Like all business owners, Tim Taylor had thought long and hard about how to build his Seattle company, the Environmental Home Center, which...

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Like all business owners, Tim Taylor had thought long and hard about how to build his Seattle company, the Environmental Home Center, which sells sustainable building products.

And like most business owners, Taylor had given little thought to what would happen if he had to totally rebuild his company.

That changed just after dawn on Aug. 11, 2004, when he was awakened with the news the business, in a 12,000-square-foot rented warehouse on Fourth Avenue South, was ablaze.

In the 15 months since, Taylor has learned in excruciating detail what it takes to remake a 13-year-old business, reconstructing the intricate web of suppliers, customers, employees; and dealing with insurance and new site leases.

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It’s a lesson he freely passes on to other business owners.

But that August morning, all Taylor, the company’s president and CEO, initially felt were shock and dread.

A huge plume of smoke rose over the city as the three-alarm fire consumed the 70-year-old, wood-frame structure containing the firm’s main warehouse, showroom and offices.

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For more information about Environmental Home Center, visit its Web site at www.environmentalhomecenter.com.

The two-story building was stocked with highly flammable building-supply products but had no sprinklers. Ironically, installing them was a priority at Taylor’s upcoming lease talks with the building owner.

Later it would be determined that spontaneous combustion, from the mop-up of a small amount of spilled wood finish, caused the fire.

But watching it burn, Taylor initially could focus on just one thing:

“Nothing could be saved. The showroom, the computer system, phone system, the employees’ personal belongings, all the chairs, the desks, the warehouse, all were lost.”

About a third of the inventory stored nearby was all Taylor had left of the company.

Standing in the parking lot flooded by water from the fire hoses, Taylor gathered his stunned employees.

There had been about two dozen before the fire. Many had arrived to see their jobs go up in smoke. Or so they thought.

“I told the employees we were going to rebuild the company, and the best chance we had to do that was with them,” he said. “I had no idea of our insurance coverage, but I promised every one they would have a job.”

Three months earlier, the company’s new information-technology manager discovered the computer system was corrupted and insisted it be replaced, which it was. From then on, each day’s information was backed up and stored off site.

“I can tell you unequivocally that we would not be here today if that had not been done,” Taylor said. “You need data not just to keep the business functioning, but also to have an accurate record for an insurance claim.”

Having no idea how to proceed, Taylor asked a friend for help. The friend found a public adjuster, an insurance specialist Taylor hadn’t known existed.

A public adjuster represents the interest of the insured, puts together the claim and negotiates with the insurance company.

That person was Drew Lucurell, president of Adjusters International and an experienced fire-claims expert. The average business-insurance contract, Lucurell said, “is a very complicated document; it isn’t written in user-friendly terms.”

If there’s a sore spot for Taylor, insurance is it.

“The insurance company was not our friend,” he said, declining to name the company. “That was the only place where we felt an adversarial relationship.”

With Lucurell’s help, “we didn’t get more than we should have, but we are getting what our policy said we’re due.”

Taylor strongly doubts would have happened otherwise.

Still, the claim hasn’t been settled. Even when it is, Taylor says his business will come up about $400,000 short on a total loss of $1.5 million.

“We had some things that weren’t covered, just because our agent hadn’t been through a catastrophic loss and didn’t understand our business,” Taylor said.

He’s switched insurance carriers.

With Lucurell overseeing the insurance angle, Taylor was free to concentrate on rebuilding the company.

A business contact offered temporary use of a conference room. Five business days after the fire, the room was Environmental Home Center’s new nerve center, with the operations department, marketing, advertising, cabinet sales, the call center, IT and Taylor all taking places around a conference table.

Some employees’ jobs had burned up. They were assigned different duties.

“It was a time when a company and its employees were all exposed,” recalled showroom supervisor Zach Bochman. “Communications — or lack thereof — becomes more apparent. You don’t have those built-in walls that occur during a normal day. You learn what works and what doesn’t.”

Stripped to its core, Taylor realized his business hinged on two things.

“First is the caliber of people you’ve hired, their integrity, their smarts, their commitment,” he said. “So you do anything you can to keep the people you have. Otherwise, the degree of difficulty in rebuilding a business with people who don’t know it is much higher.”

The second invaluable component “is any intangible value the company has built — its goodwill or brand,” Taylor said.

“You find out very quickly: Did you build any or not?” he said.

About half of the company’s clients were builders and other professionals. The other half were homeowners throughout the country drawn to the company’s 1,500 environmentally sensitive products.

Both groups responded swiftly, some crying as they urged the company to rebuild.

Unable to tolerate chemicals found in common building products and relying on the store’s alternatives, the customers “were concerned that if we didn’t exist, they wouldn’t be able to exist as comfortably as they do,” Bochman said.

“We were a pretty unique resource for them,” he said.

Suppliers were equally important to the company’s success. Some were small. If the Environmental Home Center couldn’t pay what it owed them, or if it were no longer around to carry their products, what would those companies do?

The day after the fire, Taylor’s son posted a message on the store’s Web site — no small feat with the computer system destroyed — saying the Environmental Home Center would rise again.

“That was the starting point for how we communicated,” Taylor explained. He posted frequent updates online. “We knew if people had information, they’d work with us. Otherwise they’d be concerned.”

Taylor prided himself on hiring intelligent people. About three weeks after the fire, he began to see an unintended consequence to that. Employees told him they felt they were floating in a vacuum. Yes, they’d been assured they had jobs, but with the company struggling to reinvent itself, what did that mean?

“One of the surprises was how quickly people’s focus dissipates without something meaningful to do,” observed Taylor. “They really didn’t want to be idle. They wanted to contribute. It wasn’t about a paycheck.”

Taylor brought in therapists to help the staff deal with the stress. Initially all stayed on.

Today, the Environmental Home Center is up and running, its sales higher than ever, in rented warehouse space at 4121 First Ave. S.

Like the old warehouse, this one has a rough-textured chic with lots of exposed wood. But unlike the previous location, this one has sprinklers.

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com