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Case Study: Successful Crisis Control at TICOR Title

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November/December 1999 - Volume 78, Number 6

by Cindy Vitelli, Miami Production Manager
and Terry Little, Systems Administrator

Some crises "like Hurricane Andrew in Florida" can be attributed to "Mother Nature." Others are man-made disasters, like nuclear power plant accidents. Some are foreseeable, but others, unfortunately, can’t be predicted. At Ticor Title, it was a recent one-two punch that sent us reeling. But our disaster could have been worse if we hadn’t had a crisis plan in place. The lessons we learned might help others in our industry to respond successfully under similar circumstances, or at least help them to develop their own emergency plan.

First, the Flood

Ticor Title in Miami, Florida, is one of the busier title plants in the country. The Miami County Recorder’s Office logs over one-half million real estate documents each year, every one of which has to be entered accurately into our database. We key in an average of 8,000 transactions a day. So when the Recorder’s Office closed for a month last November to recover from a flood caused by problems with their air conditioning, we knew it was going to be hard to catch up.

Then a Computer Failure

We were still working double shifts when the Inforex system that we used to enter courthouse records into our database died. One fateful Friday, both the hard drive and main power boards went bad. On Monday, the technician told us he couldn’t fix them. He said we should just push the system off the dock because the only thing it was good for was creating a new coral reef.

For more than 15 years, our Inforex had been very dependable. But the line had been discontinued. For the last year and one-half we owned it, we had been without a service contract. BancTec wouldn’t take our money. They said it wouldn’t be fair to charge us for a contract when they weren’t sure they could fix the machine if it broke.

Crisis Control

Our initial reaction to the situation was shock, and a few well-chosen expletives. We realized quickly that we had much to accomplish and little time in which to do it. Our customers are loyal, but we knew that if we got too far behind they wouldn’t stick with us forever.

The challenge of coping with the combined disasters stretched our capabilities to their utmost and taught us some useful lessons about crisis management.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Ticor has a disaster management plan in place"one that is developed and updated every year by our parent company, Chicago Title Corporation. We start with that plan and augment it, since our Miami location puts us at increased risk due to possible adverse weather conditions. In fact, one of the reasons we take disaster planning so seriously is that we experienced Hurricane Andrew, which devastated southern Florida and destroyed many of our employees’ homes.

During busy hurricane seasons like this one, we have plenty of opportunity to exercise crisis planning. As soon as a hurricane watch goes into effect, our plan kicks into action:

  • We monitor the hurricane’s progress carefully and start our preparations;
  • We make emergency backups of our three computer systems: the phone system, the data entry system, and the mainframe database. We both take copies home, so the backups are geographically dispersed;
  • We make sure everyone knows what his or her responsibilities are, along with whom they may be backing up in case of illness or vacation. We also make sure everyone has time to complete their tasks and can get home early enough to protect themselves and their famlies;
  • We are also prepared to transport our data entry system to another location that has electricity so we can keep working, in case our main office should be without power for any length of time.

As important as it is to have that kind of plan in place, it didn’t help much in this situation. However, we had already planned for this type of disaster, too. Since the Inforex system was 20 years old, we knew it would not last much longer. We had already purchased new computers and had them ready to hook up. We just needed new data entry software.

Use Your Contacts

When disaster strikes, don’t be shy. We utilized our network for all it was worth. We were on the phone to people in our corporate systems department, to people in other counties, to our competitors, to anyone who had knowledge of how to do something like this.

We got lucky in that Jim Feeney, from Metropolitan Title Data, Inc., in St. Louis, had recently told us that they were replacing a data entry system similar to ours. He recommended their vendor, Viking Software Services. We pushed through an order in several days.

Partner With Your Vendors

We normally work closely with our Information Technology (IT) vendors, investing in maintenance contracts that ensure quick repair or replacement of parts that go bad, so that we aren’t down for any length of time. That approach paid off for us.

Our local computer reseller, Corporate Systems Group (CSG), responded quickly. CSG immediately began work installing the new computers, re-wiring our electric system, and putting in a network for the PCs.

Viking Software also hit the ground running. We placed the order for our new data entry system on Wednesday. By Monday, the conversion was well underway. We were able to start keying again and began training our operators. By Wednesday, we were back in full production mode.

Both Viking and CSG were very responsive, but it helped that we knew exactly what we wanted. That made the conversion process go smoothly and quickly.

Thanks to lots of hard work from our vendors, we were able to get back up in just a week. But we still had a lot more to do.

Communicate With Your Employees

From the beginning, we had been very open with our employees about what was happening and how much we needed their help. When the County Recorder’s Office first re-opened after the flood, we hired a second shift of temps to help process the data. But our employees came to us and offered to work overtime to help clear out the backlog. Even employees from other departments pitched in. On their own, they put together a schedule of who would work when. Because they know our business better than the temps did, they were much more productive. We were able to let the temps go and do the rest of the work ourselves.

