Getting Personal With Prentiss and Frank Baker
To survive and persevere in business over 100 years is no simple feat. Almost certainly, this success can be attributed to values-based family ownership and a century-old mission to do Always Good Work. In honor of National Roofing Week, we sat down with our humble leaders and third-generation Baker men, Prentiss and Frank Baker, to share belly laughs over old times and get to know their hearts for serving others.
Tell us a funny story from years past at Baker Roofing!
Prentiss: Truthfully, these stories are not funny when the event happens. It’s bad stuff, you know. But, probably my favorite, and this is back in the 60’s, not too long after Frank and I started working. Could’ve been the early 70’s. We did shingle work back then, we’d go out and reroof a residence. And we had this job, I think I was the estimator and salesman. We had one crew and that crew was two men. Jesse Hinton was the lead guy, you might say the foreman and Jesse had worked for us for a while. And he was a nice, nice, human being but let me tell you what, he was slow as a hitch. When we reroofed just a small house, it might’ve taken two weeks to get done. Now we go out to one that’s four times it’s size and we get it done in a day or two. Anyway, we got this probably $1,500-$2,000 contract to reroof this house, and I remember sending Jesse and his helper out to the job that morning. I wrote down the address and told them I’d meet them in a little while. Somehow, I got busy. Instead of meeting them out there in a timely manner, I get a phone call a day or two later that says “Mr. Baker, this is ‘so-and-so’ and I believe y’all are putting a new roof on the wrong house.” I said, “This is a problem.” We got far enough along that we tore off the old roof and were putting the new roof down. So I got out there and sure enough, Jesse decided to put the new roof on the house beside the job. The guy was just as nice as he could be, he said “Mr. Baker, we got another problem. Not only are you putting it on the wrong house, I don’t like the color of the new roof you put down.” Well, then he got a second new roof… Free. Once we got him finished, we finally went to the right house.
Frank: This has happened more than once. It seems rather tragic when it happens, and then as you get older and see what really is tragic and what is a catastrophe, then this is nothing.
We were doing a job at St. Mary’s College, we were putting a slate roof on a dormitory. We had people that were skilled that were installing the slate roof and I of course did not have enough skill to actually put the roof on, so I was a toter. I would put a stack of slate on my shoulder and walk it up a ladder to the roof. We weren’t quite as safety-minded back then as we are now. During the course of the day, I took a load of slate up, put it down for Jesse, went back over to the ladder and promptly fell off the roof. By blind luck, the mason had just received a shipment of sand which they had dumped on the ground right next to our ladder, so when I fell, I fell on this pile of sand instead of on the ground. It was a two-floor’s drop. And I was so embarrassed that my initial thought wasn’t, “Am I okay? Let’s take stock here and see if anything’s broken.” I ran over, picked up another load of slate, took it back up to the roof as quickly as I could because of the embarrassment and when I got to the top of the ladder, the two guys were laughing their butts off at me trying to act like I had not fallen off the roof. It’s the boss’s son that just fell off the roof.
Our founder, W.P. Baker Sr. was your grandfather. How would you describe your grandfather to those who didn’t know him?
F: Well, he was an uneducated man who educated himself as fully as you could possibly do.
P: No education, but you wouldn’t know it. His dad was a farmer and didn’t have enough money. He came to Raleigh when he was 12 years old, or his parents sent him. His brother was already here working and they needed to work to send money back to the farm down in Harnett Co. so their parents could survive. It was just a different world back then. He came on a mule. So, he was uneducated and as Frank said, he educated himself, but he was a very caring human being, too. He was bright, very energetic… Didn’t say a whole lot. I don’t remember granddad talking, you kinda learned from his actions, how he lived his life, how he treated people.
F: He was sort of a sportsman. He loved to hunt and fish. He captured a number of the snakes that used to be in the NC Natural History Museum in their dioramas. So, he would be out hunting and he would see a snake, and he would stalk the snake and catch it live. He had a Chrysler one-seater, they called it a coupe. He caught a rattlesnake when he was on a trip down east, put it in a burlap sack and put it in the Chrysler.
P: He wasn’t scared of them, honestly.
F: Well unfortunately, with this particular snake, he came back on the weekend and was not able to take it to the museum. So, over the course of the weekend, the snake escaped from the sack in the automobile. And we could not find that snake, it was nowhere to be found. It got down under the floorboards somewhere. So, we were riding around in that thing for about 2 weeks before the snake finally reappeared and granddad recaptured it and took it to the museum.
If you look at some of the pictures we have around at the office here, which I always thought this was sort of unique about him, he was one of the most natty dressers of anybody that you’ve ever seen.
P: He grew up with nothing and when he got a little money, whenever he was doing something that was worth dressing up, he would dress up. And there was a real nice clothing store right downtown, Womble’s, and that’s where he would carry us to buy clothes, too. He wore a bolo tie, not a conventional tie.
F: He bought us our first sport coat when we were about 5 years old. He was something. Who else takes a 5 year old and buys him a sport coat?
Frank, how would you describe Prentiss to anyone who didn’t know him?
F: Well, I say this with a great deal of love for my brother, but we both have about as high a degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that can be found on the planet.
P: I thought dad was a little higher.
F: Our family has it in spades. And I’ve always thought that that was one thing, if you were going to hire somebody in a work environment, there is nothing better than to have OCD. Because you are so committed to what you need to do, that you just can’t stop yourself from doing it. He’s the perfect example. He just keeps going and going. We could both be somewhere doing something else, easy, but I mean, you’ve got stuff to finish here.
