Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday named venture capitalist and former Westinghouse executive Aris Melissaratos to head his economic development team, choosing an immigrant with a background in both the manufacturing and high-technology sectors to help him fulfill campaign promises to make the state more business friendly.
Melissaratos, 59, said he would use his position as secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development to attract more Wall Street investment in Maryland start-up companies and streamline the state's regulatory environment with the hope of luring new business.
"We've got to make it easy for companies to do business in this state, or easier than it has been," he said. "We're going to find a way to get into the CEOs' offices of the largest corporations in America and see if we can get them here."
Ehrlich said he will accompany Melissaratos on sales missions and to deal-signings, adding that under his administration, Melissaratos's agency "is going to be where the action is."
The Cabinet appointment, which must be confirmed by the Democratic-led state Senate, won praise from various sectors of the business community. Ehrlich and Melissaratos said they also would work to direct more state business to minority contractors.
Melissaratos's life story is one of up-by-the-bootstraps determination. Born in Romania to parents of Greek descent, he and his family fled to Greece after the communists took over and seized their assets. When Melissaratos was 13, his family immigrated to Baltimore, where he and his father worked in a bakery they eventually bought. He won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where he received a bachelor's degree in engineering. He received a master's degree from George Washington University and later did some work toward a doctorate in International Politics at Catholic University.
He worked his way up through the ranks at Westinghouse, served as a vice president in charge of manufacturing operations at the company now known as Northrop Grumman Electronics Systems, and managed research and development for Thermo Electron Corp. before starting a venture capital firm.
That array of experience appealed yesterday to a broad range of business leaders, though a number said the Ehrlich transition team never vetted Melissaratos with them.
Lawrence Cunnick, president of BIOCON Inc., a biomedical research company based in the high-tech corridor in Rockville, said Melissaratos's technology background is a huge plus. Melissaratos is currently chairman of Armel Private Equity Investments, where he provides advice and capital to technology and bioscience companies.
"The lack of venture capital investment in Maryland is a major concern," Cunnick said. "Hopefully he can be a bridge between venture capitalists and start-ups."
Said Michael Powell, a lobbyist for the Maryland Industrial Group, which represents large manufacturers: "We are gratified that the gov.-elect looked to someone who understood the importance of manufacturing to the Maryland economy."
Melissaratos said he will recuse himself from making decisions that could affect his portfolio.
Ehrlich also nominated Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, 57, to become Maryland's next adjutant general. Tuxill would oversee the nearly 9,000 men and women who make up the Maryland National Guard and the state's Emergency Management Agency.
Tuxill currently is an assistant adjutant general for the Maryland Air National Guard.