Volume 7, Issue 7 - July/August 2006

The Comeback Company
Alliance Windows of Slidell, La., learned the value of teamwork as it battled back after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
by Sarah Batcheler

Alliance Windows, a small, privately-owned window company in Slidell, La., was devastated when Hurricane Katrina came ashore last year. The company’s 20,000 square-foot facility which manufactures vinyl windows for the residential construction industry and serves the Interstate 10 Gulf Coast area, took the eyewall of the storm and was without power for one month. And the company lost 80 percent of its employees after the hurricane.

It was a nightmare, the company’s leaders admit, but now a year later Alliance Windows is stronger than ever and looking forward to a future of growth and success. 

A Bleak Scene

The facility emerged from the hurricane with a lot of damage. Its loading bay door and storage buildings were destroyed, the back wall of the plant had blown in and the roof was damaged. Two feet of water with mud flooded into the building and into the manufacturing equipment.

“We were fortunate we didn’t have more roof damage than we received,” says plant manager Phillip Sonnier.

As if the damage to the building wasn’t enough to deal with, company leaders were faced with the excessive damage to the area surrounding the facility and their personal residences as well.

“There were no resources for food or drinking water in the area, so we would go to the local American Red Cross center daily, and they provided ice, water and military meals ready to eat (MREs),” says Kristin Leonard, general manager.

“The entire area was under Marshall Law, so we were going through military checkpoints to get to work and to check on our homes,” says Leonard. “Almost all of our employees’ homes had incurred damage of some sort.”

Communication Problems

Establishing communication was vital during the days following the storm.

“The facility did not have power for a month,” says Leonard. “We had a generator we ran fans off of while we tried to clean the building. There was saltwater and mud all over everything,” she adds.

There were many priorities for the company leaders when they got back.

Company president Paul Huston had a friend 60 miles away with power and phones where the company was able to set up a remote command center. 

“We dismantled the computer server and some desk computers and moved it to an off-site location to try to get information needed for the plant and our customers,” says Leonard.

“We would print everything we could and then drive the information back to the plant. We couldn’t just call back to the office because the land phones and cell phone service in the area wouldn’t work.”

Additionally, the company’s customers wanted to know where their orders stood, and Sonnier needed production and customer info.

“We talked to the customers and located their products we had ready to ship and delivered those,” says Leonard.

Finding Good Employees

Alliance Windows was affected significantly by its loss of employees after the storm. “We had six people who came back to work immediately. Then, in the following weeks more trickled in and we were up to about a dozen. We lost 29 people—which was 80 percent of our employees— from the storm,” says Leonard, who explains that several of the company’s previous employees went to work for house-gutting companies. “We couldn’t compete with the $18 per hour plus per diem.” 

Others had moved out of the state because they no longer had a place to live. 

“The primary objective at first was the safety and well-being of our employees. We wanted to know their status and if they were okay and if there was anything we could do to help,” says Huston.

“We talked to every single employee, even those who did not come back to work for us, and they ended up in locations from Austin to Arkansas to Atlanta,” says Leonard. 

How did the company build its workforce again? They upped their starting salary by 25 percent and increased benefits.

“We were able to gain about one or so new employees a week. Some of that was because our current employees would tell people that we were hiring down here,” says Huston.

Even with a handful of new employees, the company was still not up and running.

“We’ve been thinking out-of-the-box to keep things going,” Sonnier says.

The company’s grounds had two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers and Huston bought another trailer that some of the employees lived in as they got back on their feet.

“We shortened the 90-day waiting period for benefits such as IRA and 401k to 30 days. We got together and came up with a package that would appeal to people,” Huston says.

A Great Alliance

The American Window Alliance (AWA), a national network of window manufacturers that produce the same windows across the country, came to the rescue for Alliance Windows.

“This group is as thick as thieves, and they were very concerned,” says Leonard.

Some AWA technicians told Alliance Windows that when they had power up again, they would come down and help the company get their equipment back up and running. They had their bags packed and literally were on stand-by for the call. 

“We called them on a Wednesday and they got here the next day. They came straight from Maine, Boston and Chicago,” recalls Leonard. “Our manufacturing equipment had to be rebuilt because there wasn’t time to reorder.” 

Robert Murray, Alliance Window’s technical manager, set up the meeting and worked with the AWA technicians, who spent a week in Slidell to get the plant up and running. “They took all the equipment apart to clean it and reassemble it,” recalls Leonard.

“The AWA technicians called the machinery vendors on the way here and were studying the wiring diagrams of the manuals in the car. After driving 28 hours, they literally de-wired our equipment and wired it themselves,” explains Leonard. 

Once they arrived and had been working a day, another storm, Hurricane Rita, came into the Gulf of Mexico and again Louisiana was in the projected impact area. Once again, Slidell was under a mandatory evacuation.

