Under Fire

How a Chicago plating company rebounded from disaster.


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It was a call that everyone who owns a business dreads, but certainly one that isn't totally unexpected.

As Coult Greenwell rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on the clock that read 3:40 a.m., the person on the other end of the phone was about to deliver some bad news. True to the old saying, nothing good ever happens after midnight, and the same goes with phone calls.

"We have a fire signal coming from your No. 2 building," the man from the alarm company told Greenwell, who along with his father, Jim, had kept Reliable Plating in Chicago running just as smoothly as when it started back in the 1950s.

"Are you sure?" Greenwell asked, knowing full well that running a plating business with an array of burners, boilers, heating elements and facilities set you up for a possible phone call like this.

"We have already spoken with Art and he asked that we tell you to come right away," the man said.

It was true. In fact, the alarm company had already spoken with Reliable's plant chemical supervisor, who lived just a few miles from the West Lake Street facility, and was normally the first called when the alarms sounded, although mostly they were false alarms.

First Response

Greenwell got dressed and hurried to his car. The first call he made was to Art, then to the man he worked alongside every day, who had taught him the business and who had inherited the operation from his father.

It was a difficult call to make, and the chain of events set off a whirlwind of activities, emotions, decision making, and angst. Their building—their business in fact—was burning to the ground in front of their very own eyes.

"By the time I got to my expressway exit a mile from the plant, I could see a large plume of black smoke in the dark morning sky," says Coult. "Flames were reaching 50 feet into the sky. At this point, we could only watch."

Jim Greenwell knew he had replacement insurance, knew he had business interruption insurance to keep him afloat while he rebuilt, and knew he wanted to get back into business.

But, still, it was a kick in the gut to stand and watch the building crumble to the ground, taking 70% of his operations and making him wonder how he would serve his customers, let alone keep them once he got the doors back open.

"You know, if Coult wasn't in the business with me, I might have made a different decision about rebuilding," Jim says now, nearly four years removed from the October 2006 fire, but age 63 at the time of the disaster.

"You have an insurance settlement, but you ask yourself whether you want to go through all the aggravation of starting over, the clean up, the headaches," he says.

But Coult is the third generation to run the plating business, and Jim acknowledges his son is pretty good at it. Plus, he enjoys it. The 80 employees they had at the time of the fire counted on their jobs to put a roof over their family's heads, food on the table, insurance for doctors, shoes for their children.

So as Jim Greenwell stood in the chill on Lake Street at 5:30 a.m. that day, he put thoughts of retirement on the back burner and started to develop a rebuild plan with Coult at his side.

Plan Into Action

Reliable had an "Emergency Response Program" in place because it was a regulatory requirement due to the chemicals they used. Their first call for help that morning was to their friends at Scientific Control Labs, Frank Altmayer and Jeff and Joelie Zak. SCL provides environmental engineering and consulting services, along with testing programs to a variety of manufacturing industries.

Jeff Zak was the first one on the scene, and he called in SET Environmental to begin the three-month long process of cleanup and disposal of the giant mess that was once the Reliable warehouse. Robinette Demolition was also called in to assist SET with the heavy moving and demolition.

Although they had an emergency plan to go by, the task was still daunting.

"There were so many regulators to deal with, and each of them had their own concerns," says Joelie Zak, who has known the Greenwells for several years. "It was a challenge to rein everyone in so that we could help Coult and Jim start the rebuilding process."

Even when they did get the go-ahead to start the debris removal and begin planning construction, they quickly realized the challenges ahead. "When the smoke began to clear, we realized that having lost building No. 2, we had lost 70% of our plating capability and revenues, and all of our wastewater treatment capabilities," Coult says. "We were completely dead in the water."

What they still had were main offices, including most of the computers and the servers, their maintenance department, and about 30% of their plating capability.

While they dealt with the insurance claim as quickly as they could, both Coult and Jim set out to take care of their existing customers, with hopes that when the doors opened again, those customers would still be there for them.

Friends in the Business

They made the necessary calls to their clients, and then they also began making calls to some other local plating companies in the Chicago area to try to line up places to send the work.

That's when the Greenwells saw who their friends were. In past years, Reliable had stepped in to help when other platers went down, either due to disasters such as fires or due to equipment failures.

Now they were making the calls, and the response was tremendous. American Nickel, Anoplate, Calco Plating, Craftsman Plating, Marsh Plating, Nobert, North American EN, Perfection, Precision, Saporito SWD and West Town all stepped up to take on some work of the Reliable clients while the rebuild was in progress.

What sustained Reliable with their customers was their knowledge and expertise in how their clients wanted their jobs done, and done right.

