Blindsided by a Tornado
Ben Grither usually keeps the garage doors to his shop open for airflow. But on this day, the wind was a little too strong.
“I told my helper to shut the door so the wind didn’t disturb my paint job,” says Grither, “and about the time he got there, it sounded like a bomb went off—then it was all quiet.”
What followed was the worst-case scenario: a low-lying tornado heading straight for Grither’s shop. On June 19, Grither Paint & Body would be the only building to fall victim to the tornado in Murphysboro, Ill.
“When you build a business from nothing and see it destroyed in a matter of seconds? It’s pretty hard to stomach,” he says.
But this isn’t your typical natural disaster tragedy: After $370,000 worth of damages and zero injuries, a portion of the building was still intact. In fact, the shop kept busy this past summer, all thanks to effective insurance and contractor relations, strategic marketing, a bare-bones repair process—and, above all, a collaborative effort from the Grither staff.
Working with the bare minimum isn’t anything new for Grither—he and his father, Chris, worked in a 1,200-square-foot backyard workshop for 20 years before moving into a 13,800-square-foot building in 2004.
The current building has been updated three times, with the latest renovation taking place just one year ago, stretching the ceilings to 18 feet high and adding a 55-by 70-foot bay to accommodate taking on houseboats and fire trucks, in addition to traditional collision repair work. Grither also purchased an updated paint booth with a new mixing room attached.
Business was thriving and his staff of nine worked at full capacity—until June 19 came around.
The tornado was too low for the National Weather Service to detect. With no warning and no emergency procedures in place, Grither and his crew were forced into closets and hid behind lifts and vehicles while the tornado wreaked havoc on the facility.
The damage was extensive: Three 18-by-20-foot garage doors were ripped clean off; portions of the ceiling were nonexistent; the trusses built above the new paint booth were annihilated; two-by-fours and tin covered the shop floor; the building’s insulation was ruined by the rain; all the working jobs were destroyed, including a vehicle Grither had been restoring for himself.
Insurance covered most of the damaged equipment (all lifts were intact) and construction, and very few of the technicians’ tools (which weren’t covered by the shop’s insurance) were severely damaged. Still, the time-consuming process of insurance reviewing the damage removed some essential equipment—including a brand-new paint booth and some spray guns—for a few months.
While working with insurance companies, another dilemma arose: whether to become the general contractor himself and organize a team of contractors, or hire an outside general contractor.
On top of it all, Grither’s employees feared for their job security. “It was scary. We didn’t know if we’d need to move into a new building or not, or if we’d have the same workload as before,” he says.
The biggest hurdle was reassuring staff he would continue to employ them through the rebuild.
“I was up front about it,” he says. “They understood it was out of my hands. I told them I was going to do everything I could so they could continue living their lives. They've all got mouths to feed and bills to pay like I do. We’re all like family.”
Grither paid his staff while they helped clean up after the storm (which he charged his insurance for). The day after the storm, he and his technicians were on the roof, using crash wrap to patch up any holes.
Grither rents out several properties he could have made into makeshift body shops, but he was fearful that changing locations would cause him to lose customers. In the end, it made more sense to stay put: The old paint booth was still intact (he kept it around for priming and small jobs) and the lifts were still functional.
While delayed for two weeks following the storm, Grither informed the public on Facebook that the shop would remain open. His story even appeared on the local news, spreading the word further.
“Those customers, they were understanding and more than happy to be relaxed because we had done good work for them in the past,” he says.
Because Grither had performed builds for the expansion of the shop, he chose to be his own general contractor. He created a bidding contest with contractors to not only reconstruct the exterior, but also rerun the air lines, gas lines and power lines, and outfit the walls with new insulation.
While this decision had its advantages, it actually created a huge burden. Adding the construction crew limited the space for his shop staff, so Grither and his team had to make it work to keep their own operation running smoothly. At one point, the construction crew needed to build a truss in the middle of the floor, and Grither worked with them so it wouldn’t prohibit him from getting into the paint booth.
Because Grither, one of the shop’s two painters, had used the old paint booth for so long, it wasn’t difficult to revert temporarily. However, because of space, he crafted a mixing room that wasn’t attached to the old booth, making the process less efficient.
“So now you’ve got a place where you clean guns, then a place where you’re mixing, and then you have your paint booth,” he says.
With the storage space destroyed, only the most necessary equipment was utilized and stored on the actual shop floor.
“We didn’t really change how we repaired cars,” Grither says. “We just had to get old school and figure out how to make our situation work for us when our nice dirt-free paint job capability was taken away and our shop was a little more scattered about. It made us less lean and more unorganized.”
Repairs to the building are now complete, and Grither Paint & Body is back running at full steam. Despite the giant hindrance, Grither says he had a busy summer, doing barely less in sales than the previous two summers. In fact, he would have had a career-best summer if the old paint booth hadn’t inhibited cycle times.
“Extra hours were put in because using our old booth created dirtier paint jobs,” he says. “So we probably had more time in those jobs than we would have.”
He’s now considering drafting up some emergency drills and procedures to practice with staff, and he’s encouraging his technicians to insure their tools.
While the situation was very stressful, Grither says that through teamwork and a bare-bones repair process, the business will come out stronger than ever.
“We knew what we were doing before, so we tried to remember where we were before and tried to go back and not just be mad at the world,” he says. “We tried to find the silver lining that we’re alive and still operable.
“I didn’t have to lay any employees off, and I didn’t have to starve. We made it work.”
PREPARING FOR THE UNTHINKABLE
Jordan Hendler serves as the executive director for the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association, but she also provides administrative support for the Collision Industry Foundation. Through the Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund, she has worked firsthand with shops recovering from the worst natural disasters over the years, including Hurricane Katrina.
She discusses precautionary steps a shop can take to prepare for the worst, and how to find help afterward.
Everybody needs to have preparedness and emergency action plans and procedures in place—if there is a disaster at the shop, what needs to happen? Should you have First Aid stations? Are you performing drills quarterly? What if a tornado comes and you're all at the shop? Where are you going to go? Do you need to secure anything? Should you conduct first aid and CPR training? Just things to think about.
It takes a long time to rebuild, it can take a long time for the insurance companies to verify the damages and pay out. Make sure all equipment is covered at value, make sure you review your insurance policies every year to make sure all your coverages will be there when the unthinkable happens.
In our industry, there is a huge variance between what a technician thinks is covered as far as personal tools. Most technicians think their personal tools are covered by the shop insurance—and they’re not. The stories are horrendous: $90,000 worth of tools gone.
If a shop isn't covering their technicians' tools, then they need to formally notify their technicians to get their own insurance.
If you need assistance or your technicians need assistance, you can fill out our online application at collisionindustryfoundation.org. Once you do that and your needs are assessed and verified, there's a committee that reviews that and determines what kind of assistance the disaster relief fund can provide for that shop or technician.