Special Report on Company Relocation: How the IRA put firm's boast to the ultimate test: Martin Whitfield looks at the way Commercial Union stopped its drama becoming a crisis

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The Independent Online
THE City of London bomb blast earlier this year presented Commercial Union with more than just the devastation of its 23-storey headquarters.

As a major insurer, it was clear to management that the way in which the company responded would be an important test of its skills in handling disasters.

'We felt we needed to prove our slogan,' said Ray Morley, marketing services manager and a key figure in restoring the company's activities after the IRA bombing on Friday 10 April.

CU's advertising catchphrase 'We won't make a drama out of a crisis' is probably the best known in insurance, but can be difficult to live up to when 650 staff have had their place of work destroyed in a single violent act.

Mr Morley said that almost before two of the company's security guards, who were slightly injured, were released from hospital two hours after the explosion, it was evident that the building would be out of action for some time.

All telephone and computer links had gone. Most of the building's windows had been blown out, the blinds blowing around in the gaping holes becoming the symbol of the bombing.

A later detailed examination of St Helen's, as the headquarters building was known, estimated the reconstruction time at more than 12 months.

Each of the five major operating departments based at St Helen's had their own disaster plans but none had envisaged that the entire building would be unusable.

But the basics for emergency relocation were in place. CU knew every staff telephone number, it knew how many computers were being used, the square feet occupied by each department and which units of staff needed to be kept together.

It also knew what space was available in other offices in London and the South-east. Information was gleaned from duplicate copies of all emergency documents kept at Croydon, south London, as it was not possible to enter St Helen's.

Several relocation options were considered on that Saturday morning as telephone engineers discovered that the switchboard could be reconstitued at the Croydon computer centre, restoring 3,600 extensions in all CU's London offices. One initial thought was to transfer all 650 staff to one empty building developed by CU's property arm in Kingston, Surrey.

But it was crucial for trading and investment departments to be in the City of London - indeed, market licence requirements meant some staff had to be ready for trading on Monday morning.

The investment department and Quilter Goodison, CU's stockbroking company, found space quickly in the Broadgate development near Liverpool Street.

Other essential London staff were located in company offices at nearby Plantation House, while the remainder were spread to Croydon and Basildon, Essex. Desks, telephones and computer terminals were delivered over the weekend with CU praising its suppliers for their rapid emergency response.

By 9am on Monday most staff were at their new place of work. On the following day, all 650 were relocated except 19 who were either on sick leave or on holiday.

The disaster generated a huge amount of goodwill among staff - and among customers - but managers believed that commuting journeys of up to two hours each way every day would not be tolerated for long. 'One young woman working in Croydon was spending four hours getting to work from north Essex. We had to start looking for premises in London,' Mr Morely said.

The huge surplus of office space in the City was of obvious assistance in the search and two weeks after the bomb, CU announced that it had agreed a short-term lease on new offices at Cutler's Exchange, about 200 yards from St Helen's. All staff, with the exception of those relocated in Broadgate, are now working at Cutler's Exchange although the CU basement canteen is already back in action at St Helen's.

The possibility of longer term and longer distance relocations were considered, but rejected on the basis that the company had already moved out most staff who did not need to be located in the City.

Several other organisations, large and small, have contacted CU for advice and guidance on its disaster planning. 'It was very important for us to be able to say on Monday morning that it was 'business as usual',' Mr Morley said.

(Photographs omitted)