The Storm Revisited: Resilient Promo Pros Recovering After Devastating Hurricanes

Promo industry members in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico are still dealing with fallout from last summer’s terrible storms, but many say things are looking up.

Silvia González is smart and driven, a successful self-made businesswoman whose deft promo work for The Printer Lion (asi/299504) and crackerjack leadership abilities have enabled her to become president of the Caribbean Advertising Specialties Association (CASA).

Silvia González

But for the last five months, González was also a refugee. Hurricane Maria made her so. When the pitiless storm savaged González’s native Puerto Rico in September, the promo pro fled the island for Miami, where she stayed with family. Despite her best efforts to work from the mainland U.S., González says she produced miniscule income for several months, as her clients in Puerto Rico were in no position to buy promotional products – little surprise given the widespread devastation to homes, businesses and infrastructure, as well as the lack of electricity.

But, of late, González has started to generate sales again. What’s more, she has returned to Puerto Rico, where, like other persistent promo professionals there, she’s working out of cafés and hotels with limited internet connections to keep business moving. Where, in fact, she’s also spearheading the final arrangements for CASA’s annual trade show, scheduled for the first full week of March. The show, like Puerto Rican distributors themselves, is going ahead, she says. “Business for me is not even close to normal, well less than 50% of what you’d expect, but everyone’s working to the best of their ability,” says González. “The thing about Puerto Ricans is we’re resilient. We make the best of whatever we have.”

Distributor Karen Sharp lost her home to flooding when Harvey swept into the Houston area. But things are looking up. She has since moved into a lovely new home beside a golf course with this beautiful view from her patio.

As González’s story makes clear, the nearly 100 ASI-listed promotional product companies in Puerto Rico have suffered some of the most severe and longest-lasting effects of the 2017 hurricane season. Unfortunately, thousands of other industry pros, primarily in Florida and southeast Texas, also dealt with considerable personal and/or professional issues as a result of the season’s storms – namely, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

In September, Counselor visited storm-struck areas to report on the plight of ad specialty pros. Nearly half-a-year on, we reconnected with industry companies in the locales to see how they’re faring. And just how are they doing? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag. Lucky ones in areas where the winds and rains weren’t as punishing say that business was only really off for a few weeks. Others relate that business was affected through the final months of 2017, but has returned to normal or even soared above typical sales levels in early 2018. Then there are the folks that say sales have only recently started to pick up, but are below average. Others, well, they’re still mired in a deep sales slump they say resulted from the storms. And some, while giving their all to their job, continue to grapple with personal fiascos, such as home repairs and battles with insurers.

The offices of the Printer Lion (asi/299504), a distributorship based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, sustained damage from Hurricane Maria. The company is having the roof fixed and will soon paint, fix the cracks and put up a new sign.

The Florida Keys experienced the full wrath of Irma, the most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the U.S. since Katrina in 2005. Bernie Ranellone, co-owner of Key West-based distributor Keyboard Advertising Specialties (asi/242348), evacuated before Irma plowed into the islands. He returned to considerable challenges. A couple employees’ homes were seriously damaged, for example. Dealing with clean-up, insurance squabbles and reduced sales, many of Ranellone’s clients weren’t eager to invest in promotional products. “Sales were down significantly in the fourth quarter,” says Ranellone.

Nonetheless, a few weeks into the new year, the situation started to turn around. Winter is the heart of tourist season in Key West, and as recovery efforts have progressed and commerce is percolating, businesses in the area have begun to up their investment in branded merchandise. “Over the last six weeks, we’ve seen an improvement,” says Ranellone. “We’re doing about 75% of our normal sales volume. It’ll probably be a full-year from now until we’re all the way back up, as long as we don’t get another storm like the last one.”

On the peninsula, business is already booming at Wicked Branding & Graphix (asi/359902). The company is in Jacksonville, a city that experienced rampant flooding and powerful winds that led to damage. Irma fallout sapped the sales momentum for Wicked in the final quarter of 2017. But, once the calendar turned, orders started to accelerate as client businesses rediscovered their vigor post-recovery. “We’re doing about three times the business that we normally would for this time of year,” says Sharon Lynn Unger, director of sales. “We’re doing shirts, lots of yard signs, uniforms for new employees that clients are hiring. There’s demand for useful items like flashlights and first-aid kits.”

