By Jean Whatley

Consider this: what does a global distributor of network and security products, electrical and electronic wire and cable, and utility distribution materials do in the aftermath of three catastrophic hurricanes? They ship water and dryers.

They load trucks, planes and barges with everything from cereal to soap. They drive against the traffic flow of people fleeing the hurricane, to deliver storm restoration tools such as chainsaws, emergency lighting and lineman safety equipment. They put cash in the hands of their managers and employees in the field, who can buy supplies, food and lodging close to the source of where it's needed the most. They ramp up—all hands on deck, leveraging their collective experience and distribution infrastructure to deliver something more urgent than their typical freight: humanitarian aid. That's what they do for employees and their customers if they're Anixter.

"For the last three or four weeks, we've been totally focused on supplying basic humanitarian supplies," said Kem Pearce, global vice president of integrated supply for Anixter. "And bear in mind, we don't normally source food, water, diapers or lumber. None of that is stuff we typically do and a lot of it is retail, which means it's all cash related. So you've got to completely restructure how you do business in order to buy that stuff."

Buy it they did. The range of supplies Anixter has shipped that falls outside the norm is vast and voluminous—2,000 utility poles or 4,000 cases of bottled water, for example. But when a company is a true partner with their customers, such as the case between Anixter and the largest cell phone, landline and cable service provider in the Caribbean, and that partner says, "We need 500 generators," Anixter is duty bound to try and get them.

"First we had to figure out how to source those supplies, and then figure out how to get them into those areas," said Pearce. Most of the ports were initially closed, and once they were open, the Anixter program team had to find vessels. "There are not many vessels that go from different islands. You've got various governments, and ports that aren't always open. Miami was shut down for a short period, so we used Trinidad, Jamaica and St. Lucia to get products to the hard-hit islands."

In each instance in this onslaught of back-to-back hurricanes, Anixter used the same strategy: protect and support their employees and their families, begin the flow of basic humanitarian needs and follow close behind with supplies and human resources to begin the process of restoring communications and power.

"After the hurricane hit land, our number one priority was to contact our employees to make sure they were safe," said Bill Lawyer, vice president of sales, public power - east at Anixter. "But what I found incredible is that, while we were staging in Orlando, we had employees whose families were without power, and they put that aside to come help other hurricane-impacted customers all the way down to the Florida Keys. It shows who we are as a company."

"We sent a truck of food, water and supplies to our Houston location and set up an employee relief staging area," said Bob Beck, senior vice president of operations for North and South America. "Our Houston facility is a 200-thousand-square-foot warehouse where our employees could come feed their kids and get some rest. That was pretty special to many employees whose homes were flooded." Anixter employees also established a GoFundMe account which raised $60,000 to help employees whose homes were destroyed.

Anixter operations also distributed MREs (meals ready to eat) to utility workers at a massive staging site at Epcot Center in Orlando with "row after row after row, hundreds of utility trucks from all over the United States," said Beck. "We received a call that a truck was headed to the Orlando area with MREs.  Our customer needed support to divide and distribute these important supplies to the hundreds of utility crews staged and ready to support post hurricane restoration activities.   Our operations team contacted the driver, split the load and delivered them to Epcott at 1:30 AM.  This was a critical component of supporting these utility crews that would arrive, grab an MRE and then get into a bus that transported them to their hotels.  Sitting in Chicago (Anixter's corporate headquarters), you wouldn't think about things like this. How do you feed people? How do you get chainsaws into the hands of people who need them?"

Pearce said this kind of intense work requires resourcefulness and problem solvers from the C-suite to the warehouse. "While some of it is on the fly," Pearce said, "You still need to be able to account for everything. You still need to have a process of what you bought and how it comes through the warehouse. You still need to provide commercial invoicing to get the shipment on the ship."

It takes strategy and patience. "Our human nature is to do all that you can. But if you do the wrong thing, at best it's a waste of time, at worst it slows down the ultimate recovery. So, you have to be strategic about what you're doing so that the little bit that you do to help, has the potential to do a lot more," he added.

Like getting utility workers and their families secure, so they can get back to work to help others. The same strategy used for human resources translates to technology. Contractors can't get the lights back on in a house or a hospital until the poles are erected and lines repaired. This is well-traveled territory for Anixter, which is accustomed to preparing for weather events from ice storms to hurricanes. Still, Beck says this season was a record breaker.

"It is unprecedented. We had dealt with Hurricane Matthew last year, but significant back-to-back hurricanes created an unusual challenge for us. One brought devastating flooding in Houston and the Corpus Christi area and then you have a very contrary hurricane like Irma. It came up through the Caribbean and across the southeastern United States with hurricane-force winds. We knew Irma was different. Irma was going to knock down a lot of power infrastructure. We knew that was going to happen and we had to be prepared to support the effort to restore power as quickly as possible."

Beck says the Anixter team established standing conference calls based on the predictive modeling and data furnished by NOAA before Harvey even hit. The kick-off call had some 60 to 80 participants ranging from sales and operations personnel to executive staff members.

"It's interesting. As we're planning a controlled shut down of facilities and a communications methodology for our employees, Bill and his team in the UPS (Utility Power Solutions) business are ramping up storm support at the same time," Beck stated.

Lawyer is a veteran. He was part of the response team when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005. Riding down to the Florida Keys from Orlando after Irma, he told his companion, a new Anixter employee, "'I can't explain to you now, the feeling that you'll have when we turn around and head back home.' Sure enough, that Sunday, when we were driving back, he turned to me and said, 'I get it. I have that feeling that I did something special. I helped other people out.'"

Lawyer, Beck and Pearce said this type of aid is indicative of how Anixter treats people whether they are employees, customers or suppliers. Moreover it illustrates how an industry made up of individuals at every point along the supply chain can come together to make a huge impact on the safety and well being of countless others.