Interview with The Hitch House on How to Rise from the Ashes after a Devastating Fire

Hitch House dealer storyHe didn’t think this would ever happen, but it did. It was a November afternoon in 2012 and Tom Stoate, President of the Hitch House in Oro-Medonte, ON, was at a show in Louisville, Kentucky when he received a call that there was a small fire in the dealership. Approximately 20 minutes later, he received another call that informed him of the worst, they were going to lose the entire building. 

Without hesitation, Dave McKee (Chairman of The Hitch House), Tom Stoate and their team banded together and immediately came up with a plan for the rebuilding process. By making some changes to the design of the new building and revamping the IT structure, the business has come back bigger and better than ever.

We recently visited Tom and his IT director, Bruce Baier, to talk about the fire and what steps they’ve taken to prevent a disaster like this from happening again.

 

What happened on the day of the fire?

Tom: “It began in our showroom in one of our coaches. Two salespeople (Darrell Karas and Mike Barton) were alerted by a beeping noise and investigated. Darrell saw a bunch of smoke inside a motorhome and ran to get help. He told our receptionist to call 911. Meanwhile Mike Barton went into the showroom and unplugged the motorhome’s shore power cable and started closing the doors to the other motorhomes. Our Service Manager, Hiedi Stoate and our Technical Manager, Paul Lewis retrieved five fire extinguishers and emptied them into the motorhome attempting to put out the fire. Other staff members worked on trying to get other motorhomes of the building. They got one very large motorhome out of the showroom as the firemen arrived and they were ordered out of the building for their own protection.

I was actually in Louisville at the time and was receiving updates. It went from ‘we’re going to have smoke damage in the showroom’ to 20 minutes later, ‘we’re going to lose the whole building!’

Thankfully no one was hurt. We had an emergency response plan, so everybody knew where to go and they evacuated the building accordingly.  The staff followed the shutdown procedure where the electrical power and gas supply is turned off.  Only the staff members who tried to contain the fire stayed in the building until the fire department took over.” 

 

What were your immediate thoughts after this disaster happened?

Tom: “As a management team we met and came up with a plan. We put Bruce, our Parts Manager, in charge of IT because he is incredibly competent and fluent in that area. My partner David McKee, who started the The Hitch House, said he’d take care of rebuilding the building.  My focus was to continue to manage the business, the sales team and organize the temporary office facilities. Hiedi Stoate, our Service Manager and partner, was in charge of managing the service department and maximizing our remaining service facilities.  Debbie Tanner, our Controller, was in charge of restoring our Accounting Systems and working with Bruce.  Divide and conquer was the plan.  Due to vast amount of work that had to be done we did not have the luxury of making decisions by committee.  We have a very good team, and when you suffer something together as a group, it’s good to know you have the right people in place.”

 

What was the rebuilding process like?

Tom: “We started planning the rebuilding process almost immediately after the fire. Fortunately, we had a 10,000 sq. ft. service building that was not harmed by the fire.  Our Service Manager, Hiedi, was very creative in maximizing our usage of that space.  Located on the southwest corner of our property is an old Fina gas station that we’d used for basic storage. The building didn’t have heat, telephone, proper communication, or infrastructure, but we quickly sorted that out and that facility housed the staff of our Business Office. Our Administration team, Parts & Accessories store and the Sales Department worked in office trailers supplied by ATCO Structures & Logistics. For a couple of months we had to use Johnny-on-the-spots for bathrooms but fortunately we were able to finally make use of a proper bathroom trailer also supplied by ATCO. IDS was instrumental in helping us get our dealer management system up and running again quickly so we could continue to do business on a daily basis.

We obtained the occupancy permit for the new showroom on our one-year anniversary of the fire and then within a week or two we had the occupancy permit for the rest of the building, all 35,000 sq. ft.

The layout of the new building is very similar to the old one but we’ve made a lot of changes to it. Our showroom is larger and it has three overhead doors to load and unload motorhomes. This is a huge improvement as the old showroom only had one overhead door. We can now get between 15 and 20 coaches quite comfortably in the showroom. Under the new building codes, our ceilings are now eight feet taller than the old building. We now have a facility that is fully accessible for our customers, including ramps, handicap restrooms and even an elevator.

