Suddenly called away from home on Sept. 18 and holed up in a hotel room for the night, Mike Malatesta, partner and president of Advanced Waste Services Inc., a West Allis-based hauler and treater of liquid industrial waste, could not sleep.
Earlier that day, he had watched a fire gut his company’s 35,000-square-foot treatment facility in New Castle, Pa.
“When we got there, it looked terrible,” he said. “Our guys were sort of sitting on the grass, looking at the thing. The firefighters still had control of the scene. It was a terrible feeling, but I told myself, ‘I’m here for a reason.’ And that was to find out what the situation is and what needs to be done.”
His 35 employees in Pennsylvania and his customers wanted to know what would come next.
Malatesta knew he wanted to rebuild the facility, which his company had acquired nine months earlier, but he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
At the end of the day, Malatesta projected steel resolve as he addressed his employees.
“I told them, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to get right back to work. I can’t tell you how it will happen, but everyone will stay busy and everyone is going to get paid. And when we get done, it will be bigger and better than it was before,'” he said.
Advanced Waste Services processes industrial wastewater and sludge, removing hazardous materials. When the company has finished its process, water is sent into municipal sewer systems, while solid waste is taken to a specially designed landfill for hazardous materials.
In addition to its West Allis headquarters, the company has facilities in Milwaukee, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
The fire that destroyed the Pennsylvania plant was started when an employee using a cutting torch accidentally ignited insulation near the company’s roof. The small fire quickly spread to several open tanks with petrochemicals inside and soon engulfed the entire facility.
By the time firefighters left the scene, it was hard to envision how work could start again at the plant, Malatesta said.
“There was charred stuff and sludge water all over the place,” he said. “And the building itself looked like it was going to fall down.”
However, the structure did not collapse, and cleanup started the next day.
Over the next four days, Advanced Waste Services’ employees cleared the site of debris and machinery that could not be salvaged. By the following Friday, eight days after the fire, the company was able to open one of its chemical processing lines.
Before the fire, Advanced Waste Services had operated two processing systems in Pennsylvania. Equipment for the second line was too heavily damaged to restart it, and the company needed to find another way to serve its clients.
After several competitors told Advanced Waste they could not take on their processing, Calvin McCutcheon, a member of the emergency response team that responded to the fire who owns a waste processing facility, agreed to take on the company’s work.
“He has been instrumental in us retaining clients,” Malatesta said. “He handles a lot of our industrial waste, and we haven’t missed a day of work.”
Zurich, Advanced Waste’s property and casualty insurance carrier, sent an arson investigator to the site the day after the fire, and an adjustor visited the following week. Before he boarded a flight for Pennsylvania, Malatesta called his contacts at the insurance company to make sure they knew about the situation and could respond as quickly as possible.
“My biggest concern was that we need a new building,” he said. “And we need the proceeds from our policy to do that. That was the first thing on my mind.”
It took about three and one-half weeks for Zurich to issue a check for Advanced Waste Services’ building, Malatesta said, and two additional weeks for a check for the damaged contents of the building.
On Oct. 30, Advanced Waste Services began demolition of its building that was damaged by fire. The demolition and new construction will occur while the company’s equipment operates, Malatesta said, because both buildings are prefabricated metal industrial buildings. Construction of the new building was scheduled to start last week.
The quick turnaround was aided by Zurich’s quick response to the situation, Malatesta said.
“They did a nice job of getting us our policy limits,” he said. “There was no negotiating. They paid for it.”
Advanced Waste Services’ plant in Pennsylvania will be fully operational by Christmas, Malatesta said. After its new facility is built, the company will begin a 6,500-square-foot addition.
“This will be a much more efficient building with more equipment,” Malatesta said. “We’re taking this as an opportunity to get it set up in the way we wanted it to be.”
Mike Malatesta, partner and president of Advanced Waste Services Inc., had never dealt with a fire or large catastrophe before the September fire at his company’s Pennsylvania facility. Because many businesses may face a similar situation some day, he shares some advice for other business owners:
Carefully pick your agent
“I find business insurance to be a very complicated thing to understand. It’s hard to know the right questions to ask. You have to almost cover each risk individually and it requires an agent familiar with business insurance. And you need to ask the right questions.”
An insurance company’s rating matters
“It also indicates how they work. The last thing you want is to have to worry about your business after an incident, if you can get it back up and running.”
Create a plan
“We did not have a disaster recovery plan. Even though I think we handled things properly, it would have been nice to have a checklist. It’s worth your time to think about it and to start putting it down on paper.”
Communication is important
“We’ve kept our whole company up on the details of the whole process. We’ve had weekly updates on what’s happened, the progress, challenges and everything. The most effective thing is that you need to involve everybody so that they know what will happen.”