October 22, 2018

“We Had Gone Back 20 Years.” The Heads of Puerto Rico’s Largest Media Company on Life After Hurricane Maria

By Laura Amico, Harvard Business Review

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, it became one of the deadliest storms ever to hit the island. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and parts of the island are still recovering, lacking access to power and clean water more than a year later.

For one of Puerto Rico’s largest companies, Grupo Ferré Rangel, the impact has been enormous. The family-owned business runs Puerto Rico’s largest media company (GFR Media) as well as other companies focused on customer engagement (LinkActive) and real estate (Kingbird). Company President Maria Luisa Ferré Rangel and Chief Creative Officer Loren Ferré Rangel recently sat down with HBR to discuss how GFR has changed since Maria struck.

“After Hurricane María,” said María Luisa, “Puerto Rico will never be the same. Our memories are grounded in the fact that we went to bed with one reality, one country or one island; 24 hours later we woke up in a different place.” An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

HBR: As publishers and editors, you had to cover the disaster while your employees — and your businesses, by extension — faced extraordinary obstacles. How did you approach those first days and weeks?

María Luisa: Puerto Rico was completely devastated, and all of our businesses were impacted, too. Inside the newsroom, we had families living in the cafeteria, conference rooms, training centers etc.; there were 200 people who lived in our newsroom for weeks. We had to put in a daycare center, a catering center, provide cash because there was no way for people to take money out of the bank, provide cars for people, especially reporters, to get around. We worried all the time about having enough fuel for the generators. And that was just for our employees. When it came to the business, we had gone back 20 years and distributed the paper as a print product. The whole island was isolated from the world.

It was a race to transform ourselves. We were responsible for informing and connecting everyone in a very tricky environment. From the first moment, because our business is connecting people, we had to pick ourselves up and do our job. But the hurricane forced us to see ourselves in a different way. Our call centers became the FEMA call centers. We were supplying electricity and water to our properties that are part of our real estate business, and so we began to rent out small spaces to people who needed to get back to work but had no place to go. We gave space to NGOs so they could also be first responders in the emergency. We started to think about what other services we could provide, and this is when we began to refocus our business.

What do you mean, refocus?

María Luisa: The hurricane forced us to stretch our thinking, challenging our perception of what we believe we could do — what we are capable of achieving in times of crisis. Crisis brings opportunities to explore uncharted territories. We’re now looking into developing other businesses and strengthening our presence in other industries. For example, now with our call center experience, we are competing for the call centers for the U.S. and Caribbean. We are evaluating coworking space opportunities. We’re looking at affordable housing with a group that can build quickly with new technology that is hurricane proof and can prove self-sufficient after an emergency with integrated solar panels and battery packs. We’re investing in hurricane proof solar panels that are applicable to various surfaces. In addition, we are evaluating investing in small startups that are offering solutions to facilitate living.

These opportunities sprouted from the crisis. The ecosystem changed, Puerto Rico changed. We needed to adjust our plan to give room and seize the opportunities that had risen within housing, energy, and services.

What made you ready for these opportunities?

Loren: No one was really ready for the outcome post-María. However, having to navigate the landscape and having to get our businesses back in track, gave us the capacity to see the needs and thus the opportunities that were evident after the hurricane. We identified jobs to be done. The hurricane forced us to see ourselves in a different way.

María Luisa: Our businesses were able to operate immediately after Maria because we planned for redundancy — generators, diesel, tech infrastructure. For example, we had three internet suppliers and although connection was nonexistent internally, we were able to transmit and keep our coverage on our websites for those outside of Puerto Rico. We were highly focused on covering the story of Puerto Rico and helping the world understand what was going on here. The printed newspaper was the only source of information available at that moment, and we understood the importance of people having information that could save their lives, that is why we decided to [distribute] the paper for free.

The hurricane had a huge financial impact, especially for the media company. We had no advertising because most of our advertisers were closed, their agencies without power. The reality of running a continuous operation, the extra expenses of diesel, gasoline, food, and then we had the cost of taking care of our employees and their families, without the revenues amounted to a $14 million loss, which we were counting on our business interruption insurance policy to cover, but at this moment we haven’t received any payment from this part of the insurance. As a family, we had to put up the money to keep the media company running for months until slowly the advertising dollars started to come back. The reality of having an operation that was debt free became very real, because if in addition to the $14 million loss, we needed to pay our interest on loans/debt, it would have made it impossible for us to continue operations.

