Fire Doesn't Stop Work at Foley Plastics Company

Fire doesn't stop work at Foley plastics company

By Kevin Allenspach, St. Cloud Times, Minn. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Oct. 27--FOLEY -- Business goes on as usual these days at Blow Molded Specialties.

Granted, the working conditions aren't what they used to be, but materials keep shipping out the back door -- and that's what counts.

Ten weeks ago today, the plastics manufacturer came close to becoming a casualty of a fire. The blaze started when a second-floor water heater malfunctioned and caused the wood above the first-floor ceiling to burst into flames.

While the company's two-story office area was a total loss, the fire did not penetrate the manufacturing portion of the 60,000-square-foot building. As a result, Blow Molded President Doug von Arb points out with pride that his company never missed a shipment.

Earlier this week, von Arb greeted visitors from the front end of a construction trailer, one of two in the parking lot that serve as temporary quarters for engineers, quality control staff and sales representatives. On von Arb's desk were two large, white boxes filled with freeze-dried documents, recovered from the wreckage.

"We're a strong company," he said of his 65 employees. "We'll come out of this well."

Those are more comforting thoughts than he had when he learned of the fire just before noon on Aug. 18. He was getting his car washed near his home west of Maple Lake. The ensuing 40-minute drive was torture, pushing the speed limit while wondering what he would find.

"I was thinking, 'Oh, God, if our presses go down, what are we going to do?' " said von Arb, 52, who only came to Blow Molded last November after almost 20 years with Delano-based Solar Plastics. "It was a huge relief when I got here and found the fire didn't get in the plant."

Weekends are generally idle at Blow Molded. If there had been anyone working, von Arb thinks the fire would have been discovered sooner and damage limited. Instead, most of his office staff and many other employees who lived nearby were watching firefighters pour water into the building by the time he arrived.

"The concern was the plastic parts we make have a lot of surface area and, if they ever started burning, it would be a pretty hot fire and a difficult one to put out," he said. "It could've been a lot worse."

Water damage

Not that there wasn't significant damage to the 17-year-old building at 222 Bronder Drive. A sprinkler system activated and five fire departments responded after the initial call from the alarm company. The factory restrooms were destroyed, meaning employees now have to use facilities in a heated trailer. Perhaps worst, the second floor contained all of Blow Molded's computer server racks -- ruined like most computers on the first floor by water damage. Some spare computers stored on the second floor melted.

"I'd never wish this on anybody," said Lesley Winkelman, administrative manager for Blow Molded, who celebrated her 20th anniversary with the company on Wednesday. "We thought we had a contingency plan, but our tape drive burned up. One thing I learned, you might think you're backed up. But unless it's outside your building, you're not really backed up."

Von Arb and his staff were able to find an old tape backup for their computer system, then found it took several days to locate a drive that could read its older technology.

"Now we're backed up all over," von Arb said. "We've got backups running in the Twin Cities and at our sister company in North Carolina."

Fire crews were on the scene for about five hours. By late the night of the blaze, workers had managed to seal the burned-out portion of the building with sheets of tin. Employees spent the next day salvaging what they could from the waterlogged office area and moving it to a next-door storage warehouse. Part of it has become the new office area, though to reach it from the factory you have to walk outside and over a small wooden bridge across a gully -- a trip that won't be fun once winter arrives.

Never missed a beat

But the plant was running the Monday after the fire. Von Arb said work orders, schedules and other necessary paperwork had been printed the previous Friday, allowing lines to continue. Manual forms were used for several days until employees were able to get back on their computer system.

"We've always been efficient, but what do you do without phones or computers?" Winkelman wondered. "The advantage of working in a small town is a lot of local people came through for us."

Integra Telecom helped her reroute company calls through her cellphone. Cloudnet arranged for wireless Internet service off the nearby water tower so she had four working email accounts on the Monday after the fire. A representative from DJV Label & Packaging answered a phone call on a fishing trip and quickly provided a couple of bar code printers. Minnesota Copy Systems had a copier on site by Monday morning. Those were just some examples of vendors who deserve "halos," according to Winkelman.

Von Arb said he wasn't sure what the final damage total would be, or the cost of reconstructing part of the building.

Blow Molded plans to expand its office area 50 feet toward Bronder Drive. Von Arb said he has been working with Rice Building Systems and hopes to get footings poured before Thanksgiving. By spring, all of the office space is expected to be recreated with additional storage and space for potential future office expansion on the second floor.

"We've been busy," von Arb said, referring to a big contract to produce 37 different cab parts for John Deere backhoes. "Our business level has been about the same this year, working five days a week, as it was last year, when we were working seven. But we've added six robots and 11 presses, so we're able to take on capacity a lot of our competitors can't. We've done $13 million in sales in the past year, so we were already looking at additional brick-and-mortar investments here anyway. We're coming into the busy time of the year because a lot of the lawn and garden and construction equipment pieces we make have to be sitting on a lot somewhere by spring. So I can see us adding additional people before long. I think this company has a bright future."

Tags:  plastic plant fire, fire sprinklers, fire suppression, plant fire

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