Annella Metoyer, group manager for branches in Houston, was in Boston, MA, on vacation, when she heard about Katrina. At first, she did not realize the impact the storm was having on Texas. But almost immediately, Hibernia’s 100-plus Texas branches – mostly in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth – were over-run. Louisiana storm victims recognized the bank’s familiar name in this strange location. Many were customers, but others came because they knew the brand.
Bad to worse
Making matters worse were the two days the company’s mainframe was down. Metoyer got back as quickly as she could to help organize a response and take part in the humanitarian effort needed… “We were opening early and staying late, feeding customers. People were crying in the lobbies. Kids were in total shock,” she recalled.
The branches were seriously understaffed for the task. Branch people were asked to work very long hours and to handle extremely difficult situations. Some people had accounts, but no identification. Others had no accounts, but desperately needed to get funds from other banks. Most also were in misery — both physical and emotional — exhausted by the ordeal they just had been through and dreading the unknown road ahead.
Texas bankers had to deal with hard emotional situations – stories of lost loved-ones, lost homes, makeshift living arrangements. Some people came into the bank just to sit in a chair or on the floor, which was better than outside in the blazing heat.
No one was turned away. The bank provided food, water, clothes, diapers, toys and coloring books. The crowds spilled onto sidewalks and lawns around the offices, and employees brought things out to them as well.
“We were slammed,” Metoyer said, but she got help from unexpected places. Other market managers – Sylvia Claire in the Rio Grande Valley, Eric Heller in the mid-south region (between Houston and Austin) – offered to send teller teams, leaving their own branches with skeleton crews. Business bankers pitched in, walking the floor, talking with customers, helping any way they could. Commercial banking also sent people. Hibernia employees from New Orleans came in, even those who did not have anywhere to stay.
The stories would break your heart
The human dimensions of the calamity these Texas employees confronted were almost beyond belief.
A retired schoolteacher, came in “begging us to cash a check” so she could buy an airline ticket to fly to meet family in Florida, Metoyer remembered. “We took her information and brought back the cash. “She got on her knees – shaking, crying and praying – she was so surprised anyone would help her.” The amount of the check? $150.
A couple who had worked in New Orleans hotels, but could not speak English, wanted to get money from their checking account to buy groceries. Although they had green cards, they were afraid because of the disaster that they might be deported.
“We found someone in the crowd – other customers – who could speak Spanish. Those folks had tears running down their faces when they figured out we were not going to turn them in. They only wanted $50.”
One day at the League City branch, Metoyer was walking around asking if she could help. “A couple came up. The husband was calm, but the wife was in shock, almost hysterical.” They had been stranded on a rooftop when their son swam to a neighbor’s house and got a boat to help his mother and father to safety.
Now, they wanted $500 to put him on a plane to the East Coast. “The amount was a couple of hundred more than we were providing for people with no identification.” However, the couple had a copy of their latest deposit and the husband could prove he worked at Radio Shack. “They were so happy that their son could get on that plane, they cried … and I cried right with them.”
“If you talked to any of our branches, you would hear story after story like these,” Metoyer remarked. “Hibernia is where everyone came.”
The company has an employee volunteer program called HiberniaCares, first organized by Kyle Waters for people to help their communities. In Houston, Gloria Loxterman, a branch manager, was the local chapter president. Her volunteers set up a special room on the third floor of Houston’s Westheimer branch where employees brought clothes, food, equipment and toys.
Bank at Astrodome
After thousands of evacuees were bused from New Orleans’ Superdome and Convention Center to the Houston Astrodome, Texas officials urged Hibernia to set up a temporary bank for them.
It was not easy. It required coordination from areas of the bank and from vendors, who were themselves crippled, and it was hard to find staff. Among those who were asked to pitch in was a New Orleans evacuee, Kathy Saloy, who had been manager of a thriving branch in eastern New Orleans.
The facility, which included an ATM trailer, was over-run by customers when it opened, the familiar name drawing often-anxious evacuees from the huge temporary shelter.
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Texas: A new life?
At 46, Kathy Saloy managed one of the busier offices in eastern New Orleans. She and her husband, Louis, had a son, 19, and daughter, 13, and a solid place in their community. Katrina turned her world upside-down.
The Saloys evacuated near Houston. Her first thought was, “I didn’t have a job.” But she learned she was needed there. “Yes, Kathy,” she thought, “you are working for the right company.”
“It was unbelievable. Everything I’d ever worked for was gone.” She got her kids into a school and stepped up to run a temporary bank at the Astrodome. It was “very rewarding therapy,” Saloy recalled.
Old customers tried to reach her, and her New Orleans rental units worried her. Her children, too, “were overwhelmed.” When she finally made a trip back, her home “was awful … total disarray.”
Soon, she had a life-changing decision. She could either return or run a new office in TX. After agonizing over it, she took the Texas job … “It was a very, very hard decision to make in a week.”
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Help from Houston human resources
Houston’s human resources staff was stretched to the breaking point during this time. Manager Sam Wilkinson recalled that in addition to handling issues for evacuees, his staff also had to try to track down missing employees.
At first, they responded to every single question that came in. Later they revamped the process and took the questions, got answers from an expert and shot them back to the call center so the information would be available for other calls.
“We had 5,700 people check in,” Wilkinson said.
His area also coordinated weekend bus trips back to New Orleans and occasionally was able to help evacuees get their children placed in Houston schools.
