Hurricane Andrew Blew Away Burger King's Culture (1995)
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Hurricane Andrew Blew Away Burger King's Culture (1995)

Two years ago, Burger King’s corporate headquarters found itself in the eye of Hurricane Andrew. Employees at all levels shared the experience of displacement. Then they realized Andrew had blown away the company’s culture as well.

Paul Holmes

by Paul Holmes
Two years ago, Burger King’s corporate headquarters in south Florida found itself in the eye of Hurricane Andrew. Employees at all levels shared the experience of displacement and loss. They worked together more closely than they ever had in the past, managers and employees doing whatever needed to be done to help the company recover. When they paused for breath, they realized that Andrew had blown away the company’s culture along with its headquarters.
The first thing you notice when you walk into the reception area at Burger King’s corporate headquarters is the giant hamburger. It’s half a hamburger to be exact, protruding from a wall above the spiral staircase as though embedded there, perhaps hurled into the wall by the force of the hurricane that swept through the building two years ago, upending trees, cars and the company’s corporate culture.
The second thing you notice is the giant mural that lines one wall. It depicts a multicultural, multiethnic neighborhood, populated with children and young adults. One of the kids wears a BK tee-shirt; another is throwing a BK Frisbee; a BK hot air balloon, shaped like a giant Whopper, is in the sky above. Examine the scene more closely and one hears the sound effects - a waterfall, the laughter of the children, even a dog barking.
Waiting for the person with whom you have an appointment to come to meet you, you sit in a chair that is the color and approximate shape of a giant pickle, at round glass table perched atop oversized hamburgers that would look great if it wasn’t for their unappetizing sandy color. You watch employees walk by in their jeans and open-necked shirts, and perhaps you check to make sure that this is not a Friday. It’s not. Every day is casual day at BK HQ.
Among major American corporations, perhaps only Nike gives its visitors a more elaborate welcome, with its amazing, interactive Nike Town exhibit, but Nike has always been known as a maverick. Burger King has traditionally been regarded as a relatively staid, buttoned-down organization. Since 1989, when the company was acquired by Grand Metropolitan plc, it has been owned by the British, who are not exactly known for their progressive management practices.
“Two years ago, if you walked into this building you wouldn’t know if you were in the headquarters of an insurance company or a medical supply company or a restaurant company,” says Jim McMillan, manager of creative services and the individual most responsible for the decor in these public areas. “This was a cold building. It didn’t have a lot of character.”
Neither did Burger King itself. Its culture was formal, hierarchical, command-and-control oriented. Employees were not empowered. Franchisees were suspicious of the company and occasionally openly hostile. A series of failed relationships with advertising agencies and the resulting lack of continuity in terms of the marketing messages meant that consumers were confused about what the company stood for. And Grand Met’s shareholders did not exactly view Burger King as the jewel in the crown of its massive food empire.
But all that was before August 24, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew whipped through south Florida, ravaging anything that stood in its way.
Burger King’s $50 million, 300,000 square foot headquarters, a modern six-story building on Biscayne Bay about 18 miles south of downtown Miami, suffered $20 million worth of damage in the hurricane. The northern eye of the storm wall struck the building head on. The estimated wind speed was a sustained 155 miles per hour, with gusts up into the low 200s. The storm surge - the wall of water accompanying a hurricane’s landfall - reached its highest point, almost 17 feet, as it smashed into the corporate offices.
In the wake of the Hurricane, then ceo Barry Gibbons told Nation’s Restaurant News that everything in his sixth floor office, including his desk, computer, files and personal items, had been blown away. Only a few key files were saved by his secretary. “It’s just nothing. Vaporized. I guess what I owned is in the lake.”
Needless to say, BK’s headquarters building was not the only one in the area to be rendered uninhabitable. Nearly half of the company’s 700 headquarters employees lived in the hardest-hit area of south Miami, and 300 of them were left homeless. Recalls Michael Evans, the company’s manager of media relations: “We literally had people living out of tents or in severely damaged homes. After a while we found that many of them gravitated towards the office. They needed the reassurance that although everything else was in chaos, the company was still operating, they still had jobs.”
