FDS Group: Alison Williams

How she the company survived a devastating £2m arson attack


On the night of Saturday 3 August, 2002, a local gang of teenagers made four fires on a business estate in Whitstable, Kent.

A car was left burning in one incident and wooden palettes were pitched against the door of a building in another and set alight using an accelerant.

Unfortunately, this particular fire was started next to the gas main coming out of the building, and it wasn’t long before the intense heat blew the pipe, exploding and sending flames into the two-storey offices within, rocking its foundations. It took 15 fire engines to extinguish the blaze, giving some idea of the scale.

The building housed FDS Group, an £18.4m field marketing agency run by Alison Williams and her brother Paul Turner. The company helps blue chip brands maintain their position in the marketplace through merchandising, sampling, auditing and stock checking, mystery shopper activity as well as providing outsourced sales teams.

Alerted by the fire brigade, Williams arrived shortly before midnight, and recalls the scene of devastation that greeted her. “At the end of the fire the building was still standing. Desks and computers had melted, like something by Salvador Dali. One end, while structurally sound, was covered in thick tar left by smoke. I went to the kitchen and took the mugs with employees’ names on and thought salvaging them was a way of putting two fingers up at the little bastards,” she recalls.

Disaster Recovery

It’s the kind of disaster every owner-manager dreads. You know, without having experienced it, that you’d face a battle of wills with your insurance company and the almighty challenge of getting your business up and running as soon as possible to keep both clients and staff on-board. Plus, your rivals would no doubt smell blood and seek to capitalise on your weakened state.

Bearing in mind a recent survey found 67% of companies whose head office burns down go bust within a year, Williams has achieved a minor miracle. She realised the value of being ready for every eventuality, saying with hindsight FDS was pretty well-prepared, but could still have done more.

While you get the impression both Williams and her business are stronger as a result, it’s not something you’d want to go through to gain your wisdom. “This year, we’ve never had so many irons in the fire or been as busy,” she says. So how did she perform such an outstanding recovery?

A quirk of operating in a small town is news travels fast. By 10am on the Sunday her head of IT, the office manager, her PA and another colleague had assembled at Williams’ side on a tip-off from friends in the fire brigade. Having established there was no possibility of staying, and no doubt spurred by adrenaline, Williams took the team to the coffee shop in their local supermarket.

By 11:20am they had arranged viewings of two office premises for the next day. “It’s an advantage of living locally. I knew a couple of property owner-managers and had their numbers,” she says. First thing on Monday, Williams decided one was suitable, just about right in square footage, and was home to a company in the midst of winding down, so already had desks, tables, chairs and filing cabinets. A licence was drawn up there and then with the property agent and this was presented to the loss adjuster when he arrived at the site at noon.

Usually, contracts would need to be drawn up, but if it’s likely to be a short-term lease a standard licence can be “twiddled and tweaked” to meet the specific requirements, Williams says, which is much quicker.

In the new offices there were also four remaining members of staff from the previous company, who, paid by Williams, moved their desks into a corner and helped her employees set up their computers. FDS’ accounts department was also relieved to have found paper copies of invoices in one piece. “The smell was revolting and they were covered in soot, but intact nonetheless,” remembers Williams. But key to getting operational so quickly, only four days after the fire, was the fact all the information was captured electronically and backed up off-site, as well as at a server farm in the east end of London.

She had been fastidious about health and safety. Internal fire doors, a burglar and heat-sensitive fire alarm linked directly to the emergency services, and screen doors had been installed, in part to secure a better insurance premium. Normally, these barriers would have held the fire at bay, but when the gas main exploded, part of the floor was blown away.

On Tuesday, lorries arrived with the new server cluster, 75 desktop computers and a handful of laptops for the field workers. The IT team, helped by the workers from the company already there, set about building the server system from scratch. They worked through the night to get 75 desktops with email, as well as all the necessary data and systems, up and running by the next day.

In the meantime, the workforce had not stopped, ignoring requests not to come to work on Monday. Teams were assembled and went to the nearest homes to work on dining room tables, cleaning anything that had escaped direct exposure, planning for projects and making necessary calls. But having an operational office was just the first step. And though it was achieved incredibly quickly, it would take a considerable effort to convince suppliers and clients FDS wasn’t about to go bust, and would be able to continue to manage their accounts at the usual service levels.

Astonishingly, the company didn’t lose business while it got its house in order. But it didn’t gain any either. The critical period for pitching in the marketing industry is October, November and December, when blue chip companies traditionally write up their plans and budgets. FDS missed out. The company spent seven months in temporary offices in another part of Whitstable, focusing on current clients. Williams and other senior directors spent a considerable amount of time with them to ensure they felt comfortable and reassuring them that data had been dealt with and not lost. “If they were thinking of doing bits and pieces of business in addition to the agreed projects, they didn’t, but it’s impossible to know if that was a knock-on effect.”

Older and wiser

Now that life has returned to normal, what has Williams learned? “For a start, we have a very detailed disaster recovery plan. We previously had a less detailed one, plus a business continuity plan, which covered what would happen if a big client resigned tomorrow.”

She says the recovery, while dealt with fairly efficiently, wasn’t all-encompassing. Always worthy of a good deal of consideration, according to Williams, are where to relocate, and very importantly, what happens on the IT side and how necessary it is to the business, and finally what information you have and how it’s backed up.

Aside from the electronic back-ups and quick relocation to temporary offices, the company was in a stronger position than some might have been.

Blue chip clients that work with FDS, while sympathetic, still expect reports ‘today’ says Williams. It wasn’t possible in the aftermath for all of them, but would be now. Only one company had its report delayed for two days and while not happy, accepted it. “We were lucky and had satellite offices in High Wycombe, Sheffield and Hertfordshire, so there were other places people could go to work where the phone was answered ‘FDS’.”

The nature of the business meant staff were used to teleworking or were already field operatives. But in order to make information more accessible between offices, FDS has built a server in High Wycombe that mirrors the one in Whitstable. It has also installed broadband between the two offices. This means if there was another fire, the other office could be used the very next day. This additional investment has amounted to around £30,000.

One saving grace was that rivals didn’t resort to dirty business, but who knows how much new business FDS lost in those critical months. It’s clear to see from Williams’ experience that you don’t get off lightly when disaster strikes. “If you asked staff if they were disrupted they’d say no, but from my point of view we’re only really getting back to normal now, more than a year and a half later.”

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