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the challenge

Josh Bulk, co-owner of Rosa Flora Ltd., in Dunnville, Ont.Glenn Lowson

Less than two years ago, Rosa Flora Ltd., of Dunnville, Ont., was a semi-finalist in the second edition of our annual Small Business Challenge Contest, a Globe and Mail competition sponsored by Telus Corp.

But after the events of March 6, Rosa Flora, the leading cut-flower grower in North America with 1.6 million square feet of growing space, faces the biggest challenge in its 36-year existence.

In a nightmare scenario, co-owner Josh Bulk awoke around 1 a.m. to find his property ablaze. He watched helplessly as flames engulfed the business he had taken over from his father and Rosa Flora founder, Otto Bulk.

"Firefighters were trying to keep the flames down as much as possible, but in the end of course everything was lost," Mr. Bulk says. "We lost about 500,000 square feet of snapdragons and about 200,000 square feet of gerbera and about 100,000 square feet of warehouse and office space."

While the cause of the blaze has yet to be discovered, Mr. Bulk estimates the cost of damage has run to tens of millions of dollars. "The fire marshal doesn't have anything conclusive, nor does the insurance, so that's disappointing for me because I'd like to be able to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Mr. Bulk wasted no time in turning to damage control. While the flames raged, he held a staff meeting to determine a strategy.

"We sent a message out to all of our customers telling them we wouldn't be shipping out that day, not until further notice," he explains. "Out of our 17 trucks we lost 15 of them [in the fire]. So we had to get rentals in place, all the stickers and licence plates to go along with it."

Mr. Bulk also credits his IT contractor with some quick thinking.

"He went to Mississauga, grabbed a whole bunch of servers and every [piece] of equipment you could think of and brought it over," he said. "We were up and running in terms of a network and phone communication that same day."

But the charred remains and destruction of product mean that Rosa Flora will not be able to serve customers while its property is being rebuilt. In a happy coincidence, Peter Bulk, Otto Bulk's cousin, who owns his own greenhouses full of snapdragons, was open to selling his business, allowing Mr. Bulk and his co-owning sister and brother-in-law, Arielle and Ralph DeBoer, the opportunity to buy it.

So Rosa Flora was able to resume filling snapdragon orders less than three weeks after the fire, and the company is back to 20 per cent of its original production.

"We're going to be at 70-per-cent capacity by, we're hoping, the end of June of our snapdragons, and we're hoping to be back at 100-per-cent capacity by October/November," Mr. Bulk says.

The acquisition of Peter Bulk's property may one day allow the business to be bigger than it was before the fire. But for now, Mr. Bulk is focused on resuming normal service and repaying his customers' faith, though he admits the devastation may have affected more than just his buildings and greenhouses.

"We need to make sure our market is still there. If we can't service them obviously they're going to be looking elsewhere," he says. "But we need to continue to communicate with them and continue to let them know that we're going to be back."