Business halts as eerie quiet reigns
By GORDON PITTS and SHOWWEI CHU, The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
A wide spectrum of Canadian business ground to a halt Tuesday, as people turned their minds to the fate of their counterparts - and in some cases, friends - who worked in Manhattan offices.
With flights cancelled, stock markets suspended and communications difficult, many employers in downtown areas sent their people home early, and some landlords closed access to buildings as a precautionary measure.
Investment conferences and annual meetings were cancelled and quarterly earnings releases deferred, both out of respect and a sense that such activities seemed absurdly trivial at the moment.
“I'm sure I will have lost some friends as maybe all of us in the room will be touched, because it's going to be bad,” Bank of Nova Scotia chairman Peter Godsoe told a Toronto conference before he abruptly left to monitor the status of the bank's 300 staff in Manhattan.
“There will be just massive disruption to everything business and financial,” said Brent Holliday, a partner with Vancouver-based venture capital firm Greenstone Venture Partners.
Mr. Holliday had what was a typical day for many business people. He had planned to drive to Seattle from Vancouver Tuesday for a board meeting, but it was cancelled. So was another meeting scheduled later in the week.
Airport closures scuttled a partner's plans to catch an afternoon flight to San Diego for a conference. Instead, the partner spent Tuesday morning trying desperately to reach friends who live in New York.
By noon Tuesday, as offices were closing en masse, a sea of grim-faced pedestrians was moving along Toronto's Bay Street away from the financial district, and cars were choking the intersections.
At every available television screen, crowds gathered to watch the unfolding devastation.
Two dozen people, squeezed into the store-front office of brokerage Charles Schwab Canada in Toronto's Exchange Tower, gasped in horror as the second World Trade Center tower collapsed in a rebroadcast.
Not far away, Dave Taylor and Hasan Khan stood staring at an outdoor jumbo TV, watching live pictures of a burning World Trade Center and Pentagon building.
The two employees of BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. had left their office in First Canadian Place after a senior executive had sent a mid-morning e-mail message saying, “With what's happened, feel free to leave for the day.”
“It's safe to say most people weren't doing their normal day-to-day duties,” said Mr. Taylor.
Many people seemed in shock, standing around, sipping coffee, lighting cigarettes, talking into cellphones or huddled in groups. “The markets are closed so we can't do much,” one man said.
In Calgary, a few major office buildings closed to the public and some big oil companies cancelled their work days. At Mobil Oil Canada Ltd., all calls were being redirected to an operator who said the company had shut operations for the day.
Many firms tightened security and gave employees the option of leaving. “We are operating under a higher level of vigilance,” said Glenn Herchak, a spokesman for TransCanada PipeLines Ltd., Canada's largest pipeline operator. Mr. Herchak said the company had increased security as a precaution.
Suncor Inc. chief executive officer Rick George said his company had also tightened security in the event that the widespread terrorist attack could spread to oil refineries. “We are just doing this as a precaution,” he said. “You just don't know what targets are out there.”
At Enbridge Inc., spokesman Jim Rennie said employees along its pipeline route have been put on the alert, and security tightened at pump stations. Similarly, giant power utility Hydro-Québec stepped up security at its sites.
The events put a sudden halt to all kinds of conferences, meetings and legal proceedings. Louis Audet, president of Cogeco Cable Inc., of Montreal, was speaking at a Toronto investment conference on media and telecommunications when the news of the tragedy spread across the room.
“I could see as I was speaking a number of people in the room with very concerned looks,” says Mr. Audet who was discussing the future of broadband at a Nesbitt Burns conference at the Eaton Centre Marriott Hotel.
Mr. Audet said he realized that many in his audience would have known other financial services professionals in the Wall Street area.
At about 11 a.m., a conference official announced that the all-day meeting, including a scheduled speech by communications czar Ted Rogers, was cancelled. The crowd cleared the room, some to huddle around the television set in a nearby bar.
At another conference, Mr. Godsoe was interrupted during his speech and quickly left the room. An official explained that the bank chairman had to “run to an emergency” and he adjourned the meeting.
