Magazine article Workforce

Relying on Faith to Rebuild a Business

Magazine article Workforce

Relying on Faith to Rebuild a Business

Article excerpt

The WORKFORCE Magazine Optimas Award for Managing Change is given to an HR department that has developed a program or programs to manage change successfully.

Devastated by a fire, Malden Mills embraced change. Here, HR tells how it wove the corporate fiber.

n the evening of December 11, 1995, Bill Perez left Malden Mills after a seemingly normal day. Five minutes after walking into his home, his brother called: There was an explosion at the mills, he said. Several buildings were on fire. Seconds later, the phone rang again. Security personnel at the Lawrence, Massachusetts-based company confirmed the horrible news. "It was pretty bad, so I immediately drove down to the mills," says Perez, manager of industrial relations. "When I got there, I was devastated by the smoke and flames. I just got there as [fire fighters and ambulance drivers] were evacuating all the burn victims."

Perez says approximately 300 employees were working when the fire broke out around 7:50 p.m. As it turned out, 22 workers were rushed to several local hospitals. Meanwhile, he and then HR acting-director Alan P. Kraunelis-also at the scene could think of only one thing: Get the personnel files. Their first concern was to contact the families of injured employees, Perez says.

Violating several orders to evacuate, the two men entered the human resources offices. Fortunately, HR's offices weren't located in the three buildings that burned down. Perez recalls that bitter cold evening. The wind was howling at 50 miles per hour. Armed with flashlights and cell phones, the HR duo retrieved the files. Upon locating the injured workers, they notified all of the families. "We had pretty good control of that evening," he says.

Quick instincts. Unwavering conscience. Risk and faith. That's what Perez and Kraunelis demonstrated that night-traits only to be further exemplified by CEO Aaron Feuerstein and the Lawrence community immediately thereafter. For some companies, such a tragedy would devastate a workforce and community-but the fire at Malden Mills became a catalyst for change. Founded in 1906 by Feuerstein's grandfather, the $300 milliona-year manufacturing company is best known for its high-quality surface-finished fabrics, Polarfleece and Polartec.

Within the last three years, the story of Malden Mills has focused on Aaron Feuerstein, and how he eschewed the option of taking the insurance money and running overseas. Instead, the third-generation owner opted to pay 1,400 displaced employees for three months, extend their health benefits for nine months and rebuild the plant-all at a personal cost of $15 million. He has since received worldwide praise for his do-right deeds.

What many don't hear about, however, are the incredible efforts of Malden's HR team: How it galvanized Malden's corporate and community resources at critical junctures since Massachusetts' largest fire. For its achievements, Malden Mills has received the WORKFORCE Magazine Optimas Award for Managing Change. Says Feuerstein: "The tremendous amount of change in the past few years makes me once again recognize HR's strength and courage. At Malden Mills, we have self-confidence to change without fear."

First juncture: the fire.

As a family-owned business, the spirit of family resonates as a corporate value, says Kathy Skala, current HR director. The fire, she says, was a great loss not only to the Feuersteins, but to the 3,000 (now 2,500) employees and the people of Lawrence-a mill town 25 miles north of Boston on the Spickett River. Reported structural losses included 750,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space in three buildings. The Flock Division (serving upholstery) was gone; the Woven Division lost much of its finishing operation; and the Knit Division, which makes Polartec,, lost its dyeing operation and most of its finishing.

Nevertheless, Feuerstein's vow to rebuild Malden sounded the trumpet. …

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