The Inspiring Backstory of Sheldon Yellen, CEO of BELFOR Holdings
“Today, BELFOR is beyond lucky to have over 7,700 of the greatest people on Earth! Because of a decision I consciously made over 30 years ago, I have the honor to write a birthday card to every single one of them still to this day.”
I had the pleasure to interview Sheldon Yellen. Sheldon is the CEO of BELFOR Holdings, Inc., which operates a number of companies, including BELFOR Property Restoration, the largest global disaster restoration company. During his 33-year tenure, Sheldon has grown BELFOR from a $5 million family business to a $1.5 billion global entity.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Sheldon: Thank YOU for your interest. My story, many have told me, is quite “unconventional” but I am a firm believer that hard work pays off and a little luck goes a long way. So, to start, I grew up on welfare in Detroit, Michigan, the eldest of four boys. Because my father was severely ill most of my life, my mother was the sole breadwinner in our family, on top of having to raise me and my three younger brothers. Because of this, I started out at my first job at 11 years old working as a dishwasher at Leo’s Coney Island Diner in Detroit. One day when one of the servers called out, I was suddenly promoted to a server. I waited on my first table and was so excited to receive my first tip! It was $1. I immediately got some change from the cash register and used ten cents to call my mom from the payphone because I was so ecstatic.
“Mom!” I exclaimed, “I got my first tip tonight!”
“How are you calling me?” she questioned.
“From the payphone!” I explained.
And with that, she hung up.
Confused, I went back to work. When she picked me up later that evening I could tell she was upset with me. I asked her what was wrong and why she had hung up on me.
“You spent ten percent of your earnings to call me and tell me something you could have just told me now,” she explained.
“Yeah, so…” I continued.
“I thought I taught you the value of a dollar better than that,” she replied.
Instead of receiving praise for earning my first tip, she scolded me for spending 10 cents of it on a call home to her! That’s when I first learned the value of money.
By the time I reached high school, I realized it was more important for me to work full-time and support our family than stay in school, so I dropped out in the 11th grade. And I actually finally received my high school diploma a couple of years ago — at age 53! (This is something my two sons both tell me I should keep to myself, but at the time, I was too busy working and getting into the grind to stay in school. If anything, this goes to show that you don’t need a formal education to become CEO!)
From there I worked a series of jobs, including a number of small business ventures of my own, until, in 1985, I was hired by my brothers-in-law to work at Quality Awning & Construction, which would eventually shift, change and evolve to become what is today called BELFOR. At the time I didn’t know anything about restoration — I had never even stepped foot on a job site — but I knew I could be successful.
When I first started out working in our sales department, I decided that I would work as hard as I possibly could and make a good impression — I wore a suit and tie every day and I was the first one in the office and the last one to leave. In the first year, I increased our business by almost 50 percent on my own. In the second year I surpassed the company’s total income and brought in over $6 million.
I had started to gain the trust of my brothers-in-law and my fellow employees. The more I worked and the more jobs I brought in for them, the more they respected me. And from there, we really hit the ground running. In 1989, when Hurricane Hugo hit in the Carolinas, I went down to South Carolina and signed us up for $17 million of work. At the time, our company was only doing $15 million of business a year. This was a big risk on my part, but it turned out to be a great reward. I had cemented myself as a big player not only at our company, but in the industry.
From there, the company went through a series of acquisitions, I worked my way up to CEO in 2001, and we have owned 100 percent of the company since 2007. I could not ask for a better company to work with (not at!) and better people to work with (Our people work WITH me, not FOR me!) every day. Our motto is that we are “restoring more than property” and that couldn’t be truer. We’re some of the first people to show up at a terrible time in people’s lives, but we make sure to offer the best possible service and show our customers compassion.
I’ll never know how my life could have turned out differently had I taken a more traditional path, but I wouldn’t trade a second of it for anything. I am thankful for all of the experiences I have had in life because they have made me who I am today.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I would say the most interesting story throughout my journey is the story behind the birthday cards I write every single day. Today, BELFOR is beyond lucky to have over 7,700 of the greatest people on Earth! Because of a decision I consciously made over 30 years ago, I have the honor to write a birthday card to every single one of them still to this day.
The personal handwritten birthday cards started back when I was working at Quality Awning & Construction in 1985. I was looked at as only the son-in-law of the owner and some would even say a “charity case.” Often times my colleagues wouldn’t even acknowledge me in the office. It was during that time I decided I was going to write everyone a personalized birthday card. In doing so, everyone who received a card would come to my office and thank me for taking the time to write to them. These small conversations turned into relationships and today, lifelong friendships that were made possible by a simple, small gesture that didn’t cost a thing. The power of a genuine act is unbelievable and “It’s noticeable, when it’s REAL!”
