New chairman faces head wind from souring real estate loans


October 03, 1990|By Peter H. Frank

Alfred Lerner can make it sound so easy.

Borrow money from depositors at one price. Lend it to others at a higher price. And make a profit from the difference.

Nothing tricky, nothing mysterious, said the 57-year-old investor from Cleveland as he sat in a third-floor office at MNC headquarters, now housed in the old Equitable Bank Center.

"It's like an airplane," Mr. Lerner said Monday, puffing hard on a freshly lighted cigar. "An airplane wants to fly. It's built to fly. It wants to fly. And if you do it properly, you fly. Otherwise, you can make it crash."

But as the newly installed chairman and chief executive of MNC Financial Inc., Mr. Lerner knows full well that nothing -- especially what he has just walked into -- is that simple.

While there is no doubt that MNC -- parent of Maryland National Bank and American Security Bank in Washington -- is still flying, it is also facing a strong head wind of souring loans and a struggling real estate market.

A $74.7 million loss in the second quarter, repeated downgradings by the ratings agencies, a devastated stock price and a tough examination now being concluded by federal regulators have left the state's largest banking company trying to convince everyone that the word "crash" does not apply here.

And in direct, sometimes colorful language, Mr. Lerner wants to be the one to do the convincing.

"You get past our basic real estate problem and some other relatively minor lending stuff," Mr. Lerner said, "it's hard to find a whole lot in this business to criticize too seriously.

"We are in a banking business, and the banking business is getting bounced around pretty good right now, everybody knows that," he said. "But once you get past the publicized problem, this is a very solid company with some pieces of it that are extremely outstanding. I would say probably the best credit card business in the United States, a very solid strong trust company and a very important banking franchise.

"The business operates reasonably well," Mr. Lerner said. "Now, you could say 'Fine, if all that's true, why did you have those problems?' They made some mistakes. They made them at the wrong time. They picked a very bad time to make some mistakes. So here we are."

As of Monday, Mr. Lerner had been on the job for a week. New York born-and-bred, he took over the top posts from Alan P. Hoblitzell Jr. after Mr. Hoblitzell announced that he wanted to take early retirement.

The largest stockholder of MNC, Mr. Lerner was called in for an encore, of sorts, and exchanged his title as former chairman of Equitable Bancorporation -- which merged this year into MNC -- to head this $27.5 billion banking company.

It is a far cry from his New York upbringing where, as the only child of Russian immigrants, he grew up behind his father's candy store.

His entrance into the business world came after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in liberal arts and a stint in the Marine Corps, when he signed on as a salesman with Broyhill Furniture Industries Inc.

Within a few years, he had moved on to another furniture maker, selling in and around the Baltimore area in 1960. Late that year, he was transferred to Cleveland, where he has lived since. Soon, he was investing in real estate and by the early 1970s, he was elected a director of a small bank in Cleveland.

"I don't think I'm smarter than anybody," he said. "I have my views, others have theirs. My view of the banking business is it can be reasonably successful and can provide a decent return fairly safely. That's all I'm looking for."

Well, not quite. It's not that simple, he admits.

First, always remember banking is a service business.

"We don't get to make any more good loans or bad loans if we don't have customers," he said. "And we don't get customers if we don't treat them right because they have plenty of other places to go. If everybody understands that, then I think we'll be all right."

And second, clean the balance sheet. The question is: How?

"We identify and fix the problems which are, in simple English, those loans that are in trouble," Mr. Lerner said. "We identify them and we fix them, on a loan-by-loan basis, however is appropriate in each situation.

"At the same time, we take very good care of the core businesses that we have that are healthy, solid and growing," he said. "We keep them growing healthy and solid and we make sure that we have a culture that doesn't permit us to make the kinds of mistakes that we apparently made in the past."

The challenge before Mr. Lerner should not be underestimated. Although the company more than doubled the amount of troubled loans on its books during the second quarter, a recent examination by federal regulators is expected to add more -- though to what extent remains unclear.

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