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What Wildfires Taught This Entrepreneur About Running a Small Business

The aftermath of the fire was eye-opening. Here's what the experience taught one owner about running a small business.
What Wildfires Taught This Entrepreneur About Running a Small Business
Image credit: Sonoma Design Apparel & Promotions
Sonoma Design Apparel & Promotions co-founder Eddie Brascia
By Entrepreneur Partner Studio Staff

Last October, Northern California was consumed by wildfires. The scale and magnitude of the blazes was unprecedented.

Eddie Brascia learned about the Tubbs Fire, which would sweep through the community of Santa Rosa, via a phone call. It was 2 a.m. on a Sunday, and a friend called to ask if Brascia could pick up his kids and wife. His friend was out of town, and they needed to be evacuated. That’s when Brascia smelled the smoke. “I remember going out to the street and you could see this red glow,” he recalls.

Brascia’s house was thankfully spared, but his business, Sonoma Design Apparel & Promotionsa custom apparel company that creates merchandise for local businesses including Lagunitas Brewery and a number of nearby wineries—was located directly in the fire’s path. For four days as the flames raged, he was sure he’d lost everything.

Miraculously, when he was allowed to re-enter the area after the fire, the building was still standing. It was a lucky break - the building next door had been incinerated.

Still, the damage was significant. When he opened the door, he was enveloped by a plume of smoke. Carts of clothes were coated with flakes of ash. Even now, “when people from out of town enter the building, they say they can smell smoke,” Brascia says.

The town of Santa Rosa was devastated. Thousands of structures were destroyed or damaged.

For Brascia, the fire and its aftermath served as a tough but important lesson. Below, he shares the three most important things he learned from the experience—tips that could help your business prevail in the face of a catastrophe.

Understand that insurance is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.

After surveying the damage, one of Brascia’s first calls was to his business insurance company, The Hartford.

Brascia knew that having the right insurance partner and coverage was critical for getting his business back up and running. His claims adjuster was a valuable resource throughout the claims process, working with Brascia to review his coverages point-by-point. That included his coverage for building damages, product damages, and lost sales (based on the company’s profit and loss statement).

“He was efficient and responsive, working with me throughout the process, which went pretty darn smoothly,” Brascia says.  Everything has since been settled: “The case is closed.”

Having gone through the claim, Brascia is now keenly aware that things could have gone very differently. If he hadn’t had the right coverage in place before the fire, his business income would have been interrupted, stalling restorations and potentially harming revenues long-term. But The Hartford was on his side from day one, allowing him to focus his energy on getting operations back up and running.

Build a strong company culture.

Brascia co-founded Sonoma Design Apparel & Promotions nearly two decades ago. It’s grown steadily ever since, in large part because of its excellent company culture.

While the company today has 25 employees and is much larger than it was in the beginning, it still feels like a family. People come to work every day knowing that their co-workers have their backs.

The Tubbs Fire was a potent example of this. After one of Brascia’s employees lost his house in the fire, employees rallied to raise money. In addition to setting up a GoFundMe page, they created a line of Sonoma Strong t-shirts, with proceeds going to him and his family.

“He has three kids, two in high school,” Brascia says. “It was a way to give back, to try to create normalcy in their lives.”

This was the right thing to do, of course, but it also illustrated the company’s ability to work as a team. Building a company based on mutual respect and caring doesn’t just sound nice, it has the added bonus of boosting collaboration, productivity, and results—particularly when times get tough.

Turn to your community for support.

In the fire’s aftermath, Santa Rosa immediately began the process of cleaning up and rebuilding. “The community has been strong,” Brascia says.

Throughout the recovery process, residents and local businesses rallied around the “Sonoma Strong” slogan, which became a call to action. Companies donated resources, residents donated their time, and everyone came together to help their neighbors, particularly the individuals and owners whose homes and businesses had been completely destroyed.

Today, Sonoma Strong is emblazoned on bumper stickers, hats, windows, and banners around town. It is a sign of unity and also a message of gratitude, for the firefighters who battled the blaze and for all the restaurants, retail stores, and other local shops that contributed food, money, time, and additional resources.

Businesses that weren’t too badly damaged rebounded. When local breweries and wineries opened again, they resumed their orders for custom apparel and merchandise. “They were like, ‘we plan on kicking butt this summer and bringing the economy back,’” Brascia recalls. This collective can-do attitude lifted up the entire community and helped companies like Brascia’s to get back on their feet more quickly. 

The fire was devastating, but it came with a silver-lining: it taught Brascia the importance of preparation. As the saying goes; plan for the best, prepare for the worst, and plan to be surprised - a maxim that applies to small businesses.

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