NEW ORLEANS, LA – November 2005
Reproduced from the November 2005 issue of Research Business Report
On Monday August 29, 2005, Katrina, a Category Five hurricane, made landfall along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and breached the levee system shielding New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. It flooded most of the city, causing one of the worst humanitarian disasters in U.S. history. The official death toll stands at over 1,300 and counting. More than one million people have been displaced and there is an estimated $70-130 billion in damage.
Katrina wiped out thousands of local businesses, but one New Orleans-based MR agency, The Olinger Group, dodged the bullet, overcame desperate and incredible hardships and is now in expansion mode. “We want to be a top 50 U.S. MR company within the next couple of years,” the firm’s President, Jude Olinger, told RBR at AMA’s annual research conference in Boston in September, not quite a month after Katrina nearly destroyed his company. His positive attitude is remarkable, his story inspirational. His experience yields invaluable insights for small MR businesses on coping and recovering when catastrophe strikes.
The Olinger Group’s eight employees will celebrate a 12-year anniversary in New Orleans in January 2006, having returned to the city in mid-November. Olinger set up a temporary Baton Rouge office days after fleeing Katrina and New Orleans. “My wife and I packed enough clothes for four days, maximum,” he recalled. “I expected to be back even sooner. New Orleans has had dire flood predictions for years, but the last levee breach was in 1965. We’d heard it so many times before we almost became numb to it. Nothing had ever materialized, so evacuating this time seemed a needless hassle. Each time we’ve left, I’ve taken fewer and fewer clothes, and taken fewer and fewer precautions,” he admitted.
Friday August 26 was an ordinary day in New Orleans. “We’d been told when Katrina came off the tip of Florida it would head north and slam into the Panhandle, so Friday was a normal business day,” he recalled. “During dinner that night, my senior project manager called to ask what we’d do about the hurricane. That was the first I knew that we were in Katrina’s path. Ironically, the keynote speaker that night spoke of turning crisis into opportunity.
“Still, my wife and I left the dinner on such a high. It was a fantastic evening. Before we went to bed, I told her, ‘I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.’ We’d just renovated our house, we’d started working on a family and the business was going well.”
On Saturday, Olinger battened down the hatches in the office. “It’s on the first floor, so I backed up as much data across our network as I could onto my laptop computer and two external hard drives. I got almost everything, except our gigantic CRM database and e-mail. I unplugged the office equipment,but didn’t move it to higher ground like in the past. I didn’t even grab our computer servers. I never imagined three feet of water there,” he confessed.
Olinger and his wife drove to Baton Rouge to stay at the home of his director of administration. With everything happening over a weekend, there was no opportunity to assemble Olinger employees to discuss options. “If I’d known about the hurricane on Thursday or Friday, we would’ve spent three or four hours making plans as a team. By Saturday night,” he detailed, “I’d located all the employees, but everyone thought we’d be back in New Orleans within days. I couldn’t know where everyone
would go once they learned they couldn’t return home.
“We’d talked about this in the past, but not having a formal disaster contingency plan was a huge mistake,” he emphasized. “We never considered the possibility of the city being inaccessible for a protracted time period or that communications would be impossible. Phone lines were down and the office phone system failed once the power went out. You assume cell phones will work, but they didn’t because we all had 504 area codes. We had no electricity for 12 hours in Baton Rouge and the Internet was out for days. I almost flew blind for two or three days. One big outcome from this storm,” he observed, “was everyone in Louisiana learned how to text message, which is how we communicated.
“On Tuesday, with TV images of the devastation, I woke up not knowing if my home or business was under water, or physically still there. But it went way beyond property and material possessions. We had a life. There was a social fabric; we were part of a community. Our lives were turned upside down, I learned the hard way how quickly things can change and go beyond our control.
“My wife and I were emotional wrecks,” he don’t have catastrophic weather events. Now described, “but I had to pull myself together our servers are in a secure data center with and think clearly. I was traumatized and knew biometric entry, etc., in Baton Rouge. It isn’t our life was never going to be the same again. I grieved over our loss; at the same time, I needed to get in survival mode. My first decision was whether or not to try to save the company. We had an advantage over many businesses because 90% of our projects come from outside the state and our line of work afforded us some flexibility. We weren’t dependent on a particular physical space.
“We would stay in business. So I had to contact my employees immediately,” Olinger recounted. “I needed to know that they were safe; they needed to know that they still had jobs and that we would rebuild and meet payroll. They were the key asset I didn’t want to lose. I told them to wait for further instructions. One told me she had been waiting for a sign from me.” His communiques included one to new VP-Business Development, Paul Kirch, who lived in Seattle and was to begin work the morning that Katrina hit.
After notifying his employees, Olinger, his wife and his administrative director sat down at her kitchen table to gather a list. “Several things needed to be done very quickly. If any had not been accomplished, it would’ve spelled disaster,” he asserted. “Being in the information business, I needed our data restored so my first call was to an IT technician. Fortunately, I called him first, because he became deluged by people requesting his services.”
Olinger literally held his company in his hands. “I gave the IT guy two hard drives and a laptop and said, ‘You’ve got to help me rebuild my company.’ He had most of our data by the following
Monday,” he reported. “This is key. I’d found out my people were safe and secure pretty quickly. If I hadn’t been distracted resurrecting data and getting information capability up and running,
I could’ve sent some staffers, who were scattered, to the nearest electronics store, had them buy computers and put them to work. I would’ve been on the offense much more quickly, instead of spending two weeks on defense.
