Bouncing Back

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, black-owned businesses learn the true meaning of crisis management as they turn losses into gains

Priscilla Johnson has always prided herself on being prepared for the unexpected. But the CEO of Johnson Enterprises (JE), a New York-based executive recruiting firm, wasn’t braced for a full-scale terrorist attack in the heart of the city’s financial district.

On September 11, terrorists crashed two hijacked planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing thousands of the buildings’ occupants and raining death and detritus on the streets below. As mayhem erupted, Johnson Enterprises employees conducted business as usual, holding their morning staff meeting in their offices a block away. But when the 110-story towers of steel and glass collapsed hours later, JE was rocked. Shattered glass and debris enveloped the office. Employees ran for cover. Amidst the pandemonium, the firm had sent a candidate to interview for a vice president’s position at Fuji Bank, which had been located in the south tower.

After an exhausting week of calls to clients and associates who worked in the zone now called Ground Zero, the recruiters went back to assess the damage. Papers and rubbish were strewn throughout the once-immaculate space. Dust-caked computers were still logged on. The screen of one monitor flashed an ironic instant message: “Hey, are you all right?”

Although the 18-year-old firm suffered no human casualties, it took quite another kind of pounding. Such clients as Fuji and JP Morgan Chase halted searches for new employees, slicing JE’s revenues. (The firm makes money by charging commissions based on the salaries of the candidates it places.) In fact, Johnson estimates the firm’s annual sales will fall by 30%.

“Our revenues are being affected tremendously on more than one account,” says Johnson, who expects JE to gross revenues of around $850,000 this year, compared to $1.2 million in 2000. “Some clients are directly affected [by the attack], and the economy is beginning to shrink.” Fortunately, in the weeks following the attacks, JE has seen an increase in business.

But the iron-willed CEO is determined to triumph in the face of the devastation. And even though Johnson never would have forecast a disaster of this magnitude, she wasn’t totally caught off guard. JE had had space in the World Trade Center at the time of the 1993 terrorist bombing. After surviving that incident, Johnson put in place a contingency plan for her firm. She purchased a $1 million business interruption insurance policy. To cope with any emergencies, she moved her back-up computer system to an offsite location and upgraded her software so employees could access data from home. During the latest crisis, Johnson, who had to evacuate her residence and stay with her daughter in Kansas, was able to e-mail homebound employees as well as retrieve critical client information. And she expects to change the cash flow model: Instead of JE receiving commissions per placement, the company will get its clients to pay retainers.

Like Johnson, other entrepreneurs and professionals are picking up the pieces. The displaced are acquiring new office space. The wounded–even those with indirect sales from industries affected by the

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