American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Dana & Diana Johnson of Mt. Baker Roofing
By Nesha Ruther
Dana Johnson first began roofing when he was 16 years old. After graduating high school, he enlisted in the military. When he returned home, he began working for Mt. Baker Roofing–then called Duronso Brothers Shake Mill– where he would stay for the rest of his career, first as an employee, then as an owner. “I bought into the company when I was 24,” he explains. “I ran it with the founder’s son before buying him out.”
The main difference in opinion between the two men was growing the business. The founder’s son was content to continue as they always had. “When I first bought into the company, there was only one or two guys besides myself and my partner working, and we would hire more people in the summer. We were mostly doing new construction.” In the wintertime, business got so slow, “we would cut firewood to keep busy,” Dana recalls.
Dana met his wife Diana in 1989. When they eventually moved in together, Diana organically became a part of the business. “He had no office or anything, so at the end of every day he would make all of his phone calls and take care of that kind of stuff,” Diana recalls. “The money I made at my job was less than what we were spending on day care, and he needed someone answering the phones and doing things around the house, so that’s what we decided I would do.”
Dana and Diana have a blended family, each bringing two children from previous marriages to their relationship. Between raising four kids and running a business, they often wore many different hats and juggled lots of responsibilities. “It was challenging,” Diana says candidly of the early years of running the business. “Our date nights consisted of hiring a babysitter so we could go grocery shopping without the kids, and then going out to job sites to check on developments. Our business was in our home and so there was no time where we were off the clock as parents or as business owners.”
Because Mt. Baker didn’t have an office yet, the contractors would bring their plans for the roofs over to Dana and Diana’s house. “We would have the kids eating breakfast at one end of the table and Dana rolling out plans on the other end and me just hoping that nobody would spill their milk on those plans,” Diana laughs.
When Dana took over the business, he saw a real opportunity for growth, primarily through expanding the company’s offering. Prior to this, Mt. Baker had primarily done new construction, exclusively installing roofs on new homes. Dana expanded the company’s services to include gutters and re-roofing. “Gutters cost a lot less than roofs, obviously, but it keeps people busy,” he says. With their growing list of services came more customers, and Mt. Baker had to grow to match the demand. “We accumulated more trucks and accumulated more people. I have to admit a lot of our growth came from garnering a really good reputation. We were always trying to keep everybody happy and to do that we had to have more employees and more trucks.”
To keep on top of the growing demand, Dana and Diana got an addition on their home where they installed Mt. Baker’s official office. Diana promptly became office manager, grateful to no longer have to worry about construction plans being ruined by spilled milk.
The addition of re-roofing– the process of replacing an old roof with a new one– to their business model came about in a moment of hardship. “We really started getting into the re-roof market during the [economic] downturn in 2009, 2010. This diversified us and meant we didn’t have to depend on people building new houses,” Dana says. “The re-roof portion of the company got us through that tough time. A lot of companies around here went under because they were relying solely on new construction,” Diana adds.
Prior to 2010, Mt. Baker had occasionally done re-roofing as a favor to loyal customers, but by making it a core part of their services, they had to make significant changes to the business. “We had to get these little dump trucks that were more friendly to people’s yards versus the bigger trucks we’d been using before, we had to have different equipment for that procedure, and we had to get new training for our employees,” Dana says. “When you tear someone’s roof off, you have old chimneys you have to deal with, if there’s leakage you’ve got rotten plywood. The skill level and knowledge of our employees went up because there was more details and more labor they had to master.”
Unlike new construction, which is subject to the volatility of the housing market, re-roofing provides a continual stream of business. If you own a house, at some point, you will need to get your roof replaced. Due to the quality of Mt. Baker’ work, they were often hired multiple times by customers whose roofs they had installed. These customers would only need to call Mt. Baker once a decade or two, but when the time came, they always did.
“We didn’t do repair work unless it was on our own roofs. So, if someone calls us asking to install a skylight, we would only do it if we had installed that roof because we didn’t want anybody else up there. That led us to spending time with the same group of customers. Or for example, if someone wants a large addition on a roof, they will likely just redo the whole thing and not get the full 20, 25 years out of the roof,” Dana says. “You don’t often see companies that are around that long, so I think that was what led people back to us. When we sold the business, we were just getting some clients calling us for the third time ‘round.”
