War heats up over Baltimore Bancorp Harry Robinson prepares to defend his territory

May 12, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

An article in Sunday's Business section misreported the ownership position of Legg Mason Inc. shares of Baltimore Bancorp.

A mutual fund directed by Legg Mason owns about 540,000 shares, and Legg Mason customers hold about 700,000 shares in individual accounts. The shares in the individual accounts are voted, for purposes of electing Baltimore Bancorp directors, by the individual clients. Legg Mason's fund managers vote the shares in the mutual fund.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The Sun regrets the error.

This is Mr. Robinson's neighborhood: a prim, polished office 25 floors above the noise and grit of downtown Baltimore. It's a quiet retreat, well-suited to hushed conversations about millions, even billions, of dollars.

This is the executive suite of Baltimore Bancorp, stomping grounds of mild-mannered, 62-year-old CEO Harry L. Robinson. He's a folksy man whose memories include watching Oriole Park burn down in Waverly in 1944, and whose Maryland accent is as thick as the coating of Old Bay on crabs. He doesn't seem like a fighter.

But don't be fooled. Mr. Robinson is well-prepared for the fight of his professional life, as Edwin F. Hale Sr. launches a proxy fight for control of Baltimore Bancorp, Harry Robinson's employer for 44 years and the parent of the Bank of Baltimore. Mr. Hale has vowed to fire Mr. Robinson, and it brings out a much tougher side of the banker.

Soft-spoken Harry Robinson is ready to defend his neighborhood,his turf. He plans to win -- win big -- and send Mr. Hale back to his East Baltimore trucking and barge businesses.

Hear him talk about the 1990 shareholders' meeting, the one where shareholders screamed at him for stiff-arming a $17-a-share takeover offer from cross-town rival First Maryland Bancorp. Even though shareholders re-elected Baltimore Bancorp's directors, Mr. Robinson was lucky to get out alive. But as he tells the story, a smile brightens his face.

"It was fun. You should've been there," he says.

He relishes it. Baltimore Bancorp is Mr. Robinson's neighborhood, indeed. "We won big. It wasn't even close. It's a big sideshow. . . . That will happen again in 1991."

Thus are the contradictions of Harry L. Robinson, the guy who got to the top but doesn't get much respect. Last year, First Maryland thought it could run Mr. Robinson's bank better than he could. This year, Ed Hale does. Each time, a lot of shareholders and analysts agreed.

But Harry Robinson is an unlikely, and atypical, bank chief executive in the first place. And he has beaten the odds before.

Born at Johns Hopkins Hospital, reared near 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue and educated at City College, Mr. Robinson joined the Savings Bank of Baltimore, then a sleepy thrift, as a teller at age 18. He's guarded about his educational background, saying only that he went to a small business college at night and took years to finish; an MBA from Loyola College followed in 1979, at age 49.

"Harry's been around forever. He just hasn't been in senior management forever," says David S. Penn, an analyst with Legg Mason, Wood Walker Inc. in Baltimore. "He's basically an accountant who worked his way up."

Unlike other bank bosses with more exalted backgrounds in finance, he's an accountant by training. And rather than the high-gloss business of power lunches and corporate lending, Mr. Robinson cut his teeth on the passbook savings accounts and home mortgages that made up the business of savings and loan associations. Bank of Baltimore didn't become a commercial bank until 1984, the year Mr. Robinson became CEO.

In fact, if Ed Hale's motives for going after Bank of Baltimore trace back to any resentment at being treated as an outsider by Baltimore's establishment, he went after the wrong bank. Harry Robinson is no slickee boy from Gilman and Princeton. He's as Bawlmer as they come. "I've been here all my life," he says. "I like it here."

"He's just a plain old guy. He's just himself," says a prominent executive who knows Mr. Robinson from civic functions. "He's not a Ruxton-Guilford kind of guy. . . . And where he lives is indicative of that."

Where Mr. Robinson lives is Cockeysville, not far from the wealthy Falls Road corridor but also near Mays Chapel, a very conventionally upscale suburban area of Timonium (and near Ed Hale, who also lives in Cockeysville). The Orioles' Glenn Davis just paid $600,000 for a house on the same block, but it's not a typical CEO address.

Mr. Robinson doesn't publicly cultivate an imperial style. When he meets with reporters, he's alone; Mr. Hale, by contrast, was accompanied at a recent interview by a New York proxy solicitor and one of his candidates for the board of directors.

Mr. Robinson drives a 4-year-old Lincoln, and his wife drives a Pontiac. "We do our best to buy American products," he says, gently asking a Sun photographer about his Japanese camera.

He's been married for 36 years, he said, and has two children.

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