Planning it is Robert Keller's job


July 07, 1991|By Mary Corey

LIKE RANDY MILLIGAN, WHO GOES BY MOOSE IN THE ORIOLES locker room, and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul on stage, Robert Keller has a nickname all his own. Around the 15th floor of the Legg Mason building, he is referred to simply, and sometimes quite seriously, as Mr. Vision.

He admits to this and lets out a hearty laugh, seemingly pleased with his image as a leader charting the business course of a city.

It's a title some say Mr. Keller has earned. As president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization representing 1,000 of the area's largest companies, he was responsible for recently unveiling an ambitious blueprint to make Baltimore the nation's leader in "life sciences." The report, the result of much collaboration and 1 1/2 years of research, set the business community buzzing and is already in its second printing.

Standing in the GBC's boardroom, leaning against a window that faces the harbor, Mr. Keller looks every inch the forward-thinking businessman in his charcoal gray suit and wingtip shoes, dropping buzzwords like "consensus building" and names like Jim Rouse.

But don't let the car phone or corner office fool you. While Mr. Keller may look and talk like one of the straight arrows, and while he may be a spokesman for the city's most established companies, his own style is more New Age than Old School.

After all, how many businessmen support the modern-day men's movement, read poetry, listen to New Age performer Kitaro and quote from the "Tao Te Ching," a classic text of Eastern philosophy?

How many once studied at a seminary?

Talk to Mr. Keller and you get the impression that at age 49 he still considers himself a work in progress. He recently attended a daylong workshop in Washington held by Robert Bly, the spiritual leader of the current men's movement, and he has read Mr. Bly's best seller "Iron John: A Book About Men" twice.

During a staff retreat he took the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test, to gain insight into his management style.

"I'm an ENFJ," he says. "It's an extrovert. It's the long-range big thinker. . . .We're teachers. We're the vision makers."

In professional circles, however, a different vision of the GBC head exists. From 9 to 5 -- or 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., as his workday usually winds up -- Bob Keller is often all business.

"Bob has his finger on the pulse of the city and the Baltimore region," says Peter J. Lombardi, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "He's very knowledgeable, very plugged Personally, however, Mr. Lombardi has little sense of the man he has known for 10 years.

"He might have a great sense of humor, but you rarely see it," he adds. "I don't know very many people who can call Bob a real buddy, a guy you go out and have a beer with or go to the game with."

There are, indeed, doors to Mr. Keller's life that remain closed to the public.

His divorce last year is one of them. He doesn't look you in the eye when he mentions his ex-wife. Asked about it, he simply shakes his head and explains, "My private life has to remain private."

Other parts of his background, however, he's anxious to share. He grew up in Northwest Baltimore, the son of a bank executive and a comptroller. His parents were deeply religious and he quickly took leadership roles -- head altar boy, lieutenant of the safety patrol -- in the community.

"I was always the second smartest kid in the class, but I was the guy who got picked for things because the first one was a nerd," he says.

He entered St. Mary's Seminary, graduating in 1963 with a philosophy degree. During his senior year, it became clear to him -- and to his instructors -- that he would never make it to the priesthood.

"What I viewed the priesthood to be was too restrictive," he says.

He's not a practicing Roman Catholic today, but he does attend church frequently and considers himself a "spiritual" person.

After school, he became a reporter for the Catholic Review and then briefly moved to Wilmington, Del., to help run a weekly religious paper. In 1967, he joined The Evening Sun as a reporter, eventually being promoted to city editor in 1972 and metro editor seven years later.

By 1981, he was ready for a new challenge. "There was only one job in the newsroom that interested me and that was managing editor," he says. "It was real clear that Jack [Jack Lemmon, the Evening Sun's managing editor] wasn't going anywhere, so I needed in my mind to either change careers or change cities."

That's when he heard that William Boucher III, who had been GBC president for 26 years, was retiring. He decided to apply for the position to get practice interviewing again.

Six months later, a newspaperman who didn't even own a white button-down shirt had won out over 150 other applicants for the job.

"I think I was a bit of the safe choice," he says. "I don't come across as strong. I'm not pounding the table. . . .I think they thought I was somebody they could deal with, and I mean that both positively and negatively."

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