"We sent the work out, but Reliable also stepped in to serve as quality control for our customers," Jim says. "We know how it's supposed to be done for our customers. So in that regard, the customer didn't miss a beat. We were on top of it all the way, inspecting the finished product, dealing with the customers, making things go as seamlessly as possible for them."

As if running around town doing checks of their customers' work wasn't hard enough, they still had to deal with the daily grind of clearing debris, meeting safety hazard standards, and then starting the process of rebuilding their business.

Their process began by sitting down with their insurance adjuster. Lucky for the Greenwells, their agent had recommended getting a complete appraisal of all their fixtures, equipment and buildings when they shopped for a new policy six years previously.

It turned out to be one of the smartest business decisions they had ever made.

"The appraisers spent a week climbing and crawling throughout our two plants and cataloging everything they found," Coult says. "The result was a book about three inches thick, and CDs with pictures of practically everything we owned detailing insurable values for each plant, building and property."

After the fire, Reliable rehired the company again to bring the six-year-old appraisal up to date. In the end, the insurance company paid nearly the exact amount of the appraised replacement cost.

Another decision that needed to be made was whether or not to enlist an independent insurance adjuster to help us with our claim.

"Many of them came slithering around the fire site warning us that we would be irresponsible not to hire them for a fee of 10% of the total claim," Coult says. "In discussions with others who had losses, the consensus seemed to be that it was a good idea, but we held out mainly because of the good feelings we had from our initial contacts with our carrier and their own adjusters. This turned out to be a good call as we were treated fairly by all involved and avoided the adversarial situation."

Covering Costs

In addition, Reliable had purchased "Business Income" coverage, which is intended to pay a company's continuing costs in the event of a disaster, including payroll for key employees—they did have to lay off 20 of the 80 employees—plus normal profits until rebuilt is complete, up to the stated limit.

The Greenwells say they added "Extra Expense" coverage, too, which was to cover costs they incurred in order to help customers and generate sales, such as paying other platers to do the work and temporary production setups.

Through all of the reconstruction, the Greenwells met regularly with representatives from the Chicago Dept. of Emergency Management, the Chicago Fire Dept, the Chicago Police, the Chicago Transit Authority, the U.S. Dept. of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. and Illinois EPA and local water and sewer reps.

They say it was a blessing to have friends such as SCL, SET and Robinette in those meetings. Coult says in many of these meetings, Joelie Zak interjected on Reliable's behalf when agencies began to drift away from logic and common sense.

"Things were pretty amicable all the way around, but in normal situations you get the business owner simply deferring to what the regulators want, and that can set you back weeks in clean-up and put off building for a long time," Zak says.

"Before you know it, you're at triple the cost of what you thought it was going to take. But it helped that our company could come in and advise not only the Greenwells, but also the regulators on the best way to proceed, and that ended up saving money and time," she says.

Since they had lost all of their wastewater treatment system in the fire—a single system shared by both plants—they had to get a new system going very quickly to run the remaining 30% capacity they had left.

Reliable enlisted the help of long time friend, Peter Veit of TSR Engineering, who had designed all of its treatment systems previously. He was able to get a system designed, approved, permitted and built by early January 2007 and Reliable resumed production on its remaining lines.

But the most important decision the Greenwells had to make was where they should rebuild. They were fortunate to convert a building immediately adjacent to their remaining building (the previous two plants were separated by a street and another building). The burned site was turned into a parking lot.

Reliable took possession of the replacement building from its former tenant in February 2007. It took more than a year of construction, but the first new electroless nickel plating line starting rolling in May 2008.

For the Greenwells, it gave them a chance to bring back a lot of their customers to complete their work in the new facility about 20 months after their business and their lives were tossed upside down.

The cause of the fire has never officially been determined, but it could be suspected some faulty equipment or heater may have sparked the inferno.Unfortunately for Reliable, it started back up in the midst of a recession. But they had customers who had been with them for many years, customers who appreciated the Greenwell's personal touch, the expertise of many of the long-time employees who knew how to perform a plating job to perfection, and a willingness to be understanding.

"We were lucky in a lot of ways," Jim Greenwell says, the irony of his statement rolling out of his mouth. "Thankfully, the fire occurred at night when no one was in the building, so none of our employees or firemen were hurt. And we had good people who we worked with to get us back up and going very quickly."

Since the fire, both Greenwells have spoken with other platers and finishers in the Chicago area and around the country, telling them their story and offering advice on how to avoid what happened to them, but also how to be prepared and to respond when it does happen.

"I tell everybody to get an appraiser in and get things down on paper of what it would cost if something like a fire did occur," Coult says. "You can say it won't happen to you, but you need to be prepared. I'm just so glad we were prepared, and we're back in business for many more years."

Call it a wake-up call.