Risk Scenario

Hard Crash

An equipment breakdown harms a company and kills a career.
By: | August 31, 2015 • 7 min read
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.

Part One: Pressure Builds

Barry Little cast an appreciative glance back at the front door of the elementary school where he’d just dropped off his little girl Lila, age 5, for her morning kindergarten class. He was grateful that he trusted Lila’s teacher and the rest of the school staff.

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Walking to his car, with the late September sun warming his face, he ticked off the other reasons he had for being happy. Ten minutes before dropping Lila off, he’d dropped off her little brother Benjamin at daycare. Benjamin was a joy, now speaking in full sentences and displaying a wry sense of humor.

Driving to work, Little ruminated on his further good fortune. He was celebrating the one-year anniversary of his promotion to plant manager of the Glaucus Inc. ammonia plant in nearby Edmonton, in the province of Alberta, Canada.

His promotion coincided with increased natural gas production in the fields close to the Edmonton plant. Natural gas is the feedstock for ammonia, and its recent abundance and lower cost was a boon for the company.

Just that week, his managers asked him to extend the current ammonia production run out two years to take advantage of the lower cost of natural gas and the burgeoning demand for fertilizer in the emerging economies of India and China.

Ammonia is a key raw material for the production of fertilizers. But there are inherent risks. Ammonia production is a demanding process on plant equipment. And the extended production run was being performed at the expense of regularly scheduled equipment maintenance.

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Little knew the reasons for management’s decision. With global revenues at close to $1 billion annually, publicly traded Glaucus could run that figure close to $1.25 billion in this two-year window.

There was another factor gnawing at Little. The vastly increased production of natural gas in North America meant that chemical manufacturing was on the upswing. New plants were being built and existing plants expanded which increased lead times for equipment and spare parts

In this high-demand environment, contingency plans that included the purchase of spare parts were important to minimize any downtime due an equipment breakdown. Little, relatively new to this position, was in the process of drafting contingency plans, but they weren’t complete. The plant had some spare parts and equipment, but it was questionable whether that was adequate.

***

Little was relaxing that night after dinner, keeping half an eye on an Edmonton Eskimos game, when his cell phone lit up.

A fast moving storm was moving through Alberta. No sooner had Little seen that news on his phone, when he got a call. A lightning strike at the Glaucus plant tripped the electrical system off line, triggering a “hard crash” and a complete shutdown of the plant.

“Gotta go,” Little said to his wife as he jumped up and grabbed his raincoat.

“Where to?” she said.

“The plant’s been knocked out by a lightning strike. I gotta get over there!”

“Drive safely!” she called after him but he was already out the door.

Driving to the plant with rain pelting his windshield, Little’s mind raced.

“What to do?”

The truth was, he didn’t know.

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Part Two: Break Down

When Little arrived at the stricken plant, his assistant plant manager, Denny Ashe, was waiting for him just outside the door.

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“It’s a complete shutdown, nothing is on line,” Ashe said as he and Little walked into the plant together.

Little strode out into the plant’s main control room. Nothing seemed amiss, but everything was shut down.

“Do we have power?” he asked Ashe.

“Yep, we’re just reconnected,” Ashe said. “The strike tripped our system, but the circuit breakers have been reset and service has been restored.”

Little stood, looking at the idled control panels for the plant’s equipment and at the faces of the operators, who were watching him expectantly. The faces of the watching operators triggered something in Little.

It looked like they were expecting him to act, so he did.

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Little turned to Ashe.

“Let’s start it back up.”

“Are you sure?” Ashe said.

Ashe was just asking a question, but it angered Little.

“Yes I’m sure!” Little thundered.

“Start it up like I said!”

Just then, the phone number of Little’s manager flashed on his phone. Flustered, Little didn’t answer the call.

What Little didn’t know and didn’t take the time to find out was that a critical steam turbine driving a process compressor was damaged when the lightning strike shut the plant down so suddenly. The turbine was vulnerable because it hadn’t been properly maintained due to production demands.

