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Moving on in the face of tragedy - Soundings Online

Moving on in the face of tragedy

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A family-owned marine hardware supplier copes with the loss of its matriarch and patriarch

A family-owned marine hardware supplier copes with the loss of its matriarch and patriarch

Around 3 o’clock in the morning Nov. 23, 2005, the day before Thanksgiving, Jacob Stalquist took a call at home that would shake his world to its foundations. Stalquist, 36, president of Scandvik, a Vero Beach, Fla., marine hardware wholesaler, learned that his father, Per; mother, Kersti; and sister Petra Blackman had been in a horrific automobile accident.

He later would be told that the driver of the other car was suspected of fleeing shootings at two local bars when he broadsided the Stalquists’ Mercedes at 107 mph at Interstate 95 and State Road 60 near Vero. Stalquist’s parents were killed instantly; his pregnant sister was in critical condition and on the way to a Melbourne hospital in a helicopter.

“I beat the [medevac] to the hospital,” he recalls.

Petra’s husband, Sebastian Blackman, Scandvik’s marketing director, and her sister, Annaki Stalquist, company vice president, also rushed to the hospital. They learned that Petra — her legs, a finger, collar bone and jaw broken — had lost her unborn baby. In one harrowing night, three lives were taken, many others were shattered. On what should have been a day of thanksgiving, a family and a company — family-run and close-knit — were in mourning.

“It’s not something you ever really get over,” says Jacob Stalquist, talking along with Sebastian Blackman in the offices of the 18,000-square-foot warehouse Scandvik built in Vero Beach six years ago. “You learn to deal with it.” That is, emotionally — as a son or daughter or husband or father — but also as executives of a $6.5-million-a-year, family-owned company that has just lost its patriarch and matriarch.

Per, 62, and Kersti, 63, were president and vice president, respectively. They already had turned over day-to-day operations to Jacob and Annaki — familiar faces at Scandvik since they were teenagers — and to Sebastian, a member of the family now and a 10-year Scandvik veteran. Per had suffered five heart attacks in 15 years and had undergone quadruple bypass surgery, so he was careful to train replacements in case anything happened to him or Kersti. He had prepared a succession plan, but nothing could prepare Annaki, Jacob or Sebastian for this.

“The shock was huge,” Jacob says.

Stalquist arrived at the hospital long before dawn on the day of the accident. But while Annaki and Sebastian remained at Petra’s bedside that morning, he drove to work to be there at 8 o’clock to break the news to Scandvik’s 15 employees, notify its 22 sales representatives, and marshal warehouse staff to get the day’s shipments out on time.

Founded in 1982, Scandvik supplies parts, systems and equipment to the marine industry: hose clamps, winches, batteries, bow and stern thrusters, hatches, lighting, pedestals, showers, sinks and plumbing fixtures. Boat assembly lines don’t shut down because tragedy befalls a supplier. After hurricanes Scandvik opens and ships as soon as UPS is back on line. “Builders in California don’t care if we have hurricanes here in Florida,” Jacob Stalquist says. They need their parts.

Though coping with personal tragedy, he still was in charge of the business. “I was going back and forth [between hospital and warehouse] to oversee daily operations — to make sure bills got paid, inventory was received,” he says. “It was hard. I wanted to be at the hospital.”

But the company had to keep running. “Business must go on and life must go on,” Sebastian Blackman says.

“Almost everybody [at Scandvik] felt like they’d lost a parent or a sister or brother,” says Stalquist. They were stunned at the loss of Sebastian and Petra’s baby, Petra’s injuries, and the deaths of Per and Kersti — the company’s heart and soul for decades. Yet the staff “stepped up,” working weekends and overtime, deferring vacation to carry the company through the crisis, Stalquist says. The company pulled together like a family because they work together as family.

Employee birthdays are posted prominently in the break room and celebrated faithfully with cake all around. That’s the way Per and Kersti ran the company. It’s the way the company runs today. “We try to maintain that small-town feel here,” Stalquist says. “[It’s] a trusting environment.”

Petra remained in the hospital 10 days, six in intensive care. Annaki and Sebastian remained at her bedside, and after her release Sebastian stayed home several more weeks while she underwent intensive daily physical therapy and learned to eat and talk with her jaw wired shut. For nine weeks she sipped meals through a straw.

“We’re definitely over the hump now,” says her husband. “We’ve gotten past the hard stuff, but it’s never going to be smooth sailing again. It’s different now.” The losses from the accident have left wounds that may never fully heal.

A kind of innocence has been lost. A year ago, the accident that changed their lives forever was something no one in the Stalquist family thought would ever happen to them. Today, they all carry maximum accident and medical insurance; tragedy has struck once, and the thought lingers: It could happen again.

The family waited until December for the funeral so Petra could attend. Then there was a second funeral this past July in Sweden, where Per and Kersti were buried in a family plot. “It was tough having two funerals,” Stalquist says. “We didn’t have closure until the second one was over.”

