When a plane crash killed the two owners of Plymouth Foam Inc., plus the vice president of operations, employees were in a state of shock. But decisive action by other managers and the board of directors kept the foam molder going.
``We were really trying to stress as much of a normal schedule as possible,'' said David Bolland, who is now president and chief operating officer of the Plymouth, Wis., firm. ``There was a weekly production meeting. We had communications going out on Monday immediately to our employees, as well as our suppliers and customers about what was actually taking place.''
Bolland and Tom Testwuide, chairman and chief executive officer, described actions taken to keep the company moving forward during the traumatic first weeks. They kept delivering the message that Plymouth was a solid company with a good succession plan, they said at the Plastics News Executive Forum, held Feb. 25-28 in San Diego.
On Feb. 4, 2005, the plane crash killed Scott and Vance Roberts - brothers and 50-50 owners - and Mike Borzcik, vice president of operations.
Ownership was in the hands of the Roberts brothers' widows, both named Diana. They were housewives and mothers. ``These were two widows, neither in the business. And neither of them really wanted to be in business,'' Testwuide said.
One of the first moves was to get company directors actively involved. The board, which had played only an advisory role, was thrust into the position of running things.
At the forum, Testwuide and Bolland advised family-owned companies to have an independent, active board to maintain continuity if something bad happens.
Board members immediately came to Plymouth Foam and were very visible in the plant. They promoted Bolland, who had joined the company about two years earlier as sales and marketing director, to the president and COO post.
The leaders wanted to project a feeling that the company was in control and stable. ``The first thing we said is that the corporate culture here is changing - has changed. Not because we wanted it to be, but because it has. It's gone from an owner-managed company to a professionally managed company, directed by a board of directors,'' Testwuide said.
Workers and the new management team had to gain the confidence to make decisions.
Patriarch Tec Roberts, who founded Plymouth Foam in 1978, rejoined the board. He had sold the company to his sons in 1998.
Testwuide, who lives in Florida, came to the headquarters temporarily to help run things. He convinced both widows to join the board.
Another key move was handling television and newspaper reporters as they descended upon Plymouth after the crash. Bolland was designated the spokesman. ``We decided to be proactive about talking to the press. I granted every interview that was requested, and with the condition that the group would not approach our employees or the family members,'' he said.
A few months later, the company sought out the media to update the story again.
``Active [public relations] really reduced the amount of misperceptions,'' Bolland said.
Today the firm has a three-year strategic plan. And employees have a new understanding of how everything can change in an instant.