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One of Aram G. Garabedian’s earliest memories is from 1938, when he was just three years old. His mother took him along on a shopping trip to Providence, and an unexpected hurricane caused a historic downtown flood. For a time, they were trapped on the second floor of a department store.
What he remembers most is his mother’s determination to get him home, a trip that included a rescue by firefighters in a rowboat and a long drive on streets strewn with fallen trees and other storm debris.
The memory of her actions helped him overcome another natural disaster decades later in his life, the 2010 flood that pushed 5 feet of water into the Warwick Mall. It was the type of crisis that CEOs and other corporate leaders often have little direct training for but must rely on their own experiences and leadership skills to manage.
“What you’ve been through in life prepares you to handle the next thing that comes,” said Garabedian, a co-manager of the mall and president of Bliss Properties, which owns the building. “My experience helped me come up with a system I call ‘S.R.A.’ That stands for ‘situation requiring adjustment.’ It’s a way to put things in perspective.
“Cancer, that’s a problem, but anything less serious is a situation. You can adjust it,” he said. “We had no injuries and no deaths at the mall, so it was a situation [to which] we could adjust.”
In just two months some stores at the Warwick Mall were back in business. In October 2010, there was a grand reopening, with more than 50 retailers back in operation. And since then, Garabedian has been held up as an example of how CEOs and other corporate leaders should respond to disaster.
Few CEOs can match Garabedian’s resume when it comes to hands-on leadership; he’s been an Army officer, a high school football coach, and vice president for sales at the Nature’s Bounty when the now-billion-dollar vitamin company was just getting off the ground. Nonetheless, they can learn from his successful efforts at crisis management, especially when it comes to public relations.
Immediately after water receded at the mall, Garabedian put up signs around the property with the motto ‘Count on us,’ a message to the community, his tenants, and those workers who suddenly found themselves unemployed. He also set up a headquarters in a mall store, a Halloween shop. The backdrop of hanging trick-or-treat costumes re-enforced the sense of candor at his regular press conferences.