9/11 Call

When crisis hit, business owners answered.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the February 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The smell of death is still in the air. "When the wind blows our way," says Stephen Goldstein, CEO of Alacra Inc., "it's a constant reminder of what happened."

Nobody needs to be told, of course, what happened. What happened is the reason six employees from Lehman Brothers are, half a year later, working out of the offices of Alacra, which provides financial information to institutions like investment banks. What happened still seems impossible.

Alacra is located six blocks from Ground Zero. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, the 5-year-old company was forced to leave its offices-but only for a week. With many of his nearby clients not so fortunate, Goldstein, 43, figured he could squeeze 25 extra people into the offices of his 65-employee company. He and some of his staff were offering their clients free office space even before they were allowed back in their own building.

By the time Alacra reached its clients-difficult, because they no longer had phone numbers-everyone had made other arrangements, save some of Lehman Brothers' staff, who gladly accepted Goldstein's offer. "We introduced them to everybody," says Goldstein, "and showed them where the coffee is, and tried to make them feel like they were working with us."

That generosity may seem surprising, but there's a tradition of American entrepreneurs who, to paraphrase JFK, have asked not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. During World War I, dozens of entrepreneurs and high-profile executives on the home front became known as the "dollar-a-year men" as they went to work for the United States for next to nothing.

After September 11, the tradition continued. From giants like Starbucks-which at last count had donated more than 47,000 gallons of coffee to New York City centers assisting victims-to startups like JenBen Communications LLC, a Manhattan toy-marketing firm. JenBen's CEO, Jennifer Newman, 28, closed her four-employee company for two weeks so she could volunteer her time at a shelter, helping victims to everything from saline to underwear.

Here's a handful of other entrepreneurs who have shown us the true meaning of "hero."

The Right Lighting

For most of September 11, Kevin Garrity watched the horror unfold on TV from Garrity Industries, the Madison, Connecticut, business his family started in 1967. Eventually, he realized he could aid in the efforts to find victims in the rubble: Garrity Industries manufactures flashlights.

It was 5 p.m., and most of his employees had left for the day to be with their families. Garrity, 49, and a friend, Jim Sullivan, loaded a truck with 8,000 flashlights with an assist from CFO Arthur G. Aery and Garrity's brother, vice president Paul Garrity. As dusk settled across the eastern seaboard, Garrity and Sullivan sped off with a convoy of local fire trucks. But minutes later, the local firefighters were told they weren't needed at Ground Zero. "What now?" Sullivan asked. "We keep going," said Garrity, figuring that they would get in somehow.

They did. When they passed more fire engines, Sullivan held up a crudely made sign with his cell phone number. The firemen called, and Garrity explained their mission and received permission to join their group. Long before reaching the city limits, Garrity could see an ominous plume of billowing black smoke.

Ground Zero looked like hell, but it didn't scare Garrity away. He came back with more friends and flashlights the next night, and the next. At the end of three days, Garrity's group had passed out 24,000 flashlights to rescuers, at a cost of $34,000 to the company. Garrity Industries sent letters to clients, letting them know their shipments would be delayed and why. Nobody complained.

"My father has always impressed upon us-if we can help, we help. And we're in a business-flashlights-that can help a lot of people," says Garrity, whose company also gave to the Desert Storm cause. "Life is not just taking; it's giving back."

True B2B

It's estimated that 14,000 businesses were displaced by the terrorism attacks; that includes 9,000 off-site businesses as far away as New Jersey and Connecticut. "There were taxi and limousine services that had only one client: The World Trade Center," says Emanuel Martinez, 45, managing partner of New York City investment firm GreenHills Ventures LLC.

Martinez runs the Downtown Cooperative Project, an organization that offers services, products and support to small and midsized businesses affected by the attacks. He's found more than 40 companies to donate their time, energy and funds to help keep other businesses afloat.

Martinez now works 70-hour weeks between GreenHills Ventures and the DCP. Why is he toiling to tirelessly? He just thinks it's the right thing to do. "Many of our largest companies were born during the Depression," he notes, "and they're still here. We have to help our brothers and sisters unite. And this isn't just for us. It's been said that New York won't be able to truly recover from this for another 10 years, so this affects our children, and if we could shorten this to five, that would really help the city's mind-set."

