A Military Career Paves the Way for Recovery Company
Quick thinking in the heat of the moment is nothing new to Ashley Painter.
The 24-year member of the U.S. Army Reserves spent much of her military time in medical departments and hospital units and serving as a company commander. A career in leadership and authoritative roles made the jump into disaster recovery fairly smooth. “Being able to quickly respond to something with little resources, using a team-based approach, thinking on my feet, has always been second nature to me,” she says.
Painter has a government contracting business working with the National Guard, Army Reserves, Air Force and Special Forces on medical exercises and general trai ning. When the COVID pandemic swept the country, it shut down army bases and hospital units, and her contracts went dry. That’s when she got the idea to start United Contract Solutions.
“I needed to think of a way to pivot our company and experience to something that would allow us to be successful, while being pandemic proof and needed in the marketplace,” she says.
Living on the Gulf Coast, Painter has seen and been a part of her share of hurricanes. “Storms seem to happen every year and you can’t stop it or predict everything about it, but someone is making money providing the recovery,” she says. “Seeing that it happens so regularly, I asked myself what we could do to help communities and what exact services we could provide.”
The idea grew beyond just her company. “I thought about what we could offer and then looked at partners to help with what we couldn’t. There are a lot of small companies that have a hard time competing with larger ones, but offer great services and do a great job.”
Painter reached out to a number of small businesses and told them her idea, and for those interested, she held a kickoff meeting in Mississippi. Together they worked to assemble an overall vision, mission and goals.
“It all started with about 10 companies,” Painter says. “We partnered with my company as the larger umbrella, and the rest provided the niche services like catering, tents, generators, IT, security and everything basically needed for a base camp.”
Painter is the primary business holder, and the interested companies are subcontractors: “We had our LLC in August and then had our first hurricane in September. So, that very first year we were in the action which really helped kick us off.”
JUMPING RIGHT IN
“We showed up with trailers, trucks and fuel providers and positioned ourselves about three hours away from where the eye of the storm was supposed to land. As soon as the eye passed and the weather was OK, Painter and her crew drove straight to where it hit and set up camp.
“Our goal was to get there immediately because so many contracts are based on response time,” Painter says. “If we are there, everything is ready to go and we can offer fuel, tents and food right away, we are going to get that business.”
The crew went where they saw electric companies set up. Painter talked to whoever was in charge and told them she could supply whatever they needed. And it worked.
“It was successful because we were there first, but also because we had the equipment to get things done,” she says. “We had all-terrain vehicles, so we could drive around down power poles and debris, and we could stay on site because we had RVs to sleep in.”
Painter used on-the-spot contracts: “I had supplier contracts set up and ready with DocuSign on a tablet, so we could get it signed and be done. I also had back office setups in an RV with an accountant to do invoicing on site.”
That event was in 2020, and they were there for almost six months.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Now with a few years under its belt, United Contract Solutions is set up for success in a business filled with unknowns, something Painter attributes to preparation.
She doesn’t wait for the storm to hit before reacting, but instead relies on a proactive approach to paperwork and workers. “I work with my legal team to have all my contracts queued up, so I’ve got templates for everything,” Painter says. “Prepping with templates is a big part of how I do things. I’ve got set contracts for suppliers, subcontractors, NDA templates, you name it.
“Insurance is another thing. I make sure that any potential partnering companies’ insurance requirements, for employees or anything else, are ready to go for the next hurricane season.”
Painter also makes sure her fleet of equipment is ready to go by staying up to date on registrations, DOT inspections, tank inspections and maintenance. She also makes certain their two fuel trucks — a 2006 Peterbilt 335 with 2,800-gallon tank and 2006 Freightliner with a 2,800-gallon three-compartment aluminum tank — are full and ready. United also has access to nine 500-gallon and two 1,000-gallon Western Global portable fuel tanks. “We want our bags packed and ready to go.”
A substantial part of the prep work is lining up drivers and workers. Almost all her team members are 1099 contractors. Because of that, when hurricane season is coming up, Painter reaches out to those she’s used in the past to see where they are with existing contracts and commitments.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey, hurricane season is coming up. Are you able to participate this year or not?’ From there, she makes a list of drivers who commit, or if some of her regulars can’t, she knows ahead of time to track down others.
Building redundancy with equipment as well as personnel is extremely important. “Life happens,” she says. “So, I try to have an A-team, B-team and C-team, and I do my best to know where everyone is at.”
A UNITED TEAM
Painter has a formula for assembling her crew and so far, it has worked out pretty well. In her opinion it all starts with hiring. “I tend to gravitate toward ex-military,” she says. “One reason is because they tend to be comfortable getting dirty and are comfortable in uncomfortable settings. They are used to adverse conditions.”
