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Managing Your Business Under Adverse Conditions

GREG WITTSTOCK, THE POND GUY | Business Articles

This story begins and ends with the perspective that “No one was hurt.” Considering the damage, that’s a miracle in itself.

On Sunday, February 13, 2011, at approximately 3:30 p.m., a 700-foot span of my company’s green roof collapsed. It happened in a tenminute window, when a last employee was leaving and a new one arriving. How blessed we are that it occurred in this small window. Steel, wood, soil and plants, with a combined weight in the millions, gave way, making nearby residents believe that a plane had crashed.

The reality was that the green roof at Aquascape’s world head- quarters, Aqualand—a “state-ofthe-art” green building in St. Charles, Illinois, complete with North America’s largest sloping green roof—had collapsed. With more than 20 inches of snow and temperatures that swung more than 50 degrees in a two-day period, it’s easy to pinpoint that snow loads, melting or otherwise, were part of the equation.

The great storm of 2011 that cut a path across our nation in early February reportedly took out 500 commercial roofs, including one just two miles from ours, on the exact same day. None, however, seem to have had as much prominence in the press as the one at Aqualand. Certainly the size of the collapse is significant, but the fact that it was a green roof, a relatively recent building method despite having been around for hundreds of years, is why it drew such scrutiny.

What exactly caused this structural failure is a matter of conjecture, and we’ll leave that up to the insurance companies to figure out. But this is not a story about a green roof that collapsed; it’s a story of human character. It’s about the challenges that everyone who works at our company unwittingly faced. But equally as important, this is a case study in disaster management, something that any one of us, at any time, could be thrust into, regardless of capacity.

First, here’s a little background about our company. Aquascape, a water feature product manufacturer, was founded in 1991, and rose from humble beginnings as a contractor into the largest supplier of water feature products in North America.

With a growing and expanding business, it was with great enthusiasm that, after renting for the first 15 years in business, we moved into a place we designed ourselves—a 250,000 square-foot silver LEEDcertified green building we dubbed Aqualand.

We rode the wave up, with sales peaking in 2007, before starting a three-year decline, corresponding with the economy. Everything we once took for granted changed, and we were forced to change with the report that the phone lines were down as well). Big lesson number one: being fast sometimes isn’t fast enough in today’s instant information society.

That first teammate meeting at 10:00 a.m. inside our neighbor’s training room is one I will never forget—the raw emotions, the million unanswered questions, and having to acknowledge everyone’s personal and professional concerns. Manager after manager got up in front of a wide-eyed group of teammates, as well as those who worked remotely, and listed their top three objectives for their team.

When it was my turn to address the team, I was filled with pride at everyone’s efforts. I was humbled by the outpouring of support from friends like Joe Slawek, the owner of FONA, and even former employees, including my retired general manager and both former I.T. directors.

With much professional sacrifice, all of them had been there almost immediately to help our team in whatever way they could. Finally, and most notably, I was filled with immense gratitude that the collapse happened on a Sunday, and we were blessed in managing through a crisis which could have been truly disastrous.

The fact that this event occurred on a Sunday is something I never forget, and quite frankly, is a blessing I recalled every time I became a bit more aware of the magnitude of what we faced.

By Wednesday, February 16th, we were granted permission to enter the building with a team of five people and access our servers and essential business assets. Access to our building was the first of many victories, and effectively crossed off our worst-case scenario planning.

The next dilemma was more psychological, and therefore more oblique. I was scheduled to be in North Carolina for a conference at one of our distributors the very next day. Initially, in the first couple of days after the collapse, I felt that there was no way that I could be away from my team and the immense battle we were facing. However, another side of me intuitively knew—despite what we were dealing with at home—that the show must go on. Working out the myriad of details surrounding the collapse would be a vicious cycle that one could easily get trapped in.

So, I headed to North Carolina to deliver the opening and closing keynotes, as well as three breakout sessions for our distributor. If I was ever to live by my own advice that owners need to work “on the business instead of in it” despite what disasters occur, it was now.

I knew I made the right call to let our leaders lead when I flew out late Wednesday. As I was saying goodnight and good luck to the dozens who remained at their temporary work stations, they all told me not to worry about things and to “Go get ‘em.” I left extremely confident in the team who stayed behind.

My topic at the conference, “Reigniting Your Passion,” took on a whole new meaning when I took the stage the following day. I closed my talk with a video that our marketing communications team had created to communicate to the world what had occurred. I chuckled when I saw the title, “Pardon Our Dust, We’re Remodeling.” (http://www.youtube.com/Aquasca pe4#p/u/5/PQEORP60Ddc) Before I returned that Friday night, less than five days after the collapse, our servers would be up and operational, and customer communication would be restored. The team tasked with finding us a place to move had already begun negotiations with a facility less than a mile away. And orders were being distributed to our vast dealer network, minimizing the disruption to the end customer base.

Within two weeks, we had rented another 135,000 square-foot warehouse, transplanted over 3,000 pallets and $5,000,000 in inventory and had restored shipping to our customers. By the end of the month, we had moved from FONA into a 20,000 square-foot rental office space.

To accomplish this Herculean feat, some managers worked for fourteen days straight, and many teammates pulled double shifts. Families, other jobs and many other aspects of normal life were put on hold. It was work, sleep and eat for most of us. Through it all, a camaraderie I personally have never experienced emerged throughout our organization. We were all connected through getting the company operational again. Adversity can pull you together or apart.

When, only one week into this experience, a teammate of 15 years uttered the words, “I think the building collapse will be the best thing that ever happened to Aquascape,” I knew we were going to be better than all right.

As I write this, our hope is to have our building repaired by the end of the year, and before our busy season. As much as I wouldn’t wish a situation like the one we faced— and continue to face—on anyone, I will say this: Today, having gone through what we’ve gone through, we are as close a team as we’ve ever been.

We lost four teammates who were not ready, or able, to handle the pressure of what needed to be done. For the rest of us, to a person, we’ve become closer. They say you find out who your friends are in times of crisis. I can appreciate that more than ever.

I’m proud of our team in ways I never would’ve known about, if I hadn’t had the chance to see what people were really made of. That’s just one of the many life-long learnings I wouldn’t have known— couldn’t have known—had I not experienced the best thing that ever happened to Aquascape.

One final note: Despite the collapse, losing two weeks of shipping during one of our biggest months of the year, and moving our entire operations, we’ve booked and shipped more through the first quarter of 2011 than we did in 2010. Adversity, indeed, can make you better. Carpe Diem!

 
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