Staff Reporter-Baltimore Business Journal
When you move to Baltimore, you quickly discover three truths about the city.
There are no bread crumbs in real crab cakes. Cal Ripken is God. And if you want to get something done in this town, you call Don Fry.
In his 12 years as CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, Fry has carved out a reputation as the guy whose phone rings when people in power have a tricky problem they need to solve.
Gov. Martin O’Malley tapped Fry to lead the state commission that decides who gets the lucrative casino licenses in the state. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called on Fry to help lead her mayoral transition team.
And Fry was the guy Towson University President Maravene Loeschke asked to head the search for a new athletic director when Loeschke was feeling the heat over the school’s decision to make cuts to its athletics program.
“He’s one of those people who’s on speed dial whenever you’re trying to figure out how to handle the complex issues involving the city and the state,” said Matthew Gallagher, O’Malley’s former chief of staff and president of the Goldseker Foundation. Gallagher also worked with Fry at the GBC in 2000.
Those who know Fry say he gets called on so often because he has a unique combination of talents few people in Baltimore possess. A linebacker in high school and at what was then Frostburg State College, Fry, 58, is a policy wonk. He can geek out when talking about transportation policy. His interest in the subject dates back to his days in the House of Delegates when he chaired the Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment.
In eight years in the House and Senate representing a district from Harford County and more than a decade at the GBC, Fry has also won the confidence of state and city political leaders and the business community. That lets him straddle the two worlds like few others can.
“A lot of times, businesspeople are very busy making their businesses go and creating jobs,” said O’Malley, who also turned to Fry to help win business community support for raising the state’s gas tax. “Don has the ability, both from his time in the legislature and at the GBC, to bridge that gap.”
Fry’s two-way street cred makes government officials turn to him when they want to know how a move will be received in the business community. And he can ensure that the business community’s voice is heard at City Hall and in Annapolis.
The unflappable Fry doesn’t go looking for these tough assignments. They find him.
O’Malley’s decision to name Fry chairman of the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission in 2008, for example, was, Fry said, “a call that came out of the blue.” He thought O’Malley was asking him to be on the committee, not be its chairman.
Fry is also known as an extremely hard worker. He is in the office by 7 a.m. most days and spends an average of three nights a week at meetings or dinners. He has been known to return to the office for a few more hours of work after a dinner meeting.
“I have a very understanding wife and son,” he said.
Fry’s calendar for a random Thursday in December showed a 14-hour day crammed with meetings and conference calls. His schedule was punctuated by a meeting of the GBC leadership board, coffee with gb.tc head Jason Hardebeck and a sit down with local Bank of America executives. Fry’s day ended at 9:30 p.m. after dinner in Annapolis with the consultants advising Fry’s Video Lottery Facility Location Commission on the Prince George’s County casino decision.
Fry sees his various assignments as an extension of his job at the GBC. The influential group advocates for positions that advance the interest of Greater Baltimore’s business community such as lower taxes and improved transportation. Its board of directors is filled with executives from some of the largest companies in the area, like Brian C. Rogers, the chairman of T. Rowe Price Group and the GBC’s chairman.
But Fry doesn’t take on so many assignments just because of his role at the GBC. He dives into so many issues because he sees himself as a problem solver.
“I don’t want to do something just to be on a list of people,” Fry said. “If I’m going to be involved in something, I want to be involved in a significant role.”
That can sometimes mean Fry dominates the discussion. At casino commission meetings, Fry not only chairs the meetings but does most of the talking, with his fellow commissioners asking few questions.
The commission’s job of deciding which of three contenders would get the lucrative slots license for Prince George’s County may have been Fry’s toughest and most controversial assignment. Unlike past license awards, the Prince George’s casino attracted three highly qualified and big-money contenders. The commission chose MGM Resorts International’splans for a casino at National Harbor.
Fry knew his group would come under intense scrutiny from the public, the politicians and the casino contenders, with the possibility the losers could wind up challenging the decision in court. But while Fry spent 12-hour days presiding over site visits and public presentations, he did not lose