DES PLAINES, IL, September 12, 2005 -- United Stationers has been pulling together its resources to respond to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on associates and their families, customers, suppliers, and others affected. The company’s LagasseSweet subsidiary has its headquarters facility and distribution center in Metairie and Harahan, adjacent to New Orleans, employing 163 associates. The United Stationers Supply Co. (Ussco) division operates a distribution center and furniture annex in New Orleans employing 40 associates.
“Our primary concern is the well-being of all our associates who live in the affected area,” said United Stationers president and CEO, Dick Gochnauer. “As a result, both companies have been vigorously “working the phones’ in an attempt to establish contact with associates in the area – a major challenge given the unreliability of phone service. To-date, contact has been established with 153 of the 163 LagasseSweet associates, and 30 of the 40 Ussco associates. So far, we’re very thankful that we have not received any reports of loss of life or critical injuries. We can only hope that trend continues as we go on with the contact process.”
To illustrate the difficulty of that process, United’s vice president of operations, South Region, Mark Dangremond says, “We get information in a very disjointed way. For example, we were in touch with the cousin of one of our associates who we couldn’t find, and the cousin told us they had just seen the associate at a Super 8 in Baton Rouge. The information comes in bits and pieces, and some associates probably have been too busy just ‘surviving’ to have time to check in with us.”
On the Lagasse side, the company launched into its Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP) when the potential impact of the storm became clear. “The plan accounts for alternative approaches to every area of our business,” said Steve Schultz, president, LagasseSweet, Inc. “We’ve actually implemented the plan several times before with the threat of previous storms. Our Lagasse computer system is now working from our United Stationers headquarters in Des Plaines, Ill., and our main call center moved all operations to our Philadelphia location. So we’re doing business at a high level of capability. Of course, there are many customers in the area who are still shut down or operating in only a limited way, but there continues to be a high level of regional demand for the types of products we carry.”
Todd Shelton, chief operating officer, LagasseSweet, said “Getting Lagasse associates back on their feet is a critical part of our business continuation plan. We’ve already redeployed 50% of our associates to other locations, and will continue to try to do so. And we’ve made it clear that all associates are continuing to be paid. Our people are a key part of our being able to continue to operate as normally as possible, serving our customers and the community.”
United knows that the immediate and long-term needs of affected associates will be significant. To that end, the company is establishing a disaster relief charitable foundation funded by donations from associates and other friends of United and Lagasse, with the company matching every dollar contributed by its associates. These funds will be managed by a committee whose purpose will be to disburse funds on an as-needed by-priority basis to affected associates. In one week’s time, this fund has already received pledges from associates, suppliers -- and even customers – that with the company match total over $365,000. In addition, many United associates have organized clothing and food drives, and some have even offered their homes. One Lagasse associate who was personally affected by the disaster recently made a substantial donation to the relief effort, saying, “Others in my department have lost everything; this is truly the smallest thing I can do.”
Meanwhile, the effort to continue business operations proceeds on the Ussco side of the company as well. “Most of our capacity that had been serviced from New Orleans has been shifted to our Houston and Atlanta distribution centers,” said Dangremond. “We’re balancing inventory as necessary to respond to changes in demand patterns. We just shipped seven trailers of merchandise into Louisiana from Houston. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) has been ordering a lot of furniture and technology products from several of our dealers in the area.”
United is also working with various other relief agencies to assist as part of the supply-line to the area, and is cooperating with the National Association of Wholesalers to help channel contributions to various agencies participating in the relief effort. In addition, United is a continuing donor of merchandise to World Vision, a relief and development organization dedicated to helping communities in need. “World Vision has the authority to work on our behalf and the means to distribute merchandise to areas where it is most needed,” said Gochnauer.
United’s sales staff and dealers are working through the crisis as best as they can. “One of our account managers who lived in New Orleans had a foot of water in his house, and is waiting to gain access to clean it out,” said Mike Roell, vice president, sales, south region. “One of our customers with multiple locations in the area has set up business in Houston. Others are operating as best they can out of hotel rooms, or wherever.”
United’s Ussco and Lagasse buildings appear to have not suffered catastrophic damage, according to Dangremond. “Our general operations manager for New Orleans managed to get access to the area. “The roof to our furniture annex had blown off, and there is some other wind damage, but we won’t really know what shape we’re in until we can get inside.”
The overall impact to United’s business is unknown at this time. “For both Ussco and Lagasse, we’ve been able to shift demand to other facilities in the region” said Gochnauer. “Customer demand is impacted short-term, but the long-term impact is just not clear. However, events such as 9/11 and other natural disasters have taught all of us that every business needs to have a strong disaster recovery plan in place. As always, the human element is paramount, and we’re very thankful that we seem to be coming out okay so far in terms of the safety of our associates But we also realize that the impact on their lives – physical, emotional, and financial – will be severe, and that’s why we’ve established our own disaster relief fund. Fortunately, our associates around the country have pitched in to help in so many ways already. We’re both astounded and tremendously gratified by their support. That’s what truly makes a great company, and that is what will help us recover from this with strength and dedication – an incredibly unyielding team spirit.”