Staying one step ahead of storms

In dicey weather, Home Depot disaster boss keeps stores stocked up

Folks around company headquarters sometimes call him “disaster boy.” But they mean it as a compliment.

Corky Martin is technically known as the “Divisional Merchandise Manager/Hardware Department” for Atlanta-based Home Depot, the nation’s largest home-improvement retailer with 1,978 big-box stores, 300,000 employees and annual sales north of $70 billion.

This time of year, when the weather gets dicey in the tropics, the urbane Martin — he paints watercolor landscapes in his spare time — heads up Home Depot’s massive logistical effort to keep its stores supplied with everything from gas cans to batteries as hurricanes approach the U.S. coast.

“We want our stores to be the last to close when a hurricane approaches and the first to safely open when it passes,” Martin said.

To make that happen, and to make sure those stores have all the generators, flashlights, plywood and tarps frantic customers demand, Martin and his crew set up a formal command center at Home Depot headquarters, just off I-285 and Paces Ferry Road in Cobb County. There, in a multi-tiered, theater-like room fronted by big-screen TVs, Martin rides herd over a logistical operation that resembles a military invasion.

Martin and other key members of the team — Home Depot product merchants/managers who handle individual items such as extension cords or bottled water — can be on station for several weeks when hurricanes smash ashore. They funnel hundreds of supply trucks to stores ahead of the storms and into the same battered areas after they pass. They often work 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. “You kind of live on adrenaline,” the 54-year-old Martin said. “Then you go home and crash.”

A crisis conductor

Shaun Martin (no relation) has worked for Home Depot for 28 years and for Corky Martin the last two. Last year, they spent 24 days together in the disaster command center as a series of storms pounded the United States — Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike.

The disaster center dispatched 1,300 truckloads of goods for Hurricane Ike alone — 500 loaded with generators, gas cans and flashlights went to Florida ahead of the storm, 500 went to Texas pre-storm and 300 loaded with plywood, shingles and cleaning supplies went to Texas after the storm struck.

“It gets tense for all of us during these storms,” Shaun Martin said. “Corky is a conductor. He tries to make sure everyone is in the right place, playing what they are supposed to be playing.”

He said the disaster boss is at his best when it comes to pre-planning and quickly working through bureaucratic entanglements to get badly needed products into stores. The company keeps three regional distribution centers pre-stocked with hurricane goods in Texas, central Florida and McDonough. The Georgia center feeds supplies to the Carolinas.

“If we need something, and we can’t get it, we go to Corky,” Shaun Martin said. “He knocks down the roadblocks for us.”

So far this year they haven’t had to crank up the command center, but it’s only half-time in hurricane season. During an interview last week, Corky Martin noted a troubling low-pressure center near Puerto Rico. But Tropical Storm Danny was predicted to be a low-level event, that could brush New England, possibly as a weak hurricane.

“Still, you never know,” Martin said. “One thing you learn in this job: Never plan a vacation for Labor Day.”

Building brand loyalty

The intense disaster planning and frenetic dispatching of supply-laden trucks is more about customer loyalty than profit, Martin said. It would be very bad marketing, he noted, to have a Home Depot in a storm zone with 200 customers lined up for generators that weren’t in stock. Hurricanes do spur home repair projects, generating sales for Home Depot stores, but there’s also an additional cost of doing business.

“This is not a big money-maker for us,” Martin said. “There are huge freight costs involved, and most of this kind of merchandise has low margins to begin with. We want to be there for our customers, and we want them to think: ‘Home Depot — they took care of us during the storm. I’m shopping there forever.’ ”

Home Depot gets most of its weather information from a third-party company called Early Alert, which monitors the microscopic movements of the big storms. Martin and a Home Depot vice president decide when to activate the command center, a call that can affect hundreds of Home Depot employees and dozens of suppliers.

Martin grew up in Statesville, N.C., and later got a business degree from Appalachian State University in Boone. He has spent his career in the hardware and home-improvement business, working from the now defunct Home Quarters Warehouse for 13 years before joining Home Depot in 1999 in Rhode Island. He moved to Atlanta in 2001.

A fan of fall

His real name, he confessed a bit sheepishly, is Warren. The Corky moniker was thrust upon him by his grandfather, giddy that a boy had joined the family. “He had four girls, and he had always wanted a boy,” Martin said. “His oldest daughter got married and had three girls. Then I was born; the first boy in the family. He considered me a real corker, so he started calling me Corky. I had no choice.”

Martin, who is single, lives in Buckhead and counts fly fishing, reading fiction and riding his Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide motorcycle among his hobbies. He admits he usually breathes a sigh of relief when the fall arrives, with cooler temperatures that usually squash tropical storms.

“October is good,” he said. “The hurricanes are pretty much over.

“Then you start worrying about the ice storms.”

Home Depot and hurricanes

Some numbers from Home Depot’s hurricane response during the 2008 storm season:

1,300

Number of trucks with emergency supplies dispatched to Home Depot stores before and after Hurricane Ike.

35

Number of Home Depot stores forced to temporarily close due to Ike.

32

Number of Home Depot stores forced to temporarily close because of Hurricane Gustav.

500

Number of trucks that transported generators, gas cans, plywood and water to stores before Gustav struck.

300

Number of trucks that carried tarps, shingles and cleaning supplies after Gustav passed.

Source: Home Depot