That Sunday afternoon, the city was steeped in stifling heat and humidity when Frank Beyer, freshly showered and in shorts and T-shirt, threw some changes of clothing, bottled water and a box of graham crackers on the back seat and took the wheel of his car.

The Merrill Lynch vice president wasn’t driving off for a fun August getaway. Beyer was trying to escape an oncoming hurricane. But unknowing, he was embarking on a long, challenging journey, caught up in what has been described as the worst natural disaster in United States history.

As director of Merrill’s New Orleans complex, he runs four locations, where 79 advisors manage some $6 billion in assets: the downtown New Orleans parent branch; offices in Mandeville and Slidell, La; and another in Biloxi, Miss.

Last January, the 50-year-old Pennsylvania-born carpenter’s son, was honored with his firm’s Responsible Citizenship Award for leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

He’d planned to evacuate New Orleans for only a day. But that was not how things played out. On Monday, August 29, 2005, the day after he fled, mean Katrina slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Then catastrophic flooding wreaked havoc: breaches in New Orleans’ levee system put 80 percent of the city under water. Hurricane and flooding left 1,293 dead in the birthplace of jazz and caused more than $100 billion in property loss.

It would be months before Beyer could return home. During that time, the formidable task was to get his New Orleans complex functioning in the face of unimaginable devastation. Even more challenging: Beyer had to help rebuild the lives of more than 100 employees, most of whom had suffered enormous personal loss. The hurricane — packing 140 mile-an-hour driving rain — and floods inundated mile after mile of New Orleans homes, leaving them in ruin.

While many pitched in with Beyer to help — including Merrill Lynch Corporate — it was the take-charge branch manager who quarterbacked the win.

“It felt very, very natural. It’s just my nature, and I’m grateful for that. It came in handy when I needed it. There’s a path through the minefield: You prioritize, do what you can and never let it get you flustered,” says Beyer, explaining how he made order from chaos. The down-to-earth manager is speaking from his 25th-floor office, two blocks from the French Quarter, in New Orleans’ central business district.

Many of Beyer’s employees lost their homes and were displaced throughout the country. A staff assistant who failed to flee New Orleans had to literally swim up to her attic. One advisor was left with only a paper bag holding all his possessions.

What resource did Beyer draw on to cope so effectively during the disaster? Maybe a background of industriously working his way through college as a dishwasher and construction laborer. Maybe the same determination that, at age 43, pushed him to climb to the top of 14,410-ft.-high Mount Rainier in Washington. Maybe a strength similar to that with which he supported wife Anne, diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 1995 and who survived not only that but three subsequent bouts with the disease.

Whatever it was, Beyer modestly down-peddles his Citizenship Award: “My fellow management team members have been amazing. To have this honor reflect on any one individual is flattering — but it’s unfair.”

Still, Beyer is only too happy to boast that, even as repairs to his office tower continue nine months post-Katrina, year-to-date production for the complex is up about 10 percent. This ranks Beyer’s branches at No. 54 of 138 Merrill complexes firm-wide. Further, his complex comes in No. 32 in production credits per advisor.

Years ago, Beyer was a financial planner with Bache & Co. After Prudential Securities bought the firm, he moved into management. “It was inevitable. I was always the person other advisors came to about how to develop their business. So,” he notes, “I was giving counsel before I was ever officially a manager.”

The man is admittedly a tough boss. “I don’t threaten. I don’t browbeat. I don’t demoralize. I don’t micromanage. But I have extremely high expectations — and people know it.”

He is responsible for 124 employees. The New Orleans office has 43 advisors — surprisingly, only a few below its pre-Katrina level. Some FAs were evacuated to other markets and stayed; others recently joined the branch.

Beyer’s M.O. has always been to skillfully combine the twin roles of branch manager and leader. “Management,” he says, “is a science; leadership is art. You have to have both.”

Frustration and Devastation

The complex’s production uptick is remarkable in view of what Katrina left in her wake. But the storm is partially the reason that activity has escalated. Many New Orleans small business owners “are having the best year of their histories because hundreds of thousands of things need to be done now,” says Beyer. “If you’re a roofer or plumber or electrician, you’re on 24/7.” The advisors’ clientele runs the gamut from individuals to small businesses — now, more of the latter than pre-Katrina.

Beyer’s highly team-based advisors have retained many clients. It’s too soon to know precisely how many have been lost, says Beyer. But a number of them now living elsewhere have stuck with their FAs. “Not only would [many] clients not leave us now,” says Beyer, “they need us more than ever and appreciate us. Katrina quickly brought to the forefront all the issues we’ve been talking about [regarding] comprehensive wealth management,” especially financial preparedness.

