The Issue: Coping with Catastrophe

These are challenging times for all chief executives, but it's fair to say that John Sheptor has had a tougher time than most over the past two years.

On Feb. 7, 2008, just eight days into his new role as CEO of Imperial Sugar, the largest publicly held U.S. sugar producer, Sheptor was touring a plant in Port Wentworth, a sleepy town outside Savannah, Ga., when the unthinkable happened. A series of explosions caused by combustible dust ripped through the plant, killing 14 and injuring dozens more. It was the second most deadly industrial explosion in the U.S. over the past decade.

Sheptor was thrown to the ground by the shock, and upon leaving the plant got his first view of the extent of the damage. "It was a horror to see," he recalls. Thankfully, Sheptor's emergency response training, honed during his years spent as a manufacturing and operations manager in the chemical industry, immediately kicked in. Sheptor knew that his first priority was to set up a command center and determine which employees were missing or injured. After that, he established a briefing area to communicate with the media. Finally, he set up separate posts to speak with government officials, community leaders, and families. "I spent the better part of a week shuttling between those locations," says Sheptor, adding that more than 400 people from outside the company were on the scene within 24 hours.

Compounding the challenge was that Sheptor had to juggle his normal duties as a CEO at the same time, in an industry riven by profound change. For example, in January of 2008 the North American Free Trade Agreement eliminated all tariffs on Mexican sugar, creating a new competitor for Sheptor overnight. The U.S. is an attractive market for Mexican sugar producers because the price is higher than that found in the world market. Sheptor assigned each business problem to a member of his senior management team, which allowed him to focus on the aftermath of the explosion.

(Subsequent investigations by both the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have blamed poor equipment design and lax safety standards for the disaster.)

On Nov. 6, Sheptor was on hand as Imperial Sugar celebrated the grand opening of its new Port Wentworth facility, which includes technology that the company claims will provide "a competitive edge and an exemplary model for safety."

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