After devastating fire, Carter Lake business owner sees 'opportunity to come back stronger'

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Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:10 am, Tue Mar 25, 2014.

Photos: More images of Saturday's fire.

A weekend fire left no wall untouched at Carter Lake-based General Manufacturing Co.

But owner Mark Fisher says he's scouting temporary space, making lists of tools to replace and hoping to be back in business within weeks. He said the business is insured, and he plans to rebuild on its current site.

As a bitter wind stirred ashes from the debris late Monday, Fisher was upbeat.

“In some ways, this is an opportunity to come back stronger,” he said.

Stacks of the company's restaurant chairs and bar stools lay charred and scattered about the 18,000 square feet of ruins at 500 Ave. J, where the second-generation commercial furniture manufacturer operated for 50 years.

Fisher was in awe at the extent of damage, which he estimated to be around $1 million, including the building, materials and inventory.

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“I never, ever thought the entire place would burn down. I never thought that would be possible,” he said, still able to see smoke rising out of the rubble Monday.

The fire started about 9 p.m. Saturday and was brought under control about 2 a.m. Sunday, though firefighters were still there after daylight Sunday. No employees were present when the fire started.

The company was founded in 1962 by Mark's father and moved to its present location in 1964. It makes custom chairs and tables for commercial clients that include Arby's, Runza, Saigon Surface, DJ's Dugout and PepperJax Grill.

The company has also done work for local hospitals, hotels, casinos and universities. It averages less than $1 million in annual revenue, Fisher said, but he has found the company's work in places as far away as the Ozark Mountains and Palm Springs, Fla.

A typical day of production would see the manufacture of 100 bar stools or five custom booths, Fisher said. At the time of the fire, there was enough raw material on hand to produce 1,000 bar stools, as well as partially completed projects for four different restaurants.

Every piece was measured, cut, sewn and assembled by hand in the Carter Lake facility, through which raw lumber moved from the storage area in back through various saws and lathes near the building's midsection. Welders fabricated and assembled metal table bases and frames nearer the front of the building, where vinyl and cloth patterns were cut and sewn into custom seats and booths.

The site comprised five separate buildings built over the years, and Fisher thinks a new facility would allow for better work flow. Fisher's insurance company and state fire officials have yet to determine what started the blaze.

Once the parties settle, the company will rebuild a new facility on top of its present site and get its 12 to 15 employees back to work, Fisher said.

In the meantime, the search has begun for a temporary space to resume production.

“I'm having my guys make a very basic list of what they absolutely need to produce most of what we make so we can offer a sort of limited menu to our customers so they don't forget us,” Fisher said.

He aims to find a temporary space within four to six weeks and hopes to rebuild a new facility by the end of the year.

Larry Swotek, 51, Fisher's shop foreman, is one of two employees scouting prospective facilities with Fisher to get a “skeleton crew” back to production.

That's a welcome prospect for Swotek, the company's most tenured employee. He has worked at General Manufacturing for 25 years, almost half of his life. He said Fisher was just 12 years old when he started.

“When you get a little bit older, you kind of start to wonder what else you're going to do, especially when you're only 10 or 12 years out from retirement,” Swotek said.

Anna Lantz, who has been with the company for 15 years as a seamstress, expects to get one more paycheck and then will count on unemployment benefits from the State of Iowa. She, like her cousin Swotek, was relieved to hear of plans to resume work as soon as possible, for the sake of both security and familiarity.

Carter Lake city officials — some of whom were at the site of the blaze Saturday night — have reached out to help the company find a temporary site. Fisher said three local property owners have suggested vacant storefronts in and around Carter Lake.

Potential sites for the company's temporary relocation include a property around 14th and Nicholas Streets in Omaha and another site in Council Bluffs, Swotek said. He was uncertain exactly how much space would be needed but noted the company's desire to stay close to Carter Lake as it works through the insurance claim process.

Carter Lake Mayor Gerald Waltrip said getting the company back up and running locally is paramount.

“We don't want them to go anyplace else, we want them to stay right here,” Waltrip said. “It's at the top of the list to retain that business.”

Waltrip, who was sworn in just two weeks ago, has provided Fisher with connections to other local business leaders in hopes of finding a temporary location while he gets the company back on its feet.

Fisher said: “The outpouring of support has been really surprising. They were here the night of the fire, and you won't get that in a bigger community.”

That sense of camaraderie was more profound within family-owned and -operated General Manufacturing.

Lantz worked alongside a nephew and a cousin in the same building where her uncle and brother once worked. “A lot of us are from Carter Lake and we've pretty much grown up together,” she said.

Communicating with employees has been simple so far, Fisher said, especially since many came to the building when they heard of the fire. He was at home with his son when an employee called to ask if it was General Manufacturing that was burning on the southwest edge of town.

Like his employees, he was overcome with disbelief when he first saw the flames.

Everything inside the facility was destroyed, including a vintage 1955 Ford Thunderbird previously owned by Fisher's father, James, who died in 2012.

“That's probably the most unfortunate thing we lost in the building,” he said. “It's torched.”

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