Talk to Ben and Derrick Smith and their dad Bill about their two businesses — Mildew Busters and East End Waterproofing — and at times three cheerful, enthusiastic people are answering your questions all at once as two big Chesapeake retrievers wag at their feet.
Their two businesses recently won annual “Best of” awards from the readers of Dan’s Papers. Ben, 27, will eagerly tell you the companies have won nine “Best of” awards over the years, the first in 2006.
They got together to chat outside a big shingled house in North Haven where Ben, who handles the jobs for Mildew Busters, had been slung from a rope cleaning and sealing the cedar shakes on an ample, steeply pitched roof.
Derrick, who handles East End Waterproofing, is 24. Over the winter of 2007-2008 he left college when his dad called to say that he and Ben had landed a winter job taking a yacht to the Caribbean.
“I was at school and I wasn’t feeling it,” Derrick said of his time as a freshman at SUNY Delhi, “and ah …”
“I think you went to school thinking it was going to be some type of school and it turned out to be kind of a technical school, really, right?” Bill interrupted. “Is that right, Rick? Air conditioning and electronics?”
“And then you called one day,” Derrick went on, “and said you got that job on the boat … and it was coming to the end of the semester …”
“And the next thing we know,” Bill said, “you were coming around the corner in the BMW.”
“And you made it to Florida in 18 hours,” Ben said.
East End Waterproofing grew out of Mildew Busters, a business Bill started back in the early 1980s. Bill serves as the customer point man, scheduler and support person for both services but he will tell you repeatedly, “It’s all these guys. They do all the work.”
Like Derrick, Ben was in his freshman year at college — Keene State — when he began to wonder why he was going to college at all.
“We talked and we talked,” Ben said, “and I decided to take the semester off. I went to Costa Rica to fish for two months and tried to find a job.”
“I pulled all kind of strings to try to get him a job down there,” said Bill, who has captained yachts all over the Americas.
When Ben ran out of money after some fishing, dirt bike riding and exploring, he came home and went to work with Bill.
“These guys haven’t had a day off in four years,” Bill said, repeating his refrain that they have made both businesses the successes they are.
Derrick and Ben live with their mom, Becky, in the house on Brander Parkway where they grew up. Their storage and staging shed is the former site of her floral shop, which she moved about 13 years ago to Grand Avenue in the Heights. Bill now lives “a stone’s throw away,” as Ben put it, at his own place in Silver Beach.
“You could start my truck with your remote,” Bill commented.
Bill, 62, is well known to Shelter Islanders. An independent candidate for town supervisor in 2009, he is the founder of Fish Unlimited, an environmental group active in the 1980s and 1990s lobbying against Brookhaven Lab’s research nuclear reactor — which has since been decommissioned — because its waste water was polluting the headwaters of the Peconic River. A professional boat captain and fishing guide, he has written magazine articles and books on fishing, including “Tuna: An Angler’s Guide to a Great Gamefish.” He started Mildew Busters in 1981 “in part to help support Fish Unlimited,” Bill said.
When Ben joined his father running a boat to the Caribbean over the winter of 2006-2007, “We kept talking” about doing more with the business, Bill said. “We realized this thing is totally underutilized. We were not really maxing it out. We all agreed that in March when the boat thing ran out we’d start to push it.”
Come that spring, “It wasn’t like a hobby any more,” Ben said. “We really turned it into a business.”
A growing awareness of the health dangers of mold — a trend that intensified in late 2012 after Sandy flooded so many coastal homes — has helped boost business, the Smiths agreed. So has a new aesthetic that considers weathered, brown cedar shingles an eyesore, Bill agreed. Many of today’s homeowners want their shingles to look perpetually new.
Mildew Busters features “totally green” sealants and cleaners made by a company in New Hampshire, the Smiths said; no tarps are required to protect landscaping because the chemicals are non-toxic and biodegradable. “I don’t need to wear a respirator with this stuff,” Ben said. Derrick uses “green” products from another company for his interior waterproofing jobs.
They learned the ropes “by trial and error, research and classes,” Ben said. In addition to cedar shakes on walls and roofs, he cleans vinyl siding and decks as well as patio and lawn furniture. “I really love working with the exotic hardwoods, teak and mahogany,” Ben said.
“You don’t need ropes and you can really see the difference. It’s very satisfying.”
Derrick’s East End Waterproofing was “a natural extension” of Mildew Busters, they explained, a way to extend the working season by offering interior services such as ridding basements of mold and mildew and refinishing and sealing them so there won’t be a problem again.
The brothers head to Bill’s house early every morning to plan their days: where they will be working and what they’ll need at each site. Ben and Derrick grab what they’ll need from their shed and head to work, rarely seeing each other during the day. Bill works the phone, oversees logistics and often shows up with supplies. Each business hires three helpers in summers and keeps two of them, Trent and Carlos, on all year.
Just recently, they incorporated their businesses and registered their logos as trademarks. They were designed by Shelter Islander Adam Hashagen.
Like Bill, Ben and Derrick are hunters and fishermen. They look forward to grabbing some time this fall to head out with their Chesapeake retrievers — Captain Jack, age 9, and Mahi, age 3 — for some duck and goose hunting.
Do they ever consider themselves lucky?
“That’s a really good question,” Ben said. “I don’t know if I ever felt lucky. It definitely makes sense.”
“It makes sense,” Derrick agreed. “We worked hard for it.”