“We're living in a day of complete and absolute tragedy and I don't think any of us will be untouched by it,” Mr. Godsoe had told the forum before his departure. “I have children who live in New York and San Francisco. One obviously wonders what's going on.”
“Our offices in New York are just a stone's throw away from the World Trade Center, which no longer exists,” Mr. Godsoe told the audience. “For the Canadians and Americans in the room, we're part of it.”
Thousands of Toronto employees voluntarily left their places of employment, including Toronto-Dominion Tower, Royal Trust Tower and BCE Place. Security guards said those buildings remained opened, some on a restricted access only basis. Still, by noon the tenants - mainly law firms, banks and securities firms - had told their employees to go home for the day.
“No one's taking their chances,” said Steve Hobbs, a Nesbitt Burns employee. A legal assistant, who was in the middle of a discovery examination, said she had been asked to leave the 47th floor of the CIBC Tower. “Since this is a business district they're not taking any chances,” her friend said.
Software company, Mortice Kern Systems Inc. of Waterloo, Ont. postponed its annual general meeting, which was to be held Tuesday afternoon in Toronto. In Montreal, printing and media giant GTC Transcontinental Group Ltd. postponed the release of third-quarter financial results, as well as a conference call.
Vancouver-based Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. dropped plans for a party tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival, which has scaled back its schedule.
Lions Gate, a film and television production company, had scheduled its annual general meeting for Wednesday in Toronto, and Tuesday, a spokesman said he expected a scaled-down meeting would take place. “We will be dealing with the legal basics, nothing else,” spokesman Gordon Keep said.
Some events in Toronto's business life went ahead as planned Tuesday. At the Ontario Securities Commission, a procedural hearing concerning the OSC's charges against theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky started on time at 10 a.m.
When OSC vice-chairman Howard Wetston entered the room to preside over the brief hearing, he expressed shock at having just watched the first of the World Trade Center towers collapse. “It's unbelievable. There must be thousands of people ...,” he said, as his voice trailed off.
Mr. Drabinsky's lawyer Edward Greenspan told the hearing that his brother Brian, who was supposed to be at the hearing, was trapped in New York but fortunately was all right since he had been uptown from the disaster.
The deadline for bids to buy the Fairweather clothing chain was also postponed - to Wednesday at 4 p.m. from Tuesday - because of the disaster, the interim receiver of parent Dylex Ltd. said. Of about a dozen parties that have considered submitting offers, a number are American, sources close to the process said.
Among retailers, Starbucks Corp., the giant coffee chain, closed all of its 2,900 company-owned stores in the United States and Canada after the terrorist attacks. The stores are expected to reopen Wednesday.
“As far as we know, nobody has been reported hurt” at the stores, a spokeswoman said. “Our first concern is the well being of our partners.”
Other retailers shut down stores Tuesday, particularly in potentially “sensitive” locations that could be terrorist targets, said Randy Scotland, a spokesman for the Retail Council of Canada.
A number of stores in central Ottawa, especially near the U.S. Embassy and Parliament Hill, closed as well as airport outlets, he said. Some shops in the Toronto Eaton Centre shut their doors.
Mr. Scotland did not expect stores remaining open would get much business as consumers were focused on television sets. “I think this has hit people in a really visceral way.”
Across the country, the phones were eerily silent at brokerage firm Raymond James Ltd., said Michelle Rupp, senior vice-president of corporate communications for the Vancouver-based firm.
“I think people are glued to their television sets and just struggling to absorb this,” she said. “And we are grateful [for the quiet] because it is giving us time to do a thorough analysis of what the fallout might be.”
The tragedy caused havoc for transportation everywhere. Linda Morris, director of public affairs for the Vancouver Port Authority, said the port had stepped up security at operations, especially those involving cruise-ship passengers, most of them American, who stop in Vancouver on their way to and from Alaska.
Ms. Morris said public access had been restricted to the Port's two cruise-ship terminals, and that special arrangements were being made to accommodate travellers who are due to arrive in Vancouver Wednesday and on the weekend.
With files from Lily Nguyen and David Parkinson, Calgary; Wendy Stueck, Vancouver; Richard Blackwell and Marina Strauss, Toronto; Canadian Press and Bloomberg.