Toys R Us, the last 48 hours: Chaos, then a sense of calm — and even gratefulness

Employees were gathering their personal belongings in boxes and rushing back and forth to their cars, fearing they only had a few minutes left at the Toys R Us company headquarters in Wayne.

“Everyone started freaking out, they were packing boxes, saying, ‘This is it, we’re closing down, they’re not going to let us back up,’” a Toys R Us insider told ROI-NJ. “People were literally leaving with everything they could carry, taking toys and things they didn’t want to leave behind.

“People were thinking, ‘There’s going to be chains on the doors and we’re not going to be let back upstairs.’

“It felt like ‘Office Space,’ people were throwing things in boxes and just leaving.”

Such was the chaos Wednesday morning about 9:30, when a companywide email told the approximately 1,000 employees at the Toys R Us headquarters that there was going to be a town hall meeting with CEO Dave Brandon at 3 p.m. that afternoon.

Everyone at Toys R Us knew what that meant: The end had come.

At least, that was the opinion of the employee, who shared their recollections of the past 48 hours with ROI-NJ.

The employee requested anonymity because they are not sure if they are allowed to talk with the media. And, while they know there could be few repercussions for doing so, they asked to remain unnamed out of respect for the company where they have worked for approximately two years.

“We knew it was coming, but we didn’t know it was coming this soon,” the person said. “We thought we had at least until the end of the year.

“We knew the court cases were going on, and we were canceling jobs, we were pulling budgets, we were putting lots of things on hold, so we all kind of felt it was coming the last couple of weeks. But we didn’t think it would be, we’re going to court on Thursday and then it would be, ‘Everything’s for sale.’”

At 3 p.m., the employees gathered in a giant auditorium on the campus. Almost all of the 667 chairs that had been set out were taken. Many more were standing.

It was the end of the line for the company, and it was tough, the person said.

“The meeting was emotional,” the person said. “Dave started choking up as he went through his ordeal.”

The words came out that the company was liquidating. But they were followed by the best-case scenario for the employees. At least that was the take of this individual.

“I have to say, we were pretty pleased with what the outcome was after we heard the news,” they said. “We were given our WARN notices, we got 60 days’ worth of pay, benefits, health insurance, 401(k) matching, everything is continuing for the next 60 days, with potentially some people staying on a little longer.

“It probably was a best-case scenario.”

If there was anger at the CEO, this person didn’t see it.

In fact, they felt Brandon handled the situation — both Wednesday and in the tough months leading up to it — as best as he could.

“He’s a great guy,” the person said. “You could tell that he was literally heartbroken about this. He fought tooth and nail to get us those WARN notices. There’s definitely no anger against him.

“Everyone loves him at the office. He’s like an idol.”

The employee confirmed the headline that no severance packages would be given out, but then explained why they thought that was the best move.

“They said they had two options when you close down an office in Chapter 7 and lay off more than a third of the employees: You can give the WARN notice, which comes with 60 days’ pay, or you can give the severance package,” they said.

“Dave actually fought to continue everyone with 60 days’ pay and benefits, which was more expensive for the company.

“Everyone preferred this. People who had been there 20-plus years obviously would have gotten more pay, but they wouldn’t have gotten the benefits and everything else that comes with actually being employed.”

From there, Brandon left to do a companywide conference call with the stores.

The employees were told to take the rest of the day off, talk with their families and do whatever they needed to do to process the information.

On Thursday, the employees met in groups at Toys R Us, meeting with their department heads and top officers in the company.

This employee went to an internal team meeting with his working group, marketing.

“We had a huge team meeting where like 200 people got together,” the person said. “Our CMO (Carla Zakhem-Hassan) got up and gave a 10-minute speech about how sorry she was.

“She’s only been there like a year herself — she came on the same day we filed bankruptcy and she brought a lot of people with her — so, she felt personally responsible. But she’s a sweetheart and gave a morale booster and offered the floor to anyone who wanted to speak.

“Tons of people got up and just thanked other people for working with them, saying how great they were. We got a resource team together, so we can stay in contact and give references.”

The meeting lasted approximately 90 minutes.

And it led to a much better day.

“I have to say the morale yesterday was probably the best it’s been in the last year,” the person said. “People are actually banding together and supporting each other, helping each other with resumes and giving each other references. It’s actually been pretty nice.”

The future, of course, isn’t as rosy.

In fact, the groups may not be together for much longer. In many cases, far less time than 60 days.

Employees have been told to put themselves first and take any time off needed for interviews or anything else related to a job search.

Many employees will soon get the opportunity to look for a job full-time, the person said.

“People are going to start being told soon that they don’t have to keep coming in if they don’t want to, because there’s not going to be work to do,” the person said. “You’re supposed to work for the next 60 days, but Dave said, ‘I don’t want you coming in and staring at a blank wall, so, if there’s nothing for you to do, you’ll be allowed to go home.’

“We were told that’s going to start happening next week. They are going to give you a tap on the shoulder and tell you, ‘Take a couple of days, pack up your things and don’t worry about coming back in.’

“We’ll continue to get paid and, I’m told, on the off chance they need us, they’ll call us back in, but what’s the point of driving in to do nothing?”

That won’t be the case for everyone.

“The lawyers, the real estate people, the finance people — they’re likely going to have to stay on for the 60 days and finish up all their winding-down stuff,” the person said they were told. “They are the ones that might be asked to stay on longer. But, we’re told a good chunk of the company will be told they don’t have to come in.”

As the person looked back, they said everyone knew this day was coming.

And if anyone held out any hopes, they were dashed over the holidays.

“We had a really terrible holiday season,” the person said. “They tried to recover it by closing 180 stores and liquidating some inventory to get cash, but it just wasn’t enough. We were going to have to start to make some payments to our debtors and creditors and we didn’t have the money to do it.”

The person knows this because they said all employees got regular updates from Brandon and others in the past year.

“We met with Dave every couple of weeks,” the person said. “For the most part, he was pretty up front about everything. The communication was great.”

But, in the final days, that stopped.

“When it first started going down, they were very open with the amount of information they were giving us,” the person said. “But the last two weeks they kind of went radio silent and they were putting jobs on hold.

“We were all kind of just sitting there saying, ‘I really wish we had some information,’ but there was nothing else to be told. We were reading in the papers what you were reading, and hearing what you were hearing.”

The person knew Toys R Us was in trouble when they came to the company, but said they have no regrets. In fact, they said there were many positive takeaways.

“It met a lot of great people and I think the work is going to show for itself,” the person said. “Those of us who stuck it out and stayed to the last day are going to have something to say about our character. That should help us in the long run.

“It’s definitely an experience going through bankruptcy.”

The person acknowledged not everyone in the headquarters felt that way.

“Some of the people who had just been hired a couple months ago or even a couple of weeks ago — we’ve got a couple hundred people who have been here less than six months — are a little bitter. They were sold the miracle story that was going to happen.”

The veterans, the person said, saw it differently.

“The people who have been here forever are just sad,” the person said. “Not because they lost their jobs, but to see an iconic company that they loved go under.”