Creating a culture that works

Don Kennedy Roofing shares how it has developed a workplace where people want to stay

“It’s not enough to do your best; you must know what to do and then do your best.”
—W. Edward Deming

Roofing companies are in tight competition not only for projects and customers but also for labor in and out of the field. And like all companies, we at Don Kennedy Roofing Co. Inc., Nashville, Tenn., want—and need—to keep the employees we have. And we do this by creating a culture that can’t be beat.

We try to recreate that feeling you have when you spend time with family around the holidays—a sense of a group dynamic where you have something that is deeply rooted, fiercely protected and virtually unspoken. And it all begins Friday mornings.

A time to share

At 6 a.m. sharp on Friday mornings at Don Kennedy Roofing, the air is electric. All employees gather in front of a small stage. The stage sits at the heels of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in the shadow of an American flag that hangs high above the fabrication shop floor. Together, the team sits in anticipation of the weekly numbers, typically set to the rhythm of a familiar country song. The call to attention is announced, and all eyes turn to the front to receive the weekly safety message.

Then, one team member from each department lines up to write a number on the board. The confident and proud have a few words to add, the reasons for a successful week. The shy ones write their numbers and retreat to their seats quietly. The numbers on the board tell a story and John Hillis, head of accounting, interprets that story and educates the crowd about what the numbers mean from a business standpoint.

There is a brief Q&A session, and the meeting ends on a positive note with a message from the owner, Don Kennedy, who believes in the Japanese concept of continuous improvement, kaizen.

The intricacies of kaizen far exceed the scope of this article. For the purposes of Don Kennedy Roofing, we believe it involves a few fundamental principles: transparency, structure and vision.


The greatest challenge in building a strong culture is getting buy-in from everyone on the team, and that starts with trust. Employees have to trust the business model and the company’s structure and vision. Our company builds this trust with total transparency.

This approach has its roots in a conversation Kennedy had with a long-time employee before the company became transparent. The employee believed “there was no way the company wasn’t making money.” Time and again, he would jokingly corner Kennedy and pose this notion. This would prompt Kennedy to explain the costs of indirect labor, insurance, overhead, general and administrative expenses, revenue vs. net profit and so on. The concepts made sense in those moments, but they never stuck without context. Meanwhile, the schedule remained busy, jobs kept rolling in with sizeable price tags and jobs would be completed, but raises and new equipment were still hard to come by. Employees in the field would talk about what Kennedy was doing with all the money the company was surely making.

“We knew nothing about a P&L, we didn’t understand what it meant. We really thought that every Friday they were taking home bags of money,” the employee said. “It was pretty frustrating, too, because Don would try to explain, but it didn’t click without seeing the whole picture.”

Then, Kennedy took a leap of faith and instituted a new management structure in 2016 that was built using a model called The Great Game of Business. To start, a simple question was posed to employees: “In your opinion, what is the average profit margin of Don Kennedy Roofing?”

The answers ranged anywhere from 30% to 70%, but then employees started to see the cost of doing business in the roofing industry.

Kennedy simply opened the books and showed everyone the actual numbers to educate employees about their effect on the bottom line.

“We were all told we were about to become junior accountants,” the employee said. “That turned out to be no different than managing our checkbooks at home.”

And the more employees learned, the more sense the company’s structure made.

The reality is the construction industry has one of the lowest profit margins of any industry, and the main reason for that is glaring inefficiencies. Lack of structure and coordination breeds confusion with catastrophic delays.


At Don Kennedy Roofing, we address these common challenges with clearly structured, habitual behavior. We are far from perfect yet always improving.

Every morning, sometime between 6 and 8 a.m., every department meets to discuss the highlights from the previous day, what they plan to accomplish today, their top priorities and anything that is preventing them from completing their priorities. These huddles are then condensed further into an 8:15 a.m. managers meeting where department managers follow the same format.

Before starting any large project, every department reviews the details of the job as a team, which sometimes even includes our vendors. Every aspect is reviewed from the initial bid and signed contract to safety, logistics, material storage and specific customer expectations. The intent is that even the newest member of the team will understand a project plan.

Upon project completion, there is a formal debriefing. Good or bad, win or lose, the details are revisited. We discuss what was supposed to happen, what actually happened and what we need to do in the future to improve before the next project. This is also how we transformed our Low-slope Metal Department from having a 15% deficit to a 20% profit in less than one year. It was done by making an investment in people and taking time to help them understand the numbers behind what they do every day.

Training and development

Discoveries made during the debriefs, as well as other daily observations, are then rolled into a training curriculum by department. Supervisors are expected to maintain a running list of improvement topics to train staff, preferably taught by senior field staff, that are then reinforced through daily interactions in the workplace.

Our management style is a combination of the Toyota Lean Management concept and a concept popularized by Seattle-based businessman Paul Akers, author of 2 Second Lean. Basically, we try to fix what bugs us. Even if it’s an improvement that saves two seconds, it’s a victory no matter how small.

The point is we try to think lean, do what makes sense, and save time and money. It’s about improving the quality of life not necessarily the balance sheet. More importantly, it encourages habits that serve every aspect of people’s lives, personal and professional. It seeks to engrain habits that a person will default to in times of calm and crisis alike even when no one is watching.


Virtually every organization has a vision statement, but how many people can tell you what it is?

Distilled, ours is: “Do you want your future to be better than your past? What are you going to do about it?”

We encourage our people to get comfortable with the idea they will never arrive at their destination. Rather, they will always find new goals worthy of pursuit and attainment. We try to always present new limits to which they can push themselves. That requires daily effort toward making improvements from the way a worker stocks his or her truck to the way he or she cleans the bathroom. Every person should be aware of his or her effects on the organization. This is how we can turn an entry-level employee with no tools into a lead consultant specializing in forensic investigation, using thermal drone technology, writing investigative reports and acting as an expert witness in legal cases.

There are thousands of opinions about what makes a company great, and we try to explore as many as we can. Nearly every quarter, we transition to a new set of lessons intended to aid our understanding of what it means to take responsibility and to think and act like owners because, as we like to say: “If you think and act like a boss, you don’t need one.”

From the most junior to the most senior leader, from the field to the office, we believe it is the employee’s responsibility at Don Kennedy Roofing to improve the quality of service delivered to customers and co-workers and hold both oneself and others accountable to do the same. We expect our employees to hold themselves to a higher standard than the people they serve and be worthy of their respect. This is how leadership becomes contagious.

Stories of success

Inspiration is powerful, and we strive to inspire people to create a future they see for themselves by recognizing a shared history and being ever conscious of our destination. This helps transcend the monotony of showing up for work every day with the sole purpose of getting to the end of it.

The struggles we have overcome in our own lives are openly shared with our Don Kennedy Roofing family. This is how the new guy with an axe to grind and no interest in or vision of his future becomes Brett Brashear, senior estimator of the Commercial Division. It’s how a shingle installer with a bad attitude and terrible attendance becomes Adam Clinard, service department manager. It’s how the person who thought the owners rolled wheelbarrows of money out the back door becomes Wesley Coradini, residential project manager.

Don Kennedy Roofing is filled with the names of incredible men and women who have contributed to the company’s success. They have been willing to adapt to change and thrive in a fight that never ends, happily aware we still have a long way to go. Our purpose is to provide an environment for people to develop their trade craft and who will mentor their peers in pursuit of knowledge and skills that will serve them the rest of their lives.

Nick Warndorf is director of consulting services for Don Kennedy Roofing Co. Inc., Nashville, Tenn.



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