Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

From the streets of Detroit to building a fortune

Hail and wind destroy roofs like addictions wreck lives. Scott Riopelle replaces roofs and repairs broken people. As the owner of interstate roofing, he has made fortunes by fixing big messes - including himself

Published: May 4, 2023 01:11:30 PM IST
Updated: May 18, 2023 06:02:10 PM IST

From the streets of Detroit to building a fortuneAs a teenager on the streets of Detroit, Riopelle was a high school dropout looking for his next meal. His auto-worker parents suffered from the decline of Detroit’s auto manufacturing. Abusing drugs and alcohol, Riopelle was in and out of trouble with the law.

Then, he took an entry level roofing job that would change his life. Despite a series of setbacks, Riopelle earned a personal fortune. While pursuing success, he inspired and taught more than 100 associates to remake themselves as multimillionaires.

With a net worth of more than $70 million, Riopelle owns and operates Interstate — among the largest and most trusted roofing companies based in Colorado.

Riopelle has repaired the wreckage of more than 140 hailstorms and hurricanes, selling and installing over 100,000 roofs and insurance claims that generated close to $1 billion.

Newly sober and in need of a new start in his early 20s, Riopelle moved to Colorado in the late 1990s. He knocked on doors for a now-defunct Colorado roofing company. He was good at it. Having been rejected by family and friends, he shook it off when prospective customers slammed doors in his face.

Riopelle worked six-to-seven days a week, sleeping on a blow-up mattress. There was one big problem with his new work.

“I wasn’t getting my pay checks on time. Or, the pay check would bounce,” Riopelle said. “Guys like me depended on that money to feed their families.”

Meanwhile, Riopelle saw company managers driving flashy new pickups and motorcycles. They routinely missed work. Riopelle expressed exasperation to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. The sponsor said, “hey, kid, let’s start our own business.”

“He did not invest money. He gave me confidence and direction,” Riopelle said.

At the sponsor’s nudge, Riopelle registered a trade name with the city. He printed flyers and devised standard customer contracts. His door-to-door tenacity quickly generated roofing jobs and income for a company no one had heard of.

After years of success, fate nearly killed him. As Riopelle left an AA meeting in 2004, a drunk driver led cops on a high-speed chase. The fleeing suspect smashed into Riopelle’s car. The crash killed Riopelle’s passenger and friend. It broke Riopelle’s back, injured his head and left him in a 10-week coma in critical condition.

The collision took its place among multiple hardships that challenged Riopelle’s sobriety. Along his path to success, his stepfather killed Riopelle’s mother in a murder suicide. Another drunk driver, back home in Michigan, left his brother severely disabled. Riopelle supports and cares for the sibling.

As Riopelle lingered on life support, his employees sold and installed roofing. They respected the man who paid them on time and taught them to succeed in business and life.

“When I woke up in the hospital, I was a millionaire,” Riopelle explains.

A rags-to-riches success, for sure. But a broken one with a brain injury and debilitating pain from the crash. In his suffering, Riopelle struggled not to relapsed and he didn’t.

“I look back at these young athletes that get big contracts and make bad decisions. Looking back that was me,” Riopelle said.

The bad decisions led to a three-year prison term for unlawful firearms possession. He recalls his early days at the Federal Correctional Institute in Englewood, Colorado.

“A message was carved into the wall of my cell. It said ‘I, Timothy McVeigh, was sentenced to death today.’ I was in a cell previously occupied by this mass killer. That’s when I knew I was in serious trouble.”

McVeigh — the Oklahoma City bomber — was confined in that prison during his trial and sentencing in Denver’s federal court.

From prison, Riopelle shut down his company and set his sights on the future. He befriended other inmates. He told them how he made a fortune with a roofing business started from scratch. He taught them what it entailed. If he could succeed, he told them, so could they.

Trust and reputation are the highest assets in roofing, as unscrupulous charlatans always chase storms. From confinement, Riopelle worked through his accountant to pay all outstanding bills. Upon his release, on June 5 of 2008, Riopelle’s reputation was good for a man just out of prison.

