Rowena Zimmers founded ALE Solutions in the basement of her home in 2001 and has built it into a vibrant 400-employee operation that helps families throughout the US and Canada. And JPMorgan Chase has supported the company at every step in its growth.
“I always say that Chase is my competitive advantage,” says Robert Zimmers, Row’s husband and the company’s CEO.
Row had the passion to start her own business long before she found herself out of a job shortly after having her second child. Her entrepreneurial mindset was formed as a girl in the Philippines, when she accompanied her grandmother to the market each week to sell vegetables from a humble bamboo mat. Her ability to take risks was learned from her mother, who came to the United States on her own to build a better life for her family when Row was just two years old.
And when Row’s family was reunited in the US five years later, it sparked the fire to pursue her own American dream—to build something out of nothing.
Because Row knew what it was like to start from scratch, she was well-suited to build a business that helps families get back on their feet after a significant loss. ALE Solutions contracts with insurance carriers to fulfill additional living expense (ALE) coverage for their policyholders. They provide temporary housing and logistical support to families who’ve been displaced from their homes, whether due to an isolated event like a house fire, or a community-wide catastrophe like a hurricane.
Row had worked in the temporary housing industry for six years prior to founding ALE Solutions, so she drew on her existing knowledge and experience to, in her words, “build a better way.” She established a strong reputation with insurance companies by being transparent with pricing and consistently delivering a superior level of service to their policyholders.
“I did everything from finding a house for the family, negotiating the lease, getting all the furniture and housewares moved in, and managing their temporary housing stay throughout their entire lease. At the same time, I also did the collections and billing with the insurance companies. I wore many hats,” says Row, who now serves as President of the company.
Rather than feeling trepidation about this new venture, Rob was always firmly in his wife’s corner. “Row is the true definition of what an entrepreneur is,” he says. “She could have gotten into anything and succeeded. Everybody who knows Row knows that.”
In fact, the business grew quickly and within a few months she needed help. So, she hired Rob.
For their first six years, Row and Rob focused exclusively on long-term temporary housing. As their expertise grew, they expanded into short-term housing, booking displaced families quickly into hotels. At that time, insurers didn’t know how much they were spending on hotel stays due to the way they reimbursed policyholders. ALE was able to reduce costs for insurers while making the process easier for families—a valuable differentiator that fueled their rapid expansion.
From the initial handful of families ALE assisted monthly in 2001, they have now grown to serve the temporary housing needs of as many as 10,000 families a month.
From ALE’s earliest days, JPMorgan Chase has been at their side as they grew—first when they were a small business within the Business Banking organization, then transitioning into middle market with the Commercial Banking and Commercial Card teams.
No one can predict when catastrophes will hit—such as 2017’s back-to-back Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, followed by wildfires in California and frozen pipe breaks from a polar vortex that swept across the country—but when they do, ALE has to be ready for large cash outlays. In order to provide immediate shelter 24/7, 365 days a year, the company pays policyholders’ housing costs upfront and is reimbursed by insurance companies as much as two to three months later.
The inevitable crunches in cash flow have made it particularly important to work with a bank that has laid the groundwork to understand their business and can provide credit and treasury solutions to address both acute and ongoing liquidity needs.
“Chase gets us,” says John Suarino, Vice President of Accounting and Finance for ALE Solutions. “When storms were hitting recently across the Northeast, I actually got a call from Chase: ‘Hey John, I just want to check in with you. Are you sending people on site? Do you need extra resources?’ I expect the bank to always be there when I call, but for Chase to understand ALE's business so well that you reach out to me to make sure I'm OK is remarkable.”
When ALE expanded into short-term housing, they used a single purchasing card to book all hotel stays. But anytime there was an issue with the card—such as fraudulent activity—they would have to close it, creating extra work for employees and potential disruptions for families checking in or out.
Laura Green, their Commercial Card Relationship Manager, saw an opportunity to make the process more seamless by implementing Single-Use Accounts (SUA). These 16-digit virtual cards can be set with a credit limit to match a specific payment amount, which allows ALE to tie a dedicated unique card number to each insured family’s hotel stay. The added flexibility, reduced risk of fraud and improved bill reconciliation with SUA have been keys to ALE’s expansion.
“SUA really allows us to provide customized service to each individual that we're serving. Because of the fact that I can set a dollar limit, or a start and end date, or an MCC code that is specific to the hotel needs of that client, it really reduces the risk of being overexposed financially. It helps me reduce my fraud risk,” Suarino says.
Jamel Alikhan, Market Executive and Commercial Banker, works closely with the ALE team to manage their day-to-day banking needs and sees great potential in the company’s future. “Really, the sky's the limit as far as growth. And the bank's products and services can continue to support ALE no matter how big they get.”
ALE’s work goes beyond simply filling an insurance claim. Employees lend an ear to distressed individuals, often on the worst day of their lives. The staff works to quickly reestablish a family’s normal lifestyle—finding housing that keeps the kids on their usual bus route, or equipping empty rental homes with everything from forks to furniture—so that the family can start to address tougher issues.
“My favorite part of my job is knowing that when an insured family stays at a hotel and I bill the insurance adjuster for that stay, the insured didn’t have to worry about keeping the receipts,” says hotel billing specialist Karonica Carney. “Being able to know that we’ve lessened the burden and giving them more time to put their life back together, that’s important.”
The work they do can be an emotional experience for employees, especially if they’re assisting a family who’s lost a loved one. As Rob explains: “We attract people that have what I would call a servant’s heart. You’re dealing with one personal disaster after another. You have to be the type of person that wants to help people.”
The caring, family-oriented culture of the company is also what prompted Row and Rob to establish ALECares, their self-funded nonprofit that expands on the company’s work by providing financial and boots-on-the-ground assistance to uninsured or underinsured families who’ve lost their homes.
“When you're on the ground and you see everyone's belongings out on the curb—all of the things that are near and dear to them ripped out of their lives—it's absolutely devastating,” says Paul Stork, Midwest Regional Manager for ALE Solutions, who has worked with the nonprofit after several natural disasters. “But it's wonderful to know that we're there to make a difference, to piece back together their lives.”
Playing a role in enabling the critical services ALE provides has been a source of pride to their entire JPMorgan Chase team. Molly Walsh, President of Commercial Card at JPMorgan Chase, says, “When there are disasters and challenges that they really have to invoke their full team and full support across the country, it's great for us to be able to respond and really rally our troops as well, to make sure we're supporting ALE and their clients.”
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