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Copper roofing expert still going strong at 70

Joe Zappone is the founder and owner of his roofing company, which sells copper shingles for $900 per 100 square feet, plus installation. (Dan Pelle)
Joe Zappone is the founder and owner of his roofing company, which sells copper shingles for $900 per 100 square feet, plus installation. (Dan Pelle)

Years ago, actors Robert Wagner and Jill St. John contacted Joe Zappone about having copper shingles installed on their roof.

“Jill and I got along good on the phone,” Zappone recalled, “but Robert Wagner wanted the roof for nothing because of his name. I never talked to him – he was always in the background – but I told Jill, ‘I don’t need his name.’”

Zappone isn’t the type to drop names, but if he were, he could start with Bill Gates and Paul Allen, toss in a few professional athletes – Wayne Gretzky and Greg Norman, for instance – and mention an endorsement by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Some well-heeled clients are so secretive that they refuse to reveal their identities, even though it means they can’t register their roof warranty.

But they needn’t worry. Zappone has shipped his locally made copper shingles all over the world for decades, and not one has failed.

You get what you pay for.

Zappone copper shingles retail for around $900 a “square” – 100 square feet – plus installation. That compares with roughly $100 a square for typical asphalt shingles.

Local examples of his product include the Riverfront Park carousel roof, Schade Brewery in the University District, and Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on North Washington Street.

During a recent interview, Zappone talked about what inspired him to manufacturer copper shingles, and why he loves the Internet.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Zappone: Right here in Spokane. I went to Gonzaga Prep, just across the road from our plant.

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Zappone: I had six sisters, so I had to be interested in a lot of different stuff.

S-R: Did you envision a particular career?

Zappone: No. But I attended Gonzaga University and earned a degree in business administration.

S-R: Then what?

Zappone: I went to work in Kaiser Aluminum’s sales department in 1967. If I’d stayed with Kaiser, I’d have been transferred to Oakland. At that time, Kaiser was making an aluminum roofing product that resembled shakes. But people were installing it wrong, and it leaked. I figured I could make a better aluminum shingle – one that looked more like tile or slate – so I started my own company.

S-R: What did you know about roofing?

Zappone: Nothing. It took me two years to gear up production.

S-R: Were you successful from the start?

Zappone: Yeah, pretty soon I was selling aluminum shingles in Hawaii and all over. But not around here. People figured, “He’s a local. He can’t make anything.”

S-R: When did you add copper shingles to your line?

Zappone: In the late ’70s. My wife and I were vacationing in Europe, and we saw all those green shingles over there. I told her, “We could make those.” Nobody else in this country was doing it. They were making long copper panels with standing seams, but not shingles.

S-R: Where did you get your copper?

Zappone: All over. I remember early on eating at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center while negotiating to buy two shipping containers of sheet copper – 80,000 pounds – from France. They were really eager for greenbacks back then, so they gave us a really good price. Now we get our copper out of Pennsylvania.

S-R: What percentage of your sales is copper, compared with aluminum.

Zappone: About 75 percent is copper.

S-R: Are the shingles hard to install?

Zappone: No. You don’t have to be a sheet-metal man. You just have to be a conscientious roofer.

S-R: When copper roofing is first installed, it’s shiny. But years or decades later – depending on where you live – the copper patinates to an earthy green. Are most customers buying it for the way it looks today or how it will look in 15 years?

Zappone: Most people know it’s going to turn green, and that’s what they want. Those who are in a hurry apply a chemical wash.

S-R: Looking back, were there tough times?

Zappone: Yes. In the ’80s, when (Fed chairman Paul) Volker raised the prime rate to 21 percent. Who can run a business with interest rates that high? But we survived because we put money back into the company.

S-R: What’s the outlook now?

Zappone: There’s still a lot of opportunity. When I started out, metal roofing represented only about 1 percent of the U.S. residential market. Now it’s up to 16 percent. Composition is cheaper, but it doesn’t last that long. Copper lasts forever.

S-R: You have five employees now. What’s the most you ever had on payroll?

Zappone: When I was doing it all – manufacturing, retail and construction – I had 39 roofers on the payroll. I even did some roofing myself. It was crazy. Roofing is tough work – very hard on the knees – and it hurts like hell.

S-R: Has your product changed much since you introduced it decades ago?

Zappone: No, except now we also offer a line of smaller shingles – about half the size of the original – for bay windows and steeples.

S-R: When the price of copper spiked four years ago, did thieves see copper roofs as a chance to make a quick buck?

Zappone: Sure, but tearing off a copper roof isn’t easy. Our shingles are rated for 110-mile-per-hour winds. We had a customer in New Jersey who went on vacation, and when he came home, half his shingles were gone. We couldn’t match the green of the old shingles, so the customer’s insurance company had to buy him a whole new roof.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Zappone: Putting product up all over the world.

S-R: What do you like least?

Zappone: Early on, I had to go out and sell the product myself. Lots of trade shows. I didn’t like that. The Internet has made a huge difference. If you type in “copper shingle” – bang – we pop up.

S-R: How many children do you have?

Zappone: Four.

S-R: Do any work here?

Zappone: They did when they were in high school. Not anymore. I educated them too well. One’s an attorney. Another’s an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agent. They all have professional careers.

S-R: You’re 70. You’ve been doing this for 46 years. Do you have an exit strategy?

Zappone: I’m working on it.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. If you have suggestions for business or community leaders to profile, contact writer Michael Guilfoil via email at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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