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.