Jeremy Deppe, general manager

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the September issue of sister publication Nursery Management magazine

Spring Meadow Nursery’s office building and everything within it was completely destroyed by the fire.

Jeremy Deppe received a text message at 4 a.m. on a chilly January morning. It was from his father, Dale Deppe, the owner of Spring Meadow Nursery, and it included a photo of the nursery’s office engulfed in flames.

Jeremy, the nursery’s general manager, was six hours away attending his son’s soccer tournament.

“I told my wife and kids, ‘I’ve got to go,’” he says. “You’ll have to find a way home because I’m leaving right now.”

By the time he made it back from Ohio to Grand Haven, Mich., the fire crews had left and the office was a smoldering ruin.

Firefighters from six different townships had worked through the night to subdue the blaze. The first fire crews responded within five minutes of receiving the 2:48 a.m. call reporting the fire. But when they arrived on the scene, the roof of the office building had already collapsed. The fire chief from Robinson Township, Spring Meadow’s local department, knows how valuable the greenhouses are to the business. In fact, when his crew first arrived, their first move wasn’t to begin working on the office — the building that was actually on fire. They touched the walls of the greenhouses closest to the office, found that they were hot to the touch, and started hosing them off. If not for that quick thinking, the fire might have claimed the high-value structures and the young plants housed within them. The firefighters continued working through the night until nearly 8 a.m., and ultimately succeeded in protecting the nursery’s multimillion dollar investments in plants and structures.

Jeremy Deppe walks through one of Spring Meadow Nursery’s greenhouses.

The aftermath

After the fire crews left, the Spring Meadow staff started combing through the wreckage. There wasn’t much to save.

“We found some books, T-shirts, coffee mugs, but they were all charred up,” Jeremy says. The nursery’s IT team tried to salvage the company’s servers, but they were unrecoverable.

However, the nursery was prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. Most of the nursery’s documents and data were backed up digitally, but some important paperwork was stored in fireproof cabinets in the office. The cabinets held contracts with several large customers, as well as plant patent and trademark documents.

The fireproof cabinets lived up to their name. Some of the files on the top shelves were slightly damp from steam released as the cabinets heated up during the blaze, and everything reeked of smoke, but all of the files survived. Spring Meadow is contracting with a company to clean and scan those documents, so they will have digital copies of everything going forward.

Of course, the destruction of the office created plenty of logistical difficulties for the nursery. The phone system, internet and computer networks were all housed in the office. There was no drinkable water, because the well used for that particular purpose was in that building. Several of Spring Meadow’s greenhouses were electronically controlled from that office.

The Spring Meadow team began the reconstruction effort by asking questions and setting priorities. One of the first decisions the group made was to use the lunchroom as the new office. Once that decision was made, the next steps could be set in motion. The top priorities were getting electricity back and being able to control the greenhouses again, getting water up and running so employees could use the bathrooms, and re-establishing communication with the outside world. Spring Meadow brought in contractors to add electrical outlets and wiring, fiber and network connections for 40-plus new computers.

Water and power were back by Monday, internet was back on Tuesday, environmental controls were in place by Wednesday and employees’ computers were mostly set up by Friday. In many ways, Spring Meadow was back to business within a week, though Jeremy says that has less to do with Spring Meadow than its business partners. For instance, Argus Controls, Spring Meadow’s main supplier of environmental controls, overnighted new main units to replace those lost in the fire. The production team didn’t have to hand-water its liners for long.

“You’re only as good as your partners,” he says. “A lot of this work was done by outside contractors that we use on a regular basis. We called them on Sunday afternoon and said, ‘We’ve had a fire. We’re going to need your help this week.’ They did whatever they had to do to be here and get us back up and going. They worked some long hours to do it. To me, they’re not vendors, they’re partners. It’s times like these where it really shines through that they care about us, and we care about them. We help each other out.”

Business as usual

News of the fire spread considerably slower than the fire itself. As the building smoldered, Spring Meadow’s leadership team had a question to answer: how do you communicate with your team when you don’t have an office anymore?

The nursery’s phone and email systems were casualties of the fire. Spring Meadow’s employees needed to know if they could come to work — if there was even a place for them to work.

Spring Meadow had set up a private Facebook group a few years ago for staff members to communicate with one another. It’s a closed group, so only Spring Meadow employees can join. Usually, there would be one post every other week or so. In the aftermath of the fire, the nursery staff leaned heavily on that tool to communicate. Jeremy and other members of the Spring Meadow team posted multiple updates each day, keeping employees in the loop. It was easier and more efficient than a few hundred text messages.

Spring Meadow Nursery propagates, sells and ships flowering shrub liners anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. As word trickled out across the country about the fire, many of the growers who rely on Spring Meadow were worried. With no office phone or email capabilities, it was tougher to communicate with the outside world. But with additional tools like cell phones, personal email addresses and the official Spring Meadow Nursery Facebook page, the team could push regular updates to concerned customers and the industry in general.

