Letitia Hanke views replacing or repairing roofs as opportunities to rescue people from major home improvement problems. Much like she was rescued by a music teacher from classmates who harassed her because of the color of her skin.
Hanke grew up in the small town of Middletown, Calif., where by her count there were only a half dozen black kids in her school district. She was bullied on a daily basis.
“I would either be spit on, someone would steal my lunch, or I’d be called some kind of terrible name,” recalls Hanke. “So, I was a very depressed little kid.”
Fortunately, someone noticed Hanke’s difficulties and aimed to make a difference in her life. One of her music teachers pulled her aside, put a trumpet in her hands, and spent time every day at lunch teaching her how to play, in an effort to keep her away from her hurtful classmates. By the time she was eight years old, Hanke was good enough to play in the high school band.
“It took just one person like my teacher to come to my rescue and that changed my life forever,” says Hanke. “I really wanted to pay that forward for the rest of my life, which is how I got into roofing.”
How Does a Musician Become a Roofer?
Hanke followed her passion for music all the way to Sonoma State University, but by the time she reached her junior year she decided that she needed to find a well-paying job. She landed a receptionist position for a roofing company, where she worked hard to prove herself and climb the company ladder.
Year after year she accepted new roles in the business, rising from receptionist to manager to field supervisor, before making a commitment that would cement her future in the roofing industry.
“The owner told me that he wanted me to buy his company when he retired,” says Hanke. “I was so young–around 24 years old–but I said sure I’ll be a roofer.”
Over the next four years, she was trained and learned the ins and outs of roofing. She climbed roofs and did the dirty work because she knew she couldn’t just learn how to do it by reading a book. When the owner of the business eventually retired in 2004, Hanke took control of her very own company–ARS Roofing.
Overcoming A Less-Than-Warm Welcome
Early in her business venture Hanke hid who she was because customers weren’t welcoming to a black woman in an industry led predominantly by white males. She would sign her name on contracts as “LR Hanke” so customers thought they were being quoted by a man. And she wouldn’t put her face on anything.
“I had customers who felt I didn’t know what I was talking about because I’m a female,” she says. “Some people refused to shake my hand or didn’t want to open their doors for me because I’m African American.”
An incident she had with a particular client led her to seeing things differently and she rebranded her business by embracing who she is. With her face on everything and her name spelled out everywhere, Hanke’s business boomed.
“When I do business with people now, I am doing business with people who want to do business with me,” she says. “It's a much more enjoyable experience.”
A Business Built By Giving Back
Hanke has earned a lot of individual accolades as a result of her efforts to give back to her community, including receiving the 2018 Walmart Community Playmaker Award from the Golden State Warriors and being named the 2021 National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) Spirit Education Awardee.
In fact, many of the sales at ARS are made because customers like that they are giving back to a good cause with their purchase. That cause is a nonprofit Hanke started called The LIME Foundation.
LIME is her son’s name–Emil–spelled backwards. Emil came home from school one day at the age of seven upset about being bullied, including being called “Lime”. When Hanke was trying to come up with a name for her nonprofit, this was an obvious choice to her.
“Lime reminds me every day that a lot of our young people deal with bullying and self-harm and self-loathing, and that they need someone to come to their rescue to help them through those bad times,” she says. “And that's what my nonprofit is all about.”
ARS donates up to 5% of the earnings from each job to The LIME Foundation. The organization gives back to at-risk or disadvantaged members of the community through three areas: education, vocational training in the construction trades, and assistance to seniors.
Hope That Others Will Pay It Forward
ARS has 20+ employees who Hanke considers a tight-knit family with common goals of giving back and doing the right job for their customers. Just as her music teacher rescued her, Hanke considers what she’s doing through her business to be a form of rescuing of customers from bad situations.
“I'm able to take care of their roof leaks and make sure they have a functioning roof over their heads,” she says. “The joy that it brings me to be able to help others is what fuels me.”
Hanke admits that she could have gone down a bad path as a result of the bullying she endured. But someone was there to help guide her in a different direction. And she wants others to do the same.
“My hope is that someone reads my story and decides that they can make a difference for others, too,” she says.