Readers' Questions

If war with Iraq spurs more domestic terrorism, I want to have contingency plans in place so I can keep my business operating. But there are so many possible scenarios. What should I do?

There are basic, inexpensive steps that companies can take, says Stephen Gale, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, in Philadelphia. "Let me give you a simple example. I have a student whose parents own an art-supply company in New Jersey that just happened to be in the district serviced by the post office that was contaminated by anthrax. And one of the things that happened to them post-anthrax attack is that they weren't able to receive their mail for roughly a month, which interrupted their entire receivables process. The checks were in the mail, so to speak, but they couldn't get them. Recognizing that, they've opened a new credit line to provide them with the kinds of resources they would need in case of another modest interruption in the flow of payments.

"If I had to make one general recommendation," Gale says, "it's to figure out what your largest suppliers and customers are doing in terms of their contingency plans and work with them to fit into large-scale efforts. If you have any capability of sustaining your business, it's largely in terms of piggybacking your operations and your thinking on the rest of the supply chain and the demand chain. And make sure that it's coordinated, rather than piecemeal, efforts."

You also might want to actively plan for redundancy of operations, if possible. Since September 11, Martin Babinec, CEO of TriNet, an Inc 500 company based in San Leandro, Calif., that provides secure, paperless human-resources functions, has developed such a plan. "We have two service centers that we've located specifically so that they're on different power grids and different telecommunications systems. Our headquarters office is in the San Francisco Bay Area, and our other service center is in Reno, Nev. We know how we would move people back and forth if need be and what positions must have redundancy so that no matter what happens, we can execute the transactions our customers need."


"You need to be able to ask the question, What would I do if sales took a 30% cut, no matter what the cause was?"

Nonetheless, Babinec concedes, "it's not feasible to try to think through every possible scenario. One basic premise for small businesses is to be flexible and to anticipate revenue reductions. So you need to be able to ask the question, What would I do if sales took a 30% cut, no matter what the cause was? That's planning that most small businesses can force themselves to think through." --Edward Sussman

Are there good books I can read to prepare myself for crisis management?

Two books that came out late last year may be useful to you. The first is Contingency Planning and Disaster Recovery: A Small Business Guide, by Donna Childs and Stefan Dietrich. The authors outline ways to pinpoint those portions of your business that are in need of protection and what your company's specific disaster risks might be.

The other book is Managing Business Crises: From Anticipation to Implementation, by John Burnett. "Most business owners ask themselves 'What is the worst thing that could happen?' and 'What are the odds that it will happen to us?" Burnett says. "But then they just pray they get lucky and hope that it happens to their competitors instead." He says that managers tend to focus on worst-case scenarios but often overlook simpler problems that could also spell disaster for a company, like losing a key employee or a utility's shutting down service for a day. Burnett also warns that some problems aren't worth solving. "You don't want to sink all your money into the wrong crisis," he says. "Just look at what happened with the Y2K bug." --Bobbie Gossage

Several of my employees are in the reserves: the National Guard, the army, and the navy. If they get called up, what are my responsibilities?

Under the 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and a series of subsequent updates, reserves are generally guaranteed their old jobs back with the same seniority, status, and pay once they return to the private sector. While they're gone, employers are expected to make do, whether by shuffling personnel, hiring temporary replacements, or training new workers. It's illegal to tell an employee that he or she can't join the reserves or must resign.

"For a small business, losing two or three folks very well could be 20% or 30% of its capability," says Colonel Alan Smith, director of ombudsman services for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. "And the employer has to make up for that loss." The colonel's organization provides resources for both reservists and the companies they work for, to help both groups understand the law and to make mobilization as palatable as possible. The group processed more than 17,000 inquiries last year, a 43% jump from the previous year, stemming mostly from the surge in call-ups after September 11. Ombudsmen at ESGR are on staff to answer questions and can be reached at 800-336-4590. The group's Web site is www.esgr.org and is rich with advice. --Rod Kurtz

I run a company that's located in a small building in a major city. We've had periodic fire drills since 9/11 but otherwise haven't changed our evacuation or security procedures. Is there anything else I should do?

