ST. PAUL, Minn. - Two brothers own Minnkota Metals & Roofing, an architectural sheet metal company.

Some of Minnkota's employees.
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Summit Avenue here is considered one of the greatest collections of preserved Victorian era homes in the U.S. Along the street, not far from the state Capitol, are numerous historic mansions, home to the Twin Cities' early 20th century movers and shakers.

Restoration work on these homes is no easy task, and not many sheet metal workers can say they've had the chance to work on the long street's turn-of-the-century homes.

But Kevin and Mike Bristlin can. The brothers own Minnkota Metals & Roofing, an architectural sheet metal company based in the Minneapolis suburb of Spring Lake Park. In less than two years, they have built Minnkota into a firm with $850,000 in annual sales, a 2,700-sq.-ft. sheet metal shop and a growing list of satisfied customers.

Owning their own business was a longtime dream for the two men. They say starting their own architectural sheet metal company two years ago was the best thing they ever did. While statistics show that most new businesses fail within three years, the brothers predict Minnkota Metals & Roofing will be an exception.

"We always have plenty of work," Mike, 35, says, adding that the company always makes payroll. "And we haven't advertised yet at all. They find out about us."

Minnkota Metals & Roofing workers installed the copper roof on this cupola in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Staying busy

It does appear that the "secret" of Minnkota Metals is getting around: The company expects to fabricate and install sheet metal on more than 70 major jobs this year, including some that will reach into the $100,000-plus-level. Minnkota workers will also fabricate sheet metal for hundreds of smaller jobs around the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

So what is the secret to success when launching a new construction company at a time when the U.S. economy is in a recession?

"I think it's because we do a lot of specialty work," Mike says. "We do a lot of upscale homes. Most people can't afford us.

"And I guess we don't try to gouge people on the prices. That makes a difference."

Minnkota Metals & Roofing was started by the Bristlin brothers in April, 2000. The name is a reference to the company's original location in northwestern Minnesota, close to the North Dakota border, where the brothers did a lot of work before moving to the company's current location near the Twin Cities.

Mike and Kevin are not newcomers to the construction industry. For more than a decade, each worked with their father, Robert, who owns RDB Builders in Detroit Lakes, Minn. It was while doing metal work for RDB that Kevin and Mike decided they would go off on their own to concentrate on the niche architectural sheet metal market.

"The thing I like about sheet metal work is that it's clean, it's a good product for roofing and there are endless possibilities of what you can do with metal," Mike says.

This St. Louis Park, Minn. home's metal fence was installed by Minnkota.

'I get a thrill'

For the 39-year-old Kevin, the greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that work he did with his own hands will last for generations.

"I get a thrill," he says. "I can't even drive through a neighborhood and not see a job we didn't work on somewhere."

And from the company's portfolio, it seems as if the firm's work is just about everywhere in the region. From state-run rest stops along interstates to standing seam metal roofs on homes in some of the wealthiest Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbs, Minnkota has covered a lot of area - literally.

One of the most unusual jobs the brothers took on was replacing a leaking, earthen-covered concrete roof in Roseville, Minn. The owners had long had problems with water, and Kevin and Mike soon discovered why: A previous owner had built a two-story addition on the drain side of the earth home. Since the roof was covered in more than four feet of dirt, it was impossible to tell without digging that the roof was pitched downward in the direction of the addition. And without redesigning and replacing the roof, it was also impossible to do anything about the leaks.

"Nobody would even touch it," Kevin says. "There was a lot of leg work (involved)."

To fix the problem, a Bobcat backhoe was lifted by crane onto the dirt roof, where the dirt and roof's foam insulation were removed. Minnkota Metals workers then built trusses that pitched down and away from the addition. They installed new decking and replaced the addition's earth roof with a 24-ga. standing seam roof and gutter, insulating it with 16 in. of blown-in cellulose insulation. Kevin says the house is barely recognizable from what was there before.

"It was quite an ordeal," adds Mike. "But the guy was happy."

The brothers say running their own business has also been an ordeal. Changing roles from employees to employers has led to many 90-hour workweeks and more than a few headaches.

"We can't find any good sheet metal workers," Mike says. "If they've got a good job, they're always working and they don't need any more work."

Not that Mike is complaining.

"It's been a challenge," he says. "But it's ours."