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Disaster Recovery Plan Seen As Critical To GEB’s Survival

September 14, 2007
agility

This article, written by Arthur D. Postal, originally appeared on the National Underwriter’s Web site.

Gillis, Ellis & Baker Inc. pitches risk management as its overriding philosophy for clients, and by practicing what it preached, the New Orleans agency survived to serve battered clients and even kept growing after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“The key to that was the disaster recovery program we established,” said W. Anderson Baker III, president of the Big Easy firm. “It allowed us to increase our penetration in the market. Certainly, that was not the design—the design was our survival—but it had that effect.”

He said the agency landed a lot of new clients after Katrina “by being there. Most agents are back, but many were unavailable for long periods of time.”

GEB didn’t do it alone. Two key support providers were Agility Recovery Service, based in Charlotte, N.C. (which also played a key role in helping companies devastated by the World Trade Center disaster in September 2001), and Artizan Internet Services, based in Windsor, Conn.

“In the spring of 2005, we recognized that the disaster plan for our own office was little more than a telephone tree and a backup tape for our data—what coat pocket did I leave it in?” Mr. Baker said. The agency contracted with Agility in spring 2005, paying $3,000 annually as a retainer.

Within two days of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005—damaging GEB’s offices across from the Superdome—Agility provided the agency with a trailer in Baton Rouge that contained computers, servers, satellite phones, fax machines, copiers, desks and chairs.

Ironically, the agency contracted with Artizan only several weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit, Mr. Baker recalled. They were hired as part of the firm’s contingency planning of what to do if dislocated.

“We asked, ‘If the building exploded, what would happen to our data?’ So, by coincidence, we hired Artizan and uploaded data weekly to them beginning perhaps two weeks before [Katrina]. We uploaded our data to them just before the storm hit,” he said, noting the service cost only a few hundred dollars in advance.

Mr. Baker was at his country home in Mississippi when the storm hit Monday. The closest phone was in Jackson, Miss., two-and-a-half hours away in the office of Fox-Everett, another Assurex Global partner agency.

Mr. Baker got to Baton Rouge and the trailer provided by Agility on Thursday. Artizan, he said, was taking claims for them by Wednesday. “They were handling claims for you two days after the storm, automatically,” he said. “Then they started charging us pennies per call, plus phone time. The cost was insignificant and paid for by our insurers.”

Mr. Baker said the trailer was “nailed down” by Saturday, and his agency was back in business by Monday, with all electronics up and running. Employees started filtering in by Monday as well.

“There was no rhyme or reason to where they stayed,” Mr. Baker said. He estimated it was about a 10-hour drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge because of storm damage to roads—normally a 90-minute trip.

“Underwriters paid most of the claims submitted directly,” he said. “But no one had a permanent address anymore. People were staying in Houston, Memphis, even Atlanta. People just went to various post offices and filled out change of address forms.” Clients ranged from homeowners to multihospital systems, “and about 95 percent of them had claims,” he noted.

The agency’s evacuated offices in New Orleans contained 14,000 square feet, so it was also quite an adjustment to set up shop in Baton Rouge—working out of a 500-square foot trailer.

Subsequent to the trailer, Mr. Baker said, the agency found semi-permanent space of 1,500 feet, “class C space at best,” in Baton Rouge. The agency returned to its own quarters in November 2005—not too bad considering the storm’s massive destruction.

“What is important to note about this agency is that their employees are forward-looking,” said W. Taylor Busby, marketing director of Agility, noting that GEB had two main concerns—getting up and running, and helping clients get back up to speed as well.

Both Mr. Busby and Mr. Baker cited a New Orleans law firm for which GEB did a presentation about how important it is to do advanced disaster planning for a potential recovery. Now, that client is saying, “‘If it were not for Gillis, Ellis & Baker, we do not know what we would have done [as a result of Katrina],’” Mr. Busby said.

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