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The Storm After the Storm: Florida Promo Companies Dealing With Irma’s Aftermath

Lost revenue is just one of the challenges with which suppliers and distributors are contending

Tommy Kraus drew a deep breath to compose himself, then continued the story. “The eye of the storm hit only about 20 miles from here,” said Kraus, his voice still a bit shaky. “It was a very close call.”

Kraus was speaking about Hurricane Irma from his business, Keys Custom Tees (asi/242444), located in Islamorada on the Florida Keys. It was only a few days after the historic storm had roared through, leaving carnage in its wake. After a wise pre-storm evacuation to the Florida peninsula, Kraus and his family returned to their island community late last week to find both their home and business miraculously intact. Still, the same could not be said for many other local residences and businesses. “We were personally very lucky, but there are a lot of people not in the same boat,” said Kraus. “In some areas, it’s just devastation.”

Kraus and his team at Keys Custom Tees were just one of the hundreds of promotional product companies throughout Florida continuing to grapple with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the United States since the catastrophic Katrina in 2005. From Jacksonville to the Keys, Miami to St. Petersburg, distributors and suppliers were working tirelessly to get back to business as normal while pitching in to help their communities through volunteering and donations. ASI estimates that Irma affected as many as 1,870 listed distributors and 210 listed suppliers in the Sunshine State, with the areas hit hardest representing $1.2 billion in promo product sales for 2016.

Given the havoc the storm caused in the Keys, it was indeed remarkable that Kraus was back printing shirts at his shop on Monday. “We just tried to get up and running as fast as we could,” said Kraus, noting his teenage sons were out volunteering as part of relief efforts. They’d been working for days, helping neighbors. While Kraus said that orders were already coming in from businesses like landscape and construction companies busy with rebuilding and cleaning up, he acknowledged there could be sales challenges ahead. “You can’t sell T-shirts to businesses that aren’t there anymore,” Kraus said. “But we’re just trying to keep going forward.”

Phil Fry’s Maitland, FL, neighborhood, near Orlando, following Hurricane Irma. Fry is vice president at distributor Carpe Diem Sales & Marketing (asi/158580). Fry and neighbors used chainsaws to clear fallen trees to make the roads passable again.

Sadly, Bernie Ranellone was not as fortunate as Kraus. As of Monday, the co-owner of Key West-based Keyboard Advertising Specialties (asi/242348) and his team remained unable to return to the business and their homes after having evacuated the island prior to Irma. While Ranellone, who stayed with family in New York, was doing his best to orchestrate orders, the gears were grinding, plagued by a range of communication and logistical complications, including lack of shipping service in the Lower Keys. “You just keep trying to deal with the issue that’s in front of you and move on to the next one, but it can get incredibly frustrating,” said Ranellone, who was hoping to be back home later this week.

Keyboard earns more than $2 million in annual gross revenue, but a lot of that business is with local Keys clients. As such, Ranellone was worried that sales could fall off in the months ahead. “We need our clients to be up and operational and have funds to purchase promotional items before we can provide those items,” said Ranellone. “I know everyone that can open will try to open as quickly as possible, but it’s too soon to say what kind of effect this will have on sales for 2017. I suspect we’ll be impacted through the end of the year.”

Ranellone is far from the only Floridian distributor anticipating a sting to sales. Phil Fry, vice president at Orlando-based Carpe Diem Sales & Marketing (asi/158580), expects September sales will be down 20% to 40% as a result of Irma. “Business was off substantially in the 3-to-4 days before the storm because everyone was off preparing,” said Fry, noting some clients were subsequently impacted by flooding and wind-related damage. “Post-storm, it is still very slow because so many people and businesses have been without power.”

Nonetheless, Fry – who, along with neighbors, chainsawed downed trees to help clear roads in his suburban neighborhood – was optimistic that a drag on Carpe Diem’s sales would not be long-lasting. “I don’t expect any lasting impact after October,” said Fry, adding that new opportunities could arise, especially with construction and landscaping companies. “It is possible additional business will come from this area,” Fry said.

Of course, promo suppliers suffered the effects of Irma as well. One Florida supplier reported that fourth-quarter sales were likely to be down from the prior year following the hurricane-compelled cancellation of a major trade show, a significant driver of Q4 business. The supplier also has many distributor customers throughout the Southeast and Texas that were still trying to get back on their feet following Irma and Hurricane Harvey – a reality likely to slow down sales.

Meanwhile, Miami-based Bullet (asi/42424) continued to be without power on Monday – more than a week after the storm blew through. Even so, parent company Polyconcept North America reported that some progress was being made. “Generator power allowed staff in customer service and order processing to work through the weekend and we are pleased to announce that as of 8 a.m. Monday, 9/18/17, our full customer service and order processing teams will be on-site and working at full capacity,” read a statement from the supplier. “We expect our production and shipping departments to be fully operational on Tuesday.”

Still, Bullet admitted it would be working through a backlog of orders received since the company closed, and would be prioritizing orders currently in-house. “Any new orders received will be processed with 10-day lead times,” Polyconcept said in a statement. “SureShip will be suspended through the end of September.”

Over on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Top 40 supplier BIC Graphic (asi/40480) dealt with power outages and staffing constraints – the latter a result of mandatory evacuations. On the bright side, all employees were okay, support staff at Minnesota locations helped with order flow before, during and after the storm, and power was restored to Florida facilities. “We are returning to business as usual,” said Laura High, senior trade marketing manager at BIC Graphic. “We expect very little impact on sales thanks to our customers who have been extremely understanding and supportive, and to our employees who are working diligently to process and ship orders as quickly as possible.”