It took only a matter of hours for the business that Jennifer McNutt Bywater and Brent Bywater built over the past 20 years to go up in smoke.
But as Vested Interest burned in downtown North Bay Jan. 3 and 4, the couple was determined to start again.
“We lost everything in that fire,” said McNutt Bywater. “It was hard to watch.”
Vested Interest's offices and warehouse, housed in an historic Main Street building, were destroyed in the blaze. The other end of the building, which fronts on McIntyre Street and houses its retail outlet, sustained extensive smoke and water damage. Lefebvre's Source for Adventure, which co-owns the building, was also destroyed by the fire that burned for 20 hours.
Vested Interest was slated to exhibit at the annual Toronto Gift Show the end of January, but with no products and no booth, McNutt Bywater feared they would miss the event which attracts 16,000 retail buyers from across Canada.
After an appeal to the business community through the North Bay District Chamber of Commerce for shelving, desks and other essentials to get them back on their feet and ready for the gift show, the couple was overwhelmed with the support they received.
“We had no product, no booth so we had to beg, borrow and steal whatever we needed,” she said. “I could not believe the help we received. The response was phenomenal.”
“The chamber members really came together. I was amazed at what we came up with for the businesses affected by the fire. People have really come to the forefront,” said Patti Carr, executive director of the chamber.
The business carries a line of gourmet food products (it's the largest distributor of hot sauce north of Toronto) and carries a variety of handmade products from Indonesia and Thailand.
“I ordered the food from the U.S. and I asked my Indonesian suppliers to make one of everything I had purchased back in September,” McNutt Bywater said.
Catalogues were reprinted, food items arrived and volunteers helped unpack and arrange the products on a variety of donated shelving at its temporary location at the former Schutz Garden Centre on Seymour Street.
“We have 12,256 SKUs (stock-keeping units) of product and the food has to be in order but it wasn't arriving in order. But we were getting shelves organized and labelled and so many people were helping, some I didn't even know. I even had to turn people away once because there were too many volunteers,” McNutt Bywater said.
“It would not have been possible to accomplish what we did without the volunteers.”
The night before the truck was loaded and headed to Toronto for the show, the Indonesian shipment of products arrived.
“It really was a miracle that we were there (at the show),” she said. “We were scheduled to start building the booth the day after the fire and that alone takes about two weeks. We were literally winging it.”
Vested Interest managed to set up its booth and received a 35 per cent increase in sales compared to the last five years. It also received many compliments on its setup.
“It was so important to get to that show since we have many repeat customers and it is an opportunity to get new ones,” McNutt Bywater said. “We distribute to 1,200 stores across Canada.”
Vested Interest's retail outlet remains closed and can't be accessed by the owners until all issues are finalized. Its warehouse and offices were on the second floor of the building.
“There was no inventory left. The second floor had to be cut and it dropped into the fire. The day of the fire we received six orders but by Jan. 16, we were shipping orders out,” she said.
The cause of the fire has not been released and there is no word if Lefebvre's, a third-generation business, will rebuild. Attempts to reach a Lefebvre's spokesperson were unsuccessful.
Bob Alger, chair of the Downtown Improvement Area, said the businesses were pillars and drawing cards.
“The downtown is still open for business and things are still happening but it was a big time hit for us,” he said.
John Lyle, owner of The Abbey, which was located next to the historic building, said his card and gift store will not open for several months due to smoke and water damage.
“Fortunately, the fire did not go through our building, which probably saved the whole block. They fought the fire for 20 hours.”
Six days after the fire, McNutt Bywater was scheduled to leave for one of her annual buying trips to Thailand and Indonesia but instead postponed it to the middle of February.
“I go twice a year and this is my regular buying trip for 2013,” she said.
The couple's love of travel and cultural experiences is very much a part of their business and the families they have worked with over the years – many since the beginning – are part of their lives.
“Our success is their success,” McNutt Bywater said. “We are committed to them. Without us they will suffer too.”
News of the fire was shared with the families by the cargo agent they work with and the postponement of her trip would have been of concern to them.
“They were derailed by the fire as well and I am sure they will be happy to see me when I get there,” she said.
The next priority for Vested Interest is to get its gift basket business up and running and a packing area in its temporary new quarters has been organized. Setting up a retail space in the new location is also a focus. It did have 4,000 square-feet of showroom at its downtown store but currently has about a third of that. Its Northgate Square Mall store was closed late January since there was no inventory to restock.
“We are going forward and we see potential for a rebirth and starting again with a clean slate,” McNutt Bywater said.
“We started with nothing and we have the ability to start with nothing again, except this time we have 20 years of experience.”
The couple was inspired by the community support and they are still receiving calls and emails from people offering to help.
“I am confident we will be bigger and better than before. Sometimes, good things come out of bad,” she said.