In the little town of Dayton, Ohio, you’ll find a cool, creative arts community that The Scenery calls home. The product agency’s team took up residence there in June 2017, passing a quiet six months in the new space before heading out for the holidays. Four days after Christmas, in the early morning hours, Dayton fire crews were dispatched to the building on reports of smoke. A restaurant kitchen fire had spread throughout the building, damaging—and effectively closing—the businesses inside.
Carla Hale, Partner and Director of Client Services, was just waking up when she got the call. As she says, you make a lot of contingency plans as a business owner, but an office fire is not something that most people plan for. Without an office to go back to, Carla feared The Scenery might lose clients or even employees. Fortunately, the local community rallied together, with Sparkbox, a fellow Bureau alum, opening its doors to The Scenery team. Carla joins us to talk about that snowy winter morning, how the fire impacted business and how the team emerged stronger than before.
Carl Smith: Hey everybody, welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. Have you ever had one of those days where everything just didn't quite go right or maybe things fell completely apart? Our next guest has had one of those days, weeks, months. Please welcome to the show, the Partner, and Director of Client Services at The Scenery, Carla Hale. How's it going Carla?
Carla Hale: Hi Carl, I'm doing great. How are you?
Carl Smith: I'm good. And you're doing great now.
Carla Hale: Yes.
Carl Smith: But not that long ago, you had a fire at your office.
Carla Hale: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's right. We did. It was December 29th of 2017. So right after Christmas and right before the New Year. So yeah, I can tell you a little bit about that. Just the logistics of it all and what happened, but we are in a cool, creative arts community in a historic district in our little town of Dayton, Ohio. We share a building with many, many different tenants including lots of other businesses and a restaurant. The restaurant caught on fire and spread through the entire building. We were, unfortunately, kind of circumstantial to the whole thing. It wasn't our fire, in our office, but it impacted us obviously.
Carla Hale: So yeah, like I said, that was about 10 months ago. So we're rebuilding and pretty much back to normal now. But I'm excited to talk about the details and what people can do.
Carl Smith: So, it's a break. You're on holiday. How do you find out that you don't have somewhere for everybody to go to do the work that pays the bills?
Carla Hale: That's right, yeah. Fortunately for us, that is correct. We were totally out of the office. We closed the entire week between Christmas and New Years like a lot of places do. I basically got the call at about seven in the morning from our security system, ADT. They called. I've gotten calls from them before of, "The door was left open" or, "Alarm is going off but it's false." Something like that. A fake thing. Normally I don't actually give that much attention. Frankly, I was still in bed. Get the call. He says, "There was fire detected in your hallway." Immediately, in that moment, again, still just waking up. It was seven in the morning. Just realizing the words he was saying and it hitting me. Oh my gosh, this is not good.
Carla Hale: No matter how small or big this may be, this isn't good. So I literally threw on whatever clothes and my glasses, and my rain boots and ... Again, it's cold outside. It was snowing here in Ohio. Just really raced down. Probably broke some traffic laws and got down to the office. Sure enough, there was probably 30 firemen and two or three trucks. At that point, realizing the gravity of the situation and seeing it. But not being able to do anything. Everything at that moment ... You realize, this is totally out of my control. It was pretty surreal even that first hour or two of just wrapping your head around what is happening.
Carla Hale: In some ways, I think of it sort of like a car accident of like, you almost don't believe that it's happening. You feel sort of outside of your body. And yeah, that was ... It was really wild. That's how we found out about it. And then, throughout the day, we worked with the fire team to surmise the situation and understand what was going on.
Carl Smith: So, this is supposed to be a break for you.
Carla Hale: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Smith: You're thinking you're going to sleep in, go grab a coffee and watch Netflix. I can't believe I'm still in bed. But no, you get ripped out of this comfort. You violate several laws. We have a lot of law enforcement that listen to this so apologize now for the pain to come.
Carla Hale: Hopefully it's the statute of limitations.
Carl Smith: Yes. For sure. So then you get there and you watch. I had no idea that you actually showed up while it was going. Then, do you call other people that you work with? What is the communication process when you're in the middle of this?
Carla Hale: Right, right, right. Communication was very key. We don't have a very large team, but we have a very close team. I really wanted everybody to be aware of what was going on and have up to date information. Not find out things third hand or through the news, 'cause the news was here. So, immediately while I'm driving down I had called and texted all of my partners. But, again, with the holidays everybody was out of town visiting family. So, I was actually the only one still in town. We have all our family here. I let everybody know what was going on. As I said, the fire chief was here and eventually what they did is they let me come up.
