Lessons from September 11th: Protecting Assets, Associates, and Customers

Saks Fifth Avenue NYC

LP Magazine recently conducted a series of interviews with some of those who were in New York City on September 11th—leaders from some of Manhattan’s most prominent retailers who faced 9/11 and the aftermath of that dark day firsthand. Through their eyes, we can get a glimpse how what retailers saw, experienced, learned, and how they responded.

Here, Tony Caccioppoli, formerly the senior director of asset protection operations with Saks Fifth Avenue, shares his account of what he experienced at the time. Caccioppoli is currently vice president of corporate asset protection with Hudson’s Bay Company, the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue.

Tony Caccioppoli

Where were you on the morning of September 11th?

CACCIOPPOLI: Saks Fifth Avenue was holding a loss prevention summit in New Jersey with about 100 LP team members from stores across the country. We were in the middle of kicking off that day’s events, and we were going through one of the exercises when hotel management came into the auditorium and told us what was happening.

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At that immediate time, I didn’t appreciate the gravity of what had occurred. As the day went on and it started to set in, I began to realize the enormity of the situation. I mean, we were watching these horrific newsreels and live events from news agencies across the country. I remember vividly a colleague that used to work with me saying, “Tony, mark this day, the world will never be the same.” And that’s when it started to sink in.

What were your first steps?

CACCIOPPOLI: Our senior leadership team at the event included Rosamaria Sostilio, Tom Matthews, and myself. Rosamaria dealt with the people side of things, Tom took the task of getting in touch with company leadership of the company, while I focused on dealing with law enforcement and the physical security aspects of our operations.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to everyone, the cell towers were overloaded and being shut down, so we had difficulty getting in touch with our CEO and the rest of the C-suite members. My responsibility was to get in touch with law enforcement—particularly in New York City. While the event was taking place directly downtown with the buildings collapsing, the fires, and the atrocities happening there, because we had such a big presence in the midtown and Rockefeller Center area, there was still considerable concern for additional attacks. I still had a responsibility to the company, and that’s where my focus remained—our iconic flagship on Fifth Avenue, the well-being of our associates in the building, and our corporate office associates across the street.

Communication was very limited. We were able to forward a couple of text messages to get in touch with a few people, but that soon halted. The hotel afforded me a line that, for whatever reason, was still open and I was able to make a couple of quick calls to the corporate offices, the LP team at our flagship to let them know where we were and that we were safe, and to inquire about their wellbeing. Then I called my law enforcement contacts to ask that they help keep us informed and keep the flagship store and associates safe and protected.

While working through all this, I was also facing my own personal trepidations. I had my wife in the city, she was working in midtown. I was worried about how she was going to get home. I had my eight-year-old son in school on Long Island. So, my wife is stuck in the city. All the passageways in and out of the city were shut down. All the bridges and tunnels closed. There was no way to get out. It was a nightmare to work through, but we simply did the best we could.

In the face of such tragedy, it’s amazing to see people come together. The hotel was amazing. The general manager worked with us to accommodate our team, realizing that even though they were booked, they wouldn’t be getting in new guests. So, we had a place to camp out and manage other concerns while facilitating the direct needs of our team. Our biggest concern was contacting company leadership, which we were having difficulty contacting at the height of the events.

In the days and weeks that followed, how were things handled?

CACCIOPPOLI: It was a very somber time. It was a time for respect and coming together. There was a patriotic feeling at the time that was just incredible. We blacked out the windows in the flagship store at the very beginning and only had an American flag. The store was lined in flags. We had flags surrounding the building. Our company was very sensitive, and we kept it very respectful.

But there were so many outside issues that were difficult to handle. You had to be factual, but you couldn’t be overly upbeat. Every day there was a funeral. Every day there was sadness. It was a very solemn feeling to come to work, especially if it involved a member of the fire department or the police, with hundreds, if not thousands from all over the country attending funerals at St Patrick’s Cathedral, which is right next to the store. You had to have the right tone. You had to find that right mix, the right balance.

We still had to make provisions to protect the store, due to concerns about another potential attack. That took us to a point where we went from basic security as a protection team in the flagship, to every door being manned by an off-duty police officer. We’re trying to get people who had a law enforcement-type background—somebody that can see something come by or pick up something that the average person couldn’t—to help us mitigate any potential problem. Mind you, we were dark for a few weeks, but you still have the building and the assets to protect.

We may have had many different types of emergency scenarios that we had planned for, but we didn’t have a plan for this. We had all these layers of peripheral programs. But at the end of the day, it was our responsibility to protect the company. Whether it be the assets, the merchandise, the employees, the building, the people that are walking in. It was eye opening for me. It was eye opening for the city.

EAP (emergency action plans) is all you heard, and in New York the government agency that took on that responsibility was the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). They formulated a process that had to be put together with a curriculum based on their requirements. They had to approve it. And we went from just doing basic fire drills to having actual plans to evacuate, shelter in place, or partial evacuation. That plan had to reach beyond fires or natural disasters. It was for manmade disasters.

