Brown's big move Nervous: Moving the nation's oldest investment firm in four days is not a piece of cake. Alex. Brown risked losing millions in trades.


John Betsill shot a glance at his watch, his face etched with concern. At 5 p.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he had good reason to be a little nervous.

In a little more than 100 hours, Alex. Brown Inc.'s stock trading operation would move into the 30-story skyscraper downtown that is being transformed into the company's new headquarters, and Betsill was on the hook to make it go smoothly.

Although the relocation from 120 E. Baltimore St. to the 15th floor of the newly renamed Alex. Brown Building at 1 South St. encompasses only a few blocks, in Betsill's mind it could well have been a world away.

By Monday morning, 115 traders, their possessions and more than 500 sophisticated Apple, Stratus and Compaq computer terminals and telecommunications equipment that link the company to customers, stock exchanges and other brokerage houses around the globe would have to be relocated.

While ensuring that the computers and phones would be up and running was Betsill's top priority, he would also have to guarantee that security measures were functioning and that new signs and the red Brown flag -- the firm's symbolic link to its roots in shipping and Irish linen trading -- were mounted on the building.

Without a smooth transition by the opening bell for stock trading at 9: 30 a.m., the nation's oldest investment firm would lose millions of dollars in customer securities trades and the lucrative commissions that went with them.

In short, Alex. Brown couldn't afford to miss a beat.

"As fast as the markets move, it'd be a real issue if we were out of commission," said A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, Alex. Brown's chairman and chief executive officer. "Imagine what would happen if a client put in a buy order for shares of IBM at $150 per share, and our lines went down and the stock somehow moved to $170 per share in short order. We'd be stuck."

If things went well over the next four days, Betsill, an Alex. Brown vice president and director of the firm's facilities management department, would be among the throngs of fans cheering the Baltimore Ravens against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Memorial Stadium.

If they didn't, Betsill knew that he would face an all-out blitz from Alex. Brown management for not successfully executing the most critical of nine separately planned moves.

"Moving the trading floor is our biggest challenge," J. Michael Connelly, an Alex. Brown managing director overseeing Betsill's team, said the day of the move. "It's our riskiest move, because it's so communications intensive, and because trading makes up such a significant part of our revenue."

The trading floor move would be the second that Betsill's team would make. The week before, Alex. Brown's equity research division had relocated to the $90 million building. Along with 80 analysts and support staff, Betsill, his crew and Office Movers Inc. trucked 1,200 boxes to the 16th floor of its new quarters without a hitch.

"The first inning's over and we struck out the side," Betsill said, using a sports analogy to compare the nine separate moves to innings of a baseball game.

By March, Alex. Brown will have completed one of the largest corporate shifts in Baltimore history, consolidating nearly 1,200 employees and the equipment they need to do their jobs into 13 floors totaling 254,000 square feet at 1 South St., a four-year-old building owned by a joint venture of the New York-based Harlan Co. and Kajima Development Corp. of Tokyo.

In the process, the company will abandon its celebrated domed headquarters at 135 E. Baltimore St., as well as space in the Signet Tower, the Equitable Building at 10 N. Calvert St., a 25-story tower at 120 E. Baltimore St. and 300 E. Lombard St.

In all, the move to the building formerly known as Commerce Place -- including the purchase of new office furniture and high-tech communications equipment -- will cost the company as much as $50 million, Krongard estimates.

Months of planning and preparation preceded the trading operation move. More than 275 contractors installed nearly 400 miles of telephone cable in the new building, 1,300 tons of mechanized refrigeration to keep computers cool and 110 miles of electrical cable.

With the miles of spaghetti-like wiring in place, workers built raised floors, welded special steel stairways to match the floors and installed rows of new trading desks.

The 30th floor is the site of Alex. Brown's future board room, the offices for Krongard and Mayo A. Shattuck III, the company's president and chief operating officer, plus an executive dining room and a restaurant-quality kitchen. Here contractors ground down a floor designed for carpeting so that a combination of slate and imported Portuguese limestone could be installed.

"This has been a killer," said Mike Constantine, president of Constantine Commercial Construction Inc., Alex. Brown's contractor, referring to the months of interior construction work.

For Alex. Brown employees, scores of meetings were scheduled to discuss the move, booklets and move updates were 'f prepared, tours given.

Alex. Brown had also put "disaster recovery" contingency plans in place as a backup, in the event its trading operations' telecommunications systems failed, Connelly said.

