Peerless prognosticator:Joel Myers guides AccuWeather from startup to forecasting’s industry leader
There are plenty of things Joel Myers can predict.
He has accurately predicted when the stock market would drop, when Penn State’s football team would win in overtime against Michigan, and how 48 out of the 50 states would vote in the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
What Myers is most famous for is predicting when the sun will shine and when ski resort owners should prepare for a busy winter.
One thing Myers didn’t predict was that at 74 he would be sitting atop a worldwide weather forecasting corporation, AccuWeather.
“It was a dream, how it worked out,” Myers said, wearing his signature dark-tinted eyeglasses and sitting in his green high leather chair in his AccuWeather office filled with family photographs. “I was a lousy student until 11th grade. I’ve been living a dream.”
This year, Myers is celebrating the 50th anniversary of AccuWeather, the company he created as a 23-year-old student pursuing a master’s degree in meteorology at Penn State. He earned $50 a month from his first client, a gas utility company. Today, AccuWeather serves tens of thousands of clients, including nearly 300 Fortune 500 companies, and it compiles its forecasts for nearly every location on Earth.
When Myers isn’t working alongside his two younger brothers, Barry Myers and Evan Myers, who are executives at AccuWeather’s global headquarters in State College, he is an outspoken member of Penn State’s Board of Trustees. In that setting, his tell-it-like-it-is demeanor sometimes casts him as controversial figure.
Trustee emeritus Mimi Coppersmith sizes him up: “Joel is the guy who literally rose to the top of his dream and profession and uses it and shows it as part of his credibility. And he’s not always understood or appreciated, in my opinion. He has a different style, and his mission is a good one. He wants the facts and wants things done right.”
The soft image of snow falling in Philadelphia inspired Myers to pursue a career in weather.
“By the time I was 7, I just was completely fascinated by snow,” Myers said. “I stayed up one whole night during a snowstorm in Philadelphia. And from then on, I knew that was what I wanted to be.”
As a child, Myers sawed through his family’s attic in their North Philadelphia home and created a weather station and an observatory on the roof. There, he said, he once watched a tornado spiral in the distance. He and his father built a shelter to house barometers, rain gauges and thermometers.
The weather buzz spread to his brothers, Barry and Evan. All three would make their marks at Penn State and build a family weather corporation.
Barry Myers said he was probably 3 1/2 years old when a big snowstorm hit Philadelphia, and he sensed that Joel was extremely interested.
“I was following him from the front of the house to the back of the house, back and forth during the storm,” Barry Myers said. The family’s rowhouse had windows only at the front and back.
Snow wasn’t the only natural element that fixated the young Joel Myers.
In AccuWeather’s 50th anniversary video that plays on flat-screen televisions in the company’s black marble lobby, Evan Myers describes Hurricane Hazel’s assault on the East Coast in 1954. Wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour knocked over trees and left homes without power.
As Evan remembers it, Joel wanted to go out on the porch while those strong winds were blowing. Their mother would only let Joel go outside if he tied a rope around his waist. “And I remember we had to hold him because she was afraid he might blow away,” Evan says in the video.
Joel hooked his brothers into his business plans early. After he made pot holders on a loom, he paid Barry a dime to sell them to family and neighbors. Joel’s take from each sale was a quarter.
The weather business soon became his new childhood dream.
“I was always trying to make a buck, and my father showed me an article in a magazine about a woman in Boston who was selling forecasts to fuel oil dealers,” Joel Myers said. “And I said, ‘Wow that’s what I’d like to do.’ ”
No weather course was available in grade school or high school, but he devoured meteorology books. He learned how to figure out the weather. And when he finished a forecast, he picked up his home phone and called his relatives to reveal his predictions. He wrote about the weather in a personal journal.
