When Adrian G. Teel's friends heard last spring that he was leaving the Anne Arundel County government to head the Maryland Port Administration, they gave him a present they thought might come in handy: a bulletproof vest.
It was meant as a gag. Still, the black humor conveyed a sense of foreboding of the problems Mr. Teel would encounter as port director.
Over the last few years, the port of Baltimore has been a very troubled place. Steamship lines have been leaving and cargo volumes falling. Labor strife was chronic, and the port agency was running up a string of ever-growing deficits. That turbulent history cost two MPA directors their jobs in a little more than two years.
Brendan W. O'Malley, Mr. Teel's predecessor, had been asked before he stepped down what qualities the new port director would require. He responded, "A person who walks on water, that would help."
Certainly Mr. Teel cannot walk on water. He does not even have experience in the maritime industry, having spent his entire 27-year career as a manager in the Anne Arundel government and school system. How can he expect to succeed where others, seemingly better equipped, have failed?
Those who have worked with Mr. Teel think they know the answer. They describe a quiet, self-effacing man who over the course of his career has won the reputation of a consummate administrator. Engaging the loyalty of the people under him, he listens rather than directs, reaching decisions through consensus.
Of medium height with graying hair, Mr. Teel, 47, still has a boyish look about him. He is soft-spoken and does not dominate with his presence.
However, quiet should not be confused with meek, according to those who know him. Once decisions have been made and goals set, he holds his people to them with unbending determination. Those who cannot deliver what they have promised do not survive long in his organization.
"He's not a cheerleader. He does build strong personal loyalties," said Joseph N. Burrows, the Anne Arundel County controller, who worked with Mr. Teel when he was the county's chief administrative officer, the No. 2 figure under the county executive. "The assumption on his part is you're willing to do what is required. If not, you shouldn't be there."
Mr. Burrows is confident Mr. Teel will succeed in turning the port around. "If he can't, I don't think I know the person who can," he said.
That view is seconded by Thomas L. Osborne, the former director of the Anne Arundel planning and zoning office who now works in Annapolis for the architectural and engineering firm of Dewberry & Davis. "He was simply outstanding as a manager," Mr. Osborne said, predicting Mr. Teel will accomplish the tasks he sets for himself. "He will do it while respecting the integrity of the people involved. He has a feel for human dignity."
The most pressing task facing Mr. Teel is to stem the flow of red ink at the port. Battered by the loss of steamship lines that pay
the bills, the MPA last year ran a deficit of $2.8 million on an operating budget of about $46 million. The agency expects a deficit this fiscal year of perhaps $4 million.
Putting a government agency's disorganized finances in order is not new to Mr. Teel. When he was named Anne Arundel's chief operating officer in 1983, the county was operating in the red and its bond rating was sliding. "It was not unlike what the port is facing right now," said Marita B. Brown, the former Anne Arundel budget officer who now holds a similar post in Prince George's County.
She said he embarked upon "an elaborate strategic planning process." Mr. Teel met regularly with department heads to work out goals. "We were evaluated, among other things, on how well we met the objectives, on how well we stayed within the plan," she said. "Everyone was given the support and encouragement they needed to succeed. . . .
"People knew what they had to do. People were pretty much left to their own devices. They were not micro-managed."
Meanwhile, failure was rooted out. "I don't think people were allowed to fail twice," she said. "There were people who sought other careers."
The result: Under Mr. Teel's administration, Anne Arundel became "the most financially stable county in the state," according to Ms. Brown.
When Mr. Teel took over administration of the county government in 1983, the county had a deficit of $1.8 million, according to Alfred Warfield, the county's assistant controller. By the end of the next fiscal year, the deficit was gone.
The county's improved financial condition under Mr. Teel was acknowledged on Wall Street. Standard & Poor's, for example, had dropped the county's bond rating a notch to AA in June 1981. But in February 1985, S&P; restored the AA rating and raised it to AA+ in April 1990.
The outline of a similar program already is taking shape at the MPA. To put the agency's house in order, Mr. Teel has ordered a general reorganization, including a 15 percent reduction in size. In keeping with his belief in a consensus approach to management, Mr. Teel has been meeting with his managers to work out the details of that reorganization and work force reduction.
