The day the disaster plan was TESTED

catherine swingleIf it were not for a well honed disaster plan, the fire that destroyed Advantage Design Group’s office could have also destroyed its business, given its dependence upon the equipment and contents that were inside.

Just as a trucking company would take pride in its vehicles, Advantage Design Group prides itself on using the best equipment to create websites, mobile applications, videos and other marketing projects for its clients.

Top-of-the line computers and the latest data backup technology have long been a hallmark of the Jacksonville-based multi-media design firm.

So, Chief Operating Officer Catherine Swingle stirred when she saw that the equipment that her team had treated so delicately, and cared for so lovingly, was smoking and dripping with water when firefighters carried it from the rubble of what once had been the firm’s office building and tossed it into a smoldering heap against a fence. But she did not mourn the seemingly incalculable loss for long.

Deadlines loomed. Life continued.

“It’s very emotional, gut wrenching and tremendously stressful,” Swingle said. “Nothing will drive you 24/7 like 15 people and their jobs.”

Swingle felt like they needed to get the business up immediately after the Dec. 6 fire that destroyed their office—or that they would fail. Her team persevered.

While the firm’s disaster plan would mitigate its losses, the hard work and dedication of her staff would prove to be the biggest contributor to its recovery, Swingle said. “Everyone here is such a hero.”

Employees and staff worked together so that the firm would not miss a beat. They focused on servicing clients, and everyone assumed additional responsibilities. “I was just like one of the team, heading out to do my specialty,” she said.

She sped to Tiger Direct near Regency Square Mall to start replacing her equipment. She bought 15 custom-built computers and related equipment that Friday morning—prompting an anti-fraud call from her credit card company— and picked them up that weekend.

“Instead of buying off-the-shelf computers they wanted something specific done for them and the kind of work they do,” said Scott Goodspeed, business-to-business sales representative at Tiger Direct at Regency.

Swingle provided Tiger Direct with the specifications for the damaged equipment, and Technical Operations Manager Johnny McBurnie and his team built computers with newer components. “It was the build that got them up and running,” Goodspeed said.

Swingle also bought a large monitor for the firm’s sales team to use at a trade show in Atlanta the following week. Fortunately, a team member already had the brochures that the firm was bringing to the same trade show, so they did not perish in the fire along with the booth that they had planned to bring.

Swingle set the firm’s new work stations up in temporary offices at Colo5, the data center and disaster recovery facility that had already been hosting Advantage Design Group’s data remotely. She plugged into the facility’s Internet connection (which was “screaming”), and Advantage Design Group was soon operating again, with help from Colo5 and Computer Point, the firm’s long-time network and data managed services provider and neighbor, whose offices also were destroyed by the fire.

“You can’t just plug a drive into a new server from a server from two years ago,” Swingle said. “You have to have that team of technology experts come and put it all back into place so people can access it.”

The test would come on Monday, just three days after the fire. The firm was to host an online orientation for New York University Steinhardt, and Swingle did not want to have to explain why a fire in Jacksonville would force thousands of students to wait to learn about their new school. “The pressure was definitely there,” she said.

Production would be seamless. Deadlines were met. Phone calls were forwarded.

“Nobody knew any difference,” Swingle said. One client even remarked that they did not know the firm had been displaced by a fire.

Yet the challenges did not abate. From the mundane, like buying the scissors, tape and box cutters needed to complete the most routine tasks, to the mammoth, like arranging for 22,000 discs for Mexican tourism videos to be delivered to her home instead of the burnt out office, Swingle kept extinguishing proverbial fires.

“The hardest part is the speed at which you’re trying to do everything and the amount of time in the day,” she said. Simple but important tasks like helping children with homework and putting them to bed did not disappear with the fire either.

Shortly after the fire, the firm moved into offices at Midtown Centre on a short-term lease. Preparations that normally would have been spread over weeks, like arranging Internet service, laying cable, installing carpet, painting walls and setting up new furniture, were down in days.

“I was literally trying to get things done same-day, next-day, that depended on one another,” Swingle said.

Yet the firm kept humming, perhaps because its traditional dependence on technology like cloud computing and remote back-ups mitigated data loss. Swingle has long backed up data to a portable drive, like the one in her attache case that she patted comfortingly, as if it were a security blanket, as she watched the firefighters soak her prized equipment that early morning in December.

“Technology is an operating expense, not an investment,” Swingle said. “If we skip on that we’ll be missing out.”

Computer Point has been particularly helpful, in documenting Advance Design Group’s equipment and keeping the firm abreast of evolving technology. “It’s because of them our data was safe,” Swingle said.

Swingle also credits vendors, clients and team members for getting the firm back in business.

“We’re the phoenix out of the fire. Stronger than ever.”

Advice to Business Owners

adg fire fullIf you don’t have a disaster recovery plan, stop reading and go create one now.

That’s the advice of business owner Catherine Swingle, who found that even with years of preparation and planning you may not anticipate all that could happen.
“You have to think something like this can happen any time,” said Swingle, chief operating officer of Advantage Design Group, a multimedia design firm whose office building was destroyed by a fire in early December.

Swingle had just dropped her son off at school at 7:45 a.m. on that Friday morning when a business partner who also co-owned the building near Regency Square Mall in Arlington called to tell her that the property was on fire. The security company alerted the fire department and Swingle rushed to the scene, only to find “towering flames” when she arrived at about 8:15 a.m.