He made predictions in his weather station and phoned them into local radio stations. His predictions were sometimes more accurate than the U.S. Weather Bureau, the agency that became the National Weather Service in 1970. At age 13 or 14, Myers said, he became an official observer for the Weather Bureau after the Weather Bureau heard his name on local radio stations. He recorded the daily weather forecasts and sent a monthly report to the government.
Though Myers was passionate about the weather, he wasn’t about school. The Philadelphia Phillies, the weather and his paper route distracted him from his studies in elementary school. He was able to get into Central High School of Philadelphia, an elite public prep school, only because Myers’ great-grandfather was an alumnus.
“I remember my eighth grade teacher read off the names of the kids who made it to Central High or Girls High and came to my name. She said, ‘Joel, Joel — you got into Central?’ ” Myers said, relishing his teacher’s surprise.
At Central, he began earning A’s and B’s.
Off to Penn State
After graduation, Myers was accepted into Penn State, one of the few schools his parents could afford.
He left Philadelphia and his family behind, but only after giving his brothers instructions on how to care for the weather center and how to make observations for the Weather Bureau.
On one of his first days on Penn State’s University Park campus in 1958, Myers marched to The Daily Collegian and asked one of the student paper’s editors if he could write weather forecasts. The editor gave him the job on the condition that he would also cover the police beat. Soon after, he was writing not only forecasts but also a weekly column, “Snowed.” When he didn’t write about the weather, he wrote about politics, sometimes combining the two.
In a 1960 column, he disputed the U.S. government’s cover story that a plane shot down over the Soviet Union was a weather plane that had strayed off course. He wrote that Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft couldn’t have been observing the weather.
“It didn’t sound like a weather plane to me because it was flying at 70,000 feet, and that’s above the weather,” Myers said. Days later, President Dwight Eisenhower admitted it was a spy plane.
He excelled in his meteorology classes.
His meteorology professor and mentor, Charles Hosler, now 89, remembers Myers as not just one of the best forecasters in the department but also as an entrepreneurial talent who was destined for success. Hosler was then the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
“Unlike most students who come to college and don’t know what they want to do with their lives, he was bound to be a meteorologist,” Hosler said.
To help him get his start, Hosler gave Myers his first AccuWeather client referral — a utility company that used the forecasts to determine gas consumption for heating homes.
Hosler also rented Myers a 4-by-10-foot closet for $400 a month. In this windowless office, Myers installed dozens of telephones that he used to conduct business and call prospective clients. Over the next 12 years, Myers called about 25,000 prospects, nearly all of whom said no, he said.
He tried to entice ski resorts and other businesses, arguing that his forecasts could save them money because they were more accurate than the Weather Bureau’s free forecasts.
“I never doubted myself,” Myers said. “I just took it day by day and knew I would keep going and make it successful. Failure never entered my mind.”
Earning his fees
John Cahir, a former Penn State meteorology professor, remembers meeting the ski resort owner at Sugar Loaf Mountain in Maine in the 1970s.
When the owner found out Cahir was from Penn State, the conversation turned quickly to Joel Myers, who provided forecasts for the mountain.
“He said, ‘You know, I look at that television and I can see those forecasters in Boston. They can give me forecasts exactly for Maine, and it’s free. Then I think about it, and that son-of-a-gun, that Myers guy, these guys can’t beat him. He’s way down in Pennsylvania, but they can’t beat him,’ ” Cahir recalled. “He said, ‘So I reluctantly write my check.’ ”
On top of being an excellent forecaster, Myers was always on a quest to learn more about meteorology, Cahir said. He and Myers shared an office when they were both graduate students. There they debated the weather, sports and politics. And Myers shared his dreams for AccuWeather.
By watching Myers work around the clock on AccuWeather, studying meteorology and teaching forecasting courses, Cahir learned an invaluable lesson — always strive for perfection.
“People were on a big pedestal then, the real knowledgeable people. They were more respected, more honored, and more likely to have their opinions accepted,” Cahir said. “Joel didn’t look at the world that way. It was always that science was a mechanism for correcting errors; it wasn’t for finding truths, it was for correcting errors.”
