Business Lessons Learned Through Experience

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The pitfalls of running a restoration business are incalculable and that’s a threat. Stumbling into one will result in an expensive lesson. Opportunities to make mistakes confront us daily, showing up when we least expect, like an unwanted dinner guest who offers boisterous political opinions early and often. I want to challenge you to shift your perspective. 

Instead of fearing the inevitable next failure, look forward to the ensuing lesson. Better yet, learn from the mistakes of others. Each person you meet, place you go, and yes—blunder you brew, all blend to bring you an ideal learning environment. If you walk away with a lesson from any of those, there is no mistake. You’re stronger, better, and you will fail again. That’s more than just business; that’s life, and a life well lived.  

I have been in the restoration industry for ten years. For some, I may be viewed as a wily veteran and for others, still an industry infant. Either way, this decade of decadence and delightfulness has flown by, and I have been blessed to meet and become friends with some of the most impressive and compassionate individuals I have ever connected with. Understanding we serve a complicated beast known as disaster restoration, we do it together, locked arm-in-arm with brothers and sisters from diverse experiences and outlooks. In the end, when any of us get better, we all get better. A rising tide lifts all boats. 

With that, I reached out to several individuals I consider to be thought leaders in the industry and asked a simple question: What do you wish you would have known back when you first started that you would be willing to share so others can avoid the same mistakes? Without hesitation, they answered. What can I say? We are an industry that finds our purpose in helping others.

On Embracing Your Role as an Owner

“In the beginning you will have to wear most (or all) of the hats. Learn quickly what you are good at and focus on those things. This process will help you identify what things you are NOT good at. Then hire people who are better (and likely smarter) than you are to do those things. This is really the only way to scale a business.” Kevin Hussey; CEO & President at United Fire and Water Damage; Baton Rouge, LA 

“Advice I would give my 22-year-old self is to think big. I would create ambitious goals and then work to develop a world-class team to dominate my market and then expand my market regionally. That being said, I would not tell my 50-year-old self to make that decision because that commitment would have been better suited to my younger self. My attention was too focused on day-to-day successes and was not based on a greater understanding of scaling. That approach 30 years ago would have been rewarded, based on the current industry consolidation.” Phillip Rosebrook Jr.; Partner at Business Mentors; Portland, OR

“Invest in leadership training. Boy, what a difference this could have made, as I reflect on some of the great talent I would still have on my team. I wish I would have invested more into growing myself as a leader and not a “manager.” I wish my younger self understood and had been quicker to implement culture coaching. Building a positive, productive culture is one of the hardest things a business owner can do. I would have hired a culture coach immediately out of the gate!” Joey Pendley; Owner at PENCO Restoration; Sharpsburg, GA

“Focus on culture. If you make your people know and feel like the best in the industry, they will go to the moon and back for you if you clearly define where you want to go as a company and personally invest in them and empower them. They will take you there and even beyond what you ever expected. Lessons learned from being bloody, bruised, and broken many times.”Gerry Burke; President at Burke’s Restoration, A Partner Company of FLEET Response; Post Falls, ID

“Learn the value of discipline and routine. Never spend what you don’t earn. Know your worth and charge for it. Hire for your weaknesses. Make yourself comfortable with being uncomfortable and welcome the suck; things will go wrong—embrace and learn from it. Fail forward; you never lose if you learn.”Kevin Casey; Owner at QJS Specialty Cleaning, Inc.; Whitby, Ont.

“Trust your team but verify their work, and if your trust has been broken, remove them from your company as quickly as possible. Then reevaluate your values and make sure you are hiring for those values at all times.”Nicole Humber; CEO/President at Bravo Restoration & Construction; Santa Rosa, CA

On Understanding Your Numbers

“Over the years, I have created a successful restoration company through hard work and perseverance. As a young business owner getting started, I was in the field working extremely hard. I never spent the necessary time to learn what it takes to achieve the correct profitability to the bottom line for a restoration company. Looking back, I should have spent more time understanding and learning about true profitability by pursuing a more in-depth business education, such as formal business classes, hiring industry consultants, and attending relevant trade shows and educational events.” -Tom Laska; President at ICC Restoration & Cleaning Services; St. Paul MN

