Luby's Passes Crash Course in Crisis Management

Article excerpt

By Mitchell Schnurman Fort Worth Star-Telegram For Luby's, it was a crash course in crisis management.

In less than an hour Wednesday afternoon, the friendly, down-home cafeteria chain was thrust into the center of the worst carnage by a single gunman in American history.

Executives who specialize in store openings, menus and employee motivation found themselves facing a problem more horrifying than anything they'd imagined.

And in the end, they handled the situation well, even in exemplary fashion, according to experts who advise companies on coping with disasters.

Luby's executives didn't run and hide. They didn't clash with the media or local authorities. And they didn't turn a cold shoulder.

"Their message was compassion and sympathy," said Ken Fairchild of the Dallas media consulting company, Fairchild/LeMaster. "It's a classic example of how to deal with a terrible crisis."

Luby's is the latest case _ and one of the most tragic _ to illustrate the vulnerability of American businesses and the importance of a reasoned response.

The massacre at Luby's in Killeen, Texas, will always be remembered for the 23 deaths that occurred there. But the company's quick, compassionate actions may have prevented the incident from becoming its legacy.

"People won't harbor any ill will toward Luby's because of this,"

said Dick Starmann, senior vice president of McDonald's Corp. "They'll see the human side of the company."

Starmann was among the executives who responded to a mass killing at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., in July 1984. Twenty-one people were fatally shot in that incident, and it's strikingly similar to Wednesday's shootings in Killeen.

"There's no book on how to respond to this," Starmann said, "but we had one common denominator. From the beginning, we said we were going to do the right thing. For the victims, the families, the community. That was the one constant."

It appears to be the same theme at Luby's, where fast action and personal involvement have distinguished the company's response.

Thursday, Luby's contributed $100,000 to a victims' assistance fund in Killeen, rented 40 hotel rooms for visiting family members and met with employees.

But the element that's stood out is management's high-level participation. Luby's president and chief executive officer, Ralph "Pete"

Erben, has been on the scene almost from the beginning.

A private jet owned by Diamond Shamrock flew him from San Antonio to Killeen shortly after the shooting, and he's been there ever since. He's worked with community leaders, held a news conference for reporters and devised ways to help victims, employees and their families.

"That's a symbolic gesture that's very important," said David Margulies, whose Margulies Communications Group in Dallas advises companies about crisis management. "It shows you genuinely care about what happened and really want to do something."

At Luby's, it only seemed natural, an officer said.

"Actually, it was very much a common sense thing," said Buddy Schrader, Luby's vice president of marketing and the company's spokesman.

"In any tragedy, being there is important."

Schrader, who stayed in San Antonio to field more than 100 media calls in 24 hours, said there was little hesitation on Wednesday. …