When Plymouth Foam Inc.'s three top officials were killed in a plane crash last year, those left to mourn the loss of their friends and leaders also had another problem on their hands - an image problem.
On a human level, the loss was devastating. But on a business level, it was critical to show customers and suppliers that the wheels weren't falling off at the Plymouth, Wis.-based manufacturer of expanded polystyrene foam packaging and building products.
Fast forward 18 months, and you won't find a company reeling from a sucker punch, but one thriving in the face of adversity.
It was Feb. 4, 2005, when the unthinkable happened.
A plane crash during a routine business trip took the lives of Plymouth Foam's three top officials: President and co-owner Scott Roberts, 41; his brother Vance Roberts, 49, who shared ownership and was vice president of development and technical services; and Mike Borzcik, 51, vice president of operations.
Pilot Paul Riddle also was killed in the crash.
>From a strategic standpoint, Plymouth Foam President David Bolland credits the collective efforts of company employees and the successful conversion from a geographical sales approach to a divisional sales structure.
``It's the most significant change we've had,'' Bolland said in an Aug. 2 interview. ``Through the process, we recognized good growth areas that we weren't addressing.''
Roughly 60 percent of Plymouth Foam's business comes from its building products manufacturing, which sells structural insulated panels and insulated concrete forms. The remainder of its business is in EPS foam packaging.
Plymouth Foam started manufacturing the panels after its 2003 acquisition of two 60,000-square-foot plants in Newcomerstown, Ohio. The company employs about 50 in Ohio. It also has manufacturing plants in Becker, Minn., and Plymouth, and employs nearly 200 companywide.
Plymouth Foam officials are in the midst of exploring expansion opportunities in Ohio. They are considering transferring work from one of the two Newcomerstown plants to a new, 80,000-square-foot plant in nearby Gnadenhutten, Ohio.
The company's building systems are part of an emerging market of foundation, wall and roofing materials that are trying to work their way into the mainstream.
Already, energy efficiency and quick installation times have made structural insulated panels and insulated concrete forms a popular choice of contractors building large, commercial projects.
The real fight will be in residential construction, where those in the EPS building products business believe they have a superior product to traditional lumber-based home construction but have to overcome tradition and comfort levels on the part of consumers and builders.
``Do we think it could be the largest part of our business? Yes,'' Bolland said. ``What we need to do is really communicate that story a lot better. It's a grass-roots effort.
``And we need to build up a distribution channel to support that growth.''
With gas prices hovering near $3 per gallon, and historically high oil and natural gas prices, people are beginning to recognize the energy-efficient benefits of EPS building products, Bolland said.
``You can see the excitement. You can see that people get it. This is why people are excited about hybrid vehicles,'' he said. ``This is not just an anomaly.''
The rank-and-file employees at Plymouth Foam are starting to see it, too, he said, especially coming off the biggest year in company history.
``Everyone has developed self-confidence. They're not surprised that they've achieved this. Now they have high expectations,'' he said. ``And the market continues to change. In order to serve customer needs, we also need to change and challenge our paradigm so that we can offer the greatest value.''
Shea Walker, business director for Huntsman EPS, a division of Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Corp., is among those who initially questioned whether Plymouth Foam could survive following the accident.
``There's the initial sense that `This is tragic, and jeez, are they going to be able to stay solvent?''' he said.
But the business relationship never missed a beat, he said.
Ask anyone familiar with the situation, and the same two words will keep coming up: succession planning.
Bolland credits the Roberts brothers and Borzcik for having the wisdom and foresight to have plans in the place to ensure continuity.
``I think the best evidence is that over that time, we didn't lose a single customer due to any hiccups or major issues,'' Bolland said.
``We didn't see any negative effect of it,'' Huntsman's Walker said. ``If you think about the gravity of the event ... to me, that's pretty impressive.''
Bolland said companies interested in developing a viable succession plan should first start by assembling a diverse board of directors, even if the company is private. He recommends one with business leaders and objective advisers that are going to bring a plethora of ideas, knowledge and expertise to the table.
``When we went through that experience, the board really brought in their credibility,'' he said.
At Plymouth Foam, everyone walks a fine line between not dwelling in the past, but respecting the men who paved the way for the company to persevere through the most nightmarish of circumstances, both personally and financially.
The top three company officials - lost in a blink. Then the unthinkable happened: Plymouth Foam thrived.