Lerner's new role at MNC causes few ripples

September 27, 1990|By Peter H. Frank

In the circumspect world of Baltimore banking, even a tidal wave can sound like a ripple as it washes through the financial community.

The sudden appearance of Alfred Lerner at the top of MNC Financial Inc. has been no different.

Though the Cleveland investor's new title as MNC's chairman and chief executive has been a major topic of conversation these days, it has not, apparently, been the subject of much debate.

"He's just kind of a blank page," said an executive at a top financial institution in town, who -- like most others who were interviewed -- spoke only on condition of anonymity. "The guy has, I think, a pretty substantial audience, and they're all looking at him, and he's about to start the play."

Apparently, part of the reason for the quiet response is that the move surprised few observers.

Most said they thought they saw some handwriting on the MNC walls when Mr. Lerner announced in August that he would exchange $180 million for some newly issued shares that could boost his stake in the company as high as 24 percent.

The announcement Monday that he would replace Alan P. Hoblitzell Jr., a 34-year MNC veteran, was simply regarded as proof that the rumors were true.

"People some time ago accepted the presumption that if he didn't have the title [of chief executive at MNC], he was making the calls over there," a local banker said.

MNC has denied repeatedly that Mr. Lerner was calling the shots at the state's largest banking company.

But how can a man who was the head of the third-largest banking company in Maryland, Equitable Bancorporation, for the better part of the 1980s be so unknown?

"He cares about making money. Period," said banking analyst, David S. Penn at Legg Mason Inc. "He doesn't care if he's at a cocktail party or not or if his name's in the paper or not."

As chairman and largest shareholder of Equitable before it merged into MNC in January, Mr. Lerner was known primarily as a behind-the-scenes and long-distance owner and manager.

He would fly into Baltimore every Thursday morning, "work at a frenetic pace," according to one banker, and fly home at dinnertime.

Mr. Lerner rarely, if ever, socialized, and he did little to get his name mentioned in casual conversation here.

"People buy banks for two reasons: to make money and for an enormous psychic reward of 'having my bank,' " said a top bank executive. Mr. Lerner "has bought for the former and has not let the trappings of 'having his bank' interfere with his business."

Has replacing Mr. Hoblitzell, an active member of local boards and charities, changed that?

"He's going to be inside this bank as long as necessary, 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, whatever's necessary," said a top executive at MNC. "I don't think you are going to find that Al Lerner is going to have the time to get as involved as Alan Hoblitzell. Lerner's not going to be that. He's not going to have the time to be that."

Some observers had little reaction to his new role,saying they felt he was known entity by virtue of his long-standing ties to area banking, despite his physial absence.

A New York native, the cigar-smoking former salesman built a fortune of millions in real estate and investment deals. His style -- "incredibly low-profile" but equally "no-nonsense," one banker said -- might not be one that so easily slides into the well-established banking world of Baltimore.

"Would he be a comfortable fit at the board room at Alex.Brown?" an observer asked. "I don't think we're going to have an answer to that."

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