While Myers was a graduate student at Penn State, his father was struggling financially in Philadelphia. Myers began earning $50 a week with his teaching assistantship and would send $20 home.
Today, Myers sports a suit nearly every day. He drives his black Mercedes to business trips in New York, making dozens of calls on his cell phone. But he remembers buying $4 pants and buying $1 dinners at a diner in downtown State College.
Drive past Penn State’s Blue Golf Course, make a right at the old model helicopter near the corner, and you’ll find AccuWeather’s 52,000-square-foot headquarters on a 6.5-acre campus. Dozens of satellite dishes atop the roof are visible from Science Park Road. The company has three other offices: a sales and marketing office in New York City, a severe-weather center in Wichita, Kan., and a business office in Montreal. Myers plans to open offices in China soon.
The AccuWeather headquarters doesn’t feel like a global corporation, at least on the inside. It’s more like a family hangout.
Photos of the Myers brothers posed with one another, political leaders and community members hang next to vintage barometers and old AccuWeather advertisements. Near Joel’s office, children’s scribbled thank-you notes from the Make-a-Wish Foundation hang in small frames, an indication of his philanthropy.
Myers has donated millions of dollars to Penn State and to charities, including the American Cancer Society. The weather center, located on the sixth floor of the Walker Building on the Penn State campus, where meteorology students analyze weather data on flat-screen maps, is named The Joel N. Myers Weather Center.
A Nittany Lion weather vane informs Beaver Stadium spectators which way the wind is blowing. There is a large granite sundial on the green grass of Penn State’s arboretum and a lightning-bolt sundial outside the Nittany Lion Inn on campus. All are gifts from Joel Myers.
On the main floor of AccuWeather, forecasters sit next to each other at one large desk and analyze weather data as it arrives in the center’s computer system from around the world. The forecasters seem happy to predict the weather, whether they’re predicting a crisp autumn day in Philadelphia or a tropical storm off the coast of Mexico. Next to the forecasters, graphic designers huddle in their pods, designing the weather maps that are distributed to AccuWeather’s clients. Cameramen and producers fill control rooms with laughter before broadcasters give the day’s weather forecast for countless localities in videos that appear on the AccuWeather website.
Upstairs, the Myers brothers are hard at work as their assistants, in jeans and comfortable shoes, plan their busy schedules. Joel Myers is often traveling, meeting with clients and scoring new deals.
The sense of community and family ideals is evidenced by the employees’ family photos and the mini-kitchens scattered through the building. Employees got the homey corner kitchens with refrigerators, snack cabinets and coffee makers when the company moved to the building in 1998 after working out of different buildings in downtown State College.
A family tragedy
The brothers have always valued family ideals, Barry Myers said. They treat their employees with respect and offer premium health insurance — something the brothers decided was a necessity after tragedy struck their family.
Their father, Martin Myers, committed suicide in 1963 after going bankrupt in part from his wife’s medical bills. Their mother, Doris Myers, a freelance artist, suffered from a botched gallbladder operation. And Martin, who worked in the real-estate business, didn’t have health insurance, Barry Myers said.
“There’s no substitute for good health insurance,” Barry said. “People should have it. They should never be in that situation.”
When his father died, Joel was 23 and had started AccuWeather. He had only one client at the time. But he didn’t let his father’s death stop him from following his dream; it encouraged him to keep going, Barry said.
“It was devastating. It was a shock,” Joel said, sitting at his kitchen table next a small pile of mail in his modest State College home. “I was close with my father, and it happened three days before I was to get married. He was in deep financial trouble, worse than we thought, I guess. And we couldn’t find him for the final rehearsal at the synagogue in Philadelphia.”
Myers did get married days later, in a low-key ceremony in a family home. After the wedding, Myers returned to State College and continued to build AccuWeather.
