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Jake Heilbron, one of Kona’s original founders, reminisces on the flames of change

It was 20 years ago that Dan and I got a phone call at 3 in the morning from the alarm company. There were only two of us working at our original headquarters in those days so I headed down to see what was up. About five miles away I was passed by two fire trucks and thought “this isn’t a good sign”.

When we got there, it was a 5 alarm fire with 10 trucks and water spraying from all around the 4 story building in the old Yaletown area of Vancouver. Dan and I stood there for a while watching the fire fighters and we realized pretty quickly that we weren’t going to be getting inside anytime soon. As we headed off to get some breakfast one of our competitors came by laughing and asked if we wanted to sell our business. When I got home I took my 2-year-old daughter to daycare. She went into the playroom and came back with a fire truck.

The old building on Hamilton Street had been through a lot but it was an old wooden structure with heavy wood beams and it burned for 3 days. The firefighters condemned the structure saying it was unsafe to go in. Since our offices were in the front and the fire had started in the back near the old loading dock freight elevator, Dan and I got hold of a tall extension ladder and had a friend help us distract the security guard while we scampered up and in. We filled up a couple of hockey bags containing our laptops and other valuables like the Campagnolo front derailleur I’d been saving for a new Ti road bike. In the meantime the security guard called the police and took away the ladder. Eventually the police sent us home after hearing our story and we got on with salvaging the business.

There were a lot of good things in place that kept us going. We were scheduled to move to a new warehouse in two weeks so we accelerated that process. A container of bikes was in port so our stock was going to be replenished quickly. All of our computer files were backed up and kept at home, which was good because there wasn’t anything to be saved off our laptops. In the end we collected to the top of our insurance policy because everything inside the old building was a write-off. The fire was never solved. Was it the owners, the moving company, the rowdy customers leaving the gay bar or something else? I guess we’ll never know, just like we’ll probably never know the truth about what happened in Tiannamen Square that same night.

Twenty years later, we’re still in a crappy old wooden building in the most undesirable part of the city. However, we’ve got a rooftop garden, an excellent place to relax and enjoy the first barbeque of the season. Thanks Dave for the great burgers and thanks to our staff, customers and friends for keeping us going when things were tough.

That laughing competitor is no longer in the bike business. I guess he went back to carpets.

– Jake
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