In early August, Peter Neumann's vision of water went from paradise to nightmare. The president of injection press maker Engel Vertriebsgesellschaft mbH was halfway around the world, on a sailing vacation with friends in French Polynesia, when word reached him that rising flood waters had swamped his firm's headquarters in Schwertberg, Austria.
He first learned of the disaster by reading about it on the Internet, since water had engulfed the Austrian plant's computer servers, knocking out his access to e-mail.
Neumann soon was flying back home, unaware of what he was about to encounter. On Aug. 8, the normally shallow, slow-moving waters of the River Aist, swollen by terrible storms, did something they had never done in the company's 57 years on that site: The Aist burst its banks and flooded much of the surrounding region. Flood waters washed through all of Engel's massive complex, which covers 345,000 square feet of production space.
The factory was shut down at the time for its usual, two-week summer holiday. The waters receded the next day, and company executives, employees and others pitched in and had the plant reasonably cleaned up by Aug. 12.
But by the time Neumann arrived that night, the unthinkable was happening. The waters again began rising. And rising. And rising.
``I arrived as the second flood was happening. Between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., the water rose 2.3 meters [7.6 feet] above floor level,'' Neumann recounted in an Oct. 4 interview at the recent Interplas trade show in Birmingham. Engel's maintenance chief, Markus Huber, was caught in the plant. ``There was no power. The batteries went out on his portable lamp. He was in complete darkness.''
The fast-rising water also trapped two other plant employees in another part of the huge plant, he said. Their cell phones did not work, and they could not communicate with each other, or with the outside world. Neumann said Huber described a terrifying night, as the building shook from the force of the water as it smashed windows, and cracked and buckled walls, making a roaring sound as it consumed sections of the complex.
``He was afraid of collapse, so he kept moving from one part of the building to another. The power of the water was unbelievable,'' Neumann said.
The three workers were located and evacuated safely by helicopter the following day. Remarkably, no one at Engel or in Schwertberg was killed by the flood.
Then the waters again receded. The next day, Neumann said, 600 of the plant's 1,300 employees abandoned their summer holidays and joined 400 members of the Austrian army at the plant to start sorting through the debris. Simply organizing the efforts of 1,000 soldiers and volunteers was a huge logistical task in its own right, he said.
The damage was mind-boggling. For three full weeks, workers shoveled, mostly by hand, what amounted to 1,000 truckloads of sand, mud and debris out of the factory. Worst hit was the area Engel uses to fabricate metal components for the small and midsize injection molding machines that it builds at the site.
``Sixty-two machine tooling centers were completely destroyed,'' Neumann said. They cost between $500,000 and $5 million each. There were 130 injection presses in the assembly halls, in various stages of completion, when the floods hit. Every machine has had to be completely torn apart and rebuilt.
``We could only reuse the main mechanical body, the frame,'' the Engel president explained. All the electronic controls, other hydraulic and electrical components, and even the sheet metal, had to be thrown away and replaced. While many personal effects and some records were forever lost, key corporate files — such as orders, invoices and quality data - were retrievable since they were backed up on a system kept at the company's St. Valentin, Austria, plant.
Neumann declined to reveal a specific damage estimate from the flood, citing confidentiality of the privately owned firm's finances. He would say only that damages easily exceeded 100 million euros (more than $100 million).
Less than two months after the catastrophe, Engel, with assistance from competitors and others, was back in business and claimed to be operating almost normally. By early October the firm had shipped 35 of the fully refurbished ``flood machines'' to customers, and it expects to have delivered all 130 by the end of October.
``We will have full capacity for shipments by the beginning of December,'' said Neumann, noting that it will take another six to eight months before Engel will be able to supply all the mechanical parts it needs from its own plants. In the interim it has been using outside sources, including securing common components such as hydraulic pistons from competitors.
Engel now is running four to six weeks longer than normal on delivery lead times for new machine orders. ``This can hurt,'' Neumann said. In a recession, as the machinery market is in now, customers wait longer to buy and then want their machines as soon as possible when they do make a purchase.
By January he expects the firm can trim the delay to about two weeks, and return to normal delivery schedules within six to eight months. It all depends on Engel's ability to continue to secure in a timely manner the components and equipment to make its presses.
Through it all, Neumann said, the company has been heartened by tremendous support from all quarters, as well as by the loyalty of its customers.
``We didn't have one cancellation of a machine'' - even when orders were delayed six to eight weeks. ``We had very, very good support from our customers.''
Additionally, within two days of the flood, the company, unions and local government had agreed upon and signed a temporary contract that allowed Engel to bypass certain restrictive labor laws. It gained approval to work around the clock, seven days a week, without having to pay workers overtime. It also won the right to shift production to its other Austrian plants - something that national laws often prohibit.
The firm struck a deal to pay displaced employees - those who for the time being do not have work because of the flood damage - 60 percent of their normal pay. But Neumann noted that Engel has been able to shift most of Schwertberg's 700 shop-floor workers to other plants temporarily, and only 90 workers are now of this status.
Engel, which invested recently in both Canada and South Korea, remains in solid financial condition and will emerge from its recent disaster in good shape, according to its leader. While the firm discovered the hard way that it did not have adequate flood insurance for such a catastrophe, an ironic twist helped to soften its financial burden.
Neumann explained that, because the two floods occurred a few days apart, Engel, after some tough negotiations, was able to secure two separate damage payments from its insurance company. He maintains that these two payments, combined with disaster-recovery assistance from the Austrian government, covered all damages caused by the floods.
``Only lost production and sales were not covered, and this we can cover without a problem.'' He said the self-financed company is not at any financial risk.
The government, meantime, also has committed to spend a further 4.2 million euros to help flood-proof the plant. Around the site, the city will sink a water barrier deep into the earth, raise the streets by about 8 feet, and build a dam and concrete flood wall. If all goes well, that work will begin in December, and should be done by midsummer.
Engel had been planning before the disaster to expand the Schwertberg plant. The design work was done, and work on the project was to have started already. Any future investments will wait until the government completes its work to protect the site.
``Now we have the chance to restructure the factory, and invest in all new machines. We have a complete new concept for the plant. We've already restructured the assembly operation.''
The new plans call for Engel to expand its St. Valentin plant by about 70,000 square feet, to add more machining capabilities as well as capacity to produce tie bars to serve most of its needs worldwide. The exception is Canada, where it will continue to make tie bars in Guelph, Ontario, to help ensure it meets local-content provisions laid out by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
With the worst hopefully behind it, Engel now can look to the future.
``The workers initially were afraid,'' Neumann acknowledged. ``They wondered, one, is the company willing to invest, and, two, is it able to invest? Now they see the construction started, and they are very motivated.''
Additionally, the employees feel more like a tightly knit team, after having seen top executives as well as fellow workers pull on rubber boots and get their hands dirty.
``We have been through a nightmare, but now we will be stronger than ever.''