On the cover of Fortune magazine, NationsBank's Hugh McColl stalks through high grass with a rifle in his hands and a haunted, hungry look in his eyes. A headline calls this Open Season on Banks. An entire industry ducks for cover at the thought.
On South Clinton Street in Canton, Ed Hale glances at the magazine cover and tosses it aside with a sneer. Three months ago, he opened First Mariner Bank, which should be easy prey for McColl. But Hale says he's got weapons of his own.
"Their assets," he says of NationsBank, "are about $200 billion. Ours are $38 million. With an M." He gazes across a sunny Baltimore harbor toward Fort McHenry. "When I read this article," he says, "I thought, 'I can't wait to compete with this guy.' "
Fortune magazine says that puts Hale in a tiny minority. Hale has six branches, and hopes to add eight more in the next six months. Hugh McColl roared into Baltimore a few years back by snatching Maryland National Bank and making it part of his NationsBank empire.
Over the past 12 years, he's grabbed 49 banks, moving his from 29th biggest in the country to No. 3, just behind Bank of America and Citicorp. Fortune says McColl is seen as "a ruthless, cost-minded taskmaster who chews up everything in his path . . . as McColl sees it, banking is at the dawn of a new financial order, where only five or so major banks will dominate and many of the rest will be bought or sold."
The magazine makes it sound as if every banker in America is having heart palpitations at the mere mention of McColl's name.
"Just because you're the biggest," Ed Hale, 49, says softly, "does that make you a good company?"
Hale, who is one of the remarkable business success stories of this era, knows a few things about running companies.
The Sparrows Point High School graduate, one of seven children whose father was a splicer for Baltimore Gas and Electric, worked in the trucking business, started his own small trucking firm, and has turned it into Hale Intermodal, a $50 million a year trucking and container shipping business with offices in 12 cities.
But Baltimore is the root of it all. A few months ago, he launched a new shipping barge, called the Orient Trader. Some people launch ships with champagne. Hale felt this would be pretentious for a barge. So he invited former Rep. Helen Bentley down to the port, and she sent the Orient Trader out to sea by smashing a bottle of National Bohemian Beer across her.
"Baltimore all the way," Hale says proudly.
He sees home turf (and surf) as First Mariner's edge over Hugh McColl and NationsBank. Do we need a brief history lesson? Two years ago, when Baltimore went begging for an expansion National Football League franchise, it was McColl, based in North Carolina, who bankrolled Charlotte's successful effort.
Every time football owner Jerry Richardson's financing seemed to be collapsing, McColl propped it up. When Richardson had to sell so-called "permanent seat licenses," giving fans the right to buy season tickets in Charlotte's future stadium, the drive came in far under target. McColl, who had already guaranteed considerable money, immediately agreed to front $15 million more, reportedly without even checking with anybody else in the company.
So Charlotte winds up with NFL football, and Baltimore winds up a loser. A McColl spokesman, Ellison Clary, said, gee, they sure were rooting hard for Baltimore. Thank you, Hugh McColl. And McColl walks into town, almost simultaneous with the football deal, and tells everyone what a good neighbor he wants NationsBank to be for this city.
"A dagger in the back," Ed Hale says. "I want to compete with a guy like this."
His theme is simple: He's the hometown guy, and McColl is a stranger. When McColl arrived, he said he wouldn't cut bank employees.
But he has.
"Of course," says Hale. "When you buy, you have to cut to make a premium for the company. But he made this claim that he wouldn't cut, like everybody around here was an idiot. Does he think we believe in the tooth fairy?"
On one wall of Hale's office is a huge painting of Fort McHenry. He says he first bought this Canton waterfront property, back in 1976 when it was decaying and people were writing off the area, because he liked the view of the old fort.
"I'm loyal to Baltimore," he says. "You know, McColl went into Texas. Texas banks thought they could withstand his onslaught. They said, Texans will deal with Texans. But he gobbled them up. Well, Texas isn't Baltimore or Maryland. If you're local, you've got a leg up on anybody from out of town. I'm not intimidated at all.
"Where I come from, you don't take on a fight you can't win. When I was in high school, if you had a guy waiting for you, and you couldn't beat him, you'd go out the back door -- which I would do occasionally. But this is a fight we can win. People here are very loyal. I'm that way, too. You're loyal to me, I'll go to the mat for you."
Or, go hunting. That's Hugh McColl's posture. But, if he's looking through his gun sight, he might notice somebody aiming back.