As the old saying goes: Into every life, a little rain must fall.
Whatever old sage first said that wasn't really talking about rain, of course. He was talking about Act of God stuff: fires, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and all the other things that keep insurance agents awake at night. The little problems of our lives usually roll right off our backs. It's the big things that tend to jut up like thorns when you pass a hand over all your days.
When those Act of God Days come — and they will come eventually for all of us, make no mistake — that's when a guy like Brett Overman is a good friend to have. If Overman was 65 or 70 years old, it might not be all that shocking that he's now on his fourth highly successful business venture — National Disaster Solutions, a 24/7/365 multimillion-dollar outfit that drops into major disaster zones all over America to help communities and property owners pick up the pieces. When you hear that he's only 36, though ... well, it's enough to make the average Joe feel positively useless.
Since he started NDS in 2004, Overman and his crews have haunted those places in America and the Caribbean where others are trying their damndest to get out: New Orleans after Katrina; Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake that reduced most of the country to rubble; Joplin, Mo., after the May 2011 tornado that turned a mile-wide swath of the town to so much nail- and glass-strewn mulch. Disaster has been very good to Overman, helping him buy his dream home in South Florida and befriend everybody from musician Jimmy Buffett to the perpetually-tanned actor George Hamilton. That said, it's not all business to him. He talks quite a bit about the human side of his work; the need to help.
It's hard to speak in praise of a rich man these days, when so many have it so rough, but Brett Overman isn't your typical rich guy. In an America where too much wealth seems to be built upon the air, Overman got his the old fashioned way: sweat, a bit of luck, the gift of gab and a mean game of golf.
If there's such a thing as a born businessman, Brett Overman might qualify as a child prodigy. Brett's parents, Pat and Ben Overman, said that when he was a boy, their only son had a head for business that surprised even them. At an age when other kids were spending their allowance on comic books and baseball cards, Brett was asking his mother for books on sales and marketing. He set up lemonade stands, and later started buying trinkets in bulk and selling those. In elementary school, he got a job picking strawberries in his small hometown of Caraway (35 miles northeast of Jonesboro), negotiated a price with the farmer, then hired other kids as subcontractors to do the actual picking. Rather than mow a few lawns during the summer for spending money, Brett turned it into a business.
"He was going around town getting jobs to mow yards," Ben Overman said. "When we checked, Brett was getting the jobs, and then having all his friends bring their mowers over and mow the grass. He'd give them half the money. They'd use their mowers and gas, and he'd get the jobs."
"I was never really afraid to work," Brett said. "In that, I was different — probably a little out there and weird. I didn't do normal things as a kid, I'll be the first to say."
Around age 6 or 7, Brett discovered what would become one of the great passions of his life (and, he says, the key to everything he has done so far): the game of golf. Pat Overman said he'd take his clubs, catch a ride over to the golf course in Manila, and stay all day in the summer. His father said Brett would often play in rain and snow, because he believed it might give him an edge if he was ever caught in a gale during a tournament. Brett said that to him, golf is beyond a challenge.
"It's something that's a true, ongoing work of trying to get better, better, better," he said. "I don't know if it's the constant trying to better yourself, or the love of the outdoors, or the opportunity to go to new, fun, intriguing places. At the end of the day, I look back on it and say: single handedly, golf has probably accounted for 75 percent of my relationships."
After the family moved to Jonesboro when Brett was in the 9th grade, he joined the golf team at school, and was soon playing in junior tournaments all over the country (he skipped both his junior and senior proms because he was off playing golf). He was mature enough, even at a young age, that his parents usually allowed him to fly places by himself and stay with trusted members of the country clubs where he played. One of those tournaments, Ben Overman remembers, was another turning point in his son's life.
"He went to this place in South Florida and played, and he came home and told us: I'm going to live there someday," Ben recalls. "That's where he lives today: Turnberry Isle, Florida. ... He knew at 15 years old that he was going to live there, and he's lived there the last nine or 10 years."