Even though Myers’ father never saw AccuWeather develop, his mother did. She moved to State College, just a few blocks from her sons, and watched her grandchildren grow up. She died in August 2012 at 94.
Joel Myers said he chose to keep AccuWeather in State College because the area is family-friendly and has a strong school system and a low crime rate. He has rebuffed entreaties from other cities.
Although he looks after the personal needs of his employees, Myers said he expects those employees to work hard and keep AccuWeather growing.
“I tell people when I give introduction lectures every three months to the new people — if you’re not prepared to work hard, contribute and make a difference, you’re in the wrong place,” Myers said.
Picking from the Penn State crop
Myers has always strived to hire the best.
“Hiring is what it’s all about. During the time we’ve been here a dozen companies up and down this street went bankrupt just in the last 15 years,” Myers said, looking out the window of his office. “Same thing in the weather business. When we started, I’ve seen a hundred companies come and go.”
When he was a professor at Penn State — a job he held nearly 20 years — Myers offered jobs at AccuWeather to students who beat him during in-class weather-forecasting competitions. The students also received automatic A’s if they produced forecasts more accurate than his own.
Paul Knight, a Penn State meteorology professor and climatologist, is a former student Myers hired to “create the nucleus for AccuWeather” after excelling in a class competition.
“Most years, he won hands down,” Knight said. “But the particular year that I was taking his course, he was having a challenging year at forecasting. He was not doing as good as he usually does. And there were a bunch of us in there who were doing very well.”
Knight accepted a job as an AccuWeather forecaster after he earned a graduate degree from Penn State. Today, Knight teaches weather forecasting to meteorology students, the same class Myers taught.
“He was a hard-driving boss. There was no question about it. He was demanding. If you screwed up, he would tell you.”
Knight can still remember how angry he made Myers after inaccurately forecasting that a big snowstorm on the East Coast would turn to rain. It never did, and AccuWeather’s high-paying clients in New York and Philadelphia received the wrong forecast.
Even though Myers offered students the opportunity to expand AccuWeather into the company it is today, he lost some to his biggest competitor, The Weather Channel.
Myers’s former student Raymond Ban was one of AccuWeather’s first forecasters. Like Knight, he got the job after beating Myers in a class forecasting competition.
Ban worked at AccuWeather for nine years until the Weather Channel offered him a gig in 1982. At the time, AccuWeather was aimed at business clients, while the Weather Channel was aimed at the cable television audience.
“That was a little contention,” Ban said. “I think that we clearly had a strong working relationship, and I think that we each had our own separate goals that we were pursuing. When I left there was tension, but we resolved that.”
Ban helped the Weather Channel grow before retiring as executive vice president of programming, operations and meteorology.
Today, the Myers brothers and Ban still run into one another at weather conferences and when Ban travels from his home in Georgia to teach a weather class at Penn State. And even though their companies compete for web traffic and mobile clients, they can still talk Penn State football.
An errant forecast
About 1 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1970, Joe Paterno got a phone call at his motel room outside of Baltimore. He was in College Park, Md., for a game against the Maryland Terrapins.
The call was from a frantic Joel Myers.
“I said, ‘Joe, I’m sorry to do this, but the storm changed path and I’m worried that it’s going to be rainy and windy, and you know I wanted to get this to you before anyone else,’ ” Myers said, reflecting on the evening 43 years later.
Myers always gave the late coach personal forecasts every Wednesday so he could prepare for the weather on game day.
“In those days you couldn’t get on Wednesday any kind of forecast for Saturday,” Myers said. “It was too far ahead, but I gave it to him so he would have an advantage.”
Myers’ forecast for the game was wrong. Two hours after Myers phoned the coach to say the weather would be rainy and windy, the storm changed course again, veering out to sea. The Nittany Lions enjoyed sunny weather as they beat Maryland 34-0.
