Risk Scenario

The Revenge of Aamer Raza

An explosion shakes a retailer's business continuity. What is their next move?
By: | October 22, 2013
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

His vision is blurred from sweat and a previous injury, but his hands are firm on the wheel of the rental van. Aamer Raza makes his way through the Downtown Chicago traffic. In the back of the van is a 500-pound bomb made from diesel fuel and fertilizer. He can see it there, shimmering in the Chicago heat, just three blocks away, the 33-story office building where he has worked as a busboy for the past six months.

These are the last moments of Aamer Raza’s young life. The same is true for many workers in that building.

****

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In his village, Aamer Raza stood out, especially in sports. He wasn’t too tall, only 5-foot-7-inches. But with his powerful wrists and hands, Aamer, 17, was destined to play for a top-notch cricket team before too long.

Many of his family members worked at the American-owned O’Bannon chemical plant, the biggest employer in that province. That is, until the day that a natural gas leak at the plant ignited a tremendous explosion.

Aamer was walking back from school past the plant when the explosion happened, and the force of the blast tossed him into an irrigation ditch. When he emerged from the watery ditch, his vision was blurred. He initially thought it was the water and mud in his eyes.

But as it turned out, the explosion damaged Aamer’s vision — not to the point of blindness, but to the point where the macular hemorrhage he suffered ruined his chances as a cricket batsman.

The news got worse. Aamer’s beloved Uncle Hanif was one of those killed in the chemical plant blast. The villagers were outraged and grief-stricken, Aamer among them.

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In one afternoon, Aamer lost his uncle and his dream. Goaded by sadness and anger and by some of the more militant members of his community, for the first time in his life, Aamer’s thoughts turned violent. Eventually, those emotions hardened into a plan. After communicating for months with his cousin, Hanif’s bereft son, who was studying at an American university, Aamer decided to emigrate and to avenge his uncle’s death.

***

In the final block, Aamer gunned the engine of the van and made for the front door of his former employer. Out of the corner of his uninjured eye, Aamer could see people scattering in fear as he drove.

Seeing their horror, a flash of compassion strikes him. But Aamer is past the point of no return.

With an athlete’s precision and coordination, he succeeds in driving the van almost completely into the building before it explodes.

Aamer feels the concussive force of the explosion in the instant before his death. The force of the explosion tears off of the front wall of the building to the eighth floor.

Part Two

Occupying most of the first and second floors of the bomb-blasted building is the Midwestern flagship store of Pomegranate, a stylish urban decor and clothing company.

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Pomegranate used a keen design sense married to functionality to gain a retail vice-grip on hip, educated urban women across the country. The company grew rapidly, going nationwide in 12 years. Chico Hearndon, Pomegranate’s regional vice president, oversaw operations in seven states. When Aamer’s bomb exploded, Chico was killed instantly, although it would be days before anyone in the company could confirm this.

Harvey Buck, Pomegranate’s risk manager, was sitting down to a breakfast of brioche and latte on Russian Hill in San Francisco on the morning of the explosion. The waitress was just leaving his table after delivering his coffee when Harvey looked down casually at the news feed on his Iphone.

“Good God,” Harvey said as the news of the explosion scrolled across his phone. Harvey, his hands now trembling, scrolled through the news again to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.

Harvey started dialing, trying to reach the corporate office in New York. Sweat built up on his face, his phone growing slick in his hand as it continued to ring with no answer.

He tried the phone number of the CFO.

“Nothing!” Harvey said loudly, earning him sharp looks from the other patrons at the café.

“There’s been an explosion in Chicago!” Harvey said as he stood up, knocking over his coffee. People looked at him like he was crazy.

His hybrid bike was leaning next to a lamppost outside the café. Without paying his bill, Harvey grabbed his bike and started pedaling down to the Pomegranate store on Van Ness.

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“Hey! Hey, mister!” Harvey heard the waitress calling to him as he pedaled away.

As distraught as he was, he nearly ran his bicycle wheel into one of the trolley track grooves on Jackson Street. He was in a complete lather by the time he parked his bike and walked in the front door of the Pomegranate store on Van Ness.

It occurred to him that he probably looked like a madman because the young woman at the customer service desk tried to ignore him when he approached her.

“There’s been an explosion in Chicago,” he told her.

“Okay … sure,” she said, not sure who Harvey was and doubting his mental state.

Eventually, Harvey convinced her that he was indeed the company’s risk manager. The store manager guided Harvey to an office where he could log into the company intranet and try to take stock of things.

Throughout a frustrating, painful morning and afternoon, Harvey made call after call to no avail.

He got one text from someone in accounting, who said as many as 10 Pomegranate employees could be dead and that regional manager Chico Hearndon and the CFO, Mike Buck, could be among them.

