Spring Gift Fair 2014 Magazine

NEWS FEATURE

Start again? HOW DO YOU

Advice to others – how CC Interiors got through the ordeal

Standing a short distance from her 5000 m² luxury furniture warehouse as it spewed flames, Elizabeth Wilkinson felt the intense heat radiate from the fire that managed to melt two of the 26 fire trucks clustered around the building. This is a story of how to bounce back from losing almost everything. CC Interiors’ showroom was often considered by customers to be the finest showroom in the Southern Hemisphere having been refined over 14 years – even the floor was lovingly hand-painted. Beginning as a pop-up store in Newmarket in 2001, it had grown to be a major furniture wholesaler, supplying retailers and designers throughout Australasia. But on 03 February 2014, a quarter-hour after Elizabeth 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. Elizabeth’s husband and co-director Mark, their adult children together with a few colleagues arrived and watched together as the searing flames eventually burst through the skylight. Water from firefighters’ hoses could then get inside but it was too late. Elizabeth says it wasn’t until the windows blew out one by one, that the couple realised all was lost. Despite 100 firefighters and 26 trucks, all they had was a blackened, twisted rubble heap for a building. “You’re so shocked and concerned you don’t cry. At first you’re in denial, thinking they’ll put the fire out, until the building’s pretty much gone,” says Elizabeth. AFTERMATH Through the shock they still followed procedure, texting all staff during that night to inform them of the disaster, then contacting their insurance companies and also their insurance broker Andrew Milne, who was on site first thing in the morning to support them. “Insurance companies were there too – they had to establish it wasn’t arson, or see if you or your staff had done anything wrong. It can be quite harrowing after a traumatic night without sleep. Andrew helpfully acted as the buffer between us and them, as we had to be on site to greet a few of the 25 staff, some of whom didn’t have cell phones.” Seeing the sheer scale of the rubble and the intimidatingly huge job of rebuilding, Elizabeth said some of staff sought new jobs immediately. “When it was fully ablaze, I too thought there’s no way we can start again. 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’.”

• 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.

getting desperate for their own premises. Their daughter did a Facebook post asking for warehouse leads and, as luck had it, a friend’s father had one available. They moved to the 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. OPPORTUNITY Even though they were deep in survival mode at first, they soon decided not to create the very same business all over again – rather, to take the opportunity to modernise it 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 (they use Digital Island) 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. The couple says that in order to come out the other side of the ordeal, positive thinking was key. Mark says thinking about those less fortunate than them helped them pull through. “Our case was simpler in some ways than Christchurch, because it was clean-cut. Everything was gone.” Elizabeth says even though a fire is a surreal feeling and you’re in disbelief – “you have to put it aside and focus on restarting and being positive.” “At the end of the day, even though what you lost may have been your pride and joy, it’s just material possessions. You cannot look back, you cannot dwell, you must look for the positive in everything.”

But within a day, they 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 They knew they needed to act. “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. 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 per cent 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 – this was only possible with dedicated staff working through the weekends with the Wilkinsons. EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE When the containers arrived, they still didn’t have premises – but fortunately the couple’s freight company, Philpotts, let them use its warehouse. However, two weeks after the fire they were really

Editorial Compliments of Skye Wshart

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