When the worst happens to your business, it’s already too late. The time to prepare for a disaster is now.
By Jeff Moravec
Although extreme events such as fires, floods, hurricanes and other disasters were once considered rarities, they are becoming more common. Business owners need to ask themselves how they would survive such an ordeal—and what they need to do now to prepare for the possibility.
“It’s a nightmare,” says Ed Skrzynski, owner of Marco Canvas and Upholstery LLC, in Marco Island, Fla. And he should know. In 2017, Skrzynski’s shop took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, the most damaging storm ever to hit the state.
According to Skrzynski and other business owners who have been through disasters, it’s not necessarily what you do after a disaster that’s most important to your future; it’s what you do before that determines the survival of your business.
“What you do in preparation is basically going to determine whether or not you’re going to get back open at all,” says Skrzynski.
Here, in their own words, are the stories of four fabricators who have been through disasters. Their stories and tips can help you prepare for and recover from disasters.
Skrzynski owns Marco Canvas and Upholstery LLC in Marco Island, Fla., which was damaged by Hurricane Irma.
“We took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. We took the eye wall twice, from the front end and the back end. It was 14 hours before the winds abated to lower than 40 miles per hour. It looked like an atomic bomb had hit. There was flooding everywhere, trees were down, roofs were peeled off, buildings were torn off their slabs. There was no water, no power, and just debris everywhere.
“You do what you can to prepare, but it’s not just happening at work. It’s happening at home, to employees, to vendors, to everyone. We closed down the shop three days prior to the storm to let employees go home and prepare.
“Our shop is a metal building, and the overhang was peeled back and twisted like a pretzel. The roof was rolled back about 65 feet and exposed the shop to saltwater, wind and rain. We did the best we could—boarded the shop up, braced the doors, covered the machines, put things up high—but the wind is just so powerful. But because we covered everything, we lost very little equipment.
“Afterwards, you need cash flow. We went into our computer system and looked through our database of patterns. Anybody with a pattern was first in line for replacements because we needed that cash flow. We asked vendors to extend all our terms, and they did, because of our long-standing record of paying our bills.
“It’s a mixed blessing, but there is a lot of work after a storm like that. Then you realize after a year or two that you’ve just done 10 years’ worth of marine canvas and awnings. You need to think ahead. What are you going to do? You better be saving your money, looking at different markets or territories, or you’re going to go out of business even though you made it through the storm.”
Alberts owns Oceanside Canvas in Cudjoe Key, Fla., which was damaged by Hurricane Irma.
“We didn’t have much of a plan in place, really. We’d been there for three evacuations that didn’t turn out to be hurricanes, and after a while, you start thinking it’s not that big of a deal. We had been out of town and had only four days to move all our tools and evacuate for Irma.
“The biggest issue in these storms is water damage; when half a roof is gone, that’s really from tornadoes. It would have been worse if we hadn’t moved the tools from the shop to our house, which is on stilts. The wind drives the saltwater so hard it actually sandblasts anything that’s exposed.
“It was hectic. It’s better to have more of a plan in place. It would be a good idea to have premade emails that you could send to customers about what to do, maybe a prewarning to give clients a week or so to prepare.
“The business interruption is tough. We were legally evacuated from the Keys for nearly a month, and that put a big halt on everything. We opened back up after two months, and I might have actually waited a few more weeks, but people were coming by wanting to get stuff done. Unless you have backup capital, it’s difficult to unexpectedly have your income halted for a couple of months.”
Kleger is president of Jefco K. Inc. in Philadelphia, Pa. His awning business was severely damaged by fire in February 2008.
“To survive a disaster, you need to have adequate insurance. This sounds like common sense, but in the real world it does not always work out that way. Your agents may be sincere, and you may have a long-term relationship with them, but they don’t always sell you what you need. In my case, they undervalued inventory in order to present a more affordable premium; that led to problems getting enough money back to cover the lost inventory. There is much more to your business than inventory.
“Know what you have—not just inventory and finished products going out, but the value of your IT, office equipment, anything you can put a number on. Have photographs and purchase information to back up your claim.
“After the disaster, hire someone with experience to handle your insurance claim. Once your company is damaged, expect trouble at every turn. In my case, after moving to temporary quarters, the insurance company tried to end our business interruption coverage, even though the temporary location was not sufficient for our needs.
“Beyond insurance, you need adequate personal and business financial resources to carry you through the storm. Insurance payments will be few and far between while you and your adjuster argue with the carrier about what is covered by the policy.
“Even though you are competitive, you need to be friendly and supportive with your competition. To survive you need allies who can help you get your product out. In short, you need to create a collegial environment in which everyone in the business cares for each other. Your competitors need to understand that your survival is in their best interests.
“Be prepared for mood swings. No matter how well prepared, you will
feel down and out, miserable, and like you have no funds no matter what
your resources are. Money just flies out the door.
“Always bear down and press ahead. To the outside world, you must present a normal picture of business as usual. You need to continue selling products as if nothing has changed. If anyone suspects you are in trouble, you will be in trouble. You will lose everything. In order to survive, you and your employees need product to go out and money to flow in.
“Remember, you are going to get through the crisis. Nothing lasts forever.”
Terri Madden is the owner of Sand Sea and Air Interiors Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her business was damaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. See her advice in the tab.
“A month after Maria hit, more than three million people were still in survival mode. Electricity had been restored to less than 10 percent of the island. I was fortunate that my home and business were not completely wiped out. I declined offers to “go somewhere” because Sand Sea and Air had employees and customers who depended on us.
“We worked the first five weeks by propane lantern light and wore bicycle headlamps to pattern and prep materials for current orders. We set up a temporary mobile office nearby in a facility with a generator. Weeks later we were still working on laptops to plan our next steps and keep batteries charged. We vacillated from frustration to a sense of accomplishment when we achieved even one task in a day. Orders were forthcoming as customers tried to jump-start their lives and asked us to replace missing, broken or deteriorated items.
“We are accustomed to multitasking and doing things on deadline. When we are forced to a standstill, it can be extremely frustrating.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.