Northern California Promo Companies Contend With Wildfire Fallout

A winery. A school.

Those are just two of Eddie Brascia’s clients that fast-spreading wildfires in Northern California reduced to ash over the last week.

“We have lost accounts that have completely burned down,” said Brascia, owner of Santa Rosa, CA-based distributor Sonoma Design, Apparel & Promotions (asi/329869).

Brascia was among the promotional product professionals returning to work Monday and taking stock after rampant wildfires forced a number of NoCal distributors and suppliers to close last week. While the weather forecast foretold of flame-quelling rain and press and official reports indicated that firefighters were gaining ground in the battle against the rampant blazes, promo pros like Brascia and their neighbors continued to face a threat from the fires as they strove to get their businesses back up and running.

“Everything is still day-to-day,” Brascia said Monday. “Last night our house was in imminent danger. As of today, it’s OK. Here (at the business) we have power, but no gas, so we can’t print shirts. We’re looking into alternatives.” While Brascia’s home remained intact, the same couldn’t be said of a Sonoma Design employee, whose residence was destroyed by the flames. “It’s a difficult situation. We also have employees who had to evacuate,” said Brascia, who noted most were back at work on Monday.

As the promo pros dealt with displacement and personal tragedy, they also faced an uphill battle when it came to the bottom line. Brascia said orders had been nixed due to event cancellations prompted by the fires. Coupled with clients facing similar struggles or being rendered nonoperational by extensive damage or destruction, Brascia is anticipating a negative impact on sales over the next couple months.

“I think we will drop 25% in November and December,” he said, before adding that he expected a rebound in the early new year. “I would think that by January 1st we should be back to normal.”

Of course, Sonoma Design was far from the only industry company in hard-hit northern California counties like Napa and Sonoma dealing with fallout from the fires. Data shows that at least 75 ASI-listed companies have been in the area of active blazes in NoCal locales. Sonoma Promotional Products (asi/88188), which is located in Sonoma, CA, was among the companies compelled to close last week. The supplier was re-opening Monday.

“We’re essentially doing triage,” Nickolai Mathison, Sonoma Promo’s general manager/VP of sales, said on Monday. “We’re trying to deal with the most urgent matters first. We’re short-staffed and the air quality here is very poor, but we’ve made a start. We’re tip-toeing toward recovery.”

Mathison said it’s too soon to say exactly how big of an impact the fires will have on sales, but he expects there to be some decline in business for a time. He said he has communicated with area distributor clients who reported that their client base has been affected, with various organizations grappling to get operational again. That end-buyer struggle could have a trickle-down effect for promo firms. “It could be some time before they’re ready to resume marketing activities, which impacts our clients (distributors) and us,” Mathison said.

Speaking from Paradise, CA, in Butte County, Sherry C. Swim, owner of PIP Printing & Marketing Services (asi/398580), said that local evacuation orders had been lifted, but the fire danger remained as the potential enormity of the business impact became clear.

“The fires are not 100% contained yet,” said Swim. “Business will be way down, but who can say how much at this point. Everyone I know personally who lost everything was insured, but they now have to decide if they will ‘bother’ reopening.”

Since sparking on October 8, the California wildfires have destroyed at least 5,700 homes and other structures (an estimate that could rise), killed more than 40 people (also possible to rise), and put approximately 100,000 people under evacuation orders. Early this week, nearly 11,000 firefighters were reportedly still fighting fires that burned across 100 miles of the Golden State.

Despite the challenges and the pragmatic outlook on near-term sales, affected distributors and suppliers Counselor spoke with are trying to remain optimistic about business while also supporting their communities. For example, Mathison and others from the Sonoma Promotional Products team have volunteered at a local shelter that housed evacuees who arrived with little more than the shirts on their backs.

“The most important element is the human element,” said Mathison, adding that he is confident business will ultimately rebound. “From a commercial perspective, we believe that we can rely on our industry to support us in rebuilding. We’ve already had a remarkable outpouring of concern and love, and we’re very thankful for that. It helps make us confident that we will be healthy and survive the business challenges, just as we survived the fires.”