Cousins Crockett (left) and Houston Herbert look at plans for one of R.D. Herbert & Sons' current projects.
NASHVILLE - There probably aren't too many multimillion dollar companies where the president is the first person you see when you walk through the door. But that's the case at R.D. Herbert & Sons Co., a sheet metal and roofing contractor with deep Southern roots that go back to the 1860s.

Sixty-nine-year-old Betty Herbert, who answers every phone call and greets every visitor, is president, although you won't see any signs or a nameplate with the title. She doesn't have an office. She won't even tell you, unless you ask. But make no mistake: Betty is in charge. She knows about every job and how much money was made - or lost.

"She knows everything that's going on. Everything," says Betty's son, Houston. "It just goes to show you that this is truly a family business."

R.D. Herbert & Sons Co. was founded in 1947, although the family likes to point out that a relative has owned a construction business in Nashville since 1865, when William G. Bush sold masonry and building supplies from a storefront on the banks of the Cumberland River.

For more than 50 years, the company has specialized in duct fabrication, roofing installation and other architectural, commercial and industrial sheet metal applications throughout the greater Nashville area. Today it's one of the largest sheet metal firms in the region, with annual sales of $8 million.

Much of Herbert & Sons' growth came under Robert David Herbert III, who ran the company from the mid-1960s until his death in 1998. But Herbert, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, originally wanted --no part of the family business.

The gambler

In a 1989 interview with the Nashville Business Journal, Herbert told how he moved to Greece after graduation in the early 1960s to live in a 10th century monastery and write novels. Out of money and realizing he was a lousy writer, he returned to Nashville a year later and begrudgingly took a job at Herbert & Sons.

"But after a while, I started to like the business and found out I was cut out for it," Herbert told the Journal. "I've always been a gambler, and roofing is a lot like playing poker: It's a gamble all the way down the line."

As it grew, R.D. Herbert expanded its services to include historical restoration projects and metal fabrication for highly specialized applications such as stainless steel for elevators and copper for kitchen hoods, church steeples and even sculptures.

In 1987, R.D. Herbert moved into its current facilities, a $1.3 million, 25,000-sq.-ft. structure designed to reflect the company and its heritage. The exterior is a mix of red brick and concrete blocks - the same type of products Bush offered for sale in 1865.

The roof is standing seam copper with stainless steel accents. Inside, the office floor is made of slate, a material most commonly used for roofing. And no drop ceilings or acoustical tile in this office: the hvac system's exposed spiral ductwork hangs overhead.

"One of his goals was to show off everything we do," Houston says.

Even the location, just outside downtown, was selected with an eye towards the past -the Herbert family's original masonry business was started less than a mile away.

After Herbert's death, his wife Betty took over the company. Although she is quick to point out that she rarely came into the office prior to her husband's passing, she would often accompany him on visits to job sites. "I have climbed on many roofs and held many tapes," she says. "Such is the life of a wife married to a sheet metal/roofing company owner."

But today, most of R.D. Herbert's day-to-day operations are handled by Houston and Betty's nephew, Crockett Herbert, an arrangement that suits her just fine.

"They're the ones who are going to be here when I'm gone. It's up to them to do excellent work and please our customers," she says, adding that as company president, if they don't, "I'm the first one who gets laid out."

Betty Herbert is R.D. Herbert's president. She also acts as receptionist.

Family traditions

Vice presidents Houston, 39, and Crockett, 38, represent the seventh generation of the family in the sheet metal and roofing industries. Both grew up installing roofs with Herbert crews during the summer.

"I love the excitement of it," Houston says of his job. "It truly is like my father said, 'a gamble every time you wake up.'"

And R.D. Herbert has been luckier than many. While some sheet metal shops have struggled lately, Herbert has managed to stay busy. Most of the company's 125 employees work 40 hours a week year-round - unusual even in the South. The 40 employees of the sheet metal division are members of Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) Local 177 in Nashville, while the 67 roofing workers are represented by Local 176 of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers.

Herbert has always prided itself on having a loyal employee base, and workers who have 20, 30 or even 40 years with the firm are not uncommon.

"We haven't laid off anybody in years. The goal with this company is to try to give people a lifelong career," Houston says.

Employees at Herbert aren't the only things with a little age: The sheet metal shop includes a lot of vintage equipment, including duct fabrication machines that Crockett acknowledges just aren't used a lot anymore.

"The long run, low margin ductwork was no longer an attractive thing to produce," he says. "Now we lean toward architectural sheet metal as a way to stay ahead of the market."

Big city

It's where Crockett and Houston say the company really shines. The Nashville skyline is dotted with Herbert's work. From the roof of the State Capitol to the gutters on historic Ryman Auditorium, original home of the venerable Grand Ole Opry, tourists or residents would be hard pressed not to walk by one of their past projects.

But perhaps most sacred to the Herbert family is the company's work on several churches in the city. "That's the kind of work we go after - the really special jobs not everybody can handle," Houston says. "They're just incredible projects. The men love them."

Herbert's secular clients are like a Fortune 500 list of the New South: Nissan, Caterpillar, South Central Bell and U.S. Tobacco all have buildings in which Herbert had a hand. And a display stand crafted by Herbert workers sits in the Smithsonian Institution.

For the last 10 months, the firm's largest project has been installing architectural details at the new $95 million Vanderbilt University medical research buildings. More than 40 members of Herbert's sheet metal and roofing crews were needed to install fluted fascia panels, metal shingles, formal wall and ribbed panels and louvers.

The 365,000-sq. ft. structure is being built in two phases. When completed in May 2003, the buildings will be used for biological science and medical research, including the study of genetics.

Seeing such buildings when they're finished gives Crockett a keen sense of satisfaction.

"You've got to have something for all the long hours you put in," he says, and smiles.