Anxious to Get Back to Work
Idle Time Takes Its Toll on Owner of Storm-Ravaged Hardware Store

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

METAIRIE, La. -- Craig Boes walked into a hardware store, approached the owner and confessed. A few days before, he had come through a broken window and swiped a crowbar.

"Not a problem," said Frank Sibley, the 70-year-old owner of R.J. Marchand's, who'd done business with Boes for about 20 years. "Now if only other people would come in and tell me they'd taken something, too. We could sit down and work it out."

More than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina roared through the area, Sibley is trying to restart his business.

Pressures are everywhere: Three of his workers are still missing. The Home Depot down the street is already open, selling to some of his loyal customers. Sibley's suppliers are pushing him to reopen so they won't lose big sales. He hasn't yet accounted for all his missing merchandise. Floodwaters destroyed some of it. Looters broke his storefront window and got more.

"They even stole the damn garbage cans," Sibley said.

Sibley's shop sits on Division Street, off a main drag that has malls and big-box stores Petco and Linens 'n Things. Last Friday, the doors to those stores were filled with sandbags, and armed military police patrolled the parking lots. Gray mud and grit covered parts of the linoleum floor at Sibley's store, though floodwaters had receded. Katrina's winds had ripped off the store's sign; a steel bar that once held it dangles out front.

Sibley has been driving in most days from Hammond, about an hour north of Metairie, to work on cleaning up the store before the 6 p.m. curfew. It's nearly impossible to do without electricity; government officials have told him it could take at least two weeks before power and phone lines are fully restored in the area.

Before the storm, Sibley's business was doing $3 million a year in sales and employed almost 20 people. Sibley says isn't sure if he has business interruption insurance, which would allow him to pay his office workers, drivers and salespeople, some of whom have lost their homes and belongings, even though he's been shut down for the past two weeks.

He can't find the paperwork in his pitch-black office, and he hasn't been able to contact the employee who would know. Many scattered to as far away as Chicago to escape the hurricane, and most are waiting for power to be restored to their houses before they come back. Sibley invited one of his bookkeepers to move into his five-bedroom brick house near the shop because she lost her entire house and all her belongings.

There are other logistical problems to reopening.

Sibley has a $90,000 order of heavy-duty drills and other equipment that was to be driven along the interstates from Ohio to a shipyard near New Orleans. But the order got rerouted because of the hurricane.

"I'm not sure where they are," Sibley said. Another one of his distributors has 200 generators that he's waiting to ship to Sibley's store from Baton Rouge, but Sibley can't house them in the store because thieves ripped his security system from the wall and threw it on the floor.

Without the alarms, Sibley said, he can't order new supplies and equipment. He says he's worried that there's little street life -- other than the occasional National Guardsman patrolling with an M-16 or electricity workers -- in the neighborhood.

He's losing between $15,000 and $18,000 a day by not being open, he said.

Sibley estimates that he was robbed of some $15,000 worth of pocket knives, nail guns, saws, blades, drills, radios, tool bags, cordless tools, wrenches and generators from his shop and adjoining warehouse, about the size of a basketball court. A cash register drawer that had $167.25 in it the last time he looked, the day before the storm, now sits busted, holding 15 cents.

A thin wire rope hangs limp from a display near his front counter. It used to be tied to a Timberland boot.

"They didn't even have the other shoe," Sibley said.

In the dark, muggy store, Boes, the contractor, walked with Sibley last week, using a flashlight to look for saws, blades and a few other items to fix wet and moldy sheetrock.

"We need you back, Frank," Boes said, as Sibley held a flashlight in one hand and used a pencil with the other to write down the serial numbers of the $500 worth of stuff Boes selected. "We'll take care of it later," Sibley told Boes of paying him for the supplies.

Sibley said he's competed against the Lowe's and Home Depots that have popped up around him in the past few years by offering good customer service. Boes agreed.

"A number of years ago, we had financial difficulties with my company, and the creditors were calling," Boes said. "Frank was one of the few people who understood. He still did business with me. You develop loyalty to a guy like him."

One of 12 children, Sibley was born and raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York. His father was a chemist; his mother worked as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. At 18, Sibley joined the Air Force and worked as a jet mechanic at a base in north Louisiana. He got married at 22 when he left the Air Force and worked fixing heating and air-conditioning systems. In 1960, he got a job selling tools for R.J. Marchand, who had his own hardware and tool business. Sibley worked his way up to managing Marchand's store in Metairie, and in 1987, he paid Marchand $1 million for the business.

While his wife, Gloria, cared for the couple's five children -- four boys and a girl -- Sibley supplemented his family's income from the hardware business by driving a tour bus through New Orleans at night and on the weekends. Since he's owned Marchand's, Sibley has quadrupled the number of employees and doubled the sales. His two older sons -- Kevin, 44, and Greg, 42 -- help him run the store.

Sibley's no stranger to loss. His brother was killed in the Korean War; his son was killed aboard the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf; his wife died last year of kidney failure.

The Saturday before the hurricane, Sibley and his family had gathered for a barbecue to commemorate the anniversary of his wife's death. After cleaning the grills, they boarded up Sibley's house and business in Metairie for the hurricane and headed in a four-car caravan north to Shreveport, La., to stay with his wife's relatives.

Sibley packed a box of photographs, including one of him and his wife aboard a cruise ship a few years ago, in the back of his white Lincoln Town Car. Another black-and-white photograph shows him as a 20-something, sitting with his late father and grandfather at the famous Pat O'Briens bar in downtown New Orleans. It disturbs Sibley to not be in business. He's in every day at 5 a.m. and usually works until 6 p.m. He works Saturdays so his two sons can be off.

"We've never missed a lick before," Sibley said as he picked up drill bits, ripped from their packages in his store. "As soon as a storm comes through, we're always back to work right away."

After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Sibley said, the hardware store reopened barely three days later. "The lights blinked off for a few hours, and then we're back up and rolling," he recalled.

After Katrina passed, Sibley moved his family back from Shreveport to Hammond. He's one of 16 people staying in a three-bedroom Cape Cod with three cats. Because he can't do much at the store yet, he's tried to distract himself by going back and forth to Wal-Mart to get food. He cut the lawn of his son-in-law's house.

Once he gets his store open, Sibley says, he expects sales to rise by 50 percent over last year, as contractors work to rebuild homes, offices and stores in New Orleans area.

"Frank makes money off of disasters," said Steve Goodwin, his son-in-law.

Customers have called his son, Greg, who's staying in his RV with his wife near Lafayette, La. -- about three hours outside New Orleans -- to ask if the store's reopened because they need saws, wheelbarrows and shovels.

"We've got the stuff that's needed right away for people to start rebuilding," Greg said. "It's going to be hard to recover from all this, but we're going to do it. We're coming back, and we're coming back strong."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company