Roofs shelter and protect what we love: our families at home, our children at school, ourselves at work and play. We don’t think about where roofs come from; we’re just glad they’re there.
Many of our roofs, on residences and commercial buildings from Whatcom County throughout the West Coast to Pacific Rim countries and beyond, are made in Sumas at an IKO Industries manufacturing plant. About 150 employees here make asphalt residential roofing shingles, commercial roofing membranes, and products used underneath roofs to protect from ice and water. The Sumas plant primarily serves the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia for residential products, said Derek Fee, corporate communications manager, and serves western states for commercial products as well as allied products, such as synthetic underlayment.
“(Sumas) is also the principal manufacturing hub for the export market in the Pacific Rim,” Fee said. “It is the principal supplier to one of our important customers in Japan, for instance.”
By volume, the Sumas plant manufactures shingles primarily, and commercial roofing secondarily, Fee said.
“It’s important to remember that there are a lot more shingle roofs than commercial flat roofs, so that’s not surprising,” Fee said.
The big picture
The Sumas plant and employees are part of a much larger IKO picture. The privately held company has more than 35 manufacturing sites and 4,000 employees globally, and it ships product to 96 countries. IKO was founded in 1951 in Calgary, Alberta, by a Polish immigrant to Canada, and the company is still owned by that family. After Calgary, IKO opened a plant near Toronto in 1958, in Belgium in 1972, and in Ontario in 1976. In 1981, IKO opened plants in Chicago; Franklin, Ohio; and Wilmington, Delaware.
IKO built its Sumas facility in the late 1990s and opened it in 1999. The facility’s manufacturing and storage buildings are 280,000 square feet on a 20-acre site, and it is one of eight IKO shingle plants in North America. The company’s manufacturing sites include commercial roofing plants, insulation plants and affiliated businesses throughout North America and Europe. North American headquarters are in Toronto, with an administrative office in Wilmington, Delaware. European headquarters are in Belgium.
IKO is vertically integrated, meaning it makes almost every component that goes into its products and manages operations from raw materials to sales, allowing the company to control quality. For example, the Sumas plant includes a crusher that crushes limestone into a substance as fine as baby powder. That filler is added to asphalt, which topcoats the shingles. The filler increases the shingles’ surface tackiness and provides a broader tolerance to temperature. The original crusher at Sumas was replaced with a new one in 2019.
Sumas was a first
When the Sumas plant was built, it was a first for IKO in that it had a residential shingle manufacturing line and a commercial ice-and-water protection production line in the same facility. It was also the first “greenfield” U.S. site in the company’s history, meaning the land had not been built on before. IKO’s other U.S. plants at the time (Wilmington, Chicago, Franklin) had been acquired out of receivership from other manufacturers. “Sumas was the first build-to-suit site of its kind in the U.S. and is the forerunner of all of the modern plants we have built since,” Fee said.
“Really, the Sumas facility came into existence because of the growth of IKO’s markets in the United States,” Fee said. “Up until the early 1980s, IKO did not have any U.S. manufacturing facilities, and the U.S. remains a growth market to this day.”
Projections from the market research company Technavio, reported on prnewswire.com, forecast in early autumn 2022 that the roofing market in North America was expected to grow by $4.28 billion between 2021 and 2026, with rapid urbanization contributing to that growth. Indeed, Whatcom County has seen growth, with the county increasing from 201,000 people in 2010 to 232,000 now, and Bellingham going from 80,000 people in 2010 to 93,910 now.
The expectation was that the roofing market would grow due to strengthening consumer finances, lower interest rates and decreasing unemployment, thereby supporting new construction in general across the country.
That outlook, and the entire construction industry, has been tempered by a whiplash surge in mortgage rates. The news organization Reuters reported that U.S. homebuilding fell sharply in October, with housing starts decreasing 4.2% that month and single-family projects dropping to their lowest level nationally in 2 1/2 years.
What’s ahead for Sumas?
“The Sumas facility remains an important location for IKO because it houses both residential and commercial manufacturing lines in the same location, one of a very few sites of its kind in our manufacturing chain,” Fee said. He added that the Sumas plant, like employers everywhere, is encountering pandemic-related challenges in recruitment and staffing.
“Additionally, the market as a whole has seen a slowdown with the current economic conditions, so the longer-term view has shorter-term demands at the moment.”
Luckily for us in Whatcom County and for people across the globe, employees at IKO’s Sumas plant will keep producing roofing products to shelter people at home, school, work and play.