In high school, Brett took some ribbing from the football players for being on the golf team, but it stopped when he got a full-ride scholarship to play golf at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
"All the football players would tease me: 'Hey, Brett, come play football. Why you playing that sissy game?' " he said. "Shortly after, knowing I was going off on a college scholarship, my phone would ring, and they'd say: 'Hey, can you teach me? Can you give me some lessons?' "
After just two weeks in Lafayette, Brett's friend — former PGA Tour pro Craig Perks — introduced him to executives with the McIlhenny Co., the family behind the famous Tabasco sauce, made and bottled on Avery Island in South Louisiana. The McIlhennys were soon close friends with the likeable Arkansan.
"Literally for five years, I had a key to Avery Island," Overman said. "That was a huge culture thing for me. And once again, it traced back to the game of golf." Overman would travel all over the world with McIlhenny executives during his time in Lafayette, getting real-time business experience that he said just can't be taught in a classroom. In his sophomore year of college, The McIlhenny Co. offered Overman what was then the fourth franchise of their Tabasco Country Store, a touristy outlet that sells merchandise emblazoned with the Tabasco logo. With help from his parents, Overman and a cousin started their Tabasco Store in Branson, Mo. He was just 19 at the time. It was a great concept and a great market, Overman said, but the location they picked wasn't the best. The store did OK, but not terrific. Still, running his own business at that age taught him a lot about the rigors and responsibilities involved in keeping a business afloat.
After graduating from college, Overman followed his dream of playing professional golf to South America. He spent 11 weeks there on the South American Tour, with sponsorship from Tabasco, before he realized the hard truth about himself. "It was one of those deals where you can't look in the mirror and lie to yourself," he said. "I'll never forget it. I was in Brazil. I'd just played my tail off, probably the best I'd played down there, and I was in a tie for 34th or something. I said to myself then: This is not really what I want to do." Overman came home, and went to work at his father's small, family-run janitorial business.
"It wasn't a week before he said, 'Dad, the real thing is to get into restoration,' " Ben Overman recalls.
Everybody dreads the idea of something terrible happening in their home — a fire that soots up the place but doesn't destroy it, a sewage leak that fills up the basement with dark swill, even — God forbid — a traumatic event that leaves the walls and carpets soaked with blood. Even so, not many homeowners have given much thought to how they might get their house back to square one if any of those things happened. That, in a nutshell, is where Brett Overman was coming from when he got the idea for All-Clean USA. There were other restoration companies, of course, but Brett wanted to do it better. His father, he recalls, was skeptical at first.
"He said, 'You didn't go to school for that, Brett. You're not a carpenter. You're not a contractor,' " Overman said. "I probably couldn't spell restoration, but I'd seen another company there in my hometown do it and do it well. You hear things about different people, and I'd heard there was a demand for a service-oriented company at the time to do that."
Still, he knew his dad was right. He wasn't a painter, or a carpenter, or a plumber, and didn't know the first thing about putting a house or business right after a disaster. He needed on-the-ground experience. So, just after Christmas 1998, Overman started cold-calling restoration companies in Lafayette, La., offering to come down and work for them for free.
After getting rebuffed by several businesses, Overman finally found an owner who knew him from his golf-playing days in Lafayette. He's friends with the owner now, and they joke about the fact that when Overman first called and offered himself up as an unpaid intern, he thought it was a prank call and almost hung up. After listening for a while, though, the man on the other end of the line told Overman to show up ready to work the next morning at 8:30 a.m.
That first day was a quick education. The second call of the day was a trauma scene — a suicide. Overman is a guy who keeps it together well, but when he describes that scene, you can catch a glimpse of the horror in his face — and maybe a peek at the 20-something kid in a haz-mat suit who wondered just what the hell he had gotten himself into.
