofing company and my friend said if I was interested he’d show me the ropes and we would work together in the summer.”
Even though Gascoigne’s father and grandfather had both been in the roofing business, “I’d never been on a roof before and never planned to be on a roof,” he said.
But he made more in the summer as a roofer than he would in a whole year working in the atomic energy sector he learned during a job interview after graduation.
When Gascoigne launched Empire Roofing he initially focused on residential projects. He made his first bid on a commercial contract for a flat roof on the Caboto Club in 1988.
“I’d never done one before and I thought, ‘Now what?’ but it worked out and we started marketing ourselves as flat-roof specialists,” he said. Currently, less than five per cent of the company’s business is residential. The bulk of its work is for commercial and industrial clients, most of whom seek Empire out because of its flat-roof expertise.
The company was in the right place at the right time, Gascoigne said. It was able to take advantages of changes in the industry when the focus of new flat-roof technology shifted to thermoplastic polyolefin, or TPO, roofing membranes.
“We’re now one of the most experienced companies in the TPO business and the industry leader,” said Gascoigne. “When anyone wants a large, complex TPO job done, they seek us out.
Empire has also earned master contractor status from Firestone, which is one of the largest TPO manufacturers in North America.
Gascoigne credits his employees with being a major part of the company’s success.
“I didn’t do it alone, the team behind me are the real workhorses,” said Gascoigne, who still puts in up to a dozen hours a day.
While building the company, Gascoigne realized he needed union involvement if he was going to be able to bid on some of the largest industrial projects in the province. So he contacted the Christian Labour Association of Canada which now represents Empire workers.
“We have a very amicable relationship,” said Gascigne. “I knew we needed that involvement to be able to continue growing. We pay our people above scale and it’s been a good relationship.”
Despite that, the company is struggling to find more workers.
“We could hire another 50 or so throughout our company but the only place we don’t get any applications from is Windsor,” he said. “I don’t know whether or not people have a misconception about the current roofing industry but this is a very clean job in a very clean environment.”