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Damage Control

Restoration Firm Has a Niche That Soots It Well
Gary Brunelle

Gary Brunelle stands in front of the historic home on Elliott Street in Springfield, the latest addition to his growing portfolio.

Gary Brunelle knows that, unlike business owners in countless other lines of work, he can’t expect to build his enterprise on the strength of repeat business.

That’s because the commercial and residential restoration work he does follows a fire, flooding, strong-wind damage, sewage backup, or even a vehicle plowing into a home or storefront. In other words, calamities that usually — and hopefully — visit the homeowner or business owner once.

“There is a little repeat business,” said Brunelle, co-owner of West Springfield-based Ace Fire & Water Restoration Inc., citing, as an example, some neighborhoods prone to flood damage and, in rarer cases, sewage backup issues. “But not a whole lot.”

Thus, the task at hand for Brunelle and others, in what is considered an emerging specialty in the construction services sector, is to constantly generate new business. This puts a premium on marketing, he explained, noting that this is one of those businesses where people who need help and need it fast will resort to the phone book. Thus, he has several large, colorful, information-packed ads in those directories.

But it also puts a strong emphasis on word-of-mouth referrals, he continued, or, to get right to it, on those things that generate such positive recommendations. In this case, factors include quick response, quality work, strong, effective communication between Brunelle and his clients, and, of course, helping people get back to a state of normalcy as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The ability to do all that has helped Brunelle quickly grow his portfolio and, quite recently, add what will soon be its centerpiece.

This will be work to restore the historic home at 2527 Elliott St. in Springfield (next door to the new federal courthouse) that was extensively damaged by an electrical fire last January. Its 8,003 square feet of space are “completely cooked,” said Brunelle as he gave a tour of what remains, adding that this will be a total rebuild (price tag: $1.6 million) that will take roughly 18 months to complete.

“We’re going to strip it right down to the brick walls and rebuild it from the inside out,” he explained, adding that the former duplex will be converted into office space.

Landing this huge contract was, Brunelle believes, a function of his company’s visibility and track record, which are the cornerstones to success, as he’s learned through nearly two decades of work in a business specialty he says he entered pretty much on a fluke.

Indeed, Brunelle, a long-time carpenter, said that after one of many layoffs in 1990, he began what he expected to be a short-term assignment with a Connecticut company that specialized in fire, water, and related restoration — and he’s stayed in that business ever since. He made the transition from employee to employer in 2005, starting Ace Fire & Water with the confidence — and conviction — that there was ample room for another player in what was and is a somewhat crowded field.

And thus far, he’s been proven right.

“In a given year, about 3% of the population will be calling their insurance company about a loss involving some kind of damage,” he said, adding that this equates to considerable business across this region in both the residential and commercial quadrants, and Ace is succeeding in gaining progressively larger amounts of market share.

In this issue, BusinessWest will explore how, and, in the process, provide some insight into a construction specialty that most people don’t pay much attention to — until they need it.

No Smoke and Mirrors

It is Friday, and as he talks with BusinessWest in his office/warehouse complex on Elizabeth Street, Brunelle is interrupted early and often by his cell phone.

“This is typical for a Friday … there’s always a lot of calls,” he explained after handling another quick question, noting that clients typically pick that day of the week to get updates on the status of their projects, and crews in the field are always looking ahead to what will be on the slate the following week.

Brunelle, who splits his time between the office and the field, with the latter earning a much higher percentage of his calendar, says there are many updates to offer on a typical Friday. The company usually has 15 to 20 jobs of various sizes ongoing at any given time, and, while half are completed in a month or less, some can take 120 days or more.

And the jobs run the gamut. As the name of the company suggests, many of the projects are, indeed, fire- and water-related, with the latter category being replete with everything from flood damage to bursting pipes in the cold of winter; from so-called ice dams — a condition where ice builds up on the edge of a roof and water trapped behind it seeps into a home, damaging walls and ceilings — to dishwasher malfunctions.

