It's a one-year anniversary William ``Bill'' Hays, owner of four Tire Town stores in Louisiana and Mississippi, would just as soon forget as he recalled the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Of his stores in Baton Rouge, Slidell and New Orleans, La., the latter two were damaged and his Waveland Miss., store was forced to close because of the storm.
In Waveland, the storm surge reached 25 to 30 feet and left behind six feet of water, Mr. Hays told Tire Business in a September 2005 interview following the aftermath of Katrina.
The Slidell store, which was not even in the flood plain, received four to five feet of water inside, and the New Orleans location, which escaped flood damage, experienced heavy looting.
Mr. Hays also lost two homes in New Orleans. He now lives in Baton Rouge and commutes about 75 to 80 miles two to three times a week to visit his three stores.
``I sort of look at my life as BK (before Katrina) and AK (after Katrina),'' he said recently. ``If it wouldn't have happened to me, it would have been exciting.''
Mr. Hays faced many challenges while rebuilding his tire store chain-the biggest being ``there are no rules,'' he said. ``You have to completely think change and that you have no basis to work from.''
During his previous interview with Tire Business, Mr. Hays said that despite anticipation of the approaching hurricane, he kept his stores open until the last possible minute. ``We try to serve the public,'' he said. ``We wanted to make sure our customers' tire needs were taken care of in advance of the storm.''
That logic also held true after the storm.
``I had employees 36 hours after the storm in each store,'' he said, adding that Tire Town was also the first tire store up and running in New Orleans after Katrina, despite having to operate under abnormal circumstances.
``When we opened there was not a Goodyear or a Firestone; they hadn't opened yet''-which was a big plus for Tire Town, he said, adding, ``It was like trying to do something in a Wild West situation.'' That caused him to improvise and work with what he could. ``It was all so crazy that you have to forget every experience you ever had in business.''
At first, because there was no electricity, Mr. Hays was unable to accept credit cards and was forced to run some stores on a strictly cash basis. And because there was no phone service in New Orleans, customers weren't able to make appointments. He decided to post Tire Town signs around the city with his cell phone number on them, a concept that other businesses quickly followed.
``In New Orleans, three months ago telephone service still wasn't up,'' he said. ``I had to go through a cable company to get telephone service.''
In Slidell, he even had to operate out of a trailer, which he turned into a showroom until his store could be rebuilt.
The company's Waveland store-its bay doors blown off during the maelstrom, its yard still littered with debris-has a chainlink fence around it and stands idle.
Mr. Hays said one of his biggest challenges after the hurricane was working with his insurance company.
``If you are involved in a situation where you have a regional disaster, the insurance agent has thousands of people affected,'' he said, which only adds to the confusion of the situation.
In addition, he said, many insurance agencies also were looted and had a tremendous time assessing damage.
Mr. Hays, who at the time of the storm did not have flood insurance on any of his stores, was told by his insurance company that most of his damage was caused by flooding. However, eyewitnesses said otherwise, citing the damage mostly from wind.
``I became a cold case files detective,'' he said, a situation that forced him to hunt down an eyewitness, take a statement and then get it notarized. At his store in Waveland, he was able to discover an amateur video from a nearby hotel that proved his store was never hit by a tidal wave.
Mr. Hays eventually had to hire a civil engineer to make an engineering report at his Waveland and Slidell stores. ``The burden of proof where insurance companies are confused is totally on you,'' he said.
Where Tire Town stands
Mr. Hays said although Tire Town stores have reestablished a sense of normalcy-phone service and electricity have been repaired and looting has ceased-the dealership has had to adjust to a complete shift in demographics.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Hays said his stores mostly serviced cars and light trucks. But since then, that type of service has shifted to commercial vehicles and also a wholesale business.
``We're fixing an awful lot of flats because of nails and glass,'' he said, and most of those flats are coming on truck trailers and commercial-type truck and sport-utility vehicles.
The readjustment to the new market conditions actually has improved business at the Slidell store by about a third because of all the construction projects under way, Mr. Hays said. Meanwhile, business at his other stores has stabilized, but they're still not operating at the previous volume.
The Tire Town family
Mr. Hays employed 35 before Katrina struck last August, all of whom were accounted for after the storm.
However, Katrina caused many residents to relocate, and that has made it difficult to staff employees throughout Mississippi and Louisiana.
Mr. Hays said he considers himself ``blessed'' because he had about 80 percent of his workforce return. ``There are those of us in this little business family that became a lot closer regardless of our backgrounds. There was a really strong feeling of friendship.''
Since the hurricane, the wage scale for employees has increased, he said. ``People can't make it living in that area without more money''-something he said he is happy to pay. Mr. Hays also had business interruption insurance for his employees, allowing them to receive some sort of pay after the storm.
Mr. Hays said he would like to reopen his Waveland store since it brought in about 25 percent of his business, but he's prepared to ``wait until I feel that demographically it's a good thing to do.''
Although he would like his business to be where it once was, he is unsure if he would add to the number of his stores.
``I would like to be larger than I was in volume pre-Katrina,'' he said, but ``we're doing just fine where we are.''