SIMPLY STEVE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Steve Bisciotti puffs on a cigar at his estate overlooking the Severn River, soaking in the memories that have grounded him on his rise to becoming the Ravens' new principal owner.

The walls on "his side of the house" - his wife's half is the nonsmoking part - are lined with the faces of former Baltimore Colts such as Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry. The snapshots were autographed at training camps in Westminster where he and his father made annual summer trips.

Inside the garage of the white plantation-style mansion is his first car - a 1969 white convertible MGB that took three years of saving to buy. Its license plates bear his old nickname, "Shots."

"It's still my favorite car," said Bisciotti (pronounced buh-SHOT-ee). "It represents my whole upbringing."

At 44, Bisciotti has made a fortune and used it to acquire his hometown team, a feat he describes as "every man's dream." Along the way he has clung to the values and friends of the boyhood that shaped him. In many respects, he is everyman.

No one calls him Mr. Bisciotti. He's simply Steve.

And Steve prefers drinking Bud Light to Cristal. He prefers projecting the starting lineup for the University of Maryland men's basketball team to the stock market. He prefers throwing on a casual shirt, shorts and flip-flops to a tailored suit. He prefers singing along with friends to a Bruce Springsteen song at a local bar to schmoozing dignitaries at a black-tie affair.

"Steve has always been content," said Renee Bisciotti, his wife of 20 years. "I think if you're happy with yourself, all the extra bells and whistles don't make you happier. He's always stayed who he is because he's been happy with who he is."

During his quiet four-year apprenticeship under venerable owner Art Modell, Bisciotti was a person whom local sports fans knew of yet didn't know much about. The son and grandson of salesmen, he's articulate and engaging. He has made a living out of connecting with people, using his infectious personality to woo clients for his professional staffing firm and to push its employees through 12-hour workdays.

He started the business in a cinder-block basement two decades ago and went on to become the 388th-wealthiest American with a net worth of $625 million, according to the November 2003 Forbes, and the newest member of the NFL owners' fraternity. The Bisciotti era begins in earnest Friday, when the Ravens open training camp at McDaniel College.

"Without question, Steve is cut out of the old-school mode of the league," said Baltimore's John Moag, a sports deal maker who matched Bisciotti with the Ravens. "Steve may be a lot younger than some of the owners but, in a lot of respects, he is cut from the same cloth."

The fabric of Baltimore is its blue-collar history, and those close to Bisciotti say he is firmly woven in it.

While some of his friends spent summers away from college at the beach, Bisciotti sweated along Anne Arundel waterways from dawn to dusk building piers.

"Steve knows what hard work is," said Tim Cyr, who was Bisciotti's boss despite being only a few years older. "It would be hard to find anything that was more labor-intense than what we were doing."

Whether it was manhandling 16-foot pilings into place or driving in 4-inch nails with a 32-ounce hammer, Bisciotti never shied from the labor.

One time early on, he hit a nail off center and watched it hit his boss in the back.

Bisciotti, flashing a magnetic smile, recalled telling Cyr: "Hey, you can't be mad at me for trying!"

Hands-off approach

Few people have come to know Bisciotti, and fewer are able to come to "his side of the house," a sanctuary that includes a pool table, a sprawling bar and a cozy sitting area in front of the fireplace.

Known as a man who shares his business and personal life with close friends, Bisciotti even jets the group on an annual trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament. It's the same loyal circle that he has surrounded himself with since childhood.

As a minority owner with the Ravens, he brought aboard Mark Burdett, whom he has known since the two were preschoolers, as the team's senior director of corporate marketing.

Besides that, Bisciotti's only move since completing his $600 million deal for 99 percent ownership three months ago was replacing team president David Modell with Washington lawyer Dick Cass. The transition (in which Bisciotti allowed Art Modell to retain a 1 percent stake) is regarded by league observers as one of the NFL's smoothest.

In a region where hands-on sports owners are more often loathed than loved - namely the Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder - Bisciotti said he intends on taking a backseat.

"There is a difference between being involved and being in charge," Bisciotti said. "I want to be very involved. I just don't want to be in charge. You can't hire talented people and overrule them with less talents ... like myself."

