by Robert Dalheim
Drawer manufacturer Western Dovetail hasn’t been the same since August 24 of last year. An earthquake rocked the area of South Napa, California, causing the collapse of the company’s manufacturing shop. The area was then sealed off by authorities, and off limits to everyone until further notice.
Since that dismal Sunday morning, as Western Dovetail president Max Hunter refers to it, Western Dovetail has been scrambling to keep its drawer business afloat. Hunter and Vice President Josh Hunter were away at a tradeshow when the earthquake occurred.
They returned to a disaster.
“We returned to California that day to find the area around the building had been blocked off with k-rail and caution tape, and on the doors were big red stickers that said ‘UNSAFE’,” said Hunter. “There was debris all over the ground, the plaster pilasters had fallen off and lay crumpled on the ground and there were bricks scattered everywhere. The picnic table where employees ate lunch was buried under a pile of bricks, vehicles parked nearby had parts of the building on top of them, gas lines and electrical lines snapped, and water from sprinklers was pouring down the sides of the building.”
“What had been the home of Western Dovetail for the past 11 years was now a disaster area,” Hunter continued.
Hunter says that when the inspectors came through that first day, only two people were allowed into the building for approximately 10 minutes (accompanied by the building department engineers) to retrieve a couple of computers and servers that were promptly set up in the corner of a neighboring shop. By the next morning, phones were redirected to staff cell phones and computers up and running.
“Those first few days were brutal, and the phones were ringing off the hook,” Hunter said. “Customers wanted to know when they would get their product and there was no clear answer. During the first week, our staff was able to get access to the building once for about four hours in order to get all of the completed drawers and ship them off to our customers.”
John Ewer at Dimensions Unlimited, a longtime customer and vendor, allowed the company to temporarily move into his shop located about four blocks away. He shared his office and his shop during this initial, chaotic period when Western Dovetail had nowhere to call home. Twenty employees were crammed into a space a quarter of the size of the old shop, in addition to the Dimensions crew of four.
In order to have enough room at the temporary shop, each morning, company employees had to drag the materials and product out into the parking lot and cram it back in at night before locking up.
The fear of aftershocks faded after two weeks, so the building department allowed the company limited reentry. Access was restricted to twice a week for four hours each day. At this point, they needed a place to put everything.
After searching the entire Bay Area for a suitable building to move into, the Hunters decided to move next door, and immediately faced challenges.
The new building had no infrastructure, 40 foot tall ceilings, was 30 percent smaller than the old shop, and had no posts to mount electrical panels on. For the first few months, tools were put in place and hooked up with temporary wiring using giant cords and cord ramps. Dust collection issues proved challenging; instead of one central system, ten smaller dust collection units on the shop floor were set up and a dedicated employee was hired to empty them all day long.
But Hunter says the biggest challenge was the cost. The financial impact of the sudden displacement was immense. The staff was working twice as hard to produce half as much.
“With no earthquake insurance and no immediate government relief assistance it seemed like there was nowhere to turn,” Hunter said. “Luckily, we had already established a business relationship with American Express Merchant Financing and they quickly provided a cash advance to keep the company operating through this trying period.”
By mid-October 2014, the area was declared a disaster and the Small Business Association (SBA) Disaster Assistance Program was activated. This program intends to help businesses by providing low interest loans to companies in need of assistance.
Despite, a long approval process – a loan was finally approved last week, 11 months after the earthquake – it provided the funds necessary for recovery.
Hunter says the company is finally back in action.
“With our new shop set up, and with all of our key equipment installed, we are ready to take on more work than ever before. It may be smaller, but it is way more efficient.”
Hunter thanks Western Dovetail’s staff, friends, vendors, and customers for its recovery.
“Throughout this trial by fire, the entire Western Dovetail staff has worked diligently as a team, putting in extra hours when needed to overcome the year’s challenges,” Hunter said.
”Thanks to the many friends who helped and donated time and money when we needed it most, thanks to our vendors for continuing to work with us, but most of all, thanks to our amazing customers who continue to believe in us and stuck with us though the worst of times. We could not have made it without your patience and loyalty.”
The company is now preparing for AWFS, the biggest trade show event of the year.
“We are going with our side show theme again this year but more like a midway at Coney Island kind of vibe,” Hunter said.
The company has been hard at work on a drawer featuring power outlets, and with Docking Drawer developing a drawer program that compliments its hardware. Various Docking Drawer models will be on display at AWFS.
“Come by the booth and get a free sample drawer, a tote bag, some literature and maybe even some special surprises.”
See Western Dovetail at AWFS Fair Booth #4004.
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