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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 22, 2017 12 months ago

After the Storm

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From Tampa to Naples, area businesses faced challenges big and small from Hurricane Irma. Here's how some companies are meeting those challenges.

Car cover

When individual items in a company's inventory weigh several thousands pounds each, preparing for a hurricane can present problems.

Todd Rosenthal, owner of luxury car dealership Naples Motorsports, says in advance of Irma he had a little more than 80 vehicles in inventory with a value of about $18 million.

He kept most of the cars in the showroom and service department of his dealership, even raising some cars up on the lift. He kept a $4 million car and $2 million car in another building the company owns.

Rosenthal also brought 17 cars to his house, about 12 miles away. “We were able to squeeze them in really tight,” he says.

With Rosenthal in Baltimore, where he had evacuated, dealership operations continued remotely.

Luckily, Rosenthal says, after Irma, the dealership only faced small roof leaks, a lost sign and no power.

With his general manager starting to move cars back into their regular positions, Rosenthal says, “It should only take us five full days to get everything somewhat situated.”

The lost work time, he says, will “cost us a bit of money.” But he's focusing on the bigger picture. “We're just fortunate no one got hurt. There was a chance we would get 15 feet of water. Things could be a lot worse.”

— Grier Ferguson

Cutting through

The hardest part for Naples-based Crawford Landscaping was right after the storm passed.

“The initial conditions on the ground in the first 48 hours were really troubling,” says Crawford Landscaping co-owner Blake Crawford. “There was no gas, no power, no water, no labor. It was very difficult to get crews deployed.”

Crawford describes the scene as “like a war zone.” He says, “The biggest problem for us is the cell phone service. From a coordinating standpoint, it's been a big problem.”

The key, he says, is morning planning. When crews arrive at Crawford's office, managers pass out makeshift route sheets and a list of what needs to be done at each site.

“We've been doing a lot of triaging,” Crawford says. “The first order of business is life safety, the second order of business is removing anything that could cause future damage, then it's cleanup.”

The company, which maintains master associations and homeowners associations, fueled up vehicles and equipment before the storm, so crews were able to deploy.

But to enter some communities, teams had to cut their way in. “In many cases, we're the first on-site,” Crawford says. “Our guy will get out with the chainsaw, cut it up and move on.”

That was the routine lately, with Crawford's crews working “as long as there's light and beyond.”

But one of the biggest Irma lessons applies to everyday business, too. “Organization is important,” Crawford says. “Otherwise you end up going to the guy who is screaming the loudest, and he might not have the biggest issue.”

— Grier Ferguson

Hot and cold


“This was my first hurricane, period,” says Mordechai Baron, director of operations at Locale Market in downtown St. Petersburg's Sundial shopping and dining complex.

By Sept. 6, many of the market's staff had left town ahead of Irma, so Baron and the management team decided to shut it down. Deliveries were turned away as they secured a semi-trailer that they converted into a massive refrigerator and freezer to save as much product as possible.

“We have about $30,000 worth of protein at any one time,” he says. “We couldn't afford to lose that. The perishables, we just gave away to the staff.”

Baron didn't want to place too much faith in generators. “One of our competitors, one of their generators did not kick in and they lost all their product,” he says.

On Sept. 12, the executive team arrived at Locale at 8 a.m. to assess damage. By 9:30 a.m., they welcomed weary residents and first responders with coffee and prepackaged cookies. “At 11 a.m., we opened the restaurant and donated 15% of all sales to the Red Cross,” he says.

The food wasn't the usual high-end Locale fare; it was pizza, sandwiches and some reheated rotisserie chicken. “You could see people coming together and enjoying a place to have a nice hot meal and working on their laptops because they don't have internet at home,” he says.

— Brian Hartz

No shopping, storm coming

Miromar Outlets in Estero prepared for Hurricane Irma like it does for every hurricane coming its way.

Vice President Jeff Staner says employees removed flags from flagpoles, moved benches and potted plants, and relocated anything that could be a projectile. “Everything was secure at least two days before the hurricane.”
With all of the preparations finished, Staner says the mall closed around 1 p.m. on Friday and didn't reopen until the following Thursday morning.

“We had a lot of landscape damage, trees that got destroyed. We worked long hours on Tuesday and Wednesday,” Staner says. “We got everything picked up inside and outside so it would be safe for our customers and employees.”

That first day open, Staner says he thought more people came for a hot meal than to shop. About 95% of stores opened their doors, and the rest he expected to open soon. “The biggest issue for stores is staff,” Staner says. “A lot of people evacuated out of the state.”

What helped Miromar get through the ordeal? Something simple, Staner says: “Staying level headed and keeping calm.”

— Grier Ferguson

Ride it out


Eric Polins was determined to ride this one out.

Polins, a senior brand strategist and partner at HCP Associates, a marketing, research and strategy firm in Port Tampa Bay, evacuated for Hurricane Charley in 2004, winding up in the Sanford area, “pretty much right where it hit,” he recalls.