Little went out and stood in the middle of the compressor building with his hands on his hips as Ashe worked with the operators in the control room to get the plant back on line.

When the plant restarted, the turbine started to vibrate excessively. Without vibration trips, the turbine continued to operate. The vibration caused a lubrication oil line to break, which in turn started a fire.

“Fire!” one of the turbine operators yelled as he ran to grab a fire extinguisher since there was no sprinkler protection installed, but another turbine operator beat him to it. The fire was so intense that it burned the two workers severely.

Denny Ashe shut the plant back down as calls went out to the emergency response team.

As a member of the emergency response team used a first-aid kit to attend to the turbine operators, Little stepped back, realizing that he still held his phone in his hand.

He couldn’t look at the injured workers laid out on the compressor building floor, with their co-workers offering them aid. He couldn’t face it.

Little just stared at his phone in shock, unwilling to dial his boss’s number.

***

It took a week of meetings between plant operational personnel to determine just how bad the situation was.

The team determined that the $10 million turbine, which was crucial to the plant’s production process, was totally destroyed.

The plant was powerless without the turbine; it couldn’t produce ammonia.

“I can’t tell you,” is what the equipment manufacturer said when Little called him and asked when they could deliver a replacement.

“It could be six months, it could be nine months, it could be longer,” the manufacturer’s representative said.

“When are we going to be back up?” is what Little’s manager asked him, two weeks after the shutdown and the turbine fire.

“I can’t answer that question,” Little said.

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Part Three: A Chilling Dawn

Seven months after the lightning strike and the turbine fire that injured two workers, Little finally had an answer to that question.

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With a date for the delivery of the replacement turbine now firm, it would be two more months before Glaucus Inc.’s Edmonton plant could resume ammonia production.

Little’s initial inability to tell senior management when the plant would reopen motivated them to send an engineering team from the company’s Shreveport, La., plant to conduct a complete inspection of the Edmonton plant.

“I want to state for the record that I was asked by management to extend the production run at the expense of the regularly scheduled maintenance,” Little told the inspection team as they sat down with him and some of the senior management team to report on their findings.

“Barry, we’re not here to officiate between you and your manager,” the head of the Shreveport engineering team told him.

“We’re just here to report on what we found.”

The engineering team reported that the Edmonton plant’s electrical system was well used and wasn’t adequately maintained. It didn’t matter that Barry Little had only been plant manager for a year, the fault lay at his feet.

The engineering team also faulted the Edmonton operation for extending production without maintaining the plant’s equipment; not installing vibration trips on the critical turbine; not adequately maintaining turbine integrity; failing to have a written contingency plan, including maintaining spares for critical pieces of equipment and not installing sprinkler protection on the turbine.

Instead of being on track to increase its revenues from $1 billion to $1.25 billion, Glaucus Inc. saw its revenues in the year of the Edmonton plant failure slip down to $900 million. The work stoppage at Edmonton cost the company $125 million in plant repairs and lost revenues.

When it reported its full-year figures, the company’s stock price tumbled 20 percent.

The fact that Barry Little was in the process of writing a contingency plan when the plant experienced the lightning strike and hard crash didn’t help him much. He was fired in the first quarter of the following year.

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Risk & Insurance® partnered with FM Global to produce this scenario. Below are FM Global’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.

No company can afford the loss of property, lives and productivity from destruction caused by fire, natural hazards or equipment outage. Equipment damaged in minutes can take many months to repair or replace. If there is business interruption, revenue, stock price and shareholder confidence all can take a major hit. Market position may be lost. Inflation and material shortage may make rebuilding difficult and costly.

Of course, insurance helps alleviate some of the cost associated with property damage. But insurance isn’t the only answer, especially when considering the loss of customers, productivity, goodwill and staff.

Reliable equipment delivers resilient service to your production, utility and support systems, can reduce risk to your business and help your organization maintain a competitive advantage.




Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Reputational Risk

Under Siege

Driven by social media, political wars spill over into the corporate arena, threatening reputations.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 12 min read

On Jan. 28, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called a strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport, one day after President Trump signed an executive order banning entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, including a blanket ban on refugees. The strike was an act of solidarity with immigrants, and a public display of the Alliance’s opposition to the executive order.

