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A go-to banker in community

Atwood "Woody" Collins III has meetings to get to, lots of meetings. The mayor's tax reform task force. The city's economic development board. The Greater Baltimore Committee. The Babe Ruth museum.

A member of a dozen local boards and committees, the banker is omnipresent in Baltimore's civic life. Yet he's been in town only five years - transferred here when M&T; Bank Corp. took over Allfirst Financial Inc.

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Tomorrow, Collins is slated to move up the civic hierarchy to board chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a key business leadership group that with few exceptions in its 52-year history has been led by people with deep ties to the region. It is a rapid ascent for the Connecticut-born 60-year-old, who approaches everything from tree-planting to port investment with energetic enthusiasm.

"He's gotten himself woven into the community as quickly as anybody I've ever seen from the outside," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., a Baltimore County native who heads First Mariner Bank and sits on two boards with Collins.

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That Collins has become a go-to man for volunteer leadership says as much about Baltimore as about him and his employer.

The steady loss of locally headquartered businesses - often to out-of-state conglomerates - has forced civic groups to woo newcomer executives heading regional offices rather than CEOs who hold the purse strings.

"They're still the bosses of the local operations, but they don't have the financial resources to spread around the community," said Donald P. Hutchinson, former president of the GBC and current head of Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks Inc.'s Maryland operations.

But M&T; moved quickly to become a local player after the Buffalo, N.Y., bank bought Allfirst in 2002 from its Irish parent in the wake of a scandal involving a rogue trader.

It signed a $75 million deal to put its name on the Ravens stadium for 15 years. It started making donations in the Baltimore area - $2.8 million in 2005, the most recent figure available. It encouraged employees to get involved, and they are on more than 300 boards across the Mid-Atlantic.

And it sent Collins, a role model for corporate engagement, said M&T; President Mark J. Czarnecki. "We really focused our business model on being involved in communities," he said. "If we're committed, ... they grow and prosper, and we grow and prosper. That's our philosophy, and Woody's just executing it terrifically."

Collins, president and chief operating officer of M&T;'s Mid-Atlantic division, insists that he's nothing unusual in his company. But he can talk with ease about the varied challenges facing the city and region, from growth to transportation to taxes. He's convinced, for instance, that the metro area could use its waterways to move people to and from their jobs, easing congestion.

"But I'm not a transportation expert," he added with a self-deprecating grin. "I look at my role at the GBC as a catalyst, not an oracle."

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An easygoing man with just a bit of gray dusting his brown hair, Collins joined M&T; in 1988. He grew up in Hartford, Conn., and New York City and lived in that region for years while helping the bank integrate acquisitions. When he was tapped to come to Baltimore, he said, it was with a glass-half-full opinion of the area.

Now, he said, he has no intention of leaving. "This is my home."

Collins does have a connection by marriage: His wife, the former Cynthia Mallory Williams, grew up in Baltimore County with her mother and stepfather, Alexander Harvey II, who was a chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Maryland. The judge's brother, F. Barton Harvey Jr., ran Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. in the investment bank's heyday.

The couple opted to live downtown when they moved here, buying a $1.1 million Inner Harbor condo. It's close enough to his Charles Street office to walk, and he does. He thought he would have a better perspective on the city if he were a resident.

"More and more, Baltimore CEOs don't live in the city - they may be very concerned with wherever they are, but not as involved with the city as they were, say, 30 or 40 years ago," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, who praised Collins' activism. "We suffer from the fact that we don't have that level of involvement and leadership that the city once had."

Collins' level of involvement is notable even compared with other bankers, always a civically active lot. He co-chaired Mayor Sheila Dixon's transition team. He's on the Maryland Port Commission. His board commitments range from the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association to the Kennedy Krieger Institute. As a Baltimore Development Corp. director, he helps make decisions for the city's economic development arm that can change neighborhoods - ranging from eminent domain to redevelopment contracts.

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A GBC vice chairman for two years, he has the habit of sending the organization's president, Donald C. Fry, newspaper articles from elsewhere with ideas he thinks Baltimore could try. For months, he has played host - or, as he puts it, provided the milk and cookies - at a regular get-together of Baltimore industrial businesses, just because he thought they would benefit from the interaction.

"I don't know how he gets it all done," said F. Brooks Royster III, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

That's a problem, actually. Collins says he's doing too much. If others at M&T; step in, he figures, that would help create more lasting corporate engagement - and give him a break.

"I've probably got to cut back," he said. "If you ask my wife, that's high on her list. She says, 'I don't get to see you anymore' - she frequently reminds me of that."

There's always something. Even his morning walk is more than recreation. He makes a point of going around the Inner Harbor to the garden in front of the National Aquarium, made possible by M&T; donations, because he wants to see whether trash has accumulated there. (If so, "someone gets a phone call," he said.)

And those board obligations aren't limited to monthly get-togethers. As chairman of Living Classrooms Foundation, he helped the nonprofit merge with another group. James Piper Bond, president and chief executive of Living Classrooms, said Collins joined the board soon after coming to town and is hands-on - putting so much time into strategic planning that one supposedly three-hour meeting with senior staff stretched into five.

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"As a bank president, you can imagine the eye for detail that he has," Bond said.

And people listen to him, said Lainy LeBow-Sachs, senior vice president of external relations at Kennedy Krieger Institute. She's taken him on numerous visits to individuals and companies to solicit contributions to the Baltimore facility for children with developmental disabilities. Collins, vice chairman of the board, doesn't merely come along but also suggests places to go.

"There are a lot of people who like to be on boards, ... but they don't do anything," said LeBow-Sachs, former aide to William Donald Schaefer, the longtime mayor, governor and comptroller. "He's a doer."

Betty Bland-Thomas, president of the Sharp Leadenhall Planning Committee Inc., co-chaired the mayor's transition team with Collins last year and appreciated his knack for putting folks at ease. "He's very interested in what people are saying," she said.

They've stayed in touch since. She told him about the frustration of trying to keep her neighborhood looking nice when underground steam keeps killing tree roots. "What about planting trees in large pots above ground?" he suggested. (She thought it was a great idea.)

The way Gary N. Geisel sees it, Baltimore needs its business leaders involved if its problems are ever to be overcome. Geisel is chairman and chief executive at Provident Bankshares Corp., one of the few large financial institutions still headquartered in Maryland, and he's afraid to tally up all his volunteer commitments, there are so many. But he figures he's on fewer boards than Collins.

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"I don't think there's anyone who could have adopted Baltimore as his home more enthusiastically than Woody has," Geisel said.

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

Profile

Atwood "Woody" Collins II

Age:

60

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Hometown:

Hartford, Conn.

Job:

president and chief operating officer of M&T; Bank Corp.'s Mid-Atlantic division

Civic involvement:

member of a dozen local boards and committees

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Family:

married to the former Cynthia Mallory Williams. Two children - Porter, 31, and Dwight, 27

Education:

B.A. in history from Yale University, 1969

Career:

joined M&T; in 1988; before that, worked for J.P. Morgan & Co. Served three years as a first lieutenant in the Army.


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