Though it was in the 80s in Kansas City a week ago, meteorologist Sara Croke was talking snow. She was in Cincinnati at the North American Snow Conference as part of the American Public Works Association, discussing emergency management and winter maintenance.
Planning for weather is all in a day’s work for Croke, whose company Weather or Not focuses on forecasting weather for schools, municipalities and businesses such as construction companies, utilities and road crews.
“What Weather of Not specializes in is we save money or improve safety for any business that has an outdoor weather threat,” Croke said. “We work to protect the operational budget.”
Croke and her staff of meteorologists work from an office in Shawnee.
“We work to give them the greatest lead time before weather impacts a job site or an event,” Croke said. With seven full-time meteorologists and additional support staff, Weather or Not offers two basic plans for clients to receive regular forecasts several times a day.
“You can get watches and warning notifications from thousands of sources.… There are hundreds of business types that are impacted by non-severe weather that can wreak havoc,” Croke said. “We buy the client time to make the safest, cost-effective decision on how to react.”
Croke grew up the youngest of 10 in Boston, where her father was a coach and athletic director at a private boys’ school. During those years, Croke saw how weather affected her dad’s job. In college, Croke thought she would pursue a career in human services, but that quickly changed.
“I took my first earth science (class) and it was phenomenal to me,” she said.
After college, Croke pursued a career as a broadcast meteorologist, ultimately working at KMBC Channel 9 in Kansas City. While at the station, Croke began to do some outside weather consulting, connecting with then Kansas City Royals groundskeeper George Toma. When her contract wasn’t renewed with Channel 9, Croke had decisions to make.
Q: Why did you start Weather or Not?
“I loved forecasting,” Croke said. “When I found myself unemployed, George said there were a whole lot of guys who needed my professional services.” With that bit of encouragement, Croke decided to start her own business.
Q: Why didn’t you want to leave Kansas City?
“Kansas City is a great place to grow because people here are smart but kind and very fair,” she said. In terms of pursuing work in many industries where women are in the minority, Croke decided she could manage the system.
“If you could save them money, they didn’t care what gender you were,” Croke said.
To educate herself on the business world, Croke attended a Small Business Administration program.
“They said 80 percent of businesses fail in the first year, and I was so young and naïve that my reaction was ‘those poor people.’ ”
Croke got help from volunteers at SCORE, an organization that helps startups, as well as the Small Business Development Center house at Rockhurst University. She opened Weather or Not in 1986, operating out of her home.
Answering several requests for proposals, Croke landed Kansas City International Airport as Weather or Not’s first client.
Q: How do you get clients?
Croke said about 80 percent of Weather or Not’s business has come through referrals. “Barnett Helzberg once told me that if you want to grow your business go back to your customers and ask if they know of anyone who can use your services, and that’s what we did,” she said.
Within six months of opening, business had picked up enough that Croke hired her first employees. Today, Weather or Not’s client base stretches throughout the Midwest including school districts, airports and even sports teams including the Kansas City Royals, Sporting KC and, most recently, the St. Louis Cardinals. Other local clients include Kansas City Power & Light, the Blue Valley School District and the Johnson County Park and Recreation District’s Theatre in the Park.
“We just signed the Cardinals deal because of a call they received from the Royals,” she said. “Whenever you have a happy client find out why and ask if they will tell their colleagues about you.”
Operating Weather or Not has its challenges. Croke said because Weather or Not is operational 24-hours a day, seven days a week, staffing is always interesting.
“It’s like running a fire house — you have to staff like a five-alarm fire on any day to be able to respond,” Croke said.
Then there is the issue of employee skills.
“You have to find great scientists with great empathy to feel the pain of clients’ weather impacts, and they have be good communicators,” she said.
Croke puts a heavy emphasis on choosing staff that believes in customer service.
Q: What helped your business grow?
In 1990, Croke’s Weather or Not worked with local radio station KMBZ and its sister stations.
“We became a full-fledged weather center 24/7 inside a radio station,” she said. “It was like being in an incubator. I had no overhead and a great place to bring employees, and they had live radio.”
The seven-year stint gave Weather or Not great exposure and a real boost in the community, Croke said.
Today, Weather or Not continues to use the latest technology for its clients including a lightning detection network. The company has also been designated by the MidAmerica Regional Council to issue the official Ozone Alerts in the metropolitan area.
IN A NUTSHELL
COMPANY: Weather or Not
ADDRESS: 6342 Long St., Shawnee, KS