“Our sales team did a fantastic job of reaching out to as many customers as possible, letting them know that we’re okay, letting them know that the plants were fine,” Jeremy says. “Our marketing team did a great job with press releases and communicating over social media.”

One of Spring Meadow’s goals was to keep production rolling along smoothly through the fire recovery process with minimal customer impact. If a customer didn’t already know about the fire, they’d never think that their liner supplier was working through a major disaster. Jeremy says the production team got back to work right away and began taking orders again the week following the fire.

“We received a number of emails and calls from people thanking us and letting us know that they’re thinking about us with the office being gone, but thankful that from their perspective they didn’t notice any changes,” Jeremy says. “It was business as usual.”
Production continued on schedule despite the fire.
Early in the recovery process, Spring Meadow converted its lunchroom into a temporary office.

Lessons learned

Not every facet of the recovery has been smooth. Years ago, the nursery set up an automatic nightly file backup system to keep a copy of its sales and production data at a secure off-site location. But having a backup plan in place isn’t enough. You need to actually test it to make sure it is working the way you think it is. Spring Meadow’s data recovery process was set back a full week longer than it would have been if the backup system had been thoroughly tested, Jeremy says.

Spring Meadow also has been deep in the insurance abyss. The process of filing a claim like theirs is complicated and time-consuming. The company had business interruption and extra expense coverage. Spring Meadow didn’t have to dip into its business interruption coverage, but if the nursery lost any of its greenhouses in the fire, it would have been vital to the recovery. Business interruption would have covered the lost income from any fire-damaged inventory, as well as the associated costs of rebuilding the greenhouse structures.

Many smaller operations may not opt for extra expense coverage. Extra expense covers money that you need to spend in the event of a loss that isn’t a normal course-of-business expense. An example would be when Spring Meadow hired contractors for a week to set up its network and phone systems.

“If we hadn’t had a loss, we wouldn’t have spent that money,” Jeremy says. “But because we had a loss, we spent it. An insurance company, under our extra expense policy, will cover those.”

Most insurance companies recommend taking photos of your operation once a year to document your facility. If you have a partial loss, you may be able to get by without that documentation. But in the event of a total loss, there’s nothing to check your memory against if you don’t have those photos. When filing an insurance claim, your data must be presented a certain way. Spring Meadow chose to get expert help from a third-party public adjuster.

“We don’t like to spend our money on consultants and expensive hourly people, but they’ve proven to be a huge asset for us,” Jeremy says.

The adjuster interviewed Spring Meadow’s staff to fill in some of the blanks about the office: how many offices were there? How much of it was drywall? Were parts carpeted or tile? How many computers were there?

“It’s been a pretty daunting process trying to document the hundreds or thousands of things that were inside the office to make sure we get reimbursed and make sure that we get enough money from the insurance company to rebuild the office the way that it was,” Jeremy says.

Plans have already been drafted for a new office.

Bright future

Of course, Spring Meadow isn’t going to continue cramming its office workers into a converted lunchroom forever. If there is a silver lining in the loss of the office building, it’s that the fire accelerated the timeline for construction of a new office. Jeremy says the old office had been bursting at the seams for quite some time. In fact, plans had already been drawn up for an expansion that would double the size of the existing office.

Dale Deppe is spearheading the new office construction project. The first decision was where the new office should go. As the nursery has grown, the old office was becoming hemmed in by more and more greenhouses. By moving the office’s location, the Spring Meadow team can expand those greenhouses to allow for more efficient production. Currently, the site of the old office is used as a parking lot.

Dale is relishing the work of planning the new offices, which is fine with Jeremy.

“It’s not my cup of tea by any means,” Jeremy says. “By having him be the point person on that, it’s allowed me to focus on day-to-day, week-to-week operations.”

Overall, the Spring Meadow team considers itself very lucky. Perhaps an odd statement considering the total loss of a building, but the circumstances surrounding the fire could have been much worse.

“If this fire would have happened in the spring, it would have been devastating,” Jeremy says. “It happened in January. We had plenty of time to regroup and move forward. We’re really lucky that it started in the middle of the night. Nobody was here. Nobody got hurt. And we were really lucky that the greenhouses were unaffected and the crops were fine.”

Many different fire investigators have tried to determine the actual cause of the fire. Although theories have been proposed, none have been validated. While losing its office and everything within it was a setback, it galvanized the Spring Meadow team to build tighter bonds and grow stronger as a company.

“In the grand scheme of life, they were just things,” Jeremy says. “It was just stuff in a building. The important things in life and in business were just fine. It’s allowed our team to bind together a little bit, have each other’s backs, and support [one another]. The temporary office is a little cozy. We all deal with that. But we’ve grown together as a team. We’ve grown together as a company. It’s another reminder that life is full of challenges and obstacles, and our ability to come together as a team and overcome those will continue to build Spring Meadow Nursery. If we put our mind to it, we can do it.”

Matt is managing editor of sister publication Nursery Management magazine.