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BGE move costs its 'B' Despite merger, utility vows to keep a strong city presence


They called him Skipper, a nickname suggesting a steady hand on the corporate tiller. His real name was Charles P. Crane and he was head man at Baltimore Gas and Electric, an exemplar of the company's determination to be of service to community as well as to customers.

"They called him when something went wrong," says George P. Gephardt, a retired BGE executive. "They" were often elected officials of the city or state.

"If people aren't happy," Mr. Crane told The Sun years ago, "a public utility won't last long."

City water billing system gone awry? Call BGE. Engineering work needed during construction of the new National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor? Call BGE. Did the Greater Baltimore Committee or the University of Maryland board of regents need a good chairman? Someone to help with the Sandtown-Winchester development? An economic development expert? Mayors of Baltimore and governors of Maryland knew where to call.

"We always had a team of war horses out there," Mr. Gephardt said.

Mr. Crane's credo was inculcated as religion and his successors made names for themselves, too: C. Edward Uttermohle Jr., Bernard C. Treuschler, Austin E. Penn, George P. McGowan and the current boss, Christian H. Poindexter. They made BGE one of the foremost corporate citizens of Baltimore.

But how does all of that fit with the company's announcement last week that it would merge with Potomac Electric Power Co., a deal that threatened to take the Skipper-level executives to a new office complex in Annapolis?

Very well, says Mr. Poindexter.

He insisted his company's presence in Baltimore will be undiminished.

"Our revenues come from the community, so it's necessary to make sure the community stays vibrant," he said in an interview. "Time will be the ultimate proof, but we have so much going here. I intend to stay on the board of the Greater Baltimore Committee, on the board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, on the Johns Hopkins boards [the university and the hospital], so I think there are lots of reasons why I'll be in Baltimore."

Though it will be the 35th or 36th merger in company history, this one seemed to attack its cherished image of stability and dependability. The headquarters would move, and a new company name, as yet unannounced, almost certainly will not include the word "Baltimore."

Much of the unhappy reaction has focused properly on the report that another 1,500 or so jobs will be lost and on the symbolic blow to Baltimore's downtown core: Another corporate citizen was voting against the city with the feet of its executives.

The loss of that talent could be at least as big a hit, though Mr. Poindexter said he will keep and use his 19th floor office in what is still called the Baltimore Gas & Electric Building.

That assurance, in addition to the company's contributions of time and money, are good business, to be sure. BGE, the phone company and other businesses are regulated by the state, and good relationships with legislators, mayors and governors do not hurt. Company men have made themselves available, serving almost as city department heads when William Donald Schaefer was mayor.

BGE recently found itself with the embarrassing need to collect a bill it had not sent. As a result of the mixup, the state owed as much as $2 million. A suit was filed -- but the state ultimately paid most of what the company said was owed, about $1.6 million.

Still, what they did they did in service to that image of dependability they wanted among their customers.

"You're a service company in the community. Your employees all come from the community, so it's your duty to do be involved," Mr. Gephardt said.

Mr. McGowan, a retired board chairman, served on a variety of community boards and associations for years. He became a member of the University of Maryland's board of regents and its chairman as a favor first and then to satisfy his own commitment to the work.

"He liked doing it," says another city businessman. "He was building political IOUs all over the place. He had so many that governors owed him big time, but he never called one in. I used to say, 'You've got 'em where you want 'em.' But he didn't ever ask for anything. His own sense of integrity wouldn't let him."

Such notions of service may seem quaint in an era where business seems inordinately oriented to delivering return on investment. But politicians and business people throughout the city attest to its power -- and the community came to depend on it.

Business people relocating to Baltimore have been surprised to learn that they were expected to play a major role in civic affairs --and that their individual stature could be built quickly if they did: do good, do well.

"When you want a good man, you go to the busiest person you can find," Mr. Gephardt said. Thus, BGE's Mr. Poindexter became president of the Baltimore Area Boy Scouts of America. Mr. Gephardt, retired since 1990, had held that post, too, as did others from BGE. Mr. Gephardt continues as chairman of the scouts' fund-raising committee, now charged with raising $5 million for the fund by the year 2005.

Work of that sort became a part of one's job at BGE.

"They teach you the basic principles of corporate and community ethics. When they retire you take over. It's part of the character of the corporation."

Charles P. Crane, the Skipper, was associated with a dozen vital aspects of city life, from the new airport to city elections.

"Sit down, gentlemen," he told two of his executives one morning. "I have a new job and therefore you have a new job."

The job? Baltimore's voting machines were in serious disrepair after a primary election. So the two lieutenants -- former state Senate President George P. Della, by then a company lobbyist, and Mr. Gephardt -- listened while the Skipper laid out the problem.

In short order, a team of furnace technicians was dispatched to the city warehouses on Franklintown Road where the voting machines were stored. They were back in order for the general election.

Still, why should anyone expect the corporate character to remain unchanged when the nature of the corporation is changing so much? Won't the wider responsibilities of the newly defined company force it to apply its corporate energies over a wider plain?

"To the extent we're successful and can grow the business," Mr. Poindexter said, "we ought to be able to do more." The company is currently at the beginning of a new social enterprise, targeting its corporate contributions to early childhood development. He is personally working with Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey on "Scoutreach," an effort to get scout leaders into city neighborhoods.

In a somewhat ironic statement Thursday of continued devotion to the city, BGE announced a $50,000 gift to the Downtown Business Partnership -- to help persuade other businesses to stay in the city.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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