FITCHBURG — Steel beams were twisted and torqued, the showroom flooded and the roof collapsed.
But Tony Millonig sees a silver lining in the July rains that severely damaged his Chalet Ski & Patio store, which will likely remain closed until October.
It’s been 21 years since the store moved to 5252 Verona Road from Hilldale Shopping Center. And with road construction set to change how passing motorists see his 15,000-square-foot store, Millonig is using the disaster as an opportunity for an upgrade. Over the next three months, the store will get a new look both inside and out; roof structure, mechanical, air handling, computer and phone systems will be improved, fixtures replaced and the exterior reoriented to give it better visibility once road work comes to an end in a few more years.
Millonig is also grateful that he had insurance to cover not only the more than $1 million in damage, but that will also cover his loss of business that is fairly substantial at this time of year. The coverage will help pay his 12 employees, who are now helping with cleanup and who spent four days moving 16 semi-trailer loads of inventory from the store to a warehouse in Belleville.
“In our business, we have no real off season. We’re really busy in the summer and we’re really busy in the winter,” Millonig said. “What we have are overlapping seasons. We have no down time, we have no off time. There is no time of the year where this wouldn’t have really impacted us.”
About two-thirds of the store is scheduled to open in early October with ski inventory, with the remaining third of the store opening in November. Little inventory was lost because the store was filled with outdoor patio furniture designed to handle rain, or in this case, a flood, Millonig said.
The majority of the Chalet’s sales are in outdoor patio furniture and downhill and cross country skis. It also sells some indoor furniture and ski wear.
The retailer has been a Madison staple since 1983 when the company — founded in Green Bay in 1972 by Jeff Straubel — expanded to southern Wisconsin with its primary focus on skiing.
Millonig has worked for the company since 1976 after graduating from UW-Oshkosh and helped grow the business to 16 locations and expand its inventory to unique patio furniture from Asia and Europe. At its peak, the company had four stores in Iowa, four in Chicago and three in Minneapolis. In Wisconsin, there were two stores in Milwaukee and one each in Green Bay, La Crosse and Madison. Millonig purchased the company in 1996 when Straubel retired after closing all but the Madison location.
Despite the challenges to retailers, Millonig said Madison is an ideal location for his business because of the economy, strong housing market and educated customers.
The store’s success is buoyed by furniture that is hard to find at other stores and with experienced employees.
“I think retail is alive and well, frankly,” Millonig said. “Retailers who know their customer and understand what their customer wants them to provide, and what their customer expects from them, are just fine. You have to know what your customers want and give it to them.”
But Millonig had no premonition about how his summer would unfold.
He was one week into a two-week Colorado vacation when he received a phone call on the morning of July 10 notifying him that the drainage system that funnels water off of the store’s roof couldn’t keep up with the torrential downpours hours earlier when the store was closed.
The weight of the water that pooled on the roof collapsed the roof on the south side of the building. It flooded the business and destroyed the roof, steel trusses, fixtures, drywall and phone and computer systems. The steel beams that failed are rated to support 40,000 pounds.
“As the water found the weak spot, the beams started to bend and the roof collapsed,” Millonig said. “When the water came in it was like Niagara Falls. It literally blew apart the room.”