Carla Hale: It was seven a.m. when I got the call and I think I first got to go into the building and kind of check it out around three p.m.. So, throughout the day I was just driving back and forth from a coffee shop or my house back down to the office to see if there was new news. To see if they'd let us in. And then of course, calling as many service providers as I could think of that we use. Calling ... Honestly, calling our insurance first thing. Calling our HR company, just to ask them some tips 'cause they're super helpful. So at that point, it was basically on the phone all day.
Carla Hale: And then, we sent out a group text to the entire staff saying, "Here's what's happening. We don't really know much information right now." I think this was on a Thursday or Friday and we were planning ... It was Friday. Yeah, that's right. We were going to be back in the office the following Tuesday for the first day of the year for 2018. And we just let everybody know that we were working on a solution for that Tuesday to have a place to go to be together. Because up until then, obviously, you don't really ... As a business owner you make a lot of contingency plans and what happens if something goes wrong, but you know, it turns out office space and a fire is not something that most people plan for.
Carl Smith: No, and so it's happy New Year we have nowhere to work.
Carla Hale: Yeah, exactly.
Carl Smith: So what was the plan? When you're looking at it's Friday and you've got four-ish days.
Carla Hale: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Smith: How do you determine where to tell people to go? Did they work from home? Or what's the plan?
Carla Hale: So, up until then, we had never purposefully embraced a working from home atmosphere. Not through any specific reason why or anything like that, but it wasn't something we had a lot of experience with as a team. We knew that would probably be really hard, plus there was also a lot of ... Frankly, everybody was very, very sad. Nobody was hurt or anything, obviously like that. But you know, you worked very hard ... I should mention too, we had just moved into our space the previous June. We hadn't been in there six months or less.
Carl Smith: Still fresh. Had that new office smell.
Carla Hale: Yeah. Exactly. All the furniture was new, the flooring was new. It was a beautiful place that we worked really hard to build.
Carl Smith: Oh Carla.
Carla Hale: Yeah, I can say this now in October. So everybody was really bummed out, frankly. And just kind of sad. And wants to be together. Working from home could have been the solution but not necessarily for us on day one. We have a small knit group. We all wanted to be together. What we did was ... That was probably the next set of phone calls and emails that we started sending out. We got in touch with a co-working space here in town. They had space, but again, for 12 people ... Having an influx of 12 people who want to all be together and talk together isn't really the coworking model, right?
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Carla Hale: Then we just started actually ... This is one of the best things that could have happened ... We got a ton of community support from other businesses in our community. So, we ended up utilizing an extra space, an extra room in Sparkbox's office, which is also an agency in the bureau community.
Carl Smith: You know, I'm not saying this was orchestrated by Sparkbox, just to look more awesome. But it just feels like one of those things [crosstalk 00:09:59]. Oh, it's on fire.
Carla Hale: No ...
Carl Smith: This Dayton, Ohio community is like ... It feels like this undiscovered gem of glory and wonder.
Carla Hale: I think so. But don't tell anybody.
Carl Smith: No, luckily only 1,000 people will find out.
Carla Hale: Right, yeah. No, it was so generous of them. They had extra desks and chairs and furniture. Obviously they have their training space. They've got wifi and things that we can use. We tried the coworking space for literally a half of a day and realized within that half day that we were going to be too loud or we were going to be too disruptive to other people working there. Our team didn't feel super comfortable. At the same time, also, we've got a lack of equipment at this point.
Carl Smith: Okay.
Carla Hale: Because everyone luckily had taken their computers home, their laptops. And everybody in our shop works very ... I would say almost nomadically. You can move around pretty easily. But what we lost was all the external monitors. Our developers used big external monitors and things like that. Those were all gone. Mouses, track pads, and keyboards. All that stuff. So, with that lack of equipment and the lack of a good big enough space for us, ending up at Sparkbox for a handful of weeks slash months was really, really good. We also took a few days ... Frankly, we went to my house for a few days as well with everybody.
Carla Hale: Dayton, Ohio, we have large homes here 'cause we've got a lot of land. I've got a house that's big enough for everybody to fit in. That was really nice too and kind of made it feel like homey and we could bring in food and lunch for everybody and just make it feel a little more comforting and kind of bring everybody together.
Carl Smith: Well, I think this is really important. What you're sharing is that working from home, everybody would have felt horrible.
Carla Hale: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Smith: It's not a benefit. You need to be together at this point. And the added benefit to be in your home, or to be at Sparkbox, and feel love.
