A small business owner’s advice after a disaster: Hire a public adjuster

The morning of Sept. 9 started out as any other for Brian Garrison, owner of Garrison’s Home and Garrison’s Sleeper in Southern Oregon. Just a few hours later, he saw two of his four stores burned to the ground in a fire that swept through the Rogue Valley, Oregon.

Fortunately, Garrison and his business are doing OK.

“We had just finished a massive remodel (of the two stores that burned) two weeks ago,” said Garrison. “The stores looked so good, and sales (after the COVID-19 shutdown) were starting to improve. The staff was so proud, and we had so much positive energy.”

Increasingly, small businesses are victims of natural disasters – whether it’s fires, hurricanes and tropical storms, floods or blizzards. Emergency preparedness now needs to be part of your business plan.

“Every year when we’d sit down with my insurance agent, it felt like I was paying so much for something I’d never use,” said Garrison.

Like most small business owners, Garrison had little reason to expect such devastation. His businesses weren’t even in a fire-prone area.

“The devastation (was) unfathomable,” said Garrison, “I got to see the store site and see the ash and rubble, that’s all that’s left.”

He prepared his business for an emergency like this one, and took a step that few small business owners know about: Garrison hired a public adjuster.

Because of his insurance, Garrison is confident his business will recover, and he quickly turned to taking care of his employees. He was able to keep all seven of his employees of the burnt-out stores on the payroll of his two other stores. He told them to take whatever time off they needed to handle personal issues.

Hiring a public adjuster

Fortunately, business owners who had gone through other disasters reached out to Garrison with a recommendation: hire a “public adjuster.” A state-licensed professional hired by the insured party to help navigate the claims process.      

“We work to make sure the insured gets paid everything they’re entitled to, help figure out what everything’s value is, whether it’s a total loss,” said Steve Severaid, Principal with Adjusters International.

What can you learn from Garrison to help you both prepare for, and recover from, a natural disaster?

1. Get adequate insurance and review it regularly. “Make sure you’re buttoned up from an insurance standpoint, don’t try to cut corners,” advises Garrison. “Guess high on what you cover for contents. And make sure you have a loss-of-business  (business interruption) clause.”

2. Engage a Public Adjuster quickly. Adjusters International has eight affiliates across the U.S., but you can find other public adjusters wherever your business is located.

3. Back up your data to the cloud. I worked with small business advisors helping owners after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Paradise fire. All bemoaned the high percentage of small businesses that were unable to recover their data and had a hard time getting federal assistance or fully recovering on their insurance. Backup to the cloud.

4. Help your employees and your community. If you’re able, remember you need a whole community to heal to enable your business to recover. “We’re going to be fine,” said Garrison, who chokes up when he talks about what he’s seen others in his community going through, “but I’m overwhelmed with emotion.”

Even in the midst of his own loss, Garrison started a GoFundMe fire relief fund to help those who’d lost homes and did not have insurance. Garrison matched the first $15,000 in donations.

Rhonda Abrams is the author of “Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies,” the best-selling business plan guide in the U.S., recently named one of the 100 best business strategy books of all time. Follow Rhonda on Twitter and Instagram: @RhondaAbrams.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.