When he walked into the 25th-floor reception area yesterday at the company where he was about two hours away from becoming chief executive officer, Buck Whittum didn't get the royal reception.
"Yes, Mr. Hale is here," the receptionist told him. "And you are?"
If Charles H. "Buck" Whittum Jr. has been the almost-invisible man of the proxy fight led by shipping entrepreneur Edwin F. Hale Sr. for control of Baltimore Bancorp, that's about to change. The proxy fight ended Monday, deposing the company's old management, and Mr. Whittum was named chief executive of The Bank of Baltimore's parent company yesterday. Mr. Hale says running the bank will be "Buck's job."
"I'll be the chief executive officer of the bank," said Mr. Whittum, a 61-year-old former Signet Bank/Maryland executive. "I'll report to the board, not to Ed. Ed has agreed that he won't interfere in that area."
Mr. Whittum will be the Mr. Inside to Mr. Hale's Mr. Outside. While Mr. Hale is an extrovert itching to glad-hand potential customers, Mr. Whittum is a quieter type with much more background than Mr. Hale in the nuts and bolts of banking.
"Hale might be the door opener and Buck would take care of the details," said Alan Leberknight, executive vice president of Signet Bank/Maryland, who was hired by Mr. Whittum in 1981. "I could see it being a team effort."
That's pretty much Mr. Whittum's style.
"I'm not a glad-hander," he admits. "But I can develop more business at my desk directing people than I ever can knocking on doors."
Mr. Whittum spent most of his career in Philadelphia, before a brief tour at Riggs National Bank in Washington and about eight years at Signet. He's a specialist in what's called middle-market banking, serving the small-to-midsized businesses that he and Mr. Hale want to turn into Bank of Baltimore customers.
"Buck came up with the basic policies we espoused and that we felt would be our strategy for going forward" after the proxy fight, Mr. Hale said. "He was the architect of that.He felt Baltimore and Washington was a great middle-market area."
The Bank of Baltimore has never claimed much of the commercial lending market because it used to be a savings and loan association whose base was in consumer lending. And there are skeptics, even among people who admire Mr. Whittum and say he helped Union Trust build its market share in Baltimore-area middle market banking, who aren't sure he can do it again.
"I don't think the analogy between the old Union Trust and the Bank of Baltimore is a good one," said William H. Cowie Jr., retired CEO of Signet Bank/Maryland and the man who hired Mr. Whittum in 1979. "Even back then, we had a better balance, a more even balance, between the commercial and the retail businesses. We were starting at ground three or four, they're starting at ground zero or one."
"I think that's fair," Mr. Whittum responded, when told of Mr. Cowie's remark. "You change that with time, determination and people."
Mr. Whittum is well remembered at Signet, even though he left after the merger because the executive who in effect had the same job as Mr. Whittum at the Bank of Virginia emerged as the chief commercial credit executive in the merged company.
Baltimore Bancorp employees might find their new boss, a former Marine, a little intimidating at first, Mr. Leberknight said. But he praised Mr. Whittum, who hired him at Union Trust in 1981.
"He won't just take you in the office and say, 'do this,' " Mr. Leberknight said. "He's willing to train and develop people." But Mr. Leberknight warned that patience has its limits. "Don't try to mess around with him," he said. "Don't try to imply you know something if you don't."
Mr. Whittum is aware that his reputation carries two different strains, the nice guy and the ex-Marine. Despite a mellow appearance and a disdain for corporate trappings -- he drives a GMC Suburban and says he likes living in Talbot County "because there are no big shots" -- he shows a glint of steel underneath, for example, when talking about why he left Riggs for Union Trust.
"I had trouble getting used to the Washington work ethic," he said. "I asked some of them to work for the first time in their lives, and some of them didn't like it.
"To the extent I have a reputation for being tough -- and I do with some people -- it's the people who didn't work as hard as I expected or didn't have the ability they needed," he said. "On the other hand, I have a reputation for fairness and objectivity."
That was a reputation that led Mr. Hale back to Mr. Whittum soon after he decided to launch the proxy fight.
"I felt he was my kind of guy because he was a very no-nonsense person," said Mr. Hale, who knew Mr. Whittum as a customer because Mr. Hale's trucking and barging companies banked at Signet.
The two aren't close friends, and Mr. Whittum said Mr. Hale had to talk him into running for a seat on the board of directors. Mr. Whittum also says he doesn't plan to remain as chief executive for long.
If the decision is to sell the company, he'll help Mr. Hale and the board find a buyer. If they decide to run it, he'll help them look for someone else to do the long-term job.
"At my age, I'm not the guy to lead it indefinitely," he said.