By Chris Newmarker, Finance & Commerce, Published March 10 2013
After mass shooting, Minnesota sign company carries on
But in mid-2012, he had a new technology to sell: a proprietary design for incorporating energy efficient light-emitting diode arrays in sign fixtures. Sales were up, and Accent was hiring.
“I think we all felt like we were right on the cusp of something big happening – something really good happening,” recalls the entrepreneur’s wife, Shereen Rahamim.
Instead, success turned into tragedy.
On Sept. 27, 2012, a fired worker went on a rampage, fatally shooting Reuven Rahamim and five others at the business before killing himself. Rahamim and some of the longest-serving workers in the company were gone.
What did not die that day, however, was the business. And the reason appears to be what Rahamim already had in place: a trusted network of friends and advisers – and skilled, cross-trained and dedicated workers who firmly believed in Rahamim’s vision,.
Most of the surviving employees were back to work 11 days after the shooting, filling orders for hundreds of sign displays – on time. Even former workers came back to help.
“Overall, what’s done it now is the people who are there – and their determination that this wasn’t going to go away. It’s an honor, really, to all those who were lost,” Shereen Rahamim said in an interview this week.
At the time of the slayings, Accent was creating hundreds of displays that incorporated the LED technology. The displays were going to an undisclosed large international retailer – with the order due in November. Another order for hundreds of aluminum frame displays was due later the same month.
So did they give up on the orders? Shereen Rahamim says anyone who knew her husband would know the answer.
Many workers volunteered to stay late to get the orders completed. Just one employee has departed for another job since then.
Accent Signage finished 2012 just short of the minimum $5 million in revenue Reuven Rahamim projected in July 2012 during an interview with Finance & Commerce. The business remains profitable, and interim general manager Rod Grandner expects 2013 to be the best year yet revenue-wise.
“Reuven was intense. I think he inspired through what he did and the drive and the passion,” said Scott Parizek, principal at Burnsville-based Cubic Visual Systems-USA, which had the order for the aluminum frame displays. Delivered on time around Thanksgiving, the displays were for OTG Management’s renovation of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s Concourse G.
Parizek, whose company still uses Accent, is not sure of the “magic juice” that keeps the company going: “It’s weird. It doesn’t feel like they’re all flustered about this. The people I’m working with seem focused about their job.”
Sanford Stein, a friend and business partner of the Rahamims, thinks Reuven Rahamim’s excitement about his business lives on in the surviving workers: “There’s an element of that embedded in that building, and I firmly believe he’s there.
“They all do what they can do, continuing the business and the legacy,” said Stein, president of Minneapolis-based retail design company Stein LLC.
From the start, Shereen Rahamim never thought of selling her family’s business. The determination to carry on helped answer a nagging question on the minds of the surviving 17 employees at Accent as they gathered for grief counseling and funerals of co-workers.
“It came up in our grief counseling: ‘Are we going to have jobs?’ ” Grandner recalled. “It was something people were obviously concerned about. It wasn’t like they weren’t willing to go back to work. It was more like, ‘Are we going to open the doors?’ And Shereen had the braveness to go on.”
“She had a tremendous devotion and felt responsible for the families that were left behind,” Stein said. “She’s a remarkable woman. A lot of character.”
The shooting occurred on a Thursday. On the following Saturday – a day before her husband’s funeral – she met with 30 friends and business associates to seek advice and help in carrying on the business.
Accent Signage had some disaster planning in place. “But you would have never foreseen this many people would be taken out,” she said.
Grandner, the company’s chief financial officer and human resources manager, was visiting his mother on the day of the shooting. His father had passed away a month before. Instead of time with family, Grandner found himself trying to the handle the shooting’s aftermath.
The first week after was about arranging grief counseling through the company’s health insurer (Minnetonka-based Medica), making sure messages got picked up, mail was received and there were no projects ready to implode.
“Everything we did after the event, we did as a team – from the next day when we got everyone together to go through the grief counseling, to five funerals we went to, to walking back into the building for the first time, and then ultimately to start production again. It really bonded our group,” Grandner said.
Employees were back to work more than a week later – on a Monday.
“In the beginning, we literally just took things one day at a time. That’s all you could really do,” Grandner said.
A piece of advice that Shereen Rahamim chose not to follow was to bring in consultants and other outsiders to help manage the business. “It didn’t feel right,” she said.
Along with Rahamim, the victims included Rami Cooks, described as Rahamim’s right-hand man, employees Ron Edberg and Jacob Beneke, and UPS driver Keith Basinski, who happened to be at the company’s loading dock. Production manager Eric Rivers died Oct. 10 from his wounds. Operations director John Souter, who was also shot, is still recovering.
“Even Andy was there 13 years,” Grandner said, referring to shooter Andrew Engeldinger.
Many of the employees, though, had been cross-trained in other areas of the business – and were able to step into new roles.
Kim Russell, who used to handle customer service, is now operations manager. Yossi Ben Harush, who was a layout director, is now production manager reporting to Russell.
There were even workers such as Christie Cutter, a recent college graduate who joined the company as a marketing specialist months before the shooting. “She showed remarkable maturity and poise in the most difficult situation you can imagine – listening to messages. She was amazing,” Shereen Rahamim said.
Cutter recently handled the rollout of Accent Signage’s online store for Braille installation products.
“Especially when we came back, we had to just empower people. We really didn’t have a choice,” Grandner said.
Former workers were also willing to come back, helping to grow the number of workers at Accent from 17 to about 27 since the shooting.
Accent Signage Systems has carried on, but there have also been challenges.
Parizek noticed that institutional memory was lost because key people were no longer there.
The family of one of the slain workers, Jacob Beneke, has also sued Accent Signage in Hennepin County District Court, accusing the company of improperly handling security and Engeldinger’s firing. Company officials have declined to comment about the lawsuit, which their lawyer is seeking to have dismissed.
Meanwhile, Souter is not back, and the executive offices where the shootings occurred have not been used – save for the construction workers now renovating them.
Still, there are plenty of people such as Stein who want to help Accent
Signage continue Reuven Rahamim’s tradition of innovation.
Grandner said there are “definite plans” afoot when it comes to the company’s future. He recalled how last year’s Finance and Commerce profile on Reuven Rahamim described him as the “mad scientist of signs.”
“That was spot-on. Every morning he would come in with 10 different ideas. We want to be similar to that. We want to be creative. We want to be on the cutting edge of whatever’s in our industry. And we will be,” Grandner said.