“Despite that, these guys came back into our plant to get the job finished. They said they were not leaving until our equipment was up and running,” says Leonard.

Other companies in the AWA took orders from Alliance Window’s customers and were able to supply them with Alliance Windows.

“We’d be much farther behind if it weren’t for them,” adds Huston.

“The Fenestration Manufacturers Association (FMA) group was also very supportive,” adds Leonard. “They offered a coaching resource of what to do after the storm because some of the guys had been through it before. It helped us stay focused and gave us some good ideas which we used.”

Other companies in the AWA helped through donations.

Scrambling Back

Huston brought in a trailer and Tina Sagona, a former worker in the plant who came back to be the lead person on the vinyl window line, lived there with her daughter in the trailer on the premises.

Office worker Kathy Crosswhite had a land-based telephone line at her home and used it to make calls to customers.
“We kept asking ourselves, ‘what resources do we have?’” says Leonard.

In preparation for the storm, the company had backed up its computer system, and sent a copy of the data to an off-site location in Illinois to WINSYS, its computer support company. 

“When we were able to get to a location with power and Internet, WINSYS set up a remote access on their server through a laptop computer to our data. With that done, we could log onto that server from any location that had Internet access and get our information,” says Leonard. 

The company had to be very creative with its contacts to let them know everyone was okay.

“We called up our customers and told them that we were down and explained to them exactly what was going on. We told them that if they needed to, they should buy from other window suppliers until we were in a position to give them the product and service that they needed. Those were tough calls to make, but it was the right thing to do,” says Leonard.

Back in Business

After making it through the long-haul, the company was back to normal in February.

After the AWA supported the company with manpower and helped in manufacturing issues, the company was initially able to manufacture only about 5-10 windows a day—drastically less than 600 windows per week, the amount it produced prior to the hurricane.

“Most suppliers said don’t worry about paying us right now,” tells Huston.

Amazingly, the company says it has not lost any of its customers and all of the old customers are still buying Alliance Windows.
“Vendors extended special payment options, pretty much everyone was helpful,” says Leonard.

“Our bank was helpful too,” adds Huston. “There were lots of factors playing in.”

With the company running, problems still arose because of the damaging effects of the dirt and water that made its way into the facility with the flood waters.

“Every window that had been produced was rechecked for damage. They had to be re-quality-controlled. We would rather remake a window than send one out to a customer that had been flood damaged” said Sonnier.

Long-Term Effects

Because the flood waters had infiltrated the manufacturing plant during the storm, much of the equipment has malfunctioned or stalled as an after-effect of the water damage.

“The gremlins come in at night,” says Sonnier. “Once a week, something fails. We’ve replaced pretty much everything that we can and pressure-washed everything a few times,” he adds.

The facility also had to endure the learning curves of new employees. Sonnier has practically re-staffed the manufacturing team with a few exceptions. 

“We have had higher maintenance incidents due to the machinery damage. Labor has finally started to stabilize,” says Sonnier. 

A Team Effort

Part of the reason Alliance Windows was able to survive the after-effects of the hurricane is a result of the leaders of the company working together. The dynamic of the company is unique, and the leaders share a history.

Back in the mid-nineties, the company moved to Slidell from New Orleans. At that time, Leonard and Sonnier made a pact. “We said that it was like we were on an island-and it was up to us to make things happen,” says Leonard.

Following Katrina, Huston, Leonard, Sonnier and Murray pulled together and stepped out of their comfort zones to take care of whatever needed to be done, even if it wasn’t their specialty.

A New Location

The company has announced that it will be moving to a new facility, a decision it made before the storm. The new location in Picayune, Miss., is only a 20-minute drive north from Slidell. But, “it’s on higher ground with no trees,” say Huston. 

It is also almost twice the size of the Slidell location and the goal is to be moved and operating by the first part of 2007.

“We have a great group of people on the plant floor and we didn’t want to compromise that. Everyone has agreed to make the commute, and actually 30 percent of the employees live in that town,” says Leonard. 

“The new facility will have all of the equipment from the Slidell facility and then we will be expanding into an impact-resistant line to meet the new building codes,” says Huston.

“It will bring us to higher ground and with the increased space, we will also be able to expand our product offering,” points out Leonard.

They Made It!

June 1, 2006 marked the beginning of this year’s hurricane season, and Alliance Windows is preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. “Personally, having flooded both at my home and at the plant, I’m very concerned. It looks like we are in an eight-year active cycle,” says Leonard. “But, you can’t predict the future,” she adds.

Leonard recalls the episodes of last year and admits it was a rough time.

“It would have been easy to pull in the shingle and toss in the towel, but Huston, Sonnier, Murray and I quickly and unanimously agreed that quitting was not going to be an option. We were going to rebuild.” says Leonard.

The company reports that it is now back up to 100 percent pre-storm production numbers and growing. 

“After what we have been through, there is nothing, as a company, we can’t do now,” she says.

DWM
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