Faced with a crisis of such magnitude, management made three swift decisions that were to guide its behavior throughout the recovery process. The first was that Burger King was not leaving Miami. The second was that no one would lose his or her job because of the hurricane. The third was that everyone would get paid from day one, regardless of their ability to work.
Management promptly placed newspaper and radio ads asking employees to call an 800 number - actually a switchboard at Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis - and let the company know where they could be contacted. Those employees were also told that they could receive assistance from the company. A pair of Winnebagos was set up outside the main gate, so that employees could come and tell the company where they were living and what their situation was.
Even so, it took Burger King a week to find everyone, and to learn that luckily none of its people had been killed. The last individual was located just a few hours before the company held its first post-Hurricane staff meeting, attended by 1,500 employees and family members, at the Doral Hotel, where management had set up an emergency HQ. At that meeting, the company’s comeback began. Management had set up what it described as “the world’s largest 7-11,” offering employees supplies ranging from ice - provided by BK supplier Coca-Cola - to disposable diapers and batteries.
At another booth, people were able to pick up their pay checks The company credit union was also authorized to loan any employee up to $1,000, interest free for the first six months and with no questions asked. Larger sums were available with some collateral. And withdrawals were made from 401k plans. The company even took 80 undamaged homes and apartments off the market and rented them for its employees.
In addition to the financial assistance, the company also paid for a team of psychiatrists to act as trauma counselors for employees and their families. Said Gibbons: “I’ve encouraged families to participate in trauma counseling, because it’s a good way to get these macho guys who do not believe they need counseling to sit down and talk and listen about what they’ve been through.” There were even representatives of the company’s construction staff on hand to offer advice on dealing with contractors to people whose homes had been damaged.
Two all important rules were communicated to all employees. First, if you think it’s right, do it. Second, take care of yourself and your family first, and then come back to work.
The company also played a part in providing aid to the broader community. Truckloads of food, clothing and other supplies were dispatched to the local Hurricane Relief Fund; Burger King restaurants in Florida raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Florida chapter of the American Red Cross; the company raised a further quarter of a million dollars from its corporate and field employees for a United Way relief effort; and working with public television, BK sponsored appearances by Sesame Street characters in the hardest hit areas of Homestead and Florida City.
Moreover, because Burger King restaurants rely on gas-powered flame broilers, many were distributing food within days, even in areas that had lost electricity.
The first vestige of the old culture to vanish was the suit and tie, buttoned-down corporate couture. “It’s hard to have a dress code when you don’t have a change of clothes,” says Michael Evans. “It’s hard to be concerned about what you’re wearing when the ceo hasn’t had a shower in three days.”
Jim Adamson, who was chief operating officer at the time of the disaster and who succeeded Gibbons as ceo eight months later, noticed that employee productivity actually increased in the wake of the storm: “I remember walking through our current office with Barry Gibbons,” he says, “and somebody said, ‘Have you noticed that you’ve gotten more done in the past two weeks than in the last two months?’ It was true.”
Adamson believes the explanation was better communication among employees. With everyone - management and rank-and-file workers - forced out of their highly-structured, hierarchical corporate rabbit warren, into utilitarian offices, there was more face-to-face contact than there had ever been, and employees at all levels shared the same experience of having lived through the disaster, losing possessions and in many cases their homes to the storm. People began to bond across departmental lines and levels of seniority.
“The dynamics of the recovery effort took us all by surprise,” Adamson says. “Some amazing things happened at the Doral and continued at our temporary offices. Walls came down, literally and figuratively. Leaders emerged, teams became strong. Creative thinking, aggressive decision-making and fresh ideas became the stuff our daily lives were made of.”
Gibbons had been brought in by Grand Met in 1989, and had already demonstrated his interest in making some cultural changes, becoming more employee-focused. The hurricane, and the changes it forced, enabled those changes to take place almost over night, rather than over the period of years that massive cultural change can take under normal circumstances. As Gibbons was fond of saying, Andrew “blew out the organizational cholesterol.”
