You need systems to save data so that, in the event of a disaster, you have the information you need to continue running your business. Consultant Melanie Hodgdon, president of Business Systems Management, in Bristol, Maine, helps remodelers create and manage financial and business systems. Here are some of her recommendations for small companies that lack an in-house information technology person to handle computers and network safety:

1. Whether you have a stand-alone computer or one that is part of a network, use an external hard drive for all data files. Load your software (such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Act!, accounting software, etc.) on your internal (C:) drive, and store your files on the external hard drive.

2. When organizing files on the external hard drive, use folders to discriminate between critical and noncritical files. Hodgdon says she has a folder on her external hard drive labeled "Master," and inside that folder are two folders labeled "Critical Files" and "Noncritical Files." She says that since you can stipulate what you want automatically backed up, this helps streamline the backup process.

3. Every Friday afternoon, Hodgdon also copies the "Critical Files" folder to a second portable hard drive. She says that another option would be to automate this using a Web-based backup system, although for companies electing to turn off their computers every night, this doesn't work. Always retain the contents of the "Critical Files" folder on the portable drive by renaming it "Critical Files-Old" prior to copying the current week's work. Once the current week's "Critical Files" are copied, delete the "Critical Files-Old" from the prior week.

4. Back up accounting software each day. Hodgdon uses a flash drive for this and advises that you should rename each day's data so that you're not constantly overwriting the same file, which can lead to data corruption and deny access to a "historical" series of backups. If you have a major issue, a backup file from last Wednesday might be just what you need to reconstruct what happened.

5. If the backups all reside in the office and the office is vandalized, burned, or flooded, that information could be unsalvageable. Remove backups from the premises, whether by using an online system or by physically removing the flash drive from the office.

6. Fireproof safes protect paperwork, but might not prevent damage to a hard drive or flash drive. Information on those drives is laid down magnetically, so relatively small temperature fluctuations can corrupt them.

7. Create backup processes that are easy to use. If they are complicated or time-consuming, you and your employees will avoid following them.

8. Regularly test your backup systems. Many people find out too late that their system for accessing a single document from a "batch backup" wasn't working or required such digging that it was hardly worthwhile. Schools practice fire drills, boaters have man-overboard drills, so why not have a "the office burned to the ground last night so let's see what we can salvage from our backup system" drill?

9. When you have a separate external drive for file storage, if/when your computer crashes, instead of having to deal with backups, you simply unplug your external drive and plug it into a replacement computer (even a leased machine if need be). You will still have to install any software, but your data will be intact. If you're operating in a network environment and are using the external drive on a file server, all other computers should be mapped to the external drive. When you move the external drive to a new computer, unless the replacement computer is given the same identification as the old, you'll have to go back and re-map the other machines. Still, it's a lot faster than either trying to retrieve data from a dead machine or pulling in data from backup.


During the 50 years that Hubert Whitlock Builders in Charlotte, N.C., has been in business, the company has learned to be prepared for staffing issues. Vice president Tyler Mahan says one thing they have learned is to cross-train employees. Mahan offers this perspective:

A lengthy, unscheduled leave of absence for a project manager can be a possible disaster on a large project. We want our client to view our operation as seamless by staying on schedule and providing them with great service. This helps us stay on track with projects when employees are on vacation or are ill. We have a project manager for most projects, and then we have another project manager who is working on other jobs also follow and review that project.

On larger, more detailed projects, it’s usually the assistant who is there every day and who is trained and can step up to a primary role if needed. It’s part of our training program for field staff. We also cross-train our office staff. My title is vice president of production, but I have an assistant production manager who is familiar with what I do. When I go on vacation, I feel very comfortable that he is prepared to handle situations that come up and run the department in my absence.

We were glad that we had this system in place when, seven years ago, we had a project manager who had a horse riding accident over the weekend and was in the hospital in a coma. The assistant project manager had developed a relationship with the clients and was familiar with the details of the two renovations the project manager was running. The clients were very comforted by the familiarity with the assistant and the projects went well considering the circumstances. We were able to deal with our grief and the grief of the client. It was a terrible accident that the employee never recovered from. He passed away after several weeks, but the company rallied around a very difficult situation and proved that teamwork is very important. As much positive came out of that situation as we ever could have hoped for.