When Adrian G. Teel's friends heard last spring that he was leaving the Anne Arundel County government to head the Maryland Port Administration, they gave him a present they thought might come in handy: a bulletproof vest.
It was meant as a gag. Still, the black humor conveyed a sense of foreboding of the problems Mr. Teel would encounter as port director.
Over the last few years, the port of Baltimore has been a very troubled place. Steamship lines have been leaving and cargo volumes falling. Labor strife was chronic, and the port agency was running up a string of ever-growing deficits. That turbulent history cost two MPA directors their jobs in a little more than two years.
Brendan W. O'Malley, Mr. Teel's predecessor, had been asked before he stepped down what qualities the new port director would require. He responded, "A person who walks on water, that would help."
Certainly Mr. Teel cannot walk on water. He does not even have experience in the maritime industry, having spent his entire 27-year career as a manager in the Anne Arundel government and school system. How can he expect to succeed where others, seemingly better equipped, have failed?
Those who have worked with Mr. Teel think they know the answer. They describe a quiet, self-effacing man who over the course of his career has won the reputation of a consummate administrator. Engaging the loyalty of the people under him, he listens rather than directs, reaching decisions through consensus.
Of medium height with graying hair, Mr. Teel, 47, still has a boyish look about him. He is soft-spoken and does not dominate with his presence.
However, quiet should not be confused with meek, according to those who know him. Once decisions have been made and goals set, he holds his people to them with unbending determination. Those who cannot deliver what they have promised do not survive long in his organization.
"He's not a cheerleader. He does build strong personal loyalties," said Joseph N. Burrows, the Anne Arundel County controller, who worked with Mr. Teel when he was the county's chief administrative officer, the No. 2 figure under the county executive. "The assumption on his part is you're willing to do what is required. If not, you shouldn't be there."
Mr. Burrows is confident Mr. Teel will succeed in turning the port around. "If he can't, I don't think I know the person who can," he said.
That view is seconded by Thomas L. Osborne, the former director of the Anne Arundel planning and zoning office who now works in Annapolis for the architectural and engineering firm of Dewberry & Davis. "He was simply outstanding as a manager," Mr. Osborne said, predicting Mr. Teel will accomplish the tasks he sets for himself. "He will do it while respecting the integrity of the people involved. He has a feel for human dignity."
The most pressing task facing Mr. Teel is to stem the flow of red ink at the port. Battered by the loss of steamship lines that pay
the bills, the MPA last year ran a deficit of $2.8 million on an operating budget of about $46 million. The agency expects a deficit this fiscal year of perhaps $4 million.
Putting a government agency's disorganized finances in order is not new to Mr. Teel. When he was named Anne Arundel's chief operating officer in 1983, the county was operating in the red and its bond rating was sliding. "It was not unlike what the port is facing right now," said Marita B. Brown, the former Anne Arundel budget officer who now holds a similar post in Prince George's County.
She said he embarked upon "an elaborate strategic planning process." Mr. Teel met regularly with department heads to work out goals. "We were evaluated, among other things, on how well we met the objectives, on how well we stayed within the plan," she said. "Everyone was given the support and encouragement they needed to succeed. . . .
"People knew what they had to do. People were pretty much left to their own devices. They were not micro-managed."
Meanwhile, failure was rooted out. "I don't think people were allowed to fail twice," she said. "There were people who sought other careers."
The result: Under Mr. Teel's administration, Anne Arundel became "the most financially stable county in the state," according to Ms. Brown.
When Mr. Teel took over administration of the county government in 1983, the county had a deficit of $1.8 million, according to Alfred Warfield, the county's assistant controller. By the end of the next fiscal year, the deficit was gone.
The county's improved financial condition under Mr. Teel was acknowledged on Wall Street. Standard & Poor's, for example, had dropped the county's bond rating a notch to AA in June 1981. But in February 1985, S&P restored the AA rating and raised it to AA+ in April 1990.