‘Do everything to put people first’: Keysight Technologies CEO on Santa Rosa fire response

Ron Nersesian, president and CEO of Keysight Technologies, is part of a panel of business leaders, with Zach Scott of Petaluma's Scott Laboratories, at North Bay Business Journal's CEO Roundtable in Santa Rosa on Nov. 29, 2017 (JEFF QUACKENBUSH / NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)

JEFF QUACKENBUSH,

Keysight Technologies on Wednesday detailed how the global high-technology company and its workforce, among the largest in Sonoma County, stepped up to help each other after the firestorm tore through its headquarters campus in Santa Rosa.

The lasting impact of the North Bay wildfires is broad and will persist for a long time, but the company's response is an example of how the community can deal with economic challenges that have been long-plagued it, said Ron Nersesian, president and CEO, at a gathering of 160 professionals in Santa Rosa. The destruction of thousands of homes and buildings in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties by the fires has turned up the heat on long-simmering problems such as workforce and housing availability.

"What we found is to do everything to put people first, to help them recover and provide them in an environment and with the tools to heal really makes a difference," said Nersesian at North Bay Business Journal's CEO Roundtable event, held at Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country hotel.

When the firestorm marched toward Santa Rosa from Calistoga in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, it burned down three buildings at Keysight's campus, located in the Fountaingrove area of the city. Up in flames were decades of historical items from the days before Hewlett-Packard spun off Agilent Technologies, which later carved off the precision test-and-measurement group that's now Keysight. But the four main buildings where products are designed and produced were saved when firefighters fought back flames on the roofs of a couple of the structures.

"That makes a big difference when we're talking about jobs in the county," Nersesian said.

Of the 1,503 employees working at the Santa Rosa center, including about 400 on contract, Keysight couldn't confirm the welfare of nearly half of them, Nersesian said. Problem was, employee records listed home phone or mobile contact numbers, and many had evacuated, some without their cell phones and others affected by cellular outages when towers were destroyed. Employees mobilized like a network to find out what happened to all the employees.

A few were thinking of leaving Sonoma County after hearing an incorrect Bay Area television news report that the Keysight headquarters had totally burned down, and with it their jobs, Nersesian said.

Keysight has had one fatality from the Tubbs fire. Michel Azarian, a 41-year-old engineer, died Nov. 26, after being hospitalized for seven weeks to treat severe burns he received outside his home. He was the 44th to die from the North Bay wildfires.

Within two days of the fire, Keysight set up an emergency-response center, giving out food, water, clothing, toiletries and cell phone chargers. The company also notified the employees within 30 hours that none would lose their jobs and would get full pay even when out of work as the company got back up to full production. That offer also was extended to the contractors who were working full-time for Keysight.

"I think that helped lessen the impact for employees," Nersesian said.

For the 119 employees who lost their homes and others that weren't able to access funds from insurers or banks, the company helped them with funds. Workers whose homes burned received $10,000 each, and those who relocated received $1,000 per person.

To further minimize the financial impact, Keysight set up an internal donation system. Over $1.3 million has been given so far, and roughly half of that has come from operations outside Sonoma County, Nersesian said.

"We've had donations from Penang, Malaysia, from Europe, from all over, trying to make sure they are trying to help out their employees," he said.

Also accepted as gifts were earned hours of paid time off, which the company turned into cash for the effort. That generated another roughly $500,000 for the victims, Nersesian said.

Having so many employees stepping up to help was quite a different attitude than was common when Sonoma County operations were part of Agilent, Nersesian said.

"The best compliment I heard was, 'This reminds me of the old HP, where it was as good or better than it used to be 30 years ago,'" he said.

One of the emerging impacts being felt throughout the North Bay is the psychological toll. Keysight brought in counselors to its emergency center to help employees tell their stories and help each other heal and lead classes at Keysight's temporary facilities around the county.

The company has secured office space in the county as its headquarters is repaired. It inked short-term leases for 104,000 square feet at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park to house up to 900 employees and for 33,000 square feet to accommodate 200 workers in Petaluma.

Two of the four main buildings at the Fountaingrove campus are now operational, including 90 percent of the company's production facilities in Sonoma County, Nersesian said. Pat Harper, vice president and general manager of technology order fulfillment, rented recreational vehicles and vans to house his production team at the campus as they worked around the clock to restore manufacturing, Nersesian said.

To help employees deal with a number of legal issues related to the fires, Keysight has secured free help for employees from Reed Smith, the firm that also minds the corporation's matters. This help includes working with insurance companies, accessing their properties, and approaching debris removal.

After Keysight got through the crisis of the fire and evacuations, it held an employee event Nov. 6 for 2,500 people to celebrate the move forward toward rebuilding.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.