Phil Fry, vice-president at Orlando-based Carpe Diem Sales & Marketing (asi/158580), had good news to share, too. “Sales were off for about 60 days, then slowly returned to normal,” he says. “Central Florida is basically a service economy, so storms do put a dent in our revenue sometimes, but it’s usually shorted lived.” While Carpe Diem is doing well these days, Fry shared that some industry colleagues are not as fortunate. “I know people who do a lot of resort stuff in the islands and Puerto Rico, and those sales are still way off – like 80%,” he says.

Also, sobering reminders of the havoc Irma wrought remain. “Personally, we’re fully recovered, but you still see blue tarps on some roofs around town,” says Fry. “Those are people still fighting with their insurance company. And, I have one friend who had their house flooded, and they’re still out. Contractors were very hard to find for a bit on top of fighting with the insurer, but for us, thankfully, there are no lasting issues.”

Sadly, the issues are ongoing for Gil Raynor.

While the owner of Houston-based distributor Raynor & Associates (asi/304935) is personally OK, his business is struggling in the wake of Harvey, a storm that dropped more than 40 inches of rain over widespread areas of southeast Texas in just a few days. The deluge triggered historic flooding in Houston. Raynor, a sole proprietor, says clients on his business roster aren’t yet ready to start purchasing at typical levels. Some sales tied to certain events he usually could count on haven’t come to fruition. It’s all contributed to a dive in revenue. “The third and fourth quarters were off more than 50%, and the promotional products business has not picked up,” says Raynor. Still, he sounded a positive note. “I’ve been fortunate to have recently secured an election campaign as a new client, and that has certainly helped,” Raynor says.

For Karen Sharp, 2018 has brought brighter days. When Harvey blew in, the president of Proforma Impact Promotions (asi/490136) was battling breast cancer. The storm destroyed her Cypress, TX, home and intensified the challenge of propelling business while tending to her health. Indeed, the maelstrom of medical issues, home relocation and storm aftermath clipped her December business to only about 70% of what it would be on average. But with treatments done, and moved into a lovely new place on a golf course, and with many clients in need of solutions, Sharp’s trajectory is skyward once more. “I’m really seeing a pick-up in business,” says Sharp. “I work with mid-sized and large organizations, and I’ve become more entrenched in certain accounts. County agencies I work with, for example, have been ordering quite a bit.”

Meanwhile, at Houston-area supplier Sierra Pacific Apparel, (asi/87224), certain company executives are continuing to contend with issues related to home damage. One remained displaced as of this writing, while another is trying to have necessary renovations completed at his home. Despite the challenges, business at Sierra Pacific has stayed strong, the company says. “We couldn’t get to the office for a week because of Harvey and then we had another week of catch-up, but our sales didn’t take a huge hit,” says Creative Director Phillip Ambros. “We have clients around the country and they were very understanding. Our inventory is staged in Los Angeles and wasn’t destroyed. On the whole, we were lucky.”

Similarly, the team at Houston-based supplier Hirsch Gift (asi/61005) says it was able to return to business as normal within a relatively short time, a welcomed result helped along by the fact that the firm’s facility was not flooded. While delays with FedEx and UPS, along with extraordinary traffic snarls, complicated things for a time, Hirsch was back near par within a couple weeks from an operations standpoint. Even so, end-of-year sales were a bit disappointing because of Harvey. “Throughout September and into the fourth quarter, distributors would apologize for placing orders because they thought we were still in recovery mode,” says Marketing Specialist Bethany Bannister. “Additionally, while invoice sales weren’t down, we didn’t see the growth we were anticipating.”

Hirsch Gift did, however, have a heartwarming story to share about National Sales Manager Sharon Steed. Harvey sent floodwaters rushing into Steed’s bayou-side home in Houston’s flood-prone Meyerland section. When Counselor visited, destroyed furnishings, ruined drywall and more were heaped by curb out front, as was the case at many residences in the area. But shortly after, crews got to work on Steed’s house, and by Thanksgiving, she was back living in her beloved abode. Steed hosted Turkey Day and Christmas with family. Though she didn’t have flood insurance, Steed received help from FEMA and, more importantly, benefitted from a robust outpouring of support from people in the promotional products industry who raised money on her behalf. “She was so excited to be able to attend the ASI Shows in Orlando and Dallas this January and personally hug and thank everyone that kindly contributed to help her get back on her feet,” says Bannister.

Here’s hoping there’ll be no need for anyone in the industry, or beyond, to need such support this coming storm season.