If all First Mariner Bancorp's shareholders were as loyal as Frank Wesolowski, the company's stock would still be at $10 or $15.
Wesolowski is a retired pharmacist from Edgemere, where First Mariner honcho Edwin Hale Sr. grew up and launched a real estate and shipping kingdom. He watched Hale win a proxy war for control of the Bank of Baltimore in the early 1990s.
He figured Hale's new bank, founded in 1995, could fill vacancies left by Bank of Baltimore and other lenders that got sold to out-of-towners.
"I'm from the same neighborhood," Wesolowski said at First Mariner's annual meeting Tuesday morning. "I know what the man did. I figured if anybody's going to go anywhere, he would be the man. And I wanted to be on his team."
Wesolowski's original $57,000 stake in First Mariner is worth about $5,000, but he hasn't bailed. Numerous others have, however, as the company's stock fell from the $20 range in 2006 to $4 a year ago to 84 cents now.
On Tuesday Hale offered hope and reports of diminishing losses but no pronouncement of a turnaround.
"When this is over, and we fully expect it will be over, we intend to expand again and take advantage of the banks that have disappeared," Hale told the room of about 100 people. "Some of the banks that are remaining around here are mistreating a lot of their customers, and a lot of people are starting to gravitate to us."
That has been First Mariner's schtick from the start. It may pay off now that Provident Bankshares is being absorbed by M&T Bank, leaving First Mariner as the largest Baltimore-based banking company.
But when people gravitate to you and borrow money, you have to make sure they pay it back. Last week First Mariner reported a quarterly loss of $3.1 million, its eighth quarterly loss in a row.
Much of the pain in the past two years has come from an ill-advised mortgage operation First Mariner briefly ran in Northern Virginia at the top of the housing bubble. Presumably Hale has learned to stick to an area he and his lending officers know.
"There could be a little bit more of a downturn in terms of residential and also in some of the commercial properties that we now hold," he told shareholders.
He again bested efforts to weaken his leadership. A proposal from dissident shareholder John F. Maas to split Hale's roles of chairman and CEO was defeated, as it had been in years past.
The bank just resolved nasty allegations of discrimination, also at the ill-starred Virginia operation, which has closed. Without admitting wrongdoing, the bank agreed to pay the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. $50,000 to settle allegations of predatory lending to Hispanics. It had already set aside $950,000 to reimburse borrowers.
Closing the matter, however, hasn't seemed to pave the way for an injection from the Treasury Department's bailout vehicle, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In March Hale had described the discrimination allegations as the main obstacle to getting TARP money.
It needs capital from somewhere. As "stress tests" for the nation's big banks are about to be announced, the stock market has already tested First Mariner and rendered a verdict by pricing its shares at pennies.
But don't blame Wesolowski. He faults Hale for overexpansion and First Mariner's board for not doing enough to promote the bank.
Still, he says: "I'm in it, and I'm going to stay in it. I just can't understand why it's under a dollar a share."