Disasters such as a fire can strike a business or family, disrupting day-to-day activities and a sense of security while causing uncertainty. Something so simple as having a prized possession saved or a storefront restored in the fastest time frame can restore stability. No one understands that more than Panhandle Cleaning & Restoration owner Bob Contraguerro. The Wheeling native has been helping bring that stability back to businesses and owners since 1977, when he decided on a career path that would allow him to directly affect people’s lives during a time of need. Contraguerro’s father told a young Bob, “There is always cleaning to be done.” Contraguerro took his dad’s advice and decided, after graduating from Wheeling Central Catholic High School, to go to trade school and learn how to properly clean everything from carpets, to furniture to restoration of buildings after fires and floods. “I started out small, doing furniture and carpet cleaning and slowly built the business, expanding into the restoration side of things. The added services allowed me to expand personnel and grow the business,” Contraguerro said. Ten years ago, his son, Bob Jr., joined the company. He is one of 360 qualified restorers in the world. He also is one of six mold specialists in the country. Contraguerro’s other son, Thomas, is general manager of the company. “We have tried to stay on the cutting edge of technology to expand our services. We have restoration equipment that there are only 18 machines in the world,” Contraguerro said.
Restoring Peace of Mind
Part of staying on top of the industry includes making his company a one-stop shop for restoring not only people’s lives as fast as possible, but making the cleanup process easy on the customer. “We have a full staff of painters and carpenters, construction guys, employees doing cleaning and restoring of buildings, furniture and personal possessions. We do all we can to ensure as much of the customers’ lives are saved and restored after a disaster strikes,” Contraguerro said. The company has an in-house showroom with paint, tile and carpet samples for clients to review before the restoration begins. The company mixes its own paint at the shop. Cabinet displays are available so customers can make all decisions before any work begins. “We also have ultrasonic clean stations for soft material such as stuffed animals and clothing. We also have dry chambers for electronic equipment such as computers, stereos and televisions. It means a lot to a parent when they can give back the same special teddy bear a grandparent gave them in the same condition as the day they got it. It is the little things that mean a lot to a customer after something traumatic like a fire happens,” Contraguerro said. Contraguerro said cleaning the items is often cheaper for insurance companies than replacing all the items lost in a fire or flood. Restoring personal items are priceless, though. Recently the company was able to restore a Notre Dame tapestry a grandfather had given his grandchild. The corner had been burned, and the tapestry as a whole was covered in soot. “We were able to make it look like new. Those are the kinds of things we try to do,” Contraguerro said. The company has a warehouse filled to the ceiling with crates, each one containing a family or individual’s life touched by a disaster. It usually takes, on average, 25 days to go through the contents of a crate and clean a family’s possessions. Panhandle Cleaning is able to save 80 percent of items with smoke damage.
On the industrial side, the company puts businesses, hospitals and schools back to normal. Panhandle Cleaning & Restoration uses mold specialists, certified restorers and 18 water techs to quickly restore businesses. Contraguerro said the company is part of the 180-member worldwide organization, Disaster Cleanup International, or DKI. Membership to the group allows sharing resources and techniques with other cleanup companies and restorers. “Each one of our divisions is highly trained and supervised by the highest quality of management I can provide them,” Contraguerro said. Part of the state-of-the art technology utilized by the company includes everything from using dry ice to infrared camera systems. Contraguerro said the company is always developing new technologies and techniques developed from experiences in the field. Bob Jr. developed an ultrasonic money-cleaning machine after $100,000 in currency was brought to the company from a flooded bank. “The money was caked in mud and debris when it was brought to us. Bob Jr. came up with the machine and when it came out, the money was so clean you could have eaten off of it. It was as if not one human hand or germ had touched its surface,” Contraguerro said. The company also uses infrared cameras to find water leaks behind walls. Contraguerro said water leaks are evident after the fact, but often the origins are difficult to pinpoint in older or stucco buildings. The company developed an infrared camera system to discover conditions the human eye cannot pick up. The company uses dry ice to blast clean girders and timber. Contraguerro said the technique can take a badly burned piece of lumber and make it “look like the day it was bought at the lumber yard.” Although the company did not invent the technique, it owns and operates two of the restoration machines. Another system the company uses in a unique way is Global Positioning Systems. Panhandle uses GPS to track every company vehicle and piece of equipment. “The GPS allows me to give a quick, almost breathtaking, response to a call. The other day I had a call in Fairmont and it was an emergency. I was able to have someone there within a few hours, thanks to the GPS. We had one crew working in Morgantown so within two hours of receiving the call, we were able to get a crew on the scene with others en route to get the job started,” Contraguerro said. He said those are the kind of things his company brings to the table to stay fresh and focus on bringing improved services. Contraguerro accounts Panhandle’s 33 years of success to its employees. He compares running his business to coaching football — a passion he has had for many years. “Business and football are the same thing in regards to staff. You have to respect each other, such as staff versus players; you have to take responsibility, such as supervising a job, building a house or knowing your assignments on the football field. Applying those lessons allows you to go farther,” Contraguerro said.
A Family Affair
Family, faith and community are also important factors in Contraguerro’s success. Besides sons Bob Jr. and Tom, his wife since 1979, Jody, helps with administrative duties in the office. His daughter, Stacey, and son-in-law are attorneys and help with legal issues. His youngest son, Josh, is a junior at West Virginia University and a member of the Mountaineer football team. Bob Jr. also played football at WVU. “Josh will be the next to come aboard. He is still pretty involved. I receive calls from Morgantown almost daily from him, saying that he saw one of the trucks or knows where there is a potential client. It’s great to have my family involved and around,” Contraguerro said. Bob and Jody have four grandchildren as well. They love spending time with them. Contraguerro said he enjoys going to high school and WVU football games. He still is involved in youth leagues, handing out trophies or lending support through scoreboard sponsorships. Panhandle also sponsors the annual Ogden Distance Race. “I try to help out with anything involving kids if it comes across my desk,” Contraguerro said. His Catholic faith is something he holds near and dear to his heart. He says his future is rooted in his faith, and it has helped him throughout his career. “I always ask in every decision I make ‘what would Jesus do’ in this situation. I may not be able to come up with a good option immediately, and that allows me to put a soft thought into it, and I try to run my life and business with that thought process,” Contraguerro said. With a successful business and a close family behind him, Contraguerro said he hopes to expand throughout the state to different satellite locations. Contraguerro said his proudest moment was a few years ago when he built permanent headquarters in Wheeling, signifying he was staying in Wheeling and West Virginia. “We looked at other places throughout the state. We even looked at other states, but this is home, and it makes me proud to stay here and contribute to the place I grew up,” Contraguerro said. Time will tell what growth Panhandle will have. “You have to perform. When you get the ball on the one, you have to finish the job,” Contraguerro said.