Preparing Your Business Office for a Natural Disaster

Records preservation is of critical importance in a natural disasters.

With all the natural disasters of the last decade, I thought this article would be of interest.  This advice was written in 2005 by Ward Wicht, a Biloxi, Mississippi business broker whose office was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Thanks Ward for your permission to use this valuable article!

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A recent 20/20 television program reported that Bland, Utah is the ideal place to live if you want to avoid natural disaster.  Bland has probably never had an earthquake, a tsunami, a hurricane, or a cataclysmic ice storm.  Since we don’t have a Sunbelt office in Bland, Utah, and every other office has some exposure to natural disaster, the Sunbelt Biloxi, MS office wanted to share some of our experiences and thoughts about preparing for natural disaster.  Credit goes to Andy Cagnetta of FL for inspiring this article after we saw his shared thoughts.

 If your office is like most brokerage offices, you have increased your dependence on the use of computers and technology.  You use one or more computers in the office, you have voicemail, you have internet service.  What is your plan for losing one or all of these dependencies?   You know that you can’t possibly prepare with perfection for a natural disaster like Katrina.  No matter how many preparations a business broker makes to prepare his/her office for disaster, some things will be lost or destroyed.  Having recently gone through Katrina, we will however move forward through our next disaster with some experience on how to preserve the core office through technology so that it can be quickly restarted.  Some of the things we were doing pre-Katrina did help us weather the storm.  You can use some of these thoughts to prepare for computer meltdown, lost phone service, and save some cost on overhead, etc.

1. Listing agreements – Ouch!  We had 65 listings for our small office when we lost our office and all of our files to the ocean.

What we do now:  We now scan all of our listing agreements.  They go into computer file folders organized by business name.  All documents pertaining to that particular business, including listing agreements, tax reports, FF&E lists, etc. are stored there.  When we back up our computers we are backing up our listing agreements along with all other important documents. We use a multi-function printer/fax machine/scanner that auto-feeds to speed up the process of scanning.  Some offices like to use specialized PDF scanners, which automatically save in PDF, a condensed size format.  After a storm, you can help your neighbors!  We have received several calls and have been able to produce scanned documents for some of our clients who had documents destroyed at their place of business.  Added bonus: Assume you’re ready to seek financing for one of your client’s businesses.  Instead of mailing the financial packets to your banker contacts – email them.  You now have all of the business information on your computer and you can email 10 bankers at the same time – with no mailing or copying costs.

2. Reduce your costs and convert your fax line to a paperless fax line

        Option 1. You need a fax modem in your computer to do  this, but you can receive your faxes into a computer instead of into a standard fax machine.  We were doing this before the storm and have been able to go back in time and recover listings and other important papers that were faxed to us.  If you prefer paper copies, you can set your computer printer to print out when a fax is received, so you have both a digital and a paper copy.  Hand the paper copy out, but now you have a copy saved in your computer that can be recalled at anytime.

        Option 2. If you really want to reduce cost for a fax line and become more paperless at the same time, you can go completely digital with a service like efax.  We now use efax.com to receive and send faxes.  Our cost for the fax line is $12/month.  Here’s how it works.  For receiving faxes, they can give you a local fax number (with no exorbitant Bell Company set up fees!).  Once a fax is received it is forwarded to you instantly via email.  It comes in digital!  You can print it out if you want or simply store the document for later use.  Delete the $99 health plans and trips to the Caribbean without wasting paper or ink.  For sending a fax, you scan the document and email it to the fax number.  The receiving party never knows that you actually emailed instead of faxed (the quality of transmission is actually higher since there is no phone line noise).  Since we are scanning all documents now anyway, this is no less convenient than standing at the fax machine.  There are also no long distance fees.  We now try to email as many documents as possible, but when we do need to fax through the email service, they charge us $.10 cents per page for low usage, or you can buy a program for heavy usage if you have a large office or if you are more of a “faxer” than an “emailer”.  But remember there are never any long distance fees with email.  And since we’re only spending $12/mo on a fax line, we can afford to spend a little money at $0.10 a fax page to send out faxes.  One unexpected advantage: Using this method requires discipline, and will force you and your brokers to scan (i.e. save) all important documents into your computer.  For large offices, it’s a great way to make sure everyone is following the office method and organizing and preserving all communications.  The disadvantage to this method is that someone has to receive the email fax and print it out or forward it.

