You think you’ve got problems. Wylan Fleener’s home and business in Greensburg, Kan., were ground up into bits in 2007 by one of the most violent tornadoes on record. The storm chased hundreds of his customers out of this dwindling High Plains outpost for good. Stress and depression dogged him for months afterward. And if that wasn’t enough, FEMA put his ex-wife’s trailer across the street from his.
“I was trying to get them to tell her that there was a formaldehyde problem,” Fleener recalls, “and they needed to move her to another trailer—all the way across the park.”
He can joke now, but for this fourth-generation owner of Fleener Furniture and Flooring, prospects were as grim as they get. The population of Kiowa County had fallen by nearly half since his father owned the business. After the EF-5 tornado rendered 95 percent of Greensburg unlivable, Fleener realized he would have to rebuild not just the structures where he lived and worked, but his approach to doing business in western Kansas.
You may know Greensburg from its well-publicized and inspiring recovery as a “green city.” To people who have never lived in small towns, the way Greensburg came back from disaster may seem nothing short of miraculous.
The truth, though, is that it wasn’t. Like all rural communities that want to survive, the people of Greensburg simply learned to exploit their social networks and human capital in ways that people in higher-density areas typically don’t.
The first bit of good news for Fleener came from his insurance agent. He would have enough money to rebuild his warehouse and retire all his debt, including a personal loan from his dad, John Fleener.
Still, Main Street would be a wreck for months, so Fleener focused on floor coverings, which he could do out of his truck. And he knew just where to go: to the homes of Greensburg refugees who had relocated to nearby counties. “People were remodeling houses with their insurance money,” Fleener says. “We started to become very, very busy with floor coverings.”
He began to court this diaspora. Instead of advertising in the Greensburg newspaper, he recorded radio spots on a station in Pratt, 30 miles away. In time, as his FEMAville neighbors began building new homes, they called on Fleener as well.
Where to build his new showroom? With his family name, Fleener could have relocated to any number of larger towns in south central Kansas. Still, he stayed on.
And he got behind the town’s build-it-green agenda. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says, “though it was a big education experience.” His first major decision was to rebuild his warehouse with insulated concrete forms (ICFs), a highly energy-efficient wall material. On a 102-degree day, during the summer with a steady 25-mph wind, the warehouse was cool and quiet inside, even with the big door open.
To his skeptical neighbors—and there were more than a few—Fleener admitted sustainable building materials added 5 percent to his costs. And then he’d tell them how much he was saving on heating and cooling. He became a natural spokesman for “Greensburg’s green comeback,” which continues to captivate journalists from around the world who come to report on the small town with the futuristic outlook and architecture to match (it has more LEED Platinum-certified buildings than any city in Kansas).
Fleener also benefited from new social networks created after the storm. Auctioneer Scott Brown, one of the few unscathed by the disaster, quickly arranged meetings of business owners to plan their recovery. FEMA and Public Square Communities, a Kansas organization that helps towns build social capital through “positive conversations,” arranged similar meetings for the government, education and nonprofit sectors. Less than three months after the storm, Greensburg residents had created a long-term recovery plan and written a vision statement for their town’s future.
Fleener was encouraged by all this, but often he still felt alone and adrift. Like many survivors, he was still quietly grieving the loss of the old Greensburg. In the middle of the night he would leaf through a road atlas, looking for a place far away where he could leave Kansas behind.
“In my heart I was committed to Greensburg,” Fleener says, “but my actions did not match my mental process.”
His new warehouse was only large enough for a tiny retail space. But neither he nor any other retailer in town had the capital to put up new storefronts on Main Street. Outside developers were leery about Greensburg, and not just because of the bad economy. To get a decent return on investment, they’d need to charge rents eight times higher than the shopkeepers paid before the storm.
One day, Brown came to Fleener with an idea: What if he formed a nonprofit to build a strip mall? Community-supported retail has been gaining traction in rural development, but the idea of a 15,000-square-foot space in a county of 2,500 people was audacious. So was Brown’s pitch to local investors: “You’ll never get a penny of interest,” he told them, “but you’ll get businesses on Main Street.” In a matter of months he had raised more than $1 million.
Today, Fleener Furniture and Flooring occupies two parcels in that strip mall, named Kiowa County United, a green building with the Kansas state slogan etched into the cornerstone (ad astra per aspera, “to the stars through difficulties”). Monthly rent is $450 per parcel, and all tenants were still in business one year after the opening.
Now when Fleener wants to advertise a sale, he just chalks a message on the front window and posts a notice to the store’s Facebook page. Greensburg has just 777 residents, down from 1,500 before the storm, but every one of them understands the stakes of shopping locally.
Sales are down 20 percent from $500,000 before the storm, but Fleener says business is better today partly because his business is now mostly floor coverings, which have higher margins. And partly it’s because he now rents space in a green building instead of owning an energy guzzler.
One more lesson small businesses should take from the Fleener comeback: Don’t make important decisions by yourself. After the tornado he began discussing everything with his team, in particular Lane Holloway, a young man who started working for him while in high school. At 48, Fleener knows he can’t run the store forever, and between Holloway and his two grown kids, he sees a succession plan taking shape.
Recently, at a trade show, Fleener and Holloway decided they’d had it with low-quality imports and would carry only American-made items. As he looked admiringly over the pieces from a family-owned company at the show, Fleener said to Holloway, “They look like antiques.” And, he added pointedly, “they will be antiques, because they’ll last three or four generations.”
He ought to know.
in another inspiring American comeback story