Looking Back at 9/11 – Learning to Sink or Swim

Damon Gersh is the president and CEO of MAXONS Restorations, Inc., a leading disaster restoration and recovery specialist company in New York.

The world changed on September 11, 2001. Though terrorist acts can happen anywhere, as a New Yorker who watched the events of that day unfold, I remember it as a surreal nightmare. As the owner of a New York City disaster restoration company, I knew that the days ahead would change my life in ways that I could not even begin to comprehend. I liken the feeling to standing on a beach watching a tidal wave slowly approach from the distance. It became clear that I must either learn to surf the wave or be swept away by it.

On 12 September, I convened a meeting with my staff and, after a moment of silence for the fallen, we got to work. One key idea I remembered from my Entrepreneurial Masters Program (EMP) class was to identify and control the “choke point” of your industry. I realized that the choke point for our industry was the limited supply of labor skilled in disaster-cleaning work. I immediately assigned a team to contact every subcontractor we had ever worked with to secure their commitment to work exclusively for my business. Within 24 hours, we locked up almost the entire local skilled labor market — all before we had even one job.

During the ensuing weeks and months, we amassed an army of more than 1,600 workers, all of whom cleaned and restored more than 50 office buildings, 3,000 apartments and hundreds of businesses around Ground Zero; they helped New Yorkers make the first steps toward recovery. We were recognized by many media outlets, including a five-minute international report on CNN highlighting my business’s key role in the recovery process.

Looking back at those times, it seems like every action taken in the years leading up to that day were to prepare me and my company to rise to the occasion and seize a unique opportunity to do well. Our success during that time can be attributed to the quality and the quantity of our relationships with our employees, vendors, suppliers, clients and the media. It’s clear to me now that success is never achieved alone. I learned that I would need to change my role in my company and go from having total control of every decision to becoming the person whose role was to develop leaders. This new direction and self-definition allowed me to free myself from the day-to-day operations of my company and develop leaders who were able to assume huge areas of responsibility when 9/11 occurred.

In hindsight, if I had stayed in the “hub and spoke” model of leadership, where every decision had to go through me, the sheer volume of information and decisions that were required to manage the complexity of a massive response would have driven me insane and surely damaged our company’s reputation. Also, as a result of my key staff handling the operational aspects of our response, I was able to focus on more far-ranging opportunities, like handling the media. All in all, 9/11 was a life-changing experience for my community and my business, and it taught me the importance of relying on others to achieve success.

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