“Joe never let me forget it,” Myers said. “He kept telling that story for 40 years.”
When he was trying to build the business, people told Myers he was crazy for trying to sell weather data that the government provided free. Explaining AccuWeather’s strategy in marketing forecasts that it considered superior to the government’s, Hosler said: “There are billions lost every day in this country because of weather events that aren’t anticipated that ruin construction jobs or wash away their equipment.”
AccuWeather showed its accuracy in predicting the course of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. Before the hurricane hit New Orleans, AccuWeather warned people to flee the area.
Myers said, “We got emails and letters from people, saying, ‘I would’ve never gotten my grandmother out of town. I came from Houston because you were so dogmatic. Thank goodness we left. Our house floated away ...’ It made me feel great. How could you feel any better than that?”
Against the consensus
The November 2012 meeting of Penn State’s Board of Trustees was winding down. Some board members and reporters had been there for nearly seven hours, and they were eager to leave.
Chairwoman Karen Peetz stood at the podium and asked, “Are there any other matters to come before the board?”
Joel Myers moved toward his microphone. “I just want to make a few comments about Penn State’s extraordinary football team, if I may,” he said.
Tensions were high in the conference room. Several outspoken alumni, during a public comment period, had berated the board for firing Paterno the year before in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson closed his binder and gathered his belongings. But before the president and the trustees could leave the conference room, Myers spoke for five minutes, praising Penn State’s football team for what became an 8-4 record while enduring harsh NCAA sanctions.
“I challenge other universities to show me a cleaner organization and higher ideals than we have at Penn State,” he said.
The room erupted in applause.
Myers has served on the board of trustees for more than 30 years. He says it’s a way he can make his cherished university a better place.
“I speak my mind. What I try and do is what I believe is best for the university,” Myers said. “Most of the time you have to be a team player, and I think I try to do what my conscience says is what’s for the best for the university over the long term.”
At the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, Myers will be up for re-election by alumni. He can serve only one more three-year term.
If he chooses to run, Myers will have to face an opinionated alumni crowd. In the elections since the Sandusky scandal, a once-apathetic alumni base fiercely has campaigned for seats on the board.
If he runs, Myers said, he won’t spend a lot of time campaigning. “I’ll let the people decide. But it certainly is a changed game.”
In November, he took out an ad in State College’s local newspaper, The Centre Daily Times, responding to attacks from alumni-interest groups who had said he should not be eligible to run for the board because of a new term-limit policy — a notion that Myers disputes.
“Healthy debate, discussion and dialogue are a great thing, and I have been an active part of the debate involving the most serious issues Penn State has ever faced,” he said in the ad. “Inaccurate attacks that stimulate conflict within the Penn State community are harmful to the university, its missions, its students, its faculty and its alumni.”
Myers heads the board’s Committee on Outreach, Development and Community Relations, which seeks to repair Penn State’s image after the Sandusky scandal.
Myers is an opinionated trustee who is not afraid to speak his mind.
“He’s sometimes misunderstood and unappreciated ... when in fact he’s speaking facts and information. He’s a critical, bright, intelligent guy who wants the facts before he agrees or disagrees,” Mimi Coppersmith said. “Some would argue that it is occasionally disruptive. Others would argue that it helps get to the factual information and understand complex subjects.”
Feeling like a 20-something
A roomful of Penn State students pursuing their MBAs sat chatting with one another, scrolling through their
iPhones and enjoying a break from classes inside a meeting room in the Smeal College of Business. Instead of attending classes, the students listened as Penn State alumni shared success stories.
As more students filed into the room, Joel Myers, wearing a navy blue blazer, striped shirt, yellow tie and blue jeans, stood at the front of the room and reviewed his speech notes
“I come to you today as founder and president of AccuWeather, a company I started at a kitchen table and had a closet as its first office,” he said. One student sitting in the second row snapped a photo of Myers with his cell phone.
