'Brilliant' Lerner remains little known to analysts


How can you describe a man who started out as a furniture salesman, made $370 million and won a spot in the Forbes 400, and still describes his early business career as "not a very exciting story"?

You can start by calling Alfred Lerner chairman and chief executive officer of MNC Financial Inc., the parent of Maryland National Bank.

Described as brilliant, shy and decisive, Mr. Lerner, 56, is still an unknown to many of the banking analysts and other outsiders who follow MNC but haven't yet met him.

Even longtime friends and business associates don't have a clear idea what changes he is likely to bring to Maryland's largest banking company.

But they are confident enough in Mr. Lerner that they don't have to know the details. If Al Lerner wants something fixed, the thinking goes, he'll fix it. Simple as that.

"Obviously, he has a very good batting average in life," said Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns football team and a close friend who says he speaks with Mr. Lerner nearly every day. "He's as honest a man as I've ever known and about the brightest man I've ever known. He should do a great job for MNC and its shareholders."

Mr. Lerner, a resident of a Cleveland suburb and a father of two, got involved with MNC because he was the chairman and controlling stockholder of Equitable Bancorporation, which agreed last year to be acquired by MNC.

When MNC gave its shares to the stockholders of Equitable, Mr. Lerner's stake in Equitable translated into 8.9 percent of MNC, making him MNC's largest shareholder.

Equitable didn't greet Mr. Lerner with open arms. When he and two partners first tried to buy stock in the company in 1981, Equitable sued to keep them away. Mr. Lerner ended up as the only one of the three partners who made an investment in Equitable, buying a 27 percent stake. By the time of the MNC merger, he had control of 76.8 percent of the company's voting stock.

Mr. Lerner had the power to make all the decisions at Equitable but deferred to the management team he had brought in, said the Rev. Joseph Sellinger, S.J., president of Loyola College and an Equitable director.

" He knows how to listen, and he gathered around himself some very brilliant people," Father Sellinger said. "He turned that blank around remarkably. Profits were minimal and they got them up to $50 million a year.

To hear Mr. Lerner himself tell the story, he didn't do that muc to Equitable to turn it around. The company didn't make any acquisitions or take major new strategic directions, he said, but rather just took its basic banking businesses and ran them better.

"This is not brain surgery," he said. "It's just a question of how well you do it. If you treat customers right and make good loans, you'll do well."

Analysts doubt that Mr. Lerner has any major changes in store for MNC, at least not right away. Instead, they think the plan will be to retrench, get the loan portfolios of Maryland National and American Security banks in better shape and keep costs down.

"It's really hard to say. . . . What the management has to do now is retrench. I don't know that anyone has a grand design beyond that," said Kyle Prechtl Legg, who follows MNC for Alex. Brown & Sons. Inc. in Baltimore.

"Most of the changes have already been instituted," said David Penn, an analyst for Legg Mason, Wood Walker Inc. Mr. Penn speculated that MNC's subsidiary banks may be quick to "bite the bullet" on questionable loans over the next few months, taking further reserves up front against possible future losses so stockholders won't get more surprises during Mr. Lerner's term.

Mr. Modell said Mr. Lerner is involved in a wide range of businesses in Cleveland. He is chairman of Progressive Corp., an insurance company. He is a part owner of the Browns, and a partner in the organization that owns the stadium where the Browns and the Cleveland Indians play their home games.

As head of Town and Country Management, Mr. Lerner is one of the largest landlords in the Baltimore area.

He also was chairman of a real estate investment trust called Realty ReFund Trust until earlier this year, when he resigned as chairman and chief executive officer and sold his 19.6 percent stake in that company.

A Lerner partnership also bought -- and later sold at a profit estimated at $30 to $58 million -- a large stake in AmeriTrust Corp., a Cleveland bank holding company.

That company's decision to spend up to $112 million to buy out Mr. Lerner and his partners prompted accusations of greenmail.

Taken together, Mr. Lerner's business dealings gave him a net worth of $370 million in 1989, according to Forbes magazine's annual listing of the richest people in the nation, up 60 percent from $230 million in 1988.

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