This Man Climbed the Ladder by Sticking With Gutters
“I had no idea what gutters were,” recalls Jimmy Olang, who moved from Nairobi, Kenya, to LaGrange-ville, N.Y., in 2001 after waiting a decade for a visa. He’d met Ken Parsons, owner of The Brothers That Just Do Gutters, when Parsons was on a mission trip to Kenya four years earlier; once in the U.S., Olang looked him up.
“He told me that if I ever made it to the U.S., he’d have a job for me,” Olang says. “We didn’t have gutters in Nairobi. The job description made no sense to me. Kenny said to just come the next morning and he’d show me.”
Olang arrived in shorts and flip-flops and set out with Parsons to do home gutter installations, learning about steel-toe boots, downspouts and elbow joints along the way. “Jimmy had no idea about tools or how to put things together,” Parsons says. “But he was good at using his hands and is a pretty accomplished artist and painter. He picked things up quickly.”
That’s an understatement. A little over a decade after his humble start at The Brothers That Just Do Gutters, Olang became one of the company’s first franchisees. In the years since arriving in the U.S., he put himself through college and worked his way up to head installer before hanging his shingle in his wife’s hometown of Allentown, Pa.
We asked Olang to share the details of his journey.
How did you adjust to the U.S.?
There are two kinds of lifestyles in Kenya: village life and city life. In the village people have bare feet and ripped shorts. They cook over firewood and go to the river to fetch water. I lived that life with my grandparents. Then I moved to Nairobi when I was 12. I was introduced to modern stuff and started going to the mall. I also studied for a few months in Germany before moving here, so when I came to the U.S. a lot of things didn’t feel so different. Except the cold winters!
What were your initial goals?
I grew up with humble beginnings. I got up at 5 and tended the tomatoes and goats and chickens, then took a cold bath and made breakfast. Then I walked to school two miles in bare feet. And back again for lunch and then back to school. Things like that taught us the value of hard work. I always said in Kenya if I had an opportunity to come to America I would work so hard. I worked two jobs and went to school and ended up with a degree in communication arts.
Why did you stay in the gutter business after earning a degree?
It brought me a sense of loyalty. Ken and his brother Ryan are good people. Even during moments of frustration, like when I was thinking I should be paid more, I knew this was a good place to work.
At first there was no path to progress. I was paid minimum wage and went home. But the brothers began thinking much bigger. They started reading management books and attending leadership seminars. They introduced a new company culture, and they began investing in themselves and the people who worked for them. They started training us in customer service, safety, product knowledge, even how to carry ourselves. They were this tiny company, but they were running it like a Fortune 500 company! Then they began a program called a “skills ladder” that gave people a path to move up. I really embraced that.
Why did you become a franchisee?
I lost my second job last year. That was the job we got our insurance through, and my wife was pregnant with our second child. I went to Ryan and asked if he could boost my pay. He said I was a huge asset to the company. I thought he might give me an extra dollar here or there, but he gave me $4 more per hour and put me in charge of the safety committee. Then he said they were working on becoming a franchise. My wife and I told him we were interested. It took a year and a half to get things going.
How is it now?
I’ve been given extensive training, and now they’re helping walk us through the pitfalls they’ve already experienced. Luckily my wife is a math whiz. If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be doing this. I’d be losing my head! We have constant help from Ryan and Kenny, and we’re making big progress.