“The fire engulfed the building pretty quickly,” said Swingle, who had to weave through a blockade of fire trucks and talk her way past a phalanx of firefighters and after parking at an IHOP restaurant.

She quickly went into disaster recovery mode, calling upon a plan that she had been refining since she first created it in advance of the Y2K computer crisis that loomed at the turn of the millennium before passing without incident. She had updated the plan frequently to take advantage of advances in backup technology, passing through such iterations as tape drives, digital drives and cloud storage.

“We had been preparing for a hurricane so I thought I would have three days notice,” Swingle said.

Yet despite losing all of its computers in the fire, which may have started in the attic, Advantage Design Group was able to resume operations within a few days, largely because it uses online storage, backup servers and portable drives to preserve data.

“Replacing the hardware is relatively simple compared to replacing all of that proprietary information from a company standpoint,” said Scott Goodspeed, the business-to-business sales representative at Tiger Direct who helped Swingle replace the firm’s equipment with customized computers.

That’s why he recommends businesses back up information off site with two to three ways to access it if needed. “Have it in the cloud, have it off site in a secure area in case something like this happens,” he said.

Advantage Design Group retained all of its digital data from the last five to eight years, which can help it call up previous projects when doing new ones for clients going forward.

Looking back, the firm could have been more proactive in communications, Swingle said, noting that someone watching the news report about the fire on television may have thought that it forced it to go out of business. But otherwise the preparations that she had for hurricane season seems to have worked pretty well.

“The season is right now,” she said. “If you’re not prepared, walk out of the room and get started.”

Helping Hands

Advantage Design Group Chief Operating Officer Catherine Swingle thanks the following companies and individuals for helping her firm resume operations after a fire destroyed its office building.

Computer Point, Network and Data Managed Services
Matt Carlucci, Insurance Agent, State Farm Insurance
Scott Goodspeed, Computer Equipment, TigerDirect-Regency
Scott Larson, Disaster Recovery Center, Colo5
Bruce Jackson, CCIM, Real Estate Broker, CBRE, Inc.

Much runs through your mind when you watch the business you built collapse in a heap of ash.

But don’t wait to call your insurance company. Or, even worse wait for them to call you.

Even if you are overwhelmed by all that you have to do to get your business running again, the sooner you start working with your insurance agent, the more that they can help, and the quicker you can start rebuilding.

“When the business owner is looking at their livelihood in ashes there are a lot of questions,” State Farm Insurance Agent Matt Carlucci said. “If we can show up quickly in these situations that’s a great comfort to the customer.”

In December, Carlucci quickly threw his flood boots into the back of his truck and hurried to Advantage Design Group’s office building, after a team member told him about a fire at the Arlington property.

“In my business that’s when you feel you’re fulfilling the promise,” Carlucci said. “You hate it for the people who are going through a crisis but you enjoy hopefully being the one that helps them out of it.”

Carlucci and his team took photos so that State Farm’s claims department could see that the building was destroyed, and uninhabitable. They also answered whatever questions he could from his clients, Advantage Design Group’s owners.

Carlucci also arranged a three-way call with himself, the owners and State Farm’s claims department in Winter Haven so as to speed the claims process. “Having insureds willing to work and cooperate with the insurance company is hugely important, and that was the case here,” he said.

While answering questions from distant claims department representatives may not seem to be the best use of time for a harried business owner worried about seemingly more pressing issues, like notifying employees that they don’t have an office to come to, meeting deadlines for clients and getting a roof over their team’s heads, working through the claims process is vital.

For example, the more quickly the agent can transmit information to the office, the sooner the insurance company can advance money, such as for buying furniture, Carlucci said. In Advantage Design Group’s case, he was able to communicate that the firm would need temporary office space so that it could resume work.

Also, because Advantage Design Group worked with State Farm so closely, the insurance company was able to send them a check that allowed Chief Operating Officer Catherine Swingle to pay the hefty credit card bill that she had incurred in replacing all of the multimedia design firm’s computers.
“They understood, ‘We have a mess and we have to accept that there are going to be some inconveniences here and we’re going to have to work with the insurance company the best we can,’” Carlucci said.

Ideally, a business owner has that working relationship with their agent well in advance of any disaster. Advantage Design Group is a long-time State Farm customer and has worked with Carlucci and his team for the past three years, he said.

Carlucci reviewed Advantage Design Group’s coverage with its owners several times over the years. He estimated that there were 20 conversations before the fire and 10 in the following month or so.

Immediately after the fire, they decreased coverage on contents because there were no contents to cover, Carlucci said. But they increased that coverage after they replaced the lost contents, such as furniture and equipment.

“It was so important to have everything insured properly,” Swingle said.

Carlucci recommends that a business owner get a “business owner policy (BOP)”, which can cover such essentials as replacement costs for a building and assets, loss of income, extra expenses and liability.

”The best way to discover what you need is to develop a relationship with your agent just like you would your CPA or lawyer,” Carlucci said. “Your insurance agent isn’t someone you call every April 15 like your CPA, but if you need to you hope they’re there.”

Carlucci said he does not like walking through the point of impact, when embers are still glowing and firefighters are still spraying. But he does hope that he can help.

“When you feel like you’re performing what you’re supposed to be doing in life, that’s rewarding.”

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