IKEA Israel’s CEO, Shlomi Gabay, did not know what to think on that fateful morning of February 5, 2011, when his store in Netanya’s Ramat Poleg industrial park caught fire and burned to the ground in less than two hours. In addition to dealing with the loss of the entire flagship store and its contents, as well as the loss of revenue the store had generated during its 10 years of existence, Gabay knew he would have to deal with the loss of work for its nearly 400 employees – who over the years had considered IKEA to be not just their employer, but a large extended family.“Naturally I felt terrible when the fire occurred at the Netanya store,” says Gabay. “But the parent IKEA organization stepped in immediately to help. In fact, the speed with which the new store has been built and how its employees have been taken care of has broken all the records for recovery in such a short amount of time.“IKEA usually operates ‘by the book’ as far as its policies go, but this time it let us take care of virtually everything from this end in the rebuilding and employee assistance process,” he adds. “And the IKEA head office in Sweden sent us a special letter of appreciation for how we have handled everything.”Due to the fire, IKEA had to let go of some of the store’s employees, but made sure that they received full agreed-upon compensation, says Gabay. He explained that the worldwide IKEA organization has excellent employee compensation and maintenance programs that look after the welfare of each member of the IKEA “family.”The company’s employee benefits package also includes health insurance and pension plans.He adds that following the fire, the organization conducted a job fair for the Netanya employees. It involved 45 leading employers in the job market who presented opportunities that were relevant to the workers’ experience, including positions in customer service and sales, logistics, the restaurant industry and others.One of IKEA’s philosophies, says Gabay, is fair treatment of its employees: “This concept is really unique and we have received a lot of wonderful ideas from IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad. The IKEA employee relations policies are really something special. That’s why our employees are so enthusiastic about working here.” One of these employees, Netanya resident Etty Shmerling, 61, echoes this. “I started to work at IKEA one month after the first store opened in Netanya in April 2001. From the outset, I felt like [I was] a member of a family and not just at another workplace,” Shmerling says. IKEA “did a lot of things for employees that aren’t normally found in other workplaces.”Shmerling says the day after the fire “was as if the world had collapsed on us.”She says that company representatives gave her and other employees a lot of moral support and assisted them in matters such as receiving unemployment benefit from the National Insurance Institute. “We received two months [of] full salary and also [for those who were not able to work in the other IKEA store in Rishon Lezion] one month’s notice salary.”The Netanya store was the only branch in Israel until the Rishon Lezion store opened in April 2010.Shmerling explains that there were about 400 full- and part-time workers at the time of the fire, and that almost half of them were able to continue working at the Rishon Lezion store (although she was not due to a lack of available work in her department, Returnables). Now, “more than 50% of the Netanya employees are [going to] return to work in the rebuilt store. Many of these had found work in other places but decided to return to work for IKEA,” she says.Shmerling adds that she is very happy with the company and that people can continue working there even after normal retirement age. “We have people in their 70s still working for IKEA,” she says. She, for one, plans to keep working there “indefinitely.”Gabay concurs: “Older workers are welcomed at IKEA. We feel we benefit a lot from our older employees, especially their knowledge and culture.”Netanya Mayor Miriam Fireberg-Ikar, who will speak at the March 6 reopening, has been very helpful since the start of the rebuilding process, says Gabbay. “The mayor told us that ‘whatever you need, just let us know, we are here for you.’ We are very grateful to the Netanya Municipality, especially for the logistical support from city engineers and other personnel, as well as from deputy mayor Dr. Yitzhak Ben-Gad.” Those who found work at the Rishon Lezion store were looked after: “Of course, IKEA took care of the transport of each worker every day to the store in Rishon Lezion, and even provided extra payment for travel time from Netanya to Rishon,” says Gabay.Gabay explains that the recruitment process for the rebuilt Netanya store provides former employees with the opportunity to take new positions before they are offered to the general market. More than 50% of these employees have chosen to return to their previous positions and be involved in the reopening. “About 200 of the former store members are returning to work at the rebuilt store.Some of them wanted to come back even though they had found other jobs paying higher salaries. They say they feel at home with us,” says Gabay.Another co-worker (the term IKEA uses for employees) at the rebuilt store is Natalie Weinbush, 23, a resident of Netanya. Weinbush has been with the company for two years, including one year at the Netanya store prior to the fire.She was able to find work in the the household living-room furnishings section