DAMAGE CONTROL Restoration and recovery: what it takes to make it right (and make a profit)
A typical day for Ciro Affronti is anything but typical. Affronti is the operations manager/field supervisor at Affronti Property Solutions, LLC, a restoration and recovery company in Scottsdale, AZ. He spends his days immersed neck-deep in the misfortune of others. Sometimes his customers are simply victims of Mother Nature casting down her wrath in the form of lightning strikes, torrential rain, destructive winds, or major hail damage. Other times, it’s a busted pipe causing flooding; faulty wiring resulting in a fire; or the insidious work of toxic mold hiding behind walls.
For most, these would be extreme challenges. But for Affronti, it’s business as usual.
“You really need to have your customer service and responsiveness running at a high level because a lot of these customers have been through a tough experience that damaged their home or business, and they need to be able to trust you to fix it for them.”
THE TRAUMA FACTOR
Trust is key. Restoration and recovery companies are unique from other contractors, said Chuck Violand of Canton, OH-based Violand Management Associates, LLC, and president of the Restoration Industry Association (RIA).
“To be in this industry, you have to understand the two sides of restoration and recovery—the technical side and the human side,” he said. “When there is trauma, a lot of emotions are involved. When you arrive at a job site, you meet customers who have experienced some sort of loss, and they may feel guilt, blame or fear of the unknown. Each situation requires an understanding of the technical requirements of the job as well as sensitivity to the emotional needs of the customer. They want to work with someone they can trust, who understands the situation they are in, and has the experience to perform the job. A successful restoration and reconstruction company approaches each job professionally, from both the technical and the emotional sides.”
Affronti agrees. “There usually is a trauma factor involved when working with restoration and recovery jobs,” he said. “Fire and floods seem to cause the most trauma, in my experience. We deal with those as delicately as we can and try to be sympathetic to the customer.”
Affronti says his company approaches the job in two main ways.
“The first would be to recognize the loss they’ve experienced and show support so they see you’re on their team; and the second would be to make sure we are communicating and documenting all details of the project, keeping the customer informed about our progress at key steps, and showing our competency and experience in dealing with this kind of work,” Affronti said. “The more professional we present ourselves, the more comfortable the customer can be, which helps combat that trauma factor.”
THE INDUSTRY DIFFERENCE
The Washington, D.C.-based RIA has been the voice of the restoration and recovery industry for more than 70 years. As the oldest and largest trade association representing this industry, RIA has more than 1,000 member companies from across the United States and Canada, as well as a growing membership in Australia and New Zealand.
“Everyone defines restoration and recovery differently,” Violand said. “If you want to go into a historic building and restore it to its original condition, that’s much different than what restoration and reconstruction companies and RIA members typically handle. Most building contractors and remodelers are working on a planned project with a desired outcome based on a customer’s request … what makes this industry so unique is that the work we do is done on an emergency basis with little time for preplanning.”
Violand said restoration and recovery companies are often thrust into people’s lives after a catastrophic event and must work without a plan to restore and remodel a building or room to its original form.
“Often too, our customers do not have the funding to pay for our services and are seeking an insurance claim or settlement, which impacts how we do our business,” Violand said. “What also makes this industry unique is the science behind our work. Before we start a job, our professionals look at the contents, building materials and structure to determine the course of action: how we can clean and restore this site based on what works best for each specific material.”
The general public might not see, or even comprehend, that not all contractors are created equal, says Kevin Godfrey, owner and president of Heritage Restoration, Inc., near Seattle.
“Contractors and restoration companies—though our paths cross—the differences are night and day,” Godfrey said. “There are many types of contractors—commercial, new homes, and remodeling—however, most of these companies do not specialize in odor control, 24-hour responses, mold remediation or water extraction.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
If you’re looking to get into the restoration and recovery business, you’d best take inventory of your current equipment. Chances are, you’re not up to speed with what’s needed to do the job.
“The restoration and recovery industry works with a lot of equipment unique to the business, including drying equipment, industrial air movers and dehumidifiers,” Violand said. “We also work with thermal foggers, cleaning apparatus, thermal imaging cameras, and forensics equipment. For each niche markets within the industry, different equipment is used, depending on the type of restoration and reconstruction, and the company must know what to use and how to use it, depending on each job.”
Godfrey adds that you also need an odor-killing ozone machine, ultrasonic cleaners, and commercial washers and dryers.
Training in this industry is even more challenging, Violand said.
“Restoration and recovery is a very technical industry with a strong foundation in science,” he said. “Professionals must know structural specifications, the physical integrity of different components, moisture content, and more. For example, wood is very different from other materials, and moisture content is critical. If you don’t know the criteria for moisture content in wood, you may think something is dry when, in fact, it’s not. This can cause mold, which can do more damage to the structure and room.”
Violand said this industry also has more hands-on training than most, and a high emphasis is placed on practical application.
“Managers must take academic knowledge and understanding of the science and theories behind the job— and business practices—and interpret them into practical application,” he said.
RIA offers training programs and hands-on courses as part of its three certification programs. Individuals who take RIA courses and complete a certification are showing the industry and potential customers that they are well equipped to perform a job, and understand fully the science and technical elements that go into restoration and reconstruction. RIA certifications are: Certified Mold Professional (CMP), Certified Restore (CR) and Water Loss Specialist (WLS).
THE INSURANCE GAME
For obvious reasons, restoration and recovery companies must work closely with insurance companies. It can be a complicated and cost-sensitive relationship, said Godfrey.
“I am an independent restoration and recovery company,” he said. “My customer is the policy holder. The challenge is working with our customer while working with an insurance company. This can be delicate, and sometimes issues can develop. One of the hardest things to deal with is an inexperienced adjuster, or one that is unreasonable in what they feel needs to be done to make their customer whole again (pre-loss condition).”
“As with any business, there are downward pressures on cost and it is no different in this industry,” Violand says. “Insurance companies may place downward pressure on restorers, and it’s our job to communicate with these companies what the job entails and the guidelines we are following. By clearly communicating the work and expectations up front, as well as having an open relationship with the insurance company during a project, it will run much smoother not only for us and the insurer, but for the customer as well.”