Through an amazing series of acquisitions, organic growth and name changes, today, BELFOR has over 7,700 team members around the world. As you can imagine, writing cards is much more time consuming than it used to be. However, I can honestly tell you that I still write birthday cards today with the same smile and genuine intent that I did 30 years ago! One of my favorite things is going to offices around the country and seeing people with 8, 10, 15 years of birthday cards that I sent them. I believe in someone that stands and fights for the same cause as me, which at the end of the day is “Doing The Right Thing” here at BELFOR….the very least I can do is acknowledge them on a special day of their life.
Yitzi: So what exactly does your company do?
BELFOR is the world’s largest disaster restoration company serving 29 countries with more than 350 offices employing more than 7,700 full-time experienced restoration specialists and again, the greatest people on Earth! At BELFOR, we are “restoring more than property.” We help rebuild homes and businesses that have been destroyed or damaged by a devastating loss, whether it be a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, blizzard, broken water heater, kitchen fire, or infestation of mold. We do it all. But most importantly, we’re more than just a property restoration company. We help people in a time of need — when they feel like everything has been lost — know that their lives will return to normal.
We have been one of the first responders to some of the biggest natural disasters around the world, including Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Hugo, the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami, and most recently, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. But our work isn’t only about responding to national emergencies. Our 390 local offices are working hard each and every day, restoring homes and businesses from fire, wind and water damage throughout the world. Our team works around the clock — 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. We are always ready to respond to any emergency, but we’re also ready to respond to life’s daily hiccups too.
In addition to our disaster restoration services (water extraction, fire and smoke restoration, etc.) some of our specialized services include document restoration, machinery and equipment repair, mold removal and remediation, dehumidification & drying, air duct cleaning, ultrasonic cleaning, and reconstruction. We work quickly, but we also work precisely and with compassion. When disaster strikes, we’re with our customer from day one until the job is finished. My favorite part of this business is shaking a customer’s hand, handing them the key to their house, looking them in the eye, and telling them “Welcome Home.”
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am to be a part of BELFOR. To be able to stand on the shoulders of giants throughout the world, “Doing The Best of Things in the Worst of Times” is beyond humbling. So to answer your question, I have brought goodness to the world by being a part of what I believe to be one of the greatest families on Earth… “The BELFOR Family”. There are acts of heroism that go on every single day throughout the world in this company. Just to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with these heroic people makes me the luckiest guy in the world.
When homeowners, schools, hospitals and communities experience disaster, we are proud to be able to do our part in returning their life back to normal. I can go on and on about the thousands of success stories of getting schools, businesses, hospitals, municipalities, etc. open. It is truly remarkable what can happen when people come together for one common cause. I am proud to say that BELFOR brings goodness into the world daily.
Today, our amazing team restores hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Just to think how many people we touch in a positive way annually is one thing we are most proud of. In my position, I am honored to get to single out these heroic individuals and acknowledge their success making someone else’s day. One of my favorite things I get to do is find those who are “making a difference” and do my part in making a difference in their lives. Additionally, as I travel the world meeting new people (colleagues and others that are not colleagues….yet!), I get to give that break or opportunity to so many deserving of one. This is One of My Greatest Pleasures!
Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
1. I wish I had known the importance of being authentic.
When I first started out in this business in my 20s, I spent a lot of time traveling in order to get to know the right people, hoping to impress them. Now, at 59 years old, I look back and realize that all of that extra work to go out of my way to make them like me and gain their acceptance was unnecessary! I don’t regret any of the time I spent on this, but if I had known then the importance of authenticity, I would have surely saved myself a lot of time and energy!
A lot of business people are known for being manipulative and conniving, but I’ve learned in my 30+ years in business that this is not the most effective way to run a company. The best way to gain someone’s respect and to get to know them is by being authentic. I now focus on being genuine and honest with everyone — team members, clients, customers, business partners, friends, family, etc. — and hope that they will also be authentic with me in return. Not only do I have a clear conscience every night when I go to bed, but I also know that I have run our company in the most honest and authentic way possible and people respect me for it.
2. I wish I had known the importance of maintaining open and personal communication with others.
I’ve always been a very social person, but I never truly learned the importance of open communication and personal relationships in business until I appeared on Undercover Boss a few years ago and had the opportunity to work alongside one of our amazing people and technicians, Jenn.
While working together, I was shocked when I heard “her side” of a situation. The recession of
2008–2009. At BELFOR, we had a company-saying that “BELFOR was NOT going to participate” in the recession. To ensure that we protected our BELFOR family, our Executive Team decided to instill hiring and wage freeze — in fact, not one person was laid off during the recession because of this policy. Something our team was very proud of.
During this time period, Jenn was offered the opportunity in her office to be promoted, which she happily accepted. But she was never offered a wage increase with the promotion. Because we did not effectively communicate this wage freeze to the rest of the company, Jenn saw this as a negative and felt that she was not being appropriately recognized for their hard work.
