When Disaster Strikes – Three Wisconsin Banks Share Their Stories of Recovery

If experience is the best teacher, then Wisconsin banks have learned a lot about business continuity planning and disaster recovery over the past two years. Several institutions put their business continuity plans to the test in the wake of disasters. Three of them—Fox River State Bank, Burlington, Bank of Sun Prairie, and Park Bank, Madison—spoke with WBA about what they learned in the process. 

Under Two Feet of Water – Fox River State Bank

Fox River State Bank

Pictured above: Fox River State Bank after the flooding. 

Southeastern Wisconsin received torrents of rain over several days in early July 2017. On July 12, Fox River State Bank President and CEO Keith Pollek drove to work on flooded streets and arrived to an underwater parking lot and water coming out the front door of the bank. After the nearby Fox and White rivers flooded further, the building ended up under 21 inches of water, despite sandbagging and other prevention efforts. 

Burlington-based Fox River State Bank's SVP/COO Jeff Schmid, who also serves as the bank's disaster recovery officer, was on a train coming back from New Mexico when the flooding occurred. He called in via cell phone to the recovery planning meeting where officers of the bank reviewed the disaster recovery plan he had created. The plan called for a team made up of officers who brought personal laptops and printers, and each team member had a flash drive with key information and websites that they use frequently. "We were able to operate out of our second branch in Lake Geneva because of that," Schmid explained. 

Another key feature of the plan: Schmid developed it anticipating flooding as the primary risk to the bank, due to its geographical location. He also utilized outside resources as a guide, including Lessons Learned from Katrina from the FFIEC and FDIC. "The disaster recovery plan was not something I just sat down and penned one day," he said. 

That foresight and preparation paid off. Although the full recovery took longer, Fox River State Bank was only closed for four days. Both Pollek and Schmid gave a great amount of credit to employees, directors, and their families for that achievement. 

Main Street Devastation – Bank of Sun Prairie

Main Street Sun Prairie

Pictured above: Main Street Sun Prairie after the explosion. Photo courtesy of John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal.

Unlike a flooding disaster at a bank located at the juncture of two rivers, some disasters are completely unpredictable… like a catastrophic explosion. A breached gas main led to the earth-shaking blast on July 10, 2018 that leveled several buildings in downtown Sun Prairie, including the Barr House pub, who's owner Capt. Cory Barr, a volunteer firefighter, lost his life in the explosion. 

The explosion decimated buildings a block away, but the Bank of Sun Prairie's downtown branch received comparatively little damage—mostly dust and debris. Instead, the challenge facing the bank was safety; to reduce the chances of additional explosions, the city cut power to the entire area, effectively turning off the bank's main infrastructure, including its servers and phone system. "We didn't have access to anything," said Chris Berdan, vice president of information technology at the Bank of Sun Prairie. "Everything was down." Fortunately, power was restored shortly after the bank initiated its network disaster recovery plan as part of its business continuity and disaster recovery plan. 

Not all aspects of the plan went as smoothly. "Everyone was sorting out the most important thing we needed to take care of next, particularly for the customers," said Dena Hineline, AVP-deposit operations manager at the Bank of Sun Prairie. "We were prioritizing on the fly." For example, staff were moved to the bank's location on Grand Avenue for a week, per the disaster recovery plan, but that location only had 12 computers. "Once the city let us back into the branch for a few minutes, I grabbed every spare laptop that we had," Berdan said. "You can have the best plan in the world, but if you don't have the equipment to execute it, you can't." Moving forward, Berdan is stocking each branch location with what he called a "disaster recovery kit": extra laptops, monitors, and networking equipment for displaced staff. "That will allow us to set people up at different locations," he said. "Without equipment, you're inoperable."

The disaster also exposed areas of the plan that had unintended consequences when followed. Normal operations for the bank is to route all calls through their switchboard. However, the disaster recovery plan called for routing all calls to the Grand Avenue location, where every phone in the branch would ring for every call. "We didn't know if we'd have a switchboard," Berdan explained. "Thankfully, we were able to set Jackie—our switchboard operator—up at a different cubicle and reroute everything to her, so we were back to normal operations within a few hours." 

Ultimately, the bank's disaster recovery plan provided a foundational checklist to follow, but staff discovered the need to re-order items based on urgency. "Plans are great for a reference point, but in the heat of the moment you need to identify the best next step and the customer priority," Hineline explained. She recommends going through the bank's disaster recovery plan (at a high level) with the entire team in order to expose areas that may have been overlooked. "It's a good strategy so everyone knows what to expect," she said. "Things that might seem obvious to me, like having tokens offsite, can be easy to miss." However, having a plan can help the bank and staff be better prepared for the unexpected. "You never think it's going to be you until it is," Hineline said.

Flooded Foundation – Park Bank

Flooding in Middleton

Pictured above: Flooding in Middleton near Park Bank's branch location. Photo courtesy of Molly Beck, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Madison area received over a foot of rain on Aug. 21, 2018, after nearly a week of heavy rainfall. The deluge flooded many streets and buildings, including the office structure housing the Middleton branch of Madison-based Park Bank. Fortunately, the branch itself sustained no damage. Unfortunately, two million gallons of water flooded the basement and parking garage, where the majority of the building's mechanicals were located. Staff likely will not be able to re-enter the building until sometime in January 2019, according to Park Bank IT Systems Officer Jeffrey Kurek, who is also a member of the 2018-2019 WBA Technology/Operations Committee. 

Their centralized technology systems prevented the bank from experiencing significant impact, Kurek explained. "We don't have infrastructure in branches, so we have an environment where anyone can work from anywhere [teller transactions excluded], whether that's from home or in a branch," Kurek explained. Lenders, for example, simply went to a different office location and signed in. 

The bank, using their disaster recovery plan, was able to navigate through tasks that needed to be completed in order to minimize the impact on clients. "The plan is a framework," Kurek said. "The components may not go in the order you have laid out, because you might not be able to get information at specific times in order to execute certain tasks, but the key components will all be there." 

"The biggest impact is client-facing," Kurek continued. The main disruption for clients was being unable to go to the Middleton location to conduct transactions, revealing the areas in which branches are still important for certain clients. 

The key to success, Kurek said, is to incorporate business continuity and disaster recovery planning into the bank's standard technology and operational activities. "Continually adjust your plan," he advised. "As you update new technology and processes, include business continuity planning in the process. Make it part of the standard process, so if something happens, it has less of an effect on daily operations." 

Community Impact

All three institutions commented on the impact the disaster had on their community, as well as the impact the community had on the bank's recovery. Other Burlington-area banks offered to share teller lines and lend equipment to Fox River State Bank. "About a dozen small community banks reached out to ask what they could do to help," said Pollek. In Sun Prairie, the bank led community recovery efforts, setting up a relief fund to help those affected by the tragedy. "We had a whole team dedicated to looking at how we could help the community," said Hineline. "We had dozens of people stop into our Grand Avenue branch and ask what they could do to help," Berdan added.

By, Amber Seitz