Storm work is by definition unpredictable. No one knows when or where Mother Nature will strike next - or how hard. When a storm does hit, the path of destruction can be hard to find. Contractors relying on the NOAA report and the Weather Channel often find themselves wasting time and resources trying to figure out just where a hailstorm hit and determining if it’s advantageous to be there.
Bill Combes has been helping contractors pinpoint hail damage since 1995. Combes is Vice President of Operations and Marketing for HailWatch, a division of AnythingWeather. He said his company has made quantum leaps in technology in recent years, and contractors have been thrilled with the results.
“We started our company while attending the University of Kansas,” Combes said. “My business partner, Gregg Potter (our President and CEO) and I were both in the meteorology program and had some great brainstorming sessions on how we could work in the weather field and not have to work as a television meteorologist.”
They moved to Austin and launched AnythingWeather, a company that compiled hail reports and initially sent weather alerts to pagers. In the early days Combes and Potter put hand-compiled hail reports in Excel spreadsheets and sent them by fax or e-mail.
“Sometimes things just fall into place,” said Combes. “I was 25 in 1995, looking for office space, running the business out of our apartment. We printed up postcards for area roofers and set them out. We got one response. They said if we got hail reports for free, they’d give us some office space.”
With the advancements in the Internet, things began to take off. “Now pretty much everything we do is automated, except for creating the HailSwath reports,” he said. “We’ve been in business for 15 years, but things have really taken off in the past two or three years. We increased our client base from 70 people in 2007 to more than 700 in 2010. Most of our clients are roofers.”
Products and ServicesHailWatch offers clients a variety of storm data, hail alerts and detailed maps showing the path of a storm and the size of the hail. The company offers a number of different reports and services, including:
• HailWatch alerts: HailWatch offers a daily hail reporting service as well as hail, wind and tornado reports. HailNOW sends reports to a cell phone in near real time.
• HailSWATH maps: Detailed post-storm maps are displayed in Google Maps with an overlay analysis showing areas receiving hail greater than 0.75 inches up to 1.75 inches; greater than 1.75 inches; greater than 2.5 inches. Reports are generally available within 24 hours after a storm affects an area.
• HailMail: HailWatch also helps contractors with marketing efforts with the help of business partner Tulsa Direct Mail. The company can target a specific area affected by a storm by using a HailSWATH report to select areas down to the postal carrier route (usually 500-1,500 homes). The list can also be sorted by size of hail and household income, and full-color postcards designed to meet the client’s specifications are sent.
• HailArchive: HailWatch also has data about areas affected by storms over a period of time. For example, clients can get a list of all storms that have affected cities in the last five years and have those mapped to help them review the areas with the largest hail.
HailWatch clients usually subscribe to one or more of the company’s services depending on their needs. “Some clients just get local reports, while others want reports from all over the country,” noted Combes.
Typically things work this way, said Combes: “Contractors will receive the daily or immediate HailNow reports, and if the storm looks like one they want to work, they will usually put a request in to order the HailSWATH report for that storm. From that point, they may send out a team to review the area and determine if the hail has actually done any damage to homes. The HailSWATH report is not a damage report; it is the path of where hail has occurred, so it is important for the contractor to review the storm and the areas that may have been affected.”
Accuracy is the goal. “HailSWATH analysis fills in the gaps in the areas the storm hits,” said Combes. “You might know this from fire or police reports or the national weather service. But that won’t give you the exact parameters of the area. We use radar data and even call people at the storm’s perimeter to see what type of hail actually fell. HailSWATH paints the picture of where the hail actually occurred. There could be areas where hail was not reported - especially at night, when people are sleeping and no one calls the national weather service. Sometimes there are storms with baseball-size hail that aren’t reported.”
Combes and Potter are driven to help contractors succeed, and HailWatch assigns a dedicated account manager to every subscriber. “These guys depend on us,” Combes said. “Our goal is to provide the best customer service that customer has ever had. If they ask for something, we’ll go above and beyond to try and get it for them. Our goal is to have contractors for life. If a roofing contractor is going to be in business for 30 more years, we want to be there for the next 30 years helping them with storms.”
AnythingWeather recently announced a strategic partnership with EagleView Technologies, a company that provides aerial 3-D roof measurements. A joint collaboration of individual access for both services on www.hailwatch.com and www.eagleview.com will be available by the end of 2010.
“We have seen how our combined technology has made a major difference for contractors,” Combes stated. “The combination of our weather tracking and the extraordinary accuracy of EagleView aerial 3-D roof measurements has wide-reaching benefits beyond the industry to insurance carriers and policy holders alike.”
Help Chasing the StormOne contractor who appreciates HailWatch’s customer service is Jim Stringham, President of APEXteriors, headquartered in South Beloit, Ill. Some 80 percent of the company’s business is residential re-roofing, with an emphasis on storm work, and Stringham knows firsthand how volatile the storm remediation market can be.
