Having a Blast

Banker, developer, team owner - Ed Hale has become a power in his hometown. But the self-made kid from Edgemere still thinks he's on the outside looking in.

Cover story

December 07, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

It was dusk when 1st Mariner Bank chairman Edwin F. Hale Sr. left a meeting in his Canton office to drive west across town to the Baltimore civic arena that bears his bank's name. The official unveiling of 14 giant billboards on the arena's exterior was only two days away, and the gray-haired banker, in jeans and a navy Polartec jacket, watched closely as workers in cranes smoothed wrinkles on the ad promoting his professional indoor soccer team, the Baltimore Blast.

He wanted to be sure that the Times Square-style signs looked good, because plenty of people were upset about them - including Peter Angelos, the prominent attorney and Orioles owner who has redeveloped property just blocks away on the city's west side. Angelos had called the billboards trashy.

Angelos didn't know from trashy, Hale thought as he examined the signs. Hadn't he rejected an ad from PETA, the animal rights group, that featured a barely clad Pamela Anderson? Hadn't he sought out ads from upstanding businesses like Comcast, Blue Cross and the newly renovated Hippodrome theater?

He was proud of the arena's appearance. Since he'd won the naming rights to it, Hale had cleaned it up inside and out. He couldn't recall the old civic center looking so good since he first had set foot in it as a kid in 1963.

Nonetheless, it seemed the whole downtown was against him.

He was used to being an outsider in Baltimore's business circles. And there was a time when he fought for their respect. But after winning in court the right to put up his billboards, Hale was done fighting. He had other plans. If he couldn't be a member of the club, he'd start his own.

He looked up at the first of the 14 signs on 1st Mariner Arena.

"For the life of me," he said, "is this any worse than what was here?"

Ed Hale, maverick entrepreneur of Baltimore, has always seen a way to make money from the dingiest places. He was a millionaire before the age of 29 because he cleaned up a junkyard on Boston Street and turned it into desirable waterfront property.

Just a few weeks ago, he was at it anew, trucking out waste oil extracted from land outside his waterfront office on the border between Canton and a depressing heap of industrial sites and interstate highway that leads to East Baltimore and Hale's roots. It's here that he hopes more beauty will rise along the harbor: His $100 million Canton Crossing plan includes a four-star hotel and a $50 million cruise-ship terminal he would build and rent to the state.

Real estate development may prove to be his lasting impact, but his growing political power base and status as a bootstrapping folk hero is lately tied to his bank.

1st Mariner did $150 million in loans in July, marking its best quarter yet. From a thrift with $25 million in assets, Hale has fashioned a bank with $1 billion in assets and 750 employees in eight years. Key to the boom in Canton, it is now the third-largest Baltimore-based bank, behind Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Co. and Provident Bank.

Other than a boardroom portrait of Hale - a holdover from his days of running the Bank of Baltimore that he tried unsuccessfully to foist on his mother - there is not a lot of pretense at 1st Mariner. In the bank's headquarters on Clinton Street, you won't find anyone wearing a tie. Hale comes to work in jeans or khakis paired with dress shirts. If there's a pinstriped banker's shirt at a senior staff meeting, the sleeves are rolled up.

The tone at Tuesday morning senior staff meetings is also casual.

One recent morning, it is reported that deposits are up. That the guy who owns more than 100 Pizza Hut franchises called about moving his accounts over. That the owner of Austin Grill, the popular Canton restaurant, did too. Disgruntled customers at other banks, it seems, are rushing to join 1st Mariner.

Hale is pleased when he hears that the bank donated water bottles and coloring books to families who waited in line for help at the old St. Stanislaus Church after Tropical Storm Isabel. It's a way to build loyalty and help people in his storm-ravaged stomping grounds of East Baltimore. His face tightens when he talks about how many people with flood insurance are getting short shrift. This is a "hot-button issue" with him, ever since an insurer refused to pay damages when his private plane crashed last year. He isn't about to go after business created by the latest storm with conventional rates. His executives propose a reduced-rate, storm-repair home equity loan with no closing costs, and Hale pronounces it "just right."

When he hears that the bank has yet to close on a loan that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an old friend, called about a week ago he's concerned. What's the problem? he asks.

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