On his way to his executive office in the World Financial Center on the morning of September 11th, Dick Tofel stepped out of the subway and onto the streets adjacent to the World Trade Center.
“As I walked along the street with my head down in that half-stupor we’re all in at that time of the morning, I was around here,” he said, indicating on a chalk-drawn map a place on the street directly beside the North Tower. “And suddenly I heard a huge noise that I recognized as a revving airplane engine, so I looked up, and immediately I felt and saw an enormous explosion above me at the World Trade Center.”
Dick Tofel, Vice President of Dow Jones and Assistant to the Publisher of The Wall Street Journal, described the event in stunning eyewitness detail last week at HBS. The focus of his talk was the management decisions he made that day, but the start of his talk left his listeners in stunned silence. (HBS community members can watch the video of Tofel’s talk.)
“A lot of people say that it was just like in the movies,” said Tofel, “and that’s exactly what I thought. There were all these flames and debris falling from above, and there I was standing there on the street below and I thought, ‘You know, that stuff is going to fall right about…here,'” where he was standing.
Tofel ran for cover inside Century 21, the famed discount retailer across from the North Tower, “and waited for the stuff to fall,” he said. “Then I realized the doors were made of plate glass.” Tofel joked, “The theme of my talk, by the way, is the series of all the really stupid things I did that day.”
Tofel ran further into the building and tried to use his cell phone to call the Dow Jones News Service to tell them that a plane had hit the tower, but his cell phone didn’t work. “The antennae was on top of that tower,” explained Tofel.
“I was quite certain that it was a small plane, because it looked like a small hole in the building, but then I realized that what I was looking at was not an entry wound, but an exit wound.”
The plane hit at 8:46 AM. The story hit the Dow Jones newswire at 8:48 AM. A journalist on one of the North floors of the tower was able to use his cell phone and immediately called Dow Jones, this as Tofel was running for cover in Century 21. And thus began the Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal reporting of the events of September 11th.
Tofel waited for the debris to fall, and then left the building to walk a few blocks to the World Financial Center, adjacent to the Towers, where the Dow Jones executive offices were located.
Amidst this horror, Tofel made his way into the World Financial Center, where he told of his next stupid mistake. He didn’t want to evacuate the building and argued with the building manager that it was safer to keep people inside.
The manager replied, “We don’t know what’s going on or if it’s even over.” Then the second huge explosion rocked lower Manhattan. A senior executive, “one of our number two guys who never raises his voice,” said Tofel, came running out of his office screaming, “Get the hell out of here!” They evacuated.
Tofel said the only moment in the day he was really afraid for his own life was as the traffic in the darkened stairwell slowed at around the third floor. Mercifully, the building was successfully evacuated by around 9:15 AM.
As they left, Tofel said the Managing Editor for The Wall Street Journal Paul Steiger proclaimed, “I want a six-column headline,” meaning a headline that would span the entire front page, for what would be the only second time in The Journal’s history, the first being Pearl Harbor.
Tofel and his executive colleagues evacuated to the “esplanade,” a park area adjacent to the Hudson River, not far from the World Trade Center. “That’s when we could see people were starting to jump from the towers.” Tofel was trying to get as many of his people across the river on the ferry to reach back-up facilities in Princeton, New Jersey.
“By this point it was clear that the tops of the Towers could fall off into the marina,” where they were gathered. Aboard the ferry, a young reporter told Tofel, “I need to get back there. There are so many people who need to tell their stories.”
On the other side of the Hudson River in Jersey City, more offices were being evacuated as a precaution, so Tofel, along with the President of Dow Jones Paul Ingrassia and five others crammed into an executive’s car “with our legs hanging out the hatchback pounding away on our Blackberries” as they headed further into New Jersey to reach the Princeton offices.
In one of the few lighter moments in the day, Tofel turned to his CFO cramped in beside him, “Never again can you bug me about the cost of these Blackberries.”
By noon, Tofel and his colleagues were able to send a memo to their worldwide offices informing them that operations would continue and that to their knowledge, there were no casualties in the company. They also announced their determination to issue an abbreviated version of The Wall Street Journal the very next day, a commitment they kept. “People wanted to work,” Tofel said. “They were happy there was something they could do about it.”
Dow Jones purchased over $1 million in computer equipment within 48 hours. Their advertising department in midtown Manhattan began pulling ads that seemed inappropriate, such as airline ads, and helped in every way. A new operating facility in South Brunswick, New Jersey, recently began operating and was operating on an interim basis the day of the attacks, an extraordinary stroke of good luck, said Tofel.
The Wall Street Journal not only produced an abbreviated edition for September 12th, the organization also achieved 85% circulation the next morning, and 95% circulation on September 13th.
Tofel said he himself spent a lot of time managing “by walking around, which I’m a believer of anyway,” he said, “asking people what they needed and if there was anything they needed that they weren’t getting.”
He added, “And it involved a lot of just physically touching people. There were a lot of people who saw things that day they’d never seen before.”
“The key in any crisis,” said Tofel, ” is that people know how to do their jobs, and second, that people feel empowered to do their jobs. Culture it seems to me is key to that. People knew they could make decisions that day and take action without worrying that they would be second-guessed the next day.”
Tofel concluded, “Luck isn’t just the residue of design. Sometimes you just need to get lucky.”