Bisciotti only has to look upon his short and forgettable football career. In his only year of playing the sport, he was a special teams/bench player as a senior on a Severna Park team that went 2-8, the high school's worst record over the past 25 years.

For Bisciotti, other concerns exist besides football, such as lowering his 10-handicap in golf and beating his sons, Jason, 18, and Jack, 16, in basketball.

"He talks about the team, but it hasn't become first and foremost in his waking thoughts," Renee said. "Life is pretty much the same around here."

Unlike Art Modell, he doesn't plan to make appearances at news conferences or become a fixture at practices. During the regular season, he estimates that he'll drop by the Ravens' practice complex three times a week. During minicamps, he occasionally hopped on the rolled-up tarp to chat with general manager Ozzie Newsome about issues for that week.

"He's definitely taken a hands-off approach with me," Newsome said. "He wants to be informed to what we're doing and why we're doing it. But I think he's got complete trust in me to do the job. He's in a learning mode right now, but he's a quick study."

Bisciotti may not be as hands-off on league matters. Some NFL officials, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue, said they foresee Bisciotti playing a pivotal role.

Last year, still as the Ravens' minority owner, he stood in front of league executives to voice the team's opposition to changing the overtime format. The vote resulted in keeping the format the same.

"I've noticed that at some meetings people will try to take him in a different way, and he catches on fast," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "He makes up his own mind."

Said Moag: "He's got great respect for the institution and the early founders of the league. I think you can plan on him being a league man."

Lessons learned

At 8, he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps as a salesman. Unbeknownst to him was the extent of his father's illness.

In 1969, Bernard Bisciotti, who worked in construction sales, died after a two-year battle with leukemia, leaving a wife, two sons and a daughter.

"I think it rocked them," said Burdett, noting they were a middle-class family without a breadwinner.

Steve Bisciotti's grandfather, C. Gordon Johnston, who had retired after 40 years as a regional district salesman for Ford Motor Co., supported the family. He paid the mortgage on the four-bedroom rancher as well as parochial school tuition.

As children, Bisciotti and his older siblings often were told by their mother, Pat, about how she would watch her father head off to work by train Monday morning and not return until Friday night.

"My mom didn't let many dinner conversations go by without talking about how lucky we were to have my granddad," Bisciotti said. "I was constantly exposed to the teaching that you'd better work hard."

Those were the lessons that stuck with Bisciotti. Classroom work did not.

A C-student, he was repeatedly told by his teachers that he lacked focus. In hindsight, the problem was likely a learning disability such as attention deficit disorder.

"If you have learning disabilities, you're bad at school," Bisciotti said. "If you're bad at school, you hate school. It was a terrible challenge on me, and it was very depressing."

His mother, though, never pushed academics. She pushed strong faith, determination and manners.

Her son showed he hasn't forgotten his etiquette during the NFL draft in April. Just as Bisciotti was welcoming linebacker Roderick Green, team officials had to abruptly grab the phone away to notify Green that instead of selecting him in the fourth round, they traded their pick. Although the Ravens chose Green a round later, Bisciotti was not able to finish their conversation.

The next day, Bisciotti called Green and personally apologized. He said he had intended to ask about the player's family.

"That was totally unexpected," Green said.

In the Bisciotti household, being polite also meant mastering the ability to look a person in the eye while giving a handshake.

Building a business

Fifteen months after graduating from Salisbury State, Bisciotti was out of a job.

The Baltimore staffing firm he had joined straight out of college went bankrupt, and Bisciotti sought out Renee's father, Jim Foote, for advice. He suggested Bisciotti should start his own business, a surprising notion.

"I'm 23 years old and I've got $3,500 in the bank," Bisciotti remembered responding.

Renee's father replied, "Well, you ain't got far to fall."

Bisciotti truly started his business for placing engineers and marketing specialists from the ground up. In July 1983, he and his cousin, Jim Davis, launched Aerotek in the basement of a rented townhouse in Annapolis. There were two desks from Goodwill and an orange shag carpet stuck together with duct tape.

With a weekly salary of $100 a couple of months into the venture, Bisciotti had to borrow money from his former boss to buy an engagement ring. A year later, he emptied his coin jar when the time came to buy Renee's wedding band.

