Interview with Vito Schwartz, Owner of Semper Fi Roofing & Exteriors

By Julia Norton, Guest Contributor

Vito Schwartz and his team didn’t make the decision to name their new home improvement business “Semper Fi Roofing & Exteriors” lightly. After an honorable discharge from the Marines, Schwartz knew he wanted to serve Milwaukee homeowners with the principles he’d learned from his time in the military. 

Starting a business based on Marine values has paid off for Schwartz’s veteran-owned and operated team. Semper Fi Roofing & Exteriors will celebrate 18 years of serving Southeast Wisconsin in 2021. According to Schwartz, the Semper Fi difference comes from providing exceptional products and service, “...even when it comes at a higher price for us. We decided this would be the best way to keep our reputation- and the reputation of the Marine Corps- intact.” 

In business and in life, Schwartz takes pride in honoring the motto, “Always faithful.” He notes, “When I set out to create Semper Fi, I knew that our people would be at the heart of it all...if you hire great people and treat them well, they’ll take great care of the customers.”

Schwartz encourages other veterans to use their military training to become business leaders. “You were given a gift from every good and bad leader you had, as well as every good and bad troop you had. Don’t waste your knowledge and experience by not using it.” 

Schwartz discusses the value of military service, his journey to becoming a small business owner, and his advice to veterans hoping to break into the home improvement industry.

How long did you serve?

I joined the Marines at the age of twenty. After boot camp and MOS school, I spent two and a half years in Cherry Point, NC, and my last year in Iwakuni, Japan- a total of four years, one month, and four days. But who’s counting, right?

What was the most valuable thing you learned in your time serving the country?

Humility. When I went in, I was a know-it-all little punk. Turns out, I was lucky enough to have a few corporals that saw that and took a special interest in fixing it for me. Having the ability to see when I’m wrong and adjust quickly has proven extremely important in my growth as an individual and a leader.

What inspired you to start your own home improvement business?

My inspiration came from my kids. Since I was sixteen, my entire life has been dedicated to doing whatever was necessary to take care of them. It was all in an effort to be a better man for my family.

Did you encounter any obstacles along the way?

One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome was a lack of training. In the Marine Corps, you are taught everything from cleaning your teeth to leading fifty troops in a coordinated effort to accomplish a mission. Fast-forward to the day I started Semper Fi Roofing & Exteriors, and I realized I had little or no formal training. I became motivated to learn what I didn’t know.

To what do you attribute your success?

A large part of my success has come from the privilege of leading Lance corporals Leyva, Rysel, and the rest of the Marines I was charged with Iwakuni, Japan. These Marines taught me what true motivation was in the face of less-than-desirable conditions. The experiences I had with these Marines were pivotal in the development of my future success.

What’s special about a veteran-owned and operated business? 

In all branches of the military, veterans have one common principle they generally live by, and that’s the idea of teamwork. What makes many veteran businesses special is the ability to put our individual needs and wants aside and focus on working as a unit to fulfill our customers’ wants and needs.

What qualities and talents do veterans bring to the workforce?

One of the best qualities I see in veterans is their ability to deal with “the suck.” In most jobs, there’s some part of it people don’t like doing, but it needs to get done. A veteran’s ability to power through and not let a few bad things ruin the good ones is an amazing skill to have.

What advice would you give to fellow veterans who hope to start their own business?

Remember: you are out of the military. There’s a stark difference when interacting with individuals in the military compared to those who have never been in our position.

What advice would you give to veterans interested in the home improvement industry?

My advice to any veteran who hopes to start their own home improvement business is to find the right people. To quote Richard Branson, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

The home improvement business can be very rewarding and lucrative. Never forget the principles learned in the service. Your customers are now your CO. Be honest and fair, and never compromise your integrity. 

Finally, always be learning. At the end of every day, you better know more than you did at the beginning of it.

Many thanks to Vito Schwartz and guest contributor Julia Norton! Don't forget to follow the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce across all platforms.