REMEMBERING SEPTEMBER 11 -- Picking Up the PiecesSeptember 2002
The first shift, about 50 employees, was going about business as usual at The Fitch Group (130 Cedar St.), a general commercial printer that also does financial printing and research reports. Their building was 100 yards away from the South Tower, separated by only a parking lot.
John Fitch, president of the company, was running late and commuting on the Gowanus Expressway. While talking to someone at his office, the second plane struck.
"The office didn't seem too disturbed (after the first plane hit)," Fitch relates, then believing a small plane had hit the tower. "After the second plane hit, someone had presence of mind to evacuate the building."
With the skeletal remains of the World Trade Center looming in the background, bindery gear sits covered in debris and soot from the fallen buildings neighboring financial printer The Fitch Group.
The business, with the exception of a midtown office, was essentially homeless. But there were options that have helped The Fitch Group get back on its feet: grants from the city and state, fellow printers willing to provide manufacturing space and a loyal list of customers. Employees have been understanding; 35 are back to work, and in six months Fitch expects to have his full complement of 70 on the job.
Its new headquarters on 28th Street were nearly 100 percent ready at press time. The new plant will have a few technologies the old one didn't.
"We're putting the company back together stronger than ever before," Fitch vows.
Perhaps no company in the commercial printing industry was in closer proximity to the disaster site that soon became known as Ground Zero than R.R. Donnelley Financial. At 75 Park Place, this customer service and sales office for financial printing is across the street from WTC No. 7, which left a blanket of dust everywhere when it collapsed.
The company quickly mobilized, calling each of its 300 or so employees. It took about a week to verify that everyone was safe. They would take up residence in RRD's midtown office at 99 Park Avenue for six months.
Once the company had ensured that its own employees were fine, Donnelley faced a tough task with its customer base, particularly catalogers on a schedule.
"We convened a task force for senior officers in Chicago, and we plotted out what needed to be done over the next few weeks," says Ronald Daly, president of R.R. Donnelley Print Solutions. "We knew catalogers couldn't deliver in the East, and then we were getting a lot of requests to turn around quick publications (regarding September 11). The meeting was productive."
Daly notes that RRD did a good job of keeping open lines of communications with its employees and customers, which helped to allay fears.
Consideration was given to leaving the 75 Park Place address, as the view from its windows "was not pleasant," Daly relates. Since the financial district is in lower Manhattan, Donnelley decided the best move was not to move.
Donnelley's challenges were only beginning, however, as the largest mailer in the U.S. postal system felt the sting of the Anthrax scares cropping up in several parts of the country. Like many printers, Donnelley used corn starch as a slip agent to keep pages from adhering to each other. Employees at book and magazine distribution outlets were soon recoiling in horror as measures of corn starch, mistaken for the deadly virus, fell onto the floor.
And because of its relationship with American Media (AMI), a few Donnelley employees needed to take antibiotics to ensure they didn't have Anthrax.
"With the Anthrax scare and the economy, people aren't sending as much through the postal system as they used to," Daly comments. "It's had an impact on the post office and on R.R. Donnelley."
The Association of Graphic Communications (AGC), the metro New York City affiliate of the Printing Industries of America (PIA), dedicated a great deal of energy on post-9/11 recovery efforts for its constituents. According to Vicki Keenan, vice president of public affairs, 50 printers sought some level of assistance from AGC in the aftermath, be it relocating, garnering grants, applying for local, state and/or federal aid, finding temporary accommodations or printers willing to loan out their facilities or other resources. Of those companies, 48 are still in business.
"It's a testament to the tenacity of these people," she says. "Not just recovering from the damage, but also the emotional toll. It was a struggle for people to do their work.
"Their competitive spirit will save the day. It makes me proud to be a part of this industry."
From a business standpoint, the events of September 11 proved to be a "significant catalyst in amplifying a process that had already begun," according to Jonathan Fogel, senior vice president and director of marketing for Clifton, NJ-based Sandy Alexander. That process, of course, was the economic downturn that was, and still very much is, handcuffing U.S. business.
"We, like everyone else in the industry, have seen an impact on our business, and we have been managing our operation similarly to how we would during any economic downturn," Fogel says. "Fortunately, even though many of our clients are not spending at the peak levels of two years ago, and the dotcom segment has all but vanished, our business is still very strong and well-positioned to grow for many years to come.
"More importantly, from a people standpoint, obviously the impact of what occurred on September 11 has been significant for a variety of reasons," he adds. "Two of our employees experienced the tragedy first-hand, as one had a brother and another a son-in-law who were NYC fire fighters lost at the WTC collapse. While the economic cycle will turn at some point and business will return, these people won't. And that's a challenge that the families will face for the rest of their lives."