Nevertheless, every morning Bisciotti would put on a suit before walking down a flight of stairs to his office.

"It had to feel like a real job," Renee said. "I think that was a little small factor to his success."

Aerotek, which had just two clients at the start, topped $1.5 million in sales after a year. The company experienced more than 70 quarters of growth.

Besides timing his business with the country's technological boom, Bisciotti benefited from his aggressiveness, from taking chances on go-getters right out of college to showing no hesitancy in borrowing money.

"When Steve puts his mind to something, his energy goes behind it," said John Carey, one of Aerotek's first hires. "Either you feel that passion and energy and get on board or you're not going to be on the squad."

"He expects to be the best," Carey said, going on to commend Bisciotti's forthright approach. "He will tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are. Some would call it overly critical and others see it as a perfect environment."

Another associate described Bisciotti as the first person to compliment someone who was making strides and the first to take someone who was underperforming "to the woodshed," closing the door and spelling out the problem with an in-your-face attitude.

Aerotek was placed in 1993 under the umbrella of Allegis Group, a privately held company that is also the parent of Tek Systems and Mentor 4. Allegis provides staffing around the world, with more than 44,000 contract professionals on assignment, according to the company.

"Everybody believed in him," said Chuck Nossick, a friend for more than 30 years who joined Aerotek a year into its existence. "When the company was young, he was sometimes like a coach who'd rip you all week long in practice, but then at game time, you'd run through a brick wall for him."

Yet there were detractors, among them staffing recruiters who won a case filed in 1998 in which they claimed Aerotek had misclassified them as exempt from overtime pay. In 2002, the company agreed to a settlement formula that gave 3,000 workers an extra $3,000 to $4,000 each in back pay.

The Allegis Group took in about $4 billion in revenues last year, making it the nation's third-largest staffing firm.

Changing priorities

In 1997, Bisciotti put a stop to his 40 weeks of traveling each year, and family life truly began.

There were only so many hats he could bring back of sports teams, only so many times he could sneak his sons out to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees after Renee had put them to bed.

"I had always put the business first, and I was lucky enough to have a wife that understood that," he said. "It just got to the point where I was wealthier than I ever thought I would be and knew I didn't need to make more money. And my boys were of the age that my brother and I were when I didn't have a father. It was just the right time."

Bisciotti stepped away from daily operations. Now, as a co-chairman of Allegis, he is active only in long-range planning, which takes about one day out of his week.

Referred to as a sports junkie by friends, Bisciotti has been spotted at his sons' athletic events at Archbishop Spalding and Severn School, at golf courses and at his courtside seats at Maryland basketball games.

"I would have bought the Maryland Terrapins," Bisciotti said jokingly, "but there is some kind of state law against that type of ownership."

In 1998, he was first approached about acquiring the Florida Marlins baseball team, but he declined. A year later, Moag suggested he buy the Ravens.

"Owning a sports team was something that intrigued me. When your hometown comes up, obviously that sends you over the top," Bisciotti said.

But when the season starts, don't look for Bisciotti in the traditional owner's box. Instead, he plans to remain in his private suite behind the visitors. He likes his spot on the sunny side. Being closer to the locker room and the coaching staff isn't a big enough incentive to change.

After games - which Bisciotti nervously watches without saying a word - he usually unwinds with some friends. Behaving more like a fan than an owner, he'll vent about the game at a local bar, kicking back with drink and a cigar.

"Whenever you see him, it just clicks and goes back to the old days: A couple of guys sitting around, drinking a couple of beers and having a good time," said Cyr, Bisciotti's former boss. "He's still a regular guy."

Steve Bisciotti file

Born: April 10, 1960, in Severna Park

Resides: Millersville

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree, Salisbury State, 1982

Family: Married to Renee for 20 years. They have two sons, Jason (18) and Jack (16).

Business: Founded Aerotek, a firm that places engineers, in 1983. It is now under the parent company of the Allegis Group, which is the third-largest staffing firm in the country.

Sports: Bought 49 percent of the Ravens in 1999. Became principal owner (99 percent) in April, completing a $600 million deal with Art Modell.

Camp data

What: Ravens training camp

When: Friday to Aug. 24

Where: McDaniel College

Admission: Free

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