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Robert Rayl added Family Safe storm shelters to his construction work with Varsity Contractors. "It's really a nice offset for us," he says of the units his crew has delivered to Kansas City, Marshall, West Plains and near St. Louis. He says referrals are 40 percent of sales.
Robert Rayl added Family Safe storm shelters to his construction work with Varsity Contractors. "It's really a nice offset for us," he says of the units his crew has delivered to Kansas City, Marshall, West Plains and near St. Louis. He says referrals are 40 percent of sales.

Business Spotlight: Safe at Home

Posted online
Robert Rayl turned a family need into a business opportunity.

Rayl is senior vice president of Varsity Contractors Inc., a construction firm busy in the commercial and retail sectors.

“It’s not like I didn’t have my hands full with this one,” Rayl says of the construction company that currently is working on a tight deadline to install hardwood flooring at The Courts athletic gym.

Little did he know the country’s deadliest tornado in 50 years would sweep through his region the year after the company signed on as a distributor of Family Safe Storm Shelters.

Through Varsity Contractors, Rayl bought the rights and organized Family Safe Storm Shelters of Missouri.

In its first year in business, which Rayl couches as a test year, the company sold 20 units, generating roughly $100,000 in 2010 revenues. This year, in part due to residents’ keen awareness of a storm’s destructive power in the wake of the May 22 tornado in Joplin, Family Safe of Missouri expects to sell more than 100 units, which come in a variety of sizes.

“It was a real learning year for us. The business is really driven by weather patterns,” he says, noting the upticks in early spring and late fall.

Too close for comfort
Tornado touchdowns in Clever and Battlefield five years ago rattled the Rayl family, sending Robert Rayl on a storm-shelter research mission.

His digging turned up Tulsa, Okla.-based Family Safe, which in 1998 began working with Texas Tech University engineers to develop above-ground shelters to withstand EF-5 tornadoes. The company partnered with commercial fastener firm Hilti Inc. for the ground anchoring systems.

“Being in the construction industry, I understand that stuff,” Rayl says.

He bought his family a Family Safe shelter in May 2006 and a couple of years later linked the concept to his contracting work.

“I was a customer before I was a distributor,” says Rayl, who has witnessed the destruction of tornadoes since his youth in central Kansas. “I felt this was something that other people need to know about and have.”

While Rayl keeps his office in the Varsity suite on South National Avenue, Family Safe maintains a 6,000-square-foot warehouse and office in Republic, where the Rayls live. Family Safe employs three to five, depending on the season, to cover sales, delivery and installation.

The standard and custom shelters, which meet National Storm Shelter Association and Federal Emergency Management Agency standards, are manufactured by the Tulsa parent company, which sold roughly 500 units in 2010. Rayl projects his dealership – covering all of Missouri and small parts of Kansas and Arkansas – will approach 200 sales in 2012.

Procrastinating no more
Since the deadly Joplin tornado, page views have quadrupled on FamilySafeMO.com, which went live in July.

Newton and Jacqueline Brown’s Family Safe shelter was installed in their Battlefield home four days after the Joplin tornado hit. They had ordered it in early May, using Newton Brown’s 401(k) savings after his retirement as BNSF Railway director of administration.

Brown says the couple procrastinated in making the purchase after a woman was killed a half-mile from their home during a spring 2003 tornado.

“We were a little bit naïve of the frequency and harshness of the storms – whether it’s a tornado or not,” says Newton Brown, whose job transferred him to southwest Missouri in 2001. “We had that opportunity in May 2003 to be confronted with something literally outside our garage door.”

Now, the Family Safe shelter is anchored inside the Newton’s garage, but they haven’t yet had to use it in an emergency situation. They store family documents and pictures, and have hung LED lights inside the $4,800, 4-by-6-foot unit. “We’ve put some mats on the floor to make it more comfortable, and placed folding chairs close by,” he says, adding that neighbors have been invited to use it, too.

“You hope the safes are never tested, for the sake of the family,” Rayl says, noting engineers rated the shelters for 100,000 pounds, or 26 midsize cars, for when the real storms hit. “That’s a big number. I hope that no family has to be in a tornado, but if they are, I believe Family Safe will give them adequate protection.”[[In-content Ad]]

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