Change is ensured at USF&G under energetic new boss

December 02, 1990|By Peter H. Frank

There is no insurance against the unknown. But if there were, the employees at USF&G Corp. might be selling it to each other.

With the appointment of Norman P. Blake Jr. as the new chairman, chief executive and president at the Baltimore-based insurance company, the quiescent days at the slow-moving giant are over.

"Everything is up for grabs," Mr. Blake, 49, said last week, seated in his top-floor office inside the city's tallest building. "There are absolutely no sacred cows. Whatever we're best at doing is what we're going to stay in."

Employees have already been told to expect $75 million in cost cuts, much of it coming through the loss of jobs. Shareholders have been told their dividends will be one-third what they had been, and more reductions could come. Analysts are projecting further losses, and there is little hope in sight for a turnaround big enough to stay the hand of the new chairman as he pushes for deep-seated changes.

The entrance of Mr. Blake, only the second chief executive from outside to head the 94-year-old company, was swift and decisive last week. It was clear that USF&G might never be the same.

"They should expect a person with an enormously high level of energy, the energy of five people," said Robert C. Wright, president and chief executive of NBC, who worked with Mr. Blake during their days at General Electric. "You just can't underestimate his capacity to tackle problems. He would get involved with situations that mere mortals wouldn't want to get involved with for very long."

Mr. Blake, for his part, introduced himself this way: "I am joining you with no preconceived notions as to what needs to be done or what direction we should take," he wrote in a letter to employees last Tuesday, his first day on the job. "I will seek the opportunity to listen and learn before taking any major actions, while being mindful of any time urgency involved."

The message was pleasant but clear. Listen, learn and, most of )) all, act. Norm Blake, a longtime financial services executive known to thrive on a fast-paced style and penchant for change, )) is holding true to form.

Employees who seldom, if ever, saw the longtime former chairman, Jack Moseley, are suddenly finding their new boss in the company's cafeterias, pulling workers aside, asking for suggestions and answering questions.

"I'm kind of a hands-on guy," he explained. They are also studying little things -- such as his appetite for yogurt, chocolate milk and fruit at lunch -- that might give them a clue of things to come.

Mr. Moseley's former office, tucked off to the side of a generously large sitting room, is being outfitted as a work-room with a blackboard on one wall and a new work-table. A pennant from his alma mater, Purdue University, spills out of one of many boxes sitting on tables and the floor. Furniture is being replaced. His samurai swords, souvenirs from his first trip to Tokyo and what might be symbols of what lies in store for executives not meeting their budgets, still lay wrapped in plastic.

Perhaps one of the most telling decisions, which employees will be told about soon, is that the Christmas party for vice presidents, held each year at the company's Mount Washington Center has been canceled. The money has been earmarked for a group called Second Helping that collects and delivers food to shelters for the homeless.

And despite recent losses, Mr. Blake expects to continue the company's charitable giving, though at possibly lower levels.

"We have to improve productivity and the fact is that there may be people losing a lot of jobs as a result of that," he said. "It's going to be a balancing act. But we are still going to maintain and support worthwhile charities in the area irrespective of our loss. We owe that to the community and we will continue that."

The future of the company's sponsorship of what is now called the USF&G Sugar Bowl also appears to be in doubt. Although the company has a commitment through Jan. 1, 1996, according to Mickey Holmes, the bowl's executive director, Mr. Blake said he is planning to take a look at that contract.

The company cites figures listing the Sugar Bowl as the most cost-effective sponsorship around, but with $10.6 million racked up in advertising expenses this year, the 1990 New Year's game accounted for $2.7 million of that total.

"All of our advertising and promotional dollars are going to be under scrutiny just like everything else," Mr. Blake said. "The nice and the superfluous is not going to carry at this company for a while."

One look at his history and there is little doubt that he means what he says. There is also little doubt that he has the energy needed to do it.

Mr. Blake, seated with knees bouncing, answers questions so quickly that words end up piling on top of each other. An early-morning jogger, Mr. Blake is described by former colleagues as having a management style that is as quick as it is demanding.

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