Every business owner knows that the unexpected can and sometimes does happen. That’s why we have insurance – to protect the business in the event of a catastrophe. But recovering from a setback like a flood or fire is still a challenging ordeal for everyone involved. Dealing with a disaster requires prior planning; flexibility to handle the needs of the business; and a strong team of employees and family members.
I have personal experience with disaster. On Feb. 27, 2018, I experienced a fire at my Troy, Ohio, CARSTAR store, which services passenger vehicles, fleets and RVs. An RV in our paint booth experienced an electrical short, which caused the blaze. It resulted in more than $2 million in total damage, including 20 customer cars. And it took an emotional toll as well.
When you first arrive at your building and there are fire trucks all over and smoke coming out of the building, you kind of go numb. I knew there wasn’t anyone in the building, so that was a big relief. But it was very emotional watching what you built being destroyed and not being able to do anything about it. It was a good thing the building was empty of human life and none of the first responders were injured putting out the fire.
My first task was to assess the damage to the building and the customers’ cars, then make plans to take care of my customers. Next was to shift the incoming repairs to our other locations so we didn’t delay any repairs or keep any employees out of work.
During the next couple weeks after the fire, we were trying to deal with customers who had cars in the building; making sure our employees were taken care of; dealing with the fire investigation and our insurance company; and trying to take care of our new customers who were dropping off their vehicles for repair. It was a very stressful time, but I was lucky to have a great staff and an awesome wife to get through it all.
The damage was extensive. The 5,400-square-foot area where the paint booths were located had to be completely redone. The only thing that could be saved was the concrete floor and the steel I-beams. Of the 20 damaged cars, 19 were saved, restored and detailed inside and out.
That is one of the hardest conversations you’ll ever have with your customers. Fortunately, we had good relationships with our insurance partners and customers, and they were very understanding of the situation and our efforts to get their vehicles repaired.
The recovery process was long, slow and frustrating. The original 12,000-square-foot building was only four years old, and the 10,800-square-foot addition was two years old. The construction company that did the original build was on site putting on a new 7,200-square-foot addition when the fire happened, so they were able to jump in and make some temporary repairs to get us back up and partially running.
We also had to juggle ongoing work at our facility, keeping an eye on customer service, KPIs and costs.
The fire happened on the fleet side of the building where we paint RVs, so the collision side needed just two days for cleanup, but the body shop needed to be completely gutted on the inside and remodeled. We did this process while my team continued to produce work, which was very challenging. We were able to shift some work, particularly on the RVs, to our Piqua location. Thanks to some good luck with our construction company already on site and a new paint booth already on order, we were able to have the new addition up and running within 30 days of the fire.
My No. 1 advice to body shop owners is to create a disaster plan in advance and forecast for worst-case scenarios. Being part of a network of shops is also very helpful in this planning, as you can glean best practices gained from years in the business.
You should evaluate your insurance policy to ensure you have enough coverage for a fire, flood, chemical spill, crime or other potential hazards. Then, create a plan for each – who to call, a step-by-step process for short- and long-term recovery; how to communicate with customers, insurance partners, news media and the community, and how to work with your team to rebuild. This prior planning can go a long way in recovering from a setback. B