Volume 33, Number 10, October 1998

 

When Disasters Strike

Glass Shops Master Disasters by Planning Ahead

by Leslie Shaver

Tom Burkard remembers the night vividly. After finishing his dinner, the president of Progress Glass Company of San Francisco, CA, walked up the steps of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria into the surprisingly vacant lobby. In search of humanity, Burkard went into the bar and found a crowd of New Yorkers huddled around images of Candlestick Park on the television set.

"I know New York is crazy, but this is the Bay Bridge Series [the 1989 World Series] between Oakland and San Francisco, so I wondered why everyone in this area would be looking at this ball game," he said. "Somebody then turns to me and says there has been a massive earthquake in San Francisco. The bridges are down, the city is on fire and freeways have collapsed."

As Burkard digested the news, alarms began going off. "I went into a panic," he said. "I mean my kids are there and my shop is there. It’s five o’clock at night out there and everyone in my shop is working and, on top of that, it’s a glass shop full of glass. I didn’t know if anyone was hurt or not and I couldn’t get a call through to find out."

Later that night, Burkard discovered that his worst fears had been avoided. His family was safe and his shop made it through the quake relatively unscathed.

Burkard’s story is one that is familiar to many glass shops around the country. Natural disasters do not discriminate; they can devastate any area, no matter how large or small. While it is impossible to avoid a disaster if it is destined to strike, there are a number of precautions a shop owner can take to mitigate the effects of the disaster and expedite the recovery process. Glass companies face special challenges in that while they are integral parts of disaster recovery efforts in the community, their shops may have been devastated and in need of recovery.

Come Hell and High Water

Darrel Alm of Grand Forks Glass and Paint of Grand Forks, ND, discovered the importance of precautions when the Red River crashed through its dikes and into the city in spring 1997. The flood and resulting fire destroyed the company’s downtown retail operation, taking a large portion of its glass in storage. Alm credits the generosity of the company’s suppliers and the patience of its customers as major factors in its ability to deal with the disaster. "Our suppliers were really phenomenal. They loaned us A-frames to store glass and anything else we needed," he said.

The patience of its customers also made it much easier for Grand Forks Glass and Paint to deal with the double-edged sword of a high demand for glass service and a low supply of glass—a common occurrence after a disaster. "If everybody [the customers] had demanded the work we had out at the time, we would have been in a pickle," he said. "We had a number of out-of-town jobs, and our out-of-town customers were extremely cooperative. One guy sat on his project for a year to accommodate us. As it was, we worked every night and on Saturdays."

However, doing actual glass work was only half of the problem for Alm and his colleagues. With its main offices destroyed by the fire and flood, the company needed a base of operations. It first moved into the back of another business site of its owner, John Satrom. While it had to contend with communication and space difficulties at the temporary location, the company still functioned effectively, according to Alm. "We were cramped and you had to excuse yourself to back up so you did not hit anyone," he said. "But we cranked out a lot of work."

In its temporary facility, Grand Forks Glass and Paint had only one phone line, which meant employees had to minimize their time on the phone. "We would try to be as brief as possible with calls and tell people that we would call them back on cellular phones," Alm said.

The Magyars of Mid-American Glass of Davenport, IA, dealt with a different problem in 1993 when the Mississippi River escaped its boundaries to drench the company building, which was half a mile away from the river’s bank. Unlike Grand Forks Glass and Paint, which was destroyed by fire, Mid-American Glass was threatened by a slow-rising flood that presented the owners of the company with a difficult challenge. The Magyars and their employees began a massive operation of sandbagging the interior of their shop in an attempt to save their inventory and keep the walls from collapsing.

A number of Mid-American customers and suppliers also volunteered to help in the sandbagging efforts. "We had a customer who shut down their shop at five o’clock and drove two hours to help us row sandbags into the building until midnight," Michelle Magyar said. "Another customer in the Chicago area came down with pumps, generators and Gatorade."

While the Magyars were focused on saving their building they also had to decide how to run their business under such difficult conditions. "We knew what we needed to do," Magyar said. "We moved all of our supplies to a building in downtown Davenport. We ran our office from there and a local customer gave us his warehouse from which to work."

Much like Grand Forks Glass and Paint, Mid-American Glass had to rely on the patience of its customers to handle supply issues. "When we knew we could not work out of our warehouse, we set up a stock inventory and faxed the list to our customers. We told them we would have two sizes of float glass instead of 12," Magyar said.

Magyar was pleasantly surprised in September, when the company moved back into its original location and had its strongest month ever. "If our customers did not need things, they held off until we could get back into our building," she said. "They came through for us that month and it was the best surprise we could have had."

Preparation Pays Off

The common thread that runs through the stories of Grand Forks Glass and Paint and Mid-American Glass is their relationships with their suppliers and customers in the recovery effort. When a company has a limited supply it must depend on the relationships that it has developed with distributors, customers and local utility companies to get it back on its feet quickly.

Dee Uttermohlen, marketing manager for Safelite Glass Corporation of Columbus, OH, whose company had a shop flooded in the Grand Forks flood and another one hit by a tornado in Oklahoma City, OK, says that good relationships can be vital to the recovery effort. "In those situations where everything is lost, I think it comes back to having a strong corporate parent and a good relationship with your vendors," she said. "Your vendors can come back and help you get back on your feet."

