Ellen Clarke, former CIO of Marsh

In a last-minute decision, Ellen Clarke, global chief information officer of insurance brokerage Marsh Inc., on Sept. 10, 2001, flew to a meeting set for the following day at her company’s offices in London, England. “Otherwise, I would be dead,” she says, referring to the fact that her original plans called for working that day from the 97th floor of 1 World Trade Center where the first hijacked plane slammed into Marsh’s offices on floors 94 through 100. At the time, the $5.2 billion subsidiary of Marsh and McLennan also occupied floors 47 through 54 in 2 World Trade Center, the south tower.

Out of 425 members of Clarke’s I.T. staff, 130 died. A total of 294 Marsh employees perished in the twin towers; another one died in one of the planes that crashed into the towers.

Clarke, who left Marsh in 2003, is the co-founder of Talent Mosaic, a New York City consultancy that provides interim chief information officers, chief financial officers and chief operating officers for businesses. Another new venture is My Computer Worker, which aims to provide technical support to small businesses.

Q: Where were you on Sept. 11?

A: While the plane was hitting 1 World Trade Center, I was on the phone discussing my global budget for 2002. I had the managers on the phone from 1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center and all the countries around the world where I had technology directors and CIOs.

Q: Did you know what happened when the building was struck?

A: I didn’t know initially. I was on the phone in the conference room. My European CIO was there, and a couple people were there from Brussels. Then there was a click, click, click on the [phone] line as one of the managers in New York was talking. The phone went dead immediately. Then one of the guys in Australia called me, and said, “I’m sorry to tell you. We just lost our colleagues in New York.” I initially thought he was joking, and said, “This is really not appropriate,” and he said he was not kidding. I then tried to get to a television right away. Trying to get through to New York by phone was impossible.

Q: How did such an event shape you personally and professionally?

A: It has changed my focus away from corporate life. I am less patient with office politics and more interested in getting things done. It has also given me a chance to think clearly about what I wanted to do with the rest of my career, and with whom I would have relationships. Time becomes very important.

It reaffirmed a lot of things for me. I had spent the first 15 months of my tenure at Marsh building the right team, instill a team culture, raise the standard of performance for professionals, to get people to understand the importance of a value system—with integrity and a team culture at the top of the list. And the importance of sharing information—you know technology organizations may often protect information. All of that, in effect, paid off on 9/11.

Q: In what way?

A: I lost three direct reports in New York. And I lost 15 of the next-level managers. We not only lost the physical building, we lost the brain trust of the organization. Because of factors I just mentioned, the people who were remaining and the people in Europe—we were able to recover. It was all hands doing whatever had to be done.

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Carrying Out the Recovery Plan

Q: Before 9/11, what are some examples of how you were able to get people to share information?

A: We created a databank of deliverables of all of projects. It was accessible across the organization by any level manager and it included security features. We also shared that information with our business people. The databank included everything from the specification of a new system or network to the documentation of an application, to status reports on projects.

Q: Where was it backed up?

A: It was backed up at a hot site across the [Hudson] river at Comdisco [in northern New Jersey].

Q: What was your company’s business continuity plan before Sept. 11, 2001–and did it meet expectations?

A: First, you need to distinguish three different, related concepts.

There are backup and recovery plans. An example of that is, If a server goes down, you need to get it back up quickly. Those are largely process, procedure intensive written things.

Then there is disaster recovery, in the event you have a major outage, or loss of power, or—God forbid—a plane goes into your building.

And there is business continuity, which is just not a technology issue. It has to involve the business, and has to think about recovering their own capability outside of technology such as office facilities.

I had made sure we had good backup and recovery plan and it was tested every four months. We had a disaster recovery plan we tested twice a year. We were in the process of working with the business of building the business continuity plan, and that included getting them to understand what that means in addition to technology.

We were talking about building the business procedures in combination with the technology, and this was an easier discussion than a lot of other corporations because I spent over a year building a governance structure with the business. They understood their role in business continuity and the technology investment process.

Q: What advice would you have for CIOs preparing a disaster recovery and business continuity plans?

A: Let’s not make an assumption that people have them. After 9/11, I have had conversations with people who don’t think it’s going to happen again or they don’t see the importance [of having a plan]. Because it takes money to build these plans.

Make sure your plan is kept up to date; testing it is critical. Back up key positions in the organizations. Have a succession plan. It’s very important, especially in a case of a disaster. You are depending on other people to do what I, or direct reports, do.

Have business relationships within a corporation is important for those in technology. When I first got to Marsh, the technology staff did not know who their clients were, and likewise, the business people did not know who the technology people were. That was a change I brought to Marsh.

And get people to share information. The lion’s share of the job is making sure the plan is there, that it is built, it is reviewed, signed off on and tested.

Q: How much did it cost to develop a disaster recovery plan?

A: I cannot disclose the amount.

Q: What vendors helped you after 9/11?

A: Verizon and AT&T for voice and data; Cisco for switches and routers; IBM for ThinkPad laptops, Sun and Dell for servers.

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