DENVER-The building was destroyed, but thanks to precautions taken in case of a calamity, the business remains relatively unscathed.
Despite an inferno that wiped out its main facility and a good chunk of its inventory, Gay Johnson Inc., a distributor to many of greater Denver's tire dealers, did not get burned-at least not as badly as its building did.
On Aug. 14, a fire of unknown origin consumed Johnson's 100,000-sq.-ft. brick and cinderblock warehouse, along with the 30,000 tires it stored. There were no injuries. The blaze began at around 5:30 a.m., and the building's 16 employees had yet to report to work.
The building, located in the western section of Denver not far from Mile High Stadium, burned to its concrete pad, according to Robert Kowalski, Denver metro sales manager for Gay Johnson Inc., whose Denver warehouse was home to a wholesale operation. Damage was estimated at $2 million, according to published reports.
Electrical and gas line problems were eliminated early as possible causes. Arson had not been ruled out, the Denver Fire Department said. Other than those, owner Burt Johnson said he had no idea how the fire might have started, noting that the area where it began had nothing overly flammable in it-only tires.
Once the blaze started there was little stopping it. Sixty firefighters took more than 2 1/2 hours to bring it under control, the Rocky Mountain News reported. Their efforts saved adjacent buildings, as well as other businesses in the warehouse.
Mr. Johnson operates two smaller warehouses nearby but said having had another experience with a fire before has helped him deal with this one. About 15 years ago, he said, a truck stop he owned burned to the ground. In that instance, he was not prepared.
``We feel we left a lot of money on the table because we didn't know what we were doing,'' he said of that fire. ``We didn't know how to deal with the insurance company. This time we were prepared, but we should have been even more prepared.''
Mr. Johnson learned the hard way, but he's convinced other dealers and distributors can avoid that lesson. Don't consume yourself with precautions, he advised, but in old-fashioned Boy Scouts fashion, be prepared.
``No. 1, everybody should review their insurance policies, and I mean thoroughly,'' he said. ``Have the agent sit down, go line by line and ask questions. `What happens if this, and what happens if that.' You think you have something, but it's not what it seems. We can see gray areas and it's going to be a struggle down the line.''
Make sure you don't underestimate the actual costs of rebuilding, Mr. Johnson said, because there's more to it than the structure itself. Insurance policies should be set up to reflect that.
Like schools that have fire drills, Mr. Johnson said tire dealers and suppliers should prepare for a fire or any other calamity by enacting a list of procedures that should be followed by employees.
``You never think it's going to happen to you,'' he said. ``We've been in that location for 31 years. You don't think about that. I don't know how you ever prepare for something like that. Occasionally, it does happen.''
While his company is fortunate to have other locations from which it can operate, as well as adequate inventory, Mr. Johnson suggested single-location dealerships take extra precautions.
For instance, Gay Johnson stores its records on a computer mainframe in the company's corporate offices in Grand Junction, Colo., some 250 miles away from the location that was destroyed.
Consequently, the only company data lost-a minimal amount crucial to its day-to-day operation-was stored on computer hard drives that had not been backed up. Mr. Johnson stressed the importance of doing record-keeping off-site, even at home for single-location operators.
He also speculated that such a devastating event would probably spell doom for one-shop operators.
If a dealer's sole store burns to the ground, ``I don't care what you do, you're going to lose business,'' he said. ``When I say that, chances are, if you're a single location and you don't have back-up, you're going to be in trouble.
``Even if you find space the day after your fire, it'll be weeks or months. You can't believe what it takes to set stuff back up. We had two other locations and we worked night and day and we could reconstruct pretty quickly.''
Though Gay Johnson was already operating the day after the fire-and only two weeks afterwards the business was running at about 80 percent-it will take several months to get the destroyed warehouse back in operation. Meanwhile, tire manufacturers have been helpful, he said, and the dealers he supplies have been supportive and understanding.
But some opportunistic wholesalers did go after his business.
``I don't know what you do about that,'' he said. ``Personally, I think that's unscrupulous. But most of the people we've dealt with have been wonderful.''
Gay Johnson will continue to conduct its wholesale business from the company's other two buildings in Denver, which Mr. Kowalski termed ``minor warehouses.''
Mr. Kowalski added that because of the loss of the main warehouse-which carried Yokohama, Bridgestone, Firestone and Goodyear tires, along with the Delta private brand-the space for tires previously kept there has been reduced from 100,000 to 17,000 square feet.