Aftermarket industry rises to task of aiding those impacted by hurricanes, floods and fires

Jan. 23, 2018
Last year’s record-setting onslaught of natural disasters brought out the best of the aftermarket’s longstanding tradition of charitable giving as the industry rallied in support of its colleagues.

Last year’s record-setting onslaught of natural disasters brought out the best of the aftermarket’s longstanding tradition of charitable giving as the industry rallied in support of its colleagues in need of a helping hand. The 2017 California wildfires concluded a magnitude of trials and tribulations magnified by the devastation emanating from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

“It was a crazy year – I don’t think anyone’s seen anything quite like it. Hopefully 2018 isn’t going to be as dramatic with climate conditions,” says Joel Ayers, executive director of the Automotive Aftermarket Charitable Foundation (AACF).

“Applications for aid are still coming in for the hurricanes and wildfires,” and the industry impact of this year’s mudslides has yet to be determined.

“We’ve had a lot of generosity,” Ayers says. “A lot of the people and companies that donated had employees and customers who were impacted by the hurricanes and wildfires, and we also had donations from people who weren’t impacted.”

Continued funding is a consistent need. “Like any charity we’re always looking for donations. With disasters, there’s an outpouring of generosity and then people go about their daily lives.”

Ayers says that 99 percent of the AACF’s aid dollars are given to individuals rather than commercial enterprises. “Most of the people we help are service people or counter people who don’t have large savings accounts or adequate insurance policies. In a disaster, your personal funds are used up rather quickly.”

A business is likely to have insurance to at least partially cover catastrophes and an interrupted revenue stream, but “their employees aren’t getting an income” while the company is out of commission. (In addition to addressing housing losses, the AACF aids people at all levels of the industry dealing with chronic illnesses, disabilities and other hardships.)

Challenges were commonplace yet mostly surmountable last year as the industry coped with a series of climate-driven calamities.

When Hurricane Irma roared ashore through Florida “we lost a few days of work and business was kind of quiet. It took about two weeks before people were out and about,” recounts Billy Johnson, owner of Bonita Tire & Battery in Bonita Springs, Fla. Electrical power and telephone service was disconnected by toppled trees and the roof partially whipped into disarray from howling winds.

Sales eventually “turned out pretty well” as Johnson and his staff performed a good amount of tire repairs and replacements. “People lost roofs and there were a lot of nails” strewn about the streets. “We had four or five cars come in with flooded motors that ‘blew up’ because people were trying to start and drive them – it locked up the engines. And we had a guy with a Jaguar come in because his electric seats didn’t work.”

Stopping-system repairs were another source of business. “People were driving in the water and their brakes would lock up.”

Obtaining parts was a challenge, yet Johnson is pleased with the response of his local Advance Auto Parts vendor amid all the downed utility lines. “Advance didn’t have any power or telephones, but somehow they were able to take care of us using cell phones. The orders were handwritten old-style.”

Advance’s locations in Florida were proactively closed on a rolling basis to allow employees to evacuate or seek shelter, and the company’s field leadership staff stayed in touch with people to ensure that they were out of harm’s way. The company also coordinated deliveries of emergency supplies such as water, generators and gas to its impacted markets to keep repair shops and parts stores up and running.

Its Team Member Assistance Fund raised more than $450,000 to assist upwards of 50 Florida employees disrupted by the storm. All full- and part-time workers were paid for their scheduled hours even if a location was shuttered; the same policy was applied to Texas for Hurricane Harvey. Staffers at temporarily disabled outlets shifted to other sites and additional delivery routes were implemented to facilitate clientele continuity.

President and CEO Tom Greco made personal visits to Florida and Texas to provide workforce praise and encouragement under the trying circumstances.

“We go to great lengths to take care of our team members and customers in times of need,” says South Division President Maria Ayres. “Preparing for and responding to an event like Hurricane Irma is just one example of how Advance is prepared to do what is necessary to serve its customers and make sure our team members get back on their feet.”

A half-million totaled vehicles

Hurricanes tend to sweep across coastlines and dissipate inland at a rather rapid clip, but Harvey was historically unique in that it parked itself over southeast Texas. The storm dumped massive amounts of rainfall accompanied by menacing 12-foot tidal surges culminating in intentional reservoir dam releases that swamped entire neighborhoods.

Houston’s flat expanses aggravated Harvey’s flooding, setting a North American record dating back to 1894 when weather authorities first began compiling these types of statistics.

“When you get 52 inches of rain, that’s a lot of water,” observes Dan Woodall, owner with his wife Emma of the full-service Dan’s Automotive in Spring, Texas. “The water kept rising and rising. I came in, shut the place down and told everyone to go home.”

A staff member “lost everything he had” when the deluge rose to rooftop level. “We donated food, clothes and money. We bought furniture for him, and some was donated by our customers. We gave him pots, pans and dishes, and personal stuff like towels and washcloths,” he says.

“The first three days were horrible. People were just trying to stay out of the floods; everyone was trying to survive or get things to survive,” Woodall recalls.

