City could use more home-grown corporate leaders

PHILIP MOELLER

October 03, 1990|By PHILIP MOELLER | PHILIP MOELLER,SUN BUSINESS EDITOR

Wanted: more Baltimore business leaders (locally grown varieties preferred).

The ascension last week of Cleveland businessman Alfred Lerner to the top position at MNC Financial just about completes the exodus of local control from the city's premiere banking institutions.

Allied Irish Banks PLC owns the First National Bank of Maryland. Signet Banking Corp. in Richmond owns what used to be the Baltimore-based Union Trust Co. Sovran Financial Corp., based in Norfolk, has a strong presence here and closer to Washington through its purchase of Suburban Bancorp in 1986.

Other outside banks are here in force as well, including affiliates of Citicorp, Chase Manhattan, Household and NCNB. Most came in when the state was forced to sell off ailing thrifts during the Maryland savings and loan fiasco in 1985.

This trend builds in an unfortunate way on Baltimore's image as a branch-office city, an image that's been strengthened in recent years by some major corporate takeovers.

The past couple of years have also seen some natural turnover at the tops of major Baltimore companies. This has sent seasoned executives to the sidelines and replaced them with men who quite naturally need some time to feel qualified and comfortable carrying the civic weight of their predecessors. (How's that for diplomatic language, fellas?)

The cumulative result of all of this is that Baltimore's corporate leadership structure -- already thin in comparison with smaller cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and even Richmond -- is stretched even thinner these days.

This is not to say that the city's civic spirit is lacking (although some pundits feel it is sagging a bit these days). Most Baltimore natives and newcomers alike seem to have a true fondness if not a protective attitude toward the place. Volunteerism in the corporate community is the rule, not the exception.

That applies to companies with outside ownership, too. Organizations that have their "franchise" based here, including the banks, the Baltimore Orioles, the television stations and The Baltimore Sun, know that their future health depends on the health of Baltimore as well as on how they're perceived by their customers. The fact that many of the banks and all of the other aforementioned outfits are owned or controlled by people who don't live here doesn't lessen the rationale for public service commitments.

Further, there's no denying that outside ownership is a fact of life for most communities, due to the globalization of business activities and the many large mergers that took place during the 1980s.

But there's also no denying that outside control means that capital generated here may flow to other communities, that city problems may not be as pressing to distant owners as the concerns they face in their hometowns and that charitable giving and public-sector involvement usually do not occur as much in satellite cities as in headquarter sites.

Local ownership, in fact, may not increase the rationale for public service efforts and civic leadership. But it does seem to raise the emotional content of such decisions. And business leaders can be just as sentimental as the rest of us, voting with their hearts as much as their minds. When those hearts control large philanthropic budgets, the results are often favorable for local communities.

Anyone who has followed the civic activities of Willard Hackerman (Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.) or Jack Moseley (USF&G Corp.) knows that their fondness for Baltimore can cause them to give their time and money to causes that "rational" people might walk away from.

When Sanford I. Weill blew into town after assuming control of Commercial Credit a few years ago, he quickly established himself as one of the city's business leaders. But Mr. Weill's heart remained near his Wall Street roots, and especially with his beloved Carnegie Hall, which was renovated after a fund-raising campaign which he led.

Today, of course, Mr. Weill has parlayed his stake in Commercial Credit into a triumphant re-emergence as one of the powers on Wall Street. Commercial Credit, long one of Baltimore's major financial-services companies, is largely history.

And while no one is suggesting that Mr. Weill did not do a "rational" job of managing Commercial Credit, I have trouble believing the company would have faded away as a Baltimore institution had it been locally owned or even locally managed (as it was for nearly 20 years after it was bought in the late 1960s by Control Data in Minneapolis).

Baltimore Magazine's current listing of the city's 50 most powerful people, although hardly scientific, supports the notion of a slippage in local corporate ranks. Going through the list, I separated folks into two groups -- public policy types (politics, education, religion and so forth) and private sector (business executives, real estate developers, lawyers and the like).

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