Translite Enterprises Bouncing Back From Fire; Shares Advice On Preparedness

By Harrell Kerkhoff, Busline Magazine Editor

Michael Turner

American poet Robert Frost famously wrote: “The best way out is always through.” Many interpret that line as: the best way through life’s challenges is to move forward. A good example of that belief is the ongoing efforts of Michael Turner and his staff at Translite Enterprises, Inc. (translitebusglass.com), a distributor specializing in bus and motorcoach glass replacement that continues to recover — and move forward — from a devastating event.

Early on Friday morning, January 5, 2024, the business experienced a four-alarm fire at its main operating facility in Elizabeth, NJ, destroying mostly all of Translite’s inventory and equipment. It was the second disaster to strike the company at the same location. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused major flood damage throughout much of the northeastern coastal region of the United States, including at the same Translite facility that would burn down a little over 11 years later. In both times, Turner and his team of dedicated employees pulled together to keep the company operational shortly after each disaster.

When interviewed by Busline Magazine, Turner reflected on not only the recent disaster itself, but the steps it took for the company to keep its customers supplied just weeks after the event.

“It’s important to take it one day at a time. I have trained myself to keep a positive outlook each day when it comes to accomplishing different tasks,” Turner said. “We have made a lot of progress since the fire.”

Translite was founded by Turner, the company’s president, in January 1993. He said the business has enjoyed steady growth over the past 31 years.

“We started as an aftermarket supplier and have since grown to also supply OEM accounts,” Turner said.

The Fire

While getting ready for work during the morning of January 5, Turner received a call from longtime Translite Sales Manager-Coach Division Lee Weissberg, who said there was an issue getting to the office complex where Translite Enterprises was located. For years the company maintained two facilities in close proximity, in part of what is known locally as the former Singer Sewing Machine Factory, not far from the Newark (NJ) Liberty International Airport. The estimated 1.4-million-square-foot building — which dates to the late 1800s and for decades was used to produce Singer sewing machines — had been converted years ago into office, manufacturing, and storage space for multiple businesses.

Prior to the fire, Translite manned a 25,000-square-foot portion of the building, where all of its inventory storage and shipping operation were located, while the company’s office continues to be in a nearby, but separate, 8,000-square-foot facility. It includes 5,000 square feet of additional warehouse space.

“The larger location that included all of our inventory was part of the four-alarm fire. It started near our facility and took off in two directions,” Turner said. “The fire was huge and all over the local news, along with national coverage on ABC World News Tonight.”

When Turner arrived at the fire scene, he joined Weissberg and follow Translite employee, Operations Manager Paul Russell, in Russell’s car. The three men found the entire area partitioned off by the fire department. Eventually, it became evident that Translite’s larger 25,000-square-foot location was destroyed by the fire, while its smaller office location was spared.

“We weren’t allowed to immediately operate from our office, after the fire, as the electricity had been shut off,” Turner said. “Therefore, our company’s IT advisor told me to take the server, as well as computers used by our top staff members, out of the office and transport them to my house. An IT professional met me at my home that night to help us set up an emergency compound in my basement. That served as our headquarters until we were allowed back into our regular office.”

Firemen battle the January fire at the former Singer Sewing Machine Factory. (Photo courtesy of Translite Enterprises)

A Call To Action

In a twist of fate, a past disaster helped Turner and his team prepare for the aftermath of the fire. As stated, Translite received major flood damage in 2012 from Hurricane Sandy. The flooding from that historic storm was so widespread that many homes and businesses that were not located in traditional flood zones still received major flood damage. Translite was one such business. And because it was not in a flood zone, the company did not carry flood insurance. Turner did, however, receive sage advice from his insurance company representative at the time.

“He told me to get my company up and running as soon as possible, rather than waiting for the insurance company to settle any claim. He said many companies that wait for their insurance checks to arrive before doing anything don’t make it through a disaster,” Turner said. “It was the best advice I have ever received, and one we started to implement the day of the fire. As the fire was still going on, I told my operations manager to contact all our vendors and place emergency orders for everything we were going to need. We gave the vendors a specific day to send us at least a portion of our orders, so that we could start taking care of our customers. We also soon announced to the industry what day we expected to restart operations.”

While that was going on, Turner remained in contact with his company’s landlord to find additional space to operate. That soon led to the sharing of a location with another company on a temporary basis.

Translite began to send out partial orders to customers on Friday, January 19 — exactly two weeks after the massive fire.

“I feel that was a tremendous accomplishment and give thanks to all my staff and vendors. They did everything possible to make it happen,” Turner said. “I also received a lot of good will from our customers during that process. Most of them were very understanding and patient — and remain so today.

“We still don’t have stockpiles in place that are necessary for normal operations. We lost about $1 million in inventory, so it’s going to take some time to replenish. We can’t airfreight everything. It helped that we knew how to allocate the right amount of our limited inventory to keep customers happy.”

An Act Of Kindness

Along with the many challenges that a disaster will bring are often acts of unexpected kindness. One example for Turner and his company was the generosity displayed by a nearby competitor. The company offered to sell some of its inventory to Turner, so that Translite could better meet various customer needs in a shorter period.

“The person (from the competing company) called to ask if we were all OK, and then offered to sell us some needed inventory,” Turner said. “It was such a kind gesture. I told the (competitor) such kindness has changed me as a person, and that I would be happy to return the favor if a similar situation happened to them.

“We also received a lot of correspondence from people throughout the industry, wanting to know how we were doing and what they could do to help. That meant a lot to our entire staff.”

Looking Ahead

Now that Translite is sending out orders again and back in its office, the next step is to find a long-term home for the operation. Turner has been in lease negotiations with his current landlord in the hope to soon find a new place. He has also been busy with other tasks.

“There is so much involved in an insurance claim of this magnitude. We must figure out all our lost inventory and equipment, as well as the improvements made to the building by our company prior to the fire,” Turner said.

The process is daunting, but Turner added it’s important to look at the lighter side of the experience. For example, after purchasing a forklift and telling a coworker how expensive the lift was, the coworker asked why he didn’t purchase a used lift.

“My response was, ‘That is a used lift,’” Turner said, with a laugh.

Words Of Advice

Lessons learned during the process of going through, and surviving, a disaster are invaluable. Turner had three key points of advice for other business owners/managers. They are:

  • Be properly insured and understand exactly what is in your insurance policy — “After my experience of not having flood insurance during Hurricane Sandy, I made sure there were high insurance limits in place that covered a wide variety of disaster possibilities. That has greatly helped us in the aftermath of this fire,” Turner said. “For example, I had an option to save money last spring by eliminating a terrorism clause in our policy. I declined. My reasoning was, we are located near the Newark/Elizabeth port. I don’t want to take a chance on a possible nearby terrorist attack harming my business. There are all kinds of events that can happen beyond your control. That is the reason to have good insurance coverage.”
  • Understand risk management — “Know your risks and do everything possible to increase safety procedures,” Turner said. “Have all safety features, such as fire suppression systems, regularly tested and make sure to mark down each testing date on a calendar. If you work with a management company, make sure they provide a timely report on such testing. Know when that report expires and make sure future testing is scheduled.”
  • Implement a “Guerrilla Warfare” mindset — “Listed among our company’s six core values is ‘Guerrilla Warfare,’ which means ‘do whatever you have to do to survive and get something done, even if it requires unconventional means,’” Turner said. “It’s amazing, with such a mindset in place, how things can miraculously get done, even after a large fire.”

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