When Maryland officials began searching this summer for a new steward of the state's ailing and scandal-ridden savings and loan industry, they first decided that their choice, in the words of one official, "had to be able to talk tough to the thrifts."
In Melville S. Brown, a physically imposing Miami banker, the search committee found someone with not only a reputation for toughness -- some former colleagues describe him as autocratic and short-tempered -- but also an expert knowledge of commercial credit systems and, happily, no ties to any thrift institution in Maryland, officials said.
On Friday at noon, Gov. Harry Hughes is scheduled to swear in Brown, 41, as the first full-time director of the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund (MDIF), the agency created by the General Assembly four months ago to help rebuild a thrift industry crippled by widespread runs on deposits.
The job is arguably the toughest in Maryland government today, one in which Brown, a stranger to Maryland politics and finance, will have to balance the competing interests of scores of savings and loan officers, federal banking regulators, local politicians, irate customers and Wall Street. Brown's job is to nudge as many thrifts as he can into the federal system of deposit insurance, help manage the far-flung assets of several ailing thrifts, and minimize any eventual cost to the state in what promises to be a protracted fiscal crisis.
"This is no place for a Mr. Milquetoast," said Frederick L. Dewberry, the state secretary of licensing and regulation who has run MDIF since mid-May and will still have responsibility for the fund, one of 35 agencies under his control.
"It ain't jolly time," Dewberry added. "It's frustrating and depressing, especially when you consider the hardship on depositors . . . at those institutions that are still shut down." About 137,000 depositors currently cannot take their money out of four savings and loans.
As head of MDIF, Brown technically will be the conservator of Old Court Savings and Loan and Merritt Commercial Savings and Loan, the two Baltimore-based institutions that have been at the center of the crisis since its earliest days. He is also expected to play a major role in the affairs of First Maryland Savings and Loan of Silver Spring and Community Savings and Loan of Bethesda, which like the two Baltimore thrifts are now subject to the bans on withdrawals.
"The job is a hot seat, there's no doubt about that," Brown said last week from his home in the affluent Kendall section of greater Miami. "It's a very, very difficult thing for Maryland," Brown said of the savings and loan crisis. "The problems are quite deep. This is not anything that will be solved quickly or easily."
Brown was chosen for the $65,000-a-year MDIF post from a field of 30 candidates, about 10 of whom were interviewed in June by a selection committee headed by Constance R. Beims, Hughes' appointments officer. Hughes interviewed a couple of the finalists and settled on Brown after a private, hour-long meeting with him in July, Beims said.
"Mel Brown is a tough manager, and that came across in the interviews," said Beims. "He's rather independent. He does have a fuse. He expects people to do what they say they are going to do."
Brown has charted a career in finance since his college years, two of which were spent at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he developed a lifelong love of rowing in narrow, one-person boats called sculls.
The son of a career Navy man, Brown graduated from San Diego State University, working for a time as an assistant cashier at the Bank of America in San Francisco. There, he was recruited by the Peace Corps, and he worked for the volunteer agency from 1970 to 1972 as a consultant to the national bank of Costa Rica.
Brown joined Wells Fargo Bank in 1972, working for the financial giant in California, Mexico, Indonesia and in Miami, where he oversaw its Central American and Caribbean activities. He went on to work for Mellon Bank International as head of its Miami office, for Biscayne Bank as an executive vice president and lastly for TransAtlantic Bank, as its president and chief executive officer.
Former associates in Miami say Brown developed expertise in international banking, particularly in the arcane world of restructuring commercial debts and credit, while maintaining a relatively low profile in a banking community that, like Maryland's, has strong and visible ties to the political establishment.
"He is quite a tough person," said Biscayne Bank President Carlos Correa Da Silva. Raul Masvidal, a former Biscayne bank chairman who is running for mayor of Miami, agreed, but he described Brown as a "back-room type of person" who generally shuns publicity.
Masvidal's brother, Sergio, the chief officer of another Miami bank who has known Brown for years, said Brown's personality makes him suited for the MDIF job. "He's a watchdog," Masvidal said. "This new job sounds like it is right down his alley. When he gets something in his sight, he will go through a wall to get it."
Sergio Masvidal suggested that Brown, whom he called "an excellent credit technician," may have to sharpen his negotiating skills in the sensitive MDIF post.
"Mel should do well if he doesn't have to play too many politics," Masvidal said.
TransAtlantic Bank Chairman Manuel Medina, who was contacted by Beims, effectively fired Brown from the TransAtlantic presidency this year because he judged Brown to be too autocratic and abrasive with employes, according to several people active in Miami's political and business communities.
Brown said his departure was "amicable" and merely reflected a disagreement with Medina over "the direction of his bank."
"I'm fairly analytical and results-oriented," said Brown. "In Maryland, I'm not going to be a headhunter, and I certainly don't want to get into a confrontational situtation with the savings and loan associations. I don't think that will happen; I speak their language."
Dewberry, who will work beside Brown during a transition period of at least two weeks, said he hopes the Miamian takes a hard-nosed attitude in his dealings with officers of those thrifts that are attempting to show that their investments are sound in order to obtain federal insurance.
"You get a lot of fancy stories from people that might, on the first hearing, sound like great news," Dewberry said. "What Mel Brown should do is demand the proof and make them perform. You don't run this fund on promises."