But there are other kinds of work as well.

Indeed, mold remediation is becoming an increasingly common assignment for Ace crews, said Brunelle, adding that sewage backups are another frequently occurring annoyance for home and business owners, and there is considerable high-wind damage to address, as well. And then there’s the motorist who encountered some type of medical problem, apparently, and wound up driving his car into a home on East Mountain Road in Westfield.

“That happens more than you might think,” said Brunelle of the motor vehicle mishap, adding that, in this case, the home was actually knocked off its foundation, making this a rather extensive addition to the Ace portfolio, which has been building steadily since 2005.

That’s when Brunelle and partner Thomas Howe decided to go into business for themselves. They understood that this was a competitive field and that theirs’ was a fairly capital-intensive business, with several pieces of equipment to acquire. But they were confident that they could leverage their combined quarter-century of experience in the restoration field and become significant players in the market.

Which they have. And Brunelle credits this success in large part to the experience he’s amassed over the years.

Dry, Dry Again

He recalls his entry into this business with a firm called Michaud Fire & Water restoration and his first assignment as what’s known as a ‘trim carpenter.’ “This is the very bottom rung of the ladder, the lowest of the low,” he explained. “And when I asked my boss, Gene Michaud, why I had to start there — because I had a lot of experience — he said that, if I wanted to learn the business, I had to start at the bottom and experience everything. And I did.”

After Michaud sold the business several years later, Brunelle went to work for one of the break-off companies, and later joined what was then Action Fire Restoration in Chicopee and worked there for several years. By 2005, he and Howe, with whom he worked at Action, were ready to launch their own venture.

With considerable help from the Small Business Administration, which assisted with the preparation of a detailed, 75-page business plan, the partners got Ace Fire & Water Restoration off the ground, with the requisite specialty equipment and something called IICRC, or Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certfication.

As Brunelle mentioned, repeat business doesn’t come often in this line of work, so most all customers are new customers. Thus, the primary challenges for players like Brunelle are to attract these customers and then deliver the kind of customer service that will yield positive referrals, and thus business from those who have the time and inclination to do more than search the Yellow Pages after disaster strikes.

Regarding the former, Brunelle understands that he must market himself extensively — more than most businesses his size — and he does this though the phone book, but also print, radio, and television ads that are building brand awareness. He’s also joined several business networking groups to enhance his referral-generation capabilities.

As for customer service, Brunelle says his firm can provide a more-personable, hands-on approach then some of the larger players in this market.

“This is one contractor who will return your phone calls,” he said, citing this particular Friday as a good example of his operating style. “Here, your file’s not sitting on the desk of a business on the 20th floor of a building in Chicago.”

Elaborating, Brunelle said that he, like others in this business, keeps vast files of before-and-after pictures — for insurance companies, prospective clients, and other constituencies. What matters most in this business is how the contractor — and therefore the client — gets from one point to the other.

“This is a people-oriented business,” he explained. “The people we’re working with have gone through something traumatic — it’s a difficult time for them. We’re small enough and personal enough to make that time less-difficult for them.”

With this blend of aggressive marketing and strong customer service, Brunelle is looking to grow market share, especially on the commercial side of the ledger sheet, which currently accounts for only about 15% of his total volume.

“We’re working to change that number,” he told BusinessWest, noting that larger players have a firm hold on the commercial market and he wants to alter that equation.

Cellars Market

In one of his television ads, Brunelle hints strongly at the non-repeat nature of the restoration business, and the fact that roughly 97% of the home and business owners in this market won’t have cause to even think about dialing his number in a given year.

“I sincerely hope you never need our services,” says Brunelle in the spot, “but if you do …”

It is the ‘but’ that has given rise to this emerging specialty within the construction sector, and also provided Brunelle with an entrepreneurial opportunity.

He’s making the most of that opportunity by helping the victims of calamity get back on their feet — which, of course, is situation normal for Ace Fire & Water.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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