One of the iconic images that emerged at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic was the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored off the coast of Japan, dealing with an outbreak of the deadly new COVID-19 virus.
In February 2020, the ship accounted for more than half of reported cases of COVID-19 outside mainland China.
After a monthlong quarantine that had the whole world watching, passengers were finally able to disembark — but not before 700 were infected and 14 died. Once the ship was empty, a company headquartered in Birmingham, Mich., was called in to clean up.
“It was at the very beginning stages of the pandemic and the height of the fear factor,” says Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor Holdings. “Remember, back then nobody knew what to do with this virus.”
Nobody, that is, except the people at Belfor.
“We rounded up about 300 people from 19 different countries that wound up going to Japan to help,” Yellen says.
Belfor began in 1946 as Quality Awning & Construction with one office in Dearborn. In 1980, under the leadership of Yellen, the company began to focus on restoring buildings after fire, storms and floods. Through growth and mergers over three decades, the private company now encompasses 9,200 employees across 400 offices in 34 countries, with annual earnings of $2 billion.
Yellen, who has written extensively about his humble beginnings being raised by a single mother and dropping out of Southfield-Lathrup High School, joined Belfor in 1985. It was his brother-in-law’s company, but lest anyone think nepotism kept Yellen on the job, he worked diligently to prove himself. In 1989, he booked $17 million of work in South Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, doubling the company’s sales.
Becoming CEO in 2001, he is known as a compassionate leader who has stayed in touch with his roots even as he has risen to fame. His articles are regularly published in Entrepreneur. He appears on ABC’s weekly Hearts of Heroes program alongside first responders who offer safety and preparedness tips in the face of both natural and manmade disasters.
In 2017, he was featured on an episode of CBS’ Undercover Boss, in which he worked alongside his crew pumping water, squeezing into crawl spaces, hanging drywall and scrubbing soot. The episode, nominated for an Emmy, aired on Yellen’s 50th birthday. He says the experience taught him a valuable lesson.
“The greatest leaders are willing to roll up their sleeves and complete whatever tasks they typically assign to frontline workers,” he says. “They must be able and willing to do whatever it is they ask their team members to do.”
It was under Yellen’s leadership that Belfor crews were dispatched to the Diamond Princess.
“We were the ones that boarded the ship safely,” he says. “Our people were in full PPE (personal protective equipment), and they cleaned in an incredibly short time frame, three weeks and three days, so the ship could leave the harbor.”
First, they disposed of all content that wasn’t going to be reused: linens, towels and washcloths.
“We don’t just throw away. It’s HAZMAT sealed, and we make sure we’re not retracking what was once certified clean space with disposable items,” he says. Then, sanitization began.
“You are cleaning every single inch of ship, duct systems, mechanical systems, every vertical, every horizontal inch of the ship in a systematic way. When you’re done with each section, it gets tested, negative air is set up, (and) we deem it clean after swab testing is performed. We followed the protocol of the logistical layout of the ship so as we got to the last stages, we were at the door to exit that ship for good.”
The Diamond Princess finally pulled anchor from the Port of Yokohama on May 16, thoroughly disinfected by Belfor.
After that, as COVID-19 spread through Asia, Europe and the United States, Belfor was called in once again to help. The company’s experience in emergency fire, wind and water restoration, along with environmental, industrial and HAZMAT cleaning (including after the 2001 Anthrax attacks) made them a go-to for COVID cleanup.
“We’ve been doing this type of HAZMAT cleaning for 30-some years,” Yellen says.
Yellen estimates Belfor worked on 11,000 COVID-related projects in facilities around the world in 2020. In the beginning stages, as Americans abroad returned home, Belfor cleaned the planes they landed in, then the Army barracks where they spent two weeks in quarantine.
Here in Oakland County, Yellen says Belfor has cleaned municipal facilities, universities, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores, healthcare facilities and senior citizen homes.
“You name it,” he says.
Despite growing Belfor around the world, Yellen chooses to keep the company’s headquarters in Birmingham and to live in Oakland County. The CEO, who earned his high school diploma at age 54 and a doctorate from Oakland University at 61, sings the praises of the county’s restaurants, entertainment, seasons, nature and — most of all — its residents.
“I tell people all the time I’m from the Detroit area. They say, ‘Why?,’ ” he says. “It’s the greatest place in the world — are you kidding me? It’s the best.”
An eternal optimist, Yellen has high hopes of society coming through the COVID crisis stronger than ever.
“I’m no scientist and I’m not a doctor, but I believe some good will come out of this one day,” he says. “The vaccine’s now being distributed. We’ve all been educated and we know how to be safe, take precautionary measures and how to respect each other. I see the light at the end of the tunnel 100 percent of the time.”
Yellen is proud of Belfor’s work and role in weathering tough times.
“We understand the psyche of what’s going on with people in a moment of need. When people are in crisis and Belfor is called, our people are pivotal in the beginning stages of getting you to return to what was normal,” he says. “We give comfort by explaining the process we’re going through, what you can expect when we’re done and how we’re going to get through this together.”