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As industry tightens, Southern Rib Roof seeks projects outside established self-storage niche

Bryan Johnson, Jack Johnson and Thomas Wirth at the construction site of Germantown Storage, a 61,000-square-foot self-storage facility on Hacks Cross

Nick Robbins, president of Southern Rib Roof Inc., presents a challenge to those unfamiliar with the work his firm does: drive down any five-mile stretch of Poplar Avenue and count how many self-storage complexes populate the roadside.

Although his own company may not have erected all of the steel structures, there’s a good chance that Rib Roof Metal Systems Inc., the now-defunct predecessor to Robbins’ steel construction firm, had a hand in most of them.

From the onset of the early self-storage startups, Rib Roof became a big name and ended up training and creating its own competition over 30 years. As recently as 10 years ago, Rib Roof was doing $30 million per year in self-storage.

Investors embarked to pursue other interests and Robbins saw an opportunity to accumulate various assets.

He essentially restarted the company under the current name in June 2009 and affiliated with Chief Buildings Inc., a Grand Island, Neb.-based manufacturer of metal building systems. Adjusting to a cut-throat market impacted by the economic downturn, the firm that once relied almost exclusively on self-storage has diversified its interests and created a name for itself in the national metal construction industry.

“Self-storage as an investment is rock-solid,” Robbins says, adding that investors have been known to cover their initial investments in as few as five years. However, in response to a sluggish economy, Southern Rib Roof has invested in itself, branching out of its comfortable niche in self-storage.

“If it has the word ‘Delta,’ it seems that we are destined to put a new roof on it,” Robbins says, referring to work scheduled for the Delta Fire Station in Cleveland, Miss. and the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksville, Miss.

The firm has also completed a new roofing system in Jonestown, Miss. — for Delta Oil Mill.

Robbins estimates that 40 to 50 percent of the work currently on the books is self-storage, including a contract for a 61,000-square-foot Germantown Storage facility at 3275 Hacks Cross Road.

Jack Johnson, managing partner of Germantown Storage LLC with his son, Bryan, and son-in-law, Thomas Wirth, continues to develop and contract self-storage work throughout the Memphis area. He and Robbins’ history dates back to when Robbins encountered the developer while working as an estimator.

Whereas the times have changed, Robbins’ core business ideology has not: he calls customer service the essence of any company, and his is exceptionally cognizant of that.

“Jack knows that he can call us if something goes wrong and we’re over there in 10 minutes,” Robbins says.

Before first contracting work from Rib Roof in 1997, Johnson relied almost exclusively upon Texas firms to complete steel construction work at his projects. In the case of emergency maintenance, he was more or less on his own.

“I didn’t even know we had a company here that did what I was doing,” Johnson says. “They did an excellent job the very first time and ever since then, for everything we do, we use Rib Roof on it.”

In the last 31 years, Johnson has developed nearly two dozen facilities in and around Memphis. Germantown Storage, located at 428 Germantown Parkway and completed last year, included a $475,000 contract for steel construction secured by Southern Rib Roof.

In the heritage of his forebear, Robbins has brought himself and his company to the forefront of metal construction. The firm has secured licenses to perform work in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and various other states, and Metal Construction News, a leading newsmagazine of the industry, recently featured the firm as one of the top six metal contractors in the nation.

“We know a builder’s long-term goals when we start a project,” Robbins says. “We build the first project, but we’re looking ahead to the third and fourth.”

Read more: As industry tightens, Southern Rib Roof seeks projects outside established self-storage niche | Memphis Business Journal