Nursing the Wounds and Aiding the Search

Stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike, Amer Ghalayini, 34, watched the second plane hurtle into the World Trade Center. Terrified drivers abandoned their cars and wandered about, not sure what to do next.

Born and raised in Kuwait, Ghalayini came to the United States 17 years ago as a student. Now the franchise owner of three Subway restaurants, Ghalayini was returning from a trip to Canada with his 5-year-old son, Zachary. He was dumbfounded and terrified. "I was shaking-like everyone else," says Ghalayini, who just wanted to go home. To Washington, DC. With the Pentagon on fire, home was not the safe haven he'd hoped for.

Ghalayini eventually got past his shock and realized he could contribute. One of his Subways is on G Street, a few miles from the Pentagon. Another restaurant is just across from a fire station. Ghalayini adopted a policy, splitting costs with Subway's corporate headquarters: "Unlimited free food for the rescue workers," he told his staff, who didn't get the concept at first.

"What do we do if somebody wants two sandwiches?" one of his employees asked.

"Then give it to them!" instructed Ghalayini. "No questions asked."

Over three days, the two stores gave away about 2,000 sandwiches. Ghalayini refused all offers to pay for the food. "I have never lived through anything like this. Even in Kuwait, I have never experienced anything like this," says Ghalayini. "I was so emotional during that week." He found it therapeutic to give away sandwiches to everyone from FEMA workers to the Secret Service. "If I couldn't have given something back, I don't know what I would have done."

Aiding the Search

During that first week, Mike Komondy made his way through the ash-laden air, searching for anybody alive. The 42-year-old franchisee of four Dunkin' Donuts stores in New Jersey is also a volunteer fireman and an EMT search and rescue specialist. He handed the reins of his businesses-which collectively bring in $2 million a year and have 53 employees-to his general manager on September 12 and spent the next 36 straight hours searching for bodies among the rubble. He will always remember the silence, broken by cell phones and beepers strewn about the towering heap of debris as anxious friends and family called the dead, hoping for a miracle. Says Komondy, "I won't forget it for the rest of my life."

A Calming Presence

Trudi Bresner, 49, owns New York City-based T.BresnerAssociates Inc., a marketing and communications company with seven employees and $2 million in annual sales. After the attacks, "we kept trying to figure out a way that we could help," she says.

So when she got a call two weeks later from a client who needed a favor, she jumped at the chance to give media training to the chief counseling officer and chief doctor for the Fire Department of New York City.

The two officials were going to appear on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, and they wanted training in how to handle it. Understandably, both men were emotionally on edge from two weeks of counseling the families of 345 firefighters who died in the twin towers. They were going to talk about the services available for firefighters and were nervous that either they wouldn't get out their message, or they might lose their composure on the air. "Because they're in a position of leadership, where do they turn for help?" asks Bresner, explaining her role: "This is support for the support." Bresner spent four hours with the men, letting them vent their feelings and then role-playing answers they might have to give on the show.

Since then, her company has written and designed brochures, e-mails and pamphlets sent to firefighters' families. Again, for free. "We're doing this on a permanent basis," says Bresner, who apparently didn't have to think hard before donating her company's services.

"Entrepreneurs are dependent on people to help them," says Bresner. "To give back is very important."

Running, But Not Away

Shawn Parr raised almost $50,000 for the victims of the attacks-and that was just the next day. The 36-year-old CEO of Bulldog Drummond, a public relations firm in San Diego, did it by promising $15,000 to the New York City victims and e-mailing clients and vendors, asking them to add money to the pot.

Parr grew up in London, a city that's no stranger to terrorism, but September 11 has made him more familiar than ever with terror attacks. "I was due to fly to New York City on September 11, at 8 a.m.," he says. "And box cutters were found on that plane."

A week after the attacks, Parr told his staff, "It's typical to do something immediately after the attacks, and then do nothing." That inspired his production manager to spearhead a 5K run/walk, which Bulldog Drummond held November 11, raising $25,000 for World Trade Center relief funds.

"I'm a firm believer that in the face of adversity, you must never give up, you must never give in, and the only thing I could do was put my hands in my pockets and dig deep," says Parr. "We live in a cynical society, I believe. We watch bad news on TV, roll our eyes, and then we click over and watch Friends. Well, this was different."

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Cincinnati.

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