Invest Financial Corp. was spared when hurricanes ripped the Florida coast recently - but it isn't taking Mother Nature's menacing moods lightly.
The company, which runs investment sales programs for 242 banks in 40 states from its bayside headquarters in Tampa, has an elaborate contingency plan for coping with natural disasters. Hurricanes, which flourish from June to November, are the biggest threat.
In a matter of hours, Invest could set up operations - complete with computers, telephones, and generators - in a 60,000-square-foot bomb shelter at a resort in central Florida, according to Merlin Gackle, Invest's chairman.
Such contingency plans are important to client banks because if Invest's headquarters were knocked out, the banks' investment customers might not be able to access their accounts.
Invest faced the possibility of damage to its headquarters two weeks ago, when Hurricane Erin appeared to be heading for Tampa.
The day before the storm was supposed to hit, employees spent the afternoon downloading computer files onto laser disks and racing them to storage facilities nearby.
"You could walk out of here literally with one or two briefcases and you've got the entire organization," Mr. Gackle said.
Employees also slipped their desktop computers into brown Hefty bags to protect the equipment from wind and rain should the roof get wrenched off or the windows shattered.
Invest got lucky. It didn't have to move any employees off-site, because the storm changed course about 50 miles east of Tampa Bay. (It caused about $390 million in damage 400 miles north.)
"Erin got as close as any hurricane could get without a direct hit, but we had absolutely no disruption of our business," Mr. Gackle said.
Invest has had its contingency plans in place for four years, he said. He has studied the plans of other companies in the hurricane belt, and has gleaned tips from such corporate giants as Miami-based Burger King Corp.
Most of Invest's business is dependent on data compiled in computers, including records of bank customer investment transactions and brokers' commissions.
The company also holds the trades of investors in a terminal before transmitting them to a sister company that clears trades, so damage from a hurricane could disrupt service to bank customers.
The setbacks, though inconvenient, would be temporary because many banks keep their own records of daily transactions, said Kenne Bristol, president and CEO of Hinsdale Federal Bank in Illinois.
In its 13-year history, Invest has never had its business disrupted by the force of a hurricane, though officials acknowledge that the company is vulnerable to the violent storms. "Nobody is immune to any disaster," Mr. Gackle said.
Taking up 40,000 square feet on the top floor of a three-story office building, the gray concrete diamond-shaped building stands a mere 300 feet from Tampa Bay, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.
Invest's 170 employees look out on the 370 square miles of water through windows that are 30 inches high and 30 inches wide, all around the building. If the windows burst, rain and wind could cause electrical fires, and short out computers.
Moreover, if a wind were strong enough, the 30-foot-tall live oak trees that surround the building would topple onto it.
Should his headquarters be devastated, Mr. Gackle can take his employees and set up operations in various locations off-site. The company even has a fallback in the event its offices were flattened: It has reserved 15,000 square feet in an empty office building in Tampa.
Invest also has an agreement with IBM, which will lease the company's 20 computer terminals needed for its accounting and financial planning services, two mainframe terminals, 50 desktop computers, and five laser printers.