“What were they doing at the Chicago store?” Harvey asked himself.

He had no answer, and no one to give him one.

Part Three

A week after the blast, Harvey was called to a meeting in New York. The Pomegranate executives were trying to put the pieces of the company back in place. The meeting was dominated by a sense of chaos.

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Mike Buck, who, as it turned out, was not at the Chicago store at the time of the explosion, had been tasked with pulling things back together.

“Priscilla, if you could just listen a minute,” Mike said to Priscilla Foreman, the head of purchasing. Priscilla lost two friends in the blast and was struggling to contain her grief.

“I will not listen a minute, not for a minute. Can anyone at this table tell me what I am supposed to do for materials if I can’t place any orders?”

“We’re still trying to get a count on how many people we lost, Priscilla,” offered Harvey, gently. “It’s going to be weeks before we can give you the OK to wade into the supply chain again.”

“Then we might as well shut down the company,” Priscilla said.

“Harvey’s right, Priscilla,” said Mike. “Our top priority is notification of the bereaved.”

“Don’t tell me about bereaved!” Priscilla said. “I have two friends that are dead!”

“We’re not shutting down the company,” Mike said.

“Might as well,” Priscilla said. “Because we are paralyzed.”

“Harvey, what can you tell us about the property claim?” Mike asked, trying to ignore Priscilla.

“Until I can get to the same table with Harry and Dave [the company’s CEO and COO], I don’t know what I can tell you,” Harvey said. “We’re probably two more weeks away from filing a claim.”

“Any idea …” Mike began.

“I really don’t know,” Harvey said, guessing what the question was.

“The property loss is probably around $3 million. With Chico … gone … [at which Priscilla let out a sniffle], I don’t know how I’m going to put the business interruption figures together.”

“Well maybe you and I can put our heads together on that,” Mike said.

“Good luck,” Priscilla said.

“Priscilla …” Mike began.

“Don’t worry. I’m leaving,” she said.

“But what about lunch?” Mike asked.

“Leaving the company,” Priscilla shot back. She rose from the table and walked out of the room.

It was three weeks until the surviving Pomegranate executives could confirm that seven employees and five customers had been killed in the blast, with thirteen employees and seven customers injured.

The company’s inability to quickly communicate with stakeholders was apparently going to have far-reaching financial and reputational consequences.

Six weeks after the deadly explosion, the elder sisters of an Illinois Tech student filed a lawsuit. The student had worked part-time at Pomegranate and was killed in the blast. The lawsuit claimed the company was too slow to notify them of their sister’s death, causing the family needless emotional pain.

“Do we have any sort of reputation coverage?” Mike asked Harvey as they slogged through another sleep-deprived 12-hour day, in the hopes of saving the flailing company.

A Chicago Daily News story about the lawsuit is blazoned across Mike’s computer monitor.

“We do, but it’s got a crisis management exclusion,” Harvey told Mike. “Based on our communications efforts after the bombing, I think I’d give us a ‘C-minus’ there,” he added.

“I’d give us about the same grade, maybe a ‘D’,” Mike replied.

Summary

Dozens are killed when a bomb explodes on a busy Chicago street. A national retailer loses customers and employees in the blast, including a key executive. Grief-stricken company executives are at a loss to communicate effectively in the wake of the explosion and key business decisions aren’t executed. Bad will builds up not only between the survivors of the deceased and the company, but also among surviving executives, who failed to execute a crisis response plan or take the necessary measures to insure business continuity.

1. Create true communication linkage: Pomegranate executives lose touch with each other after the explosion because the company lacks a communications system that can link key executives in the event of a crisis. Companies would be well advised to take advantage of existing technologies to create links between executives that can remain intact in the wake of any event.

2. Integrate technology with crisis communications: Pomegranate suffers irreparable reputational harm because it takes weeks to determine who precisely has been killed and injured in the blast and to notify next of kin to express its condolences. Having the technology to get accurate loss counts, not only of human lives but of property losses, is key in a situation like this.

3. Have a plan in place in the event of the loss of a key employee: The grief that Pomegranate employees are undergoing leaves them vulnerable to further dysfunction when the company apparently has no plan to pick up the pieces after a key employee is killed in the explosion. Business continuity plans should include not only provisions to reconnect supply lines and other business processes, but to link the necessary human talent after a team member has passed away.

4. Make a place for risk management: Although risk managers are not necessarily top of mind when it comes to denoting who are the most important company executives, they should have the resources they need to function in the event of any kind of loss.

5. Ask for more value in your insurance program: Carriers and other risk management consultants should be able to provide you with an umbrella of services, not just a promise to pay, when it comes to responding to a crisis. See what your broker and carrier can bring you in the form of ancillary crisis response services that can help your company better overcome an event such as that precipitated by Aamer Raza.

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

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]