What Would You Do
WHEN DISASTER STRIKES?
by Edward Z. Zaucha
What would you do if you lost a key partner
and close friend, along with a $90 million contract already in progress,
all within 36 hours?
As glazing contractors, we live with risks every day. In
business we try to incorporate as many of these factors as possible into
our job schedules and into our bids. But these risks can and do affect
our abilities to continue working.
We tend to think that disasters such as floods, hurricanes or fires don’t
touch us very often. According to recent statistics from the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, there have been 45 declared disasters in 27 states
so far this year. 2008 saw 75 disasters in 34 states. As distant as those
weather crises seem, however, they are among the many types of disasters
that can come crashing into our world at any moment. As one might expect,
some of these crises can be business-related, some are personal. However,
some are both.
Most of us likely don’t give much thought to taking the time to plan and
prepare for disasters in our own businesses. APG International was like
many other glazing contractors that didn’t give potential disasters any
thought and, certainly, we did not have any crisis management plans in
Brad the username and password for the webcam and told him to click
on the applicable date on the calendar and then using the drop-down time
log to select 7:30 a.m.—there was a beautiful clear picture of the nearly
completed curtainwall. Next I had him select 8:00 a.m.—the curtainwall
On the morning of September 23, 2007, I was enjoying a lovely fall weekend
at the New Jersey shore when I received a telephone call from my partner,
Marc Rosenberg, telling me there was a major fire at one of our projects,
the Borgata Casino Water Club Tower in Atlantic City, N.J., which was
almost 85 percent complete. Within a matter of minutes the entire south
wall of the structure was incinerated in a wind-driven fire. The new structure
was within a few hundred feet of a very active operating casino.
There are hundreds of thoughts that run through your mind immediately
upon receiving news such as this—first among them being life safety. Fortunately,
there were no casualties, mainly because it was a weekend, but also because
it was still early in the morning.
But the damage was extensive—36 floors of unitized curtainwall were simply
gone. Within an hour our management team was assembled onsite to assess
the damage, to evaluate our resources and to strategize and plan for repairs.
Defining Your Strength
How a company responds to a crisis can often define its strength, resources
and capabilities. We knew that it was critical to the owner, Boyd Gaming,
that The Water Club open on time. Summer months at the New Jersey shore
are prime time and we were determined to make sure our work was not going
to be an impediment to the opening.
Within a few days, the owner, insurance companies and the project team
convened a meeting to discuss the repair of the damage. Having already
made some preliminary calls, we were confident that we could secure the
necessary materials and expedite fabrication so that we could still get
the building envelope completed in time for the scheduled opening.
Our company has a different business model than many glazing contractors
in that we partner with key suppliers and vendors for the majority of
our materials—we don’t chase the last penny of savings in the purchase
of materials. We have a strong belief that a supplier’s technical abilities,
strengths, resources and teamwork will yield a lower “in-place cost” than
the temporary savings a company might reflect in the up-front purchase
from inferior suppliers. When faced with a crisis, the true benefits of
having an “A-Team” of critical suppliers are apparent.
Securing the necessary materials to replace 30,000 square feet of wall
was going to be no small undertaking; at the time, the industry was inundated
with work, materials were in short supply and lead times were long.
My first call was to Gary McKissick, president of MK Architectural Metal
in North Canton, Ohio, our curtainwall designer and fabricator for the
project. Gary quickly contacted his team and assessed their supply chain
for the necessary parts and pieces required for the curtainwall replacement.
MK was able to shift some production previously scheduled with their aluminum
extruder, Bonnell Aluminum in Newnan, Ga., to secure the replacement aluminum
materials within three weeks of the fire.
My second telephone call was to Brad Austin, executive vice president
of Viracon in Owatonna, Minn. I asked Brad if he was near a computer and,
fortunately, he was at his desk. Throughout construction the project had
had a 24-hour webcam pointed at it. I gave Brad the username and password
for the webcam and told him to click on the applicable date on the calendar
and then using the drop-down time log to select 7:30 a.m.—there was a
beautiful clear picture of the nearly completed curtainwall. Next I had
him select 8:00 a.m.—the curtainwall was gone.
Modern technology is wonderful when it works. “Brad, obviously, we need
glass and we need it in a hurry,” I said. Brad said that was the most
compelling display of a need that had ever been presented to him. Being
the true partner that Viracon has always been for us, they said they would
come through with all of the necessary replacement glass within four weeks.
With a timeline for the replacement materials now coming under control,
we were able to turn our attention on the clean-up and re-installation.