On a recent Wednesday morning, he met with managers of the MPA's development departments at the agency's offices at the PointBreeze complex near the Seagirt and Dundalk marine terminals. In a conference room decorated with color prints of cargo ships, cranes and an aerial shot of the port, Mr. Teel faced a nervous audience. These were heads of the groups most at risk in the reorganization, because any major expansion projects are out of the question given the port agency's financial problems and overcapacity.
Mr. Teel tried his best to put them at ease by voicing sympathy for their plight. He admitted that the job cuts and restructuring will complicate morale problems within the deeply troubled agency. "I haven't helped that with the reorganization and downsizing," he told the group.
He acknowledged that the MPA has not done a very good job of living up to promises to its employees, especially in what he considers a botched effort to move the MPA from the security of the state personnel system to one that would reward people for good performance. Things were promised but never delivered, he said of the current personnel system. Plans for merit pay to reward good work never came into being, for example.
Of the failure to make good on those assurances, he said, "It's the one thing that sticks in the craw of most people in the organization and lowers morale more than anything else."
He has promised to straighten out the personnel system.
He has also promised to create an open environment where MPA employees can feel a sense of participation and excitement. "A person is most motivated when they know what they're contributing to the whole. An organization shouldn't have a lot of secrets," he said of his hopes for promoting freer communication and greater participation in decision-making.
And he makes no bones of his contempt for the red tape that often blocks action in bureaucratic organizations. "I'm not a person for creating a lot of paperwork. I don't believe in trying to cover my ass with a memo. I think it's a tremendous waste of time," he said.
Mr. Teel has spent his first few months on the job trying to convey to MPA employees his sense of his responsibilities to them, including making the program of job cuts as painless as possible. Although more than 70 jobs are to be eliminated, he hopes fewer than 30 individuals will actually have to be laid off. And he has promised help for them in finding new jobs.
Last week, notices began going out to 46 MPA employees who will be laid off at the end of October. The selection of those to be laid off was based on recommendations of MPA managers.
But Doug Kukucha, an MPA mechanical engineer who received a layoff notice, thinks there is a basic flaw in Mr. Teel's method.
"Did they ever stop and think that the managers might be the problem," he said. The managers deciding who will be laid off are the same ones who caused the MPA's problems in the first place, he argued.
"These management problems have been going on for a long time. Now they're asking those managers for a hit list."
Richard M. Mayer, Mr. Teel's executive assistant, said the managers' recommendations were evaluated by Mr. Teel and accepted in most cases, but not all.
He also said Mr. Teel has been carefully assessing MPA managers. Some managers already have left and others will follow if they don't measure up, he said. "If we find some of the managers are part of the problem and not the solution, we will take more action."
As the cuts are made and the new agency begins to shape, MPA managers are likely to develop an acute sense of their responsibilities. Mr. Teel has already begun to make clear his willingness to hold their feet to the fire to meet those responsibilities.
At the meeting with the managers of the development departments, one man was worried that some subordinates might become less forward thinking if, as part of the reorganization, they are moved to the operations department, which focuses primarily on day-to-day issues.
The tough side of Mr. Teel was evident in his response. "I wouldn't think much of a manager who allowed that to happen," he declared.
Mr. Teel grew up as the only child on a farm in Shawsville, Harford County. The nearest friend lived about an hour's bicycle ride away. That rural background perhaps helped to create a man who is not an eloquent speaker or a dominating presence. He comes across as a straightforward, earnest man, genuinely concerned about the people who work for him.
One of the keys to his past success has been the respect he engendered. "People are willing to work very hard" for Mr. Teel, Mr. Osborne said. "He's a leader. He doesn't leave you to wallow in the mire."
Much of that admiration arises from the sense that he is as upright as he appears. "What you see is what you get," said Nancy Jane Adams, a public affairs official for the Anne Arundel school system.
Despite that reputation, earlier this month Mr. Teel had to defend himself against hints that he was part of a federal investigation of possible corruption in the Anne Arundel government. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed county documents concerning Fishing
Creek Farm, a luxury waterfront development. The subpoena also listed 20 names and demanded any documents connecting those people with the development. One of the names on that list was Adrian Teel.
