A leading financial pioneer


March 03, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As the wrecking ball continued its destructive march down Redwood Street last Saturday, a lady stood by her car gazing across the street at the lot where the recently demolished Southern Hotel once stood and where demolition efforts were dismantling the old C&P telephone exchange next door. The site will one day be the home of One Light Street, a $125 million office and hotel tower.

At the corner of Light and Redwood streets, the snaggle-toothed red brick facade was all that remained of the former Merchants and Miners Transportation Co. building, while another crane stood poised to reduce to rubble its neighbor, the Sun Life Building, a six-story Beaux Arts pile that has been at the center of recent preservation efforts.

"I used to work in the cafeteria at the Southern and still remember that the chef's name was Mr. Charlet. I came to work from my home in Mount Winans by streetcar. That was way back about 1951," said the lady.

As she turned the lock of her green Saturn sedan, she took one final glance at the desolate scene that was a little reminiscent of the London blitz.

"They're tearing down my Baltimore, and I don't like it," she said wistfully.

For those who'd like to catch a glimpse of a familiar building before it's reduced to broken brick and twisted steel beams, Redwood Street is the place to go. Demolition also directs our senses to small details often overlooked.

As the eye travels upward, tracing the outline of the doomed Sun Life Building, a rather unusual inscription comes into view on the neighboring wall of the USF&G building, which faces a shared alley.

The side of the wall reads: "United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. Created and Organized By John R. Bland 1896."

United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., which later became the largest bonding company in the world, was established in 1896 by John Randolph Bland.

Born in 1851 in Missouri and educated in St. Louis, Bland started his business career in 1869 when he went to work for T. A. Williams & Co., a wholesale grocer, in Norfolk, Va.

In 1871, he joined the Powhattan Line, a packet boat company that operated steamers between Baltimore and Richmond, as a $3-a-week clerk. He later was promoted as an agent for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and moved to Baltimore in 1880, where he became secretary of the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association.

For the next 40 years until his death in 1923, Bland was one of Baltimore's most well-known and highly respected business figures, and a man who helped revolutionize the bonding industry.

Attracted to the fidelity business, the entrepreneurial Bland resigned his position with the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association and established his own firm in 1896.

"The fidelity business was then in its infancy. When bond was required a personal bond usually was given. This was sometimes difficult to obtain in any considerable amounts and it was always embarrassing for a man to ask a friend to go on his bond," reported The Sun at Bland's death in 1923.

Inspired by Edwin Warfield's establishment of the Fidelity and Deposit Company, which met with immediate success, Bland decided to found what became USF&G.

"Mr. Bland was quick to see that the field was too large for any one company, and as the service the company rendered was in great demand, he felt there was ample room in Baltimore for two such companies. The United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company was promptly organized, and for a long time the two Baltimore bonding companies did the bulk of the bonding business of the United States, absolutely dominating the field," wrote the newspaper.

Eventually, USF&G became the largest institution of its kind in the world, growing from $250,000 in 1896 to $33,000,000 in revenue on the company's 25th anniversary in 1921.

In an interview shortly before his death, the paper explained Bland's success.

"He assumed, in the first place, that a man who would be successful was honest. Honesty, he said, was basic. Then, he said, a man to be successful must possess mental and physical capacity to perform an unlimited amount of work and be willing to do anything needed, from acting as executive to sweeping out an office. He must also possess perfect knowledge of the fundamental principles of any work to be undertaken and he should possess unswerving courage," reported The Sun.

Bland said: "If I should say any quality is more important than all the others it would be courage. Without courage, a man with capacity and energy will fail to surmount obstacles sure to stand before him at one time or the other, and to the extent that he lacks courage, he will fail."

John Bland died at his home at 11 E. Chase St. and is buried in Green Mount Cemetery.

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