The kind of institutional resistance that usually accompanies such a revolution - particularly the concern of middle managers who have thrived under the traditional command-and-control culture and who often feel that they are being asked to surrender their hard-earned status to newly-empowered employees - was almost entirely absent. It was almost as though people were too busy pulling together to notice that the way they worked had been transformed.
Eventually, corporate staffers were dispersed to other locations in and around Miami. Senior executives, along with the PR and human resources people, were housed in an office building close to the airport; the legal department and marketing people took up residence with outside law firms and ad agencies, respectively; the information services staff moved in with IBM, one of the company’s leading partners.
Meanwhile, Gibbons and Adamson and others were thinking about rebuilding, and the way in which the new headquarters might encourage and solidify the cultural changes they saw taking place. It was decided that the design of the building itself could be used to communicate the idea of a company reborn, revitalized, revolutionized by disaster.
Burger King worked with NBBJ, a Seattle-based architectural firm to transform the office space.
One of the symbols of the old corporate culture was a strip of offices on the sixth floor, all with ocean views and solid walls that prevented any natural light from reaching the cubby-holes in the building’s interior, known not entirely affectionately as “mahogany row.” The offices were reserved for senior management and members of the executive committee.
“There was very little pedestrian traffic,” says Michael Evans. “Employees never went there without a purpose, and when their business was conducted they got the hell out. It made the sixth floor a dark, institutional-looking place.”
Today, the rule is that no executive committee member has an office looking out over the ocean. For the most part, they travel a good deal, and as such their offices stand empty. The ceo’s old office now houses half a dozen accounting professionals. Secretaries are lined up where the old executive offices were.
“We wanted the best offices to go to the people who do the most work,” says Michael Evans, whose own space has a window while that of his immediate supervisor, Cori Zywotow, does not.
The ceo’s office is in the middle of the fifth floor, with no outside windows, a cubicle about 12 feet by nine feet, with a simple desk and a small meeting space, sandwiched between the public relations and human resources “neighborhoods.”
The “neighborhood” concept is central to the design of the new headquarters. Each floor has a “main street” running through it, with departments positioned to either side in their “neighborhoods.” The five and half foot partitions that kept people apart from one another are gone; less imposing glass panels have taken their place. There are no doors on any office - including the ceo’s - although the 80 or so small, informally decorated conference rooms dotted around the building and informally known as “ice cubes” do have doors, as do the bathrooms. People move freely and constantly from one neighborhood to another. There’s amazing interactivity. Management by walking around has been taken to its ultimate extreme.
The color scheme is vivid: the carpets are red and yellow and green and black, the colors representing ketchup and mustard and lettuce and the flame-broiled burgers themselves. The walls are decorated with stills from Burger King advertising campaigns of old, and even parodies of famous artists, incorporating burgers into works in the style of van Gogh, Matisse, Magritte, Lichtenstein, Picasso and others. It’s hard to believe that two years ago this could have been the office of an insurance company, or a medical supply firm. It would be impossible to make that mistake today.
“One of the most important things was that we talked to our employees throughout this process,” says Evans. “We talked to them constantly about the changes and why we were making them and what they would mean. We talked to them about what Main Street was and what the neighborhoods were. We found that they were very, very receptive and responsive.”
Jim McMillan, meanwhile, was called upon to develop public areas that communicated the change to visitors, working with local interior designer Alex Channing.
“It was great assignment, because I knew the company and I knew what the new culture was all about, and I was being given the chance to create something that expressed that new culture,” says McMillan.
The burger embedded in the reception area wall was his first creation; the mural came next; then another mural in the technical center, featuring a conveyor line along which passed burgers, fried and sodas, carried along to eagerly waiting children. In the corridors of the main building, whimsical art works decorate the rotundas: here a fireworks display of exploding french fries; there a flying Whopper.