If you look at the response of your leadership teams, your store associates, and your customers, how did they respond to everything that you were doing?

CACCIOPPOLI: You’re not just developing a plan or implementing the plan, you’re also communicating the plan—and in a way that people accepted, respected, and followed. We wanted everyone in the store to be a part of that response.

We were very fortunate that leadership of the organization was extremely supportive. There really wasn’t a “no” to any reasonable asks. We knew the employees were uncomfortable. I think the associates saw the actions that we were taking and that made them feel somewhat better. It’s not what you want to see in a luxury environment, but I think we gave them a little comfort when they walked on the floor.

It was about doing it in a way that wasn’t adding any more angst. You wanted to create an environment where they felt safe and comfortable. There was always one of us there with the store team, walking around, shaking hands. And when the leadership of the company would come into the store and talk to the associates, the associates told them, “We’re so thankful that the asset protection department is doing this.”

How did September 11th change the approach of the asset protection department?

CACCIOPPOLI: This event changed my mindset regarding what I really need to do to protect the company. It changed my outlook on what I do and how I can contribute to the organization. We had to think about things differently. My strategy, from a true asset protection standpoint, is to mitigate our exposure. On an average day, we might have 11,000 customers passing through our stores. During the holiday season, it peaked as high as 44,000 one year. I knew the director of security at Rockefeller Center. I asked him the same question. He says about 270,000 people pass through, and once the tree is lit, that triples. These are the things we have to think about today.

People are always going to steal. There are all kinds of threats we’ve dealt with over the years. But this was an eye opener for us. You never thought something like this would happen. And we weren’t prepared. Right away, there were a lot of lessons learned.

  • We started doing tabletop exercises. With my relationships with NYPD, I remember distinctly one we did about two years later. It was a memorable day of people from the Office of Emergency Service, NYPD, FDNY, and subject-matter experts from different sections of those agencies. We created a scenario and did a tabletop exercise. I’ll never forget the event. There were so many lessons learned.
  • We created standard operating procedures that assign everyone a responsibility. Everyone assumes a role in a very specific part of the store with a very specific responsibility. And based on what the event was, we would execute whatever we needed to execute. First and foremost is getting human lives out of harm’s way, whatever the issue at hand was.
  • During the holiday season, we hired a retired fire captain to stay in the building, to work in the building, to show us where our exposures could be.
  • We subsequently engaged both the FBI and NYPD and held separate counter-terrorism training classes from each agency. They shared actual video surveillance of people who were planning terrorist events and some of the strategies they used to carry out their plan. Again, more lessons learned.
  • I played “what if” games with my team members. If this happens today, what would we do? What are you going to do?”
  • We invested in technology. We have remote monitoring now and other tools. We have strategic plans, go bags, supplies, and other items on the ready. We’re more prepared because of 9/11.
  • We took all kinds of steps to harden the building, including hiring former police officers and frequently scheduled explosive detection K9 patrols throughout the year. When they work the store, they patrol the outside of the building, the basement, and our receiving and loading dock areas. They go through every access point and walk every sales floor and back of house spaces. I wanted to do it in a way that was extremely professional, yet create the right optics for anyone who might be conducting any type of reconnaissance of our store.
  • We proactively built and strategically placed decorative planters containing 3000 pounds of concrete around the perimeter of our flagship to deter and prevent the recent terrorist trend in Europe of ramming vehicles into large crowds. I wanted our sidewalks safe from those types of events.

Those are just some of the ways 9/11 helped heighten my senses. We tried to learn from the best, both within our industry or others who had more experience than we had. The guy running out with the handbags, he’s always going to be there. But when you have one of these horrific events, we have an obligation. It isn’t just the merchandise. It’s protecting the employees. It’s protecting the customers. Life is the most valuable asset that we have.

How do you think that this experience and going through all of this impacted you at the time, and what have you carried forward from there? How has it changed who you are as a leader?

CACCIOPPOLI: It’s forever changed us. Without a doubt. It definitely shifted our perspective. There’s an area over here that we’re really not looking at. Not only aren’t we looking at it, we really don’t know much about it. And if our company is impacted by one of those events, it’s going to be very costly.

It gave me perspective. You don’t know what you don’t know. What we thought we knew, what we thought we could prepare for in that situation, we were not even close. And just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, there’ll be something else that comes along that will make us honest again.

All this put me in a situation to be honest with myself. As one of the leaders of this department for this company, do I really have everything that I need to properly contribute? To properly protect the organization? I learned every day that it was a very humbling experience. It made me a better person, a better leader.

In the beginning of this tragic time, we were running on pure adrenaline. There was always something going on. We couldn’t deal with it at the time. But sooner or later, it all hits you. There was a heaviness in the air. But then little by little, we begin to heal. Not only as individuals, but society as a whole. Every day you have to move forward.

I hope to God that we never go through anything like that again. And I hope that all the things that we have put in place, we never have to use. I hope people come into our environment feeling comfortable and protected. Twenty years has been a long time. I still hope that everyone that visits our stores feels appreciated, and they appreciate everything that we do to keep it that way.

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