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How This Franchise Is Helping Companies Avert Disaster

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This story appears in the January 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What do nuclear meltdowns, school shootings and PR disasters have to do with ham? Nothing—unless you’re Jim Satterfield. For him, they are inextricably linked. 

Satterfield is president and COO of Firestorm Solutions, which helps companies assess and identify potential disasters and/or deal with their aftermath. In 2009, after four years of strong growth, Firestorm began looking for new ways to expand. That’s when Satterfield met Hutch Hodgson, founder of Heavenly Ham, which had 216 units before being sold in 2002 to HoneyBaked Ham. 

“Hutch asked me, ‘Could you teach me to do what you do?’” Satterfield recalls. “When I said yes, he said, ‘Well, then you could franchise.’”

Crisis management may seem an unlikely service to franchise, but Hodgson’s instincts were right: With the proper training, franchisees can become as adept at managing catastrophes as Olivia Pope on Scandal, though Satterfield’s aim is to help companies avert disaster in the first place. 

Firestorm’s franchisees act as a sales force, going into businesses and organizations and educating them on the need to reduce risks and implement plans for dealing with crises such as workplace violence, communicable illness or natural disasters. After intensive training, some franchisees work directly with their clients to develop crisis strategies; others let the professionals at Firestorm headquarters in Roswell, Ga., develop the plans and manage any incidents that arise. So far, the company has signed on 13 franchisees across the U.S. and hopes to expand into areas that have populations of at least 1 million. 

An engineer by training, Satterfield previously worked in the insurance industry, serving on the boards of several companies. But after his involvement with a charity for 9/11 first responders, he realized that “85 percent of the infrastructure in America is in the private sector. For the U.S. to be prepared for disasters, private industry has to be prepared.”

Satterfield called up several well-placed friends in the insurance industry, and together they started Firestorm in 2005. “We wanted companies to take pre-action instead of having reactions,” he says. “The idea was to mitigate or prevent incidents from occurring.”

Since Satterfield was more or less creating an industry, Firestorm got off to a slow start. The first client they approached was an energy company. They assessed the facility and found half a dozen accidents waiting to happen: insufficient egress; fuel that could spontaneously combust; power lines that could fall on roads. There was pollution leaking onto the ground, and managers weren’t even aware that the plant had mercury filters, let alone how to properly dispose of them. Satterfield’s team also found instances of leaks of insider information from the publicly traded company. 

Despite all those troubles, the company decided not to hire Firestorm. Six months later, Satterfield got a phone call. “They said everything we had predicted had come true, and they hired us,” he recalls. “But by then it was too late to save the company.”

Other businesses weren’t so shortsighted, and Firestorm began to grow. In 2007, when one of the deadliest shooting rampages in American history took place at Virginia Tech, the school called Satterfield, and Firestorm had 10 people on the ground for the next 10 days. They helped wrangle the 1,500 reporters who descended on the campus, and worked with school administration to communicate with the public. At the time, the university had more than 12,000 offer letters out to potential students, with acceptances due two weeks later. 

“If the school lost an entire fall class, it could cripple the university for years or decades,” Satterfield says. “We mobilized the alumni to conduct in-home visits and reassure parents. Instead of a normal 30 percent acceptance rate, that year the school had a 60 percent conversion rate. That was a good metric to know we were doing our job.”

While Firestorm works with major colleges and Fortune 500 companies, franchisees tend to focus on mid-market businesses. “According to stats by the federal government, 40 percent of businesses struck by a disaster don’t reopen. Of those that do, 25 percent fail within two years,” Satterfield says. “Disasters are unthinkable, but they are real. According to the Red Cross, there are 70,000 disasters in the U.S. per year, about 200 per day. Add to that 2 million episodes of workplace violence, plus communicable diseases, and we have business disasters happening multiple times every day.”

In addition to managing such occurrences, Firestorm’s franchise model allows the company to maintain a personal touch. Many franchisees develop close relationships with their clients. “Every crisis is a human crisis,” Satterfield says. “It’s people who need the most help when a business is in crisis.” 

Edition: December 2016

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