The week that Grove City metalcrafter Wendell August Forge celebrated winning the largest orders in its 90-year history was almost the same week it mourned its demise.
In March 2010 -- fresh off of six-figure deals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Robert Morris University -- the handcrafted metal company's flagship store and workshop burned to the ground. In about an hour, millions of dollars in equipment and materials housed at the Exton location since 1934 were reduced to embers on the collapsed factory's floor. The fire, which started in a ventilation fan being used by workers applying lacquer to products, was ruled accidental.
Three years after what typically is a death blow for small businesses, Wendell August Forge has upped its workforce from a team of 70 to 120, struck distribution deals with 600 stores nationwide and broken ground on a new facility behind Grove City Premium Outlets. The new location, which is scheduled to open this fall, puts the company in the sights of more than 6 million shoppers who hit the outlet mall every year.
While company president F.W. "Will" Knecht credits divine intervention and a supportive staff and community for the revival, he said rising from the ashes challenged him to take Wendell August Forge higher than it had ever been before.
"We were forced to rethink the entire business, how we did business, what we are as a company. We already had a solid foundation of incredible customers and loyal employees, but now we have an absolute blank canvas to paint on," said Mr. Knecht.
Established in Brockway in 1923, Wendell August Forge creates handcrafted decorative gifts, fireplace andirons, door knockers and other metal crafts. The company is responsible for historic custom memorabilia for the Hindenburg Air Ship and bronze plates recognizing the SALT II treaty between the U.S. and Russia to limit offensive weapons systems. In November 2010, the company created commemorative aluminum tickets and ornaments for the Penguins' final game in the Civic Arena.
The fact that there was a business to save at all was a combination of planning, generosity and serendipity.
The day of the blaze, firefighters saved 3,850 custom-made dyes that were critical for operation. When insurance proceeds weren't enough to rebuild the store and workshop, Mr. Knecht was able to obtain a $4 million Redevelopment Asset Capitalization Grant from the state to fill in the gap. A nearby industrial space the company had used for manufacturing and vacated the previous year was still available and fitted to operate the equipment.
With only four weeks to fill the company's largest orders ever, existing and newly-hired employees were back to work sooner than anyone could have expected.
"The day after the fire I met with our insurance team. They told us to prepare to be out of business for nine months. But the team, the community, all of Western Pennsylvania rallied together and we had the workshop up and going in five days," Mr. Knecht said.
As the company prepares to move into the new facility, which sits on 12 acres of land, he said the change reflects the new attitude of a 90-year-old business forced in many ways to think like a startup.
Although the company kept familiar clients and vendors, inking deals with national retailers required a dive into the unknown. Today, only a few years after it started advertising in trade publications and exhibiting in trade shows, Mr. Knecht said Wendell August Forge is in talks with Macy's and Bed Bath & Beyond to carry the company's items.
Rolling with the punches is a point Mr. Knecht plans to drive home during his keynote speech Friday at Duquesne University's Entrepreneur's Growth Conference.
Mary McKinney, director of the university's Small Business Development Center, said Mr. Knecht was chosen because his story can show new entrepreneurs how to protect themselves from disaster and ignite creativity in longtime business owners.
"Mr Knecht began thinking 'out of the box,' something all leaders, no matter how long they have been in business, need to do," said Ms. McKinney in an email statement.
But thinking on one's toes after a disaster isn't typically enough to save small businesses from ruin after a disaster, said Ron Cox, a small business adviser with counseling service Score Pittsburgh.
Noting that Wendell August Forge makes specialty products not for everyday use, he said a toilet paper or printing company would likely lose customers over even a single day's work stoppage due to disaster. He also said Wendell August Forge's insurance coverage is more than most small business owners take on due to lack of funds or simply a sense that it's an expense they believe they can do without.
Mr. Cox said small businesses at every stage should have disaster relief plans that account for employee wages, rebuilding costs and strategies to maintain business during difficult times.
For Mr. Knecht, one of the most important things he would advise anyone in his situation is to remain calm and make sure to protect the critical assets of great employees and loyal customers.
"You need to be a steady captain," he said. "Highs need to be celebrated but you also need to celebrate the lows because those lows could potentially give us the springboard to the next success."
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.