“One of my vendors said ‘I've been in this business for decades and I've seen a lot of people go to jail. No one has ever written me a quarter-million-dollar check from a prison cell.’ He and others were ready to give me another chance,” Riopelle explained.

Going from prison to a halfway house, Riopelle started a new company while wearing an ankle bracelet. He had $20,000 remaining from his previous start-up.

“A lot of my former employees came back to work for me because everybody knew, even though I went to prison, I paid everybody. I didn’t stiff anybody,” Riopelle said.

Riopelle retained the sobriety he regained in prison. Just as before, his business quickly turned a profit. After his successful re-start, the owner of Interstate Roofing called. The 2008 recession was taking a toll on established roofing brands throughout the country. Riopelle was defying the trend.

“I was the only one who didn’t know there was a recession. I had been in prison and wasn’t paying attention. So, I was working as if everything was normal,” Riopelle said. “I never had a recession mindset because I knew nothing about it.

The owner of Interstate asked Riopelle to partner with him in return for half ownership. Riopelle accepted. After helping grow the company, he bought it outright from his partner.

As the company expanded, so did Riopelle’s need for employees. Riopelle heard from fellow inmates, those he had coached in the roofing business, as they completed their sentences and transitioned to halfway houses. Riopelle hired them. He discovered people who fall and recover make the best employees.

“Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said of giving people a second chance. “But when it works out, it really works out. There is a level of loyalty and gratitude that is hard to find.”

Since starting over, Riopelle has seen more than 100 apprentices who have worked under him — including former inmates — start roofing companies and build personal fortunes. Riopelle believes there is always room for new roofers. They succeed by following his lead — by working hard and earning high reputations of trust. Demand will falter the day storms retire and no one builds structures.

“You can succeed in this business, especially now when so few people are willing to work hard. You must be self-motivated and willing to listen. You must follow directions. You should work under somebody like me for a couple of years before going out on your own. I’ve seen a lot of people make it. Some who don’t, come back to work for me with more skills and discipline.”

Riopelle recalls leveraging a storm that devastated roofs throughout Omaha, Neb., in 2013. He set up shop in a low-cost Super 8 motel and began selling roofing jobs. Afterwards, he reviewed receipts with his CPA.

“She said, ‘Scott, why are you staying at a budget motel?’ I said, ‘well, I’m trying to save money.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Scott, you’re a millionaire. At least stay in a Marriott.’ I said, ‘a millionaire?’ She said ‘Scott, you are a multi-millionaire.’ I had no idea. It took a while to set in.”

To diversify his portfolio, Riopelle invests in tangible assets. He is a builder and owner of apartment complexes and other properties. He bought and renovated the old Coors mansion near Downtown Denver, which he leases as luxury housing. It all generates “mailbox money, the American dream.”

Riopelle thanks God for 22 years-strait of sobriety. He thanks him for the forgiveness and trust society extended to him. He donates graciously to his church and other charities. He builds at least one roof each year at no cost for a family, business or non-profit enduring hardship.

Ten years after eschewing low-rent motels, Riopelle’s success has barely changed his lifestyle or approachable working-man persona. He shrugs away temptations for a limousine, yacht or private jet. High-priced amenities are fine for those who want them, he said, and roofing can put them within reach of anyone willing to work and succeed. Most high-end luxuries simply do not suit his comfort zone.

Upon meeting strangers at high-end gatherings, Riopelle unpretentiously introduces himself. “Hi, I’m Scott. I’m a roofer,” he says, never mentioning his company with nearly a billion in revenues. He drives a Chevy Tahoe, wears t-shirts from Walmart and Air Jordan shoes. He parents his three children in a relatively modest north Denver home.

“I’m a simple person, and I like it that way,” Riopelle said. “You can succeed and hold onto the best of your former life. For anyone willing to work hard and learn, I suggest roofing as an option.”

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