Cyrus G. “Jerry” Lohfink and Jim Preissner: Government/industry team delivers fed paychecks

Working together, Lohfink and Preissner kept Hurricane Katrina’s devastation from disrupting the processing of federal paychecks

Working together, Cyrus “Jerry” Lohfink and Jim Preissner kept Hurricane Katrina’s devastation from disrupting the processing of federal paychecks. Lohfink is director of the Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center (NFC) in New Orleans, which processes paychecks for more than 500,000 federal employees. Preissner is chief technology officer at Vion, a small veteran-owned company.

On the evening of Aug. 25, Lohfink decided to move operations to Philadelphia after weather forecasts indicated that the storm could hit the Crescent City the following Tuesday. Lohfink worked for two days to oversee the emergency relocation plan, and he safely evacuated his employees from New Orleans by 3 a.m. Aug. 29, hours before the storm arrived. All 505,000 paychecks went out on time.


Photos copyright 2006 Steve Voss/WPN.

But four days after Katrina devastated New Orleans, Lohfink knew that the NFC needed a new alternate site. The New Orleans site survived the storm with minimal damage, but the NFC would need to continue operating out of its emergency location in Philadelphia for more than six weeks.

That posed a problem, which Preissner was able to solve. A contract between the NFC and SunGard, the company that runs the NFC’s emergency operations centers, was scheduled to expire six weeks after the hurricane hit. Beyond six weeks, the NFC could continue to operate using SunGard’s equipment, but other customers would take precedence if they needed the equipment in an emergency.

Lohfink asked his bosses to call on their friends in government and industry to help out. “I was allowed to upward delegate,” he said. “They literally said, ‘Don’t worry about red tape. Get it done, and we’ll worry about it later.’”

It usually takes six months to build a new data center. Lohfink needed one in less than five weeks. The USDA issued contracts to IBM and Vion to build the new center using extra space available at the Philadelphia site.

Preissner assembled his mainframe and storage experts to double-check the configurations that IBM recommended to ensure that the new center was built correctly. He used his 30-plus years of experience to negotiate pricing with suppliers.

Preissner worked around the clock and on weekends to ensure that the right equipment was delivered, installed and tested, said Jim Obendorfer, an IBM consultant who assisted in the three-way collaboration.


Photos copyright 2006 Matthew Borkoski.

Vion cut through red tape and took risks that larger companies couldn’t, Obendorfer said. For instance, Preissner had to convince suppliers to cooperate without a contract in place, and he promised that Vion would take the heat if any problems arose.

Working nonstop, Lohfink, Preissner and their teams opened the new center in mid- October, ahead of schedule and under budget. Everything worked flawlessly.

The timing was fortunate, said Gil Hawk, the NFC’s chief information officer. Three days after officials opened the new finance center, another SunGard customer needed all the mainframe tape drives the NFC had been using.

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