Fishing Creek Farm was developed by Mark Vogel, who last year pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine. Earlier this year his Maryland racetracks filed for bankruptcy protection.
Mr. Teel has suffered the discomfort of seeing his name associated with the investigation. The connection probably arose through a small house-building company operated by his wife, Marjorie Teel, and a friend. That company, in which Mr. Teel has a part interest, bought some of the first lots in the Fishing Creek Farm development while Mr. Teel was a county official.
Stephen R. Beard, the county attorney, said he believes Mr. Teel's behavior did not violate county ethics rules. Mr. Beard said that when Mr. Teel knew that his wife's company intended to buy the lots, he came to see Mr. Beard, who also serves as the county's ethics officer.
Mr. Beard says he told Mr. Teel not to participate "in any manner whatsoever." He also advised Mr. Teel that his wife's company could buy the lots.
Mr. Beard said that Mr. Teel conducted himself correctly. "He is a man of the highest integrity," he said.
Virginia P. Clagett, chairwoman of the County Council, agreed. "The least shady person I've ever met in my life is Adrian Teel," she said.
A federal probe is hardly where Mr. Teel expected his troubles to come from. A more likely source would have been conflict with port labor.
It was a dispute with the International Longshoremen's Association over jobs at a new state-owned rail yard that led to the resignation of David A. Wagner as port director in 1989. And two strikes by the ILA in 1990 were a big part of the troubles Mr. O'Malley experienced during his two-year tenure.
Mr. Teel could turn out to be far more fortunate on the labor front. The terrible disputes of the last three years have helped to settle some of the most contentious issues. Both sides seem to have settled down to a truce, albeit an uneasy one. Mr. Teel, with his propensity for seeking consensus, shows no disposition to start the pot boiling again.
For example, in 1990, during the height of the friction between the state and the ILA, the state created Maryland International Terminals, a state subsidiary with the authority to directly employ ILA workers. That gave the state for the first time the opportunity to operate marine terminals. In time, the state could have used MIT to take over the port's principal piers.
"MIT was created as a hammer," Mr. Teel observed.
It's a tool he would prefer to leave on the shelf. "We're looking to solve our difficulties through communication and a partnership. I see no reason for using the hammer approach at this time," he said.
Mr. Teel also has the good fortune to take over the MPA in the first year of a long-term contract with the ILA. That raises the prospect of three more years of labor peace to show the world that Baltimore is no longer the tinderbox it has been.
"We have a window of opportunity," he said. "Shippers can start to realize we do intend to change things in the port of Baltimore permanently."
There are signs the maritime industry has already begun to take notice. Earlier this year, the port came very close to landing two new big steamship lines -- an indication that the port might be looking better to the industry. Then two weeks ago, Orient Overseas Container Line, one of the biggest shipping companies in the world, announced new direct service to the port's Seagirt Marine Terminal. The line will bring one ship a week to Baltimore and handle about 250,000 tons a year in Baltimore.
The biggest significance of that news may have been its psychological dimension. For the first time in years, here was a big container line adding Baltimore rather than dropping the port from its schedule.
Suddenly the port's prospects didn't seem quite so gloomy.
Mr. Teel, who has been on the job only about three months, can't take credit for OOCL. Nor can he promise that more lines and cargo will follow. But the OOCL deal does help create a more confident atmosphere for him to work in. "Success breeds success," he observed.
More business coming into the port will also mean more revenue for the MPA, which will help him meet his goal of eliminating the deficit in the next fiscal year.
More jobs for labor and more business for employers would also go a long way to promote the harmony he considers essential for the port to grow. "We need some harmony to show we are turning the port around. We have to have a track record over a period of time to say we are being successful," he said.
Can this newcomer from Anne Arundel make a difference? Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel county executive, thinks so.
Mr. Neall noted that maritime experience didn't help Mr. Teel's predecessors. "The port lost a third of its cargo. Maybe that's not where the problem lies," he said.
Good management is what counts, he argued, and Mr. Teel has demonstrated his ability first in the county schools and then in the county government.
"If he's as successful as he was in his two previous jobs, I think both the secretary of transportation and the governor will be very happy," Mr. Neall said.