Hale banks on past success Indoor soccer: Businessman Ed Hale, in his second go-round as Blast owner, is hoping to recapture the fan enthusiasm, but this time make it pay off financially.

October 23, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

This is the second time around for Ed Hale, indoor soccer team owner. And this time, he says, things are going to be different.

In fact, even as Hale attempts to recreate the popularity of the 1980s Blast, which played to near capacity at the Baltimore Arena, things are already different.

This time, Hale goes into a Blast season knowing he won't lose money. Already, sponsorship packages totaling more than $1 million have been sold.

This time, Hale has gained influence in the business community and is using his business savvy to make a success of his franchise.

"I'm not a virgin any more when it comes to soccer," says the wealthy transportation and banking executive. "I know what I'm doing. The last time I did this, no one knew who I was until I bought the Blast. I was like the Wizard of Oz always in the `D background."

Hale owned the Blast from 1989 to 1992. Attendance averaged about 8,000 fans a game, but he still lost money -- about $2.1

million during the four years, he says. His own ership stint ended when the Major Soccer League folded after the 1992 season.

The next season, then-local businessman Bill Stealey secured a franchise in the National Professional Soccer League, naming it the Spirit. When Hale bought the team from Stealey last spring, he promptly restored the Blast name, which he had retained.

When the regular season opens tomorrow night at the Baltimore Arena, the Blast's original red and gold logo will be displayed on the new black and white uniforms, and a giant soccer ball will descend from the ceiling during the player introductions, just as it did in the old days.

Local roots

Hale, who turns 52 next month, is twice divorced and the father of three. He grew up in eastern Baltimore County, and went to Sparrows Point High and Essex Community College.

He served in the Air Force and then came home to work for a local trailer leasing company. Since beginning his trucking business in 1975 with $100,000, he has gone from owning five trucks to being the largest private employer at the Port of Baltimore.

The first time Hale tried his hand at sports team ownership, he didn't know many local business owners. He spent and lost a fortune. Yes, he owned a local company, but his trucking business was conducted with mostly foreign firms.

Yes, he had money: About $10 million in 1988, according to a divorce court judge who ruled Hale had to pay his first wife a still-standing record settlement of more than $6.5 million.

Hale won't disclose his personal net worth, but he holds 1.2 million shares of First Mariner Bank worth $16.8 million and is thought to have other assets worth not less than $30 million.

He is a conglomerate. Besides First Mariner and the Blast, Hale owns Hale Trans, which incorporates Hale Trucking and Hale Marine, a combine of 250 trucks and seven barges. He also has a Peterbilt truck franchise. Altogether, he employs more than 800 persons.

Hale, who runs the financial side of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's campaign for comptroller, has been involved in political fund raising for nearly two decades. But it is his move into banking, more than anything, that increased his clout.

In 1991, Hale, a small investor, fought and won a five-month proxy fight to gain control of Baltimore Bankcorp.

"People said it was impossible to do and I did it," Hale says. "It's the one accomplishment I'm most proud of."

When Hale gained control, stock was trading at $4.37. When he sold the bank two years later, the price was $20.75.

It had been a strange undertaking for Hale, who long considered most bankers elitists who look down on energetic small businessmen.

Even now, with all the trappings of those he disdains -- an historic house in Timonium (that he soon plans to sell), a new condominium, two planes, including a sea plane that transports him within a half hour to his 186-acre farm near St. Michaels -- Hale hasn't changed his mind.

"A lot of bankers and bank analysts are waiting to see me fall," he says, "and I'm not going to give them the opportunity. Ever. I still remember coming out of Dundalk and how I was treated when I went to banks for loans."

A little more than three years ago, he founded First Mariner, which this week listed its assets as having grown to nearly $460 million among its 22 branches.

John Bowers, executive vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association, acknowledges that some of Hale's competitors look him skeptically.

"His challenge has been to grow his bank and the way you do that is to steal other competitors' accounts and get new ones," Bowers said. "He certainly has done that. No one would characterize him as a shrinking violet."

His title at First Mariner is chairman and chief executive officer, yet Hale continues to consider himself a banking outsider.

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