Confronting catastrophe: How your business can recover from unexpected events

  • 16 Oct 2018

Every business is vulnerable to unexpected events such as a fire, flood or terrorist incident. But having tried and tested processes in place can help those affected adapt and recover, as David Adams discovers

Could your business cope with a major business interruption, such as a flood, fire, terrorist attack or some other kind of problem that affects your building, people, IT infrastructure or supply chain?

A recent FSB survey suggests that 65 per cent of small businesses have no plan in place to cope with potential disruption to their business or supply chain. That’s worrying, because various pieces of research conducted over the past decade suggest that between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of businesses affected by a significant incident will never fully recover from it.


Management and staff at Genesis Employment Services, a small recruitment firm based in Coventry, know all about surviving a major incident. Its offices were badly damaged by fire on the evening of Monday 16 January, 2017. The offices were on the first floor of a small office building in central Coventry, above a restaurant. The fire seems to have been caused by an electrical fault somewhere in the cavity between the restaurant ceiling and the floor of the office. 

The restaurant was devastated, but the fire also spread into part of the Genesis office through a separate corner office, which was gutted. It damaged electrical and data cabling, with additional damage elsewhere caused by the water sprayed into the building by the firefighters. “Everything was covered in water and soot,” says Director Richard Frost.

The next day was a Tuesday, when the company usually runs weekly payrolls for around 77 employers and about 350 people working for those businesses. Luckily, Genesis had external back-ups, in physical form and on the servers of a cloud computing service provider, so could get its systems up and running in time to pay the wages. 


The company’s landlord then suggested that Genesis move out of the office completely to allow it to be cleaned. But, as Mr Frost pointed out, a small company can’t just up sticks to a new location overnight. “We said: ‘It took us a year to find this office!’” he says.

Instead, over the next few months the two sides worked out a deal whereby Genesis would move upstairs to another office on the second floor. That finally happened in July.

During the intervening six months, the company’s 10-strong team continued to work in a smelly, smoke- and water-damaged office, while the mess was gradually cleared up around them. “I had to get an industrial air filtration system in place, and half the office was lit by temporary lighting,” says Mr Frost. “You could smell smoke everywhere. We had the windows wide open in the middle of January.”


Simple steps

Business continuity is all about planning for the likely consequences of unexpected events. You don’t have to look far to find other examples of small businesses suffering from such commonplace disasters.

Hundreds have been hit by flooding in locations where such an event was not expected; others have been affected adversely by severe weather events knocking out power or telecommunications links.

Every small business should be thinking about business continuity, and doing so doesn’t have to be hugely difficult, says Neil Sharpley, Chairman of the FSB Home Affairs Committee and owner of Marker Law, a legal firm that advises and assists small firms.

“You’ve got to apply common sense,” he says. “You don’t need a complicated system. But if you don’t look at this and something goes wrong, it can damage the business significantly.” He sees business continuity as another subject that small firms should be looking at as they attempt to act more strategically.


But one big problem is finding the time to focus on developing and implementing a business continuity plan. Patrick Roberts, Director of the consultancy Cambridge Risk Solutions, which works with businesses of all sizes, says one thing that finally drives many small firms to dedicate time and effort to business continuity planning is when they are asked to do so by a larger company they work with, as the latter seeks to reduce its own supply chain continuity risks.

The best way to go about doing this will depend in part on the nature and circumstances of an individual business, but the emphasis should be on developing practical plans for the loss of premises, IT systems, people and coping with supply chain disruption. For example, Mr Roberts suggests very small firms talk to other local businesses about the possibility of sharing space temporarily in the event of a disaster knocking out one of their workplaces. 

The range of risks and threats that come under the heading of ‘cyber’ are examined elsewhere in this magazine (see feature on page 30). But for managing the risk of computers becoming inaccessible, regular off-site data backup processes are essential. Backing up data and systems in the cloud may be a good way to do this, although the business must ensure it does not become too reliant on a cloud service, as this creates another continuity risk. 