Prentiss gestures to the stacks of papers piled throughout his office.
P: What I do here has more meaning.
F: You impact more lives down here than you can anywhere else.
Prentiss, how would you describe Frank to anyone who didn’t know him?
P: Well, he started that conversation by saying we were a lot alike, well we are. In other ways, we’re not alike, and that’s good, too! So, he is more of the studious, detail-oriented, academic type than I am. I’m more the… Well, I’m not sure what I am. I won’t describe myself. But, you know, I think there is a big difference there. For instance, he loves to read books, well I love to read books too, but I don’t read them as fast and I seem to let other things get in the way.
F: I will say that back in the day, back when we didn’t know better, Prentiss and I would disagree about things. At that time it was just the two of us, so no one came in and disagreed with us about anything. So, we just disagreed with each other.
P: It got ugly several times.
F: You could hear us all over this place. And after about 20 years of that, we suddenly figured out that you’re not helping yourself or anyone else because nothing ever gets solved by getting angry. So, it’s been a better, simpler ride.
P: We’ve had a very healthy relationship. And even though we disagree about things, it’s okay. You know, it’s kind of like a marriage.
What were you both like in college?
F: This is not a good question.
They both chuckled to each other for a moment.
P: We were carefree.
F: We enjoyed ourselves.
Which two organizations, outside of your own, are you inspired by most?
F: I think the organization that I am most closely tied to and believe in is Crossnore School. We were doing a job for a contractor in Charlotte and the general manager of that company called me and said, “We’re gonna do a project at Crossnore School, we’re going to build a barn for them to do equine therapy.” It’s a live-in school for children who have been abused in any number of ways. And so, they asked if we would put the roof on for them. I agreed that we would do that, and they invited me for the opening of this facility. I said, “Good lord, the last thing I want to do is drive up to the mountains of Western North Carolina on a Sunday.” But I went because the guy was such a good friend. And I got there, and I was overwhelmed. They have expanded, they now have 4 campuses and I think their mission is unbelievable. It moves me every time I think about it.
P: I always think about nonprofits or organizations we’ve been involved with, NRCA and local chamber of commerce, et cetera. I think out of mine, it would be the Boys and Girl Club and the Salvation Army. Even though I have grown, I’ve been involved with those for 50 years each. It’s been very meaningful to me. I’ve developed a love for other places, too, like The Healing Place… I just think that that place is on fire. And you know, you’ve got Habitat, SPCA… Wonderful organizations. These are all just ways that we can give back. If you’re going to be a good citizen, you need to, that’s something that I think we need to maybe better teach and prepare young people. Find something that you’ve got a passion for and volunteer your time. That’s where you’re going to get your best thoughts about the world and life from. You quickly recognize how fortunate you are when you start participating and helping others. It’s a very meaningful experience. And there’s so many needs out there, there’s just not enough dollars and not enough people.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment of Baker Roofing?
P: People, people, people. Seeing people grow and prosper, and I’m not just talking about money, either. Just seeing a young person come in and they find their passion and we get to work as a team. We’ve put some wonderful roofs on, but that’s not what I think about. The business of Baker Roofing is people. Whether we’re successful or not depends on people.
F: For over 106 years, we’ve provided a family environment for people who want to take advantage of it, and we have many who have taken advantage of it. I think we’ve improved innumerable lives from the time we’ve been in business.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing a career in the construction industry?
P: I could give you a different answer depending on what day you ask me, but I’ve become to realize that emotional intelligence might just be the biggest part of success in life. We could go on and on about details, roofing, and learning the technical part of it, but really if you get right down to it, if you don’t have the emotional intelligence side of it down, that is I think it can be a learned thing, but there is a lot of natural ability to absorb and understand people. You gotta be interested in people, you gotta want to be around that person and have a positive impact on them.
F: I think, probably, understanding the level of commitment that is necessary to be a success. There’s not a strict hourly constraint on what your job consists of. Your job consists of whatever it is and you have to be committed to fulfilling all the requirements.
P: I sent out a Quote of the Day today that was about effort. And it’s so true what Frank is saying. One wonderful thing about this business is that I never look at the clock. I look at the clock, I’m trying to figure out why I’m late. It’s a good feeling to be involved – businesses can be compared to teams. This is a team. Marketing’s got a role, purchasing’s got a role, risk management’s got a role, estimating’s got a role, operations… So, when all of that comes together, at the highest level, is when you’re going to be successful. And everybody’s got an important role to play.
What are your hopes for the company’s future?
P: That it continues improving. I’m a strong believer in that each and every one of us, including myself, can do things better. Whether it’s leading better, whether it’s mentoring better. It’s kind of like playing tennis. What can I do to better myself? And help others get better from that?
F: I think we are on a pretty steady upward trajectory. I think that the new generation of leadership has some remarkable talents. I believe in them fully and I think in the future we’re going to do nothing more than get better. Because, I think they have the right management style for the type of business we’ve become. Prentiss and I for decades had to do pretty much everything, there just weren’t that many people around. So, these guys can divide responsibilities and they each can concentrate on what their best at, which I think is going to be a long-term benefit. This company is going to be exceptional.
By Shelby Zeuli
Shelby joined the Baker Roofing marketing team in April 2021! When she's not on top of roofs trying to get a good angle, she likes to capture portrait photography, skateboard, and watch movies with her dog, Sarge.