Dealers survive natural disasters: Even hurricanes and tornadoes can't keep 'em down!

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Shrinking profit margins, employee recruitment and retention, rapidly escalating insurance premiums -- all are critical topics to independent tire dealers. But these issues seem pretty irrelevant when you are standing face-to-face with a tornado or in the path of a raging hurricane.

Just ask Greg Foutch, whose single-store, Monticello, Ill.-based dealership, Heath's Tire & Automotive, was destroyed by a tornado nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

Foutch knew trouble was brewing thanks to a tornado warning that had been issued earlier in the day, but wasn't too alarmed upon hearing the news. After all, Monticello is in the heart of tornado country, where bad weather bulletins aren't uncommon.

But a casual, sidelong glance changed everything! "One of our guys was looking out the shop window and suddenly (saw) a tornado coming up our driveway," Foutch says. "Everyone high-tailed it to my office."

Within seconds, the storm had demolished his building and most of its contents, including a $30,000 alignment machine. But, incredibly, none of the seven cars in the garage at the time were damaged. And most importantly, no people were hurt.

The tornado "left here and jumped a block over, where it took out a church," says Foutch. It also tore the roofs off more than 50 houses in Monticello. Fortunately, injuries were minimal. "In the whole town, we only had one sprained ankle."

After the storm subsided, a dejected Foutch took stock of the situation. "Something we spent years building was gone in an instant. The next three or four days were the roughest of my life, getting myself and my crew motivated."

But within a week he was back in business, operating out of a rented facility. The rebuilding process began shortly thereafter. "The only thing we re-used was the concrete floor." Five months later, a bigger and better Heath's Tire & Automotive store opened its doors. (The dealership's insurance company picked up most of the tab; Heath's contract included a provision to cover natural disasters.)

The October 2001 incident wasn't Foutch's first brush with tornadoes. "We've been in business since 1995 and within a 10-mile radius, we've had nine or 10 tornadoes." One came within a quarter-mile of his dealership but never touched down.

Randy Bailey experienced similar good luck when Hurricane Lily zeroed in on his Houma, La.-based dealership, Bailey's Tire Service, last October. "It was supposed to hit us a lot harder but it turned at the last minute," bounced to the west and then veered north.

Bailey had spent part of the previous day screwing plywood boards over his shop's windows. Despite this, customers still kept trickling into the store! "We had to turn them away and told them we had to go."

After locking up, Bailey and his family fled to Port Arthur, Texas, where they rented a hotel room. "We couldn't get one anywhere else. All of Louisiana was booked up." Many locals headed toward Florida, he says.

Driving back to Houma, he saw trees that had been snapped in half like pencils and several 18-wheelers that had been tossed around like Matchbox cars. "It was quite a sight."

Officials had to close several roads around Bailey's shop due to flooding but the facility itself was unscathed. "We didn't suffer a lot aside from closing down temporarily," he says.

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