Masters of disaster

Masters of disaster

Features - Formulas for Success

How three businesses survived fire and flooding – and what they learned.

September 11, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

Maybe entrepreneurs are natural optimists – we believe that the best will happen, which is why we take the boatload of risks associated with starting a business in the first place. But what happens when Mother Nature interferes and you’re faced with the super storm of the century? Or, when a fire next door spreads to your facility and destroys your business property?

No one wants to plan for disaster. But preparing for business interruptions is critical. Your sustainability as an operation depends on how well you plan for the unexpected.

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke with three firms that dealt with worst-case scenarios and came out shaken, but not broken. Here are their stories and what they learned from these experiences.

Blazing ahead

Bob Cameron has not slept for about a year – really hasn’t slept. He’s been busy since March 7, 2012, when he received a phone call at 2:47 a.m. A fire was tearing through his building. He drove up to the site. His block was ablaze. A multi-family property adjacent to the building was devoured by flames.

The house nextdoor, the source of the fire, was already razed. There was just about 10 feet of space between that home and Cameron’s facility. And in that space, his two Super Lawn Trucks were parked, ready for the spring season to start in a few days.

“We lost everything in the office – all of our business personal property, two of our trucks, aerators, spreaders … it was devastating,” says Cameron, president of CMS Landscaping in Holyoke, Mass., where he has run a lawn care company for nearly 40 years.

Two days before the fire, CMS Landscaping dropped a huge mailing to promote its lawn care services. Two days after the fire, Cameron counted 3,000 calls that were forwarded to his and managers’ cell phones.

Within three days, Cameron purchased new trucks, aerators and spreaders, all out-of-pocket. A friend who was purchasing a property 100 yards away from the fire site rented out the space to Cameron to use on a temporary basis. Within hours, Cameron had accessed his backed-up data and restored his customer files.

But a solid three months of hard work were required to truly get the business back to normal. “Even through we set back up again, we were still rebuilding – even though our lawn care and sprinkler technicians were out there servicing clients, we were in the shop repairing systems.”

And the temporary facility wasn’t equipped for a lawn care company. “We had to run in new water lines so we could fill our trucks quickly, we had to bring in a new containment system and re-plumb for holding tanks and fertilizer tanks,” Cameron says. “Once we got back up and running, we went on TV for two weeks and did ads to promote the fact that we are still in business, and that certainly helped us,” Cameron says.

He estimates business was down 10 percent last year because of the fire. And he feels pretty fortunate that his losses weren’t worse. Though, recovery wasn’t easy, especially when dealing with the insurance claims.

Cameron opted to hire a public adjuster to manage it. He lost $40,000 in business personal property coverage alone. “I didn’t have enough coverage,” he says. His extra expenses and loss of income were covered. So was the real estate. But he lost all of his equipment, including laptops and computers. Cameron eventually received an insurance check for half of what he was told it would be. That matter is still being settled.

“You have to be financially strong to be able to make it … because they have a very systematic way of disbursing their money.” But he did receive some unexpected help. His competitors called him within a day of the fire offering to help. “It was truly lovely,” he says.

Photo credit © Victor Habbick |


Surviving the superstorm

In 26 years at Middletown Sprinkler Co.’s Monmouth, N.J., building, and after two major storms that reset the 100-year flood level, the facility never held water. It was high (enough) and always dry.

Then came Superstorm Sandy.

The day before the storm, Dobson checked expected surge tide levels. Authorities were calling for tides 14½ feet above sea level. His building was 10 feet above sea level. “You do the math,” he says.

“We were hoping they perhaps miscalculated it, but indeed we ended up with about 4 feet of water in our building,” says Dobson, who says he feels fortunate that the damage wasn’t worse. He took advantage of every minute of those 24 hours prior to the storm.

Expensive material was stored high, up off the floors. File cabinets were stacked on top of desks. He set up shop offsite at his home, a few miles away at a higher elevation. He moved out trucks and equipment.

But even with preparation, the company couldn’t escape damage. The inside of Dobson’s office was gutted by the flood. He had decided 15 years ago to stop purchasing flood insurance since the building mortgage was paid off.

He doesn’t regret the decision – he figures the post-Sandy repairs, including new HVAC, water heaters, phone systems, furniture – cost about $75,000. His premiums during that time would have added up to at least $100,000.

“I’m gambling a little bit,” he says. “But Sandy was like the perfect storm, a set of circumstances that had to happen for a storm to do this.” Dobson covers a wide geography of largely commercial clients and golf courses. Seventy percent of the firm is golf course construction. “So we were out working a couple of days after Sandy,” he says.

Fortunately, his cell phone service was not interrupted. And he had all the data he needed at his home office to keep the business running.

Dobson says the business probably lost about 20 percent of its residential irrigation system winterizations, and some of his client’s homes were damaged or destroyed. “I think most of those are temporary losses,” he says. And in fact, some clients will require construction/repairs because of the storm.

“There was a tremendous outpouring from the community, both locally and nationally,” Dobson says of post-Sandy recovery. “It was really so gratifying to see.”

After the flames

The fire marshals have stopped investigating why it happened. They don’t know what caused Sebert Landscaping’s building in Romeoville, Ill., to catch fire in January 2012. The branch location was destroyed, along with all of the paperwork and small equipment inside of it. The firm lost one truck – fortunately, no one was occupying the building at the time.

The branch had critical customer data backed up at corporate headquarters, and employees moved its trucks and equipment (stored outside, safe from the fire) down the street to a client’s vacant lot.

“This was on the news right away because it was such a large fire in such a dense area,” says Steve Pearce, general manager at Sebert Landscaping, based in Bartlett, Ill. “So, a lot of people knew about it at 6:30 p.m., and word got around pretty quickly.” Sebert staff contacted field employees to ensure them that the company was planning to service clients the next day. By 9 a.m., the company began contacting its clients by phone, assuring them crews would be on site to deal with an ice storm.

“We did get a lot of phone calls from clients that night, and it was critical to let them know that there would be no break in their service because of our losses,” Pearce says. While critical records were stored electronically on the network and completely accessible, the Romeoville branch had been in business for 10 years, and file cabinets packed with records were destroyed.

The night of the fire, customer service administrators in the corporate office printed route sheets and pertinent paperwork so crews could begin work the next morning. “Being in the network, everyone from our offices jumped in to help out,” Pearce says. Two days after the fire, a trailer was parked on the destroyed Romeoville lot so the snow business could continue. And, that trailer remained home base for that branch for 10 months, until the company purchased a property in neighboring Bolingbrook – a site that is 10 to 15 times the size of the old property. The tight transitional quarters were admittedly a challenge for the crews. “They were used to a building where they could work out of a secure environment,” Pearce says.

Sebert’s Romeoville office lost everything, but the critical aspects of the business were salvaged: customer data, client trust, hardworking employees and the reputation of the firm.

That’s all due to fast response and open communication, Pearce says. “Overall,” he says “the fire didn’t affect our business except for having to deal with insurance and losses and the extra work involved with replacing what we had.”


Photos courtesy of CMS Landscaping and Sebert Landscaping