Businesses in the southeastern U.S. suffered a quadruple whammy during last summer’s hurricane season — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Four major storms in less than two months. The season is expected to be the costliest in U.S. history — more than the $25 billion Hurricane Andrew.

Did building service contractors clean up, lose money, or was it all a wash? Contracting Profits spoke to some of the contractors who experienced the natural disasters.

From cleaning to cleanup
Matt Sullivan, president of Miami-based Coastal Building Maintenance, a 600-employee firm that focuses on schools and high-end condos, says his goal throughout the season was to solidify relationships with his clients, through preparedness and a proactive stance.

“To prepare, we sent faxes and made courtesy phone calls,” he says, “telling clients if there is a strike and they need extra assistance that we have fueled vans on call. Before Frances hit we had meetings with managers, who met with supervisors, who told employees to check in at daylight. Every on-site supervisor had a beeper or cell phone, and was held accountable for having people. Trying to find people was challenging,” he admits, referring to heavy call volumes clogging networks, creating busy signals, “but workers were on the job the very next day.”

Nine days later, in the midst of carpet restorations and removing fallen trees, roofing and building fragments, broken windows, Ivan hit.

“People were still out of power,” Sullivan recalls, adding that neat stacks of debris turned into projectiles, making the next cleanup even more labor intensive.

Coastal’s home office was without power for two days, and has since purchased a backup generator. Seven office staffers stayed home, but cleaners in the field worked, reporting their hours through telephones.

Sullivan says there was no immediate impact on his own bottom line — job descriptions in the field just switched from maintenance to cleanup. He saw BSC crews, both local and from other states, offering labor in the area, receiving payment on the spot or through federal aid, but he’s confident that focusing on helping his existing customers was the best investment.

No power, no profits
Rita McCauley, president of Orlando-based Grosvenor Building Services, Inc., a 700-employee company that works with commercial offices, education and industry, says that like Sullivan, there wasn’t a significant increase in billings as field job descriptions were simply adjusted to reflect a new focus, mostly water extraction and securing buildings for safety and preventing further damage such as corrosion from salt water. Communications throughout the organization were smooth, so there wasn’t any interruption of service to customers.

“Everybody knew they had to call their supervisor, 24 hours following the hurricane,” McCauley says.

But McCauley says the season hurt more than it helped profit-wise; Grosvenor had a 10 percent drop in revenue from the previous year.

“We had to close the office for three hurricanes — Charley, Francis and Jeanne,” she says. “Each brought a lot of lost productivity.”

All but five percent of her clients lost power, some for up to four days. Grosvenor didn’t lose power — until Jeanne came.

“We didn’t have a backup generator for the first 24 hours,” says McCauley, “but we got one — which came with its own problems.”

Their new commercial, off-the-shelf, gasoline-powered generator was capable of running their phones, including their telephone dial-in hour reporting system, plus personal computers, but not their computer network or air conditioning.

McCauley says they’re now in the process of upgrading the system so all systems will remain active in future emergencies, including in-house payroll. Although they were unable to record hours using real time telephone software while out of power, the fax method they retired before the new system worked fine to get everyone’s hours updated.

Grade-A backup plan
Brad Winslade, partner of St. Louis-based Network Specialists, LLC, an information systems consultancy that works closely with BSCs, says that indeed, most of his customers perform payroll in-house, and he considers protecting those systems the lion’s share of his job.

One of his clients is the 2,500 employee BSC Mitch Murch Maintenance Management (MMMM). All MMMM offices have backup generators sized according to each branch’s critical functions and what servers, printers and work stations are needed to accommodate those functions. Winslade says he grades the contingency performances at Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami branches as a B.

“It will be brought up to A,” he explains. “We didn’t count on floods at two of the four sites, which means you have to unplug. The property management people wouldn’t let us on site, but the good news is we had the equipment out prior to that.”

Winslade offers the following advice for creating a backup power plan.

“Lead with backup power in the form of battery protection at all sites,” coaches Winslade. “Second, if you’re large enough, have generator support, because if power doesn’t come back on to reenergize exhausted batteries, you’re done.”

Generators normally run on diesel fuel kept on-site in large tanks, and run a couple days, or a week or more at larger sites — as long as the fuel lasts.

“The third thing, in conjunction with the first two,” Winslade continues, “is have a contingency plan.”

Contingency plans may include renting extra space in data racks at a banking institution; utilizing a mobile trailer with data ports; or building emergency power into your lease agreement.

“It’s not normally part of the deal, but it can be negotiated,” Winslade advises.

And a low-cost solution, he adds, is high-speed Internet connection at the residences of employees who can then access and manage data from their home.

Lessons for the future
Sullivan and McCauley’s disaster preparedness plans may have fallen a little short on the technology end, but both came through the season better knowing what to do better next time. They’re also much closer to their communities, both internally and externally. Sullivan continues to receive thank you calls from grateful clients, and McCauley undoubtedly increased employee retention when she gifted two newly homeless workers with hotel accommodations, and provided loans to about 15 employees until FEMA relief arrived.

“A great humanity comes forward,” McCauley reflects. “You really see the best in people — both clients and people in the company — when you come through a crisis of this magnitude.”

Lori Veit is a business writer in Madison, Wis., and a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.