The Safelite Grand Forks store discovered the importance of relationships with vendors firsthand when circumstances dictated that they go to the Glass Depot for glass. "Glass Depot is an outside vendor for us, but the relationship Kathy Carbno [account manager in Grand Forks] built up with them and their willingness to help the community made it possible for our shop to get back on its feet more quickly than it would have otherwise happened," Uttermohlen said.

Preventive measures, such as offsite backup computer files and an emergency power support, can also be life preservers for a flooded glass shop. According to Uttermohlen, shops must save what will be most essential in the rebuilding effort. "Anything that you can save that will help get you back into business quickly is important," she said. "In our case, it was the computers and the tools. All of it was stored in such a fashion that they could have saved it and gone back into business quickly."

Nelson Gammans, whose business, Gammans Architectural Products of Newnan, GA, found itself in the path of an El Niño-spawned tornado earlier this year, also testifies to the saving graces of computer backups, and adds a few items to the list of essential items of which glass shops need to be aware. "You always should have uninterruptible power support, a filter on your computer and lots of good backups kept in other locations," he said.

According to Gammans, the destruction of accounting records can often be more ruinous than the destruction of property to a business. "When you lose the organizational part of your business it can be the most devastating," he said. "You can rebuild buildings, sometimes cheaper than you can rebuild accounting systems."

While Gammans says there are certain precautions that can be taken to temper the effects of a disaster, he admits that it is difficult to protect your business or inventory from the brutality of mother nature. "There is nothing practically that can be done to protect your inventory from a tornado," he said. "They are so random. You could build your products in a bomb shelter but that won’t protect you from a flood."

Glass shops on the West Coast, specifically in California, have to prepare for a different kind of threat. The nightmare of glass crashing from the racks as the earth quivers violently can become reality to Californians in the glass business. While the magnitude of the quake and the amount of merchandise that can be protected without interrupting work limit the precautions that may be taken by a shop owner, there are some measures that can be taken to salvage glass during smaller quakes.

As a result of the San Francisco earthquake, Burkard now ties his glass down during the night, though he knows this solution has limitations. "If an earthquake hit during the day there is not a thing you could do, but there are 12 to 14 hours that you are halfway safe," he said. "If the shock went parallel to the glass rack I don’t know whether we would be safe or not. I hope I don’t have to find out."

Tim Simpson of Campbell Glass Shop of Los Angeles, CA, says that, in general, tying up glass is a good practice but it will be virtually useless during a massive earthquake. "In California we get 100 earthquakes a day; usually if everything is tied up you don’t have a problem," he said. "However, the previous ownership lost 80 percent of their glass in 1994, even though it was tied up. The earthquake was so violent that there was nothing they could do."

While the uncertainty of tornados and major earthquakes makes them impossible to prepare for, there are some disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, that can be forecasted in advance. Michael Backer of Action Glass in Miami, FL, has had his share of hurricane experience after dealing with the infamous Andrew in 1992. While Backer’s shop was unharmed by the hurricane, his neighborhood and home were devastated. Backer took a number of steps beforehand to protect his business. "I backed up all my disks and put them in a safe place," he said. "I also filled the truck with gas, charged up the batteries, boarded up the windows in my shop and made sure my generator was ready."

Preparation by the store manager in Grand Forks also made rebuilding easier for Safelite. "Our manager [Brad Brenamen] had the foresight to put a lot of stuff up," Carbno said. "We got in to get the tools out and my manager parked the van on a two- to three-foot incline behind the shop to keep it above the water."

It is much easier for a glass shop owner to salvage tools or supplies in a pinch when staff members are around to help. For this reason, it is necessary for a shop owner or manager to have his or her employees’ home numbers in a crisis situation. "The employees are the ones that know the building the best," Magyar said. "They work there day-in and day-out, they know the workings of the equipment and they know what needs to be done. They are also taking part in saving their jobs and their livelihood."

Rebuilding After Calamity

After the actual disaster has struck, the challenges for a glass shop only multiply. The primary concern is, of course, to make sure everyone is unharmed. If no one is hurt, the next question concerns damage to the glass business and its inventory.

If there is damage, a quick response by the shop owner and employees can limit the amount of damage, especially to merchandise. Gammans saved most of his inventory by responding quickly to the tornado that hit his business. "We had to move the inventory around and relocate things to a dry area of the building," he said.

After securing the remaining inventory and supplies, the shop owner must determine whether or not to work out of the shop. If the shop cannot be worked from, the owner must then set up a temporary location, much like Mid-American Glass and Grand Forks Glass and Paint did.

Brenamen had to find a skeleton shop when the Grand Forks store was flooded. "My manager worked out of a garage when glass was needed," Carbno said. "He put in a few pieces of glass in a two-stall garage that belonged to a friend of his."