3. Email is important

When Katrina slammed into us, we lost all utilities including power, water, land line phone, cell phone, everything..  remarkably the cell phones and land line phones were working intermittently within a weeks time.  Since we had a laptop, and a generator, we were able to email!  It felt strange to sit down in our flooded kitchen with trees down all around us and have the ability to email.  Since the cell phone was breaking up and we couldn’t dial out to talk, email became the number one means of communications for us and for people trying to reach us.  We were also able to send out messages to “groups” of friends and family at the same time.  We lost our high-speed internet at the office, but fortunately, we had a dial up service that we were able to fall back on.  If you want a back-up for your high speed internet at no cost, there are several free dial up services that you can use.  We use Netzero at netzero.net which offers 10 hrs per month at no charge.  They pay for their service through advertising that runs across a banner on your browser.

4. Forward your phones

Katrina destroyed our building, but it did not destroy the telephone switching station.  We had forwarded our phones to a cell phone that we took with us.  Remarkably, even though our location was a pile of rubble, we were receiving business calls on our business phone number via our cell phones.

5. Who am I?

Some of the saddest moments of our Katrina experience continue to be finding people that have lost every single little piece of their material life to Katrina.  FEMA and the Red Cross have come to help, but they want to identify and record who they are helping.  Ironically, the people most hurt by the storm have no documents to prove who they are!  You need to scan your important documents like IRS tax forms, birth certificates, social security identification, marriage certificates, drivers licenses, etc. please do it!  Less importantly, we wonder how the IRS is going to treat businesses that have lost all documentation.  Are they going to base taxes on last years numbers, or are they going to ignore this year?  We fortunately had most of our IRS documentation stored in the attic of our home, the only place we own that didn’t get wet!  A paperless change that we have made is to try to convert all of our tax related documents from postal delivery to email delivery.  Our banks email us our bank statements instead of mailing paper copies.  Not all banks have the capability to do this, but we now have all of our bank statements backed up.  Many banks can reproduce a lost paper bank statement for you – but at their price.

6. Paperless Accounting System

This subject needs more room for discussion, but our one year old paperless accounting system has saved us tens of hours of tediousness and recordkeeping, and will save us hundreds more moving forward.  We can produce a P&L at any point in time with accuracy.  You can make the transition to paperless accounting with some minor groundwork.  We use Quicken Books to organize our P&L and perform our financial recordkeeping.   Quicken has the capability to download your office spending and deposit information from your banks and credit card companies.    That single capability is a huge time saver!  We never have to record information on who we wrote a check to or how much a deposit was for, the transactions are automatically loaded into our P&L!  You will need to categorize the transactions for the P&L, although Quicken does have a smart feature that tries to categorize them for you.  After Katrina, the SBA wanted to know that we were a viable firm with the ability to pay back a loan.  We were able to produce a P&L accurate to Aug 29, 2005, the date Katrina hit.  More on this later!

Bonus tips to prepare for disaster:

    – use steel or metal file cabinets for important documents –   When Katrina’s tidal surge took our building out, it crushed the wooden Office Depot file cabinets that we stored our listing agreements in.  We were however able to find one of our metal file cabinets and recover some damp but readable documents.  Use metal.

    – What kind of backup?  Everyone knows that we’re supposed to back up our computers on a regular basis, but what’s the right kind of backup for a business brokerage?  If you’re like me, you have unfortunately become very dependent on your computer.  If you lose email, files on your computer, important programs, etc. you step back 12 months in progress.  We recently bought a computer program and are installing a program called “Norton Ghost”.  Another manufacturer makes a similar product called “True Image”.  This software allows us to create a carbon copy computer.  This sounds expensive, but if our main computer goes down, for whatever reason, we can instantly switch over to another computer that is an exact carbon copy (maybe a home computer).  Same programs, same information and files.  We can’t afford to wait for Dell computer support to help us figure out why our computer won’t work while business is passing us by.

   – Take your computer backups with you.  When Katrina hit our coast, she had no prejudice for her targets.  She took out banks, housing projects, museums, hotels, etc.  People that thought their valuables were safe in safe deposit boxes returned to the coast to find the entire bank crushed.  We were fortunate enough to be able to make limited computer back-ups and take the back-ups along with other valuable with us before the storm hit.

Hopefully these tips will be helpful to your office.  If you have any questions you can reach Ward at wardw@sunbeltnetwork.com.

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William Bruce is a business broker and appraiser.  He consults nationally on issues involved in business transfers and valuation.  He may be reached at WilliamBruceOnline@gmail.com or (251) 990-5934.  His business brokerage website may be viewed at www.WilliamBruce.net.

About William Bruce

President, American Business Brokers Association / Business Broker and Accredited Business Intermediary assisting business buyers and sellers with the transfer of ownership since 1986 / Author: How to Buy a Business.
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