“We felt like there was an identity here we could claim as our own,” says McMillan. “Wendy’s is very homey, its image personified by Dave. McDonald’s is very corporate, very controlled. We have always been the voice of the people, with our ‘have it your way’ philosophy and our ‘break the rules’ ad campaign of a few years ago, but we’ve never really leveraged that. We have the right to claim that positioning, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The next challenge for McMillan and the others is to revitalize Burger King’s restaurants - not the most visually appealing in the fast food world - in the same way. It’s a challenge with some obstacles. Adamson had been emphasizing the importance of establishing more friendly relations with franchisees - says Michael Evans: “The traditional Burger King franchisee had been somewhat cantankerous, often with good reason.” - and again the Hurricane was a catalyst for accelerated change.
Burger King has 39,000 corporate employees worldwide. Most of the 270,000 who earn their living working in Burger King restaurants, and who have direct contact with the company’s customers, do not draw their pay checks directly from the corporation, but rather from the individual franchisees. That creates some communications challenges.
Rather than focusing on training retail employees to serve consumers better, the company had to focus on training its corporate people, and particularly the field force, to serve franchisees better, and hope that the new corporate attitude trickled through to the consumer.
“We want to make franchisees part of the revolution that was going on here at headquarters,” says Evans. “We recognized that we needed to talk with them rather than to them. As part of a restructuring effort, we doubled our field staff, and we changed the focus for the field staff from police, patrol and correct, which had been the attitude in the past, to help, educate and inform. Rather than having our quality control people slap a franchisee with all the things he was doing wrong, they were now actually helping them to get the job done and make money.”
One of the mechanisms by which the company hoped to communicate this new relationship was the creation of a series of franchisee advisory committees for every aspect of the business: a marketing advisory council, a franchisee relations council, a minority franchisee association.
Grand Met, everyone involved in the post-Hurricane recovery agrees, was more supportive than anyone had dared hope. There had been questions about the British conglomerate’s enthusiasm for Burger King, which had been presented as a “poison pill” element in the acquisition of Pillsbury, but Grand Met provided BK management with what amounted to a blank check.
Says Ian Martin, group managing director and chief operating officer: “There’s no denying that a new and improved corporate culture emerged from the ruin, one that encourages open communication, limited bureaucracy and creative decision-making. It’s evident in the new environment and in the business results.”
So it was that representatives of the parent company were present when the new headquarters opened more than a year after the hurricane took its toll.
“Everyone in this company has a story to tell,” said Jim Adamson, at the rededication of the redesigned corporate offices. “Each of us had a moment where we were able to help someone else, to contribute to the effort, to make a difference. Each and every one of us endured a hardship over the past 13 months that few if any corporations have ever had to endure. Thrown from their offices, many of them without homes, our people kept their spirits up, moved the business forward, and kept their sense of humor.”
The ceremony recognized the contribution of employees, of suppliers such as the Doral and Coca-Cola, and of Grand Met, whose chairman Sir Allen Sheppard, was presented with a piece of the headquarters building in recognition of the parent company’s support. The afternoon’s events also included the symbolic removal of a car that had been embedded in the wall of the company parking lot and remained there throughout the rebuilding effort.
Finally, the globe wrapped in a Burger King logo that is at the center of the new headquarters’ courtyard was unveiled, with its plaque: “More than one year after Hurricane Andrew stormed our corporate headquarters, we celebrate our homecoming. As a worldwide company with restaurants in every corner of the globe, Burger King Corporation dedicates this monument to the special place on earth we call home. September 30, 1993.”
Ongoing internal communications efforts are as informal as the culture. The most effective medium for communication is word-of-mouth, since there is so much more interaction than there was; for more urgent communications, the company uses an e-mail system, and for communicating with the field force, a new audio newsletter is being developed.
Evans concedes that management has done little formal research to measure the impact of the culture change on employee loyalty, motivation and performance, but says that every member of the management believes that the change has been beneficial, that it has transformed the company. “We see the benefits of this new way of doing things every day,” he insists. “It’s a tangible change.”
Perhaps the most convincing testament to the resilience of the new culture and its impact on the organization became evident earlier this year when Jim Adamson shocked the company with his resignation. One of the first priorities for David Nash, who stepped into the ceo’s role, was to affirm his commitment to continuing along the path Gibbons and Adamson had pioneered, and the transition to the new corporate leadership was almost seamless.
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