The fire that destroyed the offices of Green View Landscaping's Bloomington/Normal, Ill., operation in early April couldn't have come at a worse time for the company. However, employees rallied to restore service within a few days, and the community responded positively.
Photos courtesy of Green View Landscaping.
It was 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 3, and the first employee to arrive to work at Green View Landscaping's Bloomington/Normal, Ill., satellite offices unlocked the door to begin business as usual.
But it would not be a usual day.
As the employee walked through the office, he noted that the alarm system was off, and the Internet-based time clock wasn't working.
He went to make coffee and smelled smoke. He looked up and saw the smoke coming through the ceiling tiles, so he walked outside and called 911. It would be the second 911 call as a passerby had already called in the fire.
Green View Landscaping
Officers: CEO Thomas Hoerr II, COO Michael Hoerr, Chairman of the Board Jeanette Hoerr
Founded: 1955 by Peter Hoerr (1902-1992)
Headquarters: Dunlap, Ill.
Markets: Dunlap/Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington/Normal, Champaign/Urbana, Chicago (Western Suburbs), Decatur
Services: Garden center, landscaping, lawn care, tree care, seasonal color, holiday décor, snow removal
Employees: 180 full time plus seasonal employees
By the time the Normal Fire Department had arrived just five minutes later, the place was engulfed in flames, causing a half-million dollars in damage.
How resilient a company's management and employees are in the aftermath of such a situation makes a difference in its ability to bounce back. Company President Tom Hoerr II endeavored to ensure the company would regain its footing almost immediately. That was a big challenge. The fire couldn't have come at a worse time.
"We were literally just scaling up," he says. Even so, Hoerr was determined to keep operations as normal as possible at that location, and to continue to service the company's clients. He didn't view the fire so much as "devastating" as he did as "a big distraction," he relates.
He made that assessment just hours after getting the call at about 7 a.m. that the building was engulfed in flames. Instead of rushing to the site of the fire, he worked from the Dunlap/Peoria corporate office to get systems set in place.
Green View Landscaping is a 57-year-old business that provides design/install and maintenance services from six locations in central Illinois and Chicago's southern suburbs. Its client base is 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial. Services include maintenance, landscaping and a garden center.
While Hoerr says the company has an informal disaster management plan and a plan for working with the media, there had not been a formal disaster management plan specific to fire. Hoerr began to create one on the fly.
Lightning to blame
The Bloomington/Normal office of Green View Landscaping had been a two-part building. One part was a Morton pole barn-type building and the other was a stick-built wood frame office building, which is the part where the fire had started. The insurance company's investigator determined with 95 percent probability that a lightning strike caused the fire, says Hoerr.
"It must have hit the roof and smoldered for some time, and then it took off," he notes. "It went through and literally destroyed the whole building."
The building housed a lot of maintenance work compact equipment, including chain saws, cut-off saws, string trimmers and small mowers. Although the large equipment is housed in a different, unattached building, there were two pieces of big equipment in the building that caught fire, including a skid steer and an Exmark zero-turn riding mower.
Hoerr started post-fire operations by reporting the fire immediately to United Fire and Casualty. The insurance company assigned Green View a claims representative, who spoke with Hoerr about the subsequent steps he should take.
Because the company does not have a unified phone system, Hoerr had the phones in the Bloomington/Normal office, which had gone down in the fire, switched to a different company office. Messages are taken and forwarded via email to salespeople, the office staff or design staff.
"We were offline on the phones for an hour and half," Hoerr says. "If you would have called our office, you would have never known we had a fire.
"That's something people may not think of," Hoerr points out about forwarding calls. "If people can't call, it's a big problem."
While Hoerr was working the phones to complete his tasks, his brother Mike, who is in charge of the equipment at all of the operational sites, called the company's supplier and ordered all of the small equipment needed to do maintenance. That was on a Thursday, and by Monday, the equipment was picked up and placed into service.
At noon on that Thursday, Hoerr met with the insurance adjuster at the site to put together a plan on what to do going forward.
"The roof was totally destroyed, and it fell in on the contents in the office," says Hoerr. Computers and records were destroyed by the fire.
Plan for the unexpected
"We already had a disaster plan for that," says Hoerr. "We had cloud-based back-up. We didn't lose any data. Even if it had been our headquarters that had been destroyed, we could have gone to any location and started things back up.
"Our office manager was able retrieve all of our data and work from home," he adds. "I set her up with a virtual client that she could get into at our headquarters to do her accounting-type work. She did come into the home office for a couple of days for some paperwork. People want to get paid, so you have to get all of that data into the system or else they don't get paid."
In the fire-demolished office, some records that were in file cabinets were intact: damp, but not destroyed. Anything out in the open was totally destroyed. Additionally, there were some checks that had not been deposited yet. "They should have been, so we changed our process on that," Hoerr says. "It wasn't significant, and we knew who they all were, so we were able to get replacements."