Another significant change to the business Dana implemented was the purchase of a machine to make their own paneling for metal roofs. Most companies will purchase panels from a manufacturer, which can create delays if the panels don’t arrive on time or if the manufacturer makes a sizing mistake. By making their own panels, Mt. Baker radically increased the efficiency with which they could install a roof. “To be able to show up at a job and make our own panels on-site versus having to wait until the roof is ready, measure it, and wait for the panels to show up two or three weeks later worked really well for us,” Dana says.
In addition to the office attached to their home, Dana and Diana began renting duplexes in other locations in the city. This was partly born out of a need for more space to store trucks, but it also allowed them to have multiple bases of operation, so they could dispatch crews from the closest location to the job site.
Despite no longer working off the kitchen table, Mt. Baker remained a family business. When Diana and Dana’s kids graduated high school, they too began working for the company. “The boys in particular had been helping out in the yard and unloading trucks,” Dana says. While roofing was not the industry in which their children would work forever, Mt. Baker provided a safe place for them to enter the world as working adults. “All our kids had some time to work in the business and learn new skills,” Diana adds.
“For us it isn’t just a job, its’s personal, we live that life. We never pressured our kids to take that on and work for us, but they saw it was a part of our lives and it became a part of theirs,” Dana says proudly.
As the company changed, so too did Dana’s involvement in it. Rather than working on every single roof as he used to, he took on the role of a general manager, overseeing the business and ensuring everyone had what they needed to get the job done. “I would do a little bit of physical stuff, if there was a problem with the installation I could do repair work, but mostly I was the general manager or dispatcher, sending out crews to different jobs,” he says.
That transition came naturally for Dana as well as Diana, who was following a similar trajectory in the office. “It wasn’t hard to be leaders because whatever we did, we would take on leadership. Whether it was playing sports, raising kids, or managing employees,” Dana says. And employees they would manage, at the time they sold the business Mt. Baker had over 100 people in their service.
Having two strong leaders with differing areas of expertise was critical to the success of the business. While Dana was out in the field trying to bring in new work and ensuring existing projects were leaving the client happy, Diana was using her rock-solid pragmatism to ensure everyone was getting paid and resources were allocated appropriately. “Our roles were completely different, what Dana did versus what I did,” she says. “I remember there was one contractor we worked for who was getting further and further behind on paying his bill. Dana was trying to bring in more work, so he would accept his excuses. Finally, I told Dana, you can’t talk to this contractor anymore, it has to be me. I was able to be more detached because I was the one that had to pay the bills.”
Dana fully agrees with this assessment of one another’s strengths. “Diana did all the paperwork and kept the office running, she was able to detach from the emotions of the situation to make sure the business was running with the money we had. She made sure we did whatever was needed to keep the business going,” he says.
If the financial aspect of the business wasn’t challenging enough, Diana was often who customers would interface with in the rare instances that they were unhappy or if something had not gone according to plan. “Most of the time Dana was out working on jobs or bringing in new customers, he wasn’t at the office, so if a customer is unhappy and the employee their dealing with is unable to take care of it, then it would fall into my lap,” she says.
“On top of all the other jobs she had, before our kids were out of high school, she was doing all the kid stuff,” Dana adds. “I would be there in the evenings and on weekends, but for the most part, I went to work at oh dark thirty and came home late. I didn’t make sure they got breakfast. I didn’t make sure they got dinner. I was just in and out. Diana raised our four kids and they all turned out great.”
While Dana’s job was to find new work to bring to the business, Diana’s was making sure the business was in such shape to accomplish that work, which is impossible if clients are unhappy and employees are unpaid.
The task of advertising the business and bringing in new customers was well suited to Dana’s innate sense of creativity. “We would sponsor sports programs on the radio, we sponsored the motorcycle club, and we had coffee coasters with our name on it that we gave to restaurants. If someone applied for construction permits, we would send them literature or our business card.”
However, at the end of the day it was the integrity with which Diana & Dana ran the business that kept people coming to Mt. Baker. “Mostly though, we lived off our reputation. Whatcom and Skagit county are pretty small communities. I think because we had worked for so many years, people knew that we did a very good job at a fair price and they would recommend us to others,” Dana says. “And if there ever were any problems, we always came back. You hear about construction companies that will make some mistake and not come back to fix it, that was never the way we did business. We weren’t trying to make money in a year or two and then get out of business, we were doing it for the long haul.”
