by Steve Ahern

Amid an aggregation of self-storage garages in Mt. Airy, atop a narrow, concrete lane, is Apple Roofing Company. Mike Mulhern, its 57-year-old owner, stands in his office that is capacious enough to practice long or short putts on slow days, like today when the mild winter and hot, dry summer have silenced his business phone.

Michael Mulhern (right), owner of Apple Roofing, a 25-year-old firm in Mt. Airy, is seen on the roof of a building in center city (very dangerous work) with two of his workers, Alexander Glubish (next to Mulhern) and Slavik Nykolyk. Both workers are from Ukraine. (Photo by Steve Ahern)

On such days, Mulhern may gaze out of his office window overlooking a sea of tree limbs and leaves and think about his son, who married three weeks ago, his daughter, who will graduate with a degree in nursing in December, her final tuition payments, his golf game, which he concedes is not very good, or a Bible passage he read after awaking at 5 a.m., a practice he has followed for 20 years.

What may stir him from his reverie is the realization that he has been the owner of a successful roofing company for the last 25 years. Mulhern, who lives in Willow Grove, had no family members in the roofing business. Growing up as the third of five children in a crowded home with one bathroom, Mulhern watched his father, an accountant for Atlantic Richfield for 30 years, hustle to remain out of the red, taking part-time jobs as a drivers’ education instructor and grocery store clerk. His dad made it clear, if only tacitly, that if Mulhern wanted anything, including a college education, he would have to work very hard to earn it.

After high school, Mulhern took a job in a factory, placing light bulbs on hooks for nearly two years, fretting all the while about the possibility of reprimand if he made a mistake serious enough to halt production. He fled that job for Florida, where he worked outdoors, installing fences and contemplating his future.

He shared a studio apartment in West Palm Springs with a childhood friend, Richard Blyler, with whom he now owns MacIntosh Construction. But the disillusioning prospect of toiling on an assembly line for the foreseeable future prompted his return to the Abington home of his parents and to his enrollment in Montgomery County Community College.

An FBI career aroused Mulhern’s interest. He earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice and transferred to Temple University. But to pay for tuition, he took a job at Kurtz Roofing, beginning at rock bottom by picking up the garbage and tiles tossed off the roofs by more experienced workers. Over time, he worked his way up to roofs of varying pitches and slopes, learning to lay courses of shingle, apply copper flashing to the chimneys and install metal in the roof valleys for proper drainage. After nearly six years, he had become adept in all facets of roofing.

Around the time Mulhern earned a degree from Temple, a federal government hiring freeze prevented him from fulfilling his FBI ambition, so he continued to gain experience in roofing sales, estimating residential and commercial roofing jobs and working for a roofing materials company. After gaining more and more confidence, he started Apple Roofing in 1987 with a friend for seven years from Kurtz Roofing.

In his nearly 35 years in the field, Mulhern feels fortunate to have avoided serious injury.  But he has been exposed many times to the perils of a job ranked by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics as the sixth most dangerous in the U.S. with 32.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. In 1989, Mulhern’s co-owner, who supervised production crews, fell from a roof to his death. Currently, one of Mulhern’s roofers is sidelined by an injury incurred when the cover of a saw blade he was using to cut a metal roof failed to close, slicing open his eyeball.

“Injuries are commonplace,” Mulhern said. “That’s why we pay so much in workers’ compensation.” Mulhern pays over $30 per $100 earned, as compared to $1.25 per $100 earned for an office clerk. He maintains that the skill level of his roofers and the safety training meetings his staff conducts reduce the job-related injuries, but the compensation for a roofer, ranging from $15 to $27 per hour, is not nearly enough.

“Someone making $20 to $25 dollars an hour is standing on a steep three-story building,” Mulhern said. “It’s worth more than that. Competition doesn’t allow it, but they should get paid more.”

Mulhern finds the office stifling and looks for ways out of it through a sales call or visit to a job currently in progress. On a clear, hot morning, Mulhern drives his pick-up truck topped with ladders to the Eisenhower Foundation on South 16th Street, where a crew of five workers is two hours into their fifth day of installing an asphalt-shingle roof. The roofers, all of them Ukrainian, stand atop the steep, gable-style roof of the three-story building, the façade of which is shrouded in scaffolding and a trash shoot, which sends the shorn roof tiles to a 10-yard-long dumpster. A dusty roofer on trash detail greets Mulhern at street level. Their conversation is short above the clamor of traffic, as Mulhern ascends the ladder to the first level and a staircase that will take him to the top. “Comin’ up,” he shouts.

It has taken the roofers nearly one eight-hour workday to remove the four layers of existing roofing, enough to fill a 30-yard dumpster and part of a 10-yard dumpster. One of the roofers, Alexander Glubish, points around the roof, most of which now contains an underlayment nailed to plywood sheathing except for a small area exposing wood rafters.

“It’s almost finished,” Glubish says. “Now we’re going to put copper around the chimney and then do the tiles.”

At 9:30 a.m., it’s 87 degrees. The air is dense, and rivulets of sweat will flow this afternoon in earnest; shirts will be changed when the temperature climbs past 95 degrees.

“We try to find some shade,” Glubish says, “but it is really hot!”

Mulhern warns employees of the extreme weather conditions prior to their hire. “I tell them that summers are too hot and winters too cold, and the fall and spring pass too quickly,” said Mulhern of his production crew, made up of five Ukrainians, a Bosnian and six Americans. “It seems like there are more and more immigrants coming into the field today. They have the work ethic this country was built on many years ago that we have kind of lost.”

On the way back to his office, Mulhern drives up Ridge Avenue, slowing at homes where his company has done work through the years, homes with roofs of terra cotta, wood-shingle, slate or asphalt tiles. Mulhern estimates that 80% of the work his company does is on homes that are over 100 years old and within a five-mile radius of his Mt. Airy business. “I could point all day,” Mulhern said. “If you do good work, you don’t have to travel far to find work.”

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