"We were having to wipe down the walls," he said. "There's blood everywhere. The lady I was working with went to move the sofa, and when she does, there's the guy's ear ... I remember walking out, and she said: 'Kid, are you sure you want to get into a business like this? It's not very glamorous.' "
He got through it, though, and stuck with it. After three weeks of working every kind of restoration job imaginable, he came home to Jonesboro, asked his dad for a $7,000 loan, bought two truckloads of equipment — carpet cleaners, drying fans, air scrubbers and more — and started All-Clean USA.
"I had some business cards made up," he said, "and I went door to door to all the insurance people and property people that I knew, telling them I've started a business, this is my story — not knowing what in the hell I'd do if the phone rang." Two weeks in, it finally did: friends of a friend who'd had a fire.
"They said it was the first fire they'd ever had," he said. "What they didn't know is that it was the first fire I'd ever done. I got two of my dad's maintenance people, and we went in, and in about five days we cleaned that house top to bottom, painted about four rooms, cleaned their carpets, and when we left they just signed their [insurance] check over to me." That job netted enough to pay his dad back. It was more money than he'd made the whole time he was playing golf in South America.
One job turned into another, and then another. As All-Clean in Jonesboro took off, Overman started thinking about expanding — perhaps a little prematurely, he admits now. He had family in Conway, so he set his sights on opening another office there and started advertising for a manager. After weeding through over 100 applications, he settled on Burle Fortenberry, who had been laid off from Nucor Steel and was then driving a school bus part time. Fortenberry had never worked in restoration before. They met for their interview at Colton's Steakhouse in Conway.
"I showed up more or less dressed up, and he was in a T-shirt and jeans with his cap turned around backward — typical golfer," Fortenberry said. "I went home and told my wife about it, and her impression was: 'You need to run.' "
Fortenberry was offered the job and decided to take it. In 2001, the first year of the Conway office, they did around 30 jobs, barely enough to keep the doors open. In 2010, All-Clean Conway did 389. By then, Overman had expanded All-Clean all over the state and regionally, opening offices in Hot Springs, Little Rock, Springdale and Memphis. It was a different kind of expansion in 2004, however, that would take Overman's business life to the next level.
Since the time he was a kid playing golf tournaments, Overman said, he'd wanted to live in a warm climate — somewhere tropical, where you could play golf in shirtsleeves year round. Once All-Clean was on its feet and growing, Overman decided to pull the trigger on buying property in South Florida. He eventually sold that property for a hefty profit, but the idea of living there had taken hold once again in his mind. The thought of a house near the coast naturally got him thinking about the threat of hurricanes, and the money to be had if a disaster-restoration company was in the right place at the right time.
Overman called his cousin, Tyson Overman, whom he'd partnered with on the Tabasco Country Store, and told him his idea: While Brett kept All-Clean humming in Arkansas, Tyson would move to Miami, start a restoration company, and get busy knocking on doors. By the time the next hurricane came ashore, they'd be ready. They packed his cousin's things into moving vans, trucked him to Florida, and Florida Disaster Services was born.
You know, of course, what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. For the next 10 months, the hurricane factory that is the Gulf of Mexico quit spinning hurricanes toward Florida.
"We're losing money, and not really getting anywhere, debating on whether it was going to work," Overman said. "Then 2004 hits. We have Hurricane Charley, Hurricane Frances, Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Jeanne. That tapped the resources of everybody in the industry — four hurricanes spread out like that throughout the state."
The first big job was a retirement high-rise in Punta Gorda, Fla., which had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Charley. "We worked day and night," Overman said, "recruited people, brought them in, for three hard weeks, and then you'd have another [hurricane] hit over on the East Coast. That went for three hard weeks, then you had another one hit in the panhandle. At one time, we were spread out in four different areas — two 26-year-old kids."
Looking to expand further but with his cousin worn a bit ragged, Overman bought Tyson out in 2005, got his general contractor's licenses for all the states on the Gulf Coast, and then folded Florida Disaster Solutions into National Disaster Solutions. The ink was barely dry on his new business cards when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Fourteen days after the levees broke, Overman ventured into the city under armed guard with representatives of FEMA, who wanted to assess a high-rise building there for possible use as a command center. Overman remembers driving into the drowned city, his SUV weaving through stalled cars and National Guard Humvees, at times driving through water deep enough that it came up into the floorboards around their feet.
