Here’s a scary thought: What if someone invented a time machine and traveled to Tidewater Virginia circa 1962 and persuaded a young Lynchburg broker working at his family’s business not to start his own investment firm or move from his native state? The void left in 21st-century Baltimore would be beyond belief.
That’s because the young man in question was Raymond A. “Chip” Mason, who founded Mason and Company that year and built it into the regional financial giant that is now Legg Mason Inc. Who could imagine that the College of William and Mary graduate with a quarter-million dollars of someone else’s money in his pocket was destined to reshape Baltimore’s financial landscape and produce Maryland’s first seat on the New York Stock Exchange?
Mr. Mason was a believer in value investing even if it meant buying a particular stock that wasn’t a flashy favorite of Wall Street at the moment. It’s a conservative approach that required patience but inevitably won out — his half-century of spectacular successes has proven it. But that wasn’t the entirety of his philosophy; he also believed in hiring people with integrity who are willing to work hard — a reflection of his own personality.
He eventually retired as president and chief executive of Legg Mason in 2008 at the age of 71, retaining a role as a senior adviser. But his impact on Baltimore has been far greater and more profound than merely creating one of the largest global asset management firms, with nearly 3,000 employees worldwide. He has been a veritable pillar of the community, serving as chair of the Johns Hopkins University (where he remains a trustee emeritus of the university and the medical school), chair of the Greater Baltimore Committee, chair of the United Way of Maryland, chair of the National Association of Securities Dealers and chair of Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.
When other large institutions looked to leave Baltimore, Mr. Mason kept his business here and quietly took on that leadership role, often thanklessly and behind the scenes. As a member of the Maryland Stadium Authority in the 1980s, for instance, he helped craft the deal to build Camden Yards, which was a key to keeping the Orioles in Baltimore and set the stage for the city to eventually attract the former Cleveland Browns, now Baltimore Ravens. Yet relatively few Baltimore sports fans are probably aware of his role.
How much does he love the city? Years ago, he wrote an op-ed article for The Sun bragging about how far Baltimore had come in the 1980s with a subway system, a light rail line being built, a convention center expanding and a sharp increase in downtown Class A office space, including his own Legg Mason Tower. “Can our regional economy be truly healthy when the city’s unemployment rate is three times that of other counties and when the city is expected to be custodian of the state’s most severe poverty and crime problems?” the prescient Mr. Mason wrote a quarter-century before Freddie Gray. “These issues command the business community’s unqualified leadership. We will, we must, step up to that challenge.
Stepping up to that challenge, we can hope that Baltimore might acquire another Chip Mason and watch him build a company and a community all over again.