Even while our data entry system was down, we did not lose momentum. Data entry operators helped mark up documents to prepare them for keying, did research and made microfilm copies. Some even helped us put the furniture together for the new workstations.

Once we brought up Viking’s system, we were able to have even more people pitch in. It was so easy to use that anyone could do it. Receptionists and typists were able to learn to use it in just a day’s time. We even keyed for a while ourselves!

The employees had fun working together, scheduling overtime with their friends. They would have a potluck supper, and then one would wash dishes while the others went back to keying.

It was amazing how hard they worked. Frequently they were able to key more than several days’ worth of transactions in one day. They would often try to beat what they had accomplished the previous day. We would walk through the department and hear, "We’re going to get to the third day by 3pm!"

Communicate With Your Customers

Just as our employees stood by us, so did our customers. We were very honest with them about what to expect and made sure they were kept updated. As a result, we did not lose any customers.

Get People Involved

From the start, we asked our employees for input. For example, Darlene Hutson Chavez, Viking’s customer support representative, worked with the operators to get suggestions about ways to improve the way the computer screens for data entry were designed. This helped ease anxiety about the new computer system and helped ease the transition.

We also shared responsibility at the management level. In a crisis situation, where so much is riding on your shoulders, it really helped to be able to share the load. There were a lot of decisions that had to be made, and we found that it helped to have input from several people. We were often able to combine the best parts of ideas from two or three people to come up with a solution.

Manage Stress

With so many people’s lives depending on your decisions, it’s necessary to have a way to relax. When things would get crazy, we would get outside and go for a walk. We’re very fortunate to have a beautiful lake out back, and when we felt stressed we would walk around the lake, listen to the birds, and calm down. Then we could go back inside and deal with the latest crisis.

Caught Up, Finally!

At our worst point we were 45 days behind. There were times when we thought we would never catch up. It took until July to bring us fully back to normal.

A saving grace was that our competitors were also behind, because of the flood. If it hadn’t been for that, we could have lost customers right and left. As it happened, after we got caught up, we even picked up a few customers.

And that wasn’t the only good news. The crisis brought our data entry and production departments closer together. Employees who didn’t know each other well before work closely together now. Everyone now has a better understanding of how the different parts of the company interrelate.

Another benefit is that our new data entry system has positioned us well for the next move at our County Recorder’s Office"imaging.

Lessons Learned

The biggest lesson we learned is that we never want to go through anything like this ever again. But we also realized the benefits of careful planning for crises. One of the reasons everything went as smoothly as it did, given the extreme conditions, was because we had a plan in place already, and it was executed thoroughly. Plus, we reaped the benefits of having a team of wonderful and loyal employees. Way to go everyone!

Crisis Management Begins Before You Have One

Experts agree on several general principles for crisis management:

1) Identify your risks. Determine where they will come from, whether acts of nature (e.g., hurricanes, floods) or acts of man (e.g., terrorist attacks, strikes, operator error). Identify what aspects of your business would be affected and how badly, then assess the probability of those events occurring. Use this analysis to plan for the most likely crises first, or the worst case first. Adapting the first scenario for less dramatic disasters will round out your plan.

2) Make prevention part of "business as usual." If you have identified loss of computer data as a major risk, make sure routine backups are part of daily operations, not something you do when time permits. Along with that, keep a copy of the backed up data offsite, preferably out of reach of your major risk factors.

3) Insure against whatever you cannot prevent. Make sure you are covered for the specific types of risk you feel are most critical to the continuance of your business.

4) Set priorities for actions during the crisis and during the recovery stage. A crisis will never occur according to plan, but knowing strategic priorities beforehand will speed operational decisions about which actions to take first during a crisis, as well as what business activities are most critical to recover first.

5) Clear, continuous communication and coordination minimizes the "chicken running around with its head cut off" syndrome. Keep everyone informed of everything that may impact his or her aspect of the crisis management or recovery plan. This is especially difficult "and critical"when time is of the essence.

6) Keep your crisis management plan current and make it common knowledge. Just as fire drill maps are clearly posted in schools and hotels, and fire drills are held regularly to familiarize students with following the drill procedures, so should your staff know what their jobs are during and after a crisis.

Cindy Vitelli is the Miami Production Manager for Ticor Title. She started with Chicago Title in 1985 and worked her way up through the ranks to Production Manager, where she oversees Ticor’s Miami operations.

Terry Little is the System Administrator for Ticor Title in Miami. He has been responsible for Titon, the computer system they installed, since it was a Slip plant in 1972. Cindy and Terry have worked together for 10 years.

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