Chapter 15: The Fire

Rise Above Chapter 15

The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom. - George Patton

At approximately 11 p.m. on June 4, 1979, our company caught fire.

I was in Seminole, Florida, when I got the call from my friend in Winamac, Jim McDaniels, who had just closed and locked the Dairy Queen, which was next door to our company building. As he shouted into the phone, I could hear sirens wailing, horns blasting, and people yelling in the background. Over the next couple of hours, his play-by-play would come fast, in short bursts, through a series of phone calls.

The fire department had been called and was on the scene. Flames were shooting 20 to 30 feet into the air. It was intensely hot, and the smoke was everywhere. On the west side of the building, flames were threatening to bring the power lines down. Firemen were wearing air masks and trying to break into the locked building. They had risen high above the building in the town utility’s “cherry picker” to shoot water down on the fire. Truckers from as far away as Royal Center, 15 miles to the south, said they could see the flames. At 11:25 p.m., although backup units from around the county had been called in, the Winamac Fire Department said they were out of water. By 11:35 p.m., the Star City–Van Buren Township Fire Department arrived with reinforcements. About 10 minutes later, firemen were able to get into the building by forcing two rear doors open, one by using a truck to knock down a door, the other by using an axe. They were going to the paint room, where Winamac Fire Chief Ralph Galbreath thought the fire might have started.

None of our 45 Winamac-based employees appeared to be in the building, though our company controller, Bill Roth, was on the scene, as well as Jeff Hermanson, another employee who lived two blocks away and ran to the fire in his shorts, T-shirt, and bare feet. No firefighters and no employees had been hurt, but emergency medical technicians from Ross Ambulance were also there, just in case. My father was on-site, God love him, asking the firemen whether it was really necessary that they use their axes on the door because, well, the door cost good money.

The fire was the worst anyone in Winamac could remember. While there’s never a good time for a fire, the timing for this fire was particularly bad. A piece of legislation had just been passed stipulating that every school in America needed to provide accessibility for disabled students. Because it was June and school started in September, we were right in the middle of outfitting buses and paratransit vehicles all over the country. Our customers were counting on us, and we absolutely could not afford to have a work stoppage.

Unfortunately, the fire raged on, ignoring our concerns.

In between phone calls with Jim, I chartered a private Learjet to take our family back to Indiana. Because the charter company had to file a flight plan, put together a crew, and get a plane ready, I had to wait for hours before I could depart from Clearwater Airport.

Ironically, as the minutes flew by, time seemed to hang in suspended animation. I could hear myself breathe, even hear myself think. It was torture.

For some reason, I can remember watching The Tonight Show on television that evening before the phone call. Beverly Sills, an opera singer who had just been named director of the New York City Opera, was the guest host.

Now that I think about it, the fact that an opera singer was hosting The Tonight Show was fitting, since the fire was surely dramatic. I never was much of an opera fan, but if there were ever any question about my preference for that type of music, the night of the fire sealed it for me once and for all.

Finally, sometime after midnight and well before we took off from Florida, the fire was brought under control. The entire south end of the building, where the offices and storage were located, was destroyed. The rest of the building had suffered severe smoke damage but looked salvageable. The 10 vans parked inside the building were also damaged but apparently not beyond repair.

There was hope.

A few hours later, just as the sun rose on the horizon, our chartered jet touched down in Valparaiso, Indiana. Jeff Hermanson had driven to the airport to pick us up and took me to see the damage at our facility. He had been at the scene of the fire all night and was shaken and covered in ashes. The van he was driving was also covered in soot.

When we arrived at our building, I experienced a small miracle.

Soaking wet fire-retardant insulation from the ceiling had fallen on the desks below, protecting many of our records. Although it was too soon to determine whether any records had been destroyed, many important documents seemed to have been saved. In addition, because the fire had occurred primarily where the offices and storage space were located, the damage to the manufacturing end of the facility was mainly from smoke, heat, and ash; for the most part, it could be cleaned up. Still, the building was uninhabitable in the short term, and we had to figure out what to do next.

To get a bird’s-eye view of the damage, my building contractor, Monty Williams, took me up in a small propeller plane and we flew over the scene. Perhaps it was because of my usual optimism in the face of obstacles, but I remember thinking we would overcome this challenge. I also remember having gallows humor and thinking, “I’d feel a lot safer down there in that smoldering building than up here in this little propeller plane.”

Back on the ground, we cobbled together a place to work. For our office space, we rented a nearby filling station for 90 days and a couple of trailers for two years. Our payroll person sat writing checks at a folding card table under a tree. Office furniture and records were removed from the building and put on the front lawn. We sent most of our manufacturing employees home when they came in on Tuesday morning but told them to come back at noon the next day. Because the manufacturing portion of the complex did not appear to have direct fire damage, production schedules would not be affected that much, once we cleaned up the space with a lot of elbow grease, power-washing, and paint. In addition, we brought a few machines outside, put them on a concrete slab under a tent, hooked up some electricity, and continued working during the cleanup.

