2010-09-09 / Local & State

Fire That ‘Destroyed’ Pa. Company Did Anything But

By Joe Mandak

GROVE CITY, Pa. (AP) – Firefighters were battling one of the biggest blazes ever in Grove City when Will Knecht arrived in time to see his family owned, 87-year-old business crumbling and tumbling to the ground.

Knecht (pronounced “connect’’), the company’s president, formed a circle with his teary-eyed employees at Wendell August Forge and prayed as plumes of smoke visible for miles drew hundred of onlookers.

“It was like it was a spectator sport almost, but with people in tears, people moved by it,’’ Knecht said. “We had employees saying, ‘Will, what are we gonna do, what are we gonna do?’ I prayed from the bottom of my heart, ‘Lord, you know what’s going on, we don’t; we trust you, you take it from here.’’’

Six months after the March 6 fire, Knecht said those prayers have been answered as his community, employees and customers – including the Pittsburgh Penguins pro hockey team – rallied to re-energize this business near Interstate 79, about 45 miles north of Pittsburgh.

The fire caused $8 million to $10 million damage at a business with annual revenues of about $6 million.

And yet, Wendell August now has nearly a third more employees (85, up from 65 before the fire) who are working more hours for paychecks bigger than ever, and grand plans for the future: A new, all-in-one manufacturing distribution-gift shop facility slated to open in 2012, on land passed by millions of travelers each year. A comparative trickle of customers and tourists had to search for what’s now a burned-out, bulldozed, and grassed-over site at the end of a narrow dead-end residential street.

Since moving from Brockway to Grove City in 1932, Wendell August Forge has become a community fixture, where artisans use a repousse (ruh-poo-SAY’) technique, in which sheets of aluminum, bronze and other metals are hand-hammered onto steel dies with “negative’’ images engraved into them. That produces a right-sided, three-dimensional image on the metal, which is fashioned into everything from Christmas ornaments to light switch covers.

Wendell August ash trays, each attached to a glass zeppelin filled with Esso diesel fuel, commemorated a 1936 flight of the Hindenberg, a year before the Nazi airship’s spectacular fiery crash in New Jersey. President Ronald Reagan kept his signature jelly beans in a custom made, covered metal box.

The company has produced items for companies including Coca-Cola, Hershey, Walt Disney, and U.S. Steel, but middle America is its target market, with $10 ornaments and homespun products in the $35 to $50 range its bread-and-butter, Knecht said.

Ann Dugan, executive director of The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business, said multigenerational family businesses like Wendell August Forge are about so much more than the jobs and products they create.

“It’s about the fabric of the community and sort of, I want to say, the ego of the community. It’s so intertwined, it’s really a part of the fabric of everyday life,’’ Dugan said.

During the blaze, firefighters made a special effort to enter the factory and save about 3,000 custommade dies. Had they not, the company would have shut down, Knecht said.

In the days afterward, local churches and restaurants donated meals for workers. The landlord at a local industrial park struck a “handshake’’ deal so Knecht could quickly set up shop in a space the company had abandoned a year earlier after an aborted expansion. A shop owner on nearby Route 208 surrendered the front of his store, so Wendell August Forge could have a highly visible gift shop until its new facility opens.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come to us and thanked us for giving them a place to reopen their retail outlet,’’ said Dave Dayton, owner of the shop, Slovak Folk Crafts. “They have a very loyal following and people are very attached to their products.’’

Dayton said he and others in the community were inspired to act partly by news photos showing Knecht praying with his workers as the business burned. “That is part of what has captured the heart of this community,’’ he said.

Even Knecht’s “big city’’ neighbors pitched in.

On March 4, two days before the fire, the Pittsburgh Penguins placed the a sixfigure order, the largest in company history, for 25,000 metal replica “tickets’’ commemorating the team’s last game in Mellon Arena. Instead of rushing to find another vendor in time for the April 8 game, the Penguins offered to pay in advance to keep Knecht’s company flush with cash as employees worked round-the-clock to fill the order, all the while setting up their temporary shop.

Knecht declined, taking a half down payment and the rest when the order was finished. He said the Penguins’ gesture, coupled with all the other support, fueled his company’s survival.

“That order was the rallying point for us,’’ Knecht said. “I’m not sure we would approach the future with such vigor and excitement if it wasn’t for the fire.’’

The centerpiece of that future is a tract of farmland behind the Prime Outlets, a 140-store mall along I-79, just west of Grove City.

Gary and Rebecca Filer have farmed those 50 acres since they were married more than 40 years ago. They contacted Knecht, offering to sell as big a parcel as he needed to rebuild.

“They’re a locally owned company,’’ Rebecca Filer said. “A lot of local people work there and since they had their fire we decided if they wanted some of that property, that was fine with us.’’

The salt-of-the-earth Filers humbled Knecht as he sat at a table with real estate agents and lawyers, signing an option to buy the land. That’s when Gary Filer asked Knecht for permission – it’s still Filer’s land, mind you – to harvest crops in the meantime.

“I’m saying to myself, ‘I’m not worthy,’’’ Knecht said, incredulously. “He had planted his crops and he wanted to harvest them, and he’s asking me if that’s OK?’’

Knecht firmly believes such things didn’t happen by accident.

“Four-point-five million people drive right here every year,’’ Knecht said, pointing to a map of the parcel and shaking his head in disbelief. “There wasn’t 10 people who drove past our old property, who weren’t going to Wendell August Forge.’’

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