Risk bounty: meet the couple behind Bio-One Charlotte and Charlotte Hoarding
“We would consider this a level five,” says Jen Symons, “on a scale of one to five”. We’re in a bungalow in South Charlotte in early November, and every room is practically full of random objects, including lots of stuffed animals: a llama here, a panda and a lion there. The cupboards and shelves are overflowing with unopened boxes, clothes, and piles of things I can’t identify. Full plastic containers rise to the ceiling. In one room, I stabilize myself with my hand on the wall to squeeze between the stacks. A glimpse of a bedpost provides the only real clue that we are in a bedroom.
Donald and Dora lived here. (These are not their real names; the family asked us not to identify them for this story.) Donald, 80, now lives next door in a house they bought when his wife started hoarding after a separation from one of their adult daughters in 2010. After the death of their disabled son, who lived with them, in 2019 at age 51, his behavior worsened. “I was like, ‘Who’s going to clean this up when you’re gone?’ said another of their daughters, Angel, who is here today to help oversee the cleanup. “She would be on the defensive.”
Dora died aged 69 in 2020 and Donald asked a friend from her church, Quail Hollow Presbyterian, to help clean the house. She looked over and said, “We need help.” The friend told church management, who contributed $3,000 for the job and hired Bio-One Charlotte to do it.
Bio-One Charlotte is a franchise that Jen Symons and her husband, John, bought in October 2018. They were tired of working for others and thought they could handle both the pressures of business ownership and the nauseating nature , sometimes dangerous, of this work. Bio-One offers biohazard decontamination and cleanup services. He handles hoarding cases like this, which only require masks and gloves to protect themselves. But the Symons and their five employees also clean up crime scenes and the aftermath of unexpected deaths. They scour floors and walls after pest infestations. They wear biohazard suits while doing this work, which the industry calls – it’s a real term – “rough dirt cleaning.”
No coarse dirt here, thank goodness. Just a lot of things. (When Jen referred to it as “level five,” she meant among the hoarding jobs. Coarse dirt is off the scale.) Bio-One would usually reserve a few days and charge around $9,000 for a cleanup like this one. But the Symons, who are open to such deals, have agreed to do what they can in a day in exchange for Quail Hollow Presbyterian’s $3,000. Jen, who previously worked in marketing, talks with Angel and me as John and his team of four – three men, one woman – collect boxes and loose items and carry them outside to sort. The family wants to keep some or give some away. The rest goes into the two huge orange dumpsters on the lawn.
John offers a quick hello leaving with a load. They can not waste time. When someone contacts the Symons, things went wrong.
The Symons moved to Charlotte from the Flint, Michigan area in 2007, when they were both in their early twenties. Jen got an internship at Ballantyne Country Club which turned into a marketing and event planning job. John has worked in restoration cleanup, resuscitating homes and businesses damaged by floods or fires. Big damage doesn’t bother him.
A decade later, the two were ready to start their own business and they brainstormed. John, with his years of restoration work, suggested cleaning up crime scenes and biohazard. He could do the heavy lifting. She could network and market.
“You’re crazy,” Jen replied.
But she eventually accompanied John to Bio-One’s headquarters outside of Denver for a day of discovery, the franchising industry’s version of a get-together. Bio-One, founded in 2006, began selling franchises in 2010 and has since exploded into a nationwide system of 115 independent businesses and a secure place on Contractor magazine’s annual list of America’s Top 500 Franchise Systems. The Symons sat down at a conference table in Colorado with other potential franchisees and absorbed what Bio-One executives had to show them.
Bio-One did not hesitate. The people in the room have seen pictures of outlines of bodies on the floor and blood and other body fluids, where people had died and left without being discovered for days. Jen remembers a particularly gruesome picture of an eyeball, lying on the ground. Sometimes, she said to me, “the coroners take the body but not the other pieces.”
The Symons looked around the room and saw doubt on the faces of potential franchisees. It was clearly not for everyone. But someone had to enter these houses and clean, is not it? The more she thought, the less it seemed crazy. She thought of the motto of Bio-One: “The first aid, then business.” They might.
“We found a company that wasn’t doing something very mainstream,” says Jen. “You have to be unique to stand out, and it’s a niche service that people will always need.”
They got loans to cover franchise fees and six months of family expenses. It was difficult, as is usually the case for a new business owner. John and Jen did everything themselves the first year and worked ridiculous hours the first two. But after a year, they were doing well enough to hire two people. In the past two years, they have hired three more. This helped ease their schedules; John is 38, Jen 36, and they have two young daughters: Lola, 9, and Lana, 7. After four years, the Symons, who now live in Rock Hill but work throughout the Charlotte area, can breathe once in a while.
And COVID, which has derailed the best efforts of many entrepreneurs, has only increased the demand for cleaning services. In July 2020, using federal CARES Act money, the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services hired Bio-One Charlotte to disinfect the homes of residents age 60 and older. The Symons and their employees sanitized more than 1,000 homes over the next year, and the national Bio-One system grew from $25 million in system-wide sales in 2019 to nearly $80 million. in 2020, founder Nick-Anthony Zamucen told the trade publication. Franchise hours in May 2021.
“I like to say we were doing infectious disease control before COVID,” says Jen. “So we had everything in place and we were able to make a smooth transition.”
The work was often as bad as Bio-One promised on Discovery Day. In a Charlotte home, a woman accumulated cats with other things, giving her just enough room to move around the hallway with a walker, barefoot and stepping on cat feces. The cats used the bathtub as a litter box. Even in a biohazard suit, John had to come out to stop gagging.
On another job, cleaning up the bed of a tractor-trailer after the driver died, the cab showed no signs of a violent death. John and his crew wondered what had happened. The owner of the truck park told them it was a case of auto-erotic asphyxiation. They looked again, found the rope and the porn, and decided it wasn’t something the family needed to know. Discretion is important, and so is caution; Bio-One technicians have become accustomed to taping off the sleeve and trouser openings of their suits during pest decontamination calls. They don’t want to bring unwanted visitors home.
But work gives way to compassion, like in Donald and Dora’s home south of Charlotte. When homeowners insurance policies cover cleaning, Bio-One works directly with insurers, and the Symons waive their deductible expenses for law enforcement clients and for child deaths. “A lot of times people see us as enemies first, but that’s not the case,” says Jen. “We are here to help you.” These concessions, she adds, mean “one less thing for people to deal with on one of their worst days”.
The South Charlotte Job takes all day. At 5 p.m., the two orange dumpsters on the front lawn are full. The job isn’t done – there’s still some mess to clean up – but the task is manageable now and you can see the floor.
“We are the kind of people who like to do a job. We’re those people who unpack the first hour when we come back from a trip,” Jen told me later. “That type of personality works well for this industry. And we like to put the houses in order.
Angel struggles to contain his relief. “They were great and did a phenomenal job,” she says. “I wish they would come back to do more.” That’s out of the question for now, unfortunately, but a family that’s been struggling to pull through the accumulation of years now has a clear path ahead. “The burden,” said Angel, “is lifted.”
Allison Futterman is a writer in Charlotte.