David Ferree, co-founder and CEO of Anson Belt & Buckle, a company that sells hole-less belts online, is starting demolitions on his Morehead City, North Carolina home today. His roof and kitchen suffered hefty water damage after Hurricane Florence descended on the region last month. That storm, which was downgraded to a category 1 when it set down first near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina​, prompted him and his wife to evacuate to the mountains of Asheville, N.C. Had he not traveled back the Sunday after Florence hit to air things out, his house would have been a total loss, he says. Now, he and his wife have found refuge in a rental home in the neighboring town of Atlantic Beach, but for about a week Ferree was forced to work and run his business from his cell phone, stuck in a waterlogged house without power and wireless internet

 inline image

"Our customers are all over the world," he says, adding that he was lucky; one his neighbors had a generator that allowed him to come over and charge his phone when it ran out of juice. "It's not like the hurricane hitting this region slowed down sales, emails, or inquiries. That's all that comes with having an online business. It never stops." 

Entrepreneurs and business owners in the Carolinas, who were subjected to yet another natural disaster this week with Hurricane Michael, have plenty of things weighing on their mind besides their personal safety and losses. They have to make sure their customers' needs are being met, regardless of whether they're doing it from a soon-to-be-demolished site. But they also feel responsible for their employees and workers' well-being, and ensuring their safety becomes a top priority in a disaster situation, even above financial or monetary concerns.

Your People

"You want to hear that all your people are safe and that no one sustained a catastrophic event," says John Treece, founder and CEO of DMA Sales, which sells automotive parts to big box retailers and distributors out of Tabor City, North Carolina and has 76 employees. "Once you get that anxiety over with, once the communication rolls in and it's 'hey we're all good' there's a certain feeling of relief."

His business did not see any major impact from Hurricane Michael, other than rapid winds and a little rain; Florence, however, is a different story. DMA Sales had to close up shop for nearly two weeks, mostly due to roads closing and hampering access to its facilities, and it further sustained about $200,000 worth of product damage, after the roof of one of its warehouses got "peeled off" during the storm.

 inline image

"We live on the coast, so I guess to a certain degree we become accustomed to these events, but nonetheless they are still impactful," Treece adds.

More than a dozen entrepreneurs and businesses in North and South Carolina Inc. spoke with cite employees' safety as their No. 1 concern even after damage from the hurricanes ravaged their bottom lines. They mapped out where employees were displaced to and sent out emails or set up internal web pages to let them know what was happening with the business. In some cases, some owners even collected contact information for their employees' friends and families, in case they needed it.

"For a small business owner, the tendency is to think about the potential disruption in revenue and customer-related issues first. But what is more critical are the people," writes via email Pam Marinko, founder and CEO of Proficient Learning, a sales training and consulting business in Wilmington, North Carolina. "I can't emphasize it enough."

Your Business

Once you've accounted for the safety of your people, the next step is taking care of the business. There, communication also plays a crucial role, says Robert Maynard, founder and CEO of Famous Toastery, a breakfast and brunch chain with 34 locations in the U.S. The chain employs about 1,200 people and 27 of its stores are situated throughout North and South Carolina. "You've got to be sure you're communicating with everyone," he says. This situation demands "all hands on deck," determining the level of damage, and the staffing needs at each store. "It's a lot of juggling," he adds. "It's like Tetris."

Famous Toastery experienced losses in sales ranging from 20 to 100 percent from its stores, Maynard says, because some locations had to close during the storms. He estimates revenue losses are as high as $500,000. As Hurricane Michael was passing through the region on Thursday, four to six stores were closed, he says, noting he didn't know when they would open back up. "We took a massive hit. I don't think people understand the impact," he says of the hurricanes' toll.

As companies work to return to a normal operating schedule, inform customers about what's going on, suggests Derek Pedersen, founder and CEO of Greenville, South Carolina-based Fusion Web Clinic, a software management tool for pediatric therapists. 

"Be really honest with your customers," he says, adding that transparency is key in minimizing long-lasting financial damages. "Explain to them what your company is going through, and the fact that support may be slow or systems may be down. We've found in the past that if you're just honest with customers and you explain to them what's going on, usually they're pretty forgiving."