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Uber, however, continued to service the airport, tweeting that it would halt surge pricing during the protests. Some saw it as an opportunistic ploy to get more riders to use Uber. A #deleteUber Twitter campaign was quickly born, with users tweeting screen shots of themselves removing the app from their smartphones.

More than 200,000 were estimated to have uninstalled the ride-sharing service over the course of the weekend.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reacted, creating a $3 million legal defense fund to provide lawyers and immigration experts for any of its drivers that were barred from the U.S., and promising that drivers would be compensated for lost wages.

Over the same weekend, in response to the travel ban, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years. Then it was Starbucks turn to get punished in the public arena. A #boycottStarbucks campaign was launched by people who felt the company should focus more on hiring American veterans.

Athletic shoemaker New Balance suffered blowback in November of 2016 when its vice president of communications, Matt LeBretton, told the “Wall Street Journal” in an interview that he believed “things are going to move in the right direction” under the new administration. Angry customers began posting pictures of themselves trashing or even burning their New Balance sneakers.

These social media-fueled public relations crises demonstrate how fickle public opinion can be. They also serve as warning signs of growing reputational risk for corporations.

Uber, for example, typically stops its surge pricing in the event of emergency so as not to exploit a crisis for its own benefit. To do so during the protests and taxi strike at JFK was perhaps meant to show its respect for the event.

Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

Starbucks’ 10,000 refugee hires would be spread out across its locations around the globe, not just in the U.S., where the coffee conglomerate already promised to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses by 2025.

New Balance’s LeBretton was speaking specifically about the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his interview, and how the deal could hurt sneaker production in the U.S. while favoring foreign producers — he wasn’t talking about Trump’s other proposed plans.

These companies, in reality, did nothing as abhorrent and scandalous as the Twitterverse may have led some to believe, but context isn’t always provided in 140 characters.

Public Pressure

Complaints and boycotts have been launched at companies via social media for perhaps as long as social media has existed. But the current contentious environment created by one of the most divisive leaders in American history now colors every public statement made by prominent business leaders with a political tint. Executives are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re exposed to reputational damage whether they oppose or endorse a Trump action, or even if they do nothing at all.

Take Elon Musk, for example, founder of Tesla and SpaceX and a well-known advocate for climate research and environmental protection. He came under fire for not publicly denouncing the travel ban and for keeping his seat on Trump’s business advisory council.

Musk has largely avoided the limelight on political issues, couching statements when he makes them at all — as most executives are wont to do. But he was prodded to defend himself on Twitter after some users suggested he was a hypocrite.

“Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” —Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

A strategy of avoidance may no longer work as consumers, employees and the public at large pressure companies to make a statement or take action in response to political events.

“A large segment of the population expects the people they do business with and the companies they buy from to support their point of view or respond to political or social issues in a certain way,” said Chrystina M. Howard, senior vice president, strategic risk consulting, Willis Towers Watson.

In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t environment, reputation risk is expanding, and risk managers need to re-evaluate how they assess their exposure and build mitigation strategies.

A True Crisis?

The challenge begins with determining whether a negative public relations event is really a crisis. Is it a temporary blow to a brand, or does it have the potential to do long-term reputation damage? Misreading the signs could lead companies to overreact and further tarnish their image.

“These sudden public relations crises are a source of panic for companies, but sometimes it sounds much worse than it actually is. The financial ramifications may not be anywhere near what was feared,” Howard said.

“Uber is probably a good example of what not to do,” said Jeff Cartwright, director of communications at Morning Consult, a brand and political intelligence firm.

“They maybe went over the top in trying to reverse the way they handled the protests at JFK.”

Tracking brand value in real time can give risk managers insight into the true impact of a negative social media campaign or bad press.  Michael Ramlet, CEO and co-founder of Morning Consult, said most events don’t damage brands as much as trending hashtags make it appear.

