February 2015 Issue, Building Industry Hawaii Magazine
View the original online-article written by Brett Alexander-Estes here.
An interview with Guy Akasaki, CRW President & CEO.
By Brett Alexander-Estes
Rocket Man—An Interview with Guy Akasaki How a roofing entrepreneur aims high and uses industry innovations to get there.
Building Industry_Feb 2015_Rocket Man (download PDF)
BIH: Tell us how you got started— the story is you started CRW from scratch.
Akasaki: From chicken scratch. I had not anticipated starting my own company. I was the president and chief operating officer for the largest roofing company at the time (1993). When Iniki hit, the economy was kind of tanking, so we needed to make some adjustments. The owner wanted to make an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Then at the eleventh hour, decided he didn’t want to sell. I had to make a decision because aside from the overhead, there was a difference of intent and direction. I tendered my resignation. I was going to open up a Subway franchise. I let the owner know that, because I’d been in the industry so long, I would commit to him for one year. I had no ‘noncompete’ (written agreement)—‘I will verbally commit to you that I will not compete for one year.’
BIH: Did you keep your word?
Akasaki: Making a commitment was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, because when my wife convinced me not to get into Subway sandwiches, I said, ‘OK, maybe I can do roof repairs.’ Starting up, a senior project manager calls: ‘We have this job. I want to give it to you.’ It was about $1.5 million. ‘We’ll cover the cost, you bring in the men, we’ll split the profit.’ I went, ‘OK, let me think about it.’ It’s one of those times, that small still voice going, ‘What about ‘no compete?’ Because as an agent (for the former company), I had negotiated the job. The manager called me back: ‘When we going to start?’ I told him, ‘I gotta step away. I made a vow.’ He hung up on me. A few weeks later, a developer called: ‘I got $30 million. I can give you working capital. Set it up however you want.’ I went, ‘Let me get back to you.’ That small still voice came again: ‘Guy, if you borrow that money, you’re in hock to his vision. How will you be able to fulfill your purpose and destiny?’ I remember going, ‘Aw, jeez, man!’ Because I could almost taste it, right? I remember telling him, ‘I got to step away.’ After those two things happened, I thought, ‘You’re doing the right thing—it’s going to be all right!’
BIH: So business picked up?
Akasaki: The next year was the most trying part of my life. We were into the third quarter, and we were down 35 percent. We had to hit $650,000 to break even. I was looking at my business plan, very upset. I helped two smaller roofers set up and they’re doing well. So how come—me!—it’s not working? I remember grabbing that book, four o’clock in the morning, and threw it against the wall. I was having a little conversation with the Man Upstairs. I said, ‘I do everything right, and it just hits me in the face!’ I fell asleep in a fetal position and woke up in the morning, all sore. But somehow there was a renewed purpose. I knew my relationship with the Guy Upstairs was set to retrench. In less than three months, we hit that 35 percent. The following year, we grew by 20 percent. That third year we won Pacific Business News’ “Fastest 50.“ And since then, it’s been a growth track of about 10 to 15 percent a year.
BIH: Did roofing alone propel your business, or did other services come into play?
Akasaki: If you have commercial roofing, you start in a roofing area with opportunities in sustainability and energy savings. I started to get into photovoltaic because I wanted to see how I could incorporate PV into the roofing element, what you call building an integral photovoltaic. That was before PV took off about eight and a half years ago.
BIH: CRW is in the top tier of Hawaii roofers—in annual revenue, in innovation and in market diversification. How did you take your original operation to this level?
Akasaki: The foundational mis•sion and core values that define CRW today were surfaced, tested CRW reroofed the Harbor Court tower with DensDeck Roof Board and a Sarnafil Décor Roof System. and refined in that first-year proving ground. The whole idea is to train a core team and the champions within the house, and opportunities begin to arise to allow them to step out, right? Like my early experiences setting up photovoltaic led into looking at other ventures—initiatives and partnerships in PV, tax credits and subsidies, financing of power purchase agreements, design patents and other research and development funding opportunities. Today, these initiatives are executed through various specialty entities and strategic partners—Honolulu Roofing, Greenpath Technologies Hawaii, Allied Pacific Builders HI, Allied Pacific Builders Guam, CRW Philippines Inc., Energy Solutions International and EnRG Hawaii.
BIH: What benefits does working with these companies as strategic partners offer from an operational and customer service standpoint?
Akasaki: If you look at these different companies, what we’re doing is basically to be a unified team of professionals, to apply our experi•ence and talents, to be on the cutting edge of construction or the technology of the field we’re in and to exceed our clients’ expectations. Like with Greenpath, they do PV, they needed “We saw the opportunity to exceed client expectations with both roof and PV included under one warranty. Because we know both sides well, we can create a total turnkey—one point of accountability.” Then, because they were doing the PV work, and we were doing the roofing—they know the PV, we know the roofing. We even did some of the PV. Whereas in the industry, everybody’s always pointing fingers. The PV guy says, ‘I’m not responsible for the roofing.’ The roofer says, ‘You know what, we didn’t put the PV on top, we’re not responsible.’ We saw the opportunity to exceed client expectations with both roof and PV included under one warranty. Because we know both sides well, we can create a total turnkey—one point of accountability.
BIH: CRW and its partners have a reputation for being in the vanguard of roofing and PV technology. What’s currently in the works?
Akasaki: Greenpath is doing research and development into non-glass folding PV modules. These are portable lightweight PV modules and are manufactured to military-grade resilience by Greenpath in Kakaako. Greenpath has a patent on the modules. The company also makes portable solar equipment that provides power in the field without generators or other fossil fuel-based sources. This equipment is targeted for Department of Defense military and emergency response markets.
BIH: What types of roofing installations do you think will become dominant in Hawaii in the next five years?
Akasaki: High performance coatings will take the lead in the future. Many coatings claim that, ‘we answer all of your problems.’ But sometimes coatings are not the answer. Elastomeric coatings will take a predominant role because of their sustainability and ease of application as long as roofers understand how performance and formulations work together. Higher performance coatings, like clothing, must hit a certain baseline formulation in order to be ‘quality.’ Above and beyond that baseline, certain features can be added—for elasticity, quick-drying and so forth. Quality formulations and performance addi•tives deliver some of the best values and reliability for the long term.
BIH: It’s been reported that your back•ground is in architecture. What Hawaii building do you find most interesting from a design standpoint?
Akasaki: My favorite building? The one I think is cool is Harbor Court. But when you get up on the roof, you’re up 40-something stories. There’s no protection, there’s no railing. You have to be pretty much on your guard because you have safety issues. At that height, you have wind, uplift, you have capillary action, negative pressure—there’s so many things that you have to incorporate. The curvature for the nice bay windows are a nightmare to waterproof, too. So those we modified into what they call a modified Sarnafil membrane of PVC material. It looks like metal, but it doesn’t have the inherent characteristics of being able to corrode, or anchors and joints. Because this is PVC, it’s a weatherproof material. But because it has ribs that can be welded on, it looks like metal. It’s pretty cool.
BIH: In taking your original operation to its current level, what was the biggest hurdle you and your company had to overcome?
Akasaki: The biggest hurdle wasn’t so much the money side, it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t touch the customers. The biggest hurdle was really me. And when I say it was me, it was more the struggle with commitment, integrity and honesty. Because at the end of the day, it would have been so easy for me to have accepted those jobs. And I would have been off and running. And would I still be here today? I probably would be. But the difference would be, I would just be a roofer.