“The important lesson,” he stressed, “was that I should’ve had a much more secure data recovery strategy and plan. I should’ve located our data center at least 1,000 miles away, in a place like Arizona, where they don’t have catastrophic weather events. Now our servers are in a secure data center with biometric entry, etc., in Baton Rouge. It isn’t prone to flooding like New Orleans.”
With an IT technician in tow, Olinger searched for office space. “We needed a base of operations and a place to live,” he related. “Office space was going to become a scarce commodity pretty quickly, so I went straight to an office park, walked into the commercial real estate office and found a line of people ahead of me.”
He located space that Tuesday afternoon in a brand new technology park that accepted a month-to-month lease. “I took two offices. After seeing people queuing up for office space that morning, I realized we needed to figure out now everything we might need in the next two weeks and go get it pronto,” he said.
Olinger joined his IT person at CompUSA to buy data restoration equipment. “My wife needed a laptop,” he recalled, “but the clerk said they were out of stock. The Times Picayune had relocated a block away from us and had just bought $120,000 worth of merchandise, including all of the laptops. The newspapers guys told me they’d hit Office Depot, too,” he added, “so I hurried right over there and spent two hours buying cables, bookshelves, anything and everything to get the office up and running. Everything was becoming a scarce resource. The longer it took to get what we needed, the longer I wasn’t in business. One factor I’ll include in my future disaster recovery plan will be, if we lost everything, what would we need and what sequence must we follow to acquire those things?”
Housing was also in short supply. “We couldn’t live like refugees,” Olinger commented. “I needed to secure space for my employees, though I didn’t know who would be coming. I found a house for sale at a pre-hurricane price, looked at it for five minutes and took it.
“I made more major decisions in the four weeks after Katrina than I probably did in the previous three years,” Olinger remarked. “But we were fortunate to have money in the bank and not be leveraged to the hilt. We had options and could make some huge decisions,” he analyzed. After several days,
Olinger accessed his New Orleans-based bank accounts. “I advanced my employees money so they’d have a place to live,” he noted, “to keep them on board with us.” One left, but returned a month later. Employees relocated to Baton Rouge, LA, Tyler, TX, Allentown, PA and Tampa, FL.
By the middle of the week after the storm, he began contacting clients. “I did it all by text,” he stressed. “The employees called everyone with whom we had projects, then those with whom we had projects in the pipeline, and lastly, our vendors. We usually run 10 to 15 projects at a time, but as luck had it we were only in the middle of five or six, about one-third of our normal load.”
Timing here also was critical. A week after the hurricane, one client was ready to pull its work, but the phone call saved the job. “We told our clients we had all our data, new offices and would finish their jobs if they could be patient for a week or so. Some timelines were further out and we figured we’dmake up the lost time before those deadlines.”
Olinger says clients were tremendously understanding and supportive. “My Internet connection took me longer to recover,” he noted. “When I finally did, I had hundreds of messages from vendors, clients and even people we hadn’t worked for in six years.” The MR community was also supportive. “People I didn’t know asked how they could help, volunteered to finish projects for us and offered to work for free. People even offered their homes to us.”
He especially acknowledged M/A/R/C Research CEO Merrill Dubrow. “He called over and over again and wouldn’t give up until he got through,” noted Olinger. “He knew our needs and their immediacy. He offered to lend us researchers and operations people. He offered to fly out an IT specialist. ‘Just tell me what you need and it’s yours,’ he said. That was especially kind and generous, considering he’s a competitor. We took him up on some office space in their headquarters for a few days, our first group meeting since the storm. Merrill insisted that three of us stay in his home. I’ll never be able to thank him enough.”
As of late November, Olinger estimated the company was 100% operational from a data standpoint. His office had been submerged in three feet of water and sustained $200,000 in furniture and equipment damage. “It came down to a matter of inches. Had it been six inches lower, it would’ve been below the desktops, which would’ve saved nearly everything; six inches higher and everything would’ve been lost,” observed Olinger. Surveying the damage, he found the CRM server had sat in water for over a week. The hard drives suffered some corrosion, but Olinger believes a specialist can salvage them. “I’ve worked on a CRM strategy for two years and invested in pretty sophisticated stuff. It was the heart of our success, so I had to get those data back,” Olinger stressed.
Optimistic about the future and enthusiastic about rebuilding New Orleans, Olinger is looking into various lobbying efforts. “I believe there is going to be a boom in every sector here. We’re not just rebuilding the city, we’re rebuilding the economy, too.
“This experience has forced me out of my comfort zone and shaken and refocused my thinking about what an MR company can be,” Olinger summed. “We’re an information business. The government, companies, leaders and the people are going to need information as they put this city back together. We’re in a great position to facilitate that. I believe we’ll be advising companies about business decisions, products, etc. I haven’t figured out how, but we’re going to capitalize on that capability in new ways to help bring New Orleans back.”
Reproduced from the November 2005 issue of Research Business Report by RFL Communications, Inc. (Skokie, IL), which also publishes Research Conference Report, Research Department Report and Pharma Market Research Report, three other market research industry newsletters.