A Business That Builds On The Wreckage Of Companies

Posted: October 19, 1989

Nelson Bean's business depends on tragedy. Tuesday's earthquake in Northern California and last month's hurricane in South Carolina are the stuff on which his Evans American Corp. thrives.

Founded eight years ago in Houston by his father, the company specializes in catastrophe management - helping companies rebuild their crumbled facilities far more quickly than normal.

"I don't know anybody who does exactly what we do," said Bean, president of the company. "I know people who rebuild damaged buildings, but we fit into a niche market inside of a niche market."

Bean said yesterday that he expected to be involved in the earthquake cleanup, and his company was helping to assess damage from Hurricane Hugo.

Indeed, few construction companies specialize in repairing buildings damaged by natural or man-made disasters. And even fewer are willing to send people almost anywhere to do it.

But for the companies that do specialize in catastrophe management, there seems to be no shortage of disasters. At Evans American, for example, revenues jumped from $4 million in 1987 to about $10 million last year, and Bean said he expected revenues to top $15 million in 1989.

What seems to separate these firms from most other construction companies is the speed with which they can rebuild a structure. In some cases, they have taken only months to complete jobs that regular contractors had said would take a year or more.

When necessary, the companies work round the clock, but their greatest time-saving measure is scheduling subcontractors - carpenters and electricians, for example - to work simultaneously. They also cut hours by using special tools and quick-drying paints and glues, Evans American said.

Speed is everything when catastrophe strikes a company. Aside from inventory that may be exposed to wind or rain, business owners must worry about lost revenues.

Along the South Carolina coast, for example, hundreds of hotel owners are busy trying to repair properties damaged by Hurricane Hugo in time for the fall-winter tourist season, said Gary Cohen, incoming president of the South Carolina Hotel-Motel Association.

Although summer is the busiest season for hotels along the shore, fall and early winter also are important. That's when Northerners flood golf courses that dot the state's barrier islands, and when companies schedule conventions and meetings along the shore, Cohen said.

But Hugo threatened to disrupt what South Carolina hotel owners call the ''shoulder season." "A great number of (hotels) have swimming pools that no longer are there," Cohen said. "They have been carried away, and lobbies now are full of sand."

Bean of Evans American said his research showed that when businesses shut, they begin to lose market share immediately. And within three weeks, he said, a company could begin experiencing permanent losses.

Thus, the catastrophe-management teams are crucial.

In many cases, the specialists arrive at disaster sites almost as quickly as rescue personnel and insurance companies. Their first task often is to make temporary repairs to facilitate immediate needs. Once that is done, permanent repairs can be started.

In South Carolina, Evans American so far has not gotten involved in actual rebuilding of damaged properties, Cohen said. But the company has been busy

helping to assess the damage, and expects to assist in the rebuilding.

Bean recalled once traveling to Dallas with three days' worth of clothes for a particular assignment. He was there for nearly a month, and during that time, his shortest workday lasted about 20 hours. He rarely ate more than one meal each day, he said.

"It's one of those things where you have to love it to do it," Bean said of his job. "People who thrive on a predictable, repeatable work environment can't tolerate this particular industry."

Yesterday, none of Bean's workers had gone to Northern California, where hundreds were believed to have perished and scores of buildings were damaged. However, he said, there is no doubt that calls will be coming soon.

Contractors in the industry say they do not think of themselves as disaster chasers - people who prey on the misfortunes of others. In most cases, they are called in by insurance companies.

In Oak Park, Mich., a Detroit suburb, A.J. Abramson Co. Inc. has been in the catastrophe-management business for 32 years. Julius Abramson, its owner, said yesterday that he had helped rebuild banks, supermarkets and offices soon after the Detroit riots in 1967.

"We had all the work we wanted, as much as we could handle" after the arson fires that burned many Detroit businesses during that summer of racial strife, he said.

Unlike Bean, Abramson said he rarely traveled far from his home base. One of his biggest jobs so far was a $4.5 million incinerator repair. Shortly after the 1967 riots, he assembled a bank that had been shipped from Florida on a series of flatbed trucks. He said the bank stood today.

"When you need help, we obtain it," Abramson said. "We know how to expedite jobs. That's our forte."

Abramson said one of the cornerstones of his business was trust. Because of the speedy nature of the work, there might not always be time at first to draw up rock-solid contracts.

Bean, too, noted the importance of flexibility. Equally important, he said, is having the right team of experts and equipment, as well as the mentality needed to pick up and run on a moment's notice.

"It's an all-or-nothing kind of situation," he said. "It can be very stressful."

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