A corporate trouble-shooter USF&G chief Blake's specialty is turning a company around

January 21, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

By the time he landed at USF&G Corp. in November 1990, Norman P. Blake Jr. had earned a reputation as a turnaround specialist.

As chairman of Chicago-based Heller International Corp., Blake was credited with reversing losses and building assets of the firm's commercial lending subsidiary. Before that, he spent 15 years at General Electric Co., dismantling and realigning struggling companies.

When he took over as chairman and chief executive officer of USF&G, succeeding ousted Chairman Jack Moseley, Blake set out to transform yet another troubled company.

"I am joining you with no preconceived notion as to what needs to be done or what direction we should take," he wrote employees on his first day. "I will seek the opportunity to listen and learn before taking any major actions, while being mindful of any time urgency involved."

But for Blake, known for thriving on change and a fast-paced style, decision-making came quickly. He began by slashing jobs -- 30 percent of the work force -- and perks, shedding hundreds of independent agents, selling most of the company's junk-bond and real estate portfolios, even getting rid of the corporate jet.

On Monday, as head of a now profitable company, Blake announced that USF&G will be sold to St. Paul Cos. of Minnesota in a deal valued at $3.5 billion. Blake, 56, will join St. Paul as vice chairman after the merger.

For those who've known and worked with Blake, the company's turnaround and subsequent sale came about as a result of his personality as much as his management style. He is described as straightforward, focused and private.

"Norm is a bottom-line guy," said James T. Brady, secretary of Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development. "He wants things to happen. He's not into spending time doing a lot of philosophizing. He has clear objectives and brings a relentlessness to achieving those objectives."

Though Blake's cuts made the company profitable, they didn't win him popularity points among former employees, some of whom called his home cursing in the middle of the night.

In contrast to his predecessor, Blake remained focused almost solely on running the business, for the most part shying away from high-profile community involvement. Under Moseley's direction, the company gave millions to the performing arts and education and led the drive to renovate the Inner Harbor. Now, the company's trust fund, overseen by employees, gives $2.2 million annually to the community.

Moseley also had emphasized national marketing, sponsoring the USF&G Golf Classic Tournament and the Sugar Bowl. But Blake put a stop to that, telling The Sun, "I don't go for that flashy stuff."

When he did get involved, it has typically centered around education. He was chairman of a task force for Business and Education Serving Together (BEST), a business partnership between archdiocesan schools and local business leaders. He also has worked with the University of Maryland at Baltimore County to find ways to improve students' job skills.

The New York City-born Blake moved overseas at age 6, when his father, an executive with Pan American Airways, was transferred to England. He attended an English boarding school for three years, before rejoining his family in Beirut, Lebanon, where they had relocated. The family settled four years later in Greenwich, Conn.

Blake graduated from Purdue University in 1966, then a year later began his 15-year career at General Electric, rising to positions in planning, business development, systems and sales management.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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