October 11, 2015

Remembrances and reflections on 9/11

Today, September 11, 2012, is the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and like that tragic day, is a clear, cool Tuesday. I remember that day well, as do all of us with some emotional connection to the day’s events.

I was in my sixth year as Pitney Bowes’ CEO. I was at a breakfast meeting with representatives from our Main Plant. It was a difficult conversation, because I was explaining why the Plant would eventually close (it closed in 2004). The reason for its closure was not a cost-saving play, but the fact that postal regulations around the world were driving us away from printing fixed meter impressions on envelopes and toward variable digital printing. Ink jet technology was the only viable alternative, and companies like Canon, Hewlett Packard, and Brother owned all of the critical patents on that technology. Inevitably, they, rather than Pitney Bowes, would manufacture the low and mid-range products that had been produced in that factory for over 80 years.

At 8:50 am, I received a note that a plane had crashed into the first of the World Trade Towers and that many Pitney Bowes Management Services employees had to be evacuated. I left within five minutes and headed to the World Headquarters a few blocks away. Because I had walked over, I entered my office 10 minutes later, turned on my TV and observed the film of the second crash. Within one hour, we had set up a command center for the crisis inside our boardroom next to my office. For the next two weeks, we operated from that boardroom.

It was a sad time for all of us, especially since four employees lost their lives in the second plane crash. At the same time, we grew together as an organization and learned many things that helped us be stronger over the long term:

  • We developed long term voicemail and e-mail communications processes that stayed in place through my retirement over seven years later.
  • We developed much more sophisticated and state-of-the-art direct deposit systems for payrolls, since our then-existing system depended heavily on airlifting checks to many locations. Since airlines were shut down for the remainder of the week, we could not get payroll checks to employees using our traditional methods.
  • We set up a counseling center in New York City led by our Associate Medical Director Dr. Brent Pawlecki. The counseling services we provided to employees, their families, and customers were exceptionally well received. More importantly, we learned a great deal about grief counseling, more than we ever want to know.
  • We learned about the strengths and weaknesses of crisis management. We built great processes on the fly, including a call center for employee benefits that was repurposed for questions associated with the crisis. We also learned a great deal about how to use travel services to reroute people who were stranded and needed to get home. Most importantly, we learned that landline, cell phone, and Internet systems get overloaded rapidly and become ineffective within hours, especially in a congested urban area like New York or Washington DC. We were fortunate that we lost no one in the often overlooked tragic crash on the Pentagon that day. We developed better communications on the ground for future crises.
  • We started doing advance emergency preparedness planning, not only inside Pitney Bowes, but in cooperation with other organizations. Southwestern Connecticut became a leader in emergency preparedness through the great leadership of the Southern Connecticut Business Council and its CEO, Chris Bruhl.
  • Our emergency preparedness and crisis response capability came in quite handy within weeks after 9/11, with the anthrax bioterrorism crisis that hit in early October, 2001 and lasted throughout that month. We applied the same lessons in responding to the SARS virus epidemic in 2003, major regional power failures, hurricanes, and earthquakes, as well as the 2004 tsunami in Asia.

What saddens me most today, as I think back to that day and that autumn, is how many of the good things the tragedy produced that disappeared, some relatively quickly. The political and cultural unity that we all felt in the weeks after the tragedy disappeared, and seems like it belonged to another universe, not just another time.

The innovative management of shared resources disappeared as soon as the vivid memories of the crisis passed. We operated shared mail centers for many customers, who were quite happy to have us operate mailrooms for multiple companies in the same facilities. When these companies got resituated into their permanent offices after 9/11, they pulled mail operations back into their separate, wasteful, inefficient, and highly territorial facilities.

The speed of decision-making that characterized how we operated during the crisis disappeared as well. People who normally wanted to have long, labored meetings before making decisions prior to the crisis, but who seemed to develop self confidence from decisions made during the crisis, reverted to the slow and inefficient decision processes that had been in place previously.

9/11 was an awful day, and we will pause to remember it sadly today. At the same time, it was a permanent catalyst for many good things that happened afterward, and a disappointingly temporary catalyst for others.

I fondly hope that we recapture some of we lost during the days and weeks after 9/11, as America faces a new set of more complex challenges. Crises are both devastating and energizing, but most of what we need to confront requires a steady, longer-term change in behavior that is much harder to initiate and sustain. 9/11 should be remembered for showing us what was possible, even as we are saddened and disappointed that the unity, innovation, and rapid response it brought forth did not last.