Business was non-existent in the immediate wake of the flood, giving the shop an opportunity to get things in order as the waters receded. Within a few days “business really picked up, and we were pretty busy for two or three weeks after that,” says Woodall.

“We had some flooded vehicles that were towed to us, but there was no reason to bring them to the shop because they were all totals anyway.” Many of the region’s destroyed vehicles were deposited at a nearby race track to await disposal. “They probably had 10,000-plus cars out there.”

Greg Luther, chairman of the Houston Auto Body Association (HABA), estimates the total number of totals in the metropolitan area to be somewhere in the vicinity of 500,000 vehicles. “We lost a lot of potential business.”

Dan’s Automotive had numerous damaged-yet-drivable cars and trucks coming through the shop’s bay doors for refurbishing. “Most people didn’t bother to call the insurance company; they paid out-of-pocket to have it cleaned and repaired,” says Woodall, grateful that Advance, his main supplier, “was able to take really good care of us, so we stuck with them. Advance has a big warehouse here in town, so they had what we needed. There were a couple of diesel parts that we had to wait a couple of days for.”

Advance operates nearly 100 stores in greater Houston and has more than 900 employees throughout the marketplace along with an additional 125 staff members on duty at its local Worldpac branches and new distribution center.

“We had many team members and their families who were significantly impacted by Hurricane Harvey, some of whom were tragically displaced from their homes and personal belongings,” says Advance’s Greco.

“Our entire company has rallied around these team members as well as our customers in Houston,” he says. “They stood tall against tremendous adversity and helped others in a time of great need.”

Advance used its Houston distribution center to disburse emergency supplies and also assisted shops in replacing or financing drenched equipment and tools.

“Seeing all the damage from the hurricane in person really put it in perspective,” says NHRA Pro-Stock driver Alex Laughlin of Gas Monkey Garage, who joined Greco in touring the area.

The relief squad’s performance to aid employees and customers was “nothing short of remarkable and heroic,” according to Laughlin. Flooded-out locations were able to reopen with a minimum amount of delay.

“Lessons learned? Listen to what the weather people are saying, and if they say the storm is coming get prepared ahead of time,” Woodall advises. On the home front, “get food that you can store on a shelf so you don’t have to worry about whether your icebox is working or not and whether your food will spoil.”

On the work front as well, “We were fixin’ for the bad weather, but I always stay prepared,” says Woodall. He keeps four electrical generators on hand along with an adequate supply of propane to fuel them. The 30-pound cylinders can also fire up grills for cooking and heating should the need arise, plus they routinely power the company’s forklifts out in the warehouse.

In advance of the onslaught, motorists keeping a wary eye on the forecasts were also taking precautions: “We had quite a few come in to make sure their cars were up to par in case they had to leave town,” Woodall says.

‘Not our first rodeo’

Service King has 23 repair centers in the Houston market. During the week of Harvey work ceased to ensure staff and customer safety. “Remarkably, no locations incurred damage significant enough to impede regular business operations” after the rainclouds cleared, says Britton Drown, marketing and communications manager.

“Hurricane Irma caused minor roof damage and temporary power outages at some of our Florida locations,” she says. “But, as with Hurricane Harvey, no major damage was sustained.”

Both storms resulted in activation of the chain’s internal employee-supported President’s Fund for providing financial assistance to their colleagues.

“Everybody knows people who have been affected by this,” says HABA’s Luther. With more than 600 body shops in Houston, simply working the phones to contact everybody is an ambitious undertaking – although HABA’s members were up to the task.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Luther points out. “If you live in this area you’re used to flooding.”

Harvey’s devastation was especially intense, such as the case of a shop buried in 10 feet of debris with six to seven feet of water pooled inside.

 “Some of the paint suppliers stepped up to help people get things cleaned up and back in business. We’re helping them get repairs to their houses,” says Luther. “We’ve been working with the Collision Industry Foundation (CIF).”

Rendering direct assistance to technicians, customer service representatives, estimators, adjusters, paint distributors and others in the segment, CIF has seen its efforts expanding to Puerto Rican hurricane victims – the island’s electrical grid is not expected to be restored until May – and those afflicted by California’s wildfires and subsequent mudslides.

“Our focus has widened as these other natural disasters have impacted more collision industry professionals beyond Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” explains William Shaw, CIF’s chair and PPG’s director of business development. “We are prepared to help more thanks to the generous donations by the industry at large.” It’s being suggested that proceeds from golf outings and other fundraisers be directed toward CIF to help keep its coffers ready to roll when the next disaster strikes.

“Our committee of volunteers contacts and vets those seeking aid and ensures that all donations are going directly to our fellow industry professionals,” notes CIF Relief Chair Michael Quinn. “We have local ‘boots on the ground’ who are getting the word out and vetting individuals and repair facilities.”

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About the Author

James Guyette

James E. Guyette is a long-time contributing editor to Aftermarket Business World, ABRN and Motor Age magazines.

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