of the Rishon Lezion store.Weinbush is very satisfied with her work there and is now back at the Netanya store, helping to prepare it for the reopening. “I worked in other places prior to beginning work at IKEA, but no other place treats their workers like we are treated here. This includes birthdays and other parties, presents on holidays and tours,” she says.She will begin studying at Netanya Academic College next fall, in the field of personnel and public relations. “IKEA is good with people wanting to study – they arrange work schedules and other things to make it more flexible so employees who want to study can do so.”She says that after she finishes her studies, she is willing to continue working for IKEA if a suitable position is available, also feeling she is “with a family, not just at a place of work.”FOLLOWING THE fire, the Netanya recruitment office created an employee organizational portal to provide available answers and current updates on employment issues such as company rights, the construction advancement of the renewed branch and other information.It has kept the portal consistently updated with news for former employees and information on available positions for job-seekers.Recently, the international organization has become involved in environmental programs that include use of recycled materials, and most stores no longer provide free plastic shopping bags for purchases.“As part of IKEA’s environmental policies, the company is promoting a number of recycled material products and environmentally friendly ones,” says Gabay. “These include recycled products made of materials such as wood and fabrics left over from production that are considered by many to be waste products.Recycling containers for collection and sorting of wastes are also being used, as well as energy-saving and solar powered lighting.”Gabay said that IKEA Israel is closely following these policies. For the past two years it has been encouraging stores to stop using plastic furnishing bags, and has been selling reusable “blue bags” made from nylon, a more environmentally friendly material. To encourage customer use of these bags, it has reduced prices and provided a lifetime guarantee.In 2010, both stores in the Israel chain purchased about 250,000 blue bags, an increase of approximately 25%, and customers have been reusing them. This has resulted in expense reductions of 90 percent for plastic bags provided to customers at check-out, with environmental savings of thousands of tons of environmentally non-friendly plastic waste.“We also think it is important to note that all the income from the sale of the nylon bags are used as a donation to the Akim organization for disabled children, which IKEA has sponsored for the past six years,” says Gabay.As for the restored Netanya location, in the aftermath of the fire, a substantial amount of landscaping work has had to be done as part of the work of rebuilding.Peter Lederer, a landscape architect involved in many environmental projects, helped plan the landscaping for the original store and is also helping to renew the landscaping of the rebuilt store.Much of the landscaping and parking areas, including some of the original 150 palm trees, was damaged as a result of the fire, which destroyed the building and contents entirely. The landscaping damage also included the front and back parking lots, the sidewalks and other parts of the peripheral area around the building, he says.“The damage caused by the fire has also been aggravated by people using the parking lot for their work in area jobs as well as a parking place for going to area shopping and businesses,” he adds.Lederer says that part of the landscaping and parking areas have had to be reconstructed and reinforced since the fire, and that “the rebuilt building itself is based on the original IKEA design.”From the outside, the new building appears to have been rebuilt in the traditional blue-and-yellow design. What appears to be new are outside emergency exits from the upper floor on both the north and south sides, possibly as a response to the fire. While the inside of the store is formatted in the traditional way – customers will begin their shopping experience in the furniture department and end it in the garden and warehouse departments – some new additions are being included for increased customer ease and satisfaction. “These additions will only be revealed when the store opens on March 6. We want our customers to be pleasantly surprised,” says Gabay.One of the new features at the Netanya store that Gabay is willing to reveal is a better system for serving kosher meals in the cafeteria. “There will be complete separation of meat and dairy meals. Our idea is to be more attentive to the wishes of religious clientele,” he says.IKEA plans to open another branch in Kiryat Ata, near Haifa. “We already have the plot for this store and when it is completed, we will have adequate market saturation to satisfy our Israel customers. But if other stores are needed, we will be happy to open them,” says Gabay.The international IKEA network consists of 331 stores in 38 countries. The sales turnover of the network is about 26 billion euros, for the fiscal year that ended on August 31, 2011. In that year, 734 million consumers visited the network branches. IKEA’s main marking strategy centers around its store catalogue, which is sent directly to homes.Last year, 208 million catalogues were printed all over the world, making it the biggest printing production worldwide after the Bible.