Weathering the Storm

When your roof comes crashing down like ours did this past Memorial Day, a LOT of thoughts race through your head. Things like, “Holy cow, that could have killed people!”, “Ugh, this is going to take a TON of work to set to right”, and “Oh boy, I hope my insurance company has my back”.

While instinctively you want to jump right in and start fixing things to keep your business afloat, you quickly learn that there is little you can do until the property owners, building engineers, inspectors, and forensic experts all come to agreement as to whether or not the structure is safe for occupancy. Even after that point, you are still at the mercy of ComEd, the fire chief, Village, and the insurance companies to sign off and allow the rebuilding process to begin.
It’s agonizing, standing by watching orders go to competitors that normally would have come our way while racing to figure out how to move forward. Disaster recovery is not something you learn how to navigate in school, and when a number of people are affected it’s very different than when it’s just one business. When you are all in the same boat, you float or sink together, but when it’s just your boat with the gaping hole, you have to spend half you’re your energy bailing the water and the other half rowing to shore. Everyone has empathy for about the first 48 hours after a catastrophe, but when they aren’t constantly reminded by the giant skylight overhead of the magnitude of the damage, it’s easy to fall back into the usual expectation of same/next day turn around, and become annoyed by slower than usual service.
For 4 weeks following the Memorial Day Mayhem, we worked tirelessly to restore our ability to deliver to our usual high standards for our customers. The first week we focused on enabling access to our various business systems and software from a variety of remote locations and makeshift working quarters and verifying that stored customer orders were unaffected (luckily this was the case for 98% of our staged/direct from warehouse product). Our investments in hosted Voice Over IP phone systems, email, and recent ERP system backups to the cloud allowed us to never lose the ability to continue taking orders, but with our central warehouse down, delivering those orders became a logistical nightmare of sorts. Our branches in Chicago and New Lenox stepped up to the plate and began taking on 2-3 times the normal number of deliveries, covering new routes and extending their already long days to ensure everyone would get their material.

By the second week, with power restored to our Woodridge facility, the engineering teams began planning the construction of a demising wall to separate the functional from “roofless” section of the warehouse and allow us to make room for new racks which would need to be ordered and built to accommodate the 50% reduced floor plan. The warehouse crew started moving material around to reconfigure the space and brought in trailers to accommodate overflow.

While the need for constant mopping definitely slowed our progress, it was an essential part of the process and when the team saw our owners pitching in to take a turn with the mop or jump in the line to help throw pipe on a waiting truck, it helped keep everyone motivated and working together.
It was at this point, we started to realize that our insurance companies and landlord weren’t nearly as engaged in actively resolving our crisis as we thought they would be and with frustrations mounting we escalated from inquiring and informing to insisting and nagging. You might get more flies with honey, but we needed a roof, or at least a wall, and our office space back!
Weeks 2 and 3 saw scavengers haul away 4 semis worth of material, a demising wall finally built to separate the damaged portion of the warehouse from the rest, and new power service run since the panel boards for the lights, wire cutting machines, etc. were located on the demo side of the partition. Racks arrived and inventory needed to be recounted, stocked, and updated in our ERP system, which in turn entailed the configuration of a new network to allow the computers to connect to our now cloud-based servers.

With our Customer First focus, we bit the bullet as we sent trucks back and forth from our hobbled but still well-stocked Woodridge site to our Chicago and New Lenox branches in order to complete orders there so as not to inconvenience customers with multiple deliveries on their job sites as much as possible. There goes the profit- but we figured it was totally worth it to keep our customers happy (and ordering!). Timed delivery requests were the hardest to accommodate given the complex logistics of having to redesign routes allowing for different starting and ending points and in some cases requiring multiple material collection points along the way. We didn’t always succeed in meeting those time constraints but we did the best we could do under the circumstances and have to believe our customers will give us the benefit of the doubt that if we could get close the goal under these conditions, surely they will trust us to get their material to them on time once we are back up and running at full steam.
Tracking triage expenses (everything from extra mileage traveled to deliver orders to temporary generators, new racking and computers, trailer rentals for additional onsite storage and SO much more) can be a full-time job in and of itself. Everything must be listed, described, coded, and entered into a database for in -progress and future insurance claims. And speaking of insurance, did you know that in the history of our carrier’s existence, only 3 suppliers have ever lost a headquarters facility? So that industry-standard “loss of business” policy we bought turns out to have been modeled on losing a branch, not a hub. That’s like if your house was destroyed and your insurance company based their payout on the value of your garage.
Thanks to our incredibly hard-working and dedicated staff, by week 4, our reduced footprint warehouse was strategically reconfigured, new racks setup and all material assigned to updated bin locations. Our trucks have finally come home to roost and we have been able to resume full delivery service from Woodridge for the first time since the Memorial Day Mayhem.

And since we can start to see the silver linings in this raincloud filled saga, we have to say that the cross functional team building we’ve experienced has been phenomenal. Warehouse teams sharing best practices, Accounts Receivable and Payable Departments (relocated to what had previously been the outdoor landscape lighting space in our New Lenox showroom) –actually getting to interact with other employees and see the decorative lighting lines they previously knew only by invoice. Our Switchgear team working in close quarters with each other and the inside sales team at New Lenox—also getting to know and share knowledge with other team members and meet different (local) customers and possibly drum up some new business. Our Lighting department even took it a step further and from their collocated space inside one of our rep agency partners (shout out to #ChicagoLightworks for their incredible generosity!) has had the valuable opportunity to gain insight into the challenges our partners face in the channel as well so that we can all work smarter to help each other succeed.
Change is rarely celebrated when first proposed. When we have tried to refine warehouse processes in the past, we have been met with a healthy dose of skepticism over whether the effort to change would be worth the improvement. Well, since change is our only constant at the moment, we figured what better time than the present to implement all those incremental improvements we had been contemplating. We’ve explored the notion of implementing RF for our warehouse for years. Not only does RF enable super accurate inventory management, it also both improves accuracy and speed for picking orders and facilitates ecommerce solutions. It’s a big undertaking that requires touching every item and bin location, and it always seemed like we just didn’t have the time to execute. Well, guess what? We have to touch every item and bin right now anyway, so we might as well get twice the payback for what we figure will be 1.5 times the effort. Wait a second, was that the sun poking through a cloud?

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