When his 54,000 square foot store burned to the ground, Bill Tepperman responded with good marketing.
The Windsor Star headline, Friday, February 25, 1994, read, "Reaping the Rewards of Positive Thinking". The night before, Bill Tepperman stood in the spotlight basking in the applause of 700 friends and business associates as the Windsor and District Chamber of Commerce presented the Company of the Year Award to "the Tepperman Team". William N. Tepperman is president of one of Canada's largest independent furniture stores in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, Michigan, and with branch stores in Chatham and Sarnia, Ontario.
Said Bill, "This is the best Award of all because our entire staff is rewarded for team efforts that have allowed our store to succeed.
"Tepperman's has been able to prosper and grow in spite of recessions, cross-border shopping, and a myriad of business setbacks. Marketing, product research and development, product service and quality, and customer relations are just a few areas in which a store like Tepperman's can excel.
"This Award is the big one, and we are all certainly proud to receive it. But we have day-to-day awards as well when we see repeat customers come through our doors. That tells it all."
Bill might have added, "And in spite of a certain disastrous fire!"
On October 6, 1992, he watched "One of the most terrible sights I have ever seen" when Tepperman's "beautiful, newly remodeled" 54,000 square foot Chatham, Ontario store burned to the ground, a $4 million loss. Seventy-five firefighters had gathered from five county departments to do battle with the blaze, but after four hours the outer walls were reduced to rubble and only the store's front entrance remained standing.
When Bill arrived on the scene, he breathed a sigh of relief as he counted the eighteen members of his Chatham staff, assembled in the open field across from the burning store. He immediately assured them their jobs were safe.
"Bright and early the next day, we began touring the City of Chatham looking for an alternative site." First established in Chatham in 1981, Tepperman's had built a loyal clientele, and in both Chatham and Windsor newspapers, and on several radio stations, Bill told customers, "I want you to know from me personally, and from our entire staff, that Tepperman's commitment to serving the needs of the people in this area is stronger than ever. We will be back in a store as soon as is humanly possible."
Telephones were adjusted so local customers could call Tepperman's Chatham number with automatic no charge connection to the Windsor store. Ads and commercials, flagged "EMERGENCY", suggested that customers "Drive a little further to our Windsor store if they wished to buy the best furniture, appliances, store electronics, carpeting, bedding at 12 percent off or 12 months interest free".
Customers were also provided with an interim accounts address.
Typically, all ads and commercials ended, "Thanks for your support ... without that, we have no reason for being in business".
BILL'S "EMERGENCY" MESSAGES WORKED
"We met with our insurance adjuster. Fortunately, we had thought through beforehand how to handle such a situation. We'd spent time 10 or 12 years ago getting the best possible insurance. Business interruption insurance took care of our staff for seven weeks until we got back into business in our temporary store. We said that would be long before Christmas." It was not an idle boast. In less than two months, on Monday, November 23, at 10 a.m., Tepperman's opened its "Emergency Fire Disaster Store" at the opposite end of town.
"We were hesitant at first about opening in another location instead of rebuilding on the old site." But increased sales have proven them wrong.
Ads appeared the Sunday before opening thanking "the building trades, suppliers, the Gerling Global Insurance Company, the Lindsey Morden Adjuster, the R. P. Insurance Adjusters, and most of all our own wonderful staff."
Bill said later, "A business succeeds only because the people who work together WANT it to succeed".
He didn't forget to thank his customers. They, in turn, thanked him through Windsor's Mayor, Michael D. Hurst. "Windsor very much appreciates the faith you and your family have shown to your community both in terms of conducting business in an honest and civic-minded way, and in involving yourselves in the life of our community in general. We are very fortunate to have you and your employees as fellow Windsorites."
How did Tepperman's team pull the pieces together? "Well, first, of course, insurance. It is part of the cost of doing business we all must pay. You must constantly shop for the best rates. You must think about how you would cope with a major disaster, consider not only fire, but theft, public liability, inventory and accounts receivable, all have to be handled properly.
"You must build good relationships with your auditing firm, with bankers and your suppliers. Their help is necessary in upheaval.
"Had we not been on computer and had off-site storage of the information, it would have been incredibly more difficult to reconstruct inventory and accounts receivable. We carry our own accounts." "Our staff came together in a most remarkable fashion. They put their backs and their minds to it. The premises we found in Chatham had been a furniture store before which had been sitting idle. We moved in and de sectioned the re sectioning the previous people had designed. What we all thought would be a temporary location has become permanent. Each month's business has been getting better and better.
"Out of this terrible trauma came a wonderful warm feeling within our staff, community and our supplier base. We even received supportive calls from other retailers. It was a tough time, there's no doubt, but because there was never a question in my mind that we were properly covered and would be back in business, it was not as difficult as it might otherwise have been. Everyone worked so incredibly hard, such bright, aggressive, motivated people! And now that disastrous fire is only a blip in our history!
"We've had a tremendous increase in clients in the Chatham area. We seem to have developed almost a synergy because of the fire. It's a very strange way to find out that you're loved! If you do the right thing it really comes back to you. It's good to know you can be in business without being hard, cold, cruel and calculating. And here we are, about to celebrate our 69th year! There is really nothing I would rather do."
The Sarnia store was opened at the end of July, 1993, with 25,000 square feet of floor space. "Probably because we had our patterns shaken up by the Chatham fire, we realized we could use our basic center of distribution in Windsor more effectively. We were already doing some business in the Sarnia area, and we felt it was time to move closer and provide better service. It's the old peddler's philosophy, 'I'm here, what can I do to help you today, Mrs. Jones?'
"I discussed it with The Team. I asked, do you really want to do this? If you do, we can make the move. It has to be your commitment to the future, if you feel you can continue to grow and develop and delegate responsibility, if you want to jump Paradigms.
"Because the economy had been less than buoyant, I pointed out it might be the time to find premium space at a good price. Both Windsor and Sarnia are border cities, both on rivers, both with industrial bases. It was a team decision, and a good one."
Awards have provided top spin to an already highly motivated team. In 1993, Tepperman's received a Health and Safety Award from Organized Labor. When Bill heard news of the Chamber of Commerce's recognition, he called a meeting of the entire staff, some on their day off. When he made the announcement he said, "The smiles started. People turned to each other and shook hands, then everyone applauded. It was a great moment.
"My job now more than anything is counseling, guiding, thinking and planning. I like the title 'President' because it means 'leader of the team', not owner. My philosophy has been that anyone can open a store front, buy a little, sell a little, then buy a little bit more, but I want to run a civilized business that generates profit, certainly, but allows each individual to grow and develop, maintaining respect for each other."
When I telephoned Bill today, the receptionist answered, "This is Tepperman's, where people come first".
Bill seemed surprised when I commented favorably about his slogan. He said, "Well, you know, the most important thing at the end of the day is credibility. People do come first."