AACC course to help small businesses plan for disaster

Emergency consultant employs a strategy for getting operations back up in 5 days

December 30, 2005|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

When a fire ripped though his high-end jewelry store in downtown Annapolis in late November, Steve Samaras lost nearly everything.

Millions of dollars' worth of inventory - black pearl necklaces, watches, designer collections of sterling silver and gold baubles - were destroyed. His store at 122 Main St. was condemned. His computers were inoperable. And, to make matters worse, the disaster occurred as the critical Christmas shopping season was getting under way.

"I don't think anyone is prepared for a disaster unless you've been through it before," said Samaras, who owns Zachary's Exquisite Jewelry. "Like most, I was ill-prepared." Two adjacent small businesses - the Candy Factory and Main Street Ice Cream - were also shuttered after the fire.

Samaras managed to reopen his store six days later at a nearby Main Street location, but he is the exception.

Few want to talk, or think, about the possibility of a disaster striking their business. Even fewer want to take the time, or spend the money, to develop a plan for one, says John Wenzel Jr., a vice president and consultant at Pilar Services Inc., which does emergency management consulting for businesses.

Wenzel says proper planning can mitigate the effects of a disaster significantly. He will share such lessons in a new course, Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Small Business, at Anne Arundel Community College next month.

"The tag line we use for the course is that this will get your business up and running in five days," Wenzel said. "You'll be reacting to the plan and not to the disaster."

During the course, which starts Jan. 17, Wenzel plans to walk business owners through possible crises and help them create plans for each scenario.

Maryloo McQuaide, who coordinates small-business classes at Anne Arundel Community College said, "I equate this to selling life insurance. Nobody wants to talk about life insurance, but you need it."

Disasters covered in the course run the gamut from a fire to a flood, from a disgruntled employee opening fire at the workplace to an asteroid crashing into the county (Wenzel notes that some believe the Chesapeake Bay was created by an asteroid).

During the course, employers create their own lists - of staff phone numbers, critical items such as computers and how to replace them, information that ought to be backed up and stored off-site, hotels where employees can stay, and important vendors and customers.

"When the class is over, they have everything they need to walk away from an anticipated disaster," Wenzel said. Armed with these lists and the proper planning, Wenzel says, any business can get up and running in five days.

Samaras agrees that such a class would be helpful.

He credits getting his business back up to a few key decisions. First, he says, the company's client databases, account information and vendor contacts were all backed up and stored in the company's vault. Although the computers failed, the data were fine. "Without that, we would have reverted to writing receipts on paper," he said.

Samaras called a meeting the Monday after the Friday-night fire and, with his employees, developed a list of things that needed to be done to reopen. "There were 254 things on the list - from ordering new toilet paper on up," he said. "Obviously, the first thing we needed was to find a new place to hang our hat."

It turned out that his landlord had another storefront at 100 Main St., and he marshaled the forces to clean it up and install newly ordered display cases.

With insurance covering many of his losses, Samaras ordered $3.5 million worth of jewelry. His son-in-law ordered and installed software on new computers.

The store was open by that Friday. "We put a plan down and followed through. It was the coordination with a group of people that made it work," he said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

To sign up for the course, visit www.aacc.org. The course, which costs $130, goes from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays from Jan. 17 to Jan. 31.

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