First Mariner Bank sets off as Hale carefully plots course


Former Baltimore Bancorp Chairman Edwin F. Hale's new bank officially took wing this week, after receiving final approvals from state banking regulators.

Mr. Hale had said since December that he planned to buy a 45 percent stake in MarylandsBank Corp. of Towson and convert the savings and loan holding company to a commercial bank.

It will focus on serving small business customers who, Mr. Hale said, have been overlooked by bigger banks after a wave of bank mergers. Federal banking regulators completed their review of the bank's creation on May 5.

The result is one of Maryland's smallest banks -- with only $27 million in assets, Mr. Hale said, compared to $2.1 billion for Baltimore Bancorp before it was sold to First Fidelity Bancorp. last year -- but one with plans to get much bigger fast.

"The main thing they bring to the table is Ed Hale," said Art Silber, president and chief executive of Sterling Bank & Trust, itself a small community bank with $78 million in assets. "He's a very successful guy and a very determined guy. If you can do it by will alone, he's going to do it."

Mr. Hale is chairman of the new bank, which has branches in Pigtown, Randallstown and Towson and plans branches in Canton and Bel Air.

"We're going to make them people-friendly, neighborhood operations," Mr. Hale said. "We're going to know what your name is."

Mr. Silber agreed with Mariner that bank consolidation, most recently the announcement that Crestar Financial Corp. will acquire Baltimore-based Loyola Capital Corp., leaves opportunities for small banks to serve small businesses. But he predicted the new bank's toughest struggle will be to define a reason for customers to move their business to an unfamiliar place.

"You're going to have to take customers away from someone else with a new bank," Mr. Silber said. "Usually the only way you're going to woo the account away is to offer higher [interest] rates."

At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Hale acknowledged that relatively high rates will be part of the strategy First Mariner uses to lure customers. He also plans to leverage his relationships with maritime businesses and network through the bank's directors to find other clients.

The full board roster has not yet been set, but Mr. Hale said yesterday that former Gov. William Donald Schaefer has agreed to join.

"We don't need to steal 10 percent of NationsBank's business to be successful," said George H. Mantakos, the president and chief executive of First Mariner and a former executive at Union Trust Co. of Maryland and Fairview Federal Savings Bank.

Mr. Hale said the bank plans to open the Bel Air branch in June and has made offers to acquire two other small banks, including Maryland Permanent Bank & Trust, an 88-year-old establishment.

The bank hopes to boost its original branches to $50 million in assets, grow to $100 million by acquisitions, and then go public when assets reach $200 million, which Mr. Hale has said he hopes to do within two to three years.

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