by Jim Gialamas
Robert Criner, president of Criner Construction Co. in Yorktown,
Va., has been in the business of residential remodeling for 27
years. With a full-time staff of nine, many of whom are longtime
employees, his company operates on a volume of just under a million
dollars per year in a territory spread among the communities of
Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson, Yorktown, James City County, and
the "Colonial Triangle" of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown.
With plenty of summer recreation around Virginia Beach and the
Chesapeake Bay and snow skiing an hour and a half west, homeowners
in this area are accustomed to year-round leisure activities. But
when Hurricane Isabel hit on September 18, 2003, all of these
abundant pastimes came to a thudding halt and the focus turned to
basic needs. Robert Criner offers a few lessons for coastal
contractors on how to manage client relationships and carry out
business in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane.
The surge from Hurricane Isabel (bottom) in contractor Robert
Criner's hometown of Yorktown, Va., was powerful enough to strip
this home (top) of its brick veneer.
YOU'VE BEEN ENTRENCHED IN A CLOSE-KNIT
COMMUNITY FOR 27 YEARS. HOW DID THAT AFFECT YOUR STANDING WHEN
It probably produced as much pain as comfort because once Isabel
hit, the biggest concern for us was deciding who to take care of
first. That's a huge lesson to be learned in the first 48 to 72
hours of a hurricane: Who do you work for? The demand is endless
and your resources are limited. For example, with power out, I had
to have my business calls forwarded to my cell phone, where someone
could leave a message. But to pick up a message, I had to drive
five miles away just to get a cell phone connection to get my cell
phone to work. Once we got the lines of communications opened, we
were fielding probably 80 calls a day. And these weren't people who
said, "Listen, I've got a hole in my roof." It was: "Listen, a tree
fell through my house, which is now lying in two. I'd like you to
come fix it, please."
Storm angels from Criner Construction Co. (left to right):
Julie Thibodeau, Herbie Desseyn, Brian Hickman, Tony Domingos,
Aggie Criner, Robert Criner, Frank Gray, Michael Bradley, and Terry
If we took even one of those jobs, our entire crew would have been
tied up for months. So we brainstormed and decided to narrow it
down to a geographic area and just take calls within a few zip
codes. [He laughs.] I quickly went from three zip codes down to one
zip code, and before the end of the day, I wasn't even taking
HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHICH CUSTOMERS TO TAKE ON?
We went with past clients. We took care of the people who took care
of us. Think of it, 27 years of past clients! Where I run the
business, I have five acres, an office building, and my home on the
same property. There were people lined up at my office door.
THAT'S AN EXTRAORDINARY DEMAND. HOW DID YOU
We went into repair mode. If we could get a tarp on a roof or get a
leak under control, we could stop future damage. That was our
But we were savvy not to get burned, too. When we started to do the
paperwork, we added a clause that made it blatantly clear that we
were not accepting any insurance payments. Our contract was with
the homeowner. If the insurance decided not to pay the homeowner,
the client was still responsible for paying us.
WAS THAT A GOOD MOVE, IN
It was the best move I could have made. I had some competitors who
didn't use that clause, and they got themselves in hot water
because some of the insurance companies just wouldn't pay.
THEY ENDED UP WORKING FOR FREE?
Right. Or they had all their money tied up. I'm not very good to my
clients if I'm out of business. As a commitment to them and as a
fiduciary responsibility to my company, we had to make sure we
stayed in business and that the cash flowed.
Before the storm: This previously drab and crowded kitchen is
shown here shortly after its stunning makeover by Criner
After the storm: The same kitchen shortly after a more
unfortunate transformation by Hurricane Isabel stunned its
occupants in a completely different way.
JUST TO GO BACK TO THE FIRST 48 TO 72 HOURS
— DID THE NEW STRATEGY OF USING PAST CLIENTS RESOLVE
We thought we'd be able to handle it all, but then we got inundated
and had to prioritize the calls. It worked out in the end, but what
I found to be most helpful was understanding that with limited
resources, we didn't have the ability to fix everyone's house. But
we did have the ability to pass along information. I made myself
stay on the phone something like 12 hours a day, just to console
people. People were devastated. They didn't know to take the wet
carpets off the floor or to bleach things down; they didn't even
know how to contact their insurance companies.
The most precious commodities after the first day of the storm were
water and ice. Ice, to try to save anything you may have had in the
refrigerator, even if it's a pack of lunch meat. And water, because
what comes out of the spigot might be contaminated. Well, before
the storm, I bought cases of bottled water. I had a freezer in the
shop that I hooked up to a generator. So I froze all the water
bottles and delivered them to my clients. I cannot tell you the
impact that small gesture had on these people.
IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU CONVERTED YOUR COMPANY INTO
A COMBINATION REMODELING BUSINESS, RELIEF ORGANIZATION, NEWS
BUREAU, AND ADVICE COLUMN.
Pretty much. The advice column was how we could help the largest
number of people the quickest. We had all our guys doing everything
we could, but giving sound, real-time helpful information was the
most valuable service of all.
THAT KIND OF WORK DOESN'T PAY DIRECTLY, DOES
I could have made a lot more money doing other things, but we had
an obligation to the community. Eventually, the municipalities
contacted me to speak to larger groups. They put together Hurricane
Isabel Recovery Information meetings at all the high schools. They
had representatives from the insurance and power companies and a
representative from the repair and remodeling industry, which was
me. We all got up in front and talked to what was a group of very
angry consumers. Think about it: A hurricane hits. A week has
passed. People have been trying for a week to get hold of a
contractor and they're not getting anywhere. You get 400 of them in
an auditorium and they get me [he laughs] to answer all their
questions for them. Well, I just laid it on the line for them, and
I was surprised at how much respect I got after that.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST SOURCE OF
When a hurricane hits, every insurance company brings in a
catastrophe team of adjusters. These people — hundreds of
them — inundate our community, every one of them going at
lightning speed to visit homeowners. They come to town and tell
every person they talk to: "Get three estimates." Well, nobody sent
me an estimator! Nobody came from out of town to help me give out
estimates! Now I have to give three times the number of estimates
as there are jobs out there?
WE DON'T HAVE TO REVIEW A PAST ISSUE OF
JLC OR REMODELING TO REALIZE HOW MUCH TIME IS
INVOLVED IN PUTTING TOGETHER AN ESTIMATE.
And these are big estimates. So you have a choice. Sit there for
three weeks and do estimates, or cover up the roofs of past
clients. I think I'm going to go for the "cover up the roof" part.
But as time passes, people are getting more and more desperate for
estimates. So you have to help them. It's a concept that you don't
realize until you're in the middle of one of these things.
Having digital cameras helped us a lot. Everyone had to document
the damage for their insurance companies. We were out making field
visits and documenting not only for our benefit but also for our
customers' needs. We were able to give them a copy of a disk or
burn a CD. You don't realize how valuable these little things are
that you take for granted every day.
IN THE END, HOW WOULD YOU ADVISE A CONTRACTOR IN SIMILAR
The secret is to watch the weather and take it seriously. The
really smart contractors go to the companies that sell blue tarps
and buy every single one in stock. After the storm, you couldn't go
out and get one to fix your own roof. The contractors had them all.
At my company, we used every tarp we had. We also had some tar
paper in the shop. We patched roofs any way we could.
The other smart, savvy contractors went out to the rental companies
before the storm and reserved chain saws, pumps, and dehumidifiers.
They didn't buy them. They didn't rent them. They reserved them. If
the storm didn't hit, they canceled the reservation.
The damage to the kitchen came from this 60-foot tree uprooted
by the hurricane. Because of the sheer volume of repair needs
throughout the community, Criner Construction's first response
involved only chain saws and blue tarps. The actual repair work
took place many months later.
Isn't it? There are certain things that are such high priorities
once the storm hits. A generator is number one. Fans and
dehumidifiers are next, so you can start drying the houses out.
Chain saws are important, too (and remember, you need gasoline for
chain saws), because there is more tree work after a hurricane than
you can imagine.
SOUNDS AS IF IMPROVISING IS A BIG THEME WHEN
IT COMES TO DISASTER RECOVERY.
The little town of Poquoson, which I live right next to, was
probably the hardest hit of all towns by Isabel. Up until a couple
of years ago, it was a one-stoplight town, mostly waterfront, all
low-lying. It just got hammered. The only way you could communicate
in Poquoson was with a piece of plywood at the major intersection.
Information was spray-painted there. That was your newspaper.
I have an annual pig roast every year; usually 250 people show. A
week after the storm was my scheduled pig roast. Even though every
event in the area had been canceled, my mindset was that with all
the hell all these people had been through, a hot meal would
probably be a good thing. What happened that morning? There was a
rumor — a rumor, mind you — that an ice truck was
coming. On the road near my house, the cars started to line up.
We're talking hundreds of cars in a single-file line, all the way
down my road, both sides of the road. Everyone was parked there for
hours. The police department eventually came out and confirmed the
ice delivery. They let everyone wait in line so they could drive
into Poquoson. Here I'm expecting a hundred people to come to my
house and there's no place for me to park.
That's the impact of this kind of storm — it doesn't hit home
until you realize that you will drive somewhere, with your last
gallon of gas, and wait for two hours in the hot sun just for the
thought of getting a bag of ice.