Living the Nightmare

Article by:
Damon Gersh, EO New York
Damon Gersh
EO New York

Damon Gersh of EO New York is the President and CEO of MAXONS Restorations, Inc., a leading disaster restoration and recovery specialist company in New York. Damon has served as the President of his chapter and is also a member of the Young President’s Organization (YPO), Young Insurance Professionals and Building Owners and Managers Associations (BOMA).

“LIVING MY DREAM AS AN ENTREPRENEUR HAS, FROM THE BEGINNING, BEEN FUNDAMENTALLY ABOUT HAVING FREEDOM.”

The world changed on September 11th. Though these acts of violence can happen anywhere, as a New Yorker who watched the events of that day unfold, I remember it as a surreal nightmare. As the owner of a New York City disaster restoration company, I knew that the days ahead would change my life in ways that I could not even begin to comprehend. I liken the feeling to standing on a beach watching a tidal wave slowly approach from the distance. It became clear that I must either learn to surf the wave or be swept away by it.

On 12 September, I convened a meeting with my staff and, after a moment of silence, we got to work. One key idea I remembered from my Birthing of Giants (BOG) class was to identify and control the “choke point” of your industry. I realized that the choke point for our industry was the limited supply of labor skilled in disaster cleaning work. I immediately assigned a team to contact every subcontractor we had ever worked with to secure their commitment to work exclusively for MAXONS. Within 24 hours, we locked up almost the entire local skilled labor market — all before we had even one job.

During the ensuing weeks and months, we amassed an army of more than 1,600 workers who cleaned and restored more than 50 office buildings, 3,000 apartments and hundreds of businesses around Ground Zero to help New Yorkers make the first steps toward recovery. We were recognized by many media outlets, including a five-minute international report on CNN featuring MAXONS and our key role in the recovery process.

Looking back at those times, it seems like every action taken in the years leading up to that day were to prepare me and my company to rise to the occasion and seize a unique opportunity to do good and to do it well. Our success during that time can be attributed to the quality and the quantity of our relationships— with our employees, our vendors, our suppliers, our clients and the media. It’s clear to me now that success is never achieved alone.

I have been told the Chinese symbol for crisis is comprised of the symbol for danger and the symbol for opportunity.

As a function of this dream, I learned that I would need to change my role in my company and go from having total control of every decision to becoming the person whose role was to develop leaders. This new direction and self-definition allowed me to free myself from the day-to-day operations of my company and develop leaders who were able to assume huge areas of responsibility when 9/11 occurred.

In hindsight, if I had stayed in the “hub and spoke” model of leadership, where every decision had to go through me, the sheer volume of information and decisions that were required to manage the complexity of a massive response would have driven me insane and surely damaged our company’s reputation. Also, as a result of my key staff handling the operational aspects of our response, I was able to focus on more far-ranging opportunities, such as dealing with the media and seizing the opportunity to have our company featured on CNN.

I started MAXONS when I was 21 with my father, Max, who was then 81. As any son, I wanted to impress my father, especially in our shared arena of business. Though he retired from the business in 1994, he always remained interested in our accomplishments and the continued growth of the company. As a result of our efforts following 9/11, we were recognized with many business awards, most notably the 2002 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in New York City. During my acceptance speech, I dedicated the award to my amazing team as well as to my father (then 94) for the example of his resilient spirit.

My father passed away later that year, and that moment we shared was the highlight of our business relationship and of my career (so far!). He couldn’t have been more proud that evening, and I couldn’t have given him a greater gift. It was the culmination of every effort put into the business and indeed a dream come true.


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