Morning Consult’s proprietary brand tracking tool allows companies to measure their brand perception against influencing events like a spike of Twitter mentions and news stories. More often than not, overall brand loyalty remains on par with industry averages.

In Uber’s case, Twitter mentions spiked to roughly 8,800 on Jan. 29, up from about 1,000 the day before. By Jan. 31, though, the number was back down to around 1,250 and quickly settled back down to its average numbers. From the beginning of the #deleteUber campaign through the end of February, Uber’s favorability shrunk from 50 percent to roughly 40 percent, based on a series of polls taken by 18,908 respondents.

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It’s a significant dip, but likely not a permanent stain on the company’s reputation, especially after Kalanick’s public show of support for immigrants and rejection of the travel ban. Uber’s favorability rating remained higher than competitor Lyft’s throughout the ordeal.

“The #deleteUber campaign turned out to be a very local thing that didn’t have a widespread impact,” Ramlet said.

“Twitter at best is an imputed analysis of what people are saying. The vocal minority might be very active, but there might be a silent majority who still think fondly of a brand, or at least have no negative opinions of it.”

He said risk managers can also benefit by breaking down their brand perception into geographic and demographic subsets. It can, for example, show whether a brand is favored more heavily by Democrats or Republicans.

“If you have that data on day one, it can help you determine how to respond if, say, Trump tweets at you,” Ramlet said.

Of course, some spikes in news media and social media attention are indicative of much deeper problems and true reputational risk.

After the Wells Fargo dummy-account scandal broke, for example, unfavorability ratings as measured by Morning Consult jumped from roughly 20 percent to nearly 55 percent, while favorability dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. Net favorability, which stood at 33 percent pre-scandal, fell to -4 percent post-scandal.

“They went from being the most popular bank to the least popular in less than four months, according to our data,” Ramlet said.

The contrast between Uber’s and Wells Fargo’s stories demonstrates the difference between a more surface-level public-relations event that temporarily hurts brand image, and a true reputation event.

“Failures that produce real and lasting damage to reputation include failures of ethics, innovation, safety, security, quality and sustainability,” said Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re.

“Activists make a lot of noise that can be channeled through various media, but for the most part in the business world, stakeholders are interested in the goods and services a company offers, not in their political or social views. As long as you can meet stakeholder expectations, you avoid long-term reputational damage.”

Wells Fargo’s scandal involved a violation of ethics, sparked an SEC investigation and forced the resignation of its CEO, John Stumpf. It’s safe to say stakeholders were severely disappointed.

That’s not to say, however, that a tarnished brand name doesn’t also impact the bottom line.

“Even if a bad event is short-lived, the equity markets react quickly, so there may be sharp equity dips. There may be some economic impact even over the short term,” Kossovsky said, “because sharp dips are dog whistles for activists, litigators and corporate raiders.”

Social Media Machine

The root of reputation risk’s tightening grip lies in the politicizing of business, and consumers’ increased desire to buy from companies that share their values. Social media may not be driving that trend, but it acts as a vehicle for it.

“Social media has really changed the game in terms of brand equity, and has given people another way to choose who they give their money to,” Howard of Willis Towers Watson said.

Platforms like Twitter make it easier for consumers to directly reach out to big companies and allow news to travel at warp speed.

“Social media are communication channels that can take a story and make it widely available. In that regard, the media risk is no different than that posed by a newspaper or radio channel,” Kossovsky said.

“The difference today that changes the strategy for risk managers and boards is that social media has been weaponized: Stories shared on social media don’t necessarily have to contain truthful content, and there’s not always an obvious difference between what’s true and what’s not.”

Helen Chue, Facebook’s global risk manager, agreed.

“More influential than social media platforms is today’s culture of immediacy and headlines. Because we are inundated with information from so many sources, we scan the headlines, form our opinions and go from there,” she said.

“It’s dangerous to draw conclusions without taking a balanced approach, but who has the time and patience to sift through all the different viewpoints?”

An environment of political divisiveness, driven by speed and immediacy of social media, creates the risk that false or half-true stories are disseminated before companies have a chance to clarify. This is what happened to Uber and New Balance.

