In 1985, when Sheldon Yellen joined the company he now leads, it had a single office with 19 employees. To strengthen new relationships, he started a tradition of writing personalized birthday cards for his colleagues every year.
More than three decades later, a few things have changed.
Today, Yellen is the chief executive officer of Belfor Holdings, a Michigan-based corporation that specializes in disaster-relief and property-restoration services. It has 350 offices in more than 30 countries, and its workforce has grown from 19 to 9,200.
What hasn’t changed is Yellen’s commitment to handwritten birthday cards annually for everyone employed by the company.
The considerable 34-year effort requires the support of three staffers, and it means Yellen always travels with a suitcase full of stationery and addressed envelopes.
“The cards are on my mind constantly,” said Yellen, who tries to stay up to two months ahead of impending celebrations. “I can be in meetings talking about an acquisition, or on a sales call, and I’m also thinking about how many cards I can get done that day.”
He devotes 10-14 hours weekly to penning birthday messages, as well as cards and notes for anniversaries, holidays — even well wishes for employees facing adversity such as disasters in their own communities and family illness.
“I’m a pen pal to a lot of kids fighting cancer, unfortunately,” Yellen said.
All of this correspondence — from happy to hopeful — gets mailed.
“I love the stamps we choose from,” said Yellen. His current favorite, given the nature of Belfor’s business, is Honoring First Responders.
Though his writing task can be arduous at times, Yellen has no doubt it has paid off in the form of a compassionate company that values gratitude.
He’s thankful himself for rising above humble beginnings: being raised by a single mother on public assistance and dropping out of high school to support his family.
“To think that I have the opportunity to sit where I sit and guide a 9,200-employee organization,” said Yellen — who eventually earned his diploma, he points out, at age 54. “I’m so blessed and honored that I’m in a position to be able to send these cards.”
Sherie Tuttle, one of Yellen’s assistants, recalls her initial reaction to his correspondence commitment: “I thought he was crazy!”
But after years of positive feedback and anecdotes about the cards, Tuttle said, “you really understand how important it is to have a leader who cares so much about every single one of us.”
She added, “It’s what makes us Belfor-strong and drives us every day to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”
Senior Estimator Bruce Cook, a longtime Belfor employee at a field office in Sterling, VA, has saved 30 years’ worth of birthday, anniversary and thank-you cards from Yellen.
“I am proud to look back and witness all that we have accomplished, and it makes me feel proud to know I have a leader who cares,” Cook said.
Although Yellen is certainly no stranger to receiving birthday cards, when he turned 60 in 2018, he was genuinely surprised to come into his office and discover that several staffers had marshaled the Belfor troops to send in greetings for him, to the tune of some 8,000 cards hung from the ceiling, walls, furniture — and stacked in bundles wherever there was space to spare.
He chokes up as he recalls the sight.
“Talk about humble and grateful,” Yellen said. “These were sent by the greatest people on Earth to me — the men and women I work with. For all the time I put in, it will never be anything compared with what I get back in return.”