All business owners need to prepare for recovery from the unexpected — sudden equipment failure, a leaky roof, a customer slip-and-fall, a break-in. But Florida business owners need an extra layer of defense — readiness for a complete business shutdown and utter devastation.
In October 2016, three businesses in northeast Florida learned that lesson the hard way; it came in the form of Hurricane Matthew.
“We knew it was coming and we did what we could,” says Carole Emerson, co-owner with husband Ted, of Chowder Ted’s, a seafood eatery on Jacksonville’s north side. “We sealed the doors and sand-bagged, then said a prayer and evacuated.” Two days later, the Emersons returned to find the roof torn off, four inches of water inside the business they’d spent 20 years building, equipment and inventory ruined. “We were devastated.”
Just down the coast, in St. Augustine Beach, Andy and Helen Viola, veterans of 30 years in the restaurant business, experienced a similar “sick” feeling. The storm surge that came roaring into Viola’s Pizza Pasta & Seafood at high tide, courtesy of Matthew, took out ovens, coolers, the bar, even office furniture. Not only did the Violas lose everything themselves, but the 25 employees who depended on them for paychecks were now out of work. “We had insurance,” says Helen, “but it didn’t cover floods. What were we going to do?”
The answer turned out to be closer than either the Emersons or Violas knew — the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program. Administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in collaboration with Florida First Capital Finance Corporation (FFCFC) and the Florida SBDC Network, this program provides short-term, interest-free working capital loans to help impacted businesses “bridge the gap” between the time a major catastrophe hits and insurance claims or federal assistance can kick in.
Jacksonville-based Green Technologies wasted no time seeking help after suffering significant structural damage and a subsequent backlog of orders at the hands of Hurricane Matthew. Having worked with the Florida SBDC in the past, Marla Buchanan, chief operating officer and general counsel for the fertilizer manufacturing firm, knew where to turn. “We contacted the Florida SBDC right away and they walked us through the paperwork. Within days, we were up and running again.”
Neither Chowder Ted’s nor Viola’s had any previous relationship with the Florida SBDC, but Emerson saw a newspaper story about bridge loans and Viola got wind of the program at a community meeting. They connected with consultants who helped them complete the necessary paperwork and within days, received the needed funds.
“The turnaround was so fast,” says Viola.
“When you’re in business for yourself, you don’t always have time for networking or research,” says Emerson. “This really opened our eyes to what’s out there.”
Prepare for Disaster
Disasters can happen anytime, anywhere and, according to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, an estimated 25% of businesses do not reopen following a major one. To avoid being included in that grim statistic, start now to complete the following steps:
Review your insurance policies. Then, at least once a year, consult with your agent to be sure that you remain adequately covered and understand your deductibles.
Meet with your accountant, attorney, banker and other professional advisors. Find out when and how to quickly access necessary records — and your money.
Diversify your customer base geographically. If one area you serve is severely impacted by a disaster, you can continue business as usual in another that isn’t.
Develop relationships with backup suppliers. Build a network of repair services and suppliers you can call on to get your business up and running as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Create a fire- and water-proof “Records-to-Go” box. Place important documents and supplies in a box you store in a safe, off-site location. If you must evacuate the area, bring the box along.