For some of our clients, who spend over half a million dollars on a motorhome, they want to have the flexibility to choose what they want. So we created the Motorhome Design Centre with natural light that allows customers to easily pick fabric colors, cabinetry, and other interior décor choices. A 60” flat screen monitor is connected to a computer, so we can display floorplans, the manufacturer’s website, order sheets, as well as other items and features that help our customer tailor their new motorhome to their tastes.

Our Business Office is also located on the second floor. We feel customers who are looking for financing want to be in a place that is quiet and private. Marilyn Clark, our F & I Manager, meets with all of our customers in the Business Office where she can discuss their financing details in confidence and present a choice of protection products such as fabric guard, leather guard, paint guard, extended warranty, etc. A 60” flat screen TV mounted in the Business Office allows Marilyn to show how the products are applied to the customer’s motorhome. 

In addition, every sales office has a 50” flat screen TV mounted on the wall and connected to the sales person’s PC. Access to the large screen allows the sales person to provide a more thorough sales experience for our customer. For instance, the sales person can review our inventory online with their customer, selecting out of the 100+ motorhomes we have in inventory the motorhome(s) that they would like to tour.”

 

Are there any precautions you’re taking now to prevent this from happening again?

Tom: “It was determined that the fire was caused by an electrical failure in the floor structure of the motorhome. Every motorhome in the showroom is plugged-in to an electrical outlet in order to use the features of the motorhome. There’s a central shut off switch to all the electrical outlets in the showroom that provide power to every coach. With the new building code, we have a new sprinkler system through the whole building and an on-site supply of 155,000 litres of water. We have always had a health and safety plan and committee and we continue to do safety inspections on a monthly basis. As part of our safety inspections the diesel pump for the sprinkler system is tested weekly and two staff members are trained to run this procedure.”

 

From sales perspective, how did the fire affect business?

Tom: “Believe it or not, sales went up the year after the fire. I guess there’s something to be said that there is no bad publicity. I also believe some people were thinking, ‘let’s go give the underdog a chance.’ We were very fortunate from that aspect.  In addition, we received a lot of support from our staff, our customers, the community, our suppliers and even our competitors.”

 

What happened to your business data and what was that recovery process like?

Tom: “Our plan was to always have our data backed up, but our former IT manager, at that time, made a mistake and it wasn’t backing it up properly. Even though the servers didn’t survive, the hard drives from the servers did. We were exceptionally lucky there. In addition, IDS was able to provide us with the essential equipment we needed to keep our business going. We were very pleased with how responsive and helpful everyone was. It was good to know that we could count on them in times like these.

A few years earlier we had decided to have our website and email hosted by a third party supplier that could provide 24/7 support. So fortunately for us our website and email was offsite and unaffected by the fire. We were still able to communicate with our customers and did regular updates to our website to keep them informed of our progress. There was a huge amount of publicity during that time. We even had a customer who lives in Australia call us to see how we were.”

 

Bruce, now that you’re in charge of IT, what have you done differently in regards to protecting your data?

Bruce: “We now back up to various places so that we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket. We have internal drives that we use here that are taken offsite on a daily basis, and then we also have external backup done as well.”

 

What advice would you give to a dealer who does not have a solid data recovery plan in place?

Bruce: “There are so many things that can happen that you never think will happen to you. When it hits, it’s too late. You have to be proactive on these things and make sure you can recover in the event of a disaster. It could be anything from a flood, a hurricane, a tornado, or somebody could break into your operation and take all of that valuable information just by taking your server. Something like that can literally put you out of business. Let’s face it, we rely on computers for almost everything. When you have a dealer management system without a recovery plan and lose that information, you may have to literally sit there and key-punch every single part number. At the end of the day, for anybody that doesn’t have any sort of plan in place, the only thing I can say is get on it, don’t wait, do it now. Yesterday would be better.”

 

Any advice to dealers who experience a similar situation with the loss of their business?

Bruce: “Get started on the rebuild right away. Don’t waste any time at all. If you are already in that loss position, just get out of it as soon as you can. That went a long way with our insurance company, because they were fantastic with us. I can’t complain. They were there with us the very next day.” 

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