We were back in business within a few days.

In retrospect, we could have been buried by the fire’s destruction. A lesser company might have succumbed to its fate. But in making the best of a bad situation, we actually forged a new and even more successful path.

Why were we able to do that? Two words: “determination” and “focus.”

The determination was the easy part. Personally, I’d had a lifetime of people telling me I couldn’t do things. From the doctor who said I wouldn’t survive, to the school administrator who said I might as well stay home, to the man who thought “those boys in the wheelchairs” would fail, I had plenty of reasons to be motivated. The last thing I was going to do was let any of them have the satisfaction of seeing me fail, even if it was because of an unforeseen disaster that was out of my control.

What about our employees? How did they respond? Well, I've mentioned the efforts of Jeff Hermanson during the fire and its aftermath, but he would be the first person to tell you the entire company acted with the same sense of urgency. Our employees were so convinced of our survival, they actually competed for againsteach other to see who could get more work done. In those days, we did not have an assembly line, so individuals worked side by side performing every single step of the lift-making process. They could look to their left and right and see how their “competition” was doing. To them, our company’s future was in their hands, and there was much they wanted to do. It’s not like they didn’t have other options; several other places in Winamac paid equally well.

To reward them for their efforts during this period and to activate a long-term retention strategy, we began to offer our employees bonuses. I think they would have worked just as hard without the bonuses because of who they were, but just as they wanted more than mere survival, we needed them for the long haul.

As a result of our collective actions, although it took us three years to be fully set up in a new building, we did not miss a step in growing our business.

To put our achievement in perspective, in 1972, we had six employees, and in 1979, the year of the fire, the number of employees was over 25. Between 1979 and 1982, when we moved into our new facility, we more than doubled both the revenue for our company and our employee base.

Focus, on the other hand, was much harder to achieve. I knew we would not be distracted from meeting our customers’ needs, but exactly which needs would we meet and how? No business can do everything, and those that try do so at their own peril. We had created the mobility market, and it was up to us to decide on how much of it we’d pursue.

By this time, our lift operations, both consumer and commercial, accounted for the majority of our business. The Tri-Wheeler portion of our business was slightly but steadily shrinking, at no more than 10 percent of our overall revenue. Would we continue to offer both lifts and Tri-Wheelers? The lift business had a higher margin and promised good growth because medical advances meant people were living longer and overcoming disabilities that would have sidelined them in years past. We were already the market leader in lifts and van conversions, and we were making a much better product than our competitors. We also were in the midst of developing a strong dealer network that would greatly increase the reach of our products. There was no reason to stop selling lifts.

Tri-Wheelers presented a different case. Though our motorized wheelchair was far superior to others on the market and we had been the first company to offer the product, we faced some tough challenges. For one thing, dozens of companies were offering scooters at that point. For another, the manufacturing of these wheelchairs had gone overseas to utilize cheap labor. These two factors combined drove the price down dramatically, and when that happened, the quality went with it. Our motorized Tri-Wheelers were manufactured in Winamac and were still predominately custom-made. This meant our chairs, while much better than our competitors’, cost more. Moreover, because of our labor and material costs, our profit margin was minuscule. When you considered the fact that more of our resources would need to go to the manufacturing of lifts and conversions of vans, it all added up to an easy decision, right?

Not so fast. Many of our lift customers started out with Tri-Wheelers, and when we expanded our product line to include lifts, they came with us. Our Tri-Wheelers had been an important part of bridging from our past to our future. Because I invented the Tri-Wheeler, there was an emotional connection as well. By giving myself the gift of mobility, I was able to help other people live more active and able lives, and to me, that had its own currency. Having said all of that, business was business, and as a CEO, I had to make a call.

I decided we would, over a few years, transition out of making Tri-Wheelers. We would continue to service our existing Tri-Wheeler customers but focus our research and development on lifts and van conversions. I also decided to make a supply of the scooters for myself so I would never have to go without. To this day, I still tinker with the design of my Tri-Wheelers and make improvements on them from time to time, but I can honestly say I made the right decision to exit that part of the business.

Another decision, which was really a continuation of an existing practice, was to make a major upgrade to our production capabilities. We knew the only way we could stay in business—especially with lifts and vans, which were much more sophisticated than Tri-Wheelers—was to stay on top of the latest technology and work with it. Otherwise, we’d get left behind.

After surviving the fire and overcoming numerous other challenges, I was going to do everything in my power to keep us from falling behind. The drive I had was for more than me alone; it was also for my employees. We were like pieces of pottery in one simple way: we had gone through a fire together, and while we may have had some cracks in us as a result, in my mind, we were all stronger for the experience.

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