Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2009   by Andrew Ross

Team Effort Pulls Business From Fire

Business at Great West Auto Electric in Assiniboia, Sask., had been growing well in the few short months since Randy Wiebe, wife Leanne Tuntland-Wiebe, Sharon Walde, and managing partner Larry Reid purchased it. Then, on the coldest day of the year, a burning hotel fell on it.

The night of December 16 won’t be forgotten any time soon by Leanne.

“We got a call in the middle of the night that the store was burning. The building next door” –the 95-year-old Franklin Hotel–“was on fire. For a while they thought they were going to save our store, but it was the coldest day of the year, minus 50C with the wind chill, and water lines were breaking. There was about a half an hour where there was no water at all,” she recalls.

“About five o’clock the hotel fell on our store and that was it.” It took hours for the smoke to clear before they realized there was nothing left to salvage, though thankfully nobody was hurt in the blaze.

“The front of the store was still standing, but only because there was so much water in the walls and it froze so quickly.”

Wiebe says she and husband Randy spent a little while crying and wondering what to do, then got right to work rebuilding.

The search for a temporary home for the business got underway and a call went out to Uni-Select’s warehouse in Regina.

“I got a call Tuesday morning from Randy,” says Rod Ashley, general manager of the warehouse. “He was pretty emotional. I had never heard that tone of voice from him.

“We had some extra shelving here at the Regina warehouse. I rented a cube van and put in some stock orders. We got all the stock ready on Thursday and on Friday morning loaded up the shelving and inventory and went to Assiniboia. We put up the shelving that day and the next.”

And, adds Ashley, all the while town locals would come in to pay their bill, offer a hand, loan a forklift, or ask what they could do to help.

“It was emotional. People were ready and willing to throw some money together. The baker brought cinnamon buns over. The whole community was behind them. It’s the way of the Prairies maybe.”

Phones were temporarily re-routed to their Swift Current branch nearly two hours away, but rebuilding went on regardless. By the Friday after the fire, the store had stock, a counter, and the phones were ringing. As more shelving went in, more inventory was arriving to fill it. Within days the computer system was in and generating pick tickets. Orders were coming in.

“Uni-Select is just bending over backwards,” says Wiebe. “Reps have been helping and the suppliers are calling it a new store start-up, so we’re getting terms etc. That’s helping because they know we aren’t going to get insurance right away and we have to be open and start generating business.” Wiebe expected inventory levels to be at 100% at the store by the end of January.

She says that a couple of lessons have been learned: one is that you never know as much about your insurance as you thought, and the other is that it pays to invest in a strong computer system, with good backup.

“When we bought the store in July, it was always part of the plan to integrate it with Swift Current. We didn’t lose any customer data or inventory information. We are miles ahead because of that.”

Overall, the speed of response, and the hands-on help received from so many individuals to get the new store up and running in only days, has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.

“I am told that is kind of unheard-of. We had a tremendous amount of support from Uni-Select and suppliers and from the community. That gave us the courage and stamina to rebuild.”

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