MICHAEL A. CONTE used to be a big shot.
He ran RESI, Towson University's respected economic think tank, oversaw more than 100 employees and was responsible for bringing in millions in revenue. He was so busy he hired people to buy his groceries, clean his house and fix his computer when it broke. He bought clothes, cars and anything else he wanted on his six-figure salary. He could be abrasive and opinionated, too.
But a bitter contract dispute over his firing killed his dream of making RESI an internationally known economic power. The dispute with the university ended up in the courts. It has dragged on since 2000. In the meantime, Conte has started over.
For the past four years, his life and passion has been building RegionalOneSource, the "data tool for the 21st century," easy enough, he says, for anybody to use. It'll have handy answers to almost any statistical question you'd have about economics, occupational trends, child health, weather, patents, bankruptcies and crime in any state, county, city, town or village in the country.
What's the coldest county in Maryland? It's Garrett County, with an average annual minimum temperature of 38 degrees, according to the database. What county has the highest number of people who commute more than 90 minutes to work? Prince George's County,with 18,232. What state has the highest birthrate? Utah with 21.2 births per 1,000 people, the database says.
"All you have to do is know the question," Conte said.
To finance it, he has tapped his Pikesville home for $100,000, pumped in hundreds of thousands of dollars he is earning as a consultant and has all but stopped spending on himself.
Conte hasn't bought a suit since he started the venture, or a shirt. He allows himself underwear, though. He lives on Ramen noodles, rarely dates because he's worried that she would order the expensive beer and crawls about the floor to perform surgery on his computer. His car, a 1992 Acura, has 185,000 miles on it. Last year, Conte's take-home pay was $400, he said.
"I've been a hermit. I've been a monk," said Conte, 57.
His personality and outlook on life have changed, too. He is still driven, but now he values the opinions of others, he said. Conte shops for himself, reads at the public library and chats with neighbors. He takes yoga and used to spar at the Owings Mills Boxing Club until he damaged his neck before an exhibition match.
"I am a very different person than I was," Conte said. "I have really transformed not only my lifestyle, but my attitude to a lot of things. I have actually developed a spiritual side. I think I have a lot more sense of the fabric of life."
His lawyer, Philip B. Zipin, sees a changed man.
"He has gone through a life trauma of being fired from his job," Zipin said. "I have seen him mellow a bit over the years. I have seen him be more at peace with it."
Conte's energies have been directed toward the database. At times he has spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week on it. Sometimes it feels as if his head is going to "blow off," he said. That's when he pounds the heavy bag or contorts his limbs with yoga.
His goal has been to build a database that has so much statistical information and is so easy to use that people hunting for answers can't pass it up.
It's a work in progress. He rolled out RegionalOneSource in June and within a week or two will release a new, improved version. He is going after contracts with government agencies, universities, public libraries and corporations. He has clients lined up but has yet to receive a check, he said.
Conte began working on the database in January 2001, when he started OneSource Technologies Inc. While at RESI he was frustrated by the amount of time it took to find answers to even the most basic questions for reporters.
Nine months later he savored a victory over Towson's 1998 decision firing him for alleged mismanagement. Conte claimed that the university had breached its contract and won $927,000 in a jury award.
But Maryland's Court of Appeals reversed the decision in November. He doesn't see a resolution for another five years.
Conte rarely thinks about the lawsuit, even though he knows it will be a "donnybrook." Right now, he is more concerned with building the database and is as ambitious as ever. "I'm very driven," Conte said. "I'm still trying to conquer the world."
Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.