THE CITY OF THE FUTURE Planning it is Robert Keller's job


LIKE RANDY MILLIGAN, WHO GOES BY MOOSE IN THE ORIOLES locker room, and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul on stage, Robert Keller has a nickname all his own. Around the 15th floor of the Legg Mason building, he is referred to simply, and sometimes quite seriously, as Mr. Vision.

He admits to this and lets out a hearty laugh, seemingly pleased with his image as a leader charting the business course of a city.

It's a title some say Mr. Keller has earned. As president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization representing 1,000 of the area's largest companies, he was responsible for recently unveiling an ambitious blueprint to make Baltimore the nation's leader in "life sciences." The report, the result of much collaboration and 1 1/2 years of research, set the business community buzzing and is already in its second printing.

Standing in the GBC's boardroom, leaning against a window that faces the harbor, Mr. Keller looks every inch the forward-thinking businessman in his charcoal gray suit and wingtip shoes, dropping buzzwords like "consensus building" and names like Jim Rouse.

But don't let the car phone or corner office fool you. While Mr. Keller may look and talk like one of the straight arrows, and while he may be a spokesman for the city's most established companies, his own style is more New Age than Old School.

After all, how many businessmen support the modern-day men's movement, read poetry, listen to New Age performer Kitaro and quote from the "Tao Te Ching," a classic text of Eastern philosophy?

How many once studied at a seminary?

Talk to Mr. Keller and you get the impression that at age 49 he still considers himself a work in progress. He recently attended a daylong workshop in Washington held by Robert Bly, the spiritual leader of the current men's movement, and he has read Mr. Bly's best seller "Iron John: A Book About Men" twice.

During a staff retreat he took the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test, to gain insight into his management style.

"I'm an ENFJ," he says. "It's an extrovert. It's the long-range big thinker. . . .We're teachers. We're the vision makers."

In professional circles, however, a different vision of the GBC head exists. From 9 to 5 -- or 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., as his workday usually winds up -- Bob Keller is often all business.

"Bob has his finger on the pulse of the city and the Baltimore region," says Peter J. Lombardi, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "He's very knowledgeable, very plugged Personally, however, Mr. Lombardi has little sense of the man he has known for 10 years.

"He might have a great sense of humor, but you rarely see it," he adds. "I don't know very many people who can call Bob a real buddy, a guy you go out and have a beer with or go to the game with."

There are, indeed, doors to Mr. Keller's life that remain closed to the public.

His divorce last year is one of them. He doesn't look you in the eye when he mentions his ex-wife. Asked about it, he simply shakes his head and explains, "My private life has to remain private."

Other parts of his background, however, he's anxious to share. He grew up in Northwest Baltimore, the son of a bank executive and a comptroller. His parents were deeply religious and he quickly took leadership roles -- head altar boy, lieutenant of the safety patrol -- in the community.

"I was always the second smartest kid in the class, but I was the guy who got picked for things because the first one was a nerd," he says.

He entered St. Mary's Seminary, graduating in 1963 with a philosophy degree. During his senior year, it became clear to him -- and to his instructors -- that he would never make it to the priesthood.

"What I viewed the priesthood to be was too restrictive," he says.

He's not a practicing Roman Catholic today, but he does attend church frequently and considers himself a "spiritual" person.

After school, he became a reporter for the Catholic Review and then briefly moved to Wilmington, Del., to help run a weekly religious paper. In 1967, he joined The Evening Sun as a reporter, eventually being promoted to city editor in 1972 and metro editor seven years later.

By 1981, he was ready for a new challenge. "There was only one job in the newsroom that interested me and that was managing editor," he says. "It was real clear that Jack [Jack Lemmon, the Evening Sun's managing editor] wasn't going anywhere, so I needed in my mind to either change careers or change cities."

That's when he heard that William Boucher III, who had been GBC president for 26 years, was retiring. He decided to apply for the position to get practice interviewing again.