Mr Roberts has a checklist for ensuring internal and external communications capabilities in the event of a disaster: automatic diversion of incoming calls, ensuring remote access to email, the company website and its social media presence; and protecting key contact details (landlord, service providers, suppliers and so on) off-site and/or in the cloud. 

People peril

For a small business, the people element of continuity planning is critical. The permanent loss of the owner or principal figure might prove catastrophic. Research from Legal & General suggests more than half (53 per cent) of UK small firms would close within a year if a key employee died or became critically ill.  

But it is possible to make contingency plans. “Are there recent retirees you could bring back in if you were short of staff, or agency staff you could use?” Mr Roberts asks. “Do you need to get people to document some important procedures, so someone could fill in for them in their absence?”

Over-dependence on suppliers can also be dangerous. What would the business do if a key supplier experienced a significant continuity incident of its own, or went out of business? It’s another area that requires careful thought and contingency planning.

Despite some terrible events during recent years, the risk of disruption as 
a direct result of terrorism remains rare. But the impact of such incidents on small businesses can be particularly severe.


In 2017 the FSB published a report on this subject, Small Business As Usual. It highlighted the case of a boutique clothing company affected by the Manchester Arena attack in May 2017, with a drastic drop in footfall leading to serious cashflow problems.

More recently, many small businesses in Salisbury have been affected significantly by the two Novichok poisoning incidents that took place in and close to the city in March and June 2018 (see case study below). 

Financial impact

Small businesses can also protect themselves against the aftermath of any major disaster with business interruption insurance, which should compensate them for loss of revenue during the recovery period.

Many businesses buy a policy as part of a standard package of insurances, but owners/managers may not have checked that it provides all the cover they need, warns David Perry, Managing Director of FSB Insurance Services. 

This was the case for Genesis. Luckily, it did not need to claim on its business interruption insurance, as it was able to continue operating while recovering from the effects of the fire. “But looking at the small print, we found we would have been insured for an annual sales loss of only £65,000 – and this is a £6.5 million business,” says Mr Frost. 

FSB members can access insurance services that can be tailored to meet their needs, through the FSB Insurance Service. Members can access an insurance advice line, a free business continuity planning kit and additional discounted business continuity services, provided through a partnership with business continuity service and technology provider Inoni. 


FSB successfully lobbied for changes to the Government backed Pool Re scheme to cover a wider set of circumstances. This will mean that insurance companies can extend cover to non-property business disruption caused by a terrorist incident, not just covering the cost of physical damage.

Careful planning can ensure that a disaster ultimately has a happy ending, as has been the case for Genesis, which was able to increase its sales by £1.2 million, or 20 per cent, during the year after the fire.

But Inoni’s Managing Director John Robinson believes that going through a business continuity planning process is also a useful exercise in self-analysis. 

“If you do this properly, it’s not just defensive, it’s strategic,” he says. “It will make you think about the business in a different way.” 

Case Study: Life after Novichok

Goodfayre is an ethical shop in Salisbury, created by Dana Burton in 2016, which sells products including vegan food and drink, and environmentally friendly cleaning products. It works with many small and often local suppliers, and has three members of staff. 

As with every other small business in Salisbury, Goodfayre suffered a significant drop in business activity following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by the nerve agent Novichok in March 2018.


The impact of the event was made more severe by media coverage, which scared people away from the city. Sales fell by 50 per cent. The impact felt particularly brutal in part because it followed significant disruption caused by heavy snow a few weeks earlier. 

Ms Burton says that at one point, when a representative from the city council came to visit, she burst into tears. “I was thinking, ‘If it carries on like this I probably have two or three weeks left of my business’,” she says. “This guy came to see me and said ‘You’re doing very well’ – and it set me off.”

The council was able to provide some extra financial support, which enabled Goodfayre to pay rent and staff costs at the end of the month, and the situation slowly improved. 

The crisis also gave Ms Burton time to consider how she might dedicate more resources to the business’s online, delivery and wholesale services. Fortunately, the news of a second Novichok poisoning incident in nearby Amesbury did not lead to another slump.


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