When the recession hit the construction industry, Brian Rist flew to Cancun.
He wasn't there to lounge around the resorts. Instead, Rist's company, Storm Smart, won jobs to install shutters and other storm protection for the hotels in the hurricane-prone Yucatan peninsula.
“We built a plant in Cancun and that's really paying off now,” says Rist, who notes that the Mexican government now has mandated new stricter building codes in light of recent damaging storms.
This is the kind of innovative thinking that helped Fort Myers-based Storm Smart weather the recession that saw new construction in Florida come to a virtual standstill.
But now that the economy is recovering and new construction is rebounding in Southwest Florida, Storm Smart's business has jumped, too. Its annual sales totaled $37.5 million in 2014, up 25% over 2013.
“We really have a plan to double the size of this company in the next three years,” says Rist. “Our wholesale business is where we see the most potential.”
Prior to the recession, Storm Smart built its business manufacturing and installing shutters for residential homes in Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties. Rist estimates the company has installed shutters and other hurricane protection on 75,000 homes in the three-county region.
But as the recession took hold, Rist forged ahead with commercial projects such as hotels in Mexico and municipal projects in the U.S., including the Fort Lauderdale Airport.
Once he had weathered the recession, Rist began to supply distributors and installers with his products at wholesale. With 155 people employed in a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing plant adjacent to Chico's FAS headquarters in Fort Myers, Rist says he can ramp up production to supply installers all over the country and overseas. “We're employing now more than we ever have,” says Rist, who recently hired former Chico's executive Cole Peacock as his new chief operating officer.
Finding mid-level managers is now Rist's biggest challenge. “Manufacturing isn't our bottleneck,” he says.
To separate itself from the competition, Storm Smart invested heavily in research and development during the downturn. Now, many of its products function both as hurricane protection and energy savers. For example, the motor on shutters can be charged with solar power, which saves electricity and can run even if there's a power outage.
Storm Smart has a marketing budget “in the high six figures,” Rist says, including $10,000 a month for Google alone. His rule: “You market when times are good and you really market when times are bad.”
Rist isn't giving up on residential sales, which account for about 21% of his business. There's room for growth as homebuilders target the region once again. “Cape Coral is only one-third built out,” says Rist.
Although international sales now only account for 8% of total revenues, Storm Smart has an edge over the competition because its employees now have experience in other countries.
“I'm going to Antigua in two weeks,” says Rist, 61. You won't find him lounging poolside.
— Jean Gruss