When Bad Things Happen

By+Kelli Stopczynski

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Fire destroys homes and businesses. Pipes burst, soaking water into floors, walls and furniture.  Most of us will never have to go through such a loss – sorting through ashes and soot to try and find any sign of our valuables.  But those who have been through a disaster know the people who come into your life to help with the aftermath can make all the difference in how you recover.

“You’re just so detached from your normal life after something like that happens,” recalled Kent Kramer, of South Bend.  “We were like ‘What are we going to do now?’”

Kent and his wife Thayer were both at work on May 11, 2006 when they got the phone calls from their neighbor, telling them their home was on fire.

“As I raced home from Elkhart, I had visions of flames pouring out of windows, the house being totally engulfed.  I knew my wife wasn’t home at the time and my biggest concern was our two dogs,” he recalled.

“My boss actually drove me home,” Thayer added. “When we turned onto our street we saw all the fire trucks, but from the outside of the house, it didn’t look like there had been a fire.  It was all contained inside.” 

But it caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage. A power surge caused the main breaker in the home’s basement to fail and arch. Investigators estimated the fire burned for about 45 minutes before neighbors saw smoke seeping from the roof. 

“The walls were completely soaked (from water used to put the fire out), grimy and filthy.  The dining room floor fell into the basement and there was no dining room wall because firefighters had to hack that open to stop part of the fire,” Thayer recalled.

Their home was unlivable.  Friends and co-workers rallied around the Kramers, finding the couple a place to stay and helping them get back on their feet.  Their next big challenge would be cleaning it all up and re-building.

The Kramer’s insurance company provided them a list of recommended restoration companies to do the job.  They didn’t want to be pressured into making a decision quickly, so the couple took their time calling each company and researching their best course of action.  They were most impressed by ABCO, an Elkhart restoration company owned and operated by Bill Wallis and his wife Kay.

“When I met with Bill for the interview, I was pretty impressed,” Kent said.  “The building they had designed and built was clean and organized.  I read many reference letters written by previous customers and one of the first things he said to me about ABCO was they don’t take on more work than they can handle and complete in a timely manner.  That really went a long way with me.”

Thayer also knew of a South Bend family that used ABCO to restore their historic home after a fire.  Their rave reviews about the company helped the Kramers make their decision.

“From the very beginning we felt like Bill was willing to listen to us and that was not what we felt from the other companies we met with,” Thayer explained.

ABCO strives to create that personal relationship with their customer.

“When they have a fire, it’s almost like a death in terms of the grieving and the loss they feel,” Wallis said.  “The emotions can run pretty deep, so we try to take the initial burden off their shoulders and help them start working through it.”

The majority of ABCO’s business comes from smoke, fire and water-related damage.  But the company also helps with clean-up and restoration from other unfortunate incidents like vandalism or structural damage caused when vehicles run into homes or buildings.

Bill has been in the business of serving residential and commercial customers for more than 30 years.  After graduating from Northern Illinois University in 1974, he began a successful career with the ServiceMaster Corporation’s hospital division.  Then in 1980, Bill and Kay moved their family from the Chicago suburbs to purchase an existing ServiceMaster janitorial franchise in Elkhart, Indiana.

As the janitorial business grew to include large commercial customers in the Elkhart and South Bend area, the opportunity to expand into a residential cleaning and insurance restoration business alongside ServiceMaster became the next logical move.  In 1990, they established ABCO, Inc. as a “one stop shop” for the insurance adjuster and agent as well as the home owner.  Acting as a general contractor, the company was able to handle the clean-up, construction and re-building process after a disaster. 

“It’s very rewarding,” Wallis said.  “They look at their house of ashes and water dripping and think it will never be “home” again.  And when you take the structure and begin the restoration process and say to them, ‘Hey the fun part is coming when you start picking out materials, fixtures, cabinets, carpets and paint colors,’ you watch them get excited about it.”

Wallis’ daughter Michelle agrees. She’s been the office manager and project coordinator at ABCO for over 10 years, working with insurance agents and adjusters on estimates and helping customers throughout the rebuilding process.

“I love what I do.  When a disaster happens to a customer and they come into our office, I try to make the whole process as smooth and enjoyable as possible.  I also let them know if they had ever had a dream or desire to change something in the house and it makes sense within the loss, we can try to make it a reality,” she said.

The entire company takes pride in standing beside their customers every step of the way.  The Kramers cannot say enough about ABCO’s guidance and commitment through their re-building process.

“Bill was at our beck-and-call the entire time,” Kent recalled.  “We met almost every Wednesday night for the entire duration of the project.”

Wallis went with the Kramers to help them pick out things like flooring and moldings, introducing the couple to the owners or managers at each store and making sure they felt comfortable moving forward with the project. 

“He knew each step of the process and took us through them only when it was time,” added Thayer.  “He didn’t overwhelm us by asking us to make all the decisions at once.”

Part of those decisions involved a family room the Kramers chose to have ABCO add on to their home after the fire.  The couple had always thought about it, and both Wallis and the insurance company told them it would be easier to build while the house was already under construction.

The Kramers also raved about the crew of workers consistently at their home.  They liked knowing who was going to show up every day.

“Our employees are truly the backbone of this company. It is because of their hard work that we receive these wonderful comments,” Bill emphasized.  “I lead by example but they deliver the goods, day in and day out!”  

“We can’t recommend them highly enough for helping us through what was really an awful year,”  Thayer said.  “ABCO took care of our house as if it was their own and gave us back our home.”

At the end of each project, that’s ultimately the company’s goal. 

“You help them put the pieces back together.  They start to see some light at the end of the tunnel, start to have a renewed hope.  In my mind, that’s what makes this company successful,” said Wallis.