William Allen Kroh, who owned and operated marine automobile terminals that handled thousands of autos in the port of Baltimore, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his Brooklandville home. He was 80.
"He was a self-made man who had an enormous amount of integrity," said Zelig Robinson, a friend and legal adviser. "Bill did not aspire to recognition. He was as bright a person as I have ever met and did not wear his success on his sleeve. He was happy to succeed, but he was really a very modest guy."
He was born in Baltimore and raised on Quail Street in Southeast Baltimore. A 1949 Patterson Park High School graduate, he was later inducted into the school's hall of fame.
While in the Army, Mr. Kroh learned Russian at a military language school and was stationed at Fort Richardson in Alaska. After his military service, he earned a degree at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"He often credited the Army with giving him goals and objectives," said his son, Edward Reed of Mission Viejo, Calif. "He believed in the value of education and getting an education by traveling. He was also the greatest dad in the world."
He met his future wife, Jarnetta Jarvis, while both were working at the Maryland Transportation and Trucking Co. He studied nights to become a certified public accountant. He was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1962 after earning a degree at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
He later said that an uncle, who owned the trucking company, was a major influence in his life.
"Even though he was self-taught, he was extremely intelligent and had a real knack for business," Mr. Kroh said of his uncle in a biographical sketch. "He was good to everyone and generous to those who needed his help."
Rolf Gragge, a friend from law school, recruited Mr. Kroh to join him in a new field, auto port services. One of their clients was Volkswagen Motors, whose Beetles were once brought into Baltimore at Pier Six on Pratt Street.
"We always worked very closely, and it was a wonderful relationship," said Mr. Gragge, who lives in Sperryville, Va.
He and his partner operated a business, R.G. Hobelmann, later Hobelmann Port Services. Over the years they formed business relationships with Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Isuzu, Jaguar, Saab and Opel. They built a large auto facility at the Chesapeake Terminal in Fairfield and operated the Atlantic Terminal near the northern portal of the Harbor Tunnel and a spot at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.
Mr. Kroh built a second home in California to use as a base to entertain Asian clients.
"He never forgot anybody," said Victor "Bruz" Frenkil, a close friend who lives in Baltimore County. "Bill Kroh liked everybody and was optimistic, sociable and generous. In business, he gambled big and made it big."
In 1988, Mr. Kroh announced that he had wooed Honda North America to his Baltimore terminal from Portsmouth, Va. Car manufacturers had moved to Virginia after complaining that spray paint and emissions from Baltimore shipbuilders were damaging the finish on their cars.
He initially off-loaded and processed vehicles and expanded the business in three Baltimore locations and at ports in Norfolk, Va., and Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla. A 1998 Baltimore Sun article said the company handled imports and exports, including just about every Chrysler shipped overseas. At that time, about 95 percent of Chrysler exports left through Baltimore, which ranked second to New York in the total number of autos shipped.
His firm also applied coatings to the bodies and undercarriages of vehicles, and installed stereo and air-conditioning systems and additional seat belts required in Europe.
Mr. Kroh oversaw the electronic tracking of the vehicles and installed security cameras. His workers who drove the cars wore one-piece clothing to reduce scratching of auto paint. They were not permitted to wear watches or jewelry.
Mr. Kroh was part of a group of investors who purchased the McCulloch chain saw division from Black and Decker.
He sold the auto terminal business in 1996.
Mr. Kroh was successfully treated for colon cancer at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in 1979. In gratitude, he became a hospital benefactor and joined its Foundation Board, of which he was later chairman. He and his wife endowed a center for digestive disorders. He also led a campaign that raised $35 million for the hospital.
"Bill was one of our staunchest supporters and one of the giants in the history of our health care system," said Dr. John B. Chessare, GBMC's president.
Mr. Kroh and his wife enjoyed traveling aboard the Queen Elizabeth II. They also attended the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, horse racing's Triple Crown.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.
In addition to his wife of 51 years and his son, survivors include a daughter, Janet Kroh of Carlsbad, Calif.; and two granddaughters.