EASTON – Shortly before sunrise, Edwin F. Hale Sr. scatters decoys on the water, preparing for a day of waterfowl hunting on his Talbot County farm.
The day dawns cloudy, a good sign because ducks and geese fly low under clouds, Hale says, as he and two hunting buddies settle into a duck blind camouflaged with pine branches along Hunting Creek.
At first all is quiet, with no waterfowl to be seen. But Hale, as always, is hopeful.
"Then a switch will be turned on and they come in," says Hale, 65, wearing jeans, a camouflage jacket and boots, and carrying duck and geese call horns.
Since stepping down last month as founder, chairman and chief executive officer of 1st Mariner Bank — the Baltimore community institution that is now fighting for its life — Hale has more time for hunting, among other things.
It's an unusual role for the former truck and shipping magnate who rose to prominence as a bootstrapping outsider who took over the Bank of Baltimore in a proxy fight in the early 1990s. Hale, who grew up in blue-collar Highlandtown and Edgemere, proceeded to build 1st Mariner over the next 15 years into a bank with more than $1 billion in assets.
Now, Hale says, he is "downshifting," adjusting to life without the bank. Eventually, he adds, he will be "happy or relieved" to have left — but he's not there yet. And he is by no means retiring.
"I absolutely don't see him riding off into the sunset," says John P. McDaniel, the former chief executive officer of MedStar Health, who has known Hale for 15 years and served on the board of First Mariner Bancorp, the bank's holding company, for many years.
While he's hunting, Hale's iPhone rings constantly with calls from business associates and friends. One conversation concerns the drywall at his new office at the Du Burns Arena in Canton, where his indoor soccer team, the Baltimore Blast, practices.
Hale is also pursuing several real estate ventures, including a residential project in Canton. He is treasurer of Sen. Benjamin Cardin's re-election campaign and serves as chairman of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency.
Hale does not rule out a return to banking — and says he has backers in town.
"There are people out there that I know [who] would go wherever I go if I were to get with another bank or start another bank," he says between hunting sessions at his farm.
That said, Hale is not planning a return, at least not right away. "But it's in the back of my mind," he says — adding later that he thought his business acumen was at its "pinnacle."
Hale, the bank's largest shareholder with a 10 percent stake, is also open to investing more of his money in the bank. The bank's stock, now listed on the over-the-counter bulletin board, is trading at around 40 cents a share.
"I would invest in it because it might be the best thing I could put my money in," he says.
The 186-acre farm, Hale's primary residence, has been his sanctuary for 20 years. While he intended it as a "guy's place," a spot where he and his friends could hunt and relax, Hale — who is single — renovated the once-plain, rectangular farmhouse into an eight-bedroom home.
It is at the farm where "he's most at home … with people who don't have pretenses," says his friend Jonathan Murray, a senior vice president at UBS Financial Services in Hunt Valley.
At 8,000 square feet, the home is large, but it feels cozy and warm thanks to Hale's interior decorating. He outfitted the home himself, with furniture acquired during his travels in the United States and abroad, and with oriental rugs. The walls are covered with large paintings of Baltimore's harbor in the old days, and in the living room are pictures of his grown children, a son and two daughters, and his three grandsons.
"I don't like a decorator to give me opinions about what my taste is," Hale says.