Dallas, from festive to frazzled
In Dallas, Hibernia people were having a little different experience. On the night of Aug. 30, as the levees collapsed in New Orleans, employees were attending a festival marking what they thought was completion of the merger into Capital One. “It was like a political rally,” recalled Kay St. John, 52, chair of the North Texas region. St. John was a 28-year Hibernian who had lived most of her life in New Orleans until taking a new role in Dallas.
The storm shifted Dallas bankers from festive to frazzled in short order. “I don’t think (a lot of Texas customers) necessarily knew that we were headquartered in New Orleans …”
‘Just like they were home’
“And then the fun part of it was that we had a building on the Dallas tollway with a great big ‘Hibernia’ in block letters.” Evacuees coming into the city would go into the branches, and it was just as if they were at home. Even people from other banks. “People would come … just because they could associate it with home.” For some new Dallas offices, “it was the first time we had lines.”
Dallas employees also made donations to help evacuees. They stocked a room with clothes and toiletries. “We had food in the branches, also gift certificates.” Volunteers went to Reunion Arena (in downtown Dallas) where many evacuees were staying and served breakfast to over 500 people. “We had about 55 employees at 6:30 in the morning serving breakfast, all dressed in our Hibernia green shirts.”
The McKinney office was near where they had evacuees in an old Wal-Mart. “The branch staff and some business bankers went there, serving food and bringing donations. Our people adopted families.”
Opened up the doors
“We tried to make sure that we were visible to all the folks who had any questions … We were letting people use phones, computers … branch managers opened up the doors.” St. John saw many examples of spontaneous leadership about which she was proud. A few:
- At Reunion Center … “A gentleman came up to us and said, ‘I have $3,500 in cash on me and I bank at Hibernia in New Orleans and I own a barbershop and was not able to make my deposit because I was evacuated and I am scared to death to carry this cash on me … Would you make a deposit for me? Alan Ellen (McKinney office manager) gave him a receipt on his business card and … made the deposit. This gentleman trusted us because we were all sitting there wearing our Hibernia shirts with our nametags. We were the bank.”
- Mark Welch, a new trade area manager in east Dallas, obtained more authority to waive charges and to provide gift cards. “He focused on customers.”
- Amy Coutain, manager of the Garland branch near the Reunion Arena, and her team “did a great job handling people who camped out there.”
Dallas also sent employees to Houston to help, and tried to send some to Baton Rouge, but no lodging could be found. While both Dallas and Houston benefited from Hibernia evacuees who At one point, she had nearly 100 people looking for places to work – people from recovery, loan services, Southcoast Capital, loan operations.
Trying to lie low
In Texas markets, Hibernia management had an interesting public relations issue. Hibernia was less known and newer than other banks. Some of its disaster recovery messages did not seem appropriate because at first for most Texas customers, there was no disaster. Later Rita would change this, but right after Katrina there had been no interrupted service, no closed offices, and no missing employees.
“We were trying to focus on ‘business as usual’,” St. John observed. “I just wanted to lie low and let people know that the lights were back on, the systems were going and business was normal.”
Keeping up momentum
Bob Kottler, at 46, was one of Hibernia’s “young tigers,” although he had 22 years under his belt at the company. He had developed a successful small business-banking program in the 1990s, then went on to run sales and marketing and was promoted to the executive management committee. Kottler was a “can-do” leader who won a plum assignment from CEO Herb Boydstun just before Katrina — a plum with a big pit.
Anticipating Capital One would want to rev up Hibernia’s Texas building program after the merger, Boydstun shifted Kottler over to that task.
With the new assignment in hand, Kottler evacuated to Houston, but there he felt sidelined when the rest of the executive team scrambled to Baton Rouge. “I was used to being in the middle of everything.” He wanted to join them, but Boydstun told him to stay where he was to oversee Texas recovery efforts.
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Bob Kottler was a senior executive vice president in charge of Texas expansion. A 22-year veteran of Hibernia, he was married for 12 years to Jennie and had a step-daughter, 17. The family lived in the Garden District of New Orleans and evacuated to a relative’s home in Houston.
The deluge of customers that came to Texas as well as the ongoing building program there were his top concerns after the storms. He thought keeping up the growth momentum was essential.
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Texas branch expansion
The Texas expansion program had been under way several years, starting with an initial outlay of $100 million. It had been spearheaded by Paul Bonitatibus, chief of retail banking, and managed by John Laing, in charge of Texas banking. As first-stage results came in, Bonitatibus reported that new offices were doing significantly better than projected. He asked for another $50 million, which the board of directors approved.
After the storms, a new focus took shape, one Kottler sharpened. Not only was Texas growth important to Hibernia’s future with Capital One, he reasoned, it was essential.
A healing process
“I felt very much that the most important thing we could do after the storm was continue to build and open,” Kottler recalled. It would send an important message to everyone. The company could “show the world” it was not injured. “It would be a healing process.”
Inspiring as it was, it seemed impossible at first. The bank’s construction experts appeared overwhelmed by the repair needs and they were scattered.
Kottler went to fellow executive officer Ron Samford, under whom most of the construction functions resided and pressed his case. He also described his vision in daily conference calls of the executive management committee. As it turned out, the idea was not hard to sell, but how to do it. Kottler recalled, “We had to get our people settled first; take care of kids; get housing; then get systems up.”
Samford and his organization were key. He listened and said simply, “We’ll figure it out.”
And they did. The first new Texas locations to open after Katrina were in Houston on Sept. 9 at the Champions branch and, after Rita, on Sept. 26 at the North Frye Road branch.
By year-end, Hibernia had completed 12 new offices in Texas. “It was the coolest thing to see how people stepped up.”