Couple grows Auburn roofing business into a thriving enterprise

When Lori Swanson answered the phone during the earlier years of Guardian Roofing, typically there’d be a man on the other end, who, hearing a woman’s voice, announced he’d prefer talking with “someone who knew about roofing.”

That’s code for, “I wanna speak with a dude.”

So, without complaint, Swanson would transfer the call to best dude she knew: her husband, Matt Swanson, who co-founded the roofing company with her in 2005.

And Matt knew just what to say to the guy.

“I’d say, ‘Hold on, I’ve got the perfect person,’” he recalled with a chuckle, “then I just transfer the call right back to her.”

Any caller like that would soon learn what Matt had learned years before: Lori Swanson knew just about everything there was to know about roofing.

Not from a crash course, and not from a book by candlelight, but from being up there. From little girlhood up to her college years, in sunshine, rain, or bitter cold, Lori was up on the roofs with her father, Dean Thompson, founder of Thompson Roofing in Tacoma, and the rough-and-tumble men of his crews.

“My father founded his company in 1975, and I grew up on the roof,” Lori Swanson said. “It was not an option. It was, ‘You’re going to work today, get in the truck.’”

As for Matt, his father had been a part-time builder, so as a kid he was always around construction so he knew about the trade.

“My dad did that as a side business, he had a different job during the week. Mostly, I got that knowledge I think because my mother wanted me out of the house,” Matt said.

The Swansons met at Tacoma Community College, and went on to graduate together from St. Martin’s College in Lacey, Wash. — he with a degree in finance, her with a degree in business, before marrying. His ambition was to become a stockbroker.

The following years, however, worked important changes in both of them. Lori did not enjoy roofing and had resolved that after college she’d make her living doing anything but that. Over time, however, she realized she actually loved the roofing business, loved the roofing community and wanted to spend her career in it.

“I came to appreciate working with my father because I understood how hard the work was. I learned literally from the ground up, the components of the roof, people in the industry and how the industry worked,” Lori said.

And Matt realized that he wasn’t cut out to be a stockbroker, a job he said that was more about selling to people than helping them.

So, in 2005, the couple founded Guardian Roofing, in a small house in Fife, with five employees, first-year revenues of less than $200,000 and a load of confidence. Not only did their business best that early chauvinism, the Great Recession of 2008, the COVID pandemic and many other setbacks — it has thrived.

Today, Guardian Roofing brings in about $20 million a year, employs more than 100 people. It has moved several times since the Fife days, including recently from its first locale in Auburn to a large building in north Auburn.

All, as the Swansons like to say, one roof a a time.

But getting business from where it was in 2005 to it is in 2022, they say, has been no cake walk.

The couple entered the roofing market 17 years ago with the mentality that every client would be a client for life and that there was no job too small. This philosophy set them apart from the more established companies, which only wanted to work on new roofs, no small repairs, no maintenance for them.

“We just started doing all the jobs, any job, no job too big, no job too small we would do whatever people would need to take care of their roof,” said Lori. “If we could find a way to repair it, and they could get a few more years out of it, we did that and people really appreciated that. To this day, a good amount of our revenue every year still comes from repeat clients because they trusted us not to tell them they needed a new roof if they didn’t need one. And here we are now, still helping them, year after year.”

A partnership in every sense of the word

In 2005, Lori said, digital marketing was much less advanced than it is today, so they faced a stiff headwind getting the word out.

“We had to have boots-on-the-ground, send out neighborhood mailers, get out and talk to homeowners, do radio advertising, things like that. We still do a lot of that today. It was not was easy as it would be today, just throwing up some Google ad words. In 2005, Google wasn’t the beast it is today,” Lori said.

But the two were confident from the start that that they knew how to do a good job for their clients. And that meant avoiding a pitfall all too common to people in the roofing business: the idea that you go out, pick up new construction, do monthly work and get that monthly cash flow in the kitty.

Instead, they stay focused on working with homeowners, not trying to do everything for everyone, just directing their energies to repairing, maintaining and replacing residential roofs.

“So, our on-ramp was a little bit slower from a revenue standpoint, but we were so thankful two years later when the bottom dropped out, that we hadn’t put our eggs in the new construction basket because it might have wiped us out,” said Matt.

But it didn’t.

One thing you learn right away about the Swansons, he and she, is that theirs is a partnership in every sense of the word, and that all of the success they’ve enjoyed over the years is the product of buckets of equal toil and sweat.

While Lori Swanson is the company’s president and handles marketing, Matt, who was general manager until about a year ago is “the operation’s guy.”

He quickly defined what that means.

“I do whatever she says,” Matt said, drawing laughter.

In fact, Matt helps out with all aspects of the business. As general manager he spent most of his time in operations, while today, in addition to other tasks, he helps the recently-hired general manager learn all he has to know about the complex operation, He also work directly with the company’s two sales managers, ensuring that all of the sales people are trained and doing the right thing.

One question people ask of them: how do you do it, work with your spouse, for nearly 20 years, without killing each other?

“It’s strange to say, but I guess our strengths and weaknesses complement each other and we make it work,” said Lori.

“Certainly, it’s not normal for a husband and wife to work together for 20 years,” said Matt. “It’s not without effort. We have to work at how to work together, especially as the company gets bigger more dynamic. It was really about six years ago she really started running the company, and I started focusing more on the production side Before that, there weren’t really any titles, but since she’s been doing that, she’s put the leadership team in place. You learn whether you want to or not, working with your spouse, what your strengths and weaknesses are.

“Most important thing,” Matt added, “is that for us working together, feedback from your spouse is always going to be a little more –

“Animated?,” suggested Lori.

“Emotional,” said Matt.

“If your spouse gives you the same feedback someone else gives you, it’s probably going to hurt your feelings more. And if you’re giving your spouse feedback, you are probably going to need to back off it a little bit because you’re more upset than you should be. It’s a matter of learning over time how to do that. Really, we are here to support the people and the company and the community, and sometimes we have to not take things so personally. There are growth moments that have happened over a lot of years. We’re the best at it we’ve ever been right now.”

Are they enjoying the experience?

“Just look at his head,” Lori, laughed indicating her husband’s bald pate.