“To be successful, emergency response is key,” he said. “That’s where HailWatch comes in. With HailSWATH and HailWatch, we get updates on our phone as the hail is hitting. The technology is amazing. It really helps out. If it’s an event that’s far away, the report lets us know if it’s even worth looking at.”
Stringham met Combes at the International Roofing Expo two years ago and was impressed by what he saw. Coincidentally, the next job he worked was in Austin, Texas. “Bill Combes was right down the road, so I ended up meeting with him,” he remembered.
Stringham was impressed by both the speed of the delivery and the amount of detail in the reports he saw. “The key is getting the report so quickly,” he said. “It shows the size of the hail and the clientele hit. We can zoom in and see the types of homes affected and determine if we’re interested in the job. Our main interest is in high-end homes. The map is color coded to indicate the size of hail. We can zoom in to see homes in that color of swath. It’s pretty impressive. It saves on time, canvassing, and advertising. We want to go where the biggest hail is first.”
APEXteriors handles work all over the country, but everything is coordinated from the home office. State-of-the-art technology helps. “We use AccuLynx software, and the headquarters is the hub for all of our offices,” he said. “Everything is there. This technology helps us serve our customers more effectively no matter where they are located.”
After using the HailSWATH report to identify areas they want to work in, the company contacts EagleView Technologies to obtain aerial measurements of each house. “We put the EagleView report into AccuLynx, and AccuLynx breaks it down into the roof order, so you don’t have to do it manually,” he said. “It saves time and eliminates errors.”
HailWatch also helps him with targeted marketing. “If you have a swath, you can say, ‘I want to hit every home in that swath that was hit by 2-inch hail,’ and they can do it exactly. That way, we aren’t hitting homes that weren’t damaged. You can even go to houses in a swath and target households with $75,000 or more in household income, and you can hit that, too. That way you go to the right clients.”
Stringham has been a customer of HailWatch, AccuLynx and EagleView for about two years, and when it comes to their impact on his business, he says the numbers speak for themselves. “We were growing an average of 15 percent a year. With all these new breakthroughs - HailWatch, AccuLynx, EagleView - we’ve boosted it about double. We’ve grown at about 30 percent a year the last two years, even through the recession.”
Helping Out Close to HomeIt’s not just storm chasers who need accurate information on storms. Rich Richardson, President of Richardson Construction, prefers to stay close to home if he can. Richardson Roofing is headquartered in Fort Smith, Ark. The company has offices in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Oklahoma City. Eighty percent of the company’s work is storm remediation work.
“We try to stay local, but if nothing pans out we’ll go to other states,” he said. “We are the number one storm restoration and roofing contractor in Arkansas. We’re the fastest growing company in the state. We also work in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri.”
Richardson has a background in insurance, which has served him well since he entered the roofing industry. “My dad is the largest Allstate agent in Arkansas, and I always had an understanding of insurance and the claims process,” he said.
Richardson owned an insurance company in Minneapolis, but he saw more opportunities in roofing when the mortgage and housing market began to decline. “When it went south, I got more into it,” he said. “I started my own company with grass roots support and built it up as I went.”
Richardson cites recent technological advances as the most important factors in the storm market - next to the storms themselves. “This market has changed drastically because of the information that is available now,” he said. “For years it used to be the NOAA report, and that was it. There wasn’t much information on where hail had hit - except for possible coverage you might catch on TV and radio.”
He found out about HailWatch and Anything Weather about four years ago, while searching for information about hail reports online. He says the technology is amazing, but the key to HailWatch’s success is its customer service.
“They help me maximize my marketing dollars,” he said. “The hardest thing about storm chasing is having a brand, and marketing helps you with that presence. The only thing I know that works is direct marketing - mailers, phone calls, door hangers and going door to door.”
HailWatch handles direct mail pieces from start to finish. “I can narrow the search down to target homes with a certain income and areas with the biggest hail,” Richardson said. “I can target just those areas and not waste marketing dollars on areas I wouldn’t want to be in.”
Richardson believes targeting households with incomes of $75,000 and above minimizes hassles. “It helps me because those folks have replacement values on their homes,” he said. “They get it. They just want their investment put back together.”
When working with insurance companies, efficiency is key, and Richardson has found that the right software can help. “We use an estimating program that is similar to the one used by the insurance companies,” he said. “AccuLynx was built by roofers, and we’re able to download estimating pricing into that. Our pricing should be in line with the insurance company’s, and if it’s different we can explain why. It helps if you can streamline it to the best of your ability and let them have it item by item. The insurance companies want you to break it down. We try to make our paperwork and insurance company paperwork look as much alike as possible.”
The first step in the process is getting to the right spot quickly, and the bottom line for Richardson is that HailWatch gives his company an edge. “HailWatch helps us with our response,” he said. “Even if it hails at 10 at night, we can deploy almost immediately to the area, and the early bird gets the worm.”
For more information about HailWatch, visit www.hailwatch.com. For more information about EagleView Technologies, visit www.eagleview.comm. For more information about AccuLynx, visit www.acculynx.com.