Nobody knows how the fire started.
Robert Brownlee, president of Magna Exteriors and Interiors Corp., got the news on his BlackBerry while traveling.
On Wednesday, March 2, a 5 p.m. blaze on an assembly line in Magna's interior trim plant in Howell reduced a third of the factory to blackened wreckage.
All 100 employees on the afternoon shift escaped injury, but Brownlee knew he had a huge problem. The plant makes headliners, rear-window trays, door panels, instrument-panel skins and other products for 16 assembly plants operated by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and Nissan North America Inc.
Within 24 hours, some of those assembly plants slowed production while others shut down. Brownlee gave himself just two days to resume production at the Howell plant.
This is a story about crisis management how a company reacts when a disaster disrupts normal decision-making. A manager has to create order out of chaos, and he has to do it right now.
Even before the fire was extinguished, Brownlee called his managers and brainstormed options. They started with a worst-case scenario: What if the factory is totaled?
They would have to put the tooling on flatbed trucks and take it ... where? Magna has two U.S. plants in Spartanburg, S.C., and Nashville, Ill. that make similar products. Magna also has two Mexican plants in Toluca and Saltillo that could accommodate the tooling.
That night, Brownlee ordered all four plants to begin around-the-clock production to build inventories for their customers.
Then, if necessary, Magna could move the Howell tooling into those plants and build parts for Howell's customers.
Next, Brownlee's managers assembled a reconstruction team. They brought in 20 electricians, plus pipefitters, millwrights, mechanics, toolmakers and information-technology experts.
While the fire smoldered, the reconstruction team gathered in Howell, Brownlee said. The next night, the fire marshal allowed Brownlee's team into the damaged factory.
A structural engineer inspected the plant and had some good news.
An interior wall had confined the fire to one portion of the plant. Although the fire had spread to the ceiling ruining all the electrical cables most of the plant could be restored.
But 30 percent of the plant was a lost cause.
Of the plant's four production sectors, Area A was relatively unscathed, Area B and Area C were damaged, and Area D was destroyed.
Brownlee ordered Magna's warehouse in Brighton, Mich., to ship some machinery in storage to Saltillo, where a temporary production line was set up to make headliners for GM pickups and SUVs.
On Friday, workers in Howell removed damaged tooling from the rubble and trucked it about 12 miles southeast to Brighton for cleaning and refurbishing.
We'd pick a piece of the roof up, get underneath and get the machinery out, recalls Peter Goguen, Magna Exteriors' vice president of operations.
Some of the machinery stayed in the Brighton warehouse, which set up a makeshift assembly line. On Saturday, Brighton began producing consoles and package trays.
Brownlee jokes that some of the refurbished machinery looked like burned toast, but the tooling was usable.
Meanwhile, the reconstruction team in Howell worked frantically to build a temporary wall and roof to seal off the undamaged portion of the factory, so workers could restart production.
Howell's heating and electrical systems had been destroyed, so Magna brought in a dozen diesel generators to heat and light the factory.
While repairs to the roof continued, production workers in the undamaged portion of the factory inside wore snowmobile suits, mittens and other winter gear to stay warm. They continued to remove debris and clear out damaged inventories as snow flurries fell through the damaged roof.
On Saturday morning, roughly 36 hours after the fire was extinguished, the work teams got a boost when the lights came back on in Area A. That was the least-damaged part of the factory, where Magna produced flooring for Chrysler vehicles.
The turning point
That was the turning point, when everyone started to think this was doable, Brownlee recalled. All day Friday, we had been fumbling around in the dark with temporary lights.
The momentum of the recovery effort picked up, and on Saturday night just two days after the fire was extinguished workers restarted some machinery and test-produced some floor components.
That's when the recovery effort hit a snag. The plant workers encountered glitches each time they restarted the machinery.
Brownlee's managers were still overseeing the plant's reconstruction as well as efforts to restart machinery. He realized they were trying to do too much.
On Sunday afternoon, he assembled his senior managers, made each responsible for launching a particular line and told them to hand off other duties, such as the reconstruction effort, to subordinates.
Said Brownlee: Everybody was still running around. So I said: 'You go here, and you go there, and do nothing else.'
But simply producing parts wasn't enough. Brownlee had to prove that components made in Howell met customers' quality standards.
All automaker customers had sent representatives to the Brighton warehouse, where they received daily updates on the Howell plant's progress. As the assembly lines restarted, each automaker signed off on quality-control protocol.
Brownlee began to relax.
Six days after the fire was extinguished, Howell's 450 employees were operating the plant at 80 percent of capacity, while the Brighton warehouse made up the difference.
Did Magna have a disaster plan to cope with such an accident? Brownlee shakes his head. I don't know if there's a manual for this, he said.
Brownlee said the Howell plant's quick recovery was driven by management's determination to show customers we would do whatever it took to get them back up and running.