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Remembering 9/11: One Small Company That Made a Difference

Last Updated Sep 9, 2011 11:43 AM EDT

When your values are clear, decisions are easy. After 10 years of reflection, that is what comes to mind when I remember where I was on September 11, 2001.

I was in Manhattan walking down Madison Ave, heading to the offices of a property damage restoration company to give a presentation on leadership to the executive team.

In hindsight, there are so many ironies to the situation.

Maxons Restoration provides expertise and resources necessary to help both commercial and residential clients recover from all types of disasters. The company is one of the city's leaders in property damage restoration. (That would become especially clear to me later that day and in the weeks to come.) I was a block away from their offices when I saw about a dozen people looking in a bank window at a TV screen. Once before in my life I witnessed a group of people with that collective look of fear and concern. I was working at my college radio station and that was the day that John F. Kennedy was shot and the crowd was gathered around an AP wire machine.

When I arrived at the company, many members of his leadership team were already there. It was fascinating to see the responses of the various people in the room who had come in for the seminar. Howie White, the executive VP of business development, was on the phone trying to locate associates who were working that morning on projects near the towers. "We need to locate them and make sure they are OK," he said. A couple members of the team were understandably shell-shocked.

At the exact same time, Damon Gersh, the founder of Maxons, was driving into the city from Long Island when the midtown tunnel was closed and he had to head back to his home. As Damon drove back home, he scheduled a conference call with the leadership team for 11 a.m. By the time of the call, the second tower was hit and both had fallen.

At the start of the call Damon asked everyone how they were doing. He listened and responded to everyone on the call and then he said in a strong, confident voice, and I'm paraphrasing: "Our mission, as always, is to get people's lives back to normal as soon as possible. How we respond to this crisis will define us. It will demonstrate who we are, what we are capable of, and define us for the future."

When Maxons held a follow-up meeting on Sept. 14, the phones were already ringing off the hook. Howie received a call from the historic St. Paul's Chapel to help them prepare the building for use as the primary Ground Zero relief center for first responders and emergency recovery workers. They were also asked to clean up the historic Trinity Church for services. During that same meeting, one of the associates they had not heard from finally called in. You could see hear the sighs of relief from everyone who heard his voice and knew he was safe.

Over the next 90 days, Maxons' project managers coordinated the clean-up and restoration of more than 50 high-rise office buildings, hundreds of businesses, and 3,000 residences and important landmarks.

The conditions and challenges of the clean-up were formidable. The collapse of the World Trade Center blew more than two million tons of gritty concrete dust and debris -- including sheetrock, concrete, ash, soot, asbestos, and particles of glass and steel -- into the air. The air quality was so bad it required special face masks.

When the towers collapsed, the plume was so powerful that it blasted into everything from elevator shafts to computers. The dust went three miles in all directions.

As soon as buildings were permitted to reopen the restoration work began. Maxons hired over 1500 emergency people who were on site for months.

I never did deliver that presentation on leadership at Maxons. Watching the way the company held it together on 9/11 and during the ensuing weeks and months, I'm not sure it was they who needed to learn from me.

I work with a lot of great small businesses but I don't think I've ever witnessed so much courage, resiliency, and determination. It was Maxons' core values -- combined with Damon's strong leadership -- that guided them every step of the way:
  • Responsibility: Be accountable for our words, deeds, attitude, effort, and results. No blame games.
  • Sincerity: Caring and respect are the foundation of all great personal and professional relationships. Our word is our bond.
  • Tenacity: We make things happen by courage, determination, and resilience to achieve our objectives. Obstacles are opportunities.
  • Optimism: It is our job to restore people's hope as well as their damaged property. Say no to negativity.
  • Results: A relentless focus on delivering tangible benefits to our clients, customers, and coworkers. Make it happen.
  • Energy: People count on us to take immediate action and make things happen to solve their problems. Maxons to the rescue!
Damon won the NYC Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year for 2002. There was special praise for his company's role in helping the city recover from 9/11. He also donated some of Maxons' proceeds to the NY Police and Fire Widows and Orphans Fund.

After the company's work was completed he called his team together and thanked them for their extraordinary efforts. He then told them that now they knew what they were capable of achieving and a new standard was set. As a result of Damon's leadership, the great team he has in place and the company's values Maxons has continued to grow every year. When you know what you're about and what you stand for, your decisions are easy.

(Photo courtesy of Maxons)