Carla Hale: Right, that's exactly right.
Carl Smith: Probably so important.
Carla Hale: That's exactly right. We ... Like I said, we just ... Other businesses too were just outpour ... We got so many emails from people saying, "If you need computers, if you need servers, if you need XYZ, we've got extra. And you can just have it." We got just a ton of outreach from people we had never even met before. But they just heard about it. It was really ... that part of it all was really warming and just very solidifying that this is a really good community. This is amazing support. I think our team ... Most importantly, our team felt that through the entire ordeal.
Carl Smith: What do you do in terms of communicating with clients? How do you approach that?
Carla Hale: Yeah, that's a great question. So, we are in a unique model where none of our clients are local to us. They're not physically present in our city. Most of our clients are spread across the nation like a lot of other firms as well. In that regard, I wasn't concerned that they would find out from the news or anything like that. But, again, being a small shop, a lot of our clients know our story. A lot of our clients knew that we were so excited about moving into our new office in June. They would ask us ... No really. We'd be on video conferences with clients and they'd be like, "Oh my gosh, it's so beautiful there. Send us photos." In that regard, I'm so grateful that we have clients like that.
Carla Hale: I was a little nervous about that to be honest with you. That clients would potentially, maybe, lose some trust. Not in us or our skills, but just our stability in that moment. So, I crafted a carefully worded email and sent that to everybody on the first day back from the holiday. We didn't pull any punches. We said exactly here's what has happened. Here are the measures we put into place to make sure that your work is not impacted. And thankfully ... My one goal through the whole ordeal was not to lose any clients or lose any employees. I didn't want anybody to be so disturbed or so uncomfortable with the situation that they felt that they should not work with us anymore.
Carla Hale: I don't think ... personally I wouldn't assume that that was going to happen, but I was a little nervous about it. Luckily, again, we didn't lose any clients through the whole thing. We just got a lot of love and support back from them. I think a lot of people were really comforted when we said, "Hey, we have a place to work. We're in another agency's location. We've got all our stuff. You're good to go. Your work is not going to be hurt." It turned out that was true.
Carla Hale: In fact, the funniest part of the whole thing is, [inaudible 00:15:38] one of this year is one of our best quarters in the last four years, financially speaking that is. We did really well in terms of revenue and profit. I think there is something to that about everybody coming together in a really hard spot.
Carl Smith: I think that makes a lot of sense because everybody appreciates that they've got a wonderful thing and they've got to protect it. Especially when it's challenged by something like a fire.
Carla Hale: Exactly.
Carl Smith: One thing I'm curious about ... So, you're the Director of Client Services. You handle a lot of operations.
Carla Hale: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Carl Smith: You do some project management. You're a partner. How do you survive the additional work of insurance, and everything else to get through this?
Carla Hale: Yeah, that's great ... Honestly, a lot of adrenaline at the very beginning. No, I mean, I'm being serious. There was so much going through your mind and you get a lot of momentum from that in a good way I think. And then, a few weeks in you start realizing, I cannot keep up this pace. I cannot keep going at this extreme rate. So, at a certain point ... First of all, I should also say, my partners are incredible. We all shared the load very well together. But there was a lot of logistical things, not just with that but ... Dealing with insurance is really hard. I'm very grateful for insurance. They were wonderful to us, but it takes a lot of time to work through claims like that.
Carla Hale: You've got to take inventory of all your stuff, send receipts and links and all kinds of things. That's just a lot of shear man hours. We would work on that nights and weekends and things like that. And try to just run the agency stuff as normal as possible during the nine to five Monday through Friday. So that we're not impacting clients of course, and employees. So that was just a lot of that. Probably in month three or four of the ordeal, like March or so, that's when it was really starting to get to that point of burnout.
Carla Hale: Doing things to do your best to take care of your body, frankly, just physically because you're running on fumes. Making sure you're eating well and sleeping right 'cause sleep is something that I was losing a lot of. That wasn't good. Making sure you're hydrated. And going to the chiropractor. Just stuff like that to do anything you can to just keep your body fueled well was really critical for me. But, the hard part was, your mind and your spirit get taxed in all of that. You're just bummed out most of the time. Or, you're fueled by it. It's kind of both of those all at once. You're bummed out but you're like, I'm not going to let this beat me.
Carl Smith: And you're going through that and you're bummed out, but at the same time, you have to put on a brave face for the people you work with as a partner.
Carla Hale: Yeah.