As one might imagine, there needed to be a complete analysis of the structural
integrity of the support structure, embeds and remaining materials required
to determine the extent of the tear-down and replacement. So as to not
impede the schedule, we worked on a parallel track of proceeding with
the fabrication and assembly of replacement unitized curtainwall sections
while resolving the analysis and engineering.
Fortunately, with a lot of hard work and a lot of overtime, the curtainwall
was reinstalled and the project opened very close to the originally scheduled
The adage that hindsight is 20/20 truly applies to this case. In May 2008,
the Finishing Contractors Association (of which I was then chairman of
the board) conducted a brief workshop on how to develop and manage a crisis
communications plan. I had not been the strongest advocate for the program,
called How to Stay Cool on the Hot Seat. Many of us attend training sessions
and/or industry conferences, and we’ve all likely skipped some of the
sessions that just don’t seem interesting or that we perceive as not being
worthwhile to us as individuals. I generally always attend the sessions
because you never know what you’ll learn. In this case, I’m especially
thankful that I did so.
Every company needs to believe that disasters can strike. You need to
learn how to assess your risk levels, identify stakeholders and plan how
you will communicate immediately. Then you need to run this plan frequently,
updating everyone in your company. While these measures will not halt
the disaster, they will support your efforts to deal with the crisis and
make it easier for you to cope.
The summer of 2008 was going along smoothly—APG International
was well along in implementing its strategic plans domestically and continued
expansion into international markets. In addition to our 160,000 square
feet of offices and fabrication space in Glassboro, N.J., and 115,000
square feet in Las Vegas, the APG International Group also has overseas
operations and offices in England, Germany, Thailand and the United Arab
In mid July 2008, APG had well over $200 million of contracts in process
in the United States, our backlog was growing and our overseas work also
was solid. Although the domestic markets continued to be strong for the
first half of 2008, we continued to invest in new markets. Marc Rosenberg
(my friend, my business partner and our chief operating officer) and I
completed a very successful trip to China establishing our first office
in Beijing and returned to the U.S. on July 21. Life was good. Business
was good. We were all healthy and looking forward to many successful years.
company needs to believe that disasters can strike. You need to learn
how to assess your risk levels, identify stakeholders and plan how you
will communicate immediately.”
On the morning of July 31, Marc, together with one of our young project
managers, Alan Barnett, and a team of executives from Revel Entertainment
and Tishman Construction Corp., were traveling to Viracon to inspect glass
for a major casino project we were working on in Atlantic City. They were
then scheduled to fly to Carthage, Tenn., to visit Bonnell Aluminum Co.
to inspect the curtainwall metal being extruded.
They never made it.
At 11:00 a.m., I was busy in my office fielding various telephone calls,
responding to e-mails and reviewing project reports, when I received a
telephone call from Jerry Drake of Viracon. He asked if anyone had spoken
with me about the flight. He then informed me that the private jet crashed
while attempting to land at a small airport near Owatonna in inclement
The story was on every major news outlet in the United States and Canada.
All eight people aboard the corporate jet died. Those killed were the
two young pilots, along with three executives from Revel Entertainment,
two executives from Tishman Construction together with Marc Rosenberg
and Alan Barnett from APG.
For me, the next 12 hours were the most tortuous I’ve ever experienced.
First, there was the uncertainty of possible survivors—then shock and
grief—and then the telephone calls from police, detectives, the National
Transportation Safety Board, coroners, reporters, news media, etc. At
the same time, I needed to contact wives, parents, family members and
employees. The search through the wreckage was slow and arduous and further
complicated by the fact that there was a great deal of confusion as to
who was actually on the plane. (Some people had last minute conflicts
and decided to skip the trip.)
Before I could begin to process the news about the crash, the phones at
our offices started ringing. Reporters from trade, local and national
news organizations wanted statements.
Friends, work colleagues and people who knew Marc and Alan wanted more
information. TV camera crews and vans were parked outside of our office
for many hours. We were unprepared to respond. Because of that, I spent
hours on the phone, many times answering the same questions over and over.
I know I was rather abrupt with some people that day, for which I’m sorry;
however, the grief and stress was unbelievable.
Fortunately, I had attended the crisis management session mentioned earlier
and I immediately called our FCA offices to request the help of our communications
director, Amelia Townsend. Her help in handling all of the media and press
Still, as I have since told many people, nothing in our education and
training prepares you for the day you need to let loved ones know their
family member will not be coming home.