The next task was to find office space. "We were fortunate that across the street from our facility, there was 3,000 square feet of office space, so we immediately leased that," says Hoerr, adding that the company set it up with computers brought in from other locations and leased furniture; the employees moved in within four days.
Until the telephone company could move the Internet from the old building to the leased building, Hoerr got a Verizon wireless hub set up. Next on the list: purchasing a 60-by-12-foot job trailer from which the crews would work.
Although there were some crews out working despite the incident, Hoerr estimates the company lost about a week of production due to the fire.
"Luckily, because it was a late spring, we didn't have mowing going on," he says. "That would have been a problem because we would have gotten behind in our mowing. The only thing we got behind on were our clean-ups and the landscape work." The employee responsible for preemergent turf care continued his work.
Green View hired a construction manager to rebuild the building, and after the fire it was in the process of finding an architect to render the design. Hoerr expects the company to move into its new building later on this year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Hoerr has learned lessons about disaster management that he will apply going forward.
"In a fire, the biggest thing is documentation of what you have," he says. "We didn't do that. I think videotaping or taking pictures of what you have at least once a year is a good idea. The roof collapsed on everything, so we were literally trying to figure out what we had. We did a pretty good job of identifying that because we literally had to go through the whole structure ourselves, from staplers to pictures on the walls."
Hoerr says one of the biggest lessons he learned from the incident was to carry good insurance.
"The insurance policy we had was replacement costs for all of the contents except those two large pieces of machinery. Those were scheduled assets. They were only insured for what we had them listed for," says Hoerr. "Everything else, including the building and its contents, was replacement costs."
Hoerr had a rider on the policy, which he viewed as important for changes in regulations.
"For instance, when we rebuild the building, it will have to have a sprinkler system in it," he says. "When it was built, it did not. The insurance will provide for putting that in the building without us having to pay for that directly."
Hoerr says another important point in planning for post-fire business operations is having loss of income for a disaster on the insurance policy. "We couldn't do work and we had all of these people around cleaning up after the fire," says Hoerr. "We lost income, and that will be paid for after it's calculated what it is."
Green View Landscaping employs 180 at peak season, with 35 at the affected location. Half of those employees, who are seasonal, had to miss three days of work.
"It was raining, so they would have been told to stay home anyway," says Hoerr.
Be open, be honest
While Hoerr had to meet the press to answer questions about the fire, he says it in effect was a silver lining.
"I took every call from the press. I went in front of cameras. I went on radio. I talked to a lot of newspapers. We told the press we'd be back in business Monday morning, and we were. The side benefit of it is we noticed a spike in leads from all of the press," he says.
Hoerr says he believes there were two driving factors behind that. One is that the company's demonstration of resiliency illustrated the professionalism with which it approaches problems, including that of the client.
Another is what he calls "local sympathy." "I think being a local business, they feel sorry for you and want to help you out," Hoerr says. "There's a certain segment of the population that thinks about buying local and helping out the local person - someone has a major disaster and they want to help them out.
"You can't buy the media we got," he adds. "Our name was flashed all over everything. I think it was the time of year where people were thinking about making those buying decisions, and they thought of us when they heard about what happened. We noticed an uptick in phone calls."
There also were offers of help from competitors as well as other non-competing businesses. Hoerr there's that's the way the region operates - there have been times competitors and other businesses have had issues during which he's extended offers of help.
As for the clients, when they understood what had happened, they were flexible. "I don't think we lost any business because of it, but it definitely got pushed off a week," Hoerr says. "The main thing we had to put off for a little bit was leads or appointments we had set up to look at someone's yard. We had to put some of those off for three or four days until we could sort through the mess." The sales staff worked out of their trucks and houses until the company secured temporary office space.
For Hoerr, the experience showed him the "stuff" of which his employees are made. Such an experience can be an excuse to slack off or an opportunity to dig in and help the company get back on its feet. "It was kind of interesting, two particular employees really stepped up to the plate and did a lot without being asked," says Hoerr. "When you're in a crisis, you really learn the people who are going to come to the front and help out and the people who sit back. For the most part, all of the employees did a good job."
While Hoerr doesn't work out of the burnt site, he learned something else about his employees. "I wasn't really attached to the building, but what I did notice is something I didn't expect but now that I think about it, it makes sense," Hoerr says. "The people who worked out of there for several years were attached to the building. It was like their own house was burning.
"I was able to walk in and look at it from a very logical standpoint, but they're looking at the whole sentimental thing. It really was hard on some of the people. Some of them had personal pictures in there, awards and all kinds of irreplaceable things."
Carol Brzozowski lives and works in Coral Springs, Fla., where she is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.