Six months later, a newspaperman who didn't even own a white button-down shirt had won out over 150 other applicants for the job.

"I think I was a bit of the safe choice," he says. "I don't come across as strong. I'm not pounding the table. . . .I think they thought I was somebody they could deal with, and I mean that both positively and negatively."

The reaction from some of his staff surprised him. "I hoped there would be some consternation. I didn't want everybody to go, 'Ah, great. Good riddance.' " So he was hurt when colleagues hinted he was selling out to the business community. "I had trouble going back to the newsroom for a while," he says.

Ten years later, he's dwelling instead on life as a "consensus builder," a man who helps heads of diverse companies rally around a common cause -- Baltimore.

The role of GBC leader has changed as dramatically as the city skyline in the past two decades, since the days when then Mayor William Donald Schaefer demanded that the business community actively support the revitalization of Baltimore.

These days, the effort is less high-profile, even though the needs are just as pressing.

"Bob has brought a low-key style to the GBC," says City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "He's helped them to focus on educational issues, and to the extent that they have, we've all benefited. But we do need to resume the business thrust of the past to accelerate job development."

One of Mr. Keller's latest efforts has been "Baltimore. Where Science Comes to Life," the report developed by the GBC's Economic Vision Task Force. In it, the group says Baltimore's economic future rests in the "life sciences" -- medicine, health care, biotechnology and other related fields -- and outlines a strategy for advances in education, physical infrastructure, entrepreneurial activity and community involvement.

He says the response to the report has been overwhelmingly positive; Ms. Clarke calls it a good blueprint that needs to be fleshed out.

"The challenge is to make that rather esoteric goal translate into production, export and manufacturing opportunities for the city of Baltimore," she says. "We have to keep reminding the visionaries of the perspective of the here and now in Baltimore."

Others believe Mr. Keller and the GBC should make more efforts on behalf of minority businesses. Arnold M. Jolivet, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, says, "My only criticism is that there's been a void in their efforts to connect with the minority businesses and to develop more programs to study the plight and the unique problems minority businesses are facing in the marketplace."

Mr. Keller admits he'd like to see the GBC better represent

smaller, minority companies. "I'm not satisfied, but I'm not satisfied with anything," he says. "We all need to do more."

His frustration with his job often results from not being able to find quick solutions to problems facing the city. When you're talking about a 10-year "life sciences" plan, the rewards are far from instant.

"There's nothing that seems very clear-cut, especially when you're dealing with long-term issues," he says.

But day after day, he tries to chip away at these problems, often through meetings that may not end until 10 p.m., when he walks from his office to his Federal Hill town house.

"The frightening days are when you have two breakfast meetings," he says. "Then you know your life is out of control."

But the stimulation of the job and having outside interests has kept him from burning out. He exercises at the Downtown Athletic Club at least twice a week, plays golf and listens to classical music.

His daughters, though, provide the greatest joy in his life. His blue eyes light up when he talks about Kristin, 24, "my daughter of the '60s," who works for United Way, and Kara, 17, "my daughter of the '80s," who will be a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, business school this fall.

He credits recent events in their lives -- Kristin's marriage last fall and Kara's high school graduation this spring -- with re-energizing him, personally and professionally.

As for the future, he says he's committed to working with the "life sciences" project for the next five years. Then again, he says, maybe he'll go sailing to destinations unknown.

"The journey myth is very important to me," he says. "I kind of can't wait: What's it going to be next?"



Born: January 11, 1942; Trenton, N.J.

Occupation: President of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Current home: Federal Hill.

Marital status: Divorced.

Family: Two daughters: Kristin, 24, and Kara, 17.

Education: Graduated from St. Mary's Seminary in 1963 with bachelor's degree in philosophy.

If I could change one thing about Baltimore, it would be: "the school system. I'd make it so that it was the best urban school system in the country. It needs more resources, higher quality and more accountability."

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