A Decade After 9/11, Are We Back to Business as Usual?

By Jeff WuorioBusiness on Main

The 9/11 terror attacks had an immeasurable impact on businesses in New York and across the country. Ten years later, how are small businesses still affected by this event?

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Nick Balletta was on a PATH train headed into New York City when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

“The whole world was instantly thrown into paralysis,” says Balletta, CEO of TalkPoint, a communications technology company located three blocks from ground zero. “I didn’t even know where any of my people were.”

TalkPoint took the experience to heart. The company now tests its employee telephone contact network twice a year, its remote data centers have been moved outside major metro areas for greater security, and once a year, all employees work from remote locations to simulate an emergency environment.

Balletta adds that no one seems to mind all the extra preparedness: “A lot of people who were working here on 9/11 still work here. It’s indelibly branded in our minds.”

A tragedy leads to crisis, then transformation

Ten years after 9/11, the effects of the disaster live on for small businesses only blocks away from the twin towers, as well as others halfway across the country.

Brad Farris had started Anchor Advisors — a small-business consultancy based in Chicago — a mere five months prior to 9/11. The impact was immediate.

“From a business perspective, it was like a nuclear winter,” he says. “There was nothing whatsoever out there.”

Farris stayed afloat through a long-term contract with his former employer and from there began to build a stable of steady clients. But even as Anchor Advisors celebrates its 10th anniversary, Farris never loses sight of how quickly things can tumble into chaos.

“I’ve developed contingency plans that focus on local contacts — I know I can always get business from them,” he says. “I learned that things can come to a complete stop in an instant. Before 9/11, I had never felt anything like that.”

Nor had any number of other small businesses, says Bob Boyd, head of Agility Recovery Solutions, a Charlotte, North Carolina, company specializing in disaster recovery. “Prior to 9/11, most small businesses hadn’t done much for disaster preparedness. They may have backed up their data, but that was it. But even if they weren’t located in New York or Washington, D.C., [after 9/11] they started to think about what they would have done if that had been them.”

For her part, Gail Ahlers says neither she nor her business have been the same since 9/11.

“It was transformative for me personally,” says Ahlers, owner of Ahlers Designs, a Pawtucket, Rhode Island, designer of personal gifts. “I had family members who were very close to people who worked in the towers.”

The effect on Ahlers’ business was also telling. Up until 9/11, she’d had a number of longtime customers in Manhattan. “They dried up, fizzled, closed. They were some of my best accounts,” says Ahlers. Another bedrock of Ahlers’ work suffered, too — business in airport gift shops atrophied as jittery travelers avoided flying. “It was something like a perfect storm.”

Ahlers adjusted her business model away from gift shop conformity to a greater emphasis on custom work. She monitors her product line and puts far more effort into marketing than she did prior to 9/11, when customers and profits seemed almost a given. Says Ahlers, “I think 9/11 has forced all of us to work a lot smarter.”

The emergence of a brave new business world

For some, 9/11 brought complete change. When he moved to New York City in early September 2001, John Paul Engel was poised to begin work as an investment banker.

“A base salary of $150,000 and bonus potential of up to $1 million a year promised to change my life,” says Engel. His life did change, though not in the way he’d anticipated.

The banking job evaporated. With no work to be found, Engel started Knowledge Capital, which produced research reports on technology and business practices.

Engel still operates Knowledge Capital (now located in Sioux City, Iowa) along with Project Be the Change, which allows students to obtain advice and guidance from highly accomplished professionals. His hierarchy of values has also shifted significantly.

“Today I work out of Sioux City so I can take care of my 89-year-old father who doesn't want to go to a nursing home,” he says. “That’s something I probably wouldn’t have done pre-9/11. My focus then was on making money.”

Other tragedies in the intervening years — Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Japan, devastating floods in the Midwest — and the immediacy of media coverage seem to have sharpened small business’s focus on preparedness.

“Ten years ago, most of us didn’t know what the word ‘tsunami’ meant,” says Boyd. “You watch on the Internet or cable TV, and you feel a part of what’s going on.”

But the long-term aftereffects go beyond emergency procedural exercises and remote data storage. For many, the tragedy of 9/11 prompted a thoughtful examination of who they were and what they were doing — a silver lining of sorts to a calamity sorely lacking in any positives.

“It was a pivotal point,” says Ahlers. “For me, it makes me grateful for every joy and every breath.”

“I never became a millionaire,” adds Engel. “But I have made a significant difference in the lives of a number of young people. Looking back 10 years later, I feel really good about that.”

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