Carl Smith: How do you manage that of the reality inside you're crumbling a little bit?
Carla Hale: Yeah.
Carl Smith: But you don't want to be fake, but you've still got to keep that positive outlook. So talk about that.
Carla Hale: That's exactly right. You said it really well. We do not have ... again, we're a small team. But even with a large team, we don't believe in being fake. We also are pretty candid with our employees. They know a lot of the decisions that we're making. So, a lot of team meetings. We had a lot of team discussions. There were a handful of times throughout the spring that we moved back towards a more working from home, optional kind of arrangement. At that point, we're starting to do more working from how. We would just all get together and say, "How do we do this? How do we actually incorporate working from home into our way of work and our processes?"
Carla Hale: Kind of putting ... When it comes to the actual legal ownership of a business, none of that was impacted for employees. They didn't have to deal with insurance or anything like that that the owners do. But when it came to improving processes and company culture, and moral, a lot of the team stepped up to own that. And have really good suggestions. At that time, our team lunches, our team meetings, every Monday morning we would have a big kick off meeting. All of those became extra critical just for everyone to feel really good.
Carla Hale: There's also a lot of shared empathy in our team as well. Me personally, as a partner and an owner, I feel like I can be honest with them and it's not going to scare them. Because they know enough about the business and the way we run and function to know, "Hey, you know what? We don't have a physical place right now, but our money is good. Our insurance is good. Our clients are happy." There were all these other good things happening as well that we have to keep our eyes on.
Carl Smith: And it's all about consistency. With employees, with partners, with humans in general. If you can show up the same way, with the same level of honesty, transparency, admitting the bad and the good. Letting everything flow. Then there's not as much discomfort.
Carla Hale: That's exactly right. I would say that this experience overall ... One of the things that I was mostly afraid of was this really hurting our team. In virtually all ways, it did the exact opposite. It brought us more together and we were more of a team through that. We formed little inside jokes because of it and they're right beside you through the whole thing. Also, letting them experience part of it I think gave them a sense of, this is my company too. This is ... Our Twitter handle and our Instagram is, "We are The Scenery." I think that's really important for us that this is ...Everybody is a part of this. And has a role to play. They really felt that I think.
Carla Hale: There was a day where everybody got to come back and walk through the office after it had been burned down and collect any of their personal items that were on their desk and things like that. Those are pretty foundational and critical pieces that I think, in a disaster like that, are important as well. For people to experience first hand rather than just through their bosses basically.
Carl Smith: I think one of the amazing things in this story is, based on everything I know about psychology, which isn't a tremendous amount. I'm just the son of a psychologist. But, weak relationships fall apart in tragedy and strong relationships grown stronger in tragedy. If you didn't lose anybody in terms of clients and the team, then that shows you had something amazing to start with.
Carla Hale: I think that's true. I think ... Thank you for saying that. I hadn't thought of it that way, but our business at the time of the fire was a little less than three years old, which isn't very long at all. But I can look back on that now and see that those first three years leading up to it, laid the foundation for us to weather such a catastrophe. If that would have happened to us in year one or year two even, I don't know that the outcome would have been the exact same. We were much ... We grew up a lot through the whole thing honestly. In a way, it made us even more mature than what our actual age of business might be.
Carl Smith: Carla, I'm so happy that the story ends up like it does where everyone is still together and you're back in an office. Is it the same office?
Carla Hale: Yeah, we actually are back in the same office. The landlord, our landlord, the owner of the building, rebuilt. Honestly, everybody's space is better than it was before the fire. That took a little time, as most build outs do. But, in the grand scheme of things, our options were stay where you are and build it out again the exact same way, or find a new location that would still need build out, frankly. So for us, it was like, let's stay where we are. We like our little neighborhood. We like our coffee shop. We love the creative district we're in. It was really important to us to keep that the same even though it took some time to rebuild.
Carla Hale: But yeah, here we are. We're back. We were back probably full time functioning in June. So all in all, about six months. Which was pretty crazy. But here, in October, coming into Q4 at the end of the year, we can look back and really kind of have a sense of peace and smile about the whole thing at this point.
Carl Smith: Well, I have to say thank you so much for sharing your story. I know, as a former owner, and someone who runs a business now, understanding that the foundation that you build with the people that you work with can help you survive anything. It's just amazing to hear your story so thank you so much.
Carla Hale: Oh, thank you. It's been my pleasure.
Carl Smith: And for everybody listening we'll be back next week and we'll talk to you then. Have a great one.
Carla Hale: Bye.