In the past few months, the world has endured catastrophic hurricanes in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, historic earthquakes in Mexico, and flooding in Africa and Southern Asia. What is going on? Is climate change affecting the frequency and strength of hurricanes and rainstorms?
I have my opinion, but that’s a subject for another day. Whether you believe in man’s impact on climate change, or even if you choose to not believe that the climate is changing, the recent disasters should serve as a wake-up call to ensure you and your company are ready to endure the impact of disruptive and extreme weather conditions.
My former business was in Pittsburgh. Though not known for beautiful weather, the Steel City is not known for extreme weather, either. Every 20 to 30 years, we catch the tail end of a hurricane, which causes some flooding in low-lying areas; but our hilly terrain protects the metropolitan area from tornadoes. Earthquakes are almost unheard of, and major snowstorms are a possibility, but normally don’t do much more than disrupt operations for a day or so. Our business was located right on the banks of the Allegheny River, but our loading docks were above the 100-year flood plain.
In the 40-plus years I was involved in my business, we never had a major disrupter affect us; and we were lucky because we did not have a formal disaster plan in place. I guess my thought was we had great people and an almost 24/7/365 operation, so if something happened, we’d be able to mobilize and do what needed to be done. Flying by the seat of one’s pants is not wise in most situations, especially when considering a plan for business survival when the unexpected hits.
Twenty-some years ago, before we relied on cell phones and the internet to operate, businesses were not as vulnerable to disruption as they are today. Landlines rarely were disrupted, and when they were, there were plenty of pay phones around. Most produce business was transacted with a pen and paper, so a power failure may have slowed down the back-of-the-house accounting for a bit, but the trading continued without interruption.
Today’s modern produce wholesaler is joined at the hip with modern technology. It would be difficult to operate if key technology was suddenly unavailable. Business disruptions can occur without a natural disaster. Regardless of the cause, an extended power outage, failed telecommunication and/or internet access has the potential to put a company out of commission. What happens to your company if on a busy Monday morning, an excavating contactor down the road cuts power and telecommunication lines leaving you without phones or internet? Are you ready? Do you have a plan?
Though I’m certainly not an expert on disaster/business disruption plans, here are a few precautionary processes we adopted over the years as our reliance on technology grew:
• Assemble a team of trusted associates you can rely on to respond in an emergency situation. The team should include people from operations, building maintenance, IT/business systems and sales. It’s key to expect the unexpected. Make sure these team members are people who feel empowered to make decisions on their own. Create some hypothetical situations, and discuss potential action plans. Make sure all employees know about the team and its members to avoid confusion during a disruption.
• In a disaster, the internet may be non-operational, and the cell lines for phone conversations may be overloaded. During such times, texting may be the best way to communicate. Make sure your team has all appropriate cell phone numbers. Ask supervisors to set up group texts with their teams for quick access to communications when needed. Again, let all employees know that in this type of situation, texting may be the only form of communication.
• Consider an emergency backup generator. Even if you don’t want to incur the expense of backing up your entire operation, including refrigeration, make sure your computers, Wi-Fi and internet will continue to run in the event power is lost. If you already have a backup generator, make sure it’s operational. Run monthly start-up tests, and once a year, run your operation from the generator for a few hours. This test-run will expose any potential glitches in the system, and allow you to replace fuel that has been in the tank for too long.
• Run a second internet connection into your operation from a provider that uses different technology than your existing internet source. It doesn’t take a disaster for your internet provider to have a failure, and the money you spend for a second provider is well worth it.
• If the disruption is isolated to your facility (lightning strike, fire or localized flooding), you’ll likely have quick access to the services needed to get your operations back up to speed. However, if you are part of a major disaster, it may take days, weeks or months to get the help you need. Most importantly, don’t forget your associates and their families may also be impacted. Be sure to reach out and help if possible.
There are many online disaster preparedness sites that are helpful in preparing an emergency response plan. The federal government offers step-by-step guidance to help a business prepare for the unexpected. You’ve kindly taken a few minutes to read my column, please invest a few more — look at ready.gov.
Alan Siger is chairman of Siger Group LLC, offering consulting services in business strategy, logistics and operations to the produce industry. Prior to selling Consumers Produce in 2014, Siger spent more than four decades growing Consumers into a major regional distributor. Active in issues affecting the produce industry throughout his career, Siger is a former president of the United Fresh Produce Association.