For $1.7 million, Harry Robinson plays the fall guy

PHILIP MOELLER

July 03, 1991|By PHILIP MOELLER

Today, we open with 30 seconds of silence for Harry Robinson, who fell on his sword last week for a mere $1.7 million cash-in-the-hand-today package from his buddies at Baltimore Bancorp (he gets maybe another $1 million in pension goodies in a couple years).

One thousand-one, one thousand-two, one thousand-three . . .

Technically, Harry was ousted. Yet there are some appearances that he helped design the form of his departure, a view supported by the fact that his contract permitted an immediate payoff if he were demoted but not if he resigned. In fact, the board's decision to elect Robert Comstock as its new chairman amounted to a demotion of Mr. Robinson.

So, Harry gets an upfront payment of his salary through 1994. And, yes, I know that mere money can't compensate a highly placed executive for the acute discomfort suffered at taking a publicly visible fall. Right.

In part, Harry took that fall so that his friends might live to manage another day, for they wasted little time in telling the outside world how different things would be now and how friendly they were to the interests of shareholders.

This new attitude, of course, has nothing to do with the fight led by Ed Hale to take over the banking company and presumably boot many of the incumbent executives out the door. Mr. Hale has already won six directors' seats, and a second shareholder election has been ordered to decide if he will also win outright control of the board.

Now that Harry is gone, expect management to grin 'til it hurts in an effort to win shareholder support.

*

Like an aging gunfighter irresistibly drawn to yet another confrontation, Maryland's economic development leaders responded to the call last week, strapped on their weapons and went after the headquarters office of General Dynamics, the St. Louis-based defense contractor that is relocating to the Washington area.

Even as painful spending cuts and tax increases were being approved by a special session of the Maryland legislature, $2.5 million was being set aside in a war chest to be used, if needed, to woo the company.

Is this good policy? With the defense industry in decline, does Maryland want to cast its vote for a company whose time may have passed? Has anyone decided whether General Dynamics would be a great corporate citizen and good neighbor for Maryland?

As far as I can tell, the folks lusting after a big headquarters win have never met a $10 billion company they didn't like. Going after the big fish is the media event of economic development and represents an apparently irresistible opportunity.

Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter made the inexcusable gaffe of saying that his county already had too much of a good thing and wasn't particularly interested in more economic development of this type. Mr. Potter later was persuaded to see the light and came on board with a perfunctory expression of support.

The state's chief persuader, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, dined with top General Dynamics officials. Letters and telephone calls went out from several members of the state's congressional delegation. Similar meetings and entreaties were coming from Virginia's top officials and, to a lesser degree, from those in the District of Columbia.

The prize: 200 or so jobs and bragging rights to say that a $10 billion company likes you enough to settle down next door. Banking, legal and other professional-service ties often develop out of a company's headquarters location, but not always.

General Dynamics announced it was coming to Washington for the same reason Willie Sutton decided to rob banks: That's where the money is. With its future so clearly tied to Washington spending decisions and defense policies, the company said it made sense for its top executives to be closer to the seat of power.

This will not be a great direct economic boom. General Dynamics is not moving any of its thousands of defense-plant workers here but its central-office staff of a couple hundred people.

Symbolically, the relocation is certainly noteworthy, but what else do we know about this company?

St. Louis is home to a small number of large companies, including General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Anheuser-Busch and Ralston Purina.

Of the four, General Dynamics is reportedly the least involved in the community -- by a large degree. And news of its departure, I understand, occasioned far less gnashing of teeth than, let's say, concern over what a fading Trans World Airlines might mean for its major St. Louis hub operations.

Further, in the local business councils that are so important in smaller cities like St. Louis (and Baltimore), General Dynamics has simply not been much of a player. Not being active is fine, of course, unless that's one of the reasons people want the company to locate here.

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