Santa Rosa entrepreneur Letitia Hanke raises glass ceiling through the roof

A dozen years ago, Letitia Hanke became a lone female entrepreneur in the male-centered local roofing industry when she launched her own company, ARS Roofing, based in Santa Rosa. The company, expected to exceed $3.5 million in revenue by August, has 24 employees including 18 roofers. All the roofers are men.

Hanke wasn't new to roofing. Starting in 1996, she worked for a roofing company for four years, at first in administrative functions. Owner Mike Stout retired and offered to sell her the business, Associated Roofing Services (ARS). For four more years, she learned the trade, clambered onto roofs with the crew, digested the jargon: apron flashing (used at chimney fronts), elastomeric coating, modified bitumen (rolled membrane with polymer-modified asphalt). 'I needed to learn how to install roofs,' she said.

'I was the only female. Being in that environment was awkward at times. At that point, I was just like the guys, but there was some teasing. There were things said that I had to deal with as a female, some harassment that took place. I rolled it off my shoulders.

'It's hard work,' Hanke said of her hands-on time on the roof. 'I wasn't prepared for what it was really like. I was so thankful when I didn't have to do it anymore,' she said, laughing. 'I can't even tell you how happy I was. But it was important. I understand the lingo, the products.'

Instead of buying Stout's company, she said, 'I decided to open my own. I wanted to start fresh. There were some business practices I wasn't comfortable with.'

She named her company Alternative Roofing Solutions, adopting the same acronym: ARS. 'We branded ARS for many, many years,' she said. 'Most of our clients knew us by ARS, so when the change happened, it was very smooth. He was perfectly fine with it,' she said of Stout. 'He supported me.'

It was a great deal. In essence, she acquired the goodwill and customer contacts of the company for nothing. Stout was ready to retire.

She hand-picked 12 of the best employees. 'They came along with me,' Hanke said, but none of the guys who had hassled her earlier.

Summit State Bank arranged a $250,000 loan from the Small Business Administration so she could buy vehicles and equipment, including some from the previous business. 'It was a huge risk,' she said. 'It was hard. Every other bank that I went to laughed. It took me about a year.'

Hanke's parents are entrepreneurs. 'It's in my blood,' she said. Her mom did medical billing.

Roofing was not her chosen career. She attended Sonoma State University to study music — voice, piano, drums, and composing and mixing background music. As a student in high school, she learned to play the trumpet. 'I was not making any money' during college, she said. 'I was working three jobs, going to school full time and gigging. I couldn't take it anymore.'

Struggling to survive financially on music gigs, she ended up working for the roofing company. 'Roofing,' she said. 'I never would have guessed.'

Becoming a roofing contractor was even more daunting. 'A lot of the men contractors felt threatened,' especially in the beginning, Hanke said. 'I had a customer tell me that one of the contractors told them that I don't know anything I'm doing and that I'm new to the industry.'

In fact, she was a veteran in the industry. 'They didn't know anything about me, but they were badmouthing me to clients,' she said, 'already sabotaging me.'

She attended construction networking groups, 'just trying to hang out with the guys,' she said. 'It was pretty difficult. 'They would quiz me: How many squares' were in a particular job? A roofing square is 100 square feet. 'In the beginning, it was hard for me to relate. I was not being accepted into the industry. I have proven myself now. It has been great,' with contractor friends who support her business.

Hanke added to the roofing business a gutter division, which pulls down $600,000 a year in revenue, as well as waterproofing. That avoided spending money on subcontractors, who often didn't show up on time. 'I don't like to subcontract my work,' she said. 'I wanted to do everything in-house. I'm responsible.'

She recently applied for a solar-panel-contracting license to provide expansion — an expected $2 million in revenue. A few years ago, technology innovation surfaced that incorporates solar collection into shingles. 'I'm always leery' about new technology. I like to wait a few years' for the bugs to be smoothed out. 'I have 24 employees I'm responsible for,' she said. 'I'll give my guys more raises and more bonuses.'

She owns a fleet of a dozen trucks.

Hanke encountered only one other female roofer in all her years in the industry. The woman worked for Stout's company. No women ever applied for a roofing job with her company. 'I know female painters, female plumbers, female general contractors,' but no roofers,' she said. At a U.S. Black Chamber conference, she met one female owner of a much bigger roofing company based in Washington, D.C.

The business keeps her running. 'I love being busy,' she said. 'I hope I never lose that.'

Hanke, 40, takes time to be with her 13-year-old son, and plays music in a home studio. 'Those things keep me sane,' she said. 'I can handle the 12- and 13-hour days.'

'I don't get much sexism anymore,' Hanke said.

As a kid growing up in Lake County, she was African-American in a largely white community, and often bullied. 'I used to hide out at lunch from kids who bullied me. There were kids who had never seen a black person before,' she said. 'I was severely teased for many years. That made me have very thick skin. It made me want to prove myself. That's what I do now. You say no to me, that drives me even more.'

Many of her friends and teachers lost homes in Lake County's Valley Fire last year. Through ARS, Hanke organized donations to bring supplies and food to fire victims.

Hanke plans to run ARS for another five or 10 years, gradually spending more time on the Lime Foundation nonprofit she founded in February 2015 to train teens and young adults in vocational skills for about 15 construction trades, including roofing. Wells Fargo donated money for the program, and will add training in financial literacy. Rohnert Park's Rancho Cotate High School, with a dropout rate at 24 percent, has embraced the program. Lime is her son's name — Emil — spelled backward. Lime will also teach arts and music to teens, work to curb bullying in schools, and organize free roofing services and activities for seniors.

Hanke aims to hire a general manager to take over day-to-day operations of ARS, which serves customers mainly in Marin and Sonoma counties, especially hotels, condominiums and apartment complexes. She routinely bids against about six other roofing companies in the two counties, some of which undercut her prices. The company's goal is to give customers a calm, relaxing experience as their roofs are installed or repaired.

Lime Foundation, she said, 'is my passion. Once they get onsite and they're working full time for four to five years, they're able to get their own contractor's license and start their own businesses. I highly recommend entrepreneurship. I'm big on that. I mentor kids about starting their own businesses.

'I don't mind them staying with me, either,' she said, laughing. 'Maybe they'll move on up to take my position. I would be happy to see that program flourish. This could be that missing piece that some young adults need.'

Lime encourages both boys and girls in the trades. 'You see more and more females getting into these unconventional industries, more contractors,' she said. 'I totally support that. It's time, women realize they can do anything they want.'

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