The success of Mt. Baker Roofing, like in any business, created new challenges and complications. For Dana, the primary obstacle was the flux of business throughout the year and maintaining the right number of employees each season. “In the winter you’re always going to run out of work, and in the summer, you get so many customers that you’re booked up, we would have to pick and choose which customers we worked for,” he says. “My biggest challenge was keeping the right amount of employees at the right time. Sometimes we hired college kids to help us roof in the summer, sometimes we had more year-round people, but dealing with the ebbs and flows of the business was always my greatest challenge.”
In order to make money, you need to spend money, and behind all of Dana’s plans were the bills needed to make them a reality. For Diana, the biggest challenge of running the business was managing the finances needed to support her husbands’ ambitions. “Dana would go out and get more work, but that means hiring more employees, and buying more trucks, and stocking up more material. I was always in the background saying, ‘we can’t be spending that kind of money because this is what we’ve got,’” she says.
While the dynamic between ambition and pragmatism are at play in any business partnership, it was the pairs’ mutual respect for one another and their respective strengths that got them through. “I don’t think either one of us could have been business partners with anyone else. I relied on him 100% to handle his responsibilities and he relied on me 100% to handle mine,” Diana says.
After nearly a decade of running the business together, Diana and Dana began to think about selling. This experience, however, would not be the smooth, supported journey they would later undergo with IBA. “We got something in the mail that said, ‘Hey if you ever want to sell your business come and talk to us.’ And while it was our decision to sell, it wasn’t the most honest thing, and it blew up for everyone involved,” Dana says.
The new buyers had expressed interest in having Diana and Dana involved in the transition, but immediately shut them out as soon as the papers were signed. “We started hearing from our employees that things were bad, we heard from suppliers that things were bad, and then I started getting calls from the department of Revenue, Labor, and Industries that they weren’t paying the taxes,” Diana says.
While others would have stepped back and watched the ship sink, Dana and Diana jumped into action. In part because the sale had included monthly payments that had yet to be made, but more importantly because Mt. Baker was their life’s work, and they did not want to see it mishandled. “We got a lawyer, and we got the business back,” Diana recounts. “We paid back all the taxes ourselves and our attorney kept telling us to file for bankruptcy, but we said no because all our employees would have lost their jobs had we filed for bankruptcy. So, we just took it back, and it was hard, it was a lot of work, but we made it.”
This experience was a traumatic one, and for Dana and Diana, made the idea of selling the business feel unapproachable for many years. However, in 2021, they finally found a broker and buyer who would treat Mt. Baker with the same care and commitment they had shown it for so many years. “Our accountant recommended Gregory [Kovsky] and we spoke to two or three other people, but he really was what we wanted in a broker. He understood the merits of our company and he wasn’t going to get paid until he sold it. He also brought us quality candidates and weeded out the people who didn’t fit,” Dana says.
Selling the business is challenging for any owner, but for Diana and Dana their past experience made it particularly difficult. Gregory eased their anxieties not through false promises, but through his actions and coming through on his commitment to them. “Gregory did exactly what he told us he was going to do, he is a very honest individual,” Diana says.
Like entering any new stage of life, retirement has had its challenges and opportunities. “I think that I miss working,” Dana says candidly. “I did the same thing for 40 years so it’s hard not having that to do every day, but I’m learning how to be retired.”
Diana agrees, “That’s the big thing, learning how to handle retirement. Both of us have worked constantly, our whole lives. So we are adjusting, but we knew it was time.”
“For me the American Dream and building a business that we could be proud of, has to do with both of us being born and raised here in Bellingham,” Diana says. “We both personally knew a lot of people who worked for us, and so being able to take pride in our company was huge for me, even more important than the monetary part of it. We were able to serve so many people in this community as employees and customers, and to watch the business grow from something small, to just taking on a life of its own was really special.”
It is easy to close out these stories with a cheery image of the happy retirees riding off into the sunset, but that is not the reality for everyone. At every moment of transition in life come challenges and anxieties that are worth an honest portrayal. Dana and Diana know they made the right choice in selling their business, but perhaps for now, the American Dream is simply having the space and security to figure out what comes next.
“The American Dream for me is certainly the financial stability, and not having to worry about money for the rest of my life,” Dana says. “But personally, I think I’m still looking for that missing piece. I was a part of something for 40 years that I’m not a part of anymore, so I’m missing that, and I’m adjusting. But I know there are other things to look forward to, and I know we have a good future that wouldn’t be possible without selling the company.”
Perhaps at the end of the day, the American Dream is not so different from a good roof. It provides safety and security, under which you can decide what comes next. Dana & Diana Johnson spent their entire careers giving that to others, now it’s time for them to enjoy their own.
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.