PALM DESERT, Calif. - It was better-than-normal weather Nov. 4-6, when HARDI held its annual convention. And when you’re talking about the Southern California desert, that’s saying a lot.

It was sunny, warm and dry in Palm Desert, Calif., when the Heating, Airconditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International held its annual convention at the JW Marriott Desert Springs. Temperatures climbed into the 90s several days, making the luxury resort’s pools more popular than they’d typically be in mid fall.

When they weren’t golfing or enjoying the sights around the desert, HARDI members were busy attending one of the many educational seminars, committee meetings or manufacturer-sponsored receptions. They were also recognizing the incoming 2007 association president, Mark Faessler, and the outgoing president, Bill Shaw.

Here’s a look at some of this year’s convention sessions.

Jim Truesdell of Brauer Supply Co. told attendees of a Nov. 6 session on disasters how his business coped when a fire destroyed one of its branches in 2000.

Disaster planning

Thanksgiving 2000 wasn’t a very happy one for Jim Truesdell. The president of Brauer Supply Co. received a call Nov. 17, 2000, telling him that the company’s 11,000-square-foot outlet in Columbia, Mo., was on fire.

“You never think that you’re going to deal with something that’s going to wipe out your business,” Truesdell told the audience of the Nov. 6 panel discussion, “Surviving a Business Disaster.”

“It was a complete destruction of our property.”

Investigators determined the fire started during business hours, when sparks from a small electrical fire landed on boxes containing HVAC units. Soon, the entire building was covered in smoke and flames.

Fortunately, Truesdell said, no one was seriously injured. One employee was treated for smoke inhalation.

Such an incident could permanently cripple some companies, but Brauer Supply officials had a plan.

The first thing Truesdell did was ensure employees knew they would be taken care of - the branch would not be closing.

Reassurance

“I wanted to make sure all our employees knew we were going to continue there,” he said. “I didn’t want people out looking for a job that night.”

The fire attracted the attention of TV cameras, and it was decided that Truesdell would act as the company’s spokesman. The loss of area jobs was the media’s main concern, he said.

He contacted his insurance company, the building’s owner and hired a security firm to keep scavengers away. The insurance policy paid for the extra security.

“Throughout this entire process, you want to be documenting these extra costs,” Truesdell said. Remember that if you move to a new location, any increases in land expenses may be covered by insurance.

Brauer officials then called customers to let them know delays would be minimal. All calls to the Columbia office were routed to the company’s St. Louis headquarters. Vendors were notified as well.

In addition to contacting customers, Brauer officials talked to their main competitors in an effort to kill any rumors that the branch would not be reopening. Many competitors will not try to take advantage of you if you are honest with them, Truesdell told the crowd.

He advised companies to keep photographic and written records of all fixtures, inventory and furniture. Having proof of value and loss will make the insurance claim process easier, although Truesdell acknowledged his company didn’t have as good of records as it could have.

The experience, as traumatic as it was, proved a good one, he said.

“Bring your employees into this,” he advised. “Most will be glad to be working on this with you. Everybody at our branch had a sense of pulling together.”

And if a fire or other incident happens to you, “Treat it as a not as a disaster, but an opportunity.” Besides, it’s a good way to get rid of old inventory, Truesdell quipped.

Meier Supply Co. recently endured a flood that damaged the company’s offices so severely, “It was like a bomb went off,” Mike Meier said.

'Like a bomb went off'

Insuring against fire-related losses is standard at many businesses like Brauer Supply Co., but would you buy extra insurance for a once-in-a-lifetime event, like a flood, in an area that never has them?

Mike Meier didn’t. The general manager of Meier Supply Co. Inc. in Johnson City, N.Y., said the neighborhood around his family’s store hadn’t had any flooded basements in 50 years - until June 28, 2006.

It took two days for the waters to recede enough for workers to inspect the damage.

“It was like a bomb went off,” Meier recalled.

There were no working phones or computers. The company lacked a computer backup system. Many records were water-filled and destroyed, although Meier kept some important documents in a waterproof, fireproof box.

He said the experience taught him three things: “Have a plan, have a plan, have a plan.”

The impact on the company’s business will be in the millions, he estimated, adding, “If we had had a plan in place, we could have cut that by 75 percent.”

Coburn Supply Co. of Beaumont, Texas, was hit by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita during 2005, A.J. Maloney said. Rita was especially devastating, he told the audience.

Hurricane headaches

While Meier Supply suffered through the city’s first flood in 50 years, Coburn Supply Co. was hit by two very well-known hurricanes in 2005: Katrina and Rita.

After experiencing a fire 30 years ago, the Beaumont, Texas-based wholesaler had a disaster plan, unlike many companies. However, A.J. Maloney told HARDI members, after the two hurricanes damaged its Louisiana stores, they realized “Our disaster plans were probably 30 years out of date.”

If you do business in a hurricane-prone region, Maloney said, it’s critical to have evacuation and communication plans.

When hurricanes hit, forcing people to evacuate, “A lot of people don’t know where they’re going to end up,” he said, adding that many just drive north. It may take months for them to return to the region.

Maloney said seven Coburn workers lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. Some ended up living in Illinois.

Company officials tried to find work for displaced employees.

“If we had a location in that area, we asked them to report to that location, and go ahead and work at that location,” he said. About a dozen Coburn branches were affected by hurricane-related evacuations, but the company had 30 others still operating, he said.

Of the two hurricanes, which hit about a month apart, Rita did the most damage to Coburn, Maloney said.

“Although (Rita) wasn’t as reported in the news, it was a greater impact on our business,” he said.

HARDI’s annual trade show, called the conference booth program, gave attendees the chance to meet with vendors and pick up literature on their newest products. It was held Nov. 7.

Computer safety

It’s been more than a decade since the Internet became an essential part of business and entered popular culture, but as the medium has grown, so have “hackers.”

And too many businesses are unprotected from these sorts of attacks, which costs them million of dollars annually.

That’s what Mike Foster, a corporate computer security expert from Dallas, told HARDI members Nov. 6 during “Executives: The Shocking Truth You Need to Know About Protecting Your Vital Business Systems.”  

Foster cited FBI statistics that said the largest dollar losses in information technology suffered by businesses in 2006 were the result of viruses. He gave some of the ways such problems happen.

Too many companies allow insecure passwords and give workers too much freedom to install whatever they wish on company-owned computers. These programs, along with unmonitored Internet usage, can lead to serious security breaches and other online-related problems.

He recommends companies establish clear e-mail access polices, reserve the right to monitor messages and Internet activity, install software that will block unwanted messages and potential security breaches.

Companies should audit their policies and protections yearly, and invest in professionals who are certified in information technology or “IT” instead of hiring self-taught computer “experts.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.