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Richard Branson on Disaster Planning

May 18, 2011
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/219661

One thing is certain in business: things will go wrong. So when you first start a business, one of your priorities should be emergency planning.

Put a disaster plan in place that fits your situation-- in case supply lines are cut, a hurricane hits, or other natural catastrophe looms -- because if disaster strikes, a lot of people will look to you for answers.

On Feb. 23, 2007, at around 8.15 p.m., one of Virgin Trains' new Pendolino tilting trains jumped over a set of points in Cumbria in the northwest of England, on a remote part of the West Coast Main Line. Margaret Masson, an elderly woman traveling to her home in Cardonald, was thrown around in the coach as the train careened down a steep embankment.

For 10 years, Virgin Trains had been safely carrying millions of passengers. That night, life changed for all of us at Virgin. Margaret Masson was dead. Several others were seriously hurt.

I was on a ski trip in Zermatt, Switzerland, when I received a text message about the rail accident. I hired a car and drove through the night to Zurich, where I got the first flight out at 6.30 a.m.

When I arrived in Manchester, the BBC was reporting that the train was intact, and that had helped to save many lives. That was heartening: all our new trains had been built like tanks for this very reason. A later report confirmed a track failure was responsible for the accident.

I met Margaret Masson's family at the Royal Preston Hospital in Lancashire. I offered them my condolences. We found ourselves hugging each other.

Soon I was facing television cameras and journalists who wanted answers. I thought I was going to choke up. I came close, but kept it together and stuck to the facts as we knew them.

I expressed my gratitude to the train operator, Iain Black, who did everything he could to save his passengers, and in the process sustained serious injuries. Our other employees on board had all behaved in an exemplary fashion, ignoring their own minor injuries to lead customers to safety.

Why were we able to react so quickly? When Virgin Trains was putting its emergency procedures in place, we had analyzed a number of serious rail incidents, and had been appalled by the length of time it took before anyone in charge spoke to the press. Confusion and blame set in quickly as anxious people waited to find out what happened and why.

So our disaster planning had prepared us to accomplish three main goals: get to the scene fast; be efficient in dealing with the passengers, staff and media; and be honest about what was happening. We knew those first steps would get communications established so that everyone -- passengers, staff, the media -- would obtain the information they needed.

Beyond disasters and accidents, as you forge ahead, it's inevitable that you and your team will make mistakes. It is important to recognize this and ensure everyone in the company is prepared.

Which brings me to the difficult balance that all entrepreneurs and CEOs need to learn how to maintain: always protect your reputation, yet don't be afraid of making mistakes. These rules ought not to contradict each other, but they often do. I've known plenty of talented and trustworthy people whose careers have been damaged by past errors, and who have suffered professionally as a result. If you or someone in your company has made a serious mistake, don't be afraid to ask the senior figures in your circle for advice and help. Distinguished people are often generous and understanding, to a fault. They've been through the mill; they know what life is like. They will advocate for you, and their reputations will help yours to recover.

Investigate the matter thoroughly; if you can, try to pinpoint where your internal processes failed. During this period, do not keep your head down -- that will do you no good. Instead, communicate openly with the press and keep them up to date.

Next, apologize. Explain what happened, express your regret, and describe what steps you have taken to correct the situation. Eventually people will realize that yours is a company that knows how to deal with its problems, and then you will have their trust.