Eleven Years Later, 9/11 Attacks Still Fresh For Former VAR

Neil Isford

Eleven years ago, on this Sept. 11, the world changed for all of us.

For some, it changed while we were watching television or listening to the radio. For others, it changed through phone calls that became increasingly difficult to place. For Neil Isford, it changed in front of his eyes.

At the time, Isford was CEO of Plural, a New York-based integrator with headquarters at 115 Broadway, about two blocks from the World Trade Center. When the first plane controlled by terrorists struck the North Tower, Isford and his employees were dumbstruck. And when the second plane struck the South Tower, he knew it was time to evacuate.

[Related: 10 Years Later: 9/11 Changed The Lives And Businesses Of New York VARs ]

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Before that could be accomplished, the first tower fell shaking Plural's headquarters violently, Isford recalled for CRN this week.

"I didn't leave. I was calling our other offices making sure everyone knew we were OK. But it was bedlam on the street before the towers came down," Isford said. "Then the whole place started to shake and I thought it was going to explode."

Anyone who hadn't evacuated 115 Broadway started hauling people off the street who were choking in the thick dust that quickly enveloped lower Manhattan, Isford said.

Eventually, Isford walked uptown to Grand Central Station, about five miles, all the while praying that all his employees found safe ground. In the pre-Facebook era, Plural started a Web site where anyone could post the whereabouts of employees, he said.

"It took about a week and we accounted for every employee. Unbelievably, nobody was trapped. We lost a fiancé and a business partner and I lost a whole bunch of personal friends. Everybody lost somebody. That's what made the thing personal. People you knew went to work and weren't coming home and you had to start to go to funerals," Isford said.

More than a decade later, Isford still is able to recount painful and somber details, which boil to the surface each year as the date approaches again.

"It doesn't seem like 11 years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday," he said.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Plural was struggling in the post-dot-com world. The company had implemented three rounds of layoffs in the first seven months of 2001 and was scraping for every dollar. And the economy, especially in Lower New York, came to a screeching halt after the attacks. It was an imperfect storm that could have doomed a struggling small business like Plural. But a curious thing happened, Isford said. Employees—and New Yorkers in general—rallied together like never before.

"In a small business, unlike a big company, you start to think about cash flow. We started working out of our Stamford [Conn.] office or we were working out of a customer's office or a business partner. The people at Credit Suisse gave us space. Microsoft gave us some space to use. We were working the clients and we were up and running in a week," Isford said. "It's amazing but we were back downtown within 30 days. I was worried nobody would show up. I figured people were terrified. But the attitude was not to let the terrorists win. We had about 600 people then, about 200 [in the Manhattan office] and every one came back."

It wasn't easy. There were reminders of that tragic day everywhere, including outside the company's board room window, which overlooked the burning rubble for months, Isford said.

NEXT: Eleven Years Later, Impact Still Felt

"When customers would come for meetings, they'd last 50 minutes longer because they'd want to look out the window and say a silent prayer. That went on for months," Isford said. The employees came back, but business was another story. It was a struggle and in July 2002, Plural was sold to Dell in May 2002.

"The transaction was not related to 9/11 but how do I grow the business. It was either grow by getting capital or combine with someone or sell. We couldn't get the capital to grow. W were profitable but had no extra money to grow because sales dropped off. We looked a couple different merger scenarios with other [systems integrators]. The Dell thing came to us. They found me and it turned out to be a good deal. At that time, [customers] were nervous about small businesses when the economy is down. It gave us the backing we needed," he said.

Two years later, Isford joined IBM, where he now is vice president of Smarter Analytics for IBM North America.

While no wishes to witness a horrific event like 9/11 up close, the experience of surviving that harrowing time gave him a new perspective that has carried with him through his career.

"The first thing is we were all really naïve. I certaintly felt that way. That was the first thing. We took for granted the freedoms we had. We took for granted there are people that are that evil, that want to do those things to innocent people. Maybe it's because some of us had grown up without having to go to war and certainly never on our shores," Isford said. "It fundamentally changed all of us. We're so much more aware now.

"I think another thing is it certainly made me more appreciative of life in general. It can be so fleeting. Who would have thought to go work that day and never come home. It makes you more appreciate good times and family.," he said. "The other thing is it made proud to be a New Yorker. Everybody come back to the office. The determination and camaraderie: everybody felt a renewed sense of determination to be successful."

Isford has only ventured down to lower Manhattan a handful of times in the last 11 years. Most recently, it was a year ago when his daughter was helping to film a documentary on 9/11 and he was interviewed there.

"I'm glad to see downtown come back. It's taken a while," he said. "And when the anniversary comes, it's vividly back in your mind. It was a horrific event to be part of and it will always be part of me."