Who's Got The Clout? Who In The Business Community Has It? It's A Short List, And Getting Shorter

February 17, 1991|By David Rosenthal and Will Englund

In the wintry Eastern Shore duck blind, frozen mud crackles underfoot. The sweet smell of burnt gunpowder lingers. And Steve Peck watches, waiting for ducks to descend -- always into the wind.

Floating decoys strain against their anchoring weights, signaling the wind's direction. He moves into position. When the ducks are in range of his Remington 1100 shotgun, he slowly squeezes the trigger.

Like any good hunter -- and good businessman -- Mr. Peck can detect a shift in the wind. And that's precisely what the former chairman of Signet Bank/Maryland felt last month, once he had exchanged his camouflage fatigues and hip boots for a suit and tie. He was helping master developer James Rouse build support for a costly dream: a model community for thousands of Baltimore's poor. As a favor, Mr. Peck had arranged a breakfast meeting of a half-dozen of the city's corporate elite.

"Guys who look like me," J. Stevenson Peck says, words sharp and angled with the accent of his native North Carolina coast. He means: guys who have lived their lives in overstuffed chairs, feet propped up on massive desks, commanding thousands of people and millions of dollars. Guys who, for all their quaint fondness for muddy, frost-covered duck blinds, are accustomed seven-figure salaries and life at the top.

And guys who can, without blinking, authorize a corporate check for $500,000 or $1 million.

Yet this target list, he knew instinctively, was very different from the others he had drafted over the years. The wind had shifted. For the first time in a decade, some familiar names were missing -- names usually at the head of the list. There was no Jack Moseley, no Alan Hoblitzell. No one at all from USF&G or Maryland National, two of the largest and most generous companies in Baltimore.

Ordinarily, the changeover of businessmen -- even at the top of Baltimore's largest companies -- wouldn't spark much concern. The new chief executive officer would assume his predecessor's spot among the corporate leadership: a choice, linen-covered table at the Center Club and a board seat at the museum or symphony or the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Today, though, Mr. Moseley and Mr. Hoblitzell -- fallen CEOs who were replaced by people with no community ties -- have come to represent a broader, more dramatic decline in the power and influence of Baltimore's corporate giants.

Merger mania, which gripped Wall Street in the 1980s, robbed Baltimore of many home-grown companies and the clout their top executives could wield on issues as diverse as fund raising and stadium-building. In their place is a group of executives who may feel more loyalty to a distant corporate headquarters than to Baltimore. The remaining pool of powerful, home-grown CEOs is so shallow you can see bottom.

Meanwhile, the recession has caused many locally based companies to retreat inward, concentrating more on the bottom line and less on community problems. And the bond between corporate Baltimore and City Hall, which drove downtown's revival for two decades, has cracked.

"In a way, it's the end of an era," says Michael Harrison, director of the Baltimore Opera, one of the city's major cultural institutions.

And it couldn't come at a worse time.

As Baltimore struggles to maintain the momentum of its downtown renaissance and gropes to handle such pervasive, overwhelming problems as public education and crime, no one knows if -- or how -- the vacuum of corporate leadership will be filled.

If business doesn't help provide the backbone -- and bankroll -- for housing, museum expansions and other major civic projects during the next decade, who will? A lame-duck governor who's trying to slash millions of dollars from the state budget? Maybe. The cautious mayor of a financially troubled city? Not likely. The federal government? Fat chance.

"We're in great danger of sliding backwards," says former Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. chairman Bernard Trueschler, lamenting the loss of home-grown companies and their powerful CEOs. He adds, "We could become a Hagerstown."

PLUGGED IN Power is hard to define. To Mr. Trueschler, it's like pornography -- knows it when he sees it.

"Clout is something you presume you have," says Mr. Trueschler, who still sits on BG&E's board. "If you don't think you have it, you don't."

Mr. Trueschler, trim and distinguished, has it. From his large office atop a sleek downtown skyscraper, he can put the arm on corporate executives for half-million dollar donations. Or complain to Gov. William Donald Schaefer about tax proposals.

"I can call Schaefer on the phone and he'll answer it," he says. "I have clout because I have access."

He gained that power as head of BG&E, Maryland's largest utility. He commanded thousands of Baltimore-area employees and more than $1 billion in annual revenues.

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