“I left hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table because I did not invest heavily enough in estimating training early in my career. I took my first Xactimate class in 2006, but I didn’t really start to understand the process until I hired an in-house estimator who was much better at writing estimates than I will ever be.”Kevin Hussey; CEO & President at United Fire and Water Damage; Baton Rouge, LA 

“I am going to go into my way back machine to about 30 years ago. At that time, we focused on producing great projects and offering world-class service. Our production focus was based on service and service delivery. The challenge is that we did not put enough emphasis on watching margin. If you don’t focus enough on budgets and margin, then it can be like grabbing a handful of sand – the money was all in your hands but without containment it can easily slip away. With great processes, budgeting, and project planning, you can offer world-class service, exceptional quality, and profitability.”Phillip Rosebrook, Jr.; Partner at Business Mentors; Portland, OR

“Focus on building the nest egg first. Build cash and then focus on growth. Knowing this would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights. Avoid debt as much as possible. Don’t buy all brand-new vehicles and equipment to impress clientele. They are not impressed by it. In fact, they may think it is adding to overhead and cost.”  Gerry Burke; President at Burke’s Restoration, A Partner Company of FLEET Response; Post Falls, ID

On Self Improvement

“You don’t know what you don’t know … accept guidance from people who are smarter than you are. Ego will only slow you down when it comes to growing a company. Seek out someone who has been there, done that, and has had success in the direction you want to grow. Focus on seeing how much you can improve yourself. Had I continued to think “I got this” I would have lost out on a lot of opportunity to meet and learn from many professionals in the same trade, which is what cements in my head every year the confidence that “I can do this.”Mark Johnson; President at M.A. Restoration, Inc.; Westborough, MA

“Carve out a budget for industry consulting early on. This would have saved a lot of earlier mistakes and kept me on track to achieve my goals. Be humble to accept advice from industry leaders right away. As a 2nd gen restorer, by the age of 22 I thought I knew everything. By the time I was 28, I didn’t want to step foot on a restoration job again because of all the hard knocks of going it alone. Fortunately, I met industry leaders like Denny Jensen and Ernie Storer. Their philosophy and processes helped define my company. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”Gerry Burke; President at Burke’s Restoration, A Partner Company of FLEET Response; Post Falls, ID

“I wish I would have known how to handle and partner on large losses. When I graduated college, the biggest job we ever had was $200K. Katrina hit a year later, and we could have capitalized so much more if we had. Capitalize on opportunities when they arise. It took me 10 years to figure that out. Opportunities will always present themselves and you will never know what you could have had if you don’t take advantage of them when you have the chance.”Shawn Folks; CEO at Guarantee Restoration Services; Baton Rouge, LA 

“I have learned that selling work is easy … leading a company (the right way) is HARD. I would absolutely focus on sales, networking, and marketing … but I would focus just as hard on growing myself as a leader, growing leaders in my organization, and ALWAYS working on and building a positive culture. Do Right Always and the profits will work themselves out.”  Joey Pendley; Owner at PENCO Restoration; Sharpsburg, GA

“I wish I had known what the different sales verticals in the industry were and how to individually tackle each one. I still feel like I learn more and more about this each day. Knowing the who, what, when, where, and how to tackle each specific vertical can be a game changer, no matter what size your company is.”-David Grove; Owner/Founder of BYLT; Annapolis, MD

On Building Relationships

“Starting in business very early on, I grew up in the construction business, learning from the ground up—meaning shovels, labor, and hammers. Once we ventured out, we didn’t realize we had to find business, hire employees, make a profit, and not get sued. We have spent a Harvard education on mistakes. If we had to do it over, I would immediately hire experts in these specific areas and would immediately find an organization of like-minded individuals to network with. Most of our great ideas have come from other companies that have already paid the price for these mistakes.”Angelo Ferrante; President at Advanced Disaster Recovery; New Hampton, NY 

