Bankers' words ring hollow

November 23, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

They think we're idiots, don't they? They think we have no memories. The corporate raiders, all of 'em, think they can march into a town and buy up a business and convince us it'll benefit the community when everybody knows that they're lying.

Was anybody around here shocked last week, when the big-hearted, civic-minded bank executives at First Union Corp. announced they'll be eliminating 200 jobs in Maryland -- almost all of them in downtown Baltimore -- as they complete their acquisition of Signet Banking Corp.?

Betcha none of those 200 laid-off employees was surprised as they were handed big-hearted pink slips by those civic-minded executives with Thanksgiving arriving this week and more holidays around the corner.

Betcha, for that matter, that nobody at the giant NationsBank was surprised, either. Nor were those who formerly worked there, until they were big-heartedly blindsided by executives with deep ties to Baltimore from their offices down in North Carolina.

But let's deal with one corporate culprit at a time.

Four months ago, First Union announced plans to buy Signet Banking Corp.First Union has headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. Signet has headquarters in Richmond, Va. Signet employees 1,148 people in Maryland, 265 of whom work in downtown Baltimore, every one of whom heard the news of the buyout in July and wondered, "Will they come gunning for me?"

At which point, we heard Edward E. Crutchfield's carefully formulated words, which were intended to offer momentary goodwill but were veiled in cynicism. Crutchfield is chairman and chief executive of First Union, which is the sixth-largest banking company in the nation. And what he said, because he assumed we are all idiots, was this:

"This thing could well work out with no job losses."

Right, Eddie.

In an afterthought, and in a much softer voice to cover himself when reality kicked in, Crutchfield muttered, "I am not promising that."

He wasn't making promises because he knew what was coming.

What was coming was not only 200 job losses in Maryland, but 1,700 jobs in all when you add the rest of last week's announcement -- about 1,500 more job cuts from Signet's Richmond, Va. headquarters.

What was also coming was the same thing that happened four years ago, when NationsBank moved into Baltimore and bought out Maryland National Bank. NationsBank is based in Charlotte, N.C. It is the third-largest banking company in the nation and, as it swallowed up Maryland National, its top executives were declaring there would be no layoffs, they certainly hoped to avoid layoffs, they certainly hoped to minimize layoffs, they hoped there wouldn't be too many layoffs, although ...

Within two years, they had closed about 35 former Maryland National branches and laid off roughly 1,200 former Maryland National employees.

Last week, as the announcement was made of the 200 First Union folks being laid off -- and 97 branches being closed -- we had J. William Knott, president of the newly named First Union/Maryland, explaining, "As we look at the size of the market, obviously we weighed all of the people and what we needed to accomplish our goals."

He meant the corporate goals -- not the goals of those people now wondering what they'll do for a weekly paycheck.

Knott had nothing at all to say about July's remarks by Edward PTC ("This thing could well work out with no job losses") Crutchfield.

But Ed Hale did.

Hale, chairman and chief executive officer of First Mariner Bancorp, publicly ridiculed Crutchfield last summer. Why not? First Mariner's locally owned and operated; they haven't barged into somebody else's turf and laid off hometown employees.

When Crutchfield made his "no job losses" remark four months ago, Hale declared, "He's lying through his teeth. If First Union doesn't cut jobs, I'll well, you can't put that in the newspaper. Just say, I'll commit an unnatural act if they don't cut jobs."

Yesterday, taking note of the newly announced job cuts and his "unnatural act" line, Hale remarked, "Let's just say I heaved a sigh of relief. For myself, not for the people laid off. And this is not the end. You can bet, there's gonna be more layoffs."

He spoke from experience. Before he started First Mariner, Hale headed Baltimore Bancorp, which he sold to First Fidelity Bancorp of Newark, N.J., in 1994. First Fidelity was later absorbed by First Union.

"When I sold the Bank of Baltimore," Hale said, "[First Fidelity] said the same thing, that they weren't going to lay anybody off. But they went from 1,200 jobs to 290. They did it very quietly."

The banks always do it with words of assurance. It's for the community's good. It's for the good of corporate profits, which will translate into profits for everyone.

It's a buyout, but not a sellout of loyal company employees. They say this, and they think we'll believe them. Because they think we're idiots.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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