Our Wake-up Call: Lessons from the Alberta Flood

Our business was ravaged by this summer's flooding in Calgary. Here's what we did to survive the disaster—and come out stronger

Written by Phoebe Fung

This summer’s floods in Southern Alberta were a wake-up call to many of us about our crisis-management and business recovery plans. In Calgary, more than 11,000 homes were affected by the disaster. Hundreds of businesses were, too.

Ours was one of them.

Vin Room Mission—one of our two restaurants—was ravaged by the flood. Our electrical, heating and mechanical systems were destroyed; our  wine cellars, inventory, storage rooms and staff areas seriously damaged. It was heartbreaking to see what we’d worked so hard to build in such a state.

It was heartbreaking to see what we’d worked so hard to build in such a state.

It was scary, too. According to some reports, at least 25% businesses fail to reopen after a disaster; of those that do, many struggle to remain open. These are sobering statistics for those of us who have poured our hearts, souls and dollars into our businesses.

Fortunately, we’re not among the 25%. For 39 days after the flood, more than 50 different tradespeople and suppliers toiled tirelessly around the clock to rebuild Vin Room Mission. In late July, we re-opened our doors.

Even though my background is in the oil and gas industry, where crisis management is ingrained into you from Day One, I wasn’t prepared for everything I encountered when thrust into a crisis in my own business. I’ve learned a lot in the past few months. Here are four of the most valuable leadership lessons I learned from the flood.

1. Prioritize safety—even if your instincts say otherwise

Within a few hours of the flood hitting, Vin Room Mission went from a beautiful heritage building to a basement filled with flood water—with more of it pouring in through the front door. Electricity went out. Fire alarms started ringing. The streets outside were eerily devoid of people. Picture the surreal image of wine coolers floating upside-down through a lake that had, just a few hours earlier, been a dining room, and you’ll get an idea of what we were dealing with.

Picture the surreal image of wine coolers floating upside-down through a lake that had, just a few hours earlier, been a dining room, and you’ll get an idea of what we were dealing with.

We sent most of our staff home as soon as the water informed us this would be no normal work day. But a handful of directors and managers remained behind to find generators and sump pumps, and to move valuable stock, computer systems and furniture to safety.

However, the relentless flow of the water quickly became a safety issue. That’s when I made the call to send everyone home. It’s a natural instinct to try and rescue stuff but in the end, it’s just stuff. It wasn’t worth risking an injury.

Read: Why Most SMEs Overlook Health and Safety

2. Take charge

An emergency requires a decisive response. While I’m a big believer in collaborative management,  a crisis requires a benevolent dictator; there’s no time for collaboration. Someone needs to take charge, to call all the shots and to take responsibility for the crucial decisions that need to be made.

Each day you sit in water means more dollars in damage—not to mention lost business. Every time you add another step and/or introduce another person in the decision-making process, you increase your downtime.

So I took charge as soon as I realized this was a serious situation. I called all of our major trades as the water was still flowing in. As the water stopped, we started our rebuild.

And I made sure I was on the ground every day during the recovery. When you are doing emergency demolition and rebuilds, there are no drawings to work from; there is no time to get plans. I needed to be there to quickly approve each day’s plans, and also to make the minute-by-minute decisions that would facilitate our quick recovery. Also, with more 50 suppliers, it was important that everyone knew who was in charge. This allowed decisions to be made in minutes, not days. Having someone on the ground with the authority to make decisions—not to mention, help boost site morale—was invaluable in the quick turnaround by our suppliers.

Read: Mistakes Companies Make in Marketing to Disaster Victims

3. Be brazenly ambitious—even if it seems impossible

I have a vivid memory of what happened as soon as the river receded enough to let us re-enter Vin Room Mission. I’d called all our major trades to meet me, and together—decked out in rubber boots—we toured the site.

After they’d given me their best guess for how long the reconstruction would take, I thought for a moment, then said: “Cut it in half. We’re going to complete construction in two weeks. That’s our target.”

They must have thought I was crazy.

I asked each trade if they could commit to this effort, which I dubbed €˜Restaurant Possible.’ To their credit, no one left the room. They were all up for the challenge

From that moment on, fulfilling our mission was our only goal. Any traditional practices went out the window—it was all about how we could execute as fast as possible. We moved construction to two shifts, with trades working around the clock, seven days a week. We asked trades that traditionally didn’t work in parallel to do so. We pressed suppliers for rush deliveries and got them; things that would usually take weeks to arrive came in days.  Chalk it up to strong past relationships, contracts based our deadline and a shared common goal.  Majority of our trades themselves were also small businesses, empathized with our situation, and went the extra mile. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner together.

I’m amazed what our suppliers were able to achieve when simply told “this is the way it’s going to be.” I’m also in awe of the role volunteers played in the process. We had several volunteers, organized by the City of Calgary’s “Clean up the Community” weekend, who came in to help us in the demolition stage. With their help, demo took a mere three days—it might have taken weeks, otherwise.

It’s amazing what committed people can do when they know the only answer is ‘yes.’

It’s amazing what committed people can do when they know the only answer is “yes.” We didn’t make our two-week deadline, but we completed reconstruction in a little under three weeks—a feat that no one thought achievable when we were all surveying the damage in our boots.

4. Err on the side of over-communication

In the midst of the crisis, communication was imperative. We saw how successful Mayor Naheed Nenshi was in response to the flood; he was the calming face for the city, assuring citizens that there was a response plan in place, providing direction and offering daily progress reports to Calgarians.

It’s not any different for a business. As the boss, you need to show direction in the face of uncertainty.

in addition to the almost-hourly communication with suppliers during construction, I had to keep staff informed. I had 27 employees temporarily out of work because of the flood, and the stress of that weighed heavy on my mind. We redeployed as many as I could to our other operations. And I did everything possible to let them know our progress on a regular basis—the last thing I wanted was the rumour mill to take hold.

I talked to all my managers about our daily progress nearly every day so that they had the tools to keep morale up with their staff. I also instructed them to advise me on any issues that the staff were worried about, and I addressed each accordingly.

In addition, I sent out a daily email to all staff so that they could track our daily progress—and rest assured in our commitment to rebuild as quickly as possible. I believe this open communication was vital in keeping our staff intact—only one employee left in the downtime.

5. Take calculated risks

The challenge in crisis is that there is no perfect answer. It’s about making the right decisions with the information you have available at the time. Sometimes, that means you take risks you wouldn’t normally.

For instance, our decision to bring in generators and sump pumps as the water was still gushing in was far from cautious—yet, it is almost certainly the reason our second floor was spared damage.

And our decision to order replacement materials before we had confirmation of insurance coverage would never be prudent under normal circumstances—yet, it ensured what we needed was on trucks a day after the deluge. (At the time of this article, the insurance review is still underway.)

Read: Your Risk-Management Primer

The key to the success of our risk-taking is that it was calculated. We chose where it was worth chancing it. When it came to safety, for instance, we didn’t roll the dice—we didn’t re-enter the building until it was cleared by city inspectors and structural engineers, for instance.

Things are getting back to normal at Vin Room Mission. In fact, I’m more optimistic than ever about our future. No matter what’s in store, we know we can survive a major disaster. And that’s worth a lot.

Phoebe Fung is proprietor of Vin Room, a Calgary-based wine bar with two locations and that ranked No. 25 on the 2011 PROFIT HOT 50 list of Canada’s Top New Growth Companies, proprietor of VR Wine, a boutique wine store, and a former financial executive with a multinational energy company.

More columns by Phoebe Fung

Has your company been damaged by a disaster (natural or manmade)? Do you agree with this approach? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com