Working on Top of the World

by Liz Schick

Views of an enthusiastic roofer

As the owner of Jim Billado Roofing in Milton, Jim Billado has continued the tradition of hard work and reliability begun by his grandfather, who founded the business. He also puts his talents into ventures beyond roofing, such as a 55-ton-equipment-moving tractor-trailor.

A nyone entering the office at Jim Billado Roofing in Milton is greeted by a couple of St. Bernards: 200-pound J.W. and a 175-pound puppy, Buster. Having spent 35 of his 45 years in the business, Billado has strength enough to walk both of them on leashes when necessary.

Of course, most people never see the company’s office or shop. They don’t need to. Customers just call up this third-generation roofer, and he sends his crew out to replace, fix or put on a new roof. The company works with asphalt shingles, slate roofing, standing-seam metal roofs or rubber for flat roofs, and repairs and/or replaces built-up roofs. “We’ll do pretty much anything any customer needs,” he says.

Billado started working for his father when he was 10 years old. He was the only one of five siblings interested in the business.

“I love it,” he says. “Mainly, I love working for myself. Even when I worked for my dad, it was like I worked for myself. I’ve run jobs since I was 15 years old, when I was his best roofer,” he says proudly. “I couldn’t imagine working for somebody else.”

In the summer he employs, on average, 15 people and manages to keep a crew of five busy during the winter. His crews are a mix of employees and independent contractors, many of whom have been with him for years; “but,” Billado says, “turnover is a problem.

“I can understand that some of the turnover is due to the fact that we can’t afford to pay benefits. One of the reasons for that is because the roofing business in Vermont is unregulated. There are a lot of fly-by-nights who drive down prices because they don’t pay workmen’s compensation or have any business insurance to protect the customer, so they can give lowball quotes. There are even some who rip-off unsuspecting homeowners by getting half the money up front and never showing up to complete the job. I must get a dozen or more calls a year from people that has happened to.”

Billado is passionate about a lot of things — his dogs, his horse, deer hunting, antique guns and Civil War memorabilia. He’s particularly concerned that the state isn’t doing its job of fostering regulated competition.

The adult in this heirloom photo is Jim Billado’s grandfather. Billado isn’t sure if the child pictured is his father or an uncle.

“Besides the fact I believe the roofing industry and construction trades should be licensed,” he says, “I also believe the state isn’t doing what it should to enable more insurance companies to operate here. One of the reasons why our workmen’s comp is so high is there is only one carrier that will insure roofers. Competition among insurance companies would offer a choice and prices would be more affordable. Maybe then I could afford to pay my employees some benefits.”

Billado has met with both Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie on the subject. “They say they agree,” he says. “Now let’s see if they’ll be able to do something about it.”

Woody Dionne, director of physical plant at Johnson State College, is a Jim Billado fan.

“I don’t want to endorse any one roofer, as we work with a number of different roofers,” he says, “but Jim’s work is good. He has a good crew, he charges a fair price, and he seems like a regular, hard-working guy.”

Dionne met Billado nearly four years ago, on a job on which Billado bid but was not awarded. Even so, something clicked. “His exploratory work seemed very professional,” Dionne says, “so we figured he’d be a reliable contractor to use for regular roof repair. Since then he’s been best bidder on a number of jobs, and he’s helped us out when we’ve gotten into a jam with leaks and such.”

That sentiment is echoed by Jim Gifford, business and operations manager at the Colchester School District. “With over 300,000 square feet under roof, we need someone reliable to keep an eye on it. I can call Jim 24/7 and know that he’ll get it done. Whether it’s leaves in the roof drain or leaks in the flat roof, Mr. Billado keeps these things working right.”

Even in light of some recent personal and business setbacks — Billado is recently divorced and discovered he was the victim of embezzlement by a former employee — he retains his enthusiasm.

Jim Billado shares his Milton offices with his St. Bernards, J.W. and Buster.

“No matter how stressed-out he is, or busy, Jim is always smiling and joking around and doesn’t let anything bother him,” says Donna Stowe, who, since October, is the company’s office manager.

“You live longer that way,” Billado says with a laugh.

A former IBM employee, Stowe handles all the computer work. Billado admits that he doesn’t even know how to turn it on. What he does know is that two Web sites his former wife set up for him work remarkably well — so does e-mail.

“I’m amazed at how well those sites work. Mostly the people who contact us on the website aren’t local, but we work within a 100-mile radius, so I almost always end up doing work for them. Between e-mail and fax I never even meet most of the people. I measure the roof during the daytime when they’re at work, and give them an estimate in the mail or by fax, they sign it and send it back with a check and we go and do the job. It really works well.”

Local people know the business as Jim Billado Roofing, the company his grandfather started in Malletts Bay in 1922, he says; but Billado has an entrepreneurial spirit, which he also pours into other endeavors.

There’s the VermontRoofs.com website, which brings in new business. Then there is VermontSaunas.com, which he started when he was seeking a sauna for his own home.

“I started pricing them and thought, ‘I can build it better myself,’ so I built one. Then I built some more. I took three models to the Home Show but we didn’t sell any,” Billado says. “Since then I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to think about marketing, but I’ve got to get rid of the ones I built that are taking up space in the warehouse.”

There’s also the 55-ton-equipment-moving tractor-trailer business he doesn’t advertise. Somehow people just seem to know he’s the guy who can get it done, so he manages to move two, three or four pieces of heavy equipment each week.

A high-energy guy, he arrives at work at 5:30 every morning and lifts weights for at least an hour in the gym he has set up there.

The hardest part of his businesses is the paperwork.” Billado says, “especially in the summer when we’re really busy. I’m out all day but someone has to be here in the office. I can’t do it. I’m lucky, now that I have Donna. But I’ve had to put some safeguards into effect since the embezzlement, which I should have done before, like signing every check that goes out.”

Clearly, embezzlement and personal problems have not dampened Jim Billado’s enthusiasm for the beautiful view from the roof.

Originally published in December 2005 Business People-Vermont