The fire that swept through Robinson Industries Inc. in Coleman, Mich., destroyed thermoforming machines, tooling and offices, but it hasn't stopped the 75-year-old company from conducting business while it plans to rebuild, thanks to some surprising support.
"Some of our competitors amazingly are offering us machine time. We're working out the details for our employees to go there," Robinson Industries Marketing Manager Ronda Robinson said in a phone interview.
Her grandparents, Fred and Ardis Robinson, started the company in their basement in 1947 selling artificial polystyrene foam snow.
Robinson Industries grew to employ 200 people at two sites in Coleman, a small town of 1,250 people in mid-Michigan. The women-owned business produces pallets, packaging, ice-fishing sleds and consumer goods for Ford, GM and national retailers with about 17 machines.
The machine fleet was almost wiped out in the March 31 fire that took six hours and 1 million gallons of water to extinguish.
The fire started on the midnight shift, at about 5:20 a.m. Plastic sheet had been heated to a state Robinson describes as "liquid drapes" to form into parts.
"A plastic part fell onto the burner and, being a petroleum-based product, it took off," she said. "The fire started on a machine. It was nobody's fault. It just happened."
Employees tried to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher and at one point it seemed they succeeded.
"But it sparked again," Robinson said. "The focus then became finding everyone and getting them out to safety."
The 25 employees escaped without injuries into the cold and darkness as first responders from about 20 townships, cities and counties made their way to the large rural commercial fire.
Robinson called the actions of first responders heroic.
"What they did gives me goosebumps," she said. "They really put themselves right on the line. They parked a truck between the fire and our propane tank then directed the water to keep flames from the tank. I'm sure it saved lives. That would have been a huge explosion."
Still, a lot of damage was done. The main production plant is a heap of rubble. A week after the fire, insurance adjusters were still surveying the toll.
Robinson said one machine was spared because it was in another building, so it can be used for production. Some finished goods also made it through unscathed and were shipped to the customer on April 4.
"It looks like a bomb went off, but we never closed," Robinson said. "We stayed in business, and we're making huge advances every day."
Several machines also look like they can be quickly rewired and refurbished.
"We will have to get a temporary building or move them to parts of the plants not affected by the fire while we rebuild the main plant," Robinson said.
Robinson Industries has several buildings outside the damaged area at its headquarters site that can be utilized as well as another facility about 5 miles away, where structural foam work is done.
The molds used to form the parts are in various states.
"Some are fine. Some need work. Others are completely demolished," Robinson said. "We're starting to rebuild those already."
Company departments that handle product design, prototypes, sheet extrusion and maintenance weren't affected and also are back on the job or will be soon. Other workers will be called back in phases. Robinson expects everyone will get the call.
"We really want them to stay with us," she said.
In the meantime, workers will receive unemployment benefits and the company will pay their health insurance for three months. They will receive discounted medical care, too, through a regional agency that also has a retraining program.
To fill orders and return more employees to the payroll as quickly as possible, Robinson said the owners will accept "wheels," which are the machines that make the thermoformed parts, from some companies in Michigan.
"Competitors are giving us their machine time to produce our pallets, shipping trays and other products. That's generous," Robinson said. "We're talking to them individually."
The mayors of nearby towns, suppliers and construction trade workers also have asked what they can do to help.
In addition, former Robinson Industry workers have volunteered their skills and time if needed.
"Retirees have asked, 'Can I come back and help?'" Robinson said. "Nobody wants money. They just want to help. The outpouring of support has been incredible. We have heard from dozens, maybe hundreds, of people between community members, businesses, service providers and competitors. It's like how we felt after 9/11. People pulled together. It's that kind of a feeling."
Robinson said she didn't have permission yet at press time to name the competitors offering aid.
With estimated annual sales of $30 million, Robinson Industries ranks 61st among North American thermoformers, according to Plastics News' latest ranking.
"Right now our focus is on the immediate tasks," Robinson said. "We're cleaning up, making sure employees are OK, and each sales person is working closely with their customers to see what is needed now. What are the really hot jobs? We will move those to the machines we have or to the other locations that have offered us machine time."
While employees and owners work to maintain operations, they also are looking ahead to what Robinson Industries will be like beyond its 75th anniversary.
Second-generation owners who are in their 80s have led the talks about constructing a new manufacturing plant and offices, according to Robinson.
"My uncle, Bin Robinson, called the plant manager 45 minutes after the fire broke out and said, 'Start thinking about how you want to rebuild,'" she said.