Risk Scenario

Missed Signals

Conflict in a foreign supplier's country exposes holes in one company's risk management strategy.
By: | June 2, 2014 • 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.

An Act of Violence

Alex Block settled down on a sunny afternoon in May of 2015 at the counter of Presto, a regionally famous sandwich shop in Pittsburgh, and hungrily eyed the pastrami sandwich on his plate.

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Thick slices of white Italian bread stuffed with French fries, coleslaw and sweet-spicy, aromatic meat shaved super-thin. This was not the time to second-guess on the calories. This moment called for just diving right in.

Block’s self-indulgence felt justified. Three years ago, he’d returned to this former mill town, his bank accounts bulging with cash from a 14-year career as a Wall Street investment banker.

What he did with about $4 million of that cash got tongues wagging. It even got him a headline on the front page of the local business paper.

Block invested in his grandfather’s former aluminum fabrication company in nearby Lawrenceville with the idea of bringing it back as an aluminum decking company, dubbed Sarachelle Decking, Inc. The first word of the company name was a combination of the names of Alex’s two daughters, Sara and Rochelle.

Some online commentators greeted the news with ridicule. Block’s business looked to some like a bone-headed move spurred by nostalgia.

“This ain’t the Steel City no more, buddy,” grumbled an out-of-work ironworker, commenting on the online news story about the launch of this small to mid-sized company. Many in the Pittsburgh manufacturing community thought that Block would never make it in manufacturing.

Scenario Partner

Scenario Partner

But Block was no bonehead. He put his Wharton MBA and his curiosity to good use, researching South American bauxite production to identify lesser known suppliers who would give him a price advantage over larger companies.

It was in Guyana that he found the bauxite producer that made the whole thing click for his company. He added to that advantage by lining up a local smelter that he found through his business school contacts.

Now, three years later, the glimmer of real gold was appearing. Just this spring, Force-Tek, one of the publicly traded railroad and highway infrastructure companies, picked up his product in a seven-figure contract. Who was laughing now?

What better way to toast his success than with a stuffed sandwich at Presto’s? That form of celebration was a personal tradition that dated back to his high school days when Alex’s father would proudly treat him when he won wrestling matches.

Block made short work of the French fry-stuffed pastrami sandwich. As he finished off his diet cream soda, his eyes settled on the television set above the lunch counter. A news report showed footage of Venezuelan troops pouring over the Guyanese border. A long-simmering border dispute was erupting into armed conflict.

The operation providing Block’s bauxite was located a mere 200 miles to the east of the Venezuelan border incursion. The image of the Venezuelan troops stopped Block cold.

In an instant Block’s mind ran through the possibilities.

The degree to which the bauxite plant itself was threatened was one area of concern. But Block’s Guyanese producer was also heavily dependent on labor from the neighboring country of Suriname.

Even if the bauxite plant wasn’t captured or otherwise affected, it could suffer business interruption if its labor supply was blocked.

“How long the dispute will last and to what degree it will embroil neighboring Suriname are unknowns,” said the British-accented broadcaster.

“But one thing is certain,” he continued. “Business and personal travel in this area of the world will be inadvisable for weeks, possibly months to come.”

“No kidding,” Block said out loud to himself, eliciting a sharp, critical glance from a co-ed sitting on the next stool, apparently peeved that Block had interrupted her concentration as she thumbed through her iPhone.

In one afternoon, Alex Block’s bright business prospects darkened considerably. The pastrami sandwich that he’d rationalized as an earned indulgence now sat heavy in his stomach.

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Outflanked

The Venezuelan incursion accomplished just what Block feared it would do.

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Officials in Suriname tightened down their borders, blocking the movement of workers into Guyana for three months.

A months-long military border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana claimed dozens of lives per week. The fighting never escalated to a country-wide engagement, but the damage to the sustainability of Sarachelle Decking was done. Block’s Guyanese bauxite producer was forced to cease production until the situation stabilized.

Block moved quickly to identify another bauxite producer but he was outflanked.

He was forced to compete with larger aluminum makers and fabricators for bauxite from their existing suppliers. The higher price from those bauxite producers erased a key business advantage.

In a meeting with his CFO, Block faced the music.

“We’ve got margin erosion here that worries me greatly,” said the CFO, Kristian Moorehead.

The company was meeting its production obligations to Force-Tek and other key customers, but it was looking at an operating loss within one more quarter if it couldn’t cut costs.