At 11:00 p.m. that night, I left the office to drive home after having
completed my last conversation with some of the family members. I was
totally drained. When I got home, I poured myself a good stiff drink,
fired up a Cuban cigar and went outside to reflect and pray for guidance.
I have since told many people, nothing in our education and training prepares
you for the day you need to let loved ones know their family member will
not be coming home.”
The very next day, on the morning of August 1, 2008, I arrived
at the office and was greeted with a fax letting us know that the $4.5
billion Echelon Resort Project in Las Vegas was being shutdown and all
subcontractors were to suspend onsite or offsite activities as of 3 p.m.
that day. Our curtainwall contract for the project was in excess of $90
million, and more than $15 million of materials were already on-hand or
in production. This was not the kind of news I was hoping for.
The week after the crash, Eric Rosenberg (Marc’s brother and our vice
president of construction) and I attended a total of six viewings and
funerals in as many days. We also laid to rest our brother, partner and
project manager. Eric and I committed ourselves to continue Marc’s vision
for the APG Group. There are no words to convey the depth of the loss
this tragedy has had for me personally, for our very tight-knit community
in Philadelphia/Atlantic City and for the entire APG family.
Crisis Communication Essentials
No one wants to think that the worst can happen to them, but preparing
for disaster can be the most important planning work your company
does. The Finishing Contractors Association has ten tips for managing
a crisis communications plan, or “How to Stay Cool on the Hot Seat”:
1. Believe a crisis can and will happen.
2. Define your stakeholders and build those relationships.
3. Define your brand.
4. Have an agenda.
5. Develop your message.
6. Create a crisis response team.
7. Assign responsibilities.
8. Determine risk levels.
9. Make and run a plan.
10. Evaluate and fine-tune.
Before a crisis occurs, you must determine who will be affected by
your crisis. Will it be your employees, your clients, your members,
the community? Because each crisis is unique, you will have a different
primary group in each event, so you may think it’s pointless to identify
stakeholders. However, you will want to communicate your event rather
than have outsiders do it for you.
The A List
Your crisis response team should have all the qualities of this “A
• Authority: the organization gives team members the authority
to make (sometimes) instantaneous decisions.
• Authenticity: the ability to speak and act with genuine believability
• Advocacy: the ability to see and support both the corporate
agenda and those affected by the crisis.
Trying to recover from such a dramatic loss is no small undertaking. We
lost a key component of our management team; we had a major project that
needed to be shutdown; and we were shaken and sometimes overwhelmed. Yet,
we still had other projects in development that needed attention. We couldn’t
just stop those and put that work and all those people involved in limbo.
Suddenly, I was cast into the role of company spokesperson while attempting
to accomplish the work that Marc Rosenberg deftly handled every day. His
steady hand had allowed me to focus on the administrative tasks of running
the company while donating many hours of time serving the finishing trades
as chair of the FCA and as co-chair of the Labor Management Cooperation
to recover from such a dramatic loss is no small undertaking
… Yet, we still had other projects in development that needed attention.”
As I struggled with our tragic loss, I found some guidance
in an article published in a local business journal titled How to Weather
the Loss of a Leader and Keep up the Mission, by Priscilla Rosenwald,
founder and principal of Leadership Recruiters. Her words helped frame
my thoughts and helped energize me to strategically focus on the tasks
ahead and the need for crisis management.
Some of her points are summarized as follows:
• Recovering after an unexpected loss can be a major challenge for companies
and it can happen to any of us. The loss of a leader can strike the very
heart of an organization’s motivation and mission.
• Many organizations are tempted to act quickly. However, hasty decisions
made immediately after the departure of a trusted leader can have long-term
consequences that might not be foreseen in the stress of the moment. Take
time to find the right people to bring into the company.
• Take time to chart a course for new leadership. Organizations, like
the individuals that make them up, need time to grieve for their loss.
• Stability can be a precious commodity in a tumultuous time; changing
too much too quickly can create even more uncertainty.
• Companies should consider unexpected departures as part of leadership
succession planning process. Leaders need to plan for their departure.
If leaders execute their final leadership responsibility with the same
care and attention that they gave while here, their departure can be an
inspiring gift to the enterprise and the people in it.
• The final key in a time of change is clear and consistent communication.
Creating open and positive dialog with employees, partners and stakeholders
allows everyone involved to grieve and then to feel invested in the future
of the enterprise.
Edward Z. Zaucha is chief executive officer of APG
International Inc. in Glassboro, N.J.
© Copyright 2009 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.