Firm's founder full of self-confidence

April 28, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

Nathan Alfonzo Chapman Jr. has the smooth, self-assured voice of a true salesman. Even in the middle of a trading afternoon, even after fielding calls for hours, even as he hangs up in frustration, he persists in talking a little more.

His quiet voice is amplified in the emptiness of the Chapman Co.'s elegant penthouse suite, which has enough room for 104 employees -- dozens more than the company has now.

Still, he envisions a trader in every chair. After all, the man who ascended with dizzying speed from a gritty boyhood to become the first black owner of an investment banking firm in Maryland is nothing if not optimistic.

"I've shown that a guy from Edmondson Village can end up here in the World Trade Center," he said with a sweep of his arm to show the panoramic view of the Inner Harbor and South Baltimore. "And the fight doesn't end when you're up here."

At 36, he has plenty of fights ahead. One is completing a proposal that the city pension board invest up to $10 million in his company.

But the self-confidence that helped him achieve his boyhood dreams remains intact.

"I think he's an incredibly hard-working guy," said Joseph Haskins Jr., president of the Harbor Bank of Maryland. "He deserves a lot of credit for having enough foresight and initiative to step out into the arena he's in."

The son of a seamstress and a railroad worker, Mr. Chapman was grounded in a work ethic at an early age. As a boy, he recalls, he would "cut grass, deliver groceries -- do whatever I could in the neighborhood to make a little money."

After graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, he went to the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he was elected president of the student body and graduated in 2 1/2 years.

He worked as an accountant with the Peat Marwick accounting and consulting firm before being wooed by Alex. Brown & Sons, the nation's oldest investment banking firm. In February 1986, he took the $50 million in new accounts he had developed at Alex. Brown and started his own company. Fifteen investors came up with $507,000 in start-up cash, a group that included some of the city's better-known lawyers, accountants and business leaders.

His young company has had a spotty profit record. Nevertheless, Mr. Chapman has built a solid reputation in Baltimore.

He has opened offices in six other cities and in the last year brought on the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, the former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to expand into Memphis, Tenn. He's well-connected politically, contributing frequently to campaigns and serving on boards of high-profile civic organizations such as the Peabody Institute.

Mr. Chapman, who is married, has three young daughters and a comfortable life in Columbia, acknowledges the past year "has been fairly difficult." He hired dozens of highly paid specialists, then was forced to lay them off, restructure and declare a loss of $438,000.

Yet, he remains upbeat. "The good thing is, we're a very resilient company with no debt, and we can withstand these things."

As he waits to close the city deal, Mr. Chapman is chasing down other leads and planning his company's growth.

He sees his new offices as a symbol of both his future -- and his past. He founded the Chapman Co. and moved with one salesman into a 10th-floor office in the Mercantile Bank Building, but in no time, he needed more space.

His admirers, and even some of his critics, agree on one thing: Nathan Chapman has the kind of self-confidence needed to survive.

Mr. Haskins notes that business goes through cycles. "The true winner," he says, "finds a way to prevail in spite of adversity."

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