Doner, phoenixlike, rises from the ashes of '96 fire

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Alan Kalter not only survived a near-Herculean trial by fire, but he and Doner, the agency he heads, flourished.

When Chairman-CEO Mr. Kalter and more than 100 employees stood outside Doner's smoke-billowing Southfield, Mich., headquarters in August 1996, watching firemen try to extinguish an electrical fire, the situation looked bleak. The blaze caused massive smoke and water damage and displaced the entire staff of 312 people for nearly two years.

Since then, however, Doner has risen from the ashes. Working in cramped, smaller, temporary space, the independent agency managed to increase billings from $500 million to nearly $850 million--including Mazda Motor of America's $250 million account in 1997.

The streak continued even after Doner returned in June to its larger, redone headquarters--this October's win of May Department Stores' $60 million account will vault annual billings for the first time to more than $1 billion.

The recovery is a testament to Doner's staff, said Mr. Kalter. The staff had a post-fire competition to keep all meetings and make all deadlines, which it did. "In the end what we learned is an agency is a collection of people," he said.

The fire also offered the opportunity for the agency to get in touch with its identity, Mr. Kalter said. "We became very focused, not on the plight, but what the agency is all about. That focus had a lot to do with the growth of the agency."

LUCKY BREAKS

There were some lucky breaks, too. A creative group working in the building smelled smoke and called the fire department, which may not have been alerted as early if the building had been empty. And although creative boards ready for presentation were destroyed along with that department's computers, the mainframe computer files turned out to be recoverable.

Outside the burning building, Mr. Kalter and his department chiefs wasted no time making contingency plans. They decided to contact all clients by 9 a.m. the next day. The following morning, they had another meeting outside the building. Employees were called Monday afternoon from a supplier's office. Anyone who wanted a beeper or cell phone got one. Weekly staff meetings were held for updates.

EXOTIC OFFICE ALTERNATIVES

For several weeks after the fire, employees worked wherever they could. Executive Creative Director John DeCerchio recalled local restaurants asking his group to order lunch after their breakfast meetings continued past noon. Employees worked on benches in Doner's parking lot, even presenting creative there to one client.

Tim Blett, then exec VP-account director, gathered his staff at his house and worked on his deck with 30 cell phones and 15 laptops. Monica Tysell, then senior VP, landed a conference room at the local library. Competitor Bozell Worldwide, Southfield, offered space to Doner's media department.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kalter conferred with CEOs of other service companies that endured office fires. They warned him working in temporary space can create difficult times and low morale--a prime time for competitors to try to cherry-pick his best people. If you lose key staff, you could lose clients, they cautioned. "We didn't lose any key people during the 22 months in temporary space," he said.

Within a month, Doner was in nearby temporary offices, and was able to keep the same phone numbers. But the offices were a tight 54,000 square feet vs. the 74,000 square feet Doner had before the fire. Ironically, the shop had outgrown its headquarters and had been searching for a larger office. By adding a floor, the rebuilt headquarters now provides 106,000 square feet for 425 employees at the home office.

The first four weeks after the fire were the most difficult, Mr. DeCerchio recalled. "But everyone rallied and got the work done," he said. "It wasn't long before it was business as usual."

CAN-DO ATTITUDES

Humor and employees' can-do attitude took the focus off the crisis, said Mr. DeCerchio. Once in the temporary space, an art director developed a logo with a flame that was used on T-shirts for staffers and cubicle nameplates. Creatives made a widely distributed poster of a fire extinguisher stressing "business as usual."

The lobby was adorned with old photos of historic fires, such as San Francisco's and Chicago's. Creatives put together a video, shown to staff, poking fun at the fire with a "Fire trucks are coming" jingle.

After the initial shock subsided, there came a larger change at Doner over the next two years. Its newfound resilience helped Doner realize its aspirations of moving to more national and international clients from its more traditional regional ones--a major building block that helped it win big new business gains in 1997 and this year.

It also allowed the agency to reinvent itself--right down to its name. When ordering new stationery, executives quietly changed the name from W.B. Doner & Co. to Doner for simplicity.

Copyright December 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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