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.

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.

“When we got back to work we just started figuring things out one by one,” Grandner said.

Strategic shifts

Accent Signage Systems sits on a small hill overlooking Bassett Creek in a long, low-slung rectangular building with a flag hoisted in front.

The building, built in 1940, was the headquarters and factory for the Burma-Vita Co., whose Burma-Shave shaving cream became a top seller thanks to the popularity of its rhyming roadside signs.

The hum and buzz of Accent’s engraving machines now fill the air.

In addition to interior signs, the company makes wall panels, including backlit light-emitting diode (LED) panels, for various kinds of displays.

The recession forced the company to plot new strategies. John Souter, who joined Accent after years in research and development with 3M Co., helped move Accent toward the growing demand for green building materials.

Souter, the head of operations, was key in creating its “Materia” lines of interior signs fashioned from such materials as cashew extracts, plant starches, recycled paper and sawdust.

It was in Souter’s office, next to Rahamim’s, where the shooting began after Souter and production manager Rami Cooks informed Engeldinger of his termination.

Souter said that as he opened his office door, he looked over his right shoulder to see Engeldinger raising a gun toward Souter’s head. Souter grabbed the barrel and pointed it upward as rounds began firing. After several shots had been fired, Souter was hit twice and fell to the ground.

Cooks was killed, as were employees Ron Edberg, Eric Rivers and Jacob Beneke, along with UPS driver Keith Basinski.

Souter, 63, continues to recover from the ordeal, although he appeared in good physical shape and spirits during a recent interview.

He said Friday that he expects to undergo a CT scan to see if fluid has built up in his right lung, which lost 30 percent of its capacity. He said he hopes to return to work part-time by early May, as soon as the remodeling is done. The plan has been for him to become CEO.

“I have four guardian angels,” Souter said. “One is the surgeon, the other one is my general practitioner, the third one is, believe it or not, a psychiatrist and the fourth is physiotherapy. When three out of four say ‘go,’ I’m going. My cat wants me out of the house.”

Retail displays

Accent’s most recent projects involve edge-lit LED panels, shelving and displays for retail customers.

On the factory floor, Grandner showed off a strip of LED lights to run along the edges of thin acrylic panels to produce a uniform luminance across the panel’s surface. The company is doing similar things with shelving.

It’s great timing, said Sanford Stein, of Stein LLC in Minneapolis. Stein, which develops store designs for retailers, has been helping Accent move into that world.

Retailers are transferring lighting from ceilings down closer to products, Stein said, in part to save energy but also to better display products.

Through Cubic Visual Systems LLC, a Burnsville company that makes and distributes retail store fixtures, Accent completed an installation last year for the luggage company Tumi on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Cubic’s co-owner, Chuck Schaefer, recalled how a contractor knocked out some of the lights at the last minute. Rahamim hopped a flight and worked through the night at the job site so Tumi could make the grand opening.

“He closed the deal for us on that one,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said he hopes Accent can get beyond the perception that “this is the group that had the tragedy.”

Grandner believes they can.

“In the very beginning, we went from kind of a crisis mode to now we’re actually starting to think strategically,” Grandner said.“I knew when we went back to work we were going to make it.

“The only reservation or concern, or however you want to phrase it, was just how do we start replacing what we lost? You just can’t snap your fingers and get 15 years of signage experience from an employee,” he said. “We’re still not there. We’re still trying.”

At least one customer had his doubts. Tim Grabrovaz, former vice president of longtime Accent supplier and customer GravoTech in Atlanta, said that during the flight to Minneapolis for Rahamim’s funeral, he was wondering how the company would cope.

That changed at the funeral, he said, when he saw the determination and positive energy of Rahamim’s family and employees.

“When you’ve been in business a long time you get to know who’s got it and who doesn’t,” Grabrovaz said. “I realized right there and then that they were determined to not let the shooter get his aim, which they thought was to finish the business.”

 

Jennifer Bjorhus• 612-673-4683 • Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury who writes a weekly small-business column for the Star Tribune • todd_nelson@mac.com

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