How Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen Is Leading In The Wake Of Disasters

When Belfor Group scaled operations quickly to clean up flood- and wind-damaged businesses in the Gulf area after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the black-swan event catapulted the company to unprecedented growth and a much bigger operational footprint in the aftermath.

Good thing: The world’s largest property-restoration company needed to have a vast infrastructure to handle the flock of black swans that landed this fall in the form of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the catastrophic fires in Napa Valley.

From his headquarters office in Birmingham, Mich., Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen countenanced the flow of trucks, airplanes, generators, water extractors, bottled water, food – and hundreds of Belfor people – to the disaster sites in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and Napa Valley as nature’s fury unfolded week after week.

The chief of the privately owned, $1.5-billion industry leader, with offices in 34 countries and nearly 8,000 employees, also put his own boots on the ground, regularly helping unload equipment and shovel debris in the middle of the cleanup action.

“I get to be inspirational. I’m on the ground and there with them, but I don’t want to get in their way. I get to see it all develop and to watch this amazing talent do amazing things for people.”

“I’m not sure in any of these situations that I was actually an asset,” Yellen quipped in an interview with Chief Executive. “But I know my effort was there. And in those situations, I get a chance to pat our employees on the back and encourage them and listen to them. And I get a chance to hear about their struggles; some of them have been away from home for months.”

Actually, Yellen counts as one of the company’s biggest successes the fact that he didn’t have to prompt much of the action. Belfor personnel responded organically as they saw the disasters unfold and dealt with the inevitable demand crunch.

“To the outside world, these storms are such a pronounced event, but to us they’re almost matter of fact,” he said. “This is what we do. We were prepared for these storms. It’s been a long time since Katrina – though there was Sandy in 2012, so there have been some warm-ups in between. But we’re prepared for each and every day.”

Belfor managers also were expected to respond relatively autonomously. “I like to lead from behind,” Yellen explained. “I get to be inspirational. I’m on the ground and there with them, but I don’t want to get in their way. I get to see it all develop and to watch this amazing talent do amazing things for people.”

Responding to the monumental damage and havoc caused by natural disasters is much like staging a military campaign, although, as Yellen was quick to note, “it’s not as important.”

In the big picture, Belfor managers at headquarters and local offices must deploy permanent staff and bring in temps to handle as much as 25 percent of their personnel needs as they gear up to help what they call “red alert” commercial clients move past the disasters and get back in business.

And they’ve got the logistics challenges inherent in getting dozens and dozens of pieces of equipment to a scene where chaos reigns during each disaster and for some time afterward.

But it’s in meeting the extraordinary, even singular, needs created by such disasters that Belfor creates the greatest employee satisfaction and sources of company pride.

“We got a call from a hospital that was desperate for medicine, but no one could deliver it to them,” Yellen said. “They wanted us to use our big, high-water-enabled trucks to pick up medicine at a distribution center 200 miles away and bring it back to them. And our people on the ground made the right decision: They sent eight guys in two trucks, and drove through waters three and four feet high to get to the hospital. The hospital administrators were in tears.”

In another incident, Yellen recalled, “One of our employees who came in to help us from another country had a heart attack, so we put him up in a hospital in Houston and called his wife,” Yellen recalled. “We had someone from Belfor by his side 24 hours a day in the hospital, for three weeks, until his wife could get her visa and join him.”

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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