Condolences poured in as word of the accident spread through the industry. Flowers filled the office meeting room, and bags of cards and letters arrived in the mail, bringing some comfort that so many cared. Donations arrived for the Lighthouse Association of Florida, a favorite charity of Per’s, and for the Environmental Learning Center, where Kersti volunteered. Vendors, sympathetic to the enormity of the family’s losses and the upset to the company, sent notes: “If you need extra time to pay your bills, don’t worry about it.”

“It was awfully nice,” Blackman says. The encouragement helped.

Per and Kersti used to spend months at a time during summer at the family cottage on the Baltic Sea in Sweden, their first home. They recently had sold the cottage and bought a home in Asheville, N.C., where they planned to spend more time. In fact, they were returning from delivering a truckload of furniture to the house when the accident occurred.

A boater since his youth in Sweden, Per had just bought a Grand Banks 49 Eastbay, with which he hoped to cruise the Bahamas, a favorite getaway. The couple were getting more serious about their retirement, yet Per still liked to come into the office to scan the weekly spreadsheets — “look at the numbers” — before going out to play a round of golf. He enjoyed going to shows to scope out new products and the competition, and Kersti still oversaw warranties and handled a few other office duties, says Annaki Stalquist. Though there hasn’t been that much change in their responsibilities, she and Sebastian and Jacob have had to pick up that slack, she says.

Jacob Stalquist continues his father’s tradition of holding an employee meeting Monday mornings at 8 a.m. sharp (stragglers buy donuts) to discuss the week’s work. He also instituted a twice-a-week after-hours family meeting. The family meetings at first were to update everyone on details of executing the estate, but that has segued into a weekly meeting where they encourage each other in their recovery from the accident, air issues, brainstorm, and do the company visioning that Per used to do.

“We’ve probably gotten tighter as a group [since the accident],” Jacob Stalquist says. “These meetings have opened channels of communication and helped us through the grieving process.”

Per Stalquist was born in Sweden. He was part- owner of a successful family-owned truck and auto dealership, which the family eventually sold. Per — 35 at the time — brought Kersti and the children to Florida in 1978. An avid sailor with a passion for sales, he started selling Hallberg-Rassy sailboats, keeping his home and family in Vero Beach and commuting to Fort Lauderdale where he lived on his boats for sale during the week. In 1982 he began selling hose clamps as a sideline, and within five years his parts and components business was so successful he went into it full time in Vero Beach. Scandvik was a mom-and-pop business for many years, with Per the salesman and Kersti the office manager. Today, the company still sells hose clamps — but much more, as well. Scandvik carries an inventory of 4,000 to 5,000 items in its warehouse and registers annual sales of $6.5 million.

Jacob Stalquist misses his dad’s wisdom — acquired over many years in business — and his counsel. “It’s different now,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like Per is walking down the hall with me when I’m asking myself, ‘What would Per do? How would he handle this?’ ” The responsibility is on the younger Stalquist’s shoulders now, but it is a weight that also is shared among the family, the shareholders.

Anthony Baines, 25, of Vero Beach was arrested at the accident scene and remains in jail awaiting trial. He’s charged with 11 counts in connection with the deaths and injuries from the crash, and with shootings at two Vero Beach bars earlier that evening. Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Taylor says Baines is alleged to have fired shots outside Bombay Louie’s after employees escorted him outside for causing a disturbance and locked the bar’s front door. He also is charged with shooting and wounding a man a little later at another bar, Lennie’s, in an altercation there, then crashing into the Stalquist’s car as he fled the shooting.

Taylor says Baines is charged with two counts of first-degree felony murder for allegedly causing the deaths of Per and Kersti while fleeing a crime scene; killing an unborn child; attempted felony murder for allegedly causing serious injury to Petra while fleeing a crime scene; three counts of vehicular homicide; reckless driving causing serious bodily harm; attempted first-degree murder for allegedly shooting a man at the second bar; and aggravated assault and shooting a deadly missile for the shooting at the first bar.

“[If convicted] he won’t get the death sentence, but he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison,” says Jacob Stalquist. Part of getting over the accident is getting over Baines, moving on. “I don’t have a vendetta against him,” he says.

“He has ruined his life,” adds Sebastian Blackman. “I have no desire to be part of it now.”

Whatever happens to Baines, it won’t change what has happened to the Stalquist and Blackman families, says Jacob Stalquist. The case is expected to go to trial next year; neither Stalquist nor Blackman expect to sit through it. Both think they might appear in court for the sentencing — “for peace of mind,” Stalquist says.

The trial is expected to be a lengthy one and no doubt will bring back memories of the accident, but Jacob Stalquist says those memories are receding, and the family — he, Annaki, Petra and Sebastian, and the whole extended Scandvik family — are looking now to the future instead of the past. “We have to move forward,” he says.