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Fire brings out competitor’s compassion

SHARE Fire brings out competitor’s compassion

When Angela Ahearn answered her phone at 4 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, May 30, a sheriff's dispatcher told her she needed to move vehicles away from the area around her business to clear the way for fire trucks.

Not knowing whether her shop, Angela's Catering Inc. at 3804 Highland Drive, was the one on fire, Ahearn rushed to the scene. Once there, she received both good and bad news: Her place was not on fire yet, but she had five minutes to go in, lock up her valuables and grab what she most wanted to rescue."I guess the impact of the whole thing didn't really hit me until I walked around back and saw how the flames had licked the building," Ahearn said of the blaze that destroyed two buildings at Public Storage, 1555 E. 3900 South. "That would have been my whole life, 10 years (of) work."

Summer Saturdays are busy for caterers, and Ahearn had four parties to serve that day, as well as 13 events scheduled for the next week.

But how could she prepare food if she couldn't get into her kitchen? What if fire or smoke damaged her office?

"June's our busiest month," Ahearn said. "We would have been devastated."

Maxine Turner, co-owner with her husband, Marvin, of Cuisine Unlimited, saw the disruption on Highland Drive at about 8:30 a.m. as she headed to her business, located just over a mile from Angela's at 4041 S. 700 East.

Maxine Turner had talked to Ahearn three or four times over the years, and they sometimes referred clients to each other. Just a few weeks earlier, Ahearn had catered Cuisine Unlimited's employee party.

Still, Ahearn and Turner are two of about 200 caterers fighting for business in the Salt Lake valley. So when Maxine Turner saw the fire, she immediately picked up her phone and . . . offered to help her competition.

"She said, `If you need anything today, you just can rely on me. If you need vehicles, if you need people, if you need refrigerators or ovens. Anything you need, we're here for you.' And this is my competitor we're talking about," Ahearn said.

"She barely knows me. She just did this out of the kindness of her heart."

Cuisine Unlimited was gearing up to cater an event for about 1,500 people at the national convention of the American Red Cross. The Turners knew their employees would be out of their kitchens by about 3 p.m., Maxine Turner said, so she decided to leave the business unlocked in case Ahearn needed to use it.

"I have really tried to have close working relationships with a lot of other caterers in the valley," said the 18-year veteran of the business. "We're competitors, but not adversaries. I think we can work together and help each other out. . . .

"I would hope that this would happen in other situations (and industries). It seemed very matter-of-fact with all of us."

Reba L. Keele, management professor in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, said the Turners' reaction would not be automatic for everyone.

Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University professor, has proposed that most business people focus on either building connections or establishing status, Keele said. While helping a competitor may not be a good strategic decision, she said, that would be a secondary concern for someone who is connections-oriented.

"They're concerned with what is the right thing to do and how to do it instead of what is the strategic thing to do," said Keele, who teaches business ethics. "The strategic thing would be to contact Angela's customers and offer a discount."

Status-oriented people see the world as a "zero-sum game," Keele said, meaning a person can only gain something by taking it from someone else. Connections-oriented people are more likely to think there is enough for everyone.

"And we don't assume we have to kill the competition," she said. "They're competitors, and they're both trying to succeed. But (Maxine Turner) doesn't see that she has to cutthroat Angela in order for her to succeed. . . .

"I think this is a wonderful, wonderful example of what would be the ideal of how we hope society would run."

As it turned out, Ahearn's business was not affected by the fire, and she didn't need to take up the Turners' offer. But she said it was nice to know that a competitor cared enough to call.

Now Ahearn just needs to find a creative way to say thanks. "I can't really send her food," she laughed.