‘Jewel of Valley’ shines bright

By Don Shilling

Big-name companies nationwide count on a local company to keep energy costs down.

AUSTINTOWN — If a cooling fan goes out on a rooftop at an OfficeMax store in New Mexico, chances are someone in Austintown will find out first.

Technicians at Roth Bros. are monitoring 3,500 retail stores around the country. If temperatures drop or equipment fails, an alert pops on a computer screen in the monitoring room at Roth’s office on Crum Road.

“We can have a man show up at the store before they even know they have a problem,” said Richard Wardle, Roth executive vice president.

Roth’s software system is one reason that clients such as Sprint, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dillard’s and NASA depend on the company for roofing, heating, cooling and energy management.

In addition to the 3,500 stores being monitored online, Roth has contracts to provide more traditional maintenance with 6,500 other stores nationwide.

“We’re probably better known around the country that we are here in the Mahoning Valley,” Wardle said.

He is one of five new owners for the company who are working to keep Roth a leader in applying technology to what was once a low-tech business — installing roofs as well as heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.

In 1997, FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron-based parent company of Ohio Edison, liked Roth’s technology so much that it bought the company, which had been owned by the Roth family since 1923. But in 2006, FirstEnergy refocused on its core business of selling and distributing electricity and sold Roth to the five executives who had been with the company between eight and 26 years.

Paul Belair took over as president. He had been chief financial officer of the holding company that oversaw the 11 contractors FirstEnergy had bought.

Samuel A. Roth, who previously was Roth Bros. president and then president of the holding company under FirstEnergy, continues to work with the local company as a consultant.

Besides Belair, the other Roth owners are Wardle and his brother Mike, Steve Koneval and Tom Froelich Jr.

“We saw an opportunity to keep a jewel of the Valley rather than let it become owned by someone outside of town,” said Koneval, a vice president who oversees roofing operations.

The company is a jewel in terms of providing local jobs. Its two buildings on Crum Road house 170 office workers, including engineers and programmers. It has nearly 30 other workers in Akron and two Florida offices.

Up to 230 union workers work in the company’s metal fabricating shops and on job sites.

The company’s revenues have increased from $75 million in 1997 to $100 million last year. About half of its business is local, though one of its biggest current projects is installing roofs for new buildings for the space shuttle program in Florida.

Roth also is a jewel in terms of technology.

Belair said the new owners are taking over just as the “green” movement is gaining traction among corporations. Energy is becoming so expensive that companies want to reduce their consumption of electricity and natural gas, he said.

They also are become aware of their “carbon footprint,” which is the amount of carbon emissions from energy plants that can be traced back to their use, Belair said.

He pointed to Huntington Bank, which took over local Sky Bank operations last year.

Roth installed an energy management system in 46 of the bank’s area branches last year and cut energy by 67 percent. Old fixtures were replaced with more efficient ones and controls were installed that shut off lights when no one is in an area.

This year Roth will be installing new controls to cut heating and air conditioning costs at the branches.

Richard Wardle said companies are concerned about the upfront cost of such systems but Roth markets products that can produce enough energy savings to cover these costs in two years or less.

Belair said the company’s latest energy-saving software is being tested by two retailers who are looking to cut energy use on hot summer afternoons when the energy grid is strained and kilowatt costs are highest.

If the normal temperature of a store is 74 degrees, for example, the program cools the store in the morning to 69 degrees. It’s using less-expensive power at that time of the day.

During the heat of the afternoon, the store’s temperature is allowed to drift up to 76 degrees so no energy is used during peak periods.

Roth also is exploring new technologies in roofing.

Koneval said the company is researching the use of solar panels on roofs and probably will have them available for commercial buildings this year or next year.

The panels will lower the use of electricity and produce power that can be sold to the power grid, he said.

Roth also is investigating roofs with vegetation on top, he said. Such roofs have been installed in some parts of the country, and the plants reduce storm water runoff and save on heating and cooling costs.

Belair said Roth’s customers struggle with the increased costs of installing such cutting-edge green techniques, but he expects that escalating energy costs will change minds eventually.

“We’re getting to the tipping point, but we’re not there yet,” he said.

One new innovation is helping to reduce installation costs so “going green” is more affordable. Roth developed a wireless system that controls energy usage and has installed it at a mall in the Cleveland area and in Puerto Rico. It costs 30 percent less to install.

Belair has no doubt that Roth is positioned for continued success as companies become more energy conscious.

“The green wave is growing,” he said. “We just have to keep our eye on execution.”