LENEXA, Kan. — Employees with a can-do spirit, generous competitors, a hardworking team of contractors, and partnering with a supportive laundry equipment supplier helped Tapco Products Co. turn tragedy into opportunity after fire destroyed its laundry operations here last year, company officials say.
Tapco rebuilt its laundry in record time, and the company believes it is operating with greater efficiency and more productivity than ever before.
When the blaze broke out in the early-morning hours of May 28, 2009, at the industrial laundry facility in this Kansas City-area suburb, it was fortunate that nobody was in the plant. Investigators believe an electrical problem, or the spontaneous combustion of shop towels, caused the fire. The operation, with the exception of the building itself, was declared a total loss.
A day promising to dawn as business as usual instead brought the challenges of continuing to serve more than 1,000 mat-and-towel customers, along with the daunting task of rebuilding.
Brad Pepin, Tapco president, recalls those early hours as employees began reporting to work.
“We heard people talking about going to file for unemployment. They figured that everything was pretty much done,” he says. “So what we told them was they needed to go out in their trucks and make deliveries – and they did.
“That day we did all the deliveries but four, because the towels were wet from the firefighters. There were no layoffs. There was no downtime for anybody.”
Pepin attributes his company’s ability to continue operations to the immediate, gracious assistance of its competitors, and to the collegiality of the often fire-prone laundry industry. It’s estimated that one in six laundries will have a reportable fire each year, he says.
COMPETITORS PITCH IN TO KEEP TAPCO OPERATIONS SEAMLESS
“All of our local competition called and asked us what they could do to help and support us,” Pepin says. “The reality of what we do is there are not a lot of people who can help out, and it’s not like we can move to another warehouse across the street and just keep running.”
The support of two companies in particular — Faultless Linen and Excel Linen Supply, both in nearby Kansas City, Mo. — proved to be huge. Faultless processed “a majority” of Tapco’s work, and Excel processed additional goods for nearly two months.
“At Excel, we would drop off the towels in the morning and pick up in the afternoon and come back here to fold. We would build up inventory so we were always operating ahead. With the mats, at night Faultless would work overtime and process poundage for us, then we would have people there to separate them and lay them out. Tapco people would come in the next morning and separate the mats and service the routes.”
Working 10 hours a day in a four-day workweek also helped, he adds.
Outsourcing through Faultless and Excel enabled Tapco to maintain virtually seamless service to its customers. “In fact, a lot of customers didn’t even know we had a fire until we told them several months later,” says Brett Pepin, Tapco vice president.
While business continued, the rebuilding process got into full swing. Since all of the equipment had to be replaced, Tapco and the support team at manufacturer G.A. Braun used the opportunity to install new, more efficient equipment, and implement a new facility design that optimized material and workflow.
“The support team at G.A. Braun was huge in helping out,” Brett Pepin says. “They were here the next day. They did layouts and had equipment ready to go before we were even ready to take it.”
Replacement equipment included two 650N2 washer-extractors, two 700 PT dryers, and a new OPSH66 shuttle and conveyor system. Also, the plant added new technology through Braun’s WASHNET data-management and decision-support software. “It’s like having a virtual repair person with the remote troubleshooting capability right from the factory,” explains Brad Pepin.
OPERATING COSTS DOWN, PRODUCTIVITY UP
A little more than three months after the fire, Tapco’s laundry operation was up and running again better than ever. Because of the newer, more efficient equipment, natural gas costs have decreased and employee productivity is up, company officials say.
“Because of the new Braun equipment, our gas bills are much lower,” says Brad Pepin. “The Braun 700 PT dryers provide us with exceptional energy efficiency, and the dry times are truly outstanding. And the grand scheme is not yet even implemented. We are in the process of implementing a new water-reuse system, so we will be able to save a lot on water and sewer costs.”
Tapco had to work extra hours to get everything finished using its old washers. The new equipment has eliminated overtime. “Now, we are doing 240 pounds per operator hour and we could easily do 275-300 pounds. We have a lot of extra capacity we could fill.”
The new shuttle and conveyor system makes it “much easier” on the operators who are responsible for loading and unloading goods, he adds.
What lessons have been learned from the experience? Brad Pepin points to the importance of having a disaster plan in place, and to the outpouring of support from his employees, customers, laundry equipment supplier, competitors and others.
“Everyone pulled together. It was truly teamwork.”