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How do you start again?

CC Interiors was often considered by customers to be the finest showroom in the Southern Hemisphere. Then a fire earlier this year changed everything. 

Beginning as a pop-up store in Newmarket in 2001, CC interiors had grown to be a major furniture wholesaler, supplying retailers and designers throughout Australasia.

Its showroom had been refined over 14 years – even the floor was lovingly hand-painted.

But on February 3, a quarter-hour after owner Elizabeth Wilkinson left the premises, everything changed.

Two fire alarms went off and Elizabeth sped back to the St Johns warehouse to find one fire truck outside – albeit puzzled with no sign of fire nor smoke.

When she unlocked the building to double check, she and the firefighters discovered low-lying smoke inside the warehouse.

Suddenly, the draft created by the door caused the black smoke to billow further, and soon even the firefighters were disorientated and had to exit.

Then, one of the most dangerous events of any fire happened – a flashover – which meant the gases from the hot polystyrene and cardboard combusted.

Immediately, there was mass-ignition of some million dollars’ worth of stock.

Standing a short distance from her 5000 m² luxury furniture warehouse as it spewed flames, Elizabeth felt the intense heat radiate from the fire that managed to melt two of the 26 fire trucks clustered around the building.?

She says it wasn’t until the windows blew out one by one, that she realised all was lost. Despite 100 firefighters and 26 trucks, all they had was a blackened, twisted rubble heap for a building.

“I thought, I don’t have it in me to start again – I’m 54, and I don’t want to go through night after night of work to get it going again. But, to the staff, all we could say was, ‘it will take a while to get back on our feet’.”

Within a day, she and husband Mark realised they had to rebuild the business, and fast. While they did have building and contents insurance, they didn’t have business interruption insurance and, with a mortgage to service, they needed income.

They also had 12 containers on a ship enroute to New Zealand. They still had most of their staff to take care of; the Auckland Gift Fair was due in four weeks.

Action stations
“In days two and three we realised we needed to find premises to house the stock coming in the containers ? so we started the search,” said Elizabeth.

“We also set up the staff at our home with laptops and just one phone line. We borrowed computers from our son and their IT company loaned the rest.”

The back-up tape – which was taken offsite by an employee every night – went straight to the IT company and by day five the system was rebuilt and CC Interiors was once again able to operate ? buddying through their IT company’s server as an interim way of getting going again.

“Having the back-up tape was vital because, if you lose your data, there is a 90% chance you can lose your business,” says Mark. With so much stock going in and out of the store each day, he says “we wouldn’t even have known who owed us money”.

Getting vocal
They needed to communicate to customers. They posted on their website that they were operational ? but now working from home ? and wiped the product from the site to stop orders for stock lost in the fire, then uploaded product from the incoming containers. Incredibly, within a week they had new catalogues designed and printed for showing customers, and to take to the Sydney fair.

Everything in its place
When the containers arrived, they still didn’t have premises – the couple’s freight company, Philpotts, let them use its warehouse. They eventually found temporary premises in Mt Wellington where they still operate while waiting on the rebuild.

Pressing forward
Their sales staff were out on the road selling. Elizabeth was focussed on sales, customer service, and Mark worked on getting the office and building operational. They had a business plan in place – they’d had to estimate sales per month and aimed to be back on their feet in six months. They’d called their 70 factories overseas asking for their orders to be prioritised in light of the situation. They also had had to let six of their staff go.

They decided not to create the very same business all over again – rather, to take the opportunity to modernise and get rid of bad habits. “Not many SMEs are forced to restart, so why not restart better,” says Mark. They moved to a cloud-based phone system which integrates seamlessly into mobile phones. They automated various admin tasks that now save days of labour. They simplified their range. They did realise, however, that a showroom is vital – customers need to come and see and touch the product.

Dream result
Incredibly, they managed to get back on their feet within a month – and now they have their temporary premises humming along with offices, warehouse and showroom while they wait for the rebuild ? and with improved business practices to boot.

Advice to others – how CC Interiors got through the ordeal

*Use an insurance broker for advice – CC Interiors’ broker set up timelines, and helped with decisions on rebuilding the warehouse.

*Have an accountant to plan how to get the business back on its feet.

*Set a ‘D-day’ where you aim to be fully operational again – in CC Interior’s case, it was the Auckland Gift Fair one month out. They had to find scanners, refine their catalogue, recreate a beautiful stand, and get the showroom up and running for customers post-event. Making it to the fair also meant they could meet and greet customers, which in turn, gave customers confidence in CC’s business.

*Elizabeth says “say yes” to offers of help from friends in the business world – support and advice – but carefully decide which help you need most because there will be a lot of it.

*Keep staff busy – you’ll need them to be there when the business is fully operational again.

*Lean on your bank for support – Elizabeth and Mark were allowed a mortgage holiday.

*Find a mentor. The Wilkinsons were lucky enough to have David Stewart, the father of a staff member, and who was able to clear his schedule for a few weeks to help get the business on its feet. “Having that person is pivotal – you’re in a state of shock, have lost all your phones and equipment, and you don’t know what to do. David prompted us to do things to keep our customers – like still  taking part in the gift fairs, and setting up a showroom at the house,” says Elizabeth.

*Customer empathy and incredible staff commitment got them through – and Elizabeth says so many customers voiced their support with orders.

*Use the opportunity to improve on the way you run your business – iron out the kinks.

At the end of the day, your business is often a part of who you are. “If you don’t restart, what else are you going to do? You still need a project,” says Mark.

This is an edited article that originally appeared in New Zealand Retail magazine.

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