The 2021 Ladder Award winner has been announced!
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Five years ago, millennials surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation. Economists predict by the end of this year, millennials will officially comprise half of the U.S. workforce. Known for being driven, passionate, and innovative, professionals 35 years old and younger are shaping today’s workforce, including the future of the trades. It is the hope of many that the path to lucrative careers in the trades construction included – become more clear and desirable for high school and college grads, alike. For younger generations choosing to forgo a college degree, there are endless restoration jobs open to them that offer a career path and future. Likewise, there are great college opportunities, such as Purdue’s Demolition & Restoration Management in the Built Environment program, that are preparing the future generation of construction and restoration leadership.

No matter how millennials, Gen Z’ers, and other future generations get here, we want to recognize and celebrate the bright stars we see rising in our industry. These young leaders are critical in helping an industry often stuck in the past, with antiquated technology and poor company culture, get a needed refresh.

In early 2020, the R&R team launched the Ladder Award with the goal of recognizing rising young professionals in restoration, who are blazing new trails with innovative leadership, ideas, and technological advancements. Ladder Award nominees can come from any level  as long as they have had an impact within their company. Each nominee is expected to exhibit qualities such as leadership, career progress, community involvement, and a clear passion for the industry. Most importantly, nominees should exhibit evidence of high character, integrity, and care for their colleagues and clients.

In all, 31 young restorers were nominated for the inaugural Ladder Award. Several were nominated more than once by different people. Each nomination was carefully read and scored by a panel of well-known industry judges, who you will “meet” below. We are thankful to them for their help and the care they took in judging these!

Ladder Award Eligibility
  1. Nominees and entrants must be UNDER 35 years of age as of June 30, 2020.
  2. Nominees can hold any position within a restoration company; ownership/upper management is not a requirement.
  3. They should exhibit qualities including, but not limited to, industry experience, leadership and community service.
  4. There is no limit to the number of entries each firm or person can submit, and there is no entry fee.

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Meet the Judges

Rachel Adams

Rachel Adams

Rachel Adams has been involved in the water damage and environmental health industries for more than 27 years.  She also holds a Master Restorer designation from the IICRC and is currently a Corporate Account Manager for Aramsco. Rachel was founder and president of Indoor Environmental Management, Inc. (IEM) in 1994 in which she conducted inspections of both residential and commercial buildings throughout the country. Rachel served on the Board of Directors for the IICRC and was appointed to serve as the Technical Advisory Committee Chair for the development of the IICRC Applied Microbial Remediation Technician (AMRT). Rachel serves on the committee to write and establish guidelines and updates for the the S520, Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Mold Remediation and currently teaches AMRT, WRT, ASD, HST, OSHA, and other classes. She is an honorary board member for the Society of Cleaning and Restoration Technicians (SCRT) and an associate member of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). 


Garret Gray

Garret Gray

Garret is the President and CEO of Next Gear Solutions, a company he founded in 2008 with a mission to tame the piles of paper propping up many mitigation and restoration companies and take them paperless with automated workflows and improved business efficiencies. In the following years, Next Gear became the industry-leading source of water mitigation and roofing mobile inspection apps, restoration-focused job management tools, and strategic sales management software built from the ground-up for restoration contractors. Based in Oxford Mississippi with more than 200 employees spread across 22 states and three countries, Next Gear offers a suite of software solutions trusted across the restoration industry: more than 8,000 mitigation contractor companies and the majority of the nation’s 25 largest insurance carriers rely on Next Gear to help them run a consistently smarter business.


Kent Rawhouser

Kent Rawhouser

Kent is the founder and past owner of A & J Specialty Services, Inc., dba A&J Property Restoration, DKI located in De Forest & Waukesha, Wisconsin.  Founded in 1984, A & J is the leading disaster response company in the area specializing in water, sewage, mold, fire and smoke damage mitigation, trauma/biohazard clean up and specialty services. He is currently a member of the Restoration Industry Association, RIA, Board of Directors, a consensus body member of the IICRC S550 standard writing committee, past DKI Midwest Chapter President, Chair of the High Point Church Elder Board, contributor to the RIA Preliminary Report for Restoration Contractors Assisting Clients with COVID-19, and past President of the Indoor Air Quality Association, IAQA. 


Lisa Wagner

Lisa Wagner

Lisa Wagner is a second generation rug cleaner, a rug care trainer, and the founder of the Textile Pro Network. Her blog is the most referenced and visited consumer rug care resource on the web. In 2006 Lisa was selected as Industry Person of the Year by Cleanfax Magazine for her industry contributions. She is a past president of CFI and a past board member of IICRC and NIRC/ASCR. She currently serves as the Vice Chair of the update for the IICRC Rug Cleaning Technician certification course.

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While we had hoped to celebrate the first winner during a pool party at The Experience in Las Vegas in September, fate had other ideas. We look forward to celebrating her in person in 2021, but in the meantime, we are excited to honor this year’s winner virtually during a webinar on Wednesday, Oct. 14 through The Experience University, as well as within this article and video.


