Rob Miller picked up a tiny slate chip and showed it in his hand as if it were a Matchbox car. "You're not going to buy a Mercedes based on this," he declared. "People want to choose things based on a large display."
That conviction--mixed with a start-up's limited budget, the need to serve two distinct clientele, and the design challenges that come when space is limited--all played a role in the creation of the showroom at Miller's Worth Supply Co. This two-year-old operation in Charlotte, N.C., packs into less than 1,500 square feet more than a dozen displays showing cedar, slate, clay tile, and copper roofing and siding products, both new and reclaimed.
Of those displays, all but the wall units are pyramids on rollers in which two 4x8 plywood sheets containing various types of roofing and siding lean against each other at about a 30-degree angle. The rollers make it easy to push the displays around so customers can see the products under different lights and make side-by-side comparisons.
The rollers also come in handy when Worth invites architects to the former granite and tile showroom, located 2 miles southeast of downtown, to show off products. Architects matter a lot to Worth because Miller's target market is the customer building a home worth at least $1 million and preferably $3 million--in other words, the kind of person who can afford to put in a slate roof with copper trim. Along with pushing the displays aside to clear space for show-and-tell sessions, even the side wall of sales manager Justin Mann's office cubicle can be moved, and the top of it can be angled to rest more samples.
Worth (its named after one of Miller's sons) also faces the same challenge confronted by many dealers in that it serves two much different types of clientele: wealthy homebuilding couples, in which the wife makes most of the decisions, and relatively scruffy, practical roofing contractors. Miller and his three employees responded by splitting the store's interior space into two sections, divided by a low, modest counter section. On the left are the displays and Mann's cubicle. On the right is a traditional set of stands and racks with tools, underlayment, and contractor materials.
Most homeowners and architects spend their time amid the inside displays, but if requested, Miller and his team will erect a display behind the store that enables customers to see how the materials look in natural light and in a location closer to roof height.
Roughly 30% of the products that Worth sells are reclaimed. For instance, one of Miller's roling displays showed slate tiles taken from a building at Duke University, 150 miles away. Odd amounts of what Miller calls "just about every weird piece of roofing in the United States" are stored in back.
"A lot of building suppliers are order takers," Miller says. "We're more about creating demand. They say, 'I want a 30-year shingle.' We say, 'Have you ever thought about something more permanent?'" A slate shingle will last 150 to 300 years, he notes, which means it will keep doing its job while an asphalt-based shingle on that same roof would have to be replaced several times. But in a nod to reality, Worth does keep a modest display of asphalt shingles off to one side.
Worth primarily is a roofing shop, but that's more because of the need to have a market niche than because Miller is wedded to just those products. He and Mann sold decking briefly but gave up, largely because the returns weren't there. "We typically spend 20 hours to get a $30,000 sale," Mann says. "With decking, you'll spend 20 hours on a $1,400 sale." Likewise, while Miller likes to tout the green qualities of his reclaimed roofing products, he notes: "I do it more as a capitalist than as a tree-hugger. We have a respect for the Earth but don't get friggin' crazy about it."
Miller says that, after two years, the operation is "barely profitable." But given how so many dealers are going out of business, being able to keep his nose above water is an achievement. Worth does that in part by being frugal. Miller bought the company's phone system off of Craigslist, build the displays himself, and found a used forklift and truck. Even the carpenter's pencils are recycled; Miller found a box of them, spray-painted over the old name and then gave Sharpie pens to sons Worth and Walter and had them put their names on the pencils.
Worth Supply operates three websites: