By Sharon Thatcher
The seamless gutter business isn’t just about installing gutters, it’s also about manufacturing gutters. That’s the contention of Victor and Tony Lottice, owners of AA Seamless, with offices in Athens and Rhinelander Wisconsin. Using that mentality, they have built their business based on a lot of principles seen in the manufacturing world: quality control systems, organized inventory, marketing programs, employee education, employee incentives, even statistical analysis. As a result of that diligence, they have grown their business to consistently give customers the best product and the best installation experience. Regular customers include major names in the regional construction industry for new homes, manufacturing facilities, and commercial businesses in addition to the myriad of existing homeowners.
The father and son team (Victor and Tony, respectively) developed their business mentality by first working for others. A family background in construction, as well as Victor’s professional experience as a manager for a major corporate sawmill facility in Bemidji, Minnesota, helped provide the tools for the successful launch of AA Seamless LLC.
From the beginning, Tony followed the construction family tradition and was the first to try his hand at the seamless gutter trade by helping a family friend in Bemidji. After that, the Lottices moved to Wisconsin — where Victor’s wife had family — and Victor and Tony helped out a local home builder while they started their gutter business.
They began their business with one truck, one trailer, one gutter roll former (a New Tech 5″/6″ combo), and they worked out of a small garage. That was 2007, and even though the economy around them was crumbling into a recession, they refused to abandon their core values: “being attentive to customer needs and requests, excellent communication, commitment to quality work, and the best product line available.”
It paid off!
Today they teach those same values to their crewmembers, who roll across the state and the surrounding fringes in five trucks each pulling a trailer containing a roll former inside (four New Tech 5″/6″ combos, and one KWM Gutterman half round machine). Also in the fleet are three estimating cars. Trucks, trailers and cars all proclaim the AA Seamless advertising message and are meticulously cleaned and routinely maintained. They long ago moved out of the house garage to a larger building. That too has been outgrown, so this year they are planning for an even larger 100-by-120 foot building to keep the business growing and equipment protected.
While visiting with Victor and Tony in January, Victor opened a filing cabinet drawer to show quote sheets inches thick. “Here are all the jobs we did last year,” Victor said. Files in the drawer below are all the quotes that are still open. Both are impressive in size.
They refuse to lower their quality or their prices just to get a job. “Other [gutter installation companies], if they don’t get the job, they’ll say, ‘oh, I’ll have to lower my price,’” Tony said. In reality, many of those building owners never follow through with an installation. “You can drive by some of these places three years later and there’s still no gutters on the building. Not all customers appreciate quality or consider the difference. We have had customers tell us we were too expensive, buy from someone else, and a few years later call us to fix or replace the project, stating ‘I wish we would have gone with you guys!’”
One thing their asset history and business timeline show is their practice of buying all new equipment. Although they started with a 2003 Ford Super Duty truck in 2007, by 2011 they were only buying new. “It pays to have a new truck with a warranty,” Victor learned. The trucks are well cared for by the crews and are traded in for new trucks at around 90,000 miles. The truck of choice is the Ford F-350 diesel crew cab.
For trailers, they use Featherlite, MTI, and Hallmark but concede that it doesn’t seem to matter if they buy a higher-end $34,000 trailer or a lower-end $12,000 trailer. Explained Tony, “any trailer that goes bumping down the road every day like these do, you’re only going to get five years out of it before it needs to get fixed.”
AA Seamless also has a steaming trailer, used in northern areas like Wisconsin to steam off high volumes of snow and ice on the roofs of residential and commercial properties.
Of all their equipment, they have the fewest headaches with their roll formers. “They’re pretty bullet proof,” Victor said. “Most of the problems are with wearable parts that you have to replace on a combo machine, where you’re switching back and forth from 5 to 6 inch.”
One “old dog” was just recently retired, not due to mechanical issues, but electrical. “It’s running high amps,” Victor explained. We just haven’t had time to look at it; it may run again.”
Tony defends the old 5″/6″ combo, explaining that it is the practice at AA Seamless for the oldest equipment — the oldest truck, the oldest trailer, the oldest roll former — to go out first every workday, “so basically that machine got used more because it was in the oldest trailer,” he explained.
In fact, there are few parts to wear out. Newer machines use neoprene rollers to pull the metal across the free-floating forming rollers and the movement is relatively slow to assure proper forming.
“Metal has what is called memory,” Victor said. “You have this flat piece of metal, and it says, ‘by golly, I’m going to be flat for the rest of my life.’” It has to be coaxed into taking shape.
It’s easier to get that reluctant piece of metal to be shaped into straight angles (the typical K-style) than into a flawless half round. “So, a half round machine is four feet longer than a K-style machine because it has to run a little bit slower and longer,” he said. “It makes a dish (or bowl), and you want that dish to stay in dish form … so it takes more time.”
When I visited the shop, trailers and machines were inside undergoing annual maintenance. The trailers were getting completely detailed with new paint inside, waxed and polished outside, and whatever else needed to be done.
“The machines sit out in the trailers, and even though the trailers are fully enclosed, when we are on the job site all the doors are open and they get exposed to 100% of the elements,” Tony explained. “So, we go through them completely and clean all the rollers, oil everything replacing worn parts, screws, bolts and then we wax them to make sure everything is operating just like new!”
