The oldest of four children, Elizabeth Kent Watson worked part-time with her grandfather following high school graduation and throughout college at his roofing business, Roofing Tools & Equipment, recalling how he often wished for her to finish school so she could work in the family trade.
“All four of us [children] at some point had been here in some kind of capacity,” she said. “I was probably the least involved.”
But as many in the roofing industry know, you’re likely in it for good once it takes hold. Such is the case for Watson, who, now age 44, has done a 180-degree turn and is one of the three most involved members of Roofing Tools & Equipment, working as vice president at its main branch in Wilson, N.C.
Having worked in the family business for more than 21 years, Watson explains her title is a catch-all term — she helps with company operations, handles purchasing, inside sales and even some fleet management for Roofing Tools & Equipment. It can be a lot, but she knows the effort is worthwhile.
“[My dad] always says, ‘Make it easy for them to buy from you,’ and that’s what we try to do and listen to our customers when they have a genuine problem,” she said.
Continuing the Family Legacy
Roofing Tools & Equipment began as Tar Heel Hardware in 1949. In 1970, it took on its current name to reflect a new focus on roofing and sheet metal products. Watson’s grandfather, John “Johnny” Kent, Sr., purchased the business in 1985 and brought on his son, John “Rusty” Kent.
Her grandfather suddenly passed away at the age of 67 on Jan. 5, 2001, during her last semester of college. As the family continued his company’s legacy, she worked in insurance for six months after graduating in May 2001. But, like father like son — in her case, it was now her father, Rusty Kent, who wanted her to join the family business. Watson fondly recalls how her father enlisted the help of her mother to persuade her to work at Roofing Tools.
“She said, ‘You know, your dad really wants you to go work over there,’” Watson said. “So one night, I walked into their room, and I said, ‘Mom said you want me to go to work over there with you,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I think that would be good,’ and I said, ‘Okay!’”
Roughly a year after the senior John Kent passed, she officially joined the company, starting the third generation of Kents in the family-owned business. Although she carried the family name, Watson worked her way up the ladder, starting in the warehouse, pulling orders and sweeping the floors. Over the years, her father trusted her with additional opportunities, working the counter and later moving into purchasing and daily operations.
“That was the part that I could excel in, where my dad has always done well on the sales side,” Watson said, speaking to managing the firm’s day-to-day operations. “From early on, he had me in learning the business because I think, since my grandfather passed away unexpectedly, he wanted to make sure that I was more prepared than he was.”
Lest you think her family name provided any inoculation from long-held beliefs that roofing is a "man’s job," Watson would have you know she received little reprieve. Having started at 22, she was keenly aware that many viewed her as a young and inexperienced woman in a male-dominated industry.
But grit is not the provenance solely located on the ‘Y’ chromosome, and Watson has more than proven herself, noting there are customers who quietly prefer working with her versus her father. That determination to succeed is an example she also sets for her children — three daughters — ages 15, 11 and 7.
“I’ve had to work hard at it, and I knew that, but that’s always [been my approach toward] everything,” she said. “Now I have my own little group of people that deal only with me … I’ve proven to them I can do it, and I’m going to make sure they get what they need.”
Networking has also given her an edge in her leadership role. Roofing Tools & Equipment has long been a part of the NEMEON group of independent distributors and, within the past decade, has increased its involvement, regularly attending events held by the cooperative.
Watson said it’s not only been a great way to connect with other women in the industry but it’s given her additional resources that were otherwise absent in the North Carolina market.
“It’s nice to have somebody that understands how our business works; they have similar models to us, similar size and scope,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of people like us that are in my area that I can talk to, even within our local organization, so having people from all over and learning how they do things has influenced some of the things we do, and hopefully we’ve done the same for them.”
The Roofing Tools Difference
Although smaller than some operations — Roofing Tools & Equipment has two additional locations in Raleigh and Wilmington, N.C. — the company holds no less stature to its clients than larger outfits, and Watson attributes that to its experienced workforce.
Watson says the company’s "newest" employee has been on the job for six months; otherwise, the shortest tenure of any staffer has been at least two years. She said the company encourages camaraderie by buying lunch and attending events outside of work, like college football games.
“We have got pretty much all long-term employees … we have a very hard-working and loyal base of co-workers,” she said. “At our branch, we buy lunch for everybody and try to sit down and eat together, so it gives you more of a family feel, and we can all [feel like] equals, and it’s easier to discuss things.
“We’ve been very blessed with the people we have here, and I feel like they all know they’re appreciated,” she added. “My dad will be out there loading the truck, taking deliveries, and working side-by-side with them, and I think that means a lot to them.”
That family-oriented atmosphere has been a boon not only for customers, but internally as well. Watson said her oldest daughter, who is autistic, has required extra care over the years, and working in a small family business has given her the ability to make sure she is looked after. That same courtesy is often extended to other employees, who Watson says have brought their children to work to care for them if they're sick.
"One of the other girls I work with and I have come back to work within a week of having babies and we able to bring them in to the office so we aren’t missing so much time. We have such a loyal staff, no one wants to be gone from work too long," she said.
On the work side, Watson not only supports employees by handling purchasing and inside sales, she coordinates schedules and helps with fleet management. She notes one of the key challenges in her eastern North Carolina market is determining the best routes and loads for its truck drivers.
“We’re in more of a rural area than our other branches, so trying to cover an area with deliveries in a timely manner and the most economical way possible is probably one of the hardest [challenges],” she said. “When you’ve got somebody two-and-a-half hours away that needs something, sometimes you just have to make it work.”
In terms of fleet, Watson emphasizes Roofing Tools goes the extra mile to underscore the personal service that turns customers into repeat clients, such as ensuring trucks are on site 15 to 30 minutes early. Other examples include a problem that arose years ago when customers raised concerns about the extra time needed to unload commercial roofing materials from the trucks.
Recognizing an opportunity for improvement, company officials, including Kent, Jr., went into the field to witness the unloading firsthand. The distributor now have a list of questions to ask customers that help better facilitate deliveries.
“Sometimes it takes more work on our part, but we’re going to make sure to make it easy,” she said.
Being in North Carolina also means preparing for severe weather, including hurricanes. Watson said the main branch hasn’t experienced an extreme weather event as powerful as a hurricane in recent years. Still, its Wilmington branch often does, so they send extra supplies to guarantee the location is stocked before an approaching storm.
Optimized logistics aside, she says that being successful means being involved with customers and showing them that they matter for more than just their business. She said people working in distribution, especially newcomers, also need to rid themselves of hesitations when learning the business.
“Get out there, ask questions. Nobody will get upset when you ask a question because you’re learning,” she said.