Bonnie Haas spent the bulk of her professional life in hospitals tending to some of the sickest patients as an intensive-care nurse. But it has been a lifesaving act of a far more personal nature that has preoccupied her for the last two years.
The 57-year-old Bucks County mother of four has revived the family business.
That it has come at tremendous professional and personal sacrifice, and tested her emotional fortitude, was as clear as Haas' tears during a recent interview at Kettle Creek Corp.'s workshop and warehouse in Warminster.
"I love him. This was his dream. And you just don't walk away from somebody's dream," Haas said, dabbing her eyes as she explained her move from helping save lives to saving a company.
The him is her husband, Philip, who started his recycling-container manufacturing business in 1983 in his Hamburg, Berks County, home after designing some for his then-employer, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, near Allentown.
A creative environmentalist, Philip Haas incorporated in 1992, operating out of a 10,000-square-foot barn in Kempton, Berks County, and selling patented containers with attractive designs and artistic graphics under the brand name Windsor Barrel Works. A family member's health problems would require the Haases to live for a time in North Carolina.
Long-distance oversight of the company would contribute to a range of problems not uncommon to "businesses that have relied on a business model that has matured beyond its usefulness," said David Dunn, program director for government marketing and technology development at Lehigh University's Small Business Development Center.
It would play a critical role in helping Bonnie Haas, daughter of a Holocaust survivor - her father - whose perseverance inspires her daily, find the way to turn Kettle Creek around after she left nursing and became the company's president in November 2012.
"They had let their costs creep up and the sales fall," Dunn said. "And they became complacent in the marketplace with regard to marketing and aggressively pursuing business. Quality was never an issue. It was reaching the marketplace to tell their story."
Philip Haas, an artist first and foremost, admitted outreach was not his forte.
Bonnie Haas said that getting to know patients was among her favorite aspects of nursing. The job also made her a strong decision-maker, she said.
Kettle Creek needed many decisions made quickly. Bonnie Haas said she resorted to making them the way she often did in hospitals in the United States and Israel.
"I took whiteboards and triaged as to what the most important things were," she recalled.
By 2009, the recession had cut into Kettle Creek's municipal work, currently 75 percent of its client base, forcing budget-squeezed local governments to use money they typically might spend on parks and their accessories on higher-priority needs, or to bank it.
Kettle Creek's annual sales, which at one point in the company's history had reached $2.5 million, dropped 30 percent. To get by, the Haases relied on her nursing savings and a line of credit, and "I literally prayed," Bonnie Haas said.
Then, a month before the couple decided she would take the helm, another blow to sales hit: Hurricane Sandy. Two orders for recycling containers for towns along the New Jersey coast that Kettle Creek planned to bid on were scrapped.
Bonnie Haas went into full nursing mode.
"I treated it like it was a sick person who needed intensive care," she said of the company. "Within 12 weeks of me taking over, I had stopped the bleeding."
She cut the workforce from eight to four, renegotiated arrangements with suppliers, and cut back on inventory.
And she moved Kettle Creek from Kempton to its smaller quarters in Warminster, much closer to the Haas home in Ottsville.
Bonnie Haas also tapped as many business resources as she could. That included Small Business Development Centers, the Small Business Administration, the state-funded Strategic Early Warning Network, and the Manufacturing Alliance of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
"I was scared, but I knew I could save a life," she said. "I believe a business is a living, breathing entity."
And by rescuing one business, she was helping others, such as Progressive Machine Works in Hamburg, where Bryan Shappell applies the powder coating to Kettle Creek's containers. That work has picked up appreciably since Kettle Creek's restructuring, said Shappell, adding that Progressive bought a new system to accommodate the job.
Philip Haas is also relieved about Kettle Creek's rebound. It is profitable for the first time in three years, with annual sales exceeding $600,000.
Now he can concentrate on creating, leaving the hard stuff to his wife.
"I've often said getting the ideas is the easy part," he said with a laugh.