Plane Crash Claims Plymouth Foam Execs
© 2005 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Summer 2005
Author: Carla Rautenberg
Plane Crash Claims Plymouth Foam Execs
By Carla Rautenberg, DAS Special Correspondent
At 9:20 a.m., on Friday, Feb. 4, 2005, a small plane crashed in rural Berrien County, Mich., killing all four men onboard. On that bleak winter morning, four women were widowed, seven children were left fatherless, and one company’s management team was snuffed out, all in an instant.
The shocking news hit hard at Plymouth Foam, a longtime supplier of foam insulation to the garage door industry. The jobs of 200 employees hung in the balance at the firm’s headquarters in Plymouth, Wis., and at two other manufacturing sites in Minnesota and Ohio.
Gone were Scott Roberts, 41, president and co-owner of Plymouth Foam; his brother, Vance Roberts, 49, vice president of development & technical services and co-owner; and Michael Borczik, 50, vice president of operations. Professional pilot and flight instructor Paul Riddle, 71, also perished in the crash.
The accident was devastating. Yet, just a few weeks afterward, Plymouth Foam was running smoothly.
“Many companies don’t survive something like this, but we’re doing very well,” said David Bolland, Plymouth Foam’s new president, speaking to Door & Access Systems. “We’ve been able to maintain our high quality standards, ship on time, and pursue new markets and new customers.”
This story, though tragic, is a story of courage, foresight, and teamwork. It is a story of hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. It is a story of extraordinary leadership.
“What About All These People?”
Tecwyn Roberts (father of Scott and Vance) started Plymouth Foam in 1978 as a regional supplier of expanded polystyrene products (EPS). Since then, the family business has grown steadily, becoming a leading manufacturer of high performance cellular foam plastic products. Founder Tec Roberts remains vice chairman of the company’s board.
Diana E. Roberts, the widow of Vance, told the Associated Press why her father-in-law wanted to have a manufacturing business. “He told me he wanted to give people jobs.”
The two sisters-in-law, who share the same first name of Diana, retain co-ownership of Plymouth Foam. In the wake of the crash, and in the midst of their grief, they were awed by their new responsibilities.
“We’ve got 200 employees, and I’ve got to say that was real high on our minds when all of this came down—what about all these people?” Diana E. Roberts continued.
Planning for the Worst
Tec Roberts implemented the first part of a succession plan when he began transferring ownership of Plymouth Foam to his youngest and oldest sons in the late 1990s. (His middle son, Brad, is not involved with the company.)
“In late 1998 and early 1999, Tec formed a board of directors, all of reputable people in the (Plymouth, Wis.) area. Over the next several years, Scott filled out the succession plan,” recalled Bolland in an interview with D&AS.
In September 2004, Scott Roberts continued the work of restructuring the company, creating a management team. His goal was to opt out of everyday decision-making and empower the team to run the company.
He also initiated strategic planning that identified three primary objectives: growth, efficiency, and personnel development. Succession and contingency plans were developed.
As it turned out, though, the crisis that befell Plymouth Foam was worse than anyone had foreseen. No one had anticipated that something would happen to both Scott and Vance Roberts at the same time. But thanks to their foresight, the board of directors, led by chairman Tom Testwuide and vice chairman Tec Roberts, was able to maintain business continuity during the transition to the new management team.
Testwuide is now chief executive officer. Bolland was promoted from vice president of sales and marketing to president and chief operating officer. Jason Hassel, former director of administrative services, was named chief financial officer.
A Continuing Mystery
The cause of the crash remains unknown, according to newspaper accounts and a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report. The Beechcraft Baron 58 was flying at about 7,000 feet when it “inexplicably” began to lose altitude and disappeared from the radar screens of air traffic controllers in South Bend, Ind. The plane slammed into the ground almost nose-first, disintegrating on impact.
Although there was ground fog at the time, visual conditions at cruising altitude had been clear. Both Scott Roberts and Paul Riddle were accomplished pilots. At the time, Riddle was piloting the plane, and it is possible that Scott was serving as co-pilot, but there is no way to confirm this.
They were en route from Sheboygan, Wis., to Ohio, where the three Plymouth Foam executives were to negotiate an acquisition. Bolland has declined to comment on the outcome of those plans.
Because the plane had no black box recorder and so little of the wreckage could be recovered, the reason for the crash may never be known. Jim True, 56, a resident of nearby Little Smith Lake, told the South Bend Tribune that he went to the crash site, but, “I never saw anything that resembled a plane.”
Taking Care of the Family
Scott Roberts’ widow, Diana L. Roberts, told the Sheboygan Press how important it was that Plymouth was able to promote from within following the tragedy. “We didn’t have to go outside for that. It helps maintain the 'family feel' that we have, and this is definitely a family company.”
Her sister-in-law, Diana E. Roberts, added that Vance and Scott kept the company on the cutting edge of technology. She wants the business to stay current so it can continue to thrive in the community.
Besides supplying to the garage door industry, Plymouth Foam also produces EPS products for insulation applications including exterior and interior walls, roofing, and lightweight fill for roads, bridges, building foundations, and retaining walls.
“When all this happened, we found out how deep we are in our organization,” Dave Bolland told D&AS. “It really has been a team effort.”
Referring to the Roberts brothers, he concludes, “They took care of us when they were here, and they’re taking care of us now that they’re gone.”
Who Will Replace YOU?
A Google search on the phrase “succession planning” yields 577,000 citations. The topic is common, yet we often hear of successful garage door dealers that fail to plan the transition to the next generation.
Hewitt Associates, a global consulting firm, released a new study in April 2005 of the top 20 leadership-oriented companies in the U.S. Nearly all of them (95 percent) have a CEO succession plan in place. That compares to less than 60 percent of other companies. And 85 percent of the top 20 companies have an emergency succession plan, versus 59 percent of the rest.
Point: The smartest companies plan for the future.
As a small-business owner, a garage door dealer has access to thousands of succession-planning resources, from high-priced consultants to free information from the Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov).
Experts in this field urge you to remember:
· Succession planning is a process, not an event.
· Identify potential successors; then include them in the planning process.
· Start by assessing your company’s current competitive position.
· Develop objectives that reflect your company’s values and culture.
· Establish a timeframe for implementing the succession plan.
· Design a financial strategy for turning the company over to your successors.
· Consider purchasing business life insurance to fund the succession.
The most important thing is to begin. And the time is now.