How companies battle crises: 3 true stories

Ships stranded in the Suez Canal. Art by John Steventon for "The American Club: A Centennial History," published by CorporateHistory.net (used by permission of The American Club)

No crisis in the past century compares to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet each crisis in its own era seemed insurmountable at the start. At CorporateHistory.net, we encourage clients to chronicle how they have faced external challenges—if only because every reader loves a good survival story. Trials by fire also reveal turning points, lessons learned, and what the culture is really made of. Here are three examples.

World War II uses of Clorox liquid bleach included neutralization of mustard gas. This photo appears in “The Clorox Company: 100 Years, 1000 Reasons,” written by Marian Calabro, CorporateHistory.net (photo courtesy of The Clorox Company)

World War II: The Clorox Company helped the U.S. to “soldier on.” Bleach-making was an essential wartime industry because bleach can disinfect wounds, neutralize gases, and purify water. When chlorine prices soared, the War Department urged an easy fix: dilution. Clorox politely but firmly refused, insisting that buyers (including the military) should get the full strength they paid for. Another example of integrity: Clorox legally could have held suppliers to long-term contracts negotiated at 1930s prices. Instead, the company paid its vendors full wartime market price to maintain good relationships. And when the work week grew from 40 to 48 hours to meet increased demand, workers were compensated a full 20% more. Supervisors and execs took less.

Ships stranded in the Suez Canal. Art by John Steventon for “The American Club: A Centennial History,” published by CorporateHistory.net (photo courtesy of The American Club)

Suez Canal closure: the American Club, a maritime insurer, supported the stranded “yellow fleet.” In one key sense, the Six-Day War in the Middle East lasted eight years. Fifteen ships that had been transiting the Suez Canal during the 1967 war were unable to leave when political forces blocked both ends. The closing of the canal, which lasted until 1975, not only stranded “The Yellow Fleet” (so named for the wind-blown desert sands that coated the ships). It also disrupted international commerce by forcing ships to make long voyages around Africa. Risks grew. But throughout, the American Club, which provides protection and indemnity insurance to world shippers, staunchly supported its members.

Northwest Community Hospital in Illinois played a key role in solving the Tylenol crisis. Story recounted in NCH’s 50-year history published by CorporateHistory.net

Tylenol® poisonings: Northwest Community Hospital (NCH) helped solve the mystery and reduce further deaths. In 1982, members of a family in suburban Chicago began dying suddenly and mysteriously. The Intensive Care Unit at NCH tried to save them, but the usual interventions didn’t work. After noting certain common symptoms, NCH’s ICU Medical Director, Thomas Kim, MD, had the foresight to consult with experts at a federal poison center. Authorities soon made the connection: someone had laced Tylenol bottles with deadly cyanide. Today the incident is remembered mainly for manufacturer Johnson & Johnson’s exemplary crisis response. NCH, however, was the first responder, which helped limit the number of deaths to seven. “Deductive thinking ruled the day,” Dr. Kim said.

You can read more about these clients and their books in the portfolio pages of CorporateHistory.net. Next month we’ll recount more survival stories, including how Annin Flagmakers responded to 9/11 and American Water helped to minimize repercussions of Superstorm Sandy and other natural disasters. Until then, the team at CorporateHistory.net wishes you good health and fortitude at this unprecedented time.