Hale is retired from bank, but he's not out of business

EASTON – Shortly before sunrise, Edwin F. Hale Sr. scatters decoys on the water, preparing for a day of waterfowl hunting on his Talbot County farm.

The day dawns cloudy, a good sign because ducks and geese fly low under clouds, Hale says, as he and two hunting buddies settle into a duck blind camouflaged with pine branches along Hunting Creek.

At first all is quiet, with no waterfowl to be seen. But Hale, as always, is hopeful.

"Then a switch will be turned on and they come in," says Hale, 65, wearing jeans, a camouflage jacket and boots, and carrying duck and geese call horns.

Since stepping down last month as founder, chairman and chief executive officer of 1st Mariner Bank — the Baltimore community institution that is now fighting for its life — Hale has more time for hunting, among other things.

It's an unusual role for the former truck and shipping magnate who rose to prominence as a bootstrapping outsider who took over the Bank of Baltimore in a proxy fight in the early 1990s. Hale, who grew up in blue-collar Highlandtown and Edgemere, proceeded to build 1st Mariner over the next 15 years into a bank with more than $1 billion in assets.

Now, Hale says, he is "downshifting," adjusting to life without the bank. Eventually, he adds, he will be "happy or relieved" to have left — but he's not there yet. And he is by no means retiring.

"I absolutely don't see him riding off into the sunset," says John P. McDaniel, the former chief executive officer of MedStar Health, who has known Hale for 15 years and served on the board of First Mariner Bancorp, the bank's holding company, for many years.

While he's hunting, Hale's iPhone rings constantly with calls from business associates and friends. One conversation concerns the drywall at his new office at the Du Burns Arena in Canton, where his indoor soccer team, the Baltimore Blast, practices.

Hale is also pursuing several real estate ventures, including a residential project in Canton. He is treasurer of Sen. Benjamin Cardin's re-election campaign and serves as chairman of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency.

Hale does not rule out a return to banking — and says he has backers in town.

"There are people out there that I know [who] would go wherever I go if I were to get with another bank or start another bank," he says between hunting sessions at his farm.

That said, Hale is not planning a return, at least not right away. "But it's in the back of my mind," he says — adding later that he thought his business acumen was at its "pinnacle."

Hale, the bank's largest shareholder with a 10 percent stake, is also open to investing more of his money in the bank. The bank's stock, now listed on the over-the-counter bulletin board, is trading at around 40 cents a share.

"I would invest in it because it might be the best thing I could put my money in," he says.

The 186-acre farm, Hale's primary residence, has been his sanctuary for 20 years. While he intended it as a "guy's place," a spot where he and his friends could hunt and relax, Hale — who is single — renovated the once-plain, rectangular farmhouse into an eight-bedroom home.

It is at the farm where "he's most at home … with people who don't have pretenses," says his friend Jonathan Murray, a senior vice president at UBS Financial Services in Hunt Valley.

At 8,000 square feet, the home is large, but it feels cozy and warm thanks to Hale's interior decorating. He outfitted the home himself, with furniture acquired during his travels in the United States and abroad, and with oriental rugs. The walls are covered with large paintings of Baltimore's harbor in the old days, and in the living room are pictures of his grown children, a son and two daughters, and his three grandsons.

"I don't like a decorator to give me opinions about what my taste is," Hale says.

Hale took up hunting in his 40s after friends invited him on a trip. He downed a duck on his first try, even though he had only come to watch.

Hale couldn't resist telling his companions why they were missing the ducks. He recalls saying, "With all due respect, you're shooting behind them."

Miffed, they invited him to try to nail a duck himself. "They handed me the gun," says Hale, who admits he didn't have a hunting license at the time. "Boom, boom, boom. I could shoot them."

But in the duck blind on the farm, Hale and his friends don't see much action.

Buddy Harrison, Hale's longtime hunting friend, manages to get a goose early in the morning, but nothing happens after that. Hale gets off two shots, but misses a high-flying duck.

Hale decides to try another tack. While Harrison stays put, Hale and Don Helgason Jr. climb onto Hale's ATV and head to another part of the farm, where they set up some four dozen geese decoys.

"If I'm a goose flying by, I'm coming here," Hale says as he surveys his work.

Hale has been the face of First Mariner for so many years that it's hard to separate him from the bank.

Sitting in the living room of his farmhouse, Hale recalls his fight against the Bank of Baltimore's management in the early 1990s and his eventual takeover as CEO, painting himself then as a general on the front lines.

"I was right out there with my chin out going forward on the horse," he says.

But his time at 1st Mariner did not end in victory.

From its inception in 1995 until 2006, the bank was headed upward, growing $25 million in assets to more than $1 billion.

But the good times dissipated quickly. In 2006, the bank began getting back loans it had sold to Bear Stearns Co., as the housing bubble burst and buyers began defaulting. A buyer's remorse clause allowed Bear Stearns to do so. Like many banks, First Mariner had gotten into the business of making what became known as "liar loans," mortgages that required little or no documentation of borrowers' finances.

As losses mounted amid the financial crisis, regulators came calling in September 2009, demanding that the bank raise more capital.

While Hale was able to raise more than $25 million, it wasn't enough.

In April, New York investment firm Priam Capital stepped in, agreeing to recapitalize the struggling bank. But the deal came with major strings: First Mariner would have to raise $124 million from other sources and Hale would have to step down as chairman and chief executive once the deal closed.

Priam Capital wouldn't allow him to take part in money-raising "roadshows," in which top executives make their pitch to well-heeled investors — an experience Hale called frustrating. "I had to be on the bench as an observer," he says.

Hale also recalls a lunch in February at Dockside with Howard Feinglass, Priam's managing partner and a Baltimore native, who told him that he wanted to "cleanse" the bank of Hale.

Feinglass declined to be interviewed for this story.

Not being kept on by Priam was a "low point," Hale says.

"I always thought … somebody would say: 'Hale's an asset. He's the face of the bank. He designs the building, he does the commercials, he does many things," Hale says, noting that he did everything he could to try to recapitalize the bank. "I thought for sure somebody would want to keep me."

A few weeks after Hale announced his retirement, the local CBS affiliate ran an old commercial featuring Hale and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco during a Steelers-Broncos playoff game. Hale, who was watching on TV, says he mockingly shouted: "I'm back! I'm back!"

Still, chief executives come and go.

"I think founders always have to move on," says Brian C. Rogers, chairman and chief investment officer at Baltimore's T. Rowe Price, who got to know Hale when he was recruited by upset shareholders to take over the Bank of Baltimore.

T. Rowe Price was the Bank of Baltimore's largest institutional investor and eventually supported Hale, who at that point had no banking experience.

Rogers says, "I think it's just an inevitable phase that an organization goes through. Everyone in Baltimore hopes that [1st Mariner Bank] survives and prospers."

Hale's friends expect he will prosper, too.

Says Murray, the financial advisor: "He has a lot of irons in the fire, many interesting chapters ahead of him."



What's next for Ed Hale:

Real estate ventures: Hale is pursuing a residential development project at Canton Crossing. He has other properties in the region that he would like to develop once the economy recovers.

Baltimore Blast: Hale, who owns the indoor soccer team, was one of the inaugural inductees into the Major Indoor Soccer League Hall of Fame this past fall.

Politics: Hale is treasurer of Sen. Cardin's campaign committee, a position he has held since early 2005.

1st Mariner Arena: Hale plans to rebid on the naming right, which expires in the fall. Hale's Arena Ventures LLC has the 10-year contract with the city, agreeing to pay $75,000 annually. The bank bought the rights from Hale at cost.

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