By Marc Rapport, The State
‘It couldn’t happen here’ on many minds, while others warn differently
Larry Newman has a strong message for local business people who may have become complacent in the months since Sept. 11.
“I’ll tell you what’s a target for terrorists of any kind. Your customers,” he warned.
Newman is president of Columbia-based Newman Partnership, which provides crisis management consulting and strategy services. He chairs a task force on emergency preparedness for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
The heating and air systems of large malls, crowded restaurants and movie theaters, “or anywhere there’s a lot of people, that’s an attractive place to someone who wants to cause problems,” Newman said.
“It doesn’t have to be religious terrorism, it can just be somebody who’s really angry, or a nut case who comes into your store and releases tear gas. It’s happened many times,” he said.
Ike McLeese, president and CEO of the Columbia chamber, said he and Newman are working to put on a series of seminars later this year to focus on emergency preparedness.
One problem business people need to realize, McLeese said, is that a big disaster sucks up a lot of resources.
“A small business in Harlem that had a fire on Sept. 11 had a big problem,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. Everyone can’t expect the level of response they would expect and want if something major happens, say at Fort Jackson, so we need to work with small business people to learn how to deal with that.”
From a macro-economic view, the Sept. 11 attack had very little impact in South Carolina other than to cause some shift in security spending and some initial tourism impact, said Doug Woodward, economic research director at USC’s Moore School of Business.
Woodward and other experts from a wide variety of disciplines have been guest lecturers this summer at a counter-terrorism class at the University of South Carolina, a series pulled together in response to the attacks on Washington and the World Trade Center.
“Now, another event that large would have a more permanent effect on the American psyche. Then all bets would be off,” Woodward said. “But right now, it’s not like Israel, where the small businessman has to worry about this every day. That’s just not true here.
“You go up and down Two Notch Road and you’ll find the businesses there facing the same press as they did before,” he said.John Lenti, state director of the U.S. Small Business development Center, said most businesspeople are pragmatic when it comes to concerns about more attacks.
“I guess it gets back to the American psyche,” Lenti said. “I mean, of all the places to target, why would you pick Happyille , S.C.? For one thing, anyone like that would stick out like a sore thumb in most small towns around here, and why would you bother going through all that to blow up a two-story building?
“There are far more target-rich areas than us,” he added.
Frank Knapp offered a similar view. As executive director of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, Knapp spends much of his time working with entrepreneurs at small firms.
“I don’t think that’s being naive. I think that’s being realistic in this country, unless we start seeing homicidal bombers like they have in Israel,” he said.
“Unless something like that would all of a sudden appear, I don’t see small businesses taking any greater precautions than what they should already be doing now to ensure their building’s physical security, their computer security, those kinds of things.”
Lenti said he sees far more concern about trade secrets and proprietary security than terrorism on his travels around the state.
“I visited a Milliken plant recently,” he noted as an example. “I had to sign in and then an individual came and escorted me. I had to have a special pass and be in that person’s contact the whole time. Plus not wear any jewelry and tuck my shirt in.”
Lenti also attributed some of what could be considered complacence to confidence that the government is doing everything it possibly can in the war against terrorism.
“Meanwhile, these business people are fighting the tactical battle every day. They’ve got to worry about what’s happening today and tomorrow. It’s hard to look at what will be happening in 2003 and 2004 when you’re thinking about making your quarterly tax payment next week,” he said.
A GREATER THREAT
A far bigger threat than terrorism may be the specter of workplace violence involving ex-employees, angry spouses and the like. And there’s the problem of normal street crime, which is apolitical.
The numbers are significant. Over the past several years, there has been an average of about 1.9 million simple and aggravated assaults on U.S. workers and nearly 1,000 homicides, the most common being among retail, service and transportation workers.
Legal expenses, lost productivity, diminished public image and increased security needs drive the cost of all this into the billions, experts say. Yet, they agree that the bottom line can benefit from increased attention to security.
“Management needs to realize that its employees are its greatest assets. It’s human capital that makes the company go, and you’ve got to protect that,” said Otis Ogburn of Security Management of South Carolina, a Sumter-based firm that serves enterprises at 93 locations in three states.
“There are tangibles and intangibles in providing a safe workplace,” he said. “Things like morale and reduced turnover when somebody feels safe, plus reducing workers compensation and all kinds of complaints and grievances.”
Newman, the emergency preparedness consultant, said that kind of corner cutting can be short-sighted.
“Before you decide that these new costs will make you uncompetitive, recall the millions of dollars the American automobile industry wasted in fighting mandatory airbags,” he said.
“They just knew that customers would not pay the higher prices, but eventually airbags became standard, and car sales rose despite the slightly higher cost,” Newman said. “Research shows that Americans will not compromise when it comes to safety.”