Inside Track: Pattee restores faith in process

Restoration company owner stays independent to better work with customers.
Clay Pattee’s passion for restoration also extends to prevention as a member of the GRFD’s Residential Safety Program. Courtesy Clay Pattee

Fire is central to Clay Pattee’s business and personal life.

Pattee is owner of John Grace Restoration and Construction, a Comstock Park-based mitigation restoration business that springs into action after fire or water has damaged a building. That’s when John Grace’s four-step process goes to work: inspection, emergency services, estimating and reconstruction.

It’s the type of business that means navigating the home insurance maze on behalf of his customers, a process Pattee said can sometimes be too “opaque.”

“What I see out in the world of restoration is opaque,” said Pattee. “We try to make it transparent to know what they’re getting paid for. It’s nice to have someone who can make the process as transparent as possible.

“When someone has water or fire damage, they call a random restoration company hoping for the best,” he said. “Not all restoration companies are created equally. The way the whole (insurance) industry is set up is not completely transparent with people. An example: They call an insurance company, and they are asked if they would like to use a preferred contractor. What they’re not telling you is the contractor has paid to be on that list and what they’re not telling you is the contractor has had to make concessions to be on that list, and it changes the dynamic of the relationship with the homeowner, which is the policy owner. They (the insurance company) want to use their guy. The arrangement is between them, and you don’t get to completely understand that.”

Pattee said his company operates from a different point of view.

“We’re independent so we get referred a lot of insurance claims from a lot of the good local insurance companies around the greater Grand Rapids area, and they refer us because we have a track record of working well with insurance companies and working with people,” Pattee said. “People wonder why I prefer not to be on a preferred contractor program, and they’re surprised what they have to do to be on that list.

John Grace Restoration and Construction
Position: Owner
Age: 37
Birthplace: Minneapolis
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife Ashley
Business/Community Involvement: Board member of Grand Rapids Fire Department Residential Safety Program
Biggest Career Break: “Learning the restoration business my dad started after I finished high school: John Grace Construction. Later in my life, it came into focus that restoration is where I wanted to be.”

“I don’t want to throw the whole (insurance) industry under the bus. If you live in the outskirts, you don’t have a lot of options for restoration companies. But I just saw a gap in there. Our whole policy is to do right by these people, be transparent with them and have a really great outcome for people going through insurance claims.”

Pattee didn’t fall into the restoration business by accident. His father in 2005 launched a construction business and dubbed it John Grace, which are the middle names of his father and Pattee’s sister. They initially kicked around the idea of using his father’s and Clay Pattee’s middle name, which would have named the company John Wayne, a moniker that was a little too Hollywood-ish.

His father’s version of John Grace didn’t succeed, but it did serve as a constructive learning experience.

“It was short-lived for a couple of years,” said Pattee. “He (his father) showed me what it took to start the company even through it didn’t gain the traction at the time.”

Pattee earned an associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College and transferred to Cornerstone University as a night student, earning an undergraduate degree in business in 2010. 

He then enrolled in Western Michigan University’s masters degree program in engineering management.

“This was before I had an epiphany for John Grace,” said Pattee. “I was deciding what to do and didn’t necessarily like what I saw in the restoration field and went through the process of getting accepted into the engineering program at Western University. It was cool, but also, I understood with school I’m not a real book-smart kind of person. I did good for my first course there, but the drive from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo, I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to commit the next three years? Is this the path I want to go down?’ That’s when I decided on restoration, but I had to do it my way.”

Still, the one class he took at Western told him something about himself.

“I aced the first class, which was project management,” he said. “I think it would have been fun to take more in-depth classes, but it would have been an uphill battle because I didn’t have an engineering degree so that probably would have led to difficulty finding a long-term position in that field. It gave me time to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t know it would be John Grace at that time, but I knew enough about construction. I was more curious if we came at the restoration field with a bit of a different angle.”

Pattee’s connection with fire isn’t restricted to his business. He is on the board of the Grand Rapids Fire Department’s Residential Safety Program, which is focused on getting hard-wired smoke detectors installed in homes. Homeowners have a habit of not replacing the batteries in smoke detectors, said Pattee.

After seeing a news story about an increase in fire-related deaths in Grand Rapids in 2020, Pattee found out that each of the deaths that year were at homes that did not have working smoke detectors.

“This is unacceptable,” he said. “I called a few of my contacts in the insurance industry and began to set seeds that this a program that should be funded by insurance companies. Let’s save lives and prevent and minimize home damage at the same time. I got some quick traction but realized accepting funds was not smooth because the Residential Safety Program was not a true nonprofit entity. My conversations with the GRFD Residential Safety Program led to them concluding that they needed to actually start a nonprofit entity so that we could effectively raise money and solve this issue.”

Pattee credits his wife, Ashley, for emboldening him to want to help others. She is performance improvement director at Arbor Circle, whose mission is to transform the lives of children, adults, and families facing mental health, substance use and family concerns.

“I never met someone who is so selfless in (her) chosen career path,” Pattee said of his wife. “With Arbor Circle, she really pours her soul into it. Helping people who need help. Helping people to get through those moments for better times. She’s why I looked into how else can I make a better community? There’s a lot of gratification that comes out of that. Giving back is good and I see the impact it’s making. That’s pretty cool.”

Another inspiration Pattee cites was a business launch that didn’t go as planned for some of his friends.

“Entrepreneurially, what shaped my path was a couple of buddies of mine who started a business and it didn’t work out,” he said. “They poured their heart and soul and switched gears and found their next thing. Watching them roll with the punches of life and finding a new way when something didn’t work out for them was a valuable learning experience.”

One of Pattee’s first jobs was window estimator for a company that sold windows. He learned through that job what it meant to accomplish exacting work.

“I first learned the details in construction: You can’t get one measurement wrong,” Pattee said. “You have to be very thorough crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. Working off of blueprints, measuring windows, getting quotes put together on the windows that were sized. We’re going back to where a lot of it was done by hand. You mix two numbers and order the wrong-sized window, you got to replace that window for free.”

When asked how he defined success, Pattee paused, then said it’s his desire to help his employees climb the ladder of achievement.

“Internally, taking guys who are early on in their carpentry career and putting them with guys who are later in their career to bring the younger ones to lead carpenter, to manager and then project manager,” he said. “I think all of that is a positive impact because it helps people get to the next level and have a positive impact in their lives. That’s what I’m most proud of and that’s why I would say it has nothing to do with revenue or the size of the company or anything like that, as long as every day we’re making a positive impact for as many people internally and externally.

“That’s how I know we’re successful.”

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