Air Date: 7-7-2017|Episode 467
Join us as we go back in time and discuss the early days of the disaster restoration field with industry pioneer Major Long. Major was one of the first disaster restoration practitioners. Major Long, CR is a past president of the RIA (1978-1980) and also served a term as the association’s disaster restoration technical director. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear from one of the early innovators in the field of disaster restoration field.
Married at 21, Major Long entered the construction business with his father-in-law building spec homes. This is where he learned about structural components and how to effectively deploy laborers and subcontractors. Building spec homes was a risky business.
When the construction business went bankrupt, Major invested $10K to go into the carpet cleaning business with a high school friend. Several insurance adjusters asked them if they could do post fire cleanup. Major and his partner split up and Major morphed from carpet cleaning business into fire restoration calling his business Smoke Master.
- In those days, carpets were cleaned by rotary scrubbing and wet vacuuming. Upholstery was dry cleaned with towels soaked in chlorinated solvent [111-trichloroethylene]. Or wet-cleaned with rotary brush and extraction.
Major is the disaster restoration industry’s earliest, early adopter.
In 1975 Major invested $5,500 into purchasing a Deep Steam extraction machine from Canada. The impressive looking stainless steel machine consisted of a rectangular base on wheels which contained the pump and vacuum components on which rested 2- stainless steel coffee urns. The machine weighing 80 pounds could be broken down for transport upstairs. As the first steam carpet cleaner in Atlanta, word spread about the technology and he quickly purchased 2 more.
The Smoke Master business was run out of his father-in-law’s basement, which according to Major had so many support posts, he had to shift and fold a 9’X12′ rug multiple times to clean it. He would take the cleaned rugs outside to dry in the sun on the lawn. The neighbors complained about rugs on the lawn so he was forced to move the business into a rental space.
By this time, if the work wasn’t fire and smoke related Major wasn’t interested in doing it.
He persistently called on insurance adjusters whether they would give him work or not, until they were tired of seeing him.
He rented a 1200 sq. ft. warehouse, for cleaning and storage of customer’s smoke damaged personal property. When the building burnt down with customer personal property in it, the business received some snarky press coverage in the Atlanta Journal.
He purchased boxes and moving supplies from local moving companies, where he first saw storage vaults. He felt storing contents in vaults was neater looking and more efficient so he adopted their use.
He stuck to his knitting by only cleaning contents and cleaning and deodorizing structures so as not to compete with contractors who gave him work.
- A fire in Firestone tire store with 40,000 tires in the basement. He came up with the idea of using cattle troughs filed with detergent solution to clean the tires. After working 2.5 days straight on the job without wearing PPE, his skin turned yellow and he passed out at the job and was taken to emergency room by ambulance.
Not a fan of T&M pricing, he always preferred line item unit cost estimating.
Soot removal was primary done with chem sponges. To clean walls better and faster he invested $10K into a wall washing machine. Not all of Major’s early adopting paid off’ the wall cleaning machine “didn’t do squat”. He found buckets, towels, and degreaser. He found an effective cleaner/degreaser for wall cleaning and had it private labelled.
- His Atlanta business was doing very well so he expanded by opening additional Smoke Master offices in Tampa and Houston. He decided to franchise and quickly sold franchises in: Memphis, St. Louis and Joliet. He then spun-off his Tampa and Houston offices as franchises. Always a fan of fancy cars, whether he could afford them or not, he decided to celebrate his success by buying a Rolls Royce. He sold it after a year because he only drove it at night so the adjusters who gave him business wouldn’t see it.
- At this point he was sued in Federal Court for trademark infringement by ServiceMaster. He offered to bear all costs for his franchises to rebrand under Smoke Services or walk-away. Franchisees chose to walk away.
- This was the mid 1970s; he was the first to use full color literature. Two pieces I specifically remember are an employee wearing Smoke Master shirt fogging an attic with a ULV fogger*. The other photo that stood out pictured a severely smoke damaged ornate antique chest which was cleaned and restored on one side and not on the other.
- Years before laptops and tablets, he used a portable self-contained audio visual projector which used 35mm slides, narration and music to tell his story.
- He says that his best marketing idea was investing in a custom made 8’X10′ rug that said “Smoke Master at work”. He once placed it in the lobby of an Atlanta high-rise building after it suffered fire damage and he received so many calls from wealthy residents that he was forced to turn work away.
- To celebrate an early anniversary of the business, he boldly had elaborate invitations printed inviting clients to have lunch at one of Atlanta’s Finest Restaurants [Chateau Fleur de Lis] at his expense. Over the course of a year he paid for 40-50 lunches. It was a good investment; he knew that one fire job would pay for it all.
- Deep sea fishing excursions. Major took his best client’s on deep sea fishing excursions.
- Fear of the unknown. Major ran a small classified ad in the RIA magazine, advertising his service to consult with pricing on large or unusual projects. One project of which he is very proud was Jackie Gleason’s Florida mansion. The home was spectacular in both size and appointment. The playroom had 4 full size pool tables. Gleason had a collection of 3,000 leather bound first edition books, valuable paintings and other fine arts.
- To assist him with estimating, in 1977 he purchased an IBM PC for $6K. He developed a system of take-off sheets and worked with a computer programmer to develop a DOS based estimating program. He marketed his estimating system to other restorers.
His most proud business accomplishments, life as a restorer, volunteer service in ASCR where he was the first restorer to be president, for his stint as technical director when Marty King was on sabbatical.
* Note: The MicroGen ULV fogger, the pest control industry’s first ULV fogger, powered by a chain saw engine with air pressure provided by a Porsche automobile supercharger. This device was $3K-$4K.
RadioJoe and I interviewed disaster restoration pioneer Major Long on September 19, 2008. Admittedly, it was great to hear Major’s voice again today; I smiled like a Cheshire cat through the entire episode.