George M. Ferris Jr.

The chairman of the board of Ferris, Baker Watts, his career in the investment business spanned nearly six decades.

October 22, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

George Mallette Ferris Jr., whose career in the investment business spanned nearly six decades and who was chairman of the board of the investment firm of Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., died of a heart attack Monday at the company's Washington office. He was 81.

In 1950, Mr. Ferris joined the Washington-based investment firm of Ferris & Co. that was established by his father in 1932; it became one of the nation's capital's oldest and largest investment banking firms.

He spent most of his career working in the firm's Washington office at 1700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, where he had been CEO until stepping down in 1997, family members said.

He was named chairman of the firm in 1988 after its merger with Baker, Watts & Co., a Baltimore brokerage firm that had been founded in 1900 by Sewell S. Watts Sr. and William G. Baker Jr.

The merger created the regional brokerage firm of Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., with 300 brokers in 42 branch offices spread through eight states.

"He was incredibly dedicated to what he did in life, and that was business and his family and friends," said Steven L. Shea, former head of the firm's equity capital markets division.

"He never pulled any punches and was always very direct. What made George special was that he was firm, and you always knew where he was coming from. There was nothing ever phony about him," Mr. Shea said.

"People always knew that he was always looking out for the firm, which resulted in staff loyalty. They stayed on because of George," he said. "He loved the business like his father, who was 99 when he was carried out at his death."

Gail H. Winslow, former vice chairman of Ferris, Baker Watts who is now a money manager with the firm, joined Ferris in 1956.

"George's strength was that he was the most ethical and hardworking man I've ever known. He created the culture of our firm, which was that the client was always first and if we did well by the client, then we'd do well," Ms. Winslow said.

Ms. Winslow praised his modesty and pioneering efforts in hiring women and minorities.

"Money really meant nothing to him. He didn't live in a big house, and I remember one time when he crossed his legs and there was a hole in the sole of his shoe," she said.

"He didn't care about a person's color, ethnicity or sex, and we were one of the first firms to hire women and one of the first New York Stock Exchange firms to have a black vice president," she said.

When he relinquished the title of CEO, he explained in an interview with the Washington Business Journal that he didn't "want to fall into the trap of thinking that I was indispensable."

This year, Ferris Baker sold itself to Dain Rauscher, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Canada, after a stock manipulation scheme involving a client and broker caught the attention of federal regulators.

But Mr. Ferris remained as chairman of the board of his old company.

In the WBJ profile, he said it was unlikely that he would ever fully retire. "I'm not the type of person who can go to Florida and worry about his tee time," he said.

Mr. Ferris was born in Washington and raised in Chevy Chase. He was a 1944 graduate of St. Albans School in Washington, and began studies at Princeton University before leaving to serve as a seaman in the Navy during the waning days of World War II.

After the war, he returned to Princeton, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1948; two years later, he earned a master's degree in business administration from the Harvard Business School.

The Chevy Chase resident was a former governor of the New York Stock Exchange and a former three-term president of the Investment Bankers Association of America.

He had been chairman of the President's Task Force on International Private Enterprise.

He was a member of the health advisory board of the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, and his board memberships included TCA TrustCorp of America and Marshfield Associates.

Mr. Ferris was a consultant on capital market development for the World Bank and governments in developing countries.

Mr. Ferris was also active in the cultural and philanthropic life of the nation's capital. He had been campaign chairman for the National Symphony Orchestra, vice chairman of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and had been general campaign chairman for United Way.

He had served on the executive committee and had been chairman of the nominating committee of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington.

He was an avid golfer and world traveler. He was a member of the Metropolitan, Burning Tree, and Chevy Chase clubs.

"George and I have been friends for 64 years, since we were students at Princeton. His death is a great shock to me," said retired Baltimore urologist Dr. Earl P. Galleher Jr. "He was a person of huge integrity and honesty who was always looking out for others."

He added: "He was extremely loyal to his family and friends and exemplified in my mind all that was good, and this was a gift to all who knew him."

Funeral services are pending.

Survivors include his wife of 44 years, the former Nancy Strouce; three sons, George M. Ferris III of Baltimore, Willard B. Ferris of McLean, Va., and David H. Ferris of Potomac; two daughters, Karen Kelly Warner and Kimberly Ferris Crocker, both of Chevy Chase; a sister, Gene Benedict of McLean; and seven grandchildren. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.

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