Accent rebuilds after Minneapolis workplace rampage

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS and TODD NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2013 - 11:41 AM

Six months after deadly shooting rampage, the Minneapolis firm lives on.

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Crews have gutted the end of the 1940s building where Accent Signage Systems founder Reuven Rahamim kept his small office. The carpet has been ripped out, the walls knocked down to the studs. Where the executive offices once stood, a new conference room and showroom are taking shape.

The remodel was an easy call, said Rod Grandner, the company’s former controller who has been running Accent since last fall. “Get rid of some of those memories, if you will,” he said as he walked across the empty wooden floors.

Six months have passed since an employee who had just been fired emerged from one of those offices with a gun. The worker, Andrew Engeldinger, shot and killed six people — including Rahamim, 61, of St. Louis Park — and injured two in a rampage that ended when he took his own life. It was one of the worst mass shootings in Minnesota history.

And yet Accent Signage lives on. The family-owned manufacturer, tucked into the residential Bryn Mawr neighborhood in Minneapolis, has defied the shocking loss. It reopened about a week after the shootings, scrambling to meet a shipment deadline for a critical ongoing order.

Moving from triage to full operation, Accent barely missed a beat, according to some customers. It expects a profitable 2013, and it is back up to about as many full-time employees — 26 — as it had last fall when it was estimating annual sales in the $5 million to $10 million range.

It’s a remarkable recovery by any measure, but particularly for a company that lost key leaders, including its founder, just as it was ramping up production for retail customers.

Will Accent Signage make it? The company and some key customers give an emphatic yes. Employees, who have put in extra hours and jumped into new roles, say they have to prevail. There’s more than business at stake.

“When we first got back together as a group it was pretty clear everybody pretty much had that same sentiment of carrying on and paying tribute to the people who were no longer with us,” Grandner said in an interview. “Almost to a man, everybody wanted to make sure that ... he didn’t win.”

Sudden gunfire

The morning of Sept. 27, Rahamim gave an interview at the company to a Star Tribune writer preparing a small-business feature on Accent Signage.

Rahamim spoke about his childhood in Israel on a farm with an outhouse and no running water, and told how he started Accent Signage in 1984 in his basement. An order from St. Catherine University, which offers degree programs for the blind, opened a profitable niche the company would pursue in Braille signage.

A few hours after the interview, Engeldinger opened fire.

“The next day we had 20 employees at grief counseling sessions,” Grandner recalled. At the first all-staff meeting a few days later, the company’s leaders simply aimed for calm.

“The range was incredible,” Grandner said. “There were people who were fearing ‘Are we going to have jobs?’ to people who were still shocked and stunned.”

Accent turned to Jonathan Bundt, a psychologist who heads an emergency management and crisis-response firm called Masa Consulting.

Bundt said what happened at Accent was “at the top of the range” because it happened among a small group in a close-knit, ordinarily quiet workplace. Yet employees rallied, many taking on much greater responsibility.

“Clearly, the resilience ... is the key to success,” Bundt said.

Not that there was time to sit around discussing resilience. Accent reopened about a week after the shooting, with big important orders coming due.

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