“I was in a horrible Holiday Inn in the middle of nowhere with six family members and two dogs, three cats, water coming in through the door on the second floor. It was just crazy, and I swore I would never do it again if I didn't have to.”

In the midst of preparing his family and business for Irma, Polins was also busy with client outreach.

“For us it was about preventive maintenance for a lot of our clients,” he says. “One of our clients does maintenance on conveyor belt systems. They maintain belts for the aggregate industry, which is now going to be booming due to all the rebuilding. So we had to do a lot of social media, a lot of PR about ways for our vertical markets to prepare for the worst...preventative maintenance like how to tie those belts down and batten down the hatches for different industries.”

— Brian Hartz

Boat brigade


Clearwater-based recreational boat and yacht retailer MarineMax had a lot to lose as Hurricane Irma chugged toward Florida, the company's largest market.

MarineMax knew all too well what it was up against. Earlier in the week, Irma had devastated the British Virgin Islands, home of MarineMax Vacations — the company's charter boating subsidiary. According to a news release, it sustained “significant damage.”

In Florida, MarineMax was able to avoid substantial losses. Still, says MarineMax COO Brett McGill, Irma was “a big scare and a big delay to doing business.” He gives credit to MarineMax staff members who worked overtime, securing boats and facilities throughout the state.

According to McGill, MarineMax embraced the run-up to Irma as an opportunity to enhance relationships with customers. Staff reached out to clients with advice about securing boats, while company-owned marinas offered unused slip space to customers on a temporary basis before and after the storm.

In the aftermath of Irma, McGill says he spent three days traveling around the state, visiting MarineMax locations. Most were up and running about a day and a half after the hurricane hit.

McGill says he wouldn't change much about how the company responded, other than to communicate better with staff members regarding the timing of evacuation plans. “The hard part about this one is we maybe started preparing too early,” he says, but due to the storm's massive size, “you really had no choice but to get ready.”

— Brian Hartz

Good works


Irma brought out the charitable side in dozens of businesses and organizations in the region, both ones based on the west coast of Florida and ones that operate statewide. The list of charitable moves includes:

• Tampa-based WellCare Health Plans will donate $1 million to Volunteer Florida, the state's lead agency for volunteers and donations before, during and after disaster;

• The Glazer family, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, committed $1 million to the American Red Cross.

• The National Hockey League Players' Association, National Hockey League, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning jointly donated $2.7 million for hurricane relief to those affected statewide by Hurricane Irma;

• Ashley Furniture Industries is contributing products and subsidizing discounts with a combined retail value of more $1 million each in Florida and Texas, which was affected by Hurricane Harvey. The Wanek family, which owns Ashley Furniture, has a home in St. Petersburg area;

• Tampa-based staffing services firm Kforce Inc. will donate $100 for every new consultant it places on an assignment, up to $1 million, to the American Red Cross.

• UnitedHealthcare, Optum and UnitedHealth Group donated $1 million to communities statewide affected by Hurricane Irma. The company also is pledging a two-to-one match for employee donations to select organizations supporting disaster-relief efforts;

• The Patterson Foundation, based in Sarasota, has given up to $1 million for recovery efforts for recent hurricanes, including up to $250,000 to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County's disaster relief fund;

• The PNC Bank and PNC Foundation donated $250,000 to the Red Cross toward disaster relief efforts related to Hurricane Irma and another $250,000 in funding to be allocated after the need in impacted communities becomes apparent;

• The SunTrust Foundation also committed $500,000. Half is for the Red Cross, and an “additional $250,000 is earmarked to assist other organizations as ongoing needs are identified,” according to a statement;

• Fort Myers-based agriculture firm Alico pledged $250,000 to local relief organizations;

• Former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, who now manages the Cubs but remains a Florida resident, donated $25,000. A restaurant Maddon owns in Tampa, Ava, also gave food to a Tampa shelter.

— Mark Gordon

Next Steps

For businesses that sustained damage or financial loss from Hurricane Irma, remedies are available.

Report damage to Florida's Virtual Business Emergency Operations Center. The entity has a form to request state- and federal-level financial relief and assistance, including a Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Emergency Bridge Loan, federal Small Business Association (SBA) Physical Disaster Business Loans and SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

Florida emergency bridge loans range from $1,000 to $25,000 and are available to small businesses in Florida with two to 100 employees. The SBA's low-interest disaster loans can be used for physical business losses and damages not fully covered by insurance.

Insurance adjustors are an important resource to utilize, says Bill Schaefer, vice president of the property claims division at Travelers Companies Inc., which dispatched agents to assess damage in Florida.

“The sooner a business reports a loss, the better,” he says. “If they cannot resume operations at the same location, they should check with their adjustor and check their coverage to see if there might be some help available to assist with relocating the business.”

— Brian Hartz

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