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CEO takes charge amid tragedy

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

On Jan. 29, 2003, an explosion destroyed a West Pharmaceutical Services factory in Kinston, N.C. Along with six deaths and dozens of injuries at the plant, the resulting fire burned for two days.

Donald Morel Jr., West’s then-CEO, was returning to the Philadelphia area from a business trip to New Jersey when he received the news. Morel rushed home, packed a bag and chartered a plane. He and his team reached the decimated Kinston plant at 11p.m.

The explosion left the facility in ruins. Morel couldn’t access HR records to determine who was working at the time of the blast, so he stayed up all night trying to account for employees’ whereabouts.

After conducting media interviews the next morning, Morel convened a meeting of all Kinston employees. He reassured them that he’d find out what happened, promised to pay them for the coming month and emphasized that West would take care of its customers.

“It’s employees and families first,” he said. “It’s customers second and anything else we are not going to worry about it, because it is probably out of our control anyway.”

On the weekend following the accident, Morel returned to the company’s headquarters outside Philadelphia. Arriving on Sunday, he saw staffers moving machinery to different factories, lining up raw materials from vendors and implementing other aspects of West’s disaster recovery plan.

West wound up filling all its orders for 2003 despite losing a huge chunk of its production capacity. And the company built a new plant in Kinston, which remains to this day.

— Adapted from “Plant explosion teaches a West CEO a lesson in leadership,” Jane Von Bergen, www.philly.com.

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