Slated for Big Projects
Award-winning Mahan Slate Roofing Co. reaches new heights
When Dartmouth College needed to replace the copper roofing and flashing on its iconic Baker Library Bell Tower, Mahan Slate Roofing Co. (Mahan) was called in to join the preservation efforts. And when the prestigious Groton School embarked on a 10-year project to replace the slate roofs across its campus, Mahan was once again the company to call.
Headquartered in Agawam, Massachusetts, Mahan provides slate and copper roofing services for clients across New England. “We do everything from residential to big commercial work, but a lot of our work focuses on private schools and colleges. Those are our bigger clients because all we do is slate and copper roofing,” says Vice President John Mahan. John’s father, Jack, started the family-owned business in 1979 and heads up operations.
Slate is a higher-end product and is expensive to produce, John says, and much of the work is done by hand as the blocks of slate are hand-split into pieces after being quarried. Shipping the stone can be costly, and the heavy material is labor intensive to install. “But, a slate roof will last almost forever,” John says.
All flashings on slate roofs are made of long-lasting copper. “While copper material is more expensive, it lasts longer than other materials and ends up with lower labor costs over time.
Raise the Roof
Many schools and universities in the Northeast hitting the 100-year mark in age are needing their roofs replaced, John says. “The condition of the slate roof is usually still good, but the flashings wear out,” he says. “If they’re going to replace the flashings, it is a good time to replace the entire roof as well. Schools usually want to get all the refurbishment efforts done at one time to ease the disruption for students and educators.”
For Dartmouth, the Baker Library project marked the first restoration of the tower, which was built in 1928. Mahan installed copper battens (a long flat strip of copper) as part of the standing seam roof replacement, along with restoring the architectural copper, John says.
The Baker Tower renovations project earned Mahan the 2019 North American Copper in Architecture (NACIA) award in the restoration category. The awards recognize and promote building projects in the United States and Canada for outstanding use of architectural copper and copper alloys.
John says one of the company’s biggest ongoing projects is the 10-year roof remediation at Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts. Currently, Mahan is on year seven of completely replacing the slate and copper roofs of more than 20 buildings on the 135-year-old campus. “The school’s leadership wants us to replace the roofs while the school is free of students from June to August,” John says. “So far, we’ve met our deadline every year. The Groton School has really been one of our best clients. For each building, we have to scaffold the whole building and take the roof off and then put a new roof on. We have to contend with the weather, and we tend to impress people by meeting our goals in such a short amount of time.”
The roofs at Groton School require a lot of North Country black slate from Quebec, Canada, but they have a lot of slate from Vermont Slate Company, as well, John says, adding that the school leadership is keeping the roof colors and styles true to the original roofing materials.
While Mahan’s workload is about 50-50 for residential and commercial projects, Mahan says there aren’t many new construction projects that choose slate for the roof material. About one-half of the company’s projects involve replacing existing roofs, whether commercial or residential.
“We’ll do everything from installing all new slate to repairs on the flashing and everything in between,” he says. “Slate roofs are heavier than a regular roof. You won’t usually see them in a standard new housing development and not every homeowner can afford the investment. Many of the older homes are usually built well enough to hold them up, but typical new construction isn’t designed for a slate roof.”
Installing slate roofs isn’t something a typical roofer knows how to do, according to John, so Mahan trains everyone in-house, providing training akin to an apprenticeship program. John avoids hiring experienced roofers because he wants his team to train them. “They start as a helper, then a roofer and eventually they can work their way into the foreman role,” he says. “They have to learn each thing and check off the box. Besides on-the-job training, we have written tests and they need to read that manual to know the right answers.”
The company has grown to about 35 employees, including a half-dozen foremen and two field supervisors, he says. “We hold our employees to a higher standard, and our clientele expects that,” he says. “Quality is part of our culture. All of our employees are polite, and we are really big on checking in with customers to make sure they are happy with the job and our employees, as well. Roofers can have a bad reputation—often because of unskilled labor—and we are out to change that by training our employees well.”
John is working to bring awareness to the slate roofing industry by serving on the board of directors for the Slate Roofing Contractors Association of North America, Inc. Part of the work he is doing with the association is developing a training program for the slate roofing industry.
All in the Family
John credits his dad with teaching him the family business. “I have been working for him since I was 12, but I went to trade school to learn carpentry. After high school, I went to work for Dad full time in 2001,” he says.
“I was the first in the family to join the family business. Dad and I are 50-50 partners. He is easygoing and trusts me to make the decisions he doesn’t want to make, like taking the risks to grow the company. It’s not easy having a family business, but it helps that there is a chain of command that everyone recognizes.”
After John joined the company, his cousin, Rick Mahan, came on board to help run the office after working in the field for a time. He now serves as the chief financial officer. “My brother, David, too, started in the field after Rick before they worked their way into the office. He now leads the residential sales efforts,” John says.
John says the company has continued to grow largely by word of mouth across the New England area. “Once we do a really good project for one school, the word gets out,” he says.
Making a Positive Impact
Beyond recognition for its quality projects, Mahan is also active in the community. One of the various charities the company supports is the Cory J. Garwacki Foundation. John and Rick serve on the board of directors for the organization, which promotes its “live to give” philosophy of encouraging people to make a positive impact in the community daily in a variety of ways by practicing acts of kindness. The foundation also makes charitable donations to local organizations and awards scholarships. Additionally, Mahan is a big supporter of other nonprofits including Head Start, Inc., the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Make-A-Wish, among others.
In the coming year, John says he anticipates taking on bigger projects. “Growing the company further has been one of my goals, and dad has given me the opportunity to do that,” he says. “We grow by continuing to focus on quality and safety. That focus allows us to keep striving for unique projects like Baker Tower. And that’s my goal. I want to go big,” John says.