At least one element of the move won't be completed on schedule, though. A city-owned, 500-space garage that was to have been finished next spring in the 300 block of East Baltimore St. won't be ready until at least August, because city officials elected to expand the project in mid-design. Demolition to clear the area for the garage began last week.

The city's commitment to develop the seven-story garage and ** allocate 250 spaces to Alex. Brown was one of the key elements in keeping the investment firm headquartered downtown, and executives there are clearly frustrated by what they believe is bureaucratic foot-dragging.

"We're puzzled by the delays," Connelly said. "It's frustrating."

City officials, however, said the delay would be worth it.

"While the garage won't be completed as earlier scheduled, there are real reasons for that," said Michele L. Whelley, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "And they may not be happy, but they agreed to the changes and in the end they'll get a better product."

Whelley blames the delays on the March decision to expand the garage to include the INA Building at 303 E. Fayette St., as well as required asbestos removal prior to demolition. A revised schedule has the garage slated for completion sometime in 1997.

But on Wednesday evening, all Betsill could think of was the Alex. Brown Building's 15th floor, the trading operation and the technical support housed a floor below. So much could go wrong. Thoughts of the Ravens game would have to wait.

Shortly after Wall Street shut down and Alex. Brown traders left for the holiday, a small army of Office Movers workers descended on the old trading floor, wrapping disassembled computers and keyboards in plastic bubble wrap before stowing them in huge, almost coffin-sized boxes for moving.

Less than four hours later, half of the 120 E. Baltimore St. trading operation had been packed and moved, and the first of the 20-inch computer monitors and black Tradenet telephone panels complete with 150 phone lines each -- were brought on-line in the Alex. Brown Building.

"This is the point where we really cross our fingers," said Betsill. "When they hook up the PCs. Because if they don't work or go out for some reason ."

The decision to move just half of the trading operation on Wednesday had been a deliberate one, giving the firm time to test out equipment before moving the balance Friday, a traditionally light day of trading after the Thanksgiving holiday.

As the first images of investment data and CNN flashed on computer screens, Betsill turned to Bob Ullman, Alex. Brown's vice president of telecommunications.

"How are we?" Betsill asked.

"We're so awesome it's almost scary," Ullman replied.

In more than a decade with Alex. Brown, Betsill and his team have been through more than a few office relocations, some with less than awesome results.

Kathryn Klass, a senior member of Alex. Brown's facilities team, tells a story of how police in London began towing moving trucks full of Alex. Brown equipment during a relocation in September 1995, because the vehicles were improperly registered. With the trucks out of service, Betsill's crew was forced to lug stacks of expensive computers off the street.

Now, on this Friday evening, half way through the allotted time for the trading operation move, security had tightened considerably.

In between the two locations, computer consultants from Ease Technologies Inc. chatted via walkie-talkie, using code names like "Viper" and "Maverick" and "Goose" culled from the Tom Cruise movie "Top Gun." The name Alex. Brown was never mentioned.

Meanwhile, on the ground floor of the Alex. Brown Building, Vice President Larry DiBitonto directed employees to tap beige coded entry cards on an automatic "reader" in the lobby and repeat the drill in the elevators. Fifteen floors up, security guards stood watching the hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of computers being hooked up.

The heightened security will remain even after Alex. Brown has fully relocated. In addition to the entry cards, which employees -- will have to use whenever they enter the building, they were told in an information booklet what code names to use to report suspicious activity.

By Sunday afternoon, despite the favorable progress with the phones and computers, Betsill looked haggard. And problems, albeit relatively little ones, were surfacing.

Two days before, workers attempting to put 4-foot-high, gold leaf letters spelling the firm's name at the top of the building were stalled for hours by a mechanical glitch. Now, on a tour to show Shattuck a preview of his 30th-floor office, Betsill discovered the roof was leaking in a rain storm.

Adding to the aggravation, a white flag with the firm's logo had been placed atop the building's entrance, instead of the traditional red flag with a capital "B" and white stripe.

Many of the traders, in jeans and sweat suits, had brought their kids along to unpack boxes, clean their computer screens with ** Windex and eye their new digs. A few boxes were missing in action, a few phones appeared to have minor problems.

But with cool air soon blowing through vents on the 15th floor, Betsill looked satisfied. "Mission accomplished, guys," he said. "Only seven more to go."

Ullman looked pleased, too. "I think a lot of people didn't believe we could get this done as smoothly as we have," he said.

Minutes later, Betsill and DiBitonto strode toward the elevator, on their way to watch the Ravens and Steelers.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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