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TOM HARTON Commentary: Where business, disaster meet

September 12, 2005

We don't do weather.

Business newspapers don't ask reporters to stand in bitter cold to demonstrate that it's uncomfortable. We don't warn our readers about the dangers of a storm by assigning a reporter to stand in the middle of one. When the wind and rain send things crashing down around us, we become consumers of news just like everyone else.

Last week, we broke our rule. No, we didn't brave the elements, but

what happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast quickly became more than a weather story in a place hundreds of miles away. It became a story of human suffering, of need and the failure to meet that need. It also became a story of generosity and-distasteful as it is-a story of opportunity.

Because where there's need, there's demand. And where there's demand, there's a business opportunity.

Enter IBJ. Four stories in last week's paper dealt with what Hurricane Katrina will cost local business or how a local business will benefit.

The cost is easy to write about. Higher fuel prices and wrecked ports are surely bad for business.

But what about those businesses that stand to gain from the tragedy? That's when a disaster like Hurricane Katrina becomes uncomfortable beyond the obvious pain suffered by its victims.

There's awkwardness and discomfort in knowing that one person's disaster can benefit someone else. Last week's coverage in IBJ mentioned two companies with much to gain. Locally based Sonny Scaffolds is one of the nation's largest manufacturers of interior scaffolds and drywall carts, products sure to be in heavy demand when the Gulf Coast dries out and the rebuilding begins.

And Katrina likely boosted the market for gas and air compressors made by Franklin-based Grimmer Industries. Grimmer's already considering boosting production to supply the offshore oil rigs that use its products for painting and repair work.

Representatives of both firms expressed what seemed like genuine regret that the same storm that's good for business here caused suffering and dying there.

As the holiday weekend unfolded, I found myself wondering how genuine others were in their concern for hurricane victims. I know it's cynical, but it crossed my mind. Are restaurants and retailers who advertise their disaster-relief efforts really trying to help, or are they playing on the emotions of consumers to drive traffic to their stores?

Radio stations and professional sports teams that organize rallies to aid the victims will certainly build loyalty and good will among listeners and fans. Is that a byproduct of their sincere attempts to ease human suffering, or is winning over the consumer their primary goal?

The most cynical among us will say these businesses are feeding on disaster. The pure of heart will disagree, seeing every effort to help as 100-percent altruistic.

As is usually the case, the correct answer doesn't lie at either extreme. At any company that stands to profit from someone else's misfortune there are some people who thrive on the opportunity to help. Others are jazzed at the prospect of making a buck. Most people probably get some amount of satisfaction from both: "We can help the poor souls we see suffering on television and generate some revenue."

The same concept plays out daily in the business world, with or without a hurricane. Need feeds demand, which feeds opportunity. And it takes both the nurturers and the moneymakers to effectively capitalize on that opportunity.

Eli Lilly and Co. wouldn't be what it is today if people didn't get sick. And it takes both the medically inclined-those who want to save lives-and the business-savvy-those who know how to identify and capitalize on need-to make the model work.

This newspaper would go up in flames without a balance between altruistic, justice-seeking journalists and the contingent that figures out how to pay the bills.

Maybe the tangible rewards are more important than we'd like to think. I wonder if the government response to Katrina would've happened sooner if there had been money to be made.

For whatever reason, the people in charge clearly weren't motivated to respond to the situation quickly enough to meet the need.



Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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