Sparks fly at USF&G meeting

May 23, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

The new man at the helm of USF&G Corp. expected tough talk.

And stockholder A. A. Peters, who saw the $14 billion company lose $569 million last year and watched its stock fall from more than $21 a share to $9.875, didn't disappoint.

"In the fourth quarter [of 1990], USF&G lost $610 million dollars," he yelled at USF&G Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Norman P. Blake Jr. "In that fourth quarter, you had been there two out of the three months. And you tell me you're a winner? I can't believe it!"

Reactions like Mr. Peters' and a balky slide projector made Mr. Blake's baptism into the world of USF&G shareholder meetings a memorable one.

Mr. Blake held his own, however. He dealt with questions head-on, including Mr. Peters'. Mr. Blake engaged the disgruntled shareholder in several spirited exchanges and invited him to remain for a one-on-one discussion after the meeting, held at the Hyatt Regency downtown.

Mr. Blake also displayed glimpses of the hard-nosed approach that led him to pare almost 2,000 workers in an effort to return Baltimore-based USF&G to profitability.

Throughout the meeting, he hammered away at a central theme: By narrowing the company's focus and concentrating on its property and casualty insurance business, USF&G will again be prosperous.

The financial services division that flourished under former CEO Jack Moseley's leadership is being dramatically curtailed under Mr. Blake. The only segment being retained is the investment management operations.

Mr. Blake's hand-picked, 12-member senior management team, which has no women or minorities, was criticized by stockholder Bernice Silver-Seiden.

"I was concerned about whether there are not competent, creative women in your field who might be represented," she said.

"I'm sure there are and just, uh, keep your eyes open," Mr. Blake said. "Is there a commitment on my part to make sure there's a more appropriate representation of women in senior management? Absolutely."

"I work for the shareholders," Mr. Blake said after the meeting. "I do, I feel that. I owe them accountability to report to them in a very open, very direct way."

That sense of commitment spilled over into his animated conversation with Mr. Peters. At one point, Mr. Blake told the shareholder, "I can promise you I'm going to bust my ass for you."

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