Dealing with disruption

It could be a natural disaster that closes cities for days at a time, or a power failure that knocks out corporate e-mail systems for a few hours. An endless variety of potential business disruptions confronts finance executives. And when crisis comes, or even if it doesn't, it's largely up to the vigilant CFO to make sure the company has a strong, workable business continuity plan.

Often, that involves hedging against problems foreseen or unforeseen -- making an investment with a return nearly impossible to estimate. But the price of failure, too, can be incalculable.

"If we can't operate, we're out of business. So what's the ROI on that?" asked Bill Haacke, CFO of seven-branch, New Orleans-area Metairie Bank, which revised its continuity plan "on the fly" during the 2005 summer of Katrina.

"When that storm hit everybody thought it was going to be the usual hurricane, and I'll be away from the bank for a day or two days," he said. "We had a disaster recovery plan before Katrina, but for nothing of that magnitude."

Ultimately, the weekend hurricane and subsequent flooding devastated the area, and government authorities closed the county where the bank operates for two weeks. Haacke had evacuated to the parking lot of the bank's offsite data center, and "started banking" there the next Monday. "I think our customers appreciated, from the day after the hurricane going forward, if they got through to me ... we would transfer funds to other banks," he said.

The bank now has a "comprehensive contingency plan that covers everything from pandemics to hurricanes," according to Haacke, and all bank employees know their role in the 200-page-long plan. Developing the plan, he adds, required the perspective of every department.