Burning desire to bring the Olympic torch home John Morton III leads Washington-Baltimore effort for 2012

Summer Games sought

As chairman, he must help sell region, drum up financial support

August 09, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

John Morton III has turned around failing thrifts, controlled billions of dollars in assets and weighed in on some of the banking industry's biggest mergers.

Now he's directing his trademark aggressiveness and energy toward a new challenge: helping to bring the Summer Olympic Games to the region in 2012.

"I have a passion for seeing us win this," he said. "Once it's established in my mind, everything becomes focused on getting there. The benchmark to every decision has to be: Will this further our effort toward winning the bid?"

Morton, 54, the athletic new president of NationsBank Corp.'s Mid-Atlantic Banking Group, recently was named volunteer chairman of the Washington-Baltimore Regional 2012 Coalition, which is leading the effort to bring the Games to the area.

By September, the group hopes to have a paid chief executive officer who will report to Morton, the head of the board of directors.

Those who know him say Morton is an excellent choice for the job -- driven, a top-notch salesman with outstanding analytical skills and the ability to focus on a goal and achieve it.

Morton exudes self-confidence and has spent years on the fast track, jumping from one high-powered job to the next. He is low-key, not flamboyant, a quick study who doesn't shy from making unpopular decisions. He is tightly wound, hard-edged and sometimes flexes his muscle in meetings to make it clear to everyone that he has the final word.

"He's one of the most self-confident people I've worked with," said Dick Macgill, a retired senior vice president of Maryland National, who was Morton's first supervisor at the bank. "That self-confidence is warranted, based on his intellect and performance."

Morton left a job in St. Louis and returned to Maryland in February, having spent 17 years with Maryland National Bank, which was acquired by NationsBank Corp. in 1994. Morton inherited a role in the Olympics effort from his predecessor, R. Eugene Taylor, who left to head the bank's Florida operations.

The Baltimore-Washington region is competing against San Francisco, Cincinnati, Houston, New York, Seattle, Tampa-Orlando, Fla., Los Angeles and Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth, to be the U.S. Olympic Committee's entry for the 2012 Summer Games.

As the coalition's board chairman, Morton will try to keep about two dozen people focused on compiling a winning bid, helping sell the region and drum up financial support.

NationsBank was a sponsor of the Atlanta Games in 1996, and some bank officers' business cards bear the five Olympic rings in the lower left corner.

The bank raised more than $700,000 for Atlanta athletes, played a role in more than 100 pre- and post-Olympic events, and involved more than 1,000 bank employees in the Games, Morton said.

"To me, the Olympics just captures the attention and emotions ** of the world" and gives the host cities "a forever legacy."

He ticks off the rewards of a successful bid: a boost to the pride of the residents, increased visibility to the world, buildings and infrastructure that will last for generations.

But win or lose this bid, the region will benefit, Morton said.

"I think one of the biggest things that we'll gain, even if we don't win, is the partnering that's going on every week, every day, with community leaders and business leaders of both the Washington region and the Baltimore region," he said.

That could translate into civic, cultural and economic development benefits for Baltimore and Washington, he said.

Morton has a split-level office in downtown Baltimore and an office on the 10th floor in Washington -- employees refer to it as the "penthouse" -- with a view of the White House.

Morton is tanned and trim. The navy blue and green stripes of his tie lend a collegiate air, making him look younger.

The banker is an ardent college basketball fan who attended the NCAA regional finals in Tampa, Fla., this year.

He flew to France for this year's soccer World Cup.

Morton says he didn't distinguish himself in lacrosse or football in college. But his friends boast for him, noting that he was a lineman at the Naval Academy in spite of his average height and weight. They say he is a good fisherman and squash player, and a golfer known to have made a hole in one.

Gaining support

Morton's offices are receiving as many as 25 calls a day from people interested in helping with the Games, financially or otherwise.

One of the converts, won over by Morton's enthusiasm and knowledge, is Ed Kiernan, general manager of WBAL radio and 98 Rock. Kiernan was not sold on trying to bring the Olympics to the Washington-Baltimore area until he started talking to Morton.

"When I first heard we were thinking of the Olympics in 2012, I said, 'Yeah, sure,' " Kiernan recalled. "You spend time with John Morton and you really believe this can happen. He's made up his mind without question that the Olympics can be here in 2012."

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