“Knowing the different types of restoration contractors from the onset would have been helpful. Not just independent vs franchise but also TPA, commercial focused, and those who partner with PAs—all of which run the company completely differently. That way you can evaluate all the best options and pick the best direction for your company. Also, understanding the business side of the industry. There are more complexities in our industry than most since our client isn’t the one normally paying and there are a multitude of stakeholders that you have to work with—all of which, many times, have competing objectives.”Shaun Carpentier; General Manager at First Onsite Property Restoration; Pensacola, FL

“Complete Restoration Services in Boise, Idaho was founded in 2008. I was 23 at the time. I would have benefited greatly by being more careful in what I shared with who. Many people have no understanding of what EMS restorers do and what it takes to start a restoration company. Being young and naive, I would openly share what it takes to get started in restoration. From how to get the certifications, equipment, referrals, and documents needed to succeed. This has come back to bite us, not once but twice.” –Corey Langdon; Owner/Operator at Complete Restoration Services, Inc.; Boise ID

“I would have told my younger self that it was great to have built relationships with clients older than me who became our top customers, but they eventually retire or sell off their businesses. You need to have staff who also can be in tune with the generations of future restoration contractors and the millennials.”  –Andy Robinson; National Account Specialist at Jon-Don; Elgin, IL 

On Accepting Change

“I would like to have known how much change our industry would see. There has been an abundance of change with the insurance industry and addition of all the TPAs, technology, and requirements to complete a job. Ultimately, we can get paid less and are required to do so much more for the same job than just 5 years ago. Change or get left behind.” –Greg Campbell; Vice President at  Design Restoration & Reconstruction; North Canton, OH

“I would tell my younger self that our smaller industry was once driven by franchise clients, and large independents would consolidate, and that the future landscape of our industry will come down to about 7-10 companies. Lesson learned is that you need to be hunting far and wide. You must have corporate relationships as well as smaller independent relationships. And I would show my previous self how to prepare for a top client, who you spent years building a relationship with, deciding to sell out unannounced to you, and that your business may be gone because the company that purchased them has another vendor relationship.” –Andy Robinson; National Account Specialist at Jon-Don; Elgin, IL 

“Looking back, I wish I knew myself more. I say this because I came into this industry with some quick success. I am not the same person today that I was when I came in 20 years ago. If I knew then what I know now, I would have run things significantly differently. This industry chews people up and spits them out for many reasons. I consider myself a lifer to restoration. Although I have chosen to focus on my young family and my industry success has slowed, today I am okay with that. I realized many things this year, and I believe my future will be much brighter from understanding who I am and where I fit in this industry. Now I must continue to take action to solidify a legacy I can accept.”  Danny Strong; President at Disaster Restoration Services, LLC.; Portland, CT

“I have always been resistant to change and felt like whatever way I was doing things was the best way. But change is inevitable and there is more than one way to do things. I would tell the younger version of me to embrace the change and be an agent of change. Do research and learn about what things people are trying to change and why. I would tell myself to really get to know other people better and value them and their ideas. Being receptive to change is one of the best ways to grow and become better.” –Tammy Stokes; General Manager and Owner at Oklahoma Disaster Restoration; Tulsa, OK

On My Own Reflection

As for me, I am fortunate to be where I am today. But there is one thing that took me way too long to understand. Early on and being in sales, I viewed every interaction as, “What’s in it for me?” “How can I sell something from this?” I don’t like that I did that. I saw others as potential commissions, not insightful individuals. I was trying to win, but instead I lost. I lost opportunities to experience the greatest gift others can give you—their time. So, I would tell myself to find the value in enjoying the time others award to you without expecting anything in return. Sales will come and they will go. It’s the relationships with the people who contributed to this article, and so many others I am proud to know, who motivate me now. Every decision and interaction should be viewed as an opportunity to grow, and I can’t wait to see where it all goes from here, together, in this amazing industry we call restoration.

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Jeff Jones

Jeff JonesJeff Jones is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Violand Management Associates (VMA), a highly respected consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries. Jeff has a wide range of experience in professional sales and marketing involving all levels of decision makers. Through VMA, Jeff works with companies to find the right mix of programs and services to help them develop their people and their profits. Jeff is a regular contributor to C&R, and winner of the 2022 Patricia L. Harman Golden Quill Award! To reach him, visit Violand.com or call (800) 360-3513.

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