“It creates the opportunity to turn a non-problem into a problem,” Kossovksy said.

“That’s how social media changes the calculus of risk management.”

Risk Mitigation

The best way to battle both political pressure and social media’s speed is through an ironclad communication strategy; a process that risk managers can lead.

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“Risk managers play a crucial role in mitigating reputation risk,” Howard said.

“They bring with them the discipline of managing and monitoring a risk, having a plan and responding to crisis. Now they really have to partner with communications, marketing and PR.”

They also have to get the attention of their board of directors.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk.” — Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re

“This is both a company-wide risk and personal leadership risk, so the board needs to drive a company-wide policy that protects the board as well,” Kossovsky said.

The art of mitigating reputation risk, he said, comes down to managing expectations. Corporate communications should clearly convey what a company believes and what it does not believe; what it can do and what it can’t do. And those stated values need to align with the operational reality. It comes down to creating credibility and legitimacy.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk,” he said. A strong communication strategy can prevent adverse events from turning into reputational threats.

Willis Towers Watson helps clients test their strategies through a table-top exercise in which they have to respond to a social media-driven reputation event.

“We’ll say, ‘Something happened with X product, and now everyone’s on Twitter lambasting you and calling for resignations, etc.’ What do you do on day one? What do you do a week out? How long do you continue to monitor it and keep it on your radar?” Howard said.

“If you have that plan in place, you can fine-tune it going forward as circumstances change.”

Sometimes, though, the communication strategy fails, and a company falls short of meeting stakeholders’ expectations. Now it’s time for crisis management.

“Volatility creates vulnerability. If you stumble on your corporate message, it creates an opportunity for activists, litigators and corporate raiders to exploit. So you need to have authoritative third parties who can attest to your credibility and affirm the truth of the situation to open-minded stakeholders,” Kossovsky said.

Owning up to any mistakes, reaffirming the truth and being as transparent as possible will be key in any response plan.

Insuring the Risk

Recouping dollars lost from reputation damage requires a blend of mathematics with a little magic. While some traditional products are available, reputation risk is, for the most part, an intangible and uninsurable risk.

“Many companies have leveraged their captive insurance companies in the absence of traditional reputation products in the marketplace,” said Derrick Easton, managing director, alternative risk transfer solutions practice, Willis Towers Watson.

“It goes back to measuring a loss that can include lost revenue, or increased costs. Some companies build indexes in the same way we might create an index for a weather product, using rainfall or wind speed. For reputation, we might use stock price or a more refined index,” he said.

“If we can measure a potential loss, we can build a financing structure.”

While there’s no clear-cut way to measure losses from reputation damage, “stock performance and reported sales changes are some of the best tools we have,” Howard said.

Some insurers, including Allianz and Tokiomarine Kiln, and Steel City Re, an MGA, do offer reputation policies. When these fit a company’s needs, they have the ancillary benefit of affirming quality of governance and sending a signal that the insured is prepared to defend itself.

“Because reputation assurance is only available to companies that have demonstrated sound governance processes, it helps to convince people that if a bad piece of news happens, it’s idiosyncratic; it doesn’t reflect what the company really stands for,” Kossovsky of Steel City Re said.

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“And it tells activists, broadly defined, not to look for low-hanging fruit here.”

In a volatile political environment, companies fare best when they simply tell the truth.

“The American public will accept an apology if delivered quickly and if it’s sincere,” said Stephen Greyser, Richard P. Chapman professor (marketing/communications) emeritus, of the Harvard Business School.

“Tell the truth. Don’t stonewall. A bad social media campaign can be an embarrassment, but if you stick to the facts and apologize when you need to, people forget about the bad quickly.”

“Reputation is the crown jewel,” Chue said. “Given the power of social media’s reach, one individual can have a tsunami-like influence. And it can happen when you least expect it, and it will probably be something you thought was innocuous or even positive that sets off a maelstrom.

“Plan for the worst-case scenario. Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” &

Katie Siegel is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]