Advice Regarding Doing Business In Troubled Urban Areas

July 18, 2003
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In last week’s issue of The News, we explored what it’s like for contractors who do work in urban environments with high crime rates (“The Challenges Facing Urban Contractors,” July 14, page 1). This week, The News turns to its Contractor Consultants to provide guidance for those who work in troubled neighborhoods.

Their bottom line? Be aware of your surroundings. The idea here is to protect yourself and your equipment.

The News confirmed this with its consultants, who were asked to comment on how they approach the subject of urban contracting and doing business in economically depressed neighborhoods. The following questions were asked:

  • Does your company take any extra security steps when sending service techs into high crime or economically depressed neighborhoods?

  • What should contractors do to ensure the safety of their techs in these areas?

  • Do you have any examples of problems encountered in these areas?

  • Do insurance rates differ according to the areas you service?

    Extra Security Steps

    Regarding safety, Ann Kahn (Kahn Mechanical Contractors, Dallas) said her company continually stresses the critical need to keep vehicles and toolboxes locked at all times and conduct safety meetings with police personnel specifically addressing this issue.

    Meanwhile, Larry Taylor (Air Rite Air Conditioning Co., Fort Worth, Texas) said his company does not service too many of the depressed areas, but added, “We do have some neighborhoods where we send two men to do the job — one to watch the truck and the other to do the work. We have mainly had tools stolen and have not experienced any problems with employee safety.”

    Taylor said his company now states on its phone message that if a call comes in after 9 p.m., it will be returned the next day.

    When it comes to safety, Todd Morgan (Comprehensive Energy Services Inc., Altamonte Springs, Fla.) said his company started with its vehicles.

    “We have ordered all of our new vans with no glass in the side or rear cargo doors,” he said. “We also order our vans with a protective screen separating the cab from the cargo area.”

    Mary Marble (J.A. Marble Co., Dearborn, Mich.), also a commercial contractor, said her company is cautious, to say the least.

    “If we cannot pull our vehicle into a customer facility or have someone from the customer’s [staff] watch our truck, then we pick up a shop person or apprentice to ‘guard’ our truck,” she said. “The customer knows beforehand that they will be billed the full rate for this additional labor.”

    Charlie Klapperich (Western Building Services Inc./Comfort Systems USA, Denver, Colo.) said, “We do try to make sure the vans and trucks we provide the employee are equipped with non-glass doors on the side and rear, and mechanisms to lock whatever is being carried on the top rack.”

    Dave Dombrowski (Metro Services/ARS-ServiceMaster, Raleigh, N.C.) said there are a number of things employers can do.

    “We must be aware of all possible situations involving potential criminal activity,” he said. “As solid, professional business people, we must take all means to ensure the safety of our employees and our property. This includes two-man teams, proper-locking devices, secure vans, radios, and common sense.”

    Scott Getzschman (Getzschman Heating & Sheet Metal/Service Experts, Fremont, Neb.) said his technicians make the after-hour decisions. “We are a cash-on-completion company, so that usually will throw up a red flag if they know we need to get paid on completion,” said Getzschman.

    “We do follow up on all calls if we do not go out in the evening, to make sure they still want us out the next morning.”

    Tom Lawson (Advanced Air Conditioning & Heating Inc., Bossier City, La.) was straight and to the point: “During daylight hours, we service the entire city, and at night, we exclude high crime areas.”

    Real-Life Examples

    At least two News’ Contractor Consultants were more than willing to relay some of their experiences working in high-crime areas.

    “Our last major theft from a service van occurred three years ago while our service tech was doing work out of town and staying in a hotel in Miami,” offered Morgan. “They gained entry into the van at night while the van was parked in the hotel parking lot by breaking the glass in the side cargo door. They stole all of the tools.”

    Two years ago, Kahn, her son Josh, and one of the techs were working in an apartment complex equipment room when they were robbed at gunpoint.

    “Fortunately, no one was hurt,” said Kahn. “Naturally, all of our people were concerned and nervous about the incident. We arranged to have a police officer come out the next morning to help us through this difficult time.”

    Meanwhile, two consultants — Russ Donnici (Mechanical Air Service Inc., San Jose, Calif.) and Arthur Pickett (Royal Air Systems Inc., North Reading, Mass.) — made it clear they are in the process of pulling out of urban areas for varied reasons.

    “Years ago we had some projects in San Francisco that were in a bad area and I had to have a job helper watch our trucks,” said Donnici. “We don’t do work in San Francisco anymore because they are a very uncooperative city and it’s not worth the frustration and hassle.”

    “We will not service the downtown [Boston] area,” said Pickett. “We have been backing out of our contract commitments in the city and hopefully by the end of the year will stop servicing or selling in the area.”

    Insurance Rates

    On the whole, insurance rates do not seem to be a major issue. According to Donnici, insurance rates are generally figured on where your business is located by zip code and the zip code of where the service trucks are garaged.

    On the other hand, Hank Bloom (Environmental Conditioning Systems, Mentor, Ohio) said his rates are based on the job, not the location.

    “Our insurance rates are based on gas and electric systems, design-build, and high pressure boiler work,” he said.

    Dombrowski believes in taking the high road when looking at the problems of urban contracting.

    “We will not equate high crime with low income,” he said.

    “We teach that all customers are treated with respect regardless of their zip code demographics. In fact, many of my cash sales come from the lower income areas because they take responsibility for payments and don’t overextend their credit levels.”

    Publication date: 07/21/2003

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