Hale, whose salary was $522,000 this year, would have been due a payout of more than $1.5 million if he had been let go after a "change in control" at the company. He did not get a payout for retiring, the company said Friday.

Hale said regulators did not ask him to leave, but he knew he needed to go. Though First Mariner President Mark Keidel will step up as CEO on an interim basis and board member Michael R. Watson will become interim chairman, Hale believes Priam already knows who it wants to run the company.

His money is on Jack E. Steil and Robert D. Kunisch Jr., former Wilmington Trust officials that First Mariner announced Friday it had hired in July to advise the board. Both worked at Mercantile Bankshares Corp. before that Baltimore bank was bought by PNC Financial Services Group in 2007.

"The private equity firms bring their own people in," Hale said. "I'm just stepping aside to make it easier for them to do this."

Hale grew up blue-collar in Highlandtown and Edgemere, remaking himself into a millionaire through trucking, shipping and real estate ventures. He is not the shy and retiring sort. Told Friday that an analyst suggested First Mariner might have improved by now if he'd left earlier, Hale shot back: "He can kiss my ---."

He blames employees who he said mischaracterized to him the terms under which First Mariner's "Alt-A" mortgages were sold to Bear Stearns. And he blames market forces.

"If I felt like there was any way you could stop the spiraling-down values of real estate, I would have been able to raise — even in this market, I would have been able to raise — capital," Hale said. "Because I've always been able to do it."

His style has won him admirers and enemies. A yearlong fight to acquire Glen Burnie Bancorp in the late 1990s — against management's wishes — was especially bitter. The Glen Burnie bank's executives accused him of illegally soliciting votes from shareholders, and they managed in the end to avoid a takeover.

A self-described outsider, Hale got into the banking business in that vein. In 1991, upset shareholders recruited Hale to take over Baltimore Bancorp just as the bank's real estate loans began going bad. Hale led the turnaround of the company's fortunes and three years later sold it to then-First Fidelity Bancorp.

Hale launched 1st Mariner Bank in 1995 as a homegrown financial institution. Local airwaves were full of television commercials featuring him at his office overlooking the Inner Harbor.

For most of its history, the company did well. Its asset levels soared. It bought the naming rights to the downtown arena. And it won customers as other locally owned institutions were gobbled up by out-of-town concerns.

Then the company branched out into exotic mortgages.

Greenberg, the banking consultant, saw Hale's tenure with First Mariner as a story of extremes.

"He rode it up," Greenberg said, "and he rode it down."

Baltimore Sun reporter Hanah Cho contributed to this article.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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Hale's banking career