Business Resiliency in New Orleans: The Resilience Advantage

Several months ago, much note was taken of the  5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Recently I had the opportunity to have dinner with a friend, who is a district manager for JC Penney and who talked about the challenges that she faced during the hurricane as well as the challenges that her business faced as part of the recovery across the entire Gulf Region.

What was most striking to me was that despite the stories of difficulties she described about life for residents of the region as well as for commercial reinvigoration, she shared stories of remarkable resilience in all her descriptions. Yes, her house had been destroyed but she bought a new place that she loves in the French Quarter.  The population size was significantly reduced but the remaining population engaged in all aspects of the rebuilding of the city. JC Penney stores along the Gulf Coast were destroyed but many of them were reopened by November, a mere 60 days after the disaster.

As for commerce, the stores along the Gulf region suffered mightily but the strategy of rebuilding, restocking and supporting the residents of the area lead to a revitalization of the product lines that are now being challenged once again due to the Gulf Oil disaster.

Her report of the region’s bounce back demonstrated the importance of two key elements of resilience. First, to build up your resources so that you can handle crises and emergencies and second to have a long-term plan that gets you and others back on your feet.

Pat described how her background in retail had some interesting twists and turns related to crisis management. She worked for a retail company in Oklahoma City when the Federal Building was bombed and her store (and the whole city) was in lock down mode. She learned by experience, with that episode, of the importance of developing a crisis management plan and she took her knowledge onto subsequent jobs including JC Penney. When Hurricane Katrina came on shore JC Penney was not fully prepared but she was able to put her experiences into play that included providing financial and other support to employees and product services to customers. All employees were paid for their time even though stores were closed and they were given cash to help out with emergencies. As for customers, besides opening their stores in record time, JC Penney restocked shelves with essentials such as towels, blow up beds, and pillows and they accepted government coupons while offering many items at sale prices.

Over the long term, JC Penney’s developed a crisis management practice that includes a dedicated call center where any employee can call in about situations where there is a workplace emergency and have immediate response. Whether the emergency is a tornado in Texas, wildfire in California or flooding in Rhode Island, this center centralizes and coordinates all actions and makes sure the local employees and customers get the resources they need.

As I thought about these events, several key factors arose as it relates to resilience in people and organizations:

1. Support your employees. Your employees are full of pride and many believe in the company and want to support the company’s activities. Make it easy for them to get back to doing what they do best.

2. Have leaders who know and can spell out the vision and strategy for handling the crisis and more importantly, the recovery and bounce back for success

3. Create resiliency as part of your corporate culture. Train managers and staff in how to deal with major crises and minor issues

4. You don’t have to do anything different in terms of merchandising or service delivery. Stick to your core competencies

5. Do the right thing for your customers and in return they will be your best billboard


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