U.S. corporate leaders get a taste of Maryland


When the nation's corporate titans came to Maryland this week, the state's promoters saw plenty of golden opportunities. Or at least plenty of golden-brown crab cakes.

"We've been served quite a few of those," said Al Nahmad, chief executive officer of Wasco Inc., the largest distributor of air conditioners in the United States. "We're getting the real Maryland flavor -- the food, the people, the places. . . ."

The hope among local economic development officials is that some day the executives will think of Maryland when they're expanding to a new office, planning a convention, changing suppliers or just taking a vacation.

"This is a classic no-brainer," said James T. Brady, the state's secretary of business and economic development.

"If you bring 100 CEOs to your state and can't make something good come out of that, then I think it's time to get another job."

The Forbes CEO Forum, a gathering of CEOs, government leaders and other leading policy experts, was in large part an excuse for corporate leaders to broker multimillion-dollar friendships in a pretty setting. When that locale became Annapolis, state and local economic development officials plotted ways to pitch the state to their guests.

But the payoff may be elusive. While the CEOs warmed to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's self-characterization as "unabashedly pro-business" in a speech Thursday night, it's hard to say whether any of these executives ever will make a deal here.

Nevertheless, the exposure certainly can't hurt.

"It's like marketing anything. Just seeing Maryland has an impact," said Peter Lorenzi, dean of the business school at Loyola College of Maryland. "No matter how big or technical we get, business is still personal."

Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins said the only way the conference could hurt local business would be if the city messed its role as host in grand style. That didn't happen, although Mr. Hopkins said he was disappointed with the opening night dinner at the Naval Academy.

"The goose or duck or whatever it was . . . man, was it tough," he said.

During the conference, Maryland's promoters went for not-so-subliminal sales pitches.

The Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. tried cyber-promotion, setting up an interactive computer program with information ranging from the number of container berths at the Port of Baltimore to a list of crab feasts and cultural festivals in Maryland.

But most CEOs were in seminars all day and did not visit the computer. And the ones who did weren't clicking where the public relations folks had hoped.

"They kept getting into Golf Web," said Tobias Ford, who staffed the terminal in the lobby at Loews Annapolis hotel.

The group also tried channeling through corporate spouses, sponsoring an all-day "Spouse Center" that offered walking tours of the city's historic district and trips to Baltimore's museums.

"The personal relationships are the bottom line," said William A. Badger, a business location consultant with the group. "We're looking for ways to get past the gatekeepers."

For the mayor, such gimmicks were unnecessary.

"Just let them see Annapolis, and they'll fall in love with it," Mr. Hopkins said. "We've gone out of our way to please them."

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