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The Jolt Patrol 

QuakeProof profits from the coming apocalypse

Wednesday, Aug 30 1995
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Shannon Forrestal likes to tell the story of the flying typewriter. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, he says, a heavy electric typewriter in a San Jose municipal building hurtled from its desktop into an office wall, lodging there stubbornly. No one was hurt, but in the aftermath of the 7.1 shaker, city officials fretted over how to prevent a repeat performance of the amazing projectile business machine.

"They figured that typewriter was probably going about 45 miles an hour," Forrestal marvels.

The typewriter story may be apocryphal, but it carries the moral of Forrestal's commercial message: QuakeProof wants to help your company prepare for the Big One.

The 30-year-old Forrestal founded QuakeProof 18 months ago with two buddies, Russell Pepin, who was working in sales for Global Van Lines, and Jeff Keegan, who did landscape construction work (fountains, patios). Pepin had become acquainted with the West Coast practice of "seismic bracing" while working at Global, in which movers charge extra for bolting down bookshelves and file cabinets. In a huddle, they came up with a plan.

If businesses were willing to pay a premium to secure their furniture, the partners reasoned, wouldn't they want to apply similar disaster preparedness stratagems to protect their multimillion-dollar investments?

Forrestal and Pepin began researching methods for stabilizing valuables. Their solutions were simple: clamps, straps, industrial-strength Velcro. They also came up with the "Boing Bar," a length of bungee cord lashed across shelves to keep contents from tumbling to the floor.

Convinced of the marketability of their ideas -- and somewhat surprised that no one else was offering comprehensive methods of interior quakeproofing -- the three partners began cold-calling potential customers.

Forrestal's previous sales experience had come from publishing a flier called Dial-a-Delivery -- "the Couch Potato Phone Book."

"Starting a business is always a struggle," he admits, "but we knew we were on to something. We'd get positive response from basically every person we called. Now, whether they were going to spend a nickel with us or not is another question."

Encouraged nonetheless, the three partners quit their jobs and launched QuakeProof. A few weeks into their fledgling venture, the Northridge earthquake rocked Southern California. Business, predictably, began to boom.

"We're in a reactionary market," stresses Forrestal, the firm's vice president of sales and marketing. Sales were still slow -- and none of the partners took salaries for months -- but after Northridge, their calls were welcomed. Today, Pepin operates QuakeProof's second location in L.A., and both shops employ about a half-dozen workers.

From the beginning, the company left structural retrofitting to the engineers.

"What I tell customers," says Forrestal, an energetic coffee-and-cigarettes businessman in wingtips, striped shirt, and tie, "is, if Mother Nature says it's coming down, it's coming down."

One of QuakeProof's specialties is safeguarding the "computer rooms." Forrestal says one downtown office mounted its equipment on such unstable systems racks that "with one hand I was shaking the thing."

"That's their main computer center. They have 15 branches hooked up to it." Producing an invoice, he reasons, "Twelve hundred dollars? That's stamp money to them."

"I say it a couple times a day -- an ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure."

And a picture, they say, is worth a thousand words.
"Our business really took off Oct. 17, 1994," Forrestal attests, "because it was the five-year anniversary of Loma Prieta. Every newspaper, every TV station started with the stories: 'Where were you five years ago?' Then, Jan. 17, there was a thing called Kobe. ... It was almost like an earthquake happened here again. People were picking up the phone and actually calling us."

None of the three main QuakeProofers has experienced a rough earthquake. Pepin, 48, hails from Boston. Keegan, now a 30-year-old VP of operations, is from Ohio. Ex-Chicagoan Forrestal says the 5.7 SoCal tremor he witnessed in 1987 consisted of "my carpeting going like this" -- he makes a serpentine motion with his hand -- "and a very, very helpless feeling."

Though their firsthand knowledge of earthquakes is limited, QuakeProof's owners are passionate about safety, willing to share tips of the trade ("Take the bowling trophy off the top of the credenza") -- sale or no sale.

QuakeProof's newest hire is Elliott Eaton, 27, a trained health-and-safety instructor who now runs the company's preparedness seminars. Forrestal says the addition of Eaton solidifies the company's claim to being the only one-stop shopping center for earthquake planning.

"If you want a seminar for your third-grade class, you can call QuakeProof," he says. "If you're worried about a Ming vase you just bought for $38,000, you can call QuakeProof."

Clearly, he's one proud disaster-relief administrator. "It's our baby," Forrestal says.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Keegan piled into the passenger seat of Forrestal's aging Lincoln Continental ("the S.S. Quake," he calls it) and headed out to an Oakland storage facility called FileSafe, to install a Boing Bar demo for Records Manager Terry McCord.

FileSafe's massive warehouse is jammed to the rafters with an estimated 540,000 white cardboard file boxes. The QuakeProof team had been asked to safeguard the site's 2,000-odd shelves of loose medical files, records that require more accessibility than the IRS paperwork and dead-letter legal documents that fill the white boxes. While the workers bolted the Boing Bar nubs in place, FileSafe's McCord explained the delicate -- and lucrative -- nature of his business. One law firm, he says, stores 90,000 boxes with his company. Total annual rent: well over $200,000.

"Very few lawyers will agree to throw away anything they've worked on," the jovial McCord says. "They consider it part of their intellectual property."

Structurally sound, FileSafe's five warehouses have escaped earthquake damage, but McCord says he has viewed nightmarish photos of a competitor's mess in the aftermath of Loma Prieta.

"They're still trying to recover," he says. "They have records they have never been able to identify.

"This," he says of the Boing Bar, "is an insurance policy. The problem is, you have to spend money for something you hope you never need."

When his visitors finish installing the Boing Bar, McCord quips, "Now all I have to do is test it. After the next earthquake, I'll order more!"

McCord's joke succinctly outlines the QuakeProofers biggest problem: procrastination. The company hopes to convince insurance companies to extend breaks to quakeproofed clients. In the meantime, foot traffic is light at the company's small storefront at Third and 18th streets -- though Forrestal predicts that won't be the case "the day after the Big One."

"After Loma Prieta," he relates, "one of our [commercial] customers had over $70,000 damage to the roof of his house. He was insured -- it didn't bother him that much. The thing that bothered him was he had just bought a brand-new 40-inch TV set. With the deductible on his insurance, he had to eat the TV set.

"He still had it in his garage. He couldn't bring himself to throw it away."
In QuakeProof's front room -- the "retail" outlet -- employees demonstrate the heavy-duty Velcro that could have saved their client's prized TV. They also test-run the automatic natural gas shut-off valve they've just added to their inventory in an arrangement with the gizmo's East Bay inventor.

As Richter-ready as any of their clients, the store's cash register is clamped to its countertop by a set of quick-release "thumb locks" manufactured by a Van Nuys company. Despite employees' periodic assaults, the register stays put; across the counter, a toy called "Earthquake in a Can" spins like a dreidel on Hanukkah when touched.

Back in the office, Pepin has just called to update Forrestal on an impending deal with a Japanese company, one that could result in the sale of 200,000 quake survival kits (food, water, blanket, first aid, light stick, whistle, waste disposal bags, Tylenol).

"That's good news," Forrestal grins.
Many potential Bay Area clients have pleaded poverty.
"That's fine," Forrestal says. "What we're finding is, even if they don't do it this year, they can budget for it next year. The San Andreas and the Hayward faults aren't going anywhere.

About The Author

James Sullivan

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