Volume 16 | Issue 1 | Year 2013

Dateline: Michigan. Headline: “Catastrophe.”
The event occurred on February 14, 2010 – a date when Cupid’s arrow should have heralded a bright future. But on that day, Champion Bus suffered a plant fire, and these weren’t flames of passion. A devastating conflagration ripped through the Michigan company’s facilities, destroying one of two 80,000-square-footage manufacturing buildings, turning accomplishment – and even hopes and dreams – into ashes.

It was the kind of stuff for an “Action News” telecast. “Flames ascended 250 feet,” vividly describes Jamie Lipka, the company’s vice president of sales.

The event burned harsher than a whiskey swallow, but without the sedative effect. “Evening news portrayed worst fears,” recalls Lipka. “People who worked for us watched the unfolding story. Would they still have a job, they wondered?”

Every regional emergency responder was immediately on the scene, to help preserve an establishment that bolstered local commerce and supported global economy.

Jobs were preserved. Champion Bus lived up to its name. In the aftermath, the company – and its employees – immediately responded in the best fashion that a “family focused” company could. Lipka remembers the devastating “day after.” As he relates, the company president brought together the employees and said “Right now, I don’t know exactly what we are going to do.”

He followed that preface with an expression of hope: “But let’s work together.”

That’s indeed what happened.

Bulwarked by employees’ resilience – after all, this occurred in the era of the “Great Recession,” and no one was going down without a bare-knuckled fistfight – the company was soon up and running. Employees leaped into the fray – or into the fire, if you will – and quickly leased a nearby building for storage, and they re-arranged an existing building to accommodate full production. As such, this company – which focuses its Imlay City-based operations on modern transport – completed its first post-fire bus (a mid-sized vehicle), from start to finish, in less than three weeks.

“We produced the vehicle in the south plant line, which was virtually an empty plant,” recalls Lipka.

Further, it took less than 90 days to restore full employment. Indeed, by May of that year, a second shift was in operation. Meanwhile, paychecks were issued and, with the start-up of a limited production schedule, the design of a new facility was begun.

It was an enormous challenge, remembers Lipka. “We had to start from scratch. We lost all of our CAD drawings and engineering documents, as well as fixtures – everything we developed since our founding – all destroyed,” he says.

But this is a company with more than 40 years’ experience, so it didn’t go down dying. “We got through the catastrophe, and in only a matter of weeks,” says Lipka.

Groundbreaking for a new plant was held a mere two months after the fire. Local contractors were secured, incentives were paid for early completion, and the company was soon rolling buses off of its line.

From there, the company developed a new and better facility. To prevent future occurrences – and with the assistance of Imlay Township, Lapeer County Economic Development, the MEDC, and the City of Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage – Champion secured access to tap into the Detroit water system line adjacent to the plant. The new facility is now completely equipped with state-of-the art sprinkler systems (not that the company slacked in this area; again, it just got better).

Through the process, the company developed a motto: “Out of adversity comes opportunity.”

For sure, the rebuilt facilities were not only safer and more secure but more productive. Champion Bus – through the combined efforts of management, vendors, customers, employees and regional governmental agencies – erected a new building that maximized efficiency. For instance, it added 50-percent capacity to the paint shop. Further, it added a durability track based on the FTA (Federal Transit Authority)-sponsored testing facility located in Altoona, Penn.

Also, what was lost was found again – it re-drew lost engineering drawings in 3D to ensure proper fit. Further, its resilience speaks volumes: it designed and introduced three new products during the rebuilding process.

Could another company respond in such fashion? From the brink of disaster came success: Champion is not just a name; it’s a state of mind.

Look at the picture of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston after that famous Lewistone, Maine knockout punch. That’s a visual metaphor.

Lipka provides details about the history of a champion that got better and became a leader in new territory. Background involves a major transition. The company was established in 1953 as Champion Home Builders; in 1983, it entered the commercial bus business.

Eventually, Thor Industries acquired the renamed Champion Bus from Champion Enterprises (which was headquartered in Auburn Hills, Mich.).

That happened in about 1994, and a $30 million company, as Lipka describes, became a $90 million company. “Do the math,” he says. “Growth tripled.”

Located near Imlay City, Champion resides upon 73 acres, and now possesses nearly 200,000 square feet of combined office and manufacturing space. From this location, Champion – a major employment resource in its county (Lapeer) – performs manufacturing, engineering, compliance, research and development, aftermarket service, sales and marketing. All products comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

In the last six years, Champion more than doubled sales and production and increased employment by more than 50 percent. So you want to talk about a fire? This company will recover with lightning speed. Perhaps it’s inappropriate to call the fire a disaster; after all, it presented only a short detour.

Forward direction proceeds: On an annual basis, Champion – and its nearly 300 employees – now manufacture more than 1,200 commercial buses. Burgeoning growth matches the company’s increasing positive reputation. The existing network of independently-owned dealers throughout the United States and Canada attest to its commitment, value and impact upon its area of activity – not to mention the environment.

“Our niche is the mid-size bus market, a strong fit,” says Lipka.

The business began with heavy transit buses and shifted gears into the smaller-sized bus, as it recognized that rural communities were underserved and needed the smaller vehicles for the kinds of requirements that don’t match big cities. Champion vehicles may transport less passengers, but the company makes the rural routes easily accessible – and in the most technologically sophisticated and cost-effective fashion, the company describes. “That’s the niche we’ve carved for ourselves,” emphasizes Lipka.

It’s important to offer vehicular dimensions, and Lipka provides: “We go from a narrow body to a 35-foot motor coach, and technology relates to fuel consumption.”

And this involves public transit – essentially anywhere a shuttle service is needed. But the company’s mission is more than just about reconfiguring a design to meet market needs. “Deploying many different add-on components, we’re moving beyond fossil fuel and into hybrid systems,” reports Lipka. “That is where the industry is moving, and that is where we are headed – and, for us, that means our customers and their passengers.”

It’s the “greening” of an industry – both in production and transportation – and that’s the company’s road map. “Whether it be manufacturing or recycling activities, we focus on ‘green’ as much as we can,” says Lipka. “Anything that comes into our plant – steel, aluminum, whatever – we make sure it comes out reusable.”

Reuse, as he indicates, makes landfills not only archaic but irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the company maintains contracts, bolsters its distribution network, increases is capacity and volume, and evolves with the industry that it has already had a strong impact upon: transportation.

“As the industry changes, we hope that we can provide leadership,” comments Lipka. “We are excited about our future, and we feel the Thor Industries acquisition will have an ongoing impact.”

Again, a good company is only to get even better. Look for it to happen.

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