TCS Daily

Technology to the Rescue

By Edward B. Driscoll - September 11, 2002 12:00 AM

Telecommuting became an unexpected resource to many American businesses in the fall of 2001, as a result of the terrorist attack upon the World Trade Center. The story of Moody's Investor Services is a good example of how a traditional corporation can adopt a decentralized way of doing business, using advanced technology, in less than a week, when it becomes necessary to do so.

The New York office of Moody's, the 100-year-old bond rating firm, is located in a fairly non-descript 11-story building located on 99 Church Street, which houses approximately a thousand of their employees. It's adjacent to the Woolworth Building, which during the 1920s, was the tallest building in the world.

The Moody's building is a block away from the World Trade Center. Fortunately, it was protected from the direct impact of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001 by a 1930s-era limestone Federal office building located across the street at 90 Church Street. But that didn't stop all hell from breaking loose.

"All Civilians Out"

Fran Laserson, Moody's vice president of corporate communication says, "After the first plane hit, we didn't realize what was going on, and then by the time the second plane hit, our lobby was filled with EMTs and FBI agents, because at Number Seven World Trade Center, the FBI, the CIA, and the New York City Emergency, they all had facilities there. The FBI used our lobby as a staging area initially."

Meanwhile, Laserson says that people were staggering into the Moody's lobby, wounded. She and a fellow Moody's employee "bandaged up the leg of this young fellow from Merrill Lynch: the back of his calf was missing, you could see his muscles."

By about 9:45 a.m., the Moody's employees began to evacuate the building. Numerous employees have said they saw the second tower fall as they made their way to safety. Laserson, however, along with about seven other employees remained. "All of a sudden at the far end of the building, these EMTs and firemen and policemen starting running towards us and yelling 'Incoming! Incoming!', and then 'where's your basement?'

"So we all ran down to the basement, and waited about ten or 15 minutes, and then the Moody's people were thinking to themselves, 'Wait a minute-do we want to be here? Let's go back up-back up to the lobby."

When they emerged, they were confronted with an almost night-like vision. "You couldn't see outside-it was dark, and it was actually pretty scary at that moment," Laserson said. "It was smoke filled; you didn't know whether you could even get outside or if things were buried up against the door. And then I remember looking on the Park Place door, and seeing the door turn, and this man the color of gunmetal walk in, covered with debris and soot, and just collapse on the floor."

Soon after that, EMTs and policemen ordered "all civilians out," except for the building staff, who were needed to make sure that all utilities associated with the building were shut down. Laserson says, "Apparently, we lost everything: all power by 4:00 that afternoon, so the building was actually abandoned, so to speak."

The Two Immediate Orders of Business

There were two immediate orders of business for Moody's managers: make sure all of their employees were safe, and then find some way of doing business, while being prohibited from using their Church Street facilities for safety reasons.

Ensuring the safety of all was difficult since all of the employment records were locked up in the evacuated building. The firm contacted its health care venders and assembled a master list of names and telephone numbers by Friday, September 14. Eight hundred employees were tracked down that day; several took longer, but all were eventually accounted for.

As for doing business without an office, several strategies were implemented simultaneously, including an ad-hoc decision to allow telecommuting by virtually all of the Church Street analysts, weekly 'town hall' style teleconference meetings, and an increased reliance on their computer networking and communications via the Internet.

Moody's CEO John Rutherford, its CAO, Debra Perry, and its president, Ray McDaniel, did the first employee 'town hall' meeting from the kitchen of Laserson's apartment, on Friday the 14th. ("Which was quite an experience", she says.) They went on to do town hall meetings using AT&T's conference call technology approximately once every week until getting back into their building.

Send In The SWAT Team

Over the next two days, after city inspectors declared their building structurally sound, a 'SWAT team' (as Laserson describes them) of Moody's technicians, wearing miners' lamps, work clothes, face masks, and armed with wire clippers, entered the 99 Church Street building (whose rooms were covered in layers of gray dust blown in from the collapse of the WTC). There they removed 500 company owned laptops and their docking stations, by cutting them loose from their security cables. "They literally loaded them up into garbage bags," Laserson says, "and set up a number of locations in the city where people could come and pick up their laptops."

But the laptops needed to be connected to something. The company's Web site, and its intranet were still running, as were the press desks in their Tokyo and London offices, which allowed Moody's New York employees, now largely working from their homes and apartments to issue communications, press releases on rating actions, and hold teleconferences with their clients, including industry outlooks on such topics as 'What does 9/11 mean for the insurance industry?' and 'What does it mean for the airline industry?' "I think when we did the teleconference on the insurance industry, we had a thousand people call in to that," Laserson says. "It was one of our highest attended teleconferences ever."

Meeting Across The River

Like many of the firms in the financial district of Manhattan, Moody's used an emergency operations facility in nearby Jersey City, owned by SunGard Recovery Services LP. No one had anticipated that 30 financial firms would need SunGard's facilities simultaneously, yet somehow, they were able to find room for approximately 75 desks, which were run in three shifts, to set up about 750 VPN accounts (short for virtual private network), for Moody's employees to access the company intranet.

As a result of all of this, Laserson says, "we were really back in business the second week, albeit under an unbelievably unusual circumstance. A lot of people worked from home as well, and that seemed to quite be effective. We had special call-in sessions where we would just keep these AT&T conference call numbers going constantly. So we actually ran rating committee meetings."

The Moody's employees were eventually allowed back in 99 Church Street in late November, after the building was fumigated, and power restored. They were just one of several dozen financial services firms whose businesses were radically disrupted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But their methods of coping with the temporary loss of their facilities, not to mention the incredible chaos of the days and weeks immediately after the death and destruction of 9/11, are instructive to many businesses. Having a back-up plan for even the most unthinkable disaster, a method for quickly contacting all employees, allowing for telecommuting and a decentralized workforce, making sure that a diversified set of communications technologies are available, are useful preparations for any medium to large size business.

Telecommuting, which has enjoyed a mixed reputation since even before Alvin Toffler wrote about it in 1980's The Third Wave, came of age as a result of September 11, 2001. But how many businesses will be smart enough to use it, and its enabling technologies to their fullest, before the next attack?



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