All businesses, no matter how small, should act now to prepare themselves for possible terrorism, says Robert Strang, cochairman of the committee established by the New York State legislature to study terrorist-threat assessment and preparedness. Unfortunately, even after September 11, many companies have not taken the necessary steps. Strang, who is also executive vice-president at Decision Strategies, one of the leading security consulting firms in the nation, says to start with the basics: Someone on the staff has to be designated to be in charge of emergency preparation. That person needs to make sure that the building has an emergency-exit plan, that alarm systems and fire extinguishers are operational, and that regular exit drills are carried out. "The people in the World Trade Center had been bombed once before, so they carried out constant emergency drills. If it weren't for that, the disaster could have been much worse," says Strang. "Can we say the same about small and midsize businesses, even today? Or do most people just sit at their desks when the fire alarms go off?"

If you lease your business property, hold your landlord accountable for maintaining high standards of safety. If you own your building or aren't satisfied that you're getting what you need from your landlord, contact your local fire and police departments. They'll work with you to ensure that you have a good evacuation plan in place. Given the threat of bioterrorism, it's also a good idea to determine which hospital is closest to your business and best able to administer antibiotics or other medical care in the event of a mass attack.

For those whose businesses and facilities are significantly complex, it's worth investing in a professional safety and security evaluation. Decision Strategies and Kroll are the two most prominent companies in the nation that offer such services, but there are many other reputable companies nationwide. Among the best places to get a recommendation for a safety consultant are the local police and fire departments and the company that installs and services your alarms. Most companies can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 for an evaluation, but that doesn't include any new equipment that they might need to purchase.

Before the consultant starts to work, and well before a written report is issued, a business owner would be wise to discuss budget parameters for safety and security upgrades. There's very little point in getting a recommendation for a plan that you can't implement because of cost and that might one day spur litigation -- if a written report suggested that you take steps that you then ignored, for instance. But a limited budget is no reason for inaction. Even if you bypass costly upgrades, most safety and security consultants can give you a plan that could save lives. And yes, there have been rumblings that not being proactive, even in the event of a terrorist attack, could leave a business legally liable for failing to ensure the safety of its employees. --E.S.

I'm concerned that my insurance might not cover me if an act of terrorism forced me to shut down. What can I do?

Before September 11, insurance coverage against property or business-interruption damage as a result of a terrorist attack was routinely included in a comprehensive-risk policy for little or no additional cost. Not so afterward.

Then, this past November, President Bush signed into law the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which requires that all commercial insurers offer terrorism coverage for the next three years. Under the federal program, the government picks up the tab for 90% of an insurer's losses after the company has met a sliding deductible (from 7% of an insurer's earned premiums in 2003 to 15% in 2005). The program is capped at $100 billion.

Just because the coverage is available, though, doesn't mean that insurance companies have to make it affordable, especially for people who live in a major metropolitan area that's deemed to be at high risk. That leaves small-business owners in big cities with the option of paying a hefty premium or opting out of terrorism coverage. "The law doesn't mean that the insurance is easy to get or less expensive," says Loretta Worters, vice-president of the Insurance Information Institute, in New York City. But if you really need it, it's your legal right to demand it. --R.K.

In the aftermath of a war with Iraq, what's the economic climate likely to be?

In the event of a quick and decisive war, the impact in the following quarter would be negative, but afterward the economy would do better, says Laurence Meyer, a Federal Reserve governor from 1996 until 2002 who is known as one of the nation's best economic forecasters. Meyer recently convened a panel of distinguished economists to address various postwar scenarios. In the case of a "benign" outcome (a victory with limited civilian and military casualties and no major terrorism in reprisal), the economy would actually grow half a percentage point faster in the year, he says. "Under that scenario, there's a relief rally in equity markets, consumer confidence rebounds, and we eliminate some of the uncertainty that I think has been very paralyzing right now to business decisions." Meyer's experts pegged the chances of a "benign" outcome at 40% to 60%.

For many in small business, such an outcome would provide immediate relief. "Particularly in my industry, in telecommunications, everything is stalled," says Frank Tucker, CEO of Tucker Technology, an Oakland, Calif., Inc 500 company that provides voice and data applications. "So if there's a quick and benign outcome, boom, we got it over with. Now we can move forward."

Renewed domestic or foreign terrorism, or severe and continued hostilities in the Middle East, however, could easily drag the economy the other way. "I think we should appreciate why the uncertainty is so paralyzing to business decisions," says Meyer. "When we think about some of the really negative things that can happen in the intermediate and worst-case scenarios, output is 4.5 percentage points lower next year than it would otherwise be. The unemployment rate two years from now is 2 percentage points higher than it would otherwise be. There's a global recession. So there are a lot of really bad things that can happen out there." --E.S.


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