James G. Robinson: financial swashbuckler


June 16, 1991|By David Conn

In Baltimore, auto import executive James G. Robinson is a stranger to the media. In Hollywood, he is their darling.

A former Dundalk car washer, Mr. Robinson spends half his days quietly running his import business at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. The other half he spends with the likes of super box office draw Kevin Costner, the lead in this summer's movie mega-event, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves."

He travels with Steven Ross, chairman of Time Warner Inc., whose Warner Bros. movie studio is distributing the Costner movie. And he hobnobs with congressmen, senators and presidential chiefs of staff, who attended the film's Washington premiere last week.

Mr. Robinson, a relative recluse in Baltimore, is chairman of one of Hollywood's hottest independent movie studios, Morgan Creek Productions. The company's latest picture is also its most expensive to date, costing about $54 million. And because of the nature of its financing, it is the studio's biggest gamble.

By the end of this weekend's nationwide release of "Robin Hood," James Robinson, movie mogul, will know how much he should be thankful for his "day job" as James Robinson, auto import executive.

Not that he's about to discuss any of this with the Baltimore media. Granted, his failure to return repeated calls to his offices in Los Angeles and Baltimore last week could be written off to the demands of a hectic opening week and movie premieres in three cities.

But interviews with current and former colleagues, as well as information from other Baltimore media that have tried unsuccessfully to interview him over the past year, reveal a reluctant starmaker, one content to spend only half his time in the spotlight.

"I think that he feels that he doesn't want the taint of Hollywood, as he sees it, to have a bad effect on his family," said Joe Roth, Mr. Robinson's former partner and co-founder of Morgan Creek, who two years ago left to run 20th Century Fox's film division.

"He was very careful in keeping his family out of" his Hollywood life, Mr. Roth said.

The family lives near Towson, where Mr. Robinson still spends more than half his time. Two of his four sons -- he also has a daughter -- now work in their father's auto company (one son, Patrick, declined to be interviewed for this article). Mr. Robinson changed the name of the company several years ago from Maryland Undercoating Inc. to, appropriately enough, Premier Automobile Services Inc.

The Baltimore story is a normal enough life for a Dundalk native who got his start in the auto business by washing cars at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. Mr. Robinson, a 1955 graduate of Dundalk High School, left the University of Maryland at College Park early to join the army; he finished his degree overseas.

When he returned from Germany in 1963, he found the used car he had shipped home was coated with a protective grunge of some sort. He spent the entire day cleaning it off before he discovered there was one firm in Towson that did that sort of specialty cleaning. Mr. Robinson and a partner, Robert Schmitt, bought the company that December and then set up another operation at the Dundalk Marine Terminal to service imported automobiles.

As auto importers began to demand more and more services, from undercoating to minor retrofits such as adding sunroofs and molding, Mr. Robinson's business expanded, according to J. Melvin Bafford, Maryland Port Administration general manager for shipper sales and a longtime acquaintance of Mr. Robinson. Maryland Undercoating became one of the major import and processing agents in the port of Baltimore, he said. Mr. Robinson owns a similar facility in Los Angeles.

Through the import-servicing enterprise he moved into the business that would make him his initial fortune. In the mid-1970s, when times were tough for Subaru in the United States, Mr. Robinson bought a distributorship that ultimately would supply Subaru cars and parts throughout a 93-dealership territory in the Midwest.

"He's a risk-taker, but an intelligent one who takes calculated risks, most of which have paid off," said Marvin Riesenbach, until recently the chief financial officer for Subaru of America in Cherry Hill, N.J.

That one paid off handsomely. When Mr. Robinson sold Subaru Mid-America Inc. in early 1988 he made enough to invest $80 million in his then-burgeoning film company, which he and Mr. Roth had started the previous fall. The name came from a 1944 Preston Sturges film called "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek."

The company also was backed by a $126 million line of credit from Signet Bank/Maryland, according to Forbes magazine, and 1989 it signed a $100 million financing deal with Nomura Babcock, a partnership of Nomura Securities of Japan and San Francisco's Babcock & Brown Co. The next year brought a $75 million revolving credit line from Signet Bank and Chemical Bank of New York.

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