Tommy Black’s office is piled with papers. Photos of his family and prize-winning steers they have brought to the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo over the years hang on the walls and sit on crowded shelves. Among them is an old photo in a small frame, a picture of a covered wagon that was the humble beginning of his company, Samuel Dean Sheet Metal Inc.
During its 109-year history in San Antonio, Samuel Dean Sheet Metal has worked on commercial roofing projects large and small throughout the city, including the Tower Life building, Municipal Auditorium, and at least a dozen local schools.
“I take pride in what we do,” Tommy’s son, Darrell Black, said. “We drive through town and see a building that we’ve worked on – it’s kinda [like] leaving your own little mark.”
The photo in Tommy’s office was taken soon after the company was founded in 1910, Tommy said. In the faded photo, a father and son, the namesake of “J. Dean & Son,” crouch in front of the wagon, which advertises “Roofing Guttering and Galvanized Cistern.” Two horses idle nearby.
The “Son,” Samuel Dean, eventually changed the company name, and Samuel Dean Sheet Metal went on to establish itself as a trusted commercial contractor. In 1939, it found a permanent home – literally a house at 429 Cincinnati Ave. in the Beacon Hill neighborhood — and it’s been there ever since. Samuel’s son Marvin Dean eventually took over the business, and an associate of his hired Tommy Black in 1960, when Tommy was 21 years old.
“I was told by Marvin Dean that I was too young to do this,” Tommy said.
Tommy worked as a fabricator in the sheet metal shop and eventually took over running the roof-installation side of the business, too, when that point person became sick with cancer. In the early 1970s, Tommy and another employee bought the company from Dean, then Tommy bought out that partner and hired his own three sons.
Tommy, who was born near the Medina River on what is now San Antonio’s South Side, is not related to the Deans, but he still regards Samuel Dean Sheet Metal as a family-owned and operated business. Sons Duane, Darrell, and Doug work in the office, and Tommy’s wife of 60 years used to work in payroll. But, Tommy said, “she doesn’t need to work here – she’s 78.”
The family, sans mom, now works on roughly a dozen projects at a time – big and small, Tommy said. They’ve worked on the original Municipal Auditorium (now the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts), McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Valero Energy headquarters, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other projects.
What’s helped the business survive all this time in a competitive construction subcontracting business is Tommy’s no-nonsense attitude.
“Just get it done,” Tommy says matter-of-factly several times during a phone call with one of his workers.
“What gives you an upper hand is the quality of work you do, and the experience,” Tommy said. “But quality is the most important thing. You don’t want to put a roof on that doesn’t last 20 years.”
Darrell, whose desk is in another room with even more stacks of paperwork, agreed.
“We don’t try to be the cheapest, we just try to be consistent and get our share,” he said.
The company has between 50 and 60 workers at any given time, but good, steady workers are hard to find, Tommy said.
The only sign indicating that Samuel Dean Sheet Metal is located on Cincinnati Avenue is a small metal posting that permanently says, “workers needed.”
“When it rains, you can’t work,” he said. “Some of these people wander off to do something else. … They need money to feed the kids and you can’t blame them.”
It’s not easy work, either. “It’s a hot, nasty job. Everybody wants to run a computer [now instead].”
But another reason it’s hard to find labor is because business is booming, he said, smiling. San Antonio is growing.
“People are not scared to spend money because they know there’s going to be more work,” he said. He credits President Donald Trump for the favorable business conditions.
When he first started work, Tommy said, San Antonio was a “little bitty town.” There was nothing outside Loop 410, nothing south of Military Drive, and “Southwest Research [Institute] was out in the country.”
The roofing industry has grown as the city has grown, he said. He believes a simple creed is what has allowed his company to succeed all these years. “You do good work – quality work – and just be honest with your customer.”
Since taking over Samuel Dean Sheet Metal, Tommy had a second office building constructed next to the original house and put up fencing around the shop yard. His sons aren’t sure if their children will continue in the family business. For now, they just keep working.
“Just get it done.”