The advisors are prospecting with no let-up. “We’re trying to act like it’s business as usual,” notes Beyer. “Many who may not have needed financial counsel before need it now.”

Another surprise — even to Beyer, it seems: He’s had “very good success” with recruiting advisors. “You’d think it would be the most difficult time to do that, but people are looking for a better platform, perhaps better leadership, better value-added. Life goes on.”

Beyer’s aim is to create a branch of “high energy, potential and hope.” High energy starts with Beyer’s making himself visible — walking the offices, stopping to chat with employees, introducing himself to clients.

As for potential and hope, he supplied a large quantity of that especially following Hurricane Katrina.

Vacationing in California with a few Merrill Lynch buddies the preceding week, Beyer was nonetheless in constant communication with his New Orleans management team. He directed employees to prepare for what was expected to be a storm of major proportion and to evacuate the city that Friday. By then, Merrill had also put its long-time corporate Business Continuity Plan into action.

On Sunday, Beyer flew back to New Orleans to brace his house — and then get out of town. At his urging, Anne had left three days before.

Setting out, he found Interstate 10 a crammed parking lot: It took three hours for the usual 20-minute drive to his destination, Slidell. But there he encountered “a wall” of evacuees, he recalls. Beyer then headed for Hattiesburg, Miss. When he finally arrived, traffic was clogging all roads. Realizing he’d be unable to move much further, he began looking for a place to spend the night.

A Comfort Inn’s lobby and adjacent living room was all he could find, and he alternated between there and his car. Next day, Monday, Katrina struck. Beyer witnessed the full force of the hurricane’s eye wall from the lobby. “I saw entire roofs blow off hotels across the street, TV towers fall, huge billboards get peeled to the ground, their concrete bases flattened. It didn’t scare me that much; but I knew how serious it was, and I was very respectful of it.”

The minute the storm blew over, 5 p.m., Beyer tried to drive back to New Orleans. “Considering the devastation,” he says, “that was na?ve thinking. But I felt I could.” He didn’t get far. Roads, littered with fallen trees, were impassable. After driving little more than a mile, police ordered him to “go home” or to a Red Cross shelter: Hattiesburg was under Marshall Law curfew. “Most places had no electricity. They were deeply concerned about looting. If anyone left,” says Beyer, “they’d be arrested.”

Rather than crash on the Shelter’s crowded floor, the frustrated Beyer slept in his car. Food was ten graham crackers from the box he’d taken along when fleeing New Orleans.

On Tuesday, he once again attempted to head south but found the interchanges still blocked. Finally, locating a way to proceed north, he made it to Jackson, Miss. — and a Merrill office. That’s where he linked up with friend Scott Steele, director of the Jackson complex. Luckily, his office had electrical power. Beyer went to Steele’s home for a shower, then returned to the office.

“From that point on,” he says, “it was trying to find who was alive.” Three states were largely without power or drinking water. In New Orleans, the breached levees had caused water from Lake Pontchartrain to flood the streets. In some sections, it was 20-feet deep.

Beyer’s New Orleans office, on highest ground, suffered no flooding, just roof damage. The building, however, was inaccessible. Another office that had been under Beyer’s purview, in Metairie, La., was totally destroyed. His Biloxi branch, walloped by a 27-ft. wall of water, was, says Beyer, “obliterated.”

“A Come-Back Place”

That none of his employees were killed was “a miracle. We were very worried. There were people who were truly in harm’s way,” he says. Initially, the only possible channels of communication were cell phone text messaging and e-mail. (It was good that Beyer had packed his laptop.) Gradually, regular phone service returned. But a week passed before he could determine that all his advisors and support staff had survived.

Many, however, lost their homes. On Wednesday, two FAs — one from the Slidell office, the other from Biloxi — showed up in Jackson. The Slidell advisor began to weep. “Everything he had in the world was in that paper bag he was carrying,” says Beyer. “We were [all] crying. It was pretty emotional.”

“But the three of us were the beginning of trying to put this thing back together. The No. 1 obligation was to find our folks and make sure they were all right. Did they have food, water, electricity, a roof over their heads? Many did not. And then, beyond that, if they were OK and if they wanted to: How do we enable them to contact their clients, who were evacuated to all parts of the country?”

Merrill Corporate helped employees and clients with website postings and newspaper ads that provided a toll-free phone number.

After a while, quarterback Beyer decided to make the firm’s Baton Rouge, La., office his “next point of command and control,” as he puts it. That meant filling the conference room with computer workstations so employees, scattered throughout a number of cities, could have a place to work.