"I'll never forget pulling up at that building, and they had seven bodies tied together, tied to the posts of the porte-cochere, there where you drive in," he said. "The water had receded a little, and they were still in search and rescue mode ... There's the business side of things: 'We're going to be able to come in here and get a lot of work.' But the more you were there — and I didn't leave for 90 days straight, I didn't go anywhere — you get more involved, and touch more people, and hear sad, heartache stories, you just want to do everything in your power to help."
Eventually, NDS got the contract to do demolition and remediation on every Jesuit school in New Orleans, along with contracts to restore everything from movie theaters to doctor's offices. By the time they got to many of them, the tropical heat had turned the buildings to a fetid and moldy nightmare, with mushrooms growing out of the walls in some cases. Most of them had to be completely gutted back to the bare framing, and rebuilt from there.
"Being in the battle like that every day, it really puts things in perspective," Overman said. "Human life, and just caring about people ... . It makes you truly appreciate things a whole lot more. It makes you step back and think what's really important."
Since Katrina, which really put National Disaster Services on the map, Overman and NDS have responded to trouble all over, including working in 21 states and in the wake of the last 16 hurricanes. Back in August, after rains from Hurricane Irene swamped Vermont and completely cut off many small towns, NDS was there. The company, by Overman's estimation, rebuilt around 75 percent of Vilonia — including 35 homes in one neighborhood — after the tornado back in April of this year. It was Joplin, Mo., however, which he said is the worst destruction he's ever seen. A large swath of the town was virtually wiped off the map in May 2011 by a mile-wide, EF5 twister that churned through the middle of the city. He's in the restoration business, Overman said, and in most cases, there was just nothing left in Joplin to restore.
"That was the worst thing I've ever seen," he said. "Worse than Katrina, worse than the hurricanes. That's the worst true, widespread devastation that I've ever seen. ... You had people at every corner, trying to direct traffic. They think this is their street and they're actually four streets over. They didn't even know where they were, because the street signs and all the landmarks were just gone."
It isn't all rain clouds and ominous skies for Overman, however. Soon after moving to South Florida, he met — again, through the magic of golf — the Florida real-estate developer Donny Soffer, who owns the five-star Fountainbleau Hotel on South Beach and other high end properties in the region. With Soffer, who Overman said he now considers a second father, he has traveled all over the world, including partying with hotel heiress Paris Hilton in Sardinia and cruising the Caribbean with the musician Jimmy Buffett on Soffer's 270-foot yacht, Mad Summer.
"Brett is not a user, he's a friend," Soffer said. "His heart is in the right place. We've always had a relationship like a father and son — but I don't always know who the father is. ... He doesn't just come along because I have all the toys. He's a true friend."
Through Soffer, Overman has befriended A-list actors, star athletes and big-money philanthropists, including Anthony Kennedy Shriver. Overman currently works extensively with Shriver's charity, Best Buddies, which helps people with developmental disabilities.
"He's got a great demeanor, respect for people, such a good humor," Shriver said. "Plus he has a refreshing mentality and a spirit that is hard to find these days. ... There's something special about people from your part of the world. Bill Clinton sure has it. And Brett's got the same kind of thing. It all comes naturally to him, and that's helped him in golf, business, whatever he does."
Even though his job often has him meeting people in the worst moments of their lives, Overman still has a lot of want-to left in him. Nobody knows when the next Act of God is going to lay them low, but it's kind of amazing to think Overman might well have another 36 years — or more — to work with.
"It's the passion in what you love," he said. "I see that in other people. To me, that's the key to staying young and healthy. That's what I do. It wakes me up. It motivates me. I didn't set out to say: 'I want to have 400 jobs and make x-amount of dollars.' I try just as hard at 36 as I did at 23. Your responsibilities change a little, but I'm still passionate about it, and I still love it."
Kelley Bass contributed reporting.