October 11, 2015

Recollections of 9/11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Pitney Bowes Stamford Main Plant building, having a difficult meeting with a group of factory employees, explaining why we needed to outsource much of the low-end product then manufactured in that facility.

I received a call a little bit after 9 am from Karen Garrison, then President of Pitney Bowes Management Services, who had seen the video footage of an airplane crashing into the first of the World Trade Center buildings. I immediately began to return to the World Headquarters, a few blocks away. During my brief trip back to the Headquarters, an airplane crashed into the second World Trade Center building, One World Trade Center.

As I tried to absorb what had happened, I reflected on the fact that my wife Joyce had worked at One World Trade Center when we first lived in New York City in 1981 and 1982, and that I had been in the building many times over the years to visit customers. By 10 am that morning, we had set up a command center in our boardroom, from which I ran the company for two weeks after that. I left the boardroom many times, to address groups of employees both in the Headquarters and in other buildings, and to visit our New York offices.

Pitney Bowes lost four employees, all members of the Pitney Bowes Management Services team, all of who were serving clients on the upper floors of One World Trade Center. All four employees were initially directed to leave the building, but returned back to their work areas between the times the first and second buildings were hit. They felt a need to be with their customers and to do the work assigned to them. They paid with their lives. One of them, David Vargas, left two teenage children behind, and I met with his widow and the children at the memorial service that took place several days later.

It was the best and worst of times. We had profound problems comforting those grieving about the loss of loved ones. Dr. Brent Pawlecki, then our Associate Medical Director, took the initiative to create a compassion center at our Midtown New York offices and staff it for several weeks to comfort not only our employees, who had lost colleagues, but their families and our customers, who had also lost colleagues. His efforts were recognized and celebrated in an NBC special report a few days after 9/11.

We also had to locate our missing employees, which was more difficult than it first appeared, because many did not have cell phones or dedicated land lines, and lived in remote parts of New York and its suburbs. The surest sign that the four employees lost their lives occurred when they failed to come in on Friday, September 14, to collect their paychecks. One of our top-rated sales professionals was scheduled to visit a client on an upper floor of one of the buildings, and we feared that he had lost his life when we did not hear from him later that day. We were relieved when his manager found him at home the next day. He had cancelled the appointment the morning of September 11 because of a dental emergency.

We had challenges getting remote employees paid all over the country, because the airplanes that normally transported their checks were unable to fly to their destinations between September 11 and 17. We knew that many of our employees lived from paycheck to paycheck, so getting them paid on them was critical. We had employees stranded all over the world who could not get back to the United States, and some who drove from as far away as San Diego within the United States to return to their homes in Connecticut.

We had to deal with the abject fear our employees felt about the future, to enable us to keep doing our business. We came through all of this stronger, more united, and more confident of our ability to cope with crises, which turned out to be important, given the fact that the anthrax bioterrorism crisis hit us a few weeks later and preoccupied us during October and early November, 2001.

Several permanent changes happened to our business and our industry as a result of both 9/11 and the anthrax crisis that followed it:

  • We communicated more frequently and in more depth with employees, because we learned about the value of frequent communications as a result of the daily voicemails we released during these crises. We created a weekly Power Talk process in early 2002. Through it, we delivered a 4-minute message on a subject of interest every week. Initially, I delivered every message, but over the years, we had different executives deliver messages of broad importance to the company. Emails are very powerful communications tools as well, so we took the same message and emailed it simultaneously to employees on our email system. We never forgot that our intensive communications processes helped us weather what could have been a devastating set of crises.
  • We developed a sophisticated crisis management capability to deal not only with terrorist events and reputational risk issues like anthrax, but also with hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. That capability was tested and improved upon many times, with such events as the 2003 Northeastern U.S. power outage, the 2004 Tsunami, and, obviously, the most challenging event, Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
  • We had created a charitable foundation to provide temporary assistance for employees devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1993. We replenished that Foundation’s assets, which came in very handy in 2005, when we had to help dozens of employees affected by Hurricane Katrina.
  • We recognized that, in times of disaster, traditional communication channels break down rapidly. Landlines become harder to use, especially toll-free lines; cell phone systems become unusable; Internet service via email becomes harder to us. Face-to-face communications become more difficult. We even experimented with walkie-talkies in offices likely to have hurricane-driven evacuations. We also found that a toll-free number got overloaded, so we offered an additional toll line for employees to get through to us.
  • As mailing industry leaders, the CEOs of the major companies came together in the Fall of 2001 to request that Congress assist the Postal Service because of the huge losses it experienced both during the aftermath of 9/11 and the anthrax crisis. The unified industry became a significant advocacy force for comprehensive postal reform that occurred five years later.
  • The Postal Service had used commercial aircraft to deliver mail long distances. When commercial air travel was suspended for six days, the Postal Service decided to enter into a partnership with FedEx to have FedEx use its planes to do long haul mail transport, which was more reliable and secure. The partnership became a model for other partnership relationships into which the Postal Service entered over the past decade, and which helped it immensely.
  • Pitney Bowes and other companies started to enhance their risk management processes to address a broader range of risks and opportunities. We became far more systematic in assessing reputational, political and environmental risks.

Most of all, 9/11 was a time in which everyone pulled together and got out of their siloes and parochial views of the world. They thought of themselves in terms of what was needed to achieve the greater good. They rose to the highest levels of compassion and love.

We need to find a way to recreate that feeling without another tragedy like 9/11.