Even with a full order book, Block did what he felt he had to do and laid off a shift. Maybe the layoff was too much too soon, an over-reaction, but Block was Wall Street trained. You didn’t wait, you acted.

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The news sent ripples through the Pittsburgh manufacturing community and was gleefully picked up on by Block’s competitors.

“They’re not going to be around long,” was what a salesmen for one of the company’s competitors told a customer in the Midwest, where Sarachelle Decking did most of its business.

“Why do you say that?” said the customer.

“For one, they source from Guyana, which is under attack from Venezuela if you haven’t noticed,” the salesman said.

“Secondly, they’ve only been in business four years and they just laid off an entire shift last month,” the salesman said.

“I think you better ask yourself what it’s going to do to your business if you buy from them and they go under,” he added.

“I guess I’ll have to take that under advisement,” the customer said.

***

Alex Block was not an insurance naïf. His due diligence work as an investment banker gave him more than a passing acquaintance with products such as property insurance, D&O insurance, workers’ compensation, environmental insurance and other coverages.

As he scrambled to save his company and the prolonged Guyana-Venezuela strife played out, Block and his CFO examined their coverages to see if they could find relief.

They did not find relief. What they found were gaps, not only in their coverage but in their risk management strategy.

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Back to the Drawing Board

As an event beyond his control, Alex Block couldn’t help but think that the conflict in South America that deprived him of a key supplier should have been compensable from an insurance standpoint.

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After all, wasn’t it comparable to a storm or flood knocking out his factory for a few weeks or even longer? The answer was that it was, and it wasn’t.

Supply-chain insurance that would have provided a payout on the clear supply-chain disruption that Sarachelle Decking suffered wasn’t in place.

On the risk mitigation end, Block was so enamored of the business advantage his Guyanese bauxite supplier gave him that he didn’t look at the flip side. He failed to imagine what losing it would do to him and failed to arrange for back-up low-cost suppliers.

Over drinks with a pal from his Wharton days, Block got the lowdown on what he should have known and done going in.

“I mean the supply chain cover is something you arguably might not have been able to get to begin with,” his friend said between sips of his vodka martini.

“It’s not like there’s that much coverage out there and with your limits the carriers that handle that might have passed on you,” he said.

“But the supply chain analysis, you should have done and could have done,” he said. “It would have pointed out that your strength and your weakness were both coming from the same supplier,” he said.

“And a contingency plan?” his friend said.

“If I’d known …” Alex began.

“If you’d known. But good to have in any event,” his friend said.

With no end to the South American conflict in sight, Sarachelle Decking was locked into a bauxite price that gradually undermined its ability to compete.

The company was able to function for a full two years beyond the day that Block first axed one of the production shifts.

But in 2017, the day came when Alex Block’s dream of resurrecting his grandfather’s company came to an end. The same reporter that wrote a front page business journal story on him in 2012 visited him to write the epitaph on Sarachelle Decking.

In the five years he’d been in Pittsburgh, Alex Block had gotten used to the feel of a smaller town. His New York days seemed like a distant memory. This was his hometown after all.

But something told him he’d be back in that rat race before long.

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Risk & Insurance partnered with the Society of Actuaries (SOA) to produce this scenario. Below are perspectives from an actuary on ways to prevent losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.

1. Analyze and prioritize risks: All business prospects need to be analyzed for potential pitfalls, as the business owner in the scenario did not prepare for unexpected events, such as labor shortages from regional instability or the unavailability of a critical supply point that impacted his entire supply chain.

The 2014 Emerging Risks Survey from the Joint Risk Management Section, of which the SOA is a sponsor, identifies emerging risks ranging from environmental to geopolitical. Key geopolitical risks can include:

  • Interstate and civil wars
  • Failed and failing states
  • Regional instability
  • International terrorism
  • Retrenchment from globalization

The businessperson in the scenario should have considered various geopolitical risks, among other risks that impact the company. Another set of emerging risks to consider include societal:

  • Pandemics and infectious disease
  • Regime liability and regulatory framework issues
  • Demographic shifts

2. Create relevant and actionable contingency plans: While it is important to research and identify potential shortfalls or risks presented from working with suppliers, vendors or other partners, it is also necessary to take action with this information. The loss of a key supplier, such as in this scenario, must be met with immediate action or dire consequences can occur. Planning ahead is necessary, so backup suppliers and sources of materials should be in place for the company. It is also vital to understand what risks may affect the suppliers’ business, which can ultimately impact the company too. For example, there are currency risks when dealing with suppliers based in another country, such as fluctuations in the economy, changes with the interest rates or issues with foreign exchanges.

