Firefighters from multiple Quad-Cities fire departments were still knocking down the flames when Gwendolyn Lee hopped on her cell phone to call the Downtown Davenport Partnership for help.
Lee’s digital startup that she founded with her father in 2005, RubberStamps.net, was a total loss.
"It was shattering," Lee said. "I was out to dinner with my husband when I got the call that alarms were going off" at the store and manufacturing facility at Bettendorf’s Cumberland Square on Oct. 25.
She called her father, who ran over to check it out.
"And he kept screaming (on the phone), 'The building's on fire! The building's on fire!" Lee said. "I dropped everything and immediately ran over. By the time I got there, probably a third of the building was already in flames."
The cause is still yet undetermined and the damage too severe to ascertain how it might have originated, Lee said.
Her family had moved the business to the Bettendorf location in 2009 from a previous space in northwest Davenport. The company tripled its footprint and was already starting to outgrow the 15,000-square-foot space. Business was better than ever, Lee said.
"It was going to be our biggest holiday season ever," she said. "COVID had been really, really tough at the beginning. But we got our Paycheck Protection Program loan funding from the Small Business Administration to provide short-term cash flow assistance to finance employee payroll and other business expenses.
"We started trying to launch new initiatives, and things were really picking up after that," Lee said. "We were geared up for just an explosive (holiday) season."
The e-commerce business produces custom rubber stamps and labels for the likes of Disney, Google, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and small retail calligraphy businesses and boutiques.
Lee was determined to rebuild the business as soon as possible, pouring all of her energy into figuring out how to get back to production, serve customers and, more importantly, take care of all of her employees.
One of her first phone calls that night was to Kyle Carter, executive director of the Downtown Davenport Partnership, an affiliate of the Quad Cities Chamber.
"She was literally standing in front of her building while it was still burning when she called me," Carter said. "It was a pretty jarring phone call to say the least."
He and other chamber officials went straight to work on identifying possible sites.
"Our economic development group fanned out to look at spaces all over the Quad-Cities, anywhere and everywhere that fit the description of what she needed," Carter said. "I was flipping through every possible building I could think of that had the (required) square footage, calling property owners and just asking them if they could make something work."
Lee was determined to open before Christmas.
Carter, who thought Lee’s timeline was unrealistic, tried to manage expectations.
"Like any entrepreneur, she wants it done yesterday, right?" Carter said. "Her pace as she was moving was like a break-neck speed. ... But, to her credit, she was relentless."
By Dec. 1, Lee had leased a pair of neighboring downtown Davenport buildings, including the former Paradigm space at 320 E. 2nd St. and across the alley in the rear of Sergeant Pepper’s Auto Shop.
With half the space of her original footprint, Lee said her entire team of roughly 25 employees was back to work, accepting orders and producing rubber stamps by Dec. 15.
Lee said it never crossed her mind to do anything but reopen.
"I wanted to get a win for our customers, get our win for our employees, get a win for me," she said, adding she managed to keep all her employees on the payroll during the two-month shutdown.
Her determination was matched by the generosity of friends, customers, fellow Quad-Cities businesses and others, raising more than $40,000 through an online fundraising campaign.
"We've been rebounding pretty nicely," Lee said. "We're not up to where we were before the fire."
Working with suppliers to quickly replenish six to nine months of inventory that went up in flames has been a struggle, she said.
"We're still struggling with supply chain, and COVID hasn't made that any easier," Lee said. "But my team has been super inspiring to me. ... I don't even want to contemplate" had the Quad-Cities not been involved.
"They were such an advocate for us," Lee said.
Carter marvels at Lee and her company’s progress, the speed of its recovery and how she worked tirelessly from her condo to reopen the business.
"For me, it just felt great to see someone who has given so much to the community see that karmic feedback," he said.
Lee and her husband live in a downtown Davenport, and together they also own Endless Brews, a craft beer bar on Main Street. Both donated time and money to their neighbors when the 2019 flood hit.
"It was really nice to see something good happen to good people," Carter said. "I think what it illustrates is how flexible downtown really is. I don't know that all small light-manufacturers would think of us as a location to move their business. ... I'll be curious to see if other people take notice. I hope they do."