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Surviving the Storm

Chasing dollars, much like chasing storms, can be risky for businesses. Storm Smart’s Brian Rist realized the danger after Hurricane Charley in 2004 when demand shot up for its hurricane protection products.

“We could write more business than we knew what to do with. So we were hiring people left and right,” he says. “Overnight, our business went from 20 people here to over 100.”

Fort Myers-based Storm Smart, which turns 20 this year, also gained statewide and national attention. Florida’s largest manufacturer and installer of hurricane protection products was named to the Inc. 500 of the fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S. in 2006, and made the Inc. 5000 lists from 2007-2009. Storm Smart earned the Corporate Award during the 2007 Governor’s Hurricane Conference.

But back at home, Rist was losing touch with his employees and customers. One day, he was out to lunch with a vice president and saw a company truck on the road. He didn’t know the Storm Smart employee behind the wheel. Rist thought, “How do we expect that person to understand what our company stands for if we don’t know who they are?”

“It was kind of like an awakening,” he says. “We were growing and growing so fast that we lost sight in quality.”

To turn things around, Storm Smart started surveying customers. The common complaint was about the lack of communication, says Rist, president and CEO of The Smart Companies, of which Storm Smart is the largest subsidiary. Missed appointments, for example, resulted in frustrated clients.

“In the beginning, we heard some things we didn’t like. It wasn’t nice,” Rist says. “But we learned from it. So we stopped, we developed our mission statement, and in a time when everybody else was writing so much in business and doing so much, we basically put the brakes on sales and went back and fixed everything we did.”

He focused on repairing mistakes and relationships and training employees to meet or exceed expectations, and communicate often with customers about appointment times, weather delays and other information.

Old-school contests, such as “Employee of the Month” and a referral program where clients receive gift certificates, paid off. He and his vice president hand-delivered paychecks on Fridays to say “thank you” and get to know their employees.

Now, the company handles more than 250 jobs a month and still surveys customers. The answers are a scale of 1-5. Any response of 3 or less results in someone in senior management reaching out to determine what went wrong, Rist says.

“When you sell products based on price, there’s always somebody willing to sell something cheaper than you,” he says. “I chose a different strategy that we would try to provide the greatest service that we could do. We developed a zero tolerance to poor customer service.”

In 2015, 83 percent of Storm Smart’s customers came from referrals. The company now has more than 60,000 customers and 143 employees at its headquarters and manufacturing facility in Fort Myers, a sales office in Naples and an engineering office on the state’s east coast.

“When you start a company, you never think what are you going to be in 20 years,” he says.

While reaching a company milestone, such as two decades, is worth celebrating, Rist believes in strategic planning. The wholesale business presents the best future growth opportunity for Storm Smart, which has a comprehensive product line of screens, shutters, windows and doors. The company’s size is expected to double in the next five years.

“Yesterday we had one of our biggest days ever in our wholesale business,” Rist says in late January. “Our growth will be more shipping our products around the world. Watch us.”

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