The Unstoppable Nicole Humber

Nicole is a force to be reckoned with, in the best possible ways. In addition to being driven and competitive, Nicole has enough grit for 10 lifetimes, is and also open-minded, and always looking to learn and improve. Nicole is unapologetic about who she is, embraces that she is a young, female restoration company owner, and proves her mettle time and time again.

Nicole got her start in the restoration industry 13 years ago, as a receptionist. When Bravo Restoration & Construction was founded in 2010 in Windsor, CA, near Santa Rosa, by one of her coworkers at another restoration company, Nicole followed to help with backend responsibilities like payroll, scheduling, calling adjusters, and other admin duties. At the time, she had a newborn baby and was also going to school full time. By mid-2011, Nicole was full time at Bravo.

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“From 2011 to 2016, I was basically his right-hand person, but a naïve little girl who had no idea, I just knew I loved this industry,” Nicole reminisced. “I gave my blood, sweat, and tears into this place.”

Nicole Humber

In 2016, the owner approached Nicole saying he was burned out, and if she could find the money, the company was hers. Curious how Nicole came up with the money? Check out our fun video interview linked to this article.

“My gut told me that I needed to do this … I just have this overwhelming commitment not only to my coworkers, but to myself,” Nicole said. “Being a woman business owner in a man’s industry – I was just so driven by that, and so six months later, I became the full owner.”

However, what Nicole bought was far from a healthy company. She had to beg very unhappy employees to stay, and the company was losing more than $800,000 a year. One of the first things Nicole did as owner was to hire a lawyer and consultants who looked at her, asked why she bought it, and told her she was in over her head. In fact, she was even advised to sell.

Nicole Humber

But anyone who knows Nicole knows she’s not a quitter, and will prove people wrong time and time again if she has to. Today, four years after buying the company, Bravo is profitable and has what her advisor calls one of the healthiest company cultures he has ever seen.

“Nicole originally purchased the company in order to save the jobs of her co-workers when it looked like the company would potentially close. Since then, Nicole has focused on building a great team and maintaining incredible morale,” wrote Bill Prosch in his nomination for Nicole. Bill is a business development advisor at Violand Management Associates. “Her employees always come first, and while company morale is always at the top of her list, she realizes that well-trained and cared for team members serve Bravo’s clients extremely well.”

Nicole credits trusting her gut, admitting when she doesn’t know something, and being very open and transparent to hers and Bravo’s success.

“I asked a lot of questions; I was constantly asking every person I talked to, soaked in what they had to say… I had no fear of putting it out on the table like hey, I have no idea what the heck I’m doing,” she said.

In addition to her endless grit and refusal to give up, Nicole also gives credit to the people she surrounded herself by, like her consultants and other industry colleagues.

It’s worth noting that as Nicole has pushed through the last few years, her team and company have been directly affected by the California wildfires, with some even being displaced, areas being closed off, and huge influxes of work during these periods.

Nicole Humber

Today’s Bravo Restoration

Her youth and gender have been hurdles Nicole has been more than willing to clear. At just 32 years old, she admits she runs into push back more so on larger loss jobs and even getting onto some of the TPAs. Nicole reminisced about a recent hotel project Bravo was awarded, for which she was at first questioned and dealt phrases like “well honey, let me tell you…” Nicole said she got firm, showed her knowledge, and now the adjuster is a raving fan of hers and Bravo.

Within the company, culture is critical. Nicole has learned to hire for culture and personality, and train for skill. Common core values are a huge factor – things like being hardworking, trustworthy, and being a person of integrity. She believes in treating her team like family. At this point, the team is so solid she’s never had to fire anyone; people who don’t fit find their own way out the door.

“We have fun; I’m really big about celebrating the little wins… and I think that helps,” Nicole said. “I’m a mom, I’m a woman, and I’m young, and I love my staff, so when I love them, I love them hard when they disappoint me or they don’t do what I’m asking.”

Bravo Restoration

What’s Next?

Now that Bravo is out of survive mode, and thriving, Nicole has dreams of expanding and opening more offices. That said, she also wants to be sure she perfects every level her company reaches before going to the next. She also plans to continue learning and improving her own leadership skills and knowledge, which is evidenced by her earning her Associate’s Degree in 2018, while raising a family and working on her company.

“Her constant search for knowledge, not only for herself, but for her team serves to advance all who are part of Bravo,” Prosch commented. “Nicole is truly unique. Not only because she’s a woman in a man’s industry, but her drive to succeed and compassion for her employees and clients are second to none.”

Nicole is really only getting started; the sky is the limit. This portion of her nomination from Kirk Prouse, a Regional Director for Interstate Restoration, sums it all up best:

“I have been in this industry for over 30 years and have never seen anybody with the drive and enthusiasm exhibited by Nicole. Her employees and customers love her like I’ve never seen before. Her ethics, dedication to employees, clients and family is unbelievable. She donates time and money to charities, schools, sporting leagues and community. She took a business that was hemorrhaging and built a very successful company in a matter of a few years. If I had her working for me I could have retired years ago!” 

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