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HWP staff all back at work

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The extent of the damage caused by the fire that swept through HWP is there for all to see but it has been the resilience and determination of the staff to get the business back on its feet that has really come to the fore in the aftermath of the disaster.

Fifty percent of the auto dealer’s operational capacity was destroyed in the blaze after half of its 75,000 sq ft site on the south side of St John’s Road caught fire gutting its body and spray centre, car and bike showrooms and administration offices, including 12 customer cars and up to 10 showroom vehicles.

But the company scrambled quickly to set up a customer call centre at AirCare manned by 10 staff and equipped with a virtual office which was up and running within 24 hours of the incident. All of the employees had returned to work on full pay by yesterday with those displaced by the fire working in other departments. All areas have been reopened apart from the body and paint shop.

Still coming to terms with their loss, HWP’s chairman Don Mackenzie and CEO Jonathan Brewin, who are both shareholders, spoke frankly to

The Royal Gazette in an exclusive interview about the effects of the fire and future of the business. “Basically the priority for us right now first and foremost is our staff,” Mr Mackenzie said.

“As soon as practically possible we made sure that our staff were safe and then it was about communicating with and supporting them, particularly those workers who were immediately effected.”

Mr Mackenzie said that having contacted all staff members, including those off-site, and continuing to meet payroll, it was key to ensure that everyone was kept employed. In some cases they have looked at providing work for them with the company’s competitors in the short term. Members of the body shop teamed up to carry out landscaping work on the site.

The chairman said the focus was on resuming business and serving customers as soon as possible and despite sales operations on the north side of the road having to be done manually due to a lack of a telephone and computer system which was destroyed in the fire, as were many of the parts, the mechanical shop had taken in 20 vehicles for servicing since the incident.

“The staff and management team has been amazing,” Mr Mackenzie said. “We consider ourselves as a family and I think we benefited from the fact that the workers care about the business and everyone has been tremendous with what they have been able to do. I can’t stress enough what hard work it has been to get operations resumed, but Mr Brewin and his team have really stepped up to the plate.

“Now it is about complete and open transparency, being straight and explaining to the public and our stakeholders what our status is.”

Admitting that there were still a lot of uncertainties to be resolved, Mr Mackenzie and Mr Brewin said that they had been in business together for a long time and thought they had seen it all, until the fire happened.

Mr Brewin said it was too early to say what the cost of the damage had been, but he estimated it to be “in the millions” and that HWP was working closely with its insurers BF&M Ltd to calculate the final figure which may take several months to arrive at. The site is currently being demolished for safety reasons and the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service is investigating the cause.

The CEO said that in addition to the loss in revenue the company had seen its administrative and financial infrastructure, computer systems and paper records wiped out. Unlike other businesses such as construction, which work mainly out in the field, being located on the same site meant that the auto dealer had suffered severe damage to all parts of the operation.

Expecting to be working at a reduced capacity for a considerable time, Mr Brewin said that while it was too early to be specific, clearly some restructuring would have to take place within the company as a result.

In times like these the support of the community is vital, and everyone including competitors have rallied round to lend their assistance, with next door neighbours the Bermuda Telephone Company (BTC) offering its administrative facilities for free while the company is getting back on its feet, enabling HWP to remain based in one central area.

Keeping the lines of communication open has been another challenge, but the company has been forwarding calls to its temporary nerve Centre on the second floor of the AirCare building which will soon move over to BTC and thanks to being supplied by Ignition with a virtual office staff there have been logging the calls and trying to deal with other essential administrative and payroll work.

Mr Brewin said that HWP had been in touch with a number of its suppliers and would follow up with others later this week to keep them informed and said they had been very supportive of the company’s plight, adding that it would be asking them for further help due to the amount of data that had been lost in the fire.

Meanwhile he confirmed that 60 new cars were waiting on the docks plus a couple of container loads of bikes were coming in and a further 50 units were expected next month.

The task ahead looks to be a big one, with a complete rebuild of the company’s IT and accounting systems, as well as communication capabilities required starting almost from scratch, finding a new permanent premises, and building up cash flow again.

The very fact that HWP’s operating capacity could take as long as 18 months to two years to replace, Mr Mackenzie acknowledged that the company would have to fundamentally rethink its strategy going forward.

Those whose cars were destroyed in the fire have been contacted and informed about their losses and provided with transport, while Mr Brewin urged any customers who had made bookings or orders to contact the customer service hotline on 295-5000 as many of their details had been destroyed in the fire. He said that the company was working with the TCD and its manufacturers to recover warranty records.

“Everything now is short-term focused,” he said. “But our fundamental structural and the way we look going forward has to be considered sooner rather than later.”

Sad sight: HWP chairman Don Mackenzie overlooks the damage following the fire which destroyed the HWP Body and Paint Centre (Photo by Mark Tatem)
Crisis management: HWP CEO Jonathan Brewin pauses for a photo as staff members work in the group's temporary call centre following the fire which destroyed the Body and Paint Centre

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Published August 12, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated August 12, 2011 at 10:20 am)

HWP staff all back at work

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