Devastating fires at opposite ends of the country hit the flooring industry in October. Both lit up the late night sky with flames leaping more than 100 feet in the air; and both required the best efforts of local firefighters working frantically through the night. The first fire was in Oakland, Calif. Straus Carpet, a well respected retailer that’s been around for more than a half a century, nearly burned to the ground due to an early morning electrical fire. Virtually everything inside was lost. The second blaze, a suspected arson, came eight days later. It swept through Anderson Hardwood Floors’ 48-year-old manufacturing facility in Clinton, S.C. claiming nearly half the plant. The veneer grading, pressing and panel sawing areas were left in ruins. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt in either of these blazes, and a 21-year-old local man has been arrested in connection with the Anderson fire. But in each instance the material losses were considerable.

How considerable? Both the retailer and the manufacturer were back in business in less than a day.

That’s right. Straus Carpet and Anderson Hardwood almost instantly sprang back to their feet after each had absorbed a body-blow that could cripple a business. Each had found itself in the throes of sudden turmoil. Each had to deal with a barrage of media injuries, official investigations and employees worried sick that they might be out of a job. But both had in place pinpoint contingency plans. More important, Straus had Tom Straus, its owner, and Anderson had Don Finkell, its ceo. Both men had the steady hands needed to steer through a thicket of chaos and disarray. Both were willing to lose some sleep, but neither was about to lose his business.

Remarkably, Finkell’s first glimpse of the flames came from high above. He was in a private plane returning from a meeting in Dallas when the pilot summoned him to the cockpit. “I was convinced the entire plant was lost,” said Finkell recalling his bird’s eye view of the horror unfolding below. Immediately he was on the phone to his IT people, plant operations and any other key people he could get a hold of. He directed them to shift all operations to a duplicate facility Anderson had established for just this type of emergency. Finkell noted that it was a devastating fire in 1954 that brought the family-owned company to Clinton. He added that disaster readiness is engrained in the corporate culture and assured that the hardwood flooring maker will “emerge stronger” from the experience. (When police nabbed a suspect he also released a statement saying his prayers go out to the man’s family.)

The quick bounce-back at Straus was equally impressive. Owner Tom Straus says he was awakened at about 3 a.m. by a call telling him a fire alarm was going off at his store. As he hurried to the scene, he could see flames jetting out of his building. He knew it was bad. He lost his inventory and “a ton of paper work” but he too had a duplicate facility at the ready: a nearby warehouse was pressed into service. It was open for business by noon the next day. “We’ll be fine,” said Straus. “Everything we lost was replaceable.”

What happened at Straus and Anderson is unnerving yet inspiring. It reinforces the fragile nature of life and the need to prepare for the worst. But it reminds us of a few things, not the least of which is the importance of strong, decisive leadership. Both Straus and Finkell are seasoned veterans of the flooring business. They said they have been deeply touched by the out-pouring of assistance (Straus said a distributor, Butler Johnson, immediately called to say “Don’t worry about your bill.” Finkell noted that people are donating money to the United Way to help displaced workers.) They both know that in business out of sight means out of mind and that many lives are hurt when a big employer is put out of operation. They were ready and they met the challenge. That’s probably why they seemed almost matter of fact when they recounted their respective October calamities. Tom Straus even waxed philosophic quoting that old chestnut from Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill me,” he said, “makes me only stronger.” I’m sure Don Finkell would have to agree.