Soon after the hurricane, you had to make cuts at the media company. Were those related to the losses? Or a desire to invest in other newer parts of the business — the solar, the housing, the call centers, etc?

María Luisa: This was one of the most difficult decisions in our lives. We had great challenges in front of us, and we needed to make changes throughout the company, in order to continue our mission. In terms of the media company, we needed to revise processes and look for efficiencies. Our industry has been in the middle of a great transformation and the impact of the hurricane made it much worse, that is why it was so difficult to make the decisions, but also necessary to sustain the business through a very very difficult time. On the human side, we knew that some of these decisions were dramatic, but at the end we had to ensure the sustainability of the business in the middle of the crisis.

Do you feel that the company has stabilized? How long has it taken to restore a sense of normalcy?

María Luisa: It was really chaotic for a while because you had to survive every day. We didn’t know if we had enough diesel to operate. Most of us were not living at home. When you drove around Puerto Rico, there were no traffic signals, no policemen. And we had a mandatory curfew. We couldn’t be out in the street after 5 p.m. This lasted about a month.

The moment we started feeling as though we had routines, we felt the chaos subside. Even if it was just being at work and picking up trash in your office. Then, when the power started to come back, we started to feel a lot more secure. Then the water came back, and we started to feel more in control. This was four months after the hurricane.

None of our businesses stopped running, but the moment we were able to be fully operational was a big deal. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have issues. We were losing money. That’s when we realized we had to create a new strategy. That we didn’t have time. That we had to move very fast.

It sounds like even though the chaos was subsiding, there was a lot that was still unsettled for a lot of people. How do you introduce a new strategy when employees are already stressed? Was it even a good idea to introduce a new strategy at this time?

María Luisa: Our focus was on making sure our employees were safe and on their way to full recovery. But we quickly started pulling people together in new ways and working in teams and across silos. The teams knew the company was stable but under threat. You can imagine my thoughts of, “How do you tell them that it’s going to be ok? How do you motivate them?” In our regular meetings with all the teams, and in every conference room, we pasted a Winston Churchill quote: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” We also pasted a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” We wanted people to know that the important thing for us was to keep moving forward and celebrate moving forward. That mentality has really helped us.

Beyond shifting in strategy, how did Maria change your business? What are some of the lessons that you learned?

María Luisa: We learned about our emergency operations. We were relying so much on technology that we forgot basics like having a list of where employees live, on paper. The computers didn’t work. We couldn’t send emails. Now we have a roster. We have added regular land lines as backup in communication and now we are working on mapping out where our employees live and how to physically reach them in case of an emergency, also creating emergency centers in our distribution buildings and call centers buildings.

And, in the media company, we were so into covering the story, in surviving the moment, that we might have lost sight that our own people were suffering. We look outside a lot — we covered the loss of Puerto Rico, but maybe we didn’t look inside enough. In hindsight, while we were working through the crisis, focused on getting the information out, we should have also had a group of our own people looking to the needs of our staff and having the space and time to process what has happened to them on individual levels too… counseling, for example. Now we’re creating a wellness program to help people deal with the trauma everybody had. And that nourishing part is a lesson to be learned.

You’ve just marked the 100th anniversary of GFR. And the one-year anniversary of Maria. What are you thinking about most? What are you hopeful about? What are you worried about?

We are thinking about the future. The social inequalities unveiled by this disaster must be addressed. How do we become resilient and how do we keep transforming — until every Puerto Rican family has a secure roof over their heads, functioning and affordable utilities, access to quality education and health services, jobs, safety, and food on their table? This is work that continues until our businesses and our economy are back on track and the social fiber of our society is regenerated and healed.

Our family has been in Puerto Rico for over a century, and we are planning to be around for many, many more years to come. We have been present and committed to Puerto Rico during times of prosperity, but most importantly, during times of adversity. Adversity has a way of reminding us how strong we all can be.