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'Chip' Mason keeps mum despite swirl of Citi rumors


GIVE "CHIP" MASON credit. He's as good as it gets at keeping a secret.

Nobody aside from the Legg Mason chief executive and perhaps a few others knows for sure what's happening in talks with Citigroup, even though the rumor about a swap of Legg's brokerage business for Citi's money management unit has been dangling for three weeks.

Mason hasn't uttered a word aside from the occasional "no comment."

The problem for Mason is that most Legg Mason employees are out of the loop, too. Even high-level people don't know whether a deal with Citi would mean more opportunity or a search for a new job.

"It is disconcerting that this rumor has taken such an extended period to either come to fruition or be denied," said a key Legg executive who requested anonymity. "These guys are taking forever to do something or not do something. Who knows what is going to happen?"

Meanwhile, the rumor mill has reached a high-water mark: secret meetings in New York, secret meetings here, that a deal is done and ready to be announced.

One employee has kept tabs on whether Mason's car was in its usual spot, as his personal measure of how serious talks were getting. The only constant has been the official silence.

Most deals don't linger like this one. They either happen quickly or are leaked to the press with details to spare. The only leaking here seems to be coming from Citi.

Observers give Mason credit for keeping the information spigot shut tight.

"Let's put it this way, in terms of ... keeping your cards to yourself, he has done a good job," said Jack Ciesielski, a former Legg Mason employee and an expert in accounting issues. "We don't know anymore than we did a few weeks ago."

Has little choice

Richard O'Brien, senior vice president and director of Folger Nolan Fleming Douglas Inc., a Washington-based investment house, said Mason has little choice but to be careful because of the tough regulatory environment.

"You can't say anything," O'Brien said. "When in doubt that is what you are supposed to be."

As chief financial officer of M&T; Bank Corp. in Buffalo for nine years, Michael P. Pinto's life revolved around the guts of the bank - auditing, treasury and security.

So since becoming CEO of the company's mid-Atlantic division in Baltimore in May, Pinto has had an odd adjustment to make: working with customers instead of numbers.

"The hardest thing for me is the social life," Pinto said. "You have to go out pretty often to meet customers. Customer dinners, bank events, that is hard to get used to. I led a very sheltered life as a CFO."

Pinto recently moved to an apartment in Baltimore at Spinnaker Bay. His wife, who is working on a doctorate degree in Buffalo, expects to join him next May. He has two grown children who, he says, are "off the payroll."

Pinto, 49, wouldn't have the job if he wasn't viewed as a star, given that the mid-Atlantic division - Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington and Northern Virginia - soon could make up half the bank's business.

$730,000 salary

He's worked at the bank 20 years, rose through the ranks and in 2003 was named to the board of directors. Last year, he made $730,000 in salary and bonus, making him the bank's fourth highest paid executive.

"It is not common that you get a new experience at my age," Pinto said. "Many other companies would say, 'He's CFO for life until he retires.' "

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt

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