But no matter what, everyone she hires goes through a screening process and she does her best to get to know the people she hires.
Once she finds people who fit the United mold, Painter does what she can to keep them coming back. A big part of that is simply keeping in touch. “I’m huge on communication,” she says. “I will reach out to them and ask how things are going with them, not just work related, but life in general.”
It’s important to her to keep contract employees wanting to work for United, and she also wants to know they are ready for the work ahead. “I need to make sure everyone is comfortable and good before going into season,” Painter says. “If there are personal issues going on with anybody on the team, I want to talk through it and make sure it doesn’t impede them on doing the best job they can do. I want them to feel listened to, engaged, and like an active part of what’s going on.”
WHEN IT'S TIME
With a team lined up and paperwork in order, United Contract Solutions is ready to respond. They stay on top of potential storms using hurricane tracking apps so they can plan locations ahead of time.
“The ability to do more or be more active as a vendor varies state to state,” Painter says. “So, knowing where the storm is going to hit helps us plan for that state.”
Certain states, like Florida, are well-versed in storms and very organized. “They will have trucks lined up waiting to roll in and start. Louisiana is a little different because it is run by parishes, and many times they don’t speak or work together as much as they should.”
No matter where the storm hits and members know they are going into the action, they set up a means of staying in touch. “We set up a communication center via group text with key players, and then set up a Signal or WhatsApp or something that’s not using cellphone technology, because nine times out of 10, cell towers are down,” Painter says. “When we are on site, we have walkie talkies.”
As for what to send, Painter starts with her fleet and goes from there.
“We’ll send out our two fuel trucks right away,” she says. “We use what we have, and for anything else I have contacts and partners. For instance, we have some portable restrooms, but I have teams to supply more if needed.”
Between United and partners, the available fleet is made up of 10 2022 JAG 28-foot smart restroom trailers, nine Satellite restroom trailers with eight and 10-stall options, and over two dozen Satellite Tufway portable toilets. Alongside the portable restrooms, United can supply more than four dozen Satellite hand-washing stations.
Painter also relies on partners for power supply. The company’s power supply includes an arsenal of Cummins and Multiquip generators from 38 kW up to 1,000 kW. It can be difficult to balance between owning enough equipment, and too much. “It’s really important to pay attention to your overhead.”
Money in the bank is essential for United to operate smoothly. “I’m paying out of pocket for everything initially,” Painter says. “I’m buying fuel to fill the trucks, I’m paying my drivers each week. For housing, hotels and anything else we are doing or hiring, it’s an upfront payment.”
Her fuel truck drivers are paid a flat rate per day plus housing and accommodations. To charge the clients there is a drop fee for the fuel as well as a cost per gallon of fuel. The drop fee essentially pays for the driver.
And even that is a balance: “Sometimes if we don’t have enough fuel deliveries per day, I’m in the hole that day, and a lot of times that’s when we decide we need to pull out of an area.”
Being financially smart is often as simple as reaching out to multiple suppliers and negotiating pricing. “For example, I have five companies that supply tents,” Painter says. “I’ll let all of them know what I need, then ask what their pricing is and how fast they can get it to me.”
After spending money upfront, it comes time to bill and collect. Every two weeks clients receive an invoice, but that doesn’t mean payments come in as routinely. “More often than not, it’s 60 to 90 days before we get paid,” Painter says. That’s another reason having cash in the bank is vital.
Insurance is often the cause of delayed payments. “A lot of vendors I bill are waiting because insurance is paying for whatever service it is. Because we are second and third down the line it can take a while. Insurance pays the prime contractor, the prime pays the subcontractor and sometimes we are the sub of the sub.”
BUSINESS THEIR WAY
A current challenge is companies underbidding jobs. “I think the market has become saturated with people that have gotten into the industry thinking it’s an easy way to make a quick buck,” she says.
She thinks that problem may have stemmed from the COVID pandemic: “A lot of people bought stuff during COVID because there was a rush of needing shelters for infusion or vaccines sites and that sort of thing. And now that that’s all done, people have these supplies and don’t know what to do with them. They underbid jobs to get a contract because they have all these assets on their books that they need to use or because they want to show past performance.”
But instead of focusing on the challenges she can’t control, Painter keeps her sights aimed at what she can. “I just try to set myself apart by committing to great customer service, honesty and fair pricing,” she says. “At the end of the day, I know I’m doing everything the best I can, and I can sleep at night knowing I’m an honest business person.”