Tornados propelled business opportunity

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Anna Mathews / Carroll County News Marty and Darlene Strough talk business in their new facility where stormroom components are stacked, awaiting assembly for national distribution.

BERRYVILLE -- Devastating tornados changed many lives last spring when twisters swept through Joplin, Mo. on May 22 and again in Piedmont, Okla. two days later.

Both were EF5s, the strongest ever recorded. Four families have survival stories to tell because they took shelter in a stormroom installed by Darlene and Marty Strough.

The stormrooms were a side business that the Berryville couple had pursued after researching shelters to find a good fit for their daughter when she moved to Van Buren.

Marty and Darlene have owned and operated Strough Construction the past 35 years, ever since taking over the residential and commercial building business Marty's dad Bert established.

Today, they have branched out to manufacture and market the DuPont StormRoom with Kevlar and have leased the former Brashears showroom in Berryville with its 22,000 square feet of manufacturing, office, training and showroom space.

It's a big move for the couple. They purchased existing inventory from a Virginia-based manufacturer and moved the operation here. They have hired two-full time employees and more hires are planned.

It was the tornadoes that prompted them to take the plunge. After hearing testimonials from the survivors, Marty said, "we were convinced this is what we should do."

It all began, they remember, with their daughter's move to Van Buren.

"We were looking for a good shelter solution for our daughter and her family," Marty recalled. "Her house had been hit and others had been destroyed before they moved in. We were wanting them to have a safe place."

He said they researched the best shelters and learned about the DuPont StormRoom with Kevlar but they were not available in this area at the time.

The stormrooms, he explained, had been marketed as hurricane shelters for residents along the eastern seaboard and gulf coast.

"I made contact with them and asked them to let me %know when they became available in tornado alley," he said. "Although it was previously marketed as a hurricane shelter, it is both."

"It's engineered to be both," added Darlene. "It just took them awhile to bring it into tornado alley."

She said the product "Kevlar" was developed in the 1960s for the sidewalls of tires. When they invented the fiber, they discovered weave variations worked well for other applications. Soon police vests and firefighter protective clothing contained Kevlar, along with military Humvees on duty in the Middle East.

"There are so many uses today," Darlene said, "including kayaks, ropes for hot air balloons and radio tower transmission cables."

Darlene said she and Marty toured the factory and learned that a weave had been developed specifically for the shelter to protect it against flying debris.

"We got one for our daughter," said Marty. "And, in looking for a solution, we were sold on the product and got involved."

Marty said he started out selling the DuPont StormRoom with Kevlar in Carroll County.

"As we did well, they gave us a bigger area," he said. "We grew several times and soon had all of Arkansas. Then they added most of Missouri, half of Oklahoma and a portion of Kansas.

"Less than five years ago I was an installer," he said incredulously. "I told everyone I meet that I wanted to be involved. We did the sales, marketing and installation with the stormrooms trucked from Virginia. Then, we purchased all the remaining inventory. They ceased and we started up."

It was a huge opportunity, Marty said, and when their shelters were put to the test, located smack dab in the path of the tornados in Joplin and in Piedmont, both Marty and Darlene were convinced this is what they should do.

"All had people inside and they functioned flawlessly," Marty said. "We personally visited all four and the people."

Their conviction was bolstered by a nationwide Fox newscast featuring an interview with one of their Joplin survivors.

"She flat-out told them she would not have been alive if not for her shelter," said Marty. "She told me she would do anything to help promote the shelter because she had lost friends and neighbors who needlessly perished."

That newscast, said Darlene, prompted a flurry of phone calls from prospective customers, and a significant call from Dupont offering them the opportunity to be the licensee for the entire nation. As a licensee, Marty explained, they are granted the right to manufacture and market according to specifications under the DuPont name.

"We have the entire U.S.," said a surprised Marty. "Our job now is to get dealers to cover the U.S. We will be wholesaling to dealers."

To that end, they will be hosting training sessions in their new facility. Marty is a certified installer and trainer.

They have been busy getting the operation up and running -- and participating in an Extreme Home Makeover TV production.

"We just got back from Joplin," said Marty, "where there was an Extreme Home Makeover with seven houses in seven days. We have seven shelters in seven homes.

"I can't describe it," he said. "It's seven houses in a row up one street. It was a wonderful experience. The people at Extreme Makeover are the best organizers. It was like a colony of ants. There were thousands of people. The spirit of cooperation was fabulous. It was so crowded in that space but we met some of the nicest people. It was a joy to be part of it."

Marty said they had several of their dealers and most of the Strough Construction crew to work on the job. "We worked hard and we had our time slot," he grinned. "Our 'install' time was 8 a.m. Sunday morning. It felt good to provide those seven families with a safe place."

Darlene said they can't give away too many details, but wanted everyone to know the Joplin story will air sometime after the first of the year. It will be the 200th episode and a two-hour special.

In the meantime, Marty and Darlene are remodeling the Brashears building where they hope to host an open house sometime in early December. Their showroom, they say, will feature "staged" stormrooms to show people how they can be installed to serve as a walk-in closet, media room, business office, laundry, gun safe, or as a typical garage install.

Marty said the stormrooms are anchored to a concrete slab. In existing homes, it's easiest to put them in the garage but they can retrofit a closet or other area if the home is built on a slab. With new construction, he said, they can be incorporated to do double duty as a bathroom, closet, pantry, office or otherwise.

They offer 11 standard sizes, said Darlene, ranging from 4x4 to 12x12 and custom sizes are also available. Prices start at $6,000 installed and there is a $1,000 rebate available from the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.

"We had four shelters go through the largest tornadoes ever," said Marty.

"These were storms people will be talking about for a lifetime. The shelters are a unique product. They were designed by an aerospace engineer with an aerodynamic design. It's the most tested storm shelter in the world. We have been extended a great opportunity and we are convinced this is what we should do."

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