Conte is out as director of economic studies group RESI founder leaving Towson University

Business research

November 19, 1998|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Michael A. Conte, who founded and built the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University into a respected regional force, is out as director of that organization, Conte and the university acknowledged yesterday.

"I think the best thing to say is to confirm that I am leaving the university and my position as director," Conte said yesterday in a telephone interview from his home. "There will be a change in the leadership of the institute. I'm currently in negotiations with the university over the terms of my departure."

Susanna Craine, director of university relations at Towson, said late yesterday that she could "confirm that there has been a change in management at RESI." She declined to provide specifics.

"The bottom line is that the issue with Michael Conte is a personnel matter and, therefore, the institution cannot speak about it," she said in an interview earlier yesterday.

Alan M. Leberknight, dean of Towson's College of Business and Economics, said he was "not in a position to confirm, deny or otherwise comment" on Conte's situation.

Neither Conte nor the university would elaborate on what prompted Conte's departure. The 51-year-old economist started

the institute -- now called RESI -- at the University of Baltimore in the late 1980s and moved it to Towson amid great fanfare on April 15, 1996.

The institute has grown substantially in recent years, in staffing and contract levels. RESI had 23 employees at the time of the move to Towson and has about 90 today. Contract revenue has grown from less than $2 million in 1996 to nearly $7 million this year, Conte said.

In that time, RESI also grew in prominence, offering economic and demographic data on Maryland and Virginia that often couldn't be obtained elsewhere.

It began conducting economic research, but in recent years had branched out into information technology management and management consulting as its clients have asked that it help them design and put into operation systems to allow them to capitalize on the information RESI developed and provided.

Experts familiar with the research organization said it had achieved significant regional prominence and might be on the verge of breaking into the national limelight with some of the research models it has devised.

When Conte founded the institute, he promised national visibility, perhaps on a par with that of the Conference Board.

One of RESI's greatest accomplishments resulted from long-standing work it did with the Maryland Department of Human Resources. When state officials became puzzled over a rise in welfare cases -- thinking that the increase resulted from an influx of unemployed people from Washington or from the imprisonment of many heads of households because of an anti-drug campaign -- Conte's group did an analysis that found the increase was a leading indicator of a recession.

RESI found that companies had severely slowed hiring that typically had been taking a chunk of unemployed workers off the dole each month. And that signaled an economic downturn.

From that work, RESI developed an economic model that was able to forecast economic activity based on the change in the number of welfare cases. Additional models followed that allowed companies, nonprofit agencies and government organizations to better understand the Maryland economy. Those models generated growth for RESI.

Conte's personality was deemed responsible for much of the growth. Colleagues described him as youthfully energetic, brilliant, creative, articulate and ambitious. They also said he was brash and opinionated at times, and typically wanted things done his way.

In a conservative university environment -- even at Towson, which had welcomed RESI as a feather in its cap -- that sometimes led to disagreements.

Universities operate under three precepts: Teaching, research and service to the student constituency. RESI focused on research and operated with a great deal of independence from the rest of Towson's services, those familiar with both organizations said.

That was tolerable as long as everything went well, but if any problems occurred, that could make Conte's stewardship a bit more tenuous, observers familiar with the executive said.

Conte said he plans to seek a job in the private sector, but that he does not rule out working in an academic or public environment once again.

As for leaving RESI after all these years, he said, "The institute really was my baby."

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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