Houston’s Cantu brothers refuse to let a fire ignited by a bungled burglary slow them down
Dread flashed through Jose Cantu’s mind during the 20 minutes he raced to his outdoor equipment dealership. He feared the worst for the facility that he and his brother, Hector, 34, had spent years building. He had just received a call that their facility was burning.
Starting in their father’s garage, Jose Cantu, left, and his brother, Hector, right, now run one of the most modern and dynamic equipment dealerships in Houston.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SAWHOUSE POWER EQUIPMENT & SUPPLY.
As Cantu, 38, raced along the dark streets to their five-year-old SawHouse Power Equipment & Supply building just 10 minutes north of downtown Houston, he didn’t know what he would find when he got there. The building was filled with outdoor power equipment, mostly professional arborist supplies and well over 200 chain saws, new ones as well as those that clients had dropped off for repairs and tune-ups.
On arriving and hurriedly making his way through the yellow tape surrounding the chaos, he learned that firemen had confined the fire damage to the back third of the building. Their prompt response kept the flames from spreading. Even so, the building’s offices and showroom suffered water and smoke damage.
“I give props to the Houston Fire Department and also to the men in blue. They did an awesome job,” recalls Cantu.
He credits three things for allowing him and his brother to get their dealership back into full gear within two weeks after the fire: the firefighters’ prompt response, the design of the SawHouse building, and the assistance he got from his company’s insurer.
Thieves, trying to get into the equipment dealership, used a torch to burn a hole into this rollup door, but set off a business-threatening blaze instead.
Cantu is more convinced than ever that preparation for an unexpected catastrophe (assuming he needed convincing in the first place) may determine whether their business survives or not. Be it fire, flood, tornado or theft, what small business can survive a massive loss, especially if it isn’t properly insured?
The Cantu brothers discovered that the hours spent designing and securing their facility against theft and fire, as well as with their insurance company, planning for contingencies they hoped would never occur, turned out to be business savers.
“Our facility is pretty much like Fort Knox,” says Cantu. “We’ve made it pretty hard to get into our place. People have tried before but they’ve never succeeded.”
Ironically, it was a botched burglary that caused the fire that particular mid-July night. Police discovered that thieves had cut the bars of the wrought iron fence around the building and then tried to bust through its back door. When they failed, they took a blow torch to the metal rollup door at the rear of the building in an attempt to gain entry. Even then they couldn’t get into the dealership.
“Sparks must have hit one of the units (chain saws) stacked up in that room and everything caught on fire,” says Cantu. “Fortunately, a firewall separates that back section from the rest of the building so the fire was contained there.” Because of this, the company’s computer and all of its records survived intact.
Unfortunately, however, fire gutted the back section of the building that was filled with chain saws and other power equipment that the technicians were repairing. Damage to the building and contents exceeded $150,000.
Cleanup and repairs on the property started just days after the blaze. What wasn’t destroyed by the fire sustained smoke and water damage. But, within several weeks, the shop area looked like this.
“It might have been better if they had gotten away with some equipment instead,” says Cantu half seriously.
Within days of the fire, a restoration crew and SawHouse employees began cleaning the showroom and offices of the water and smoke damage. Everyone worked feverishly to get the dealership up and running again. The fire took place during its busiest time of the year and just before the peak of hurricane season when demand for chain saws and other professional arborist gear is greatest. (As it turned out, SawHouse was up and functioning when demand for its products peaked in 2012 as Hurricane Isaac pounded the northern Gulf Coast just a month later.)
Cantu credits in part the cooperation and response received from his insurer’s swift response to his loss.
“Every year our representatitive from Federated Insurance comes in and we go over everything. It can almost be overwhelming, but having a good relationship with your insurance representative helps a lot,” says Cantu. Sometimes the meetings last for hours as he and the representative go over the finer points of the policy. Giving the process all the time it requires, he says, adding that while insurance premiums aren’t cheap, it’s a necessary expense.
Of special concern to Cantu and his brother was how to compensate customers losing equipment in the room suffering the most fire damage. How do you put a fair price on each of the more than 150 customer units that were damaged or destroyed?
“I can understand what they would feel,” says Cantu. “They would be right in saying, ‘Jose, I gave you my $500 chain saw and now you’re giving me $100. I need that chain saw.’ We made the decision to replace all of my customers’ units. If our customers don’t work, we don’t work.”
The Cantu brothers have come a long way since starting their business in their father’s 800-square-foot garage in 1999. They had been working for another dealership, and they noticed a portion of the outdoor power equipment market – the professional arborist niche – being underserved by other dealers on the north side of Houston.
The back room of the dealership and all of the power equipment within it were destroyed in the blaze. Fortunately, a firewall kept the blaze from doing similar damage to the offices and showroom.
They became a servicing dealer for STIHL and ECHO, and from the beginning focused on providing a high and immediate level of service. They realized that when arborists need saws and other equipment, they need reliable, professional saws and other gear, and they need it now.
Working out of a garage filled with new chain saws and other gear keeps expenses low, but, on occasion, created a perception problem. “I’m sure some of the people that drove up to the garage must have thought we had hijacked an 18-wheeler,” recalls Cantu humorously.
The brothers grew their company slowly but steadily. In 2003, they concentrated on supplying equipment to utility tree contractors, as these companies provided them a nice boost. Demand for chain saws and other arborist equipment spiked again immediately in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In 2008, Houston suffered Hurricane Ike, which literally shut down the city for several days.
Working with suppliers, the Cantu brothers were able to obtain chain saws when the Big Box stores couldn’t. Sensing opportunity, they peppered the region with signs advertising saws. Even when the region lost power the brothers kept their business open with a generator.
It wasn’t until they had saved enough money that they felt confident enough in their finances to put up their a new building.
“We built it a piece at a time as the money came in. We decided we wanted to grow the safe way,” recalls Cantu of the move into the new facility in 2008.
SawHouse has slowly expanded its line of outdoor power equipment and is now carrying mowers and other equipment, as well. Even so, the majority of its sales still come from utlity companies and other tree care operations.
The brothers started by specializing in chain saws and other equipment needed by arborists and utility crews. They’re now also offering landscape maintenance equipment at SawHouse Power Equipment & Supply.
Cantu says that SawHouse is succcessful and still growing because it offers a very personalized service. He and his brother know many of their customers by first name. “We know who are customers are and we take care of them,” Cantu states.
Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 28 years. Contact him at [email protected].