3. Understand coverages: The risk exposures, a company’s appetite for risk and several other factors should weigh in to the decision of insurance coverage. Even if a company doesn’t have a chief risk officer, who that responsibility lies with needs to be identified and their knowledge of coverages and coverage limitations needs to be comprehensive.

4. Harness your consultants’ knowledge: The businessperson in this scenario depended too much on his own knowledge and did not seek counsel from insurance consultants or an insurance carrier, which was a vast oversight on his part. It is important to have a clear understanding of coverages and risk mitigation processes through tapping into the valuable insights of available resources and experts.

Partner Resources

For more information about SOA, please visit www.soa.org/impact



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

More from Risk & Insurance

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Risk Management

The Profession

Pinnacle Entertainment’s VP of enterprise risk management says he’s inspired by Disney’s approach to risk management.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

Bus boy at a fine dining restaurant.

R&I: How did you come to work in this industry?

I sent a résumé to Harrah’s Entertainment on a whim. It took over 30 hours of interviewing to get that job, but it was well worth it.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

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The Chinese citizen (never positively identified) who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. That kind of courage is undeniable, and that image is unforgettable. I hope we can all be that passionate about something at least once in our lives.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

Cyber risk, but more narrowly, cyber-extortion. I think state sponsored bad actors are getting more and more sophisticated, and the risk is that they find a way to control entire systems.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Training and breaking horses. When I was in high school, I worked on a lot of farms. I did everything from building fences to putting up hay. It was during this time that I found I had a knack for horses. They would tolerate me getting real close, so it was natural I started working more and more with them.

Eventually, I was putting a saddle on a few and before I knew it I was in that saddle riding a horse that had never been ridden before.

I admit I had some nervous moments, but I was never thrown off. It taught me that developing genuine trust early is very important and is needed by all involved. Nothing of any real value happens without it.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

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Setting very aggressive goals and then meeting and exceeding those goals with a team. Sharing team victories is the ultimate reward.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

Disney World. The sheer size of the place is awe inspiring. And everything works like a finely tuned clock.

There is a reason that hospitality companies send their people there to be trained on guest service. Disney World does it better than anyone else.

As a hospitality executive, I always learn something new whenever I am there.

James Cunningham, vice president, enterprise risk management, Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc.

The risks that Disney World faces are very similar to mine — on a much larger scale. They are complex and across the board. From liability for the millions of people they host as their guests each year, to the physical location of the park, to their vendor partnerships; their approach to risk management has been and continues to be innovative and a model that I learn from and I think there are lessons there for everybody.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

We are doing a much better job of getting involved in a meaningful way in our daily operations and demonstrating genuine value to our organizations.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

Educating and promoting the career with young people.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

Being able to tell the Pinnacle story. It’s a great one and it wasn’t being told. I believe that the insurance markets now understand who we are and what we stand for.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

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John Matthews, who is now retired, formerly with Aon and Caesar’s Palace. John is an exceptional leader who demonstrated the value of putting a top-shelf team together and then letting them do their best work. I model my management style after him.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

I read mostly biographies and autobiographies. I like to read how successful people became successful by overcoming their own obstacles. Jay Leno, Jack Welch, Bill Harrah, etc. I also enjoyed the book and movie “Money Ball.”

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

Ice water when it’s hot, coffee when it’s cold, and an adult beverage when it’s called for.

R&I: What does your family think you do?

In my family, I’m the “Safety Geek.”

R&I:  What’s your favorite restaurant?

Vegas is a world-class restaurant town. No matter what you are hungry for, you can find it here. I have a few favorites that are my “go-to’s,” depending on the mood and who I am with.

If you’re in town, you should try to have at least one meal off the strip. For that, I would suggest you get reservations (you’ll need them) at Herbs and Rye. It’s a great little restaurant that is always lively. The food is tremendous, and the service is always on point. They make hand-crafted cocktails that are amazing.

My favorite Mexican restaurant is Lindo Michoacan. There are three in town, and I prefer the one in Henderson as it has the best view of the valley. For seafood, you can never go wrong with Joe’s in Caesar’s Palace.




Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]