Staying in touch in stormy seas

Nov 4, 2012 @ 12:01 am

By Liz Skinner

+ Zoom
(Bloomberg)

Financial advisers in the path of Hurricane Sandy communicated with clients last week from wherever — and in whatever way — they could.

Harvey Meldrum, founder of an eponymous advisory firm, stayed in contact with clients via cell phone and iPad even while he watched the surging waters of the Atlantic Ocean rise three and a half feet outside his Spring Lake, N.J., home.

Although he suffered some flooding in his garage, his home and office were spared the devastation experienced by many of his neighbors on the Jersey Shore, including one whose home was demolished by a fallen tree. Like millions of other residents of the state, Mr. Meldrum lost electricity and could be without power for up to another week.

Hurricane Sandy hit most of the Northeast but wreaked the most havoc in the coastal communities of New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, N.Y., and Connecticut — one of the mostly densely populated regions of the country. A record-setting storm surge leveled almost everything else in its path, including homes, cars, transportation systems and power lines.

“It's going to take years for the area to recover from this,” Mr. Meldrum said. “There's so much to repair.”

For many advisers, communication was a challenge. Not only were they without electricity and traditional phone service, so were many of their clients.

After the storm, Mr. Meldrum reached out to his clients in an e-mail sent through Constant Contact from his laptop.

He let them know that all appointments were canceled, provided his cell phone number and assured them that even without power, he could still access all their financial information and take care of their needs.

In the days after the storm, most advisers in the worst-hit areas said that texting was the quickest way to send messages to clients and colleagues.

A number of advisory offices, including RegentAtlantic Capital LLC in Morristown, N.J., were forced to close, at least for a few days, because of the power outage. With about half its employees lacking power at home, Regent's advisers relied on cell phones charged in their cars to make sure that they were available to clients.

Most of the firm's clients live within a 45-minute drive of the office, so many of them were without electricity, too, said Chris Cordaro, the firm's chief executive.

He e-mailed all clients from his home, which did have power, to inform them when the office would be closed.

The e-mail provided cell phone numbers for all its wealth managers.

“The biggest thing clients could need in the next few days would be cash, and we could transfer money between their accounts or do whatever they needed in that respect,” Mr. Cordaro said last Tuesday.

The cell networks in the region were operating slowly, because so many people relied on their wireless devices to communicate, he said.

In New York City, financial adviser Karen Altfest walked two miles Tuesday to her Manhattan offices, which had electricity. All staff members who live outside the city worked from home because most roads, bridges and public transportation lines were closed that day.

Adviser client meetings were canceled through Wednesday, though calls with clients still went on as planned and internal meetings were going on through conference calls, Ms. Altfest said.

Remote-communications technologies were helping advisers do business “almost as usual” from their homes, something that 10 years ago wouldn't have been possible.

"WORKING TOGETHER'

“It's amazing how well it all works,” Ms. Altfest said. “We're getting more than 20 people working together in sync remotely.”

Clear Harbor Asset Management LLC in New York had electricity after the storm. But its advisers continued to work remotely late last week because the offices didn't have Internet service, said chief operating officer Ian Armstrong.

One of Clear Harbor's advisers, who lives in one of the hardest-hit communities in Connecticut, was able to power up his cell phone and get Internet access at his local library, Mr. Armstrong said.

The firm canceled meetings but continued to conduct calls with clients.

Clear Harbor was able to complete several wire requests for clients, Mr. Armstrong said.

As Sandy's impact on Boston, Philadelphia and Washington was less severe, advisers in those cities reopened offices more quickly, even if a limited number of employees could get in due to transportation issues.

The Philadelphia headquarters of Janney Montgomery Scott LLC opened normally Wednesday, though about 10 of its branches were still closed late last week because of power outages and other continuing storm cleanup, said Chris Munafo, director of private-client-group administration.

Phones and client data from closed branches were rerouted to open offices.

Advisers without power in the office worked remotely with laptops. Advisers without power at home or work were accommodated at the nearest open branch.

The firm communicated with its 740 advisers via e-mail and posted messages for clients on the Janney Montgomery website to let them know what branches were open or closed at different times. Advisers in the 50 offices that were in the path of the storm also made sure that their clients had their cell phone numbers.

Mr. Meldrum said that he has already heard from some clients, mostly those who called to check on how he weathered the storm.

He said that he will begin reaching out to clients as power starts to return to the region.

“When something like this happens, people want to get in touch with all the professionals in their lives,” Mr. Meldrum said. “They just need reassurance.”

lskinner@investmentnews.com Twitter: @skinnerliz

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