Longtime publisher setting a new course Community: Waverly Inc. chairman said selling company won't be just a matter of dollars: The firm wants to keep a presence in the city.

November 08, 1997|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

William Passano, the chairman of Baltimore publisher Waverly Inc., has a wall in his office that serves as a shrine to a longtime passion. Nautical maps detail the ports and inlets of the Bahamas and the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. Framed color photographs show racing boats at full sail.

Passano, a lifelong sailor, refers to his love of the sport as "a disease."

"Sailing is peaceful, but it's ever-changing," he said. "It's an opportunity for me to be sort of completely in charge."

Being completely in charge will soon be a thing of the past for Passano and Waverly. At a Wednesday-morning news conference, Passano and his management colleagues announced that the 107-year-old medical publishing firm was putting itself up for sale. They cited the changes that have reshaped the industry: Globalization and electronic publishing have raised costs, forcing small publishers like Waverly to seek buyers in order to survive.

At the news conference, Passano insisted that the famously independent Waverly will not choose a buyer on purchase price alone. He said the two "key issues" in deciding on a buyer are the purchase price and the suitor's commitment to "keeping a major presence in the city of Baltimore." He said these two factors will be "equally critical" to Waverly's decision-making process.

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Passano repeated his hope that Waverly will add jobs in Baltimore as a result of the sale. The company employs 425 people at its headquarters at 351 W. Camden St. He said that after Waverly sold its printing operations to Cadmus Communications Corp. in 1993, those operations became stronger.

"If that happens [to Waverly], employees will benefit," he said. "There will be more jobs. The city of Baltimore will benefit. If that all happens, the price will be fair."

Passano's personal commitment to Baltimore has taken varied forms. When Waverly sought to move from its crime-plagued Preston Street headquarters, Anne Arundel County offered a site with free parking and other incentives, but Waverly chose to stay in the city, moving to the B & O Warehouse at Camden Yards in 1995.

"When we moved, there was a strong desire to stay in the city. That's why we're here," said Passano's son, Will, a vice president at the company and the fourth generation of the family to enter Waverly management. "It wasn't because the city was chasing us."

The elder Passano has served on a number of corporate and nonprofit boards and has filled an unusual niche in the community. Hospitals, universities and service agencies are increasingly compelled to behave like businesses, but such places are often unaccustomed to thinking in such terms.

Enter Passano. Local organizations laud him for his ability to instill financial discipline without losing sight of other imperatives.

"He has very high moral and ethical standards, which is very useful in an academic setting," said Dr. Morton I. Rapaport, president and chief executive officer of the University of Maryland Medical System. "You're trying to run it like a business, but you have to have a value system. The most inexpensive thing isn't always the best thing, and he understands that."

"Bill is, in my judgment, just a phenomenal human being," said Sana F. Shtasel, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "He's generous and thoughtful, and he made enormous contributions in strengthening us on the business and financial side."

If Passano's fiscal expertise is unusual on a university or service organization board, so is his motivation. With regard to Planned Parenthood, for example, he hardly comes across as a die-hard supporter of abortion rights. He calls the abortion issue "a pain in the butt" and a "sideline" to the work of the organization. "I can help them be professional and run it as a business," he said simply.

For Passano, it seems the thrill comes less from the underlying cause than from the challenge of management. "As soon as I make something profitable, I lose interest," he said. Why, then, did he not lose interest in Waverly? "I never quite fixed it," he said with a laugh.

If he never "fixed" Waverly, he has managed to leave an undeniable imprint on the company. Passano first worked for Waverly in 1946 as a proofreader. There was just one problem with this particular introduction to the family business: the 17-year-old boy was dyslexic.

"They were trying to teach me how to read and it didn't work very well at all, so I worked in the warehouse instead," he said.

After a stint as a Marine in the mid-1950s (an assignment to Guatemala kept him out of the Korean War), Passano worked his way up within Waverly, becoming the company's president in 1971. The following year, Waverly went public and Passano became its CEO.

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