Site Upgrade Mitigated Unforeseeable Crisis

On Aug. 6, Gar Tootelian Inc. (GAR) experienced its first fire in its 68-year history. The machine shop has an estimated $2 million in damage, and the business lost equipment, tools and a delivery truck. But no one was injured. No chemicals were burned. And the fire was contained to the machine shop.

GAR is the nation’s largest single-location retail operation and was named the 2016 Retailer of the Year. The facility covers a little more than 15 acres and includes a new chemical warehouse. Since 2012, the company has invested more than $10 million in expanding and improving its facilities and its ability to rapidly meet the needs of area growers.

“Part of our facility improvement was to allow traffic and moving room around buildings,” explains co-owner Karen Musson.

Included in that footprint was allowing for the 55,000-square-foot chemical warehouse to be 200 yards away from the shop and installing a 28,000-gal. fire suppression tank.

Growth And Safety Hand-In-Hand. “We ramped up our emergency plan and training when we expanded. So as the plant got bigger, we had more people and realized the newer employees may not have known the products as well. And also, we provide a regulatory compliance and training program to our growers. That model made us aware we needed to maintain the same documentation for ourselves as our growers,” Musson says.

As the facility got larger, the company also invested in its security. On the morning of Aug. 6, the GAR management team was alerted to the fire and could view the on-site cameras via their cell phones. The team has had that functionality for three years.

“People consider security necessary because of theft, and that is a big thing, but you need to think of it from an emergency response plan perspective,” Musson says. “It’s our job to protect customers, staff, products and community. That’s important.”

In the past 10 years, the team at GAR has sharpened its focus on employee training with monthly safety meetings.

“We want everyone to know the proper evacuation plan and security measures so people know what to do and who to call,” says Ralph Rendon, director of marketing and finance at GAR. “Part of the plan is to call neighbors, which we managed to reach all of them on Sunday and let them know the fire was contained to the shop, and there were no chemicals to worry about.”

On the Monday after the fire, business was able to be conducted as usual. The team that operates in the damaged shop building was relocated to a nearby temporary site still on the GAR facility.

“We were caught up on orders, didn’t miss any orders and business wasn’t slowed,” Rendon says.

No foul play is suspected.