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.

December 08, 1996|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

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.

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