BATON ROUGE, La. — It's April again, which means Randy Fletcher and his preparedness team at Associated Grocers here are beginning the annual process of getting ready for emergencies that may pop up in August or September.
Fletcher is vice president of logistics and supply chain management for the member-owned wholesaler — a position he's held for more than 10 years — and, having spent more than 33 years with the company in a variety of positions, he said he understands the complexities necessary to be prepared in case a natural disaster strikes.
Until a few years ago, AG didn't have a formal plan for dealing with disasters “because we got lulled into complacency when we had no events to deal with for two or three years,” Fletcher said.
But in 2002 and 2003, several tropical storms and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico forced AG to develop a plan.
Each potential emergency that may occur requires a plan for before, during and after the event, and the plans differ in scope depending on what part of AG's distribution area — a 200-mile stretch from Houston to Mobile, Ala. — is affected, Fletcher told SN.
“We've learned to adjust the plans for the number of customers we serve in any area that could be impacted,” he explained.
And despite the best of plans, there are still occasional glitches, he noted.
“For example, if we make advance arrangements with a vendor to have inventory in a position ready to ship to us as needed in an emergency and the vendor fails to do so, we will change suppliers,” he said. “That doesn't happen often, but it has happened.”
One problem last year that resulted in a change this year involves generators — AG has purchased two of its own 25-kilowatt generators for use at its distribution center.
“Because the warehouse is on the same power grid as two area hospitals, we've never lost power for more than one or two hours, which gave us a false sense of security,” Fletcher explained. “But when Hurricane Gustav hit last year, it tore up the infrastructure in Baton Rouge and we lost power in the warehouse for 30 hours. We had leased some generators in advance, but when we actually requested them, we didn't get them, so we bought our own.”
Disaster planning for the summer storm season begins in April, with Fletcher and his staff identifying the items AG is likely to need as emergency supplies and establishing emergency inventory levels, in conjunction with the company's sales and marketing team. While items are usually the same from year to year — water, canned goods, dry ice and batteries, among others — the suppliers of some items may have changed or, as in the case of an item like squeeze mayonnaise, may have been discontinued, he pointed out.
The sales and marketing people also verify the items needed to build up their inventories, either at the warehouse or in pre-determined locations, Fletcher said.
“In May, we contact suppliers to verify our plans with them and to coordinate shipments to us in June of emergency supplies. We also prearrange with vendors to trigger deliveries of extra supplies when the time is right so we can get what we need when we need it, not 10 days later.”
In addition, AG reestablishes its contacts with local authorities, including law enforcement and emergency agencies, to make sure it has all the necessary cell numbers and email addresses, Fletcher said. “Cell phone service is often disrupted in emergencies, but email and especially texting are the most reliable ways to communicate with those agencies — as well as with our stores — to determine accessibility and local conditions.”
The wholesaler also has to figure out how to be self-sufficient, in case it cannot reach local authorities or if they are tied up with other matters, Fletcher said.
“People react to what prognosticators say, so if they say a storm will not be a big one, the stores, along with consumers, generally ignore it.
“But at the warehouse, our feeling is that prediction can change and any storm can get worse, so we utilize the window of opportunity we have to get extra supplies to stores that might be impacted if a storm does exceed predictions and before the traffic increases so they have the ability to serve their customers,” he explained. “We think it's better to have an abundance of merchandise just in case, so we get the supplies out well in advance of the predicted storm.”
If it turns out the product wasn't needed, the wholesaler can just take it back.
“We don't send it out just to boost sales — we do it because it's in the stores' best interests.”
AG also takes into account the human element — its employees — in its emergency planning, Fletcher said.
“We can make the best plans ever, but you need people to execute them,” he explained. “So we've developed emergency kits for employees with non-perishable foods, water, batteries and other basic supplies, so they don't have to worry about feeding their families, and we give them five gallons of fuel so they don't have to wait in long lines for gas, and that enables them to put the focus on coming to work and serving our retail customers.”