Likely head of regents is man of drive

Ambition: Nathan Chapman views his financial career as a steady ascent, but detractors notice the stumbles.

July 08, 1999|By Michael Hill and Bill Atkinson | Michael Hill and Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

The man who would be chairman of the state's Board of Regents has cut a wide swath through the Maryland business and political landscape over the past 15 years, leaving an impressive list of accomplishments and not a small amount of controversy.

Nathan A. Chapman, 41, once viewed as a Wunderkind broker at Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., now heads two publicly traded financial companies of his own. About to assume his most important public role, Chapman has his share of detractors -- as well as a legion of supporters.

Prominent among the supporters is Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Tomorrow -- with a nod from the governor -- the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland is expected to elect Chapman its chairman, the first African-American to hold that post.

The high-profile post is one more product of the ambition, drive and creativity that have taken Chapman to his office on the 28th floor of the World Trade Center from Edmondson Village, where he grew up in a working-class home.

"I have a lot of ideas," says Chapman, who is the regents' vice chairman and refuses to assume that he will be elected chairman. "I think out of the box."

If Chapman sees a steady ascent in his career, others see a roller coaster ride, an indication that he is not the right person to head a body that oversees 13 public institutions with 105,000 students in Maryland and an overall budget of $2.2 billion.

Low points in his business career include an attempt to get Baltimore to invest $10 million in city pension funds into his brokerage firm, the Chapman Co.

The effort was championed by Jacqueline F. McLean, the city comptroller, who left that job under a cloud of criminal charges. After her departure, the plan to bolster Chapman's brokerage collapsed.

In addition, he and his firm have faced several disciplinary actions by financial regulatory bodies.

Privately, many key state legislators oppose Chapman's election. "I hold no ill will toward Mr. Chapman, but someone should be thinking of the potential consequences if this doesn't go well," says Robert R. Neall, a Republican senator from Anne Arundel County.

"I am afraid controversy surrounding this appointment will have a detrimental effect on the efforts to build up the programs and the reputation of the University of Maryland," Neall says.

"There are lots and lots of qualified people who could serve on the Board of Regents in this state without this type of controversy around them."

Others defend the choice of Chapman.

"I think his appointment is an excellent idea," says Calvin Burnett, president of Coppin State College. "He's a brilliant person, really. You can tell by the way he has built his business.

"I think he is one of the outstanding members of our community."

Swift rise in business

Chapman's rise in the financial world has been swift.

He graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1980 after only 2 1/2 years and spent two years at KPMG Peat Marwick as an accountant.

In 1983, he moved to Alex. Brown, the nation's oldest investment banking house, which was trying to hire more black brokers.

"We obviously wanted to hire people from African-American backgrounds because there were so few in the business at that time," said Joseph Hardiman, then a top Brown executive and today a private investor.

"Nate clearly stood out among the candidates we saw. We thought he would be a success, which he turned out to be."

But his hard-charging style stepped on some wingtips at the clubby investment banking firm.

"He had a very high opinion of himself," says a former colleague. "He was going to have [Alex. Brown Chairman] Bart Harvey's job in a year. I just stayed away from him. I thought he was pushy."

Some at Alex. Brown accused Chapman of careless recordkeeping, and a few questioned some of his trades.

He was cited for making trades without the permission of two clients, including Baltimore developer Otis Warren, according to brokerage records filed with the state. He paid a $4,037 fine.

Chapman declines to discuss the incident. But even Warren backs Chapman, saying the incident might have been a misunderstanding.

"In our community, we are always looking for role models," Warren says. "I wouldn't mind my son seeing him as a role model."

After three years at Alex. Brown, Chapman left to start Chapman Co. -- with $500,000 in backing, including $50,000 from Alex. Brown.

To hear Chapman tell the story, from then on the ride has only been up.

"How many African-American-controlled firms [in the nation] are publicly traded?" he asks. "Maybe seven? And I'm being generous with seven. I've taken two companies public and I'm about to take a third."

The statement is essentially true -- there are only nine such companies. But such bold pronouncements are also typical for Chapman.

"He is the ultimate salesman," says a former colleague at Chapman's brokerage. "He takes sour milk and can make it a frothy latte. He has the confidence of a raging bull."

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