Victor said the company uses the 5S method for maintenance, something he brought with him from the manufacturing world: 1-Sort, 2-Set in Order, 3-Shine, 4-Standardize, and 5-Sustain. 5S is explained by 5Stoday.com as “a system for organizing spaces so work can be performed efficiently, effectively, and safely.” It focuses on clean space to avoid injury and increase production. It’s an important part of the AA Seamless philosophy.
A solid company culture has helped AA Seamless find and keep a number of high-quality employees. “We find the people often come to us,” Victor said. “Part of it is treating people well and having a good reputation.”
While the company works year-round, there is understandably more workload in the summer and finding additional help has been a challenge. “We learned it’s better to recruit employees right out of high school, show them a money-making plan versus diving into college, and after college having all this debt,” Tony said.
Another source for workers has been guys that have found factory work not to their liking. When asked why they want to work for AA Seamless Tony said a common comment is ‘because we get to travel the countryside and we get to be outside.’
“Once in a while they’ll complain about rain or cold in winter, but then we remind them of the [factory],” Victor joked.
Two places that have not proved very good for finding help: the local vocational technical college which ended its carpentry program three years ago because no one was interested, and temp agencies. One of their temps is memorialized in a photo of his hand displayed on the office wall with a nail protruding through two fingers, the results of a nail gun mishap. It happened on his first day, in the first 15 minutes on a siding job. He’s fine now, no permanent damage.
Although on-the-job training plays a key role at AA Seamless, they also train in the shop using gutter and down spout components to help illustrate procedures and practices. Then they train with the roll formers and installation techniques. When ready, they are placed with a crew that consists of a Master Installer and seasoned crew. This is where they really start learning and developing their skills. The AA Seamless training process “is more like an apprenticeship,” Victor said, with each crew including a master installer, installers, and trainees (apprentices).
Their training and production policies have paid off. “You get these crews of guys that make it a competition,” Tony said. “They want to do the best job, the most quality job with no callbacks, and they want to be as efficient as possible so they can get more work done each day. Instead of three jobs a day, they’ll try to do four.”
QUALITY MATERIALS & MANUFACTURING
AA Seamless in part credits the quality materials they use for fewer callbacks. Unlike the typical hangers you can bend with your hand, and zinc screws that rust or “turn into black-eyed peas” and fail, AA Seamless uses .032 Gutter, .029 Spout ceramic coated hanger screws, and stainless steel connector screws. “Oh yes, and not to mention, hangers you cannot bend with your hand,” Victor added.
Another aspect of doing a great job is the manufacturing of the gutter. A lot of “Gutter Guys” are just out there running a machine and what ever comes out goes up on the project,” Victor said. “If the gutter is not roll formed properly it can lead to premature failure and unhappy customers! So, the first step in hanging a great gutter is ‘forming’ a great gutter.”
Victor emphasizes to his workers: “When you’re roll forming, you’re actually manufacturing, so you have to have quality control in mind when the product is coming out of the machine.”
Most of their work is in aluminum, but they also work with steel, galvanized, copper and even Kynar and Hylar finished aluminum for high-end jobs. “I don’t know of any other company that deals with Kynar,” Victor said. The industry standard for gutter coatings is baked enamel.
“The supply chain for standard gutters is very competitive,” Victor said. “When you go to a Kynar finish, then you have to figure it out, it’s coming off master rolls, it’s all special ordered from Petersen [Aluminum]. You have to make your own end caps; you have to make your own corners.” Most companies are not willing to tackle the extra training and extra time it takes to execute a project like this. AA Seamless does it in spite of those fears and has carved out for themselves another niche to fill.
A unique service AA Seamless provides, absent from competition, is retrofitting gutter systems, for example on a Butler panel roof. Typically used for commercial and industrial buildings, Butler panel roofs use gutters that are secured by tucking in and under the roofing. Replacing those gutters requires surgical cutting and removal of the existing gutter and proprietary installation of the new system. Victor states “we have been very successful at this.”
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
Call-backs are rare and AA Seamless looks at them as opportunities to learn and grow their business. “When you answer a call-back (some aspect of the project not working properly or to the customer’s satisfaction) it lets the customer know that you care, they are not alone and it builds customer confidence,” Victor said. He noted that all call-backs are shared and reviewed in meetings, so the entire group learns from each mistake.
Smaller companies frequently order aluminum coil by the job only an inch or two thick. AA Seamless buys full rolls weighing about 375 pounds. The crew can handle these bigger coils because of a unique trailer hoist system Victor developed and markets. He used his manufacturing experience and exposure to industrial cranes to design a miniaturized version that is installed in every trailer.
Victor also created and markets a hand brake for bending the Leaf Solution gutter guard they use.
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Due to the company’s extensive network with other construction professionals, Victor said there isn’t a job they won’t consider, but their primary focus is on gutters and roofing.
“My motto to the guys is, don’t ever tell me what you can’t do; tell me what you can do. There’s always a solution. Tell me, ‘I don’t think we can do this, but I think we can do this.’
“If a customer has a problem, they’re calling on us to solve it. If we can’t solve it, they’re not our customer.”
When asked how competitive their market is Victor responded, “We just tell people we don’t have any competitors. We tell people that you’re not going to find anybody else that’s going to do the quality job that we do, that will answer the phone, and come back should you have a problem, and that’s going to give you the service we will. When we do a job for you, you’re part of the family.” RF