During this time it is also important for a shop to get electricity and phone service as soon as possible. According to Carbno, this is another area where good relationships can make a major difference. "Getting the phone service in was not easy to accomplish considering everyone was trying to do the same thing," she said. "A man in our shop knew someone who did telephones and the company in the adjacent building did phone lines. This helped expedite getting our phones up."

Replacing merchandise can also be a problem following a disaster, especially with glass in such high demand. However, even if a loyal supplier keeps the supply line open or if the merchandise was largely unharmed, there still might not be enough glass to meet demand. In this case glass shops must turn to plywood as a stopgap solution. This was the case following the San Francisco earthquake. "There was no way to get tempered glass in a few hours," Burkard said. "You had storefronts that were wide open and you just boarded them up."

Even when there is a supply of glass, it can be difficult to find capable glassworkers, as Richard Nelson of Valley Glass in Grand Forks, ND, found out after the Grand Forks flood. "You could order in more material but it was virtually impossible to find labor around here," he said.

Backer’s story after Hurricane Andrew is a good illustration of how glass service can be in demand following a disaster. "After the storm I would accommodate my friends first," he said. "I would park my truck in their neighborhood and the homeowners would swarm. We would leave with 25 or 30 sheets of window glass and they would be gone in four or five hours."

Backer brought in people from Orlando to glaze awning windows. "Anybody who had held a glass cutter at any point in their life became a glazier at the time," he said. "If you could cut a piece of glass you were in demand."

However, expanding your staff to meet the demands of a natural disaster can cause almost as much trouble as the disaster itself, as Philip Roethlinger of Atlantic Glass in Wilmington, NC, discovered. In an attempt to meet the massive demand in Wilmington for boarded windows prior to Hurricane Fran’s arrival in 1996, Roethlinger expanded his staff. The results were not what he anticipated. "When Fran came through I hired two people from out of town, which was something that I will never do again," he said. "To take people you are not familiar with and turn them loose on your home town is a gamble. If they are good it works out, but if they are not it can really hurt your reputation."

In many cases glass shops will simply expand their hours in an attempt to meet the needs of their community. Backer followed this course after Hurricane Andrew. "We worked 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week for two months," he said.

Even with the additional hours it is still impossible for most shops to service everyone who contacts them after a disaster. "You start working around the clock," Burkard said of his experience during the earthquake of 1989. "We took our regular customers we had been dealing with and stayed with them. After we were finished with our own customers we went on to the other people."

"You have to service your loyal customers first," Simpson agreed. "Those people are your bread and butter. The others you have to put on the back burner."

Ron Czinki owner of North Pointe, Inc., whose hometown of Gaylord, MI, was recently hit by a massive windstorm, describes his plan of action in the recovery process. "You work like a hospital," he said. "You start by targeting the ones that are worse off and go right down the line."

Harmon and Safelite, the large auto glass companies, have disaster plans in place.

When a major disaster strikes, Harmon can bring in a large mobile auto glass shop. "We have a van that is basically a moving auto glass shop," said Sandy Clark of Harmon Auto Glass in Orlando, FL, who worked in the rebuilding process after Hurricane Andrew. "The truck is about the size of a bread truck and has all necessary equipment for auto glass repair."

Safelite keeps the communication lines open with its associates in the field to determine what each area needs when it is hit by a disaster. "We keep in touch with the field, assessing the damage, and once we identify what level the damage is, we put together our list of needs to make sure we support them," said Katrina Mollenkopf, Safelite manager of field communications.

In April, the Safelite team mobilized in Bowling Green, KY, by opening up in a tobacco barn following a large hail storm to meet the area’s auto glass needs. "It allowed us to provide one facility to bring vehicles into and it allowed the customers to store the vehicles there while we worked on them," Mollenkopf said.

While smaller shops do not have the resources of Safelite, there are ways they can mobilize for disaster recovery. A massive disaster, such as the San Francisco earthquake or Hurricane Andrew, can bring a bustling metropolis to a crawl by closing off streets and tearing down traffic signs. To provide service as efficiently as possible in these circumstances, shops must keep lines of communication open. "We had a radio to communicate with people in the field," Burkard said. "We would discuss what we needed and what streets were open and closed."

The chaotic circumstances imposed by a natural disaster not only force greater communication at glass shops, but can also breed a greater sense of purpose among the employees. Magyar noted that her employees’ commitment to save the business increased their company loyalty after the flood. "We came out of the flood with a more committed work force," she said. "Dealing with a flood is not what we do, but we did it well."

The Magyars found another silver lining in the flood. "Since the flood we have opened a commercial glazing company and two auto glass locations," she said. "We figured if you can fight the Mississippi River, competition in the glass business is nothing. When you get through that, why worry about the small stuff?"

While not every glass shop has rebuilt to the scale of the Magyars, many would have to agree that the daily grind of the glass business is a welcome retreat after rebuilding from a disaster. Backer sums up the feeling of most who have survived disasters. "We made money, but it was not worth the aggravation," he said.

Especially in the chaotic glass business, a few precautions can go a long way toward controlling the devastation wrought by mother nature.

Leslie Shaver is an assistant editor of USGlass magazine.


SIDEBAR:

Averting Disaster

Following are steps your business can take to minimize the potential damage caused by a disaster.


USG

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