For more than an hour, Myers talked about the future of global communication. Technology, he said, will continue to grow and change people’s day-to-day lives. He talked about how he got his start in AccuWeather. He said his key to entrepreneurial success is believing in himself.
Halfway through his presentation, he stopped to call out a student who yawned. “I used to throw chalk at students who yawned in my class,” Myers said. Students roared with laughter.
Something Myers didn’t mention to the students is that he feels as if he’s one of their peers.
“I’m having fun,” he said. “I’m always going to be active and working, for at least another 50 years.” He laughed as he sat at his kitchen table and snacked on grapes. “I feel great. I feel sometimes 27, sometimes 28.”
When he’s not working, managing his investments, he takes yoga lessons and works out at the gym.
Myers has seven children and six grandchildren.
“As a person, my most important legacy for me is that I was a good father and I did what was best to raise the kids and give them the right values and prepare them for a happy and productive life,” Myers said.
Portraits of his children hang on the wall above his large, dark wooden antique desk that is scattered with papers and books in his home office.
Myers enjoys entertaining in his home, which is filled with dozens of antique barometers. He owns more than 300. He’s always on the hunt for a bargain. One gold-embellished barometer is centered on his dining room wall, a purchase he made in New York City for $200. The ancient instrument is now valued in the thousands, he said.
During the holidays, he invites his family and dozens of friends to a Passover Seder. He hosts a holiday party for AccuWeather exmployees.
Not just a weatherman
In October, dozens of members of Penn State’s academic community stood in the foyer outside the ballroom of the Nittany Lion Inn, waiting in a buffet line. Inside, they enjoyed a lunch of chicken and cod, and heard from the month’s distinguished speaker, Joel Myers.
Myers is used to speaking in the ballroom; he’s been there for trustee meetings. But Myers wasn’t there to talk board politics. He wasn’t there to talk about his success as founder and president of AccuWeather. He was there to issue a warning: higher education is on the brink of collapse, and if Penn State doesn’t adjust to the future of education, it could tumble.
Throughout the nearly hour-long presentation, Myers’ strong voice boomed through the ballroom. He spoke of the future of technology and said the university needs to adapt to technological change.
He read from a script as slides of information hung on three screens behind him. He made eye contact with the audience. And he talked with his hands when describing how Penn State should become more entrepreneurial
He never spoke of his own successes. He never mentioned AccuWeather, unless asked about it.
“I expected a talk on weather,” said attendee Alan Janesch, who works for the Penn State alumni association.
No one in the audience knew that just hours before, Myers was sick at home, suffering from gallbladder problems.
He waited until the ballroom was empty to leave the hotel with his speech script, mug and miniature Nittany Lion statue, gifts from the university for his time. Dozens of attendees thanked him for his presentation and asked follow-up questions, which he made time to answer.
“The show must go on,” Myers said after the forum, as he walked to his car in the parking lot. He was headed to see his doctor.
Myers isn’t just informed about the weather. He likes to talk politics, economics, education and sports.
Every Sunday, he reads Barron’s. He reads financial newsletters, history and financial books. He studies the direction of the stock market and takes an interest in the value of gold.
When he speaks about the economy, he sounds more like an economics professor than someone who used to give weather forecasts on the radio and television.
He continues to make predictions and share his knowledge, especially when it comes to the weather. Days before a typhoon rocked the Philippines in November, Myers predicted that there would be a heavy death toll.
Though he has a stellar prediction record, people don’t always take him seriously. When the Phillies played the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series in Philadelphia, rain suspended the game with the teams tied 2-2 in the sixth inning. There was hope that the game could be resumed in an hour, but as the cold October rain fell on more than 40,000 baseball fans in Citizens Bank Park, Myers told everyone sitting near him to leave.
“I said this game’s not going to be finished tonight,” Myers said. He was one of the first to leave the stadium.
It was two nights later that the game was finally resumed and the Phillies won their second world championship.