On September 24, Beyer celebrated his 50th birthday in a Baton Rouge rental house. It was the same day that Hurricane Rita blew into town. “We were without power. So, it was a fitting birthday,” he half-jokes.

A number of times, Beyer returned to New Orleans to survey facilities. “You had to have a special pass and a weapon for self-protection. It was,” he says, “very, very dangerous.” Fortunately, he never had to draw his handgun.

It was “pick-and-shovel work every day for a month,” says Beyer. A brand-new temporary office was built in Baton Rouge. In Biloxi, employees worked out of a temporary location, which, by mid-May, they still occupied. To replace the trashed Metairie branch, a new one in the growing community of Mandeville, La., went under construction, scheduled to have opened in June.

But “the biggest challenge,” says Beyer, “has been helping [employees] get their lives together. They have to run a business; but meanwhile, they’ve lost their homes, their families are scattered, their kids have to go to school. We have a lot of people who’ve had very difficult times.”

Little by little, some sense of normalcy has returned to the complex. “It’s a long road,” says Beyer, acknowledging Katrina’s “probable” negative impact on revenues. “But it doesn’t really feel like it: A lot of our clients are still our clients. Some even just jumped in their cars, drove off and their houses didn’t get blown away. Many are now living in other places and need comprehensive wealth management counsel. They may need it to build their homes; they’re [wrapped up in red tape] with insurance companies, FEMA, zoning. It’s a lot!”

Beyer’s New Orleans house, about five miles from his office, had only minimal roof damage. “The water stopped two blocks away. We were,” he says gratefully, “very blessed.” And wife Anne is “doing great — feisty as ever.”

On Halloween weekend, the New Orleans office building reopened. Beyer and many employees returned. “But,” he says, “we still have people that haven’t come back to the city because they don’t have a house to live in. I have employees that can’t come back here without crying because it’s so bad. There’s still a lot of sadness, but a lot of excitement too.

“This is a come-back place, and there’s lots of opportunity. I believe that out of this difficult thing something positive and wonderful will happen. Many of them have happened already.”

As for critics’ doubt that, even after $800 million worth of repairs, New Orleans’ levee system will be able to withstand another fierce storm — up to six major hurricanes are predicted this season — Beyer remains resolute that Merrill Lynch, at least, is ready:

“[Management guru] Peter Drucker said, ‘A crisis must never be experienced a second time.’ That means you’d better be prepared.”

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People-Person Beyer Shows How to Care

“Anyone can run a profitable business. You can be taught that. Leadership is when you make a finite difference in someone’s life. What I’m most proud of is that people tell me I’ve helped their world,” says Frank Beyer, vice president and director of Merrill Lynch’s New Orleans complex.

He divides his time among four offices in two states but spends the bulk of it at the parent New Orleans location. Beyer’s workday begins at 7:00 a.m. — and often ends 12 hours later.

He is a people-centric kind of guy. “Everybody has a button. Mine is people. I love seeing them develop,” says the manager, who was born to parents of modest means in Danville, Pa. The degree in psychology he earned from Pennsylvania State University at University Park has proven most useful in the financial services world. “You’ve got to know psychology because business is all about people.”

Beyer’s commerce-focused college roommates sparked his interest in finance. But laboring in a lumberyard 30 hours a week while pursuing his degree full-time, the senior got wind of an opening at a building materials manufacturer. Before graduation, he landed the job of territory manager.

Three years later, he decided to become a stockbroker. Beyer recalls that, spotting a Bache & Co. ad “all about your ability to do more,” he strode in for an interview, announcing: “I’ve answered ‘yes’ to all the questions in your ad. When can I start?’”

Thus began his career as an advisor in Harrisburg, Pa. Thirteen years later, when Prudential Securities acquired Bache, he moved into management in Charlotte, N.C.

After six more years, in 2000 Beyer joined Merrill as New South District sales manager in Columbia, S.C. The following year he was promoted to his present post in the Global Private Client Group. Non-producing, his compensation is, he says, based on “a variety of things.” He declines to elaborate.

Beyer’s greatest strength, according to Beyer? “Consistency.” Biggest weakness? Devouring desserts — especially Haagen Dazs — after 8 p.m.

He focuses on developing relationships with other local business leaders and, active in philanthropic pursuits, is president of the Leadership Advisory Council for the Greater New Orleans American Cancer Society.

The father of three sons, Beyer notes that he’s forever taken for “a young Dustin Hoffman.” But, quips the branch executive, “I’d rather look like Robert Redford!” — J.W. Russell