North Charleston, S.C., Company Recycles Leftovers into Sealer for Roofs
Dec. 30--Entrepreneurs often pour their hearts -- not to mention their money and time -- into business ventures other people think are, well, crazy.
For 18 years, Michael Gerace has poured his heart, money and time into cans of leftover paint.
"There's a thin line between persistence and insanity," Gerace said. "I never quite know where I am."
Yet his persistence -- despite having sometimes led Gerace down a rocky path of financial trouble, heartbreak, even a divorce -- is finally starting to pay off.
His business of turning leftover paint, one of the nastiest environmental wastes, into a leak-proof roof sealer is expanding in 2005, breaking out into two stand-alone entities Gerace hopes will help him market his products and his innovation to the masses.
Sales grew 33 percent this year, with Gerace landing contracts with two school districts and several hotels in the Charleston area.
It's a big jump from where Aster Roof Cover Inc. was six years ago, operating out of a rented storage unit. The company now is a 10-person outfit about to outgrow a mini-warehouse in a North Charleston business park.
Gerace sits, infrequently, in his office there reconciling financial statements, with his graying hair slightly disheveled and his eyes taking in his surroundings almost as quickly as ideas spill from his mouth. He sports a bracelet embroidered with the word "Imagine."
"I'm a doer," he said. "Not a sitter."
And he's done a little bit of everything since trying to make his invention a success, from mixing the stuff to actually getting up on roofs and slathering it on.
After earning a doctorate in chemistry, the now-60-year-old began a career in Dayton, Ohio, doing research for large chemical corporations and the federal government. He stumbled upon, then leapt headfirst into, research on how the automotive industry could dispose of leftover paint.
Factories usually line up vehicles, spray paint into the air and let about 40 percent of it end up somewhere other than the cars. The result is a gooey, usually useless byproduct that doesn't easily break down and takes up precious space in landfills.
Gerace thought he'd found a use for the recycled paint polymers, also known in the industry as "sludge." He began work with a company in Mexico that quickly lost interest in his ideas, consulted with automaker Chrysler and finally found he wanted to make a go of things himself.
"But I'm a chemist, not a businessman," Gerace said. "It wasn't about money for me, although I'd like some."
That part of it has taken a while.
He worked through the late 1980s and early '90s to get patents on his product. He'd found a way to take the recycled paint, alter and layer it on gauzy fabric, and use it to seal aging roofs. The process was less expensive than replacing the roofs and longer-lasting and more durable than regular patching.
Gerace began slowly assembling a crew in Dayton, where he had a wife and four children. Work was spotty at best, and each November the cold weather essentially shut things down.
"(But) I just wouldn't give up," he said. "We went into a black hole. You just reach a point where you realize, 'This is what I do." There are going to be big ups and big downs and you just want to roll with them."
He came to Charleston in 1998 to visit a son who was in Navy training, and Gerace fell in love with the area. He stopped in to talk to folks at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and some economic development agencies and realized his business might thrive here all year long.
So he never left.
His roofing crew followed him from Dayton. His wife didn't.
But Gerace's been plugging away at it ever since.
Over the past year, he's begun making a dent in the roofing industry. He had more than $400,000 in sales and expects to top half a million dollars in 2005.
His company has done jobs for both the Charleston County and Dorchester District 2 school systems. When heavy rain damaged parts of West Ashley last spring, it was Gerace's recycled paint products that saved a roof at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary.
The company, which will be split into two entities called Roof Repair Inc. and Aster Roofing Products, also has done recent jobs at St. Joseph's Church and the Lodge Alley Inn in Charleston, a 100,000-square-foot roof at Linde Lift Truck in Summerville and roofing repairs for First Federal banks and the Fort Sumter House.
Though Gerace has for years been winning environmental and business awards for his invention, business has only recently picked up enough to give him the resources and personnel to expand.
The coming year will be the first time his company has mass-produced the product it uses. Until now Gerace had to contract out the mixing to a North Carolina firm big enough to produce the large volumes he needs, sometimes up to 2,500 gallons for a single job.
He's hoping the stand-alone companies will catch the interest of investors and someone will want to market his product on a larger scale.
"I don't know that it's going to revolutionize the industry," Gerace said. "But it definitely fills a need that's out there. And I think it's a real model for recycling. It's not just somebody waving a flag and saying it's a good idea, it actually makes good economic sense for businesses.
"For me, the word I keep thinking of is 'redemption,'" Gerace said. "You're redeeming something that has little value, turning it into something that has high value."
More than 100 million pounds of paint sludge are created just by the U.S. automotive industry each year, Gerace estimates. Much more is left over from appliance manufacturing, furniture making and home construction and renovation.
Gerace has different uses for much of it.
With the automotive wastes, his company makes its seamless sealer, which Gerace says can save his customers 25 percent to 75 percent compared with traditional roofing methods. It also contains no mineral fillers, which absorb water and often break down to cause leaks. Other sealing products contain up to 50 percent mineral filler, Gerace said.
The sealing can be done on small sections at a time to make it more cost-efficient for customers.
The ingredients also come cheap. Automotive manufacturers pay Gerace to take away excess paint. Right now, he has enough waste to last two or three years.
Gerace's company also takes household paint waste, which stacks up at recycling centers and usually winds up in landfills, and turns it into bedding cement. That's used to level uneven roofs or build up low-lying sections.
He has a deal with Home Depot to take gallons of unwanted and off-color paint, and he gets 300 gallons at a time from Charleston County's recycling center, which accepts leftovers straight out of people's garages.
Gregg Varner, director of solid waste for the county, said hundreds of gallons of paint waste are dropped off at the recycling center each year.
The center mixes and sells much of it at a discount to keep it out of landfills. The county also started a grant-funded program to truck leftover paint out of neighborhoods just to keep it from being thrown away.
"It's a major contaminant," Varner said. "We used to tell people to pour concrete mix into it and throw it away, but that's not very productive."
Now, a lot of the leftovers go straight to Gerace's roofing company. He supplies his own 50-gallon drums, and the recycling center fills them up with leftover paint in odd colors that don't always sell well.
"He takes the stuff nobody else wants," Varner said. "It completes the circle, and that's what a lot of recycling is about, taking a raw material and making something out of it."
MAN IN CHARGE:
--Michael Gerace, 60
--Born in New York
--Earned a doctorate in chemistry
--Was a corporate and government consultant
--Began patenting a roofing sealer made from paint wastes in Dayton in 1985
--Started Aster Roof Cover Inc. in North Charleston in 1999
--To form Roof Repair Inc. and Aster Roofing Products in Jan. 2005
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