This was a tough lesson for me to learn. While the Executive Team put something in place to PROTECT 6,400 families, we learned that some felt this HURT them. That was never our intent. After discovering all of this from Jenn (while on National TV!) — I was so compelled and overcome with emotion that I had to break my “undercover disguise” to her. It was NEVER our intent to HURT her, and I had to let it be known. Jenn got her raise and we made sure anyone else who had been “promoted without a wage increase” was retroactively taken care of. Also, I now make sure that all announcements and decisions are communicated to the entire company and I value the importance of taking the time to listen to our team members and hear the impact these decisions have on them personally. One final note regarding the recession: BELFOR was fortunate to come out stronger and better than ever. I also often say — Listen twice as much as you speak (that’s why we’re given two ears and only one mouth). Communication is a Two-Way Street!
3. I wish someone had taught me the difference between “I GET TO” and “I GOT TO.”
In life, everyone has the opportunity to approach our daily tasks and responsibilities with either an “I GET TO” attitude or an “I GOT TO” attitude. I wish I had known earlier the importance of surrounding yourself with people who have an “I GET TO” outlook on life.
In our line of business, we often call on our team members to get out of bed in the middle of the night to respond to a loss or to be called away for a period of time on “storm duty.” To some, this may seem like a nuisance and merely a necessity to keep their job and earn a paycheck, but to others it is an opportunity to help others and give up their time for those who truly need it. At BELFOR, we focus on hiring passionate people that have this “I GET TO” attitude and enjoy helping others — even if it means getting up at 3 a.m. or traveling to another state, away from their families, to help out at a job for weeks at a time. Instilling this mentality across our company is how we have become THE worldwide leader in what we do. When I first started out in this business, I wish I had known how important having this attitude would be for not only me, but for our entire team.
4. I wish someone had explained to me the importance of TIME.
In my opinion, “Time is the Enemy.” No one gets more than 24 hours in a day so it’s important that you spend it wisely. In business, I have chosen to associate myself with people who are productive and impactful with their use of time. Especially in our business, where we are responding to people in what is most likely one of their greatest times of need, time is of the essence. And…It is always our pleasure to serve our clients!
At any given moment, a member of the BELFOR team, somewhere in the world, is helping another person in need. We are a 24/7 operation, so every second counts. I’m humbled that our team members often sacrifice their personal time to help out our customers. That’s why I know now how important it is to use time efficiently and effectively and not waste those moments that are so precious to us all. I am humbled and I am truly honored to think that at ANY given moment in time, someone somewhere is helping a client in need.
5. I wish someone had told me that a company’s culture is the real key to success.
At BELFOR, our people and our culture are the most important aspects of our company. There are a number of key values that we have instilled, which I wish I had recognized sooner. First and foremost, we focus on maintaining and building strong relationships. And this doesn’t just include relationships at work, it goes beyond that. I don’t just see our team members as coworkers, I see them as family. In order to maintain lasting relationships, I make sure to take the time to develop personal bonds with our team members. That means it’s not uncommon for me to go out of my way to attend birthday parties, weddings, funerals, bat mitzvahs, etc. I work hard to make sure my relationships with our team members go beyond that of merely colleagues.
Another important aspect of our culture is the focus on being NICE. Being nice doesn’t cost anything and it takes more energy to be negative than to be kind. You never know what someone else is going through when you meet them and what impact just being nice to them could have on their day. I make sure to practice this in my own life and I ask our people to do the same. I never ask our team members to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. That’s why I choose to lead by example. Even as CEO, I know I need to earn my own job every day. I set the bar high for myself, but I also hold everyone else to this same bar.
It’s this focus on being nice, genuine and respectful that really defines our culture. And I know it is the differentiating factor that has made BELFOR a worldwide leading company and not just another competitor in a very crowded industry. Without our culture and without our people, we would not be the company we are today. I am thankful every day that I get to work with such amazing people and I credit a large part of my success to the lessons they have taught me along the way. I stand on the shoulders of Giants!
Yitzi: I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
Sheldon: Even at my age — 59 years — I know that I will never be done learning. And in my opinion, the best way to learn is from other people. I meet new people constantly and I enjoy learning from their own stories and their experiences.
In particular, I seek out people who have a big heart and a passion for being good to others. Those are the type of people I want to meet because I know I can learn the most from them.
I also hope that they can learn a thing or two from me. I encourage them to go out and make this world a better place. Especially in light of some of the horrific events that have happened in our country recently, it is these people that are most critical for our future. The focus on doing good, helping others, being NICE…that’s what makes all the difference. It’s something I work toward every day and I always jump at the opportunity to meet others who strive to do the same.
So if you know anyone, please send them my way.