CHICAGO — “Our overhead storage conveyor was on fire. Three minutes later our entire 24,000-square-foot plant was engulfed in flames.
“There were no injuries thank goodness,” explains Bob Hilker, who is one of two co-owners, since the mid-1970s with twin brother Tom, of Raleigh, N.C.-based Brothers Cleaners.
He’s describing the fire that all but laid waste to their drycleaning operation in November 2015. All of his 49 employees were safe.
Family-owned Brothers Cleaners, with four locations in the Raleigh area and pickup and delivery service in the region, was founded in Raleigh in 1916 by Emil Hilker, a German immigrant.
Emil Hilker’s twin son’s, Jerry and Jim Hilker assumed ownership of the business after his retirement and ran it successfully until the mid 1970s, when they went their separate business ways, notes the operations website.
At that point, the business was handed over to current owners, twins Tom and Bob, the third generation to continue their family legacy. Representing the fourth generation in the company, Ben Hilker started with Brothers Cleaners in 2007 and is currently acting as customer service manager.
After the fire, they faced a decision. With smoke and cinders still swirling in the air the next morning, Hilker relates, “the owners and key personnel met at a gas station across the street to decide what to do. We all decided to rebuild.
“Our phones were blowing up with other cleaners and friends calling to offer help — whatever we needed. It was humbling and extraordinary,” he adds.
“Three days after the fire, we were back processing clothes,” Hilker says.
“We used the back of our largest competitor’s plant in a third shift and used other cleaners’ plants,” he explains. “Our employees never missed a day of pay. Thirty days later we had a temporary office, production location, assembly location and restoration location.
On their website they note services such as, ironically, fire, smoke, water, and mildew restorations, and write that,“we specialize in helping victims of fires, floods, and more restore their clothing and other household cloth items.”
He notes that they moved back into their original location within two weeks of the fire.
“It was magical! We still had conveyors and chillers to install but we were back! We all walked around pinching each other. Within three months of opening our doors we were back to pre-fire sales,” he says.
Hilker talks about the important lessons learned:
Treat your employees well, he points out. “Dedicated employees were one of the keys to our success. We worked third shifts, at home, 24-hour days, wearing multiple hats.”
Value your vendor relationships, he insists. “By keeping our business local and with people we have traded with for decades, they knew this was an insurance claim and literally provided us with hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment in some cases in two weeks.”
Value your reputation he also advises.
“Because we have been in business since 1916, our customers, our employees, our vendors, and our fellow dry cleaners knew we were as good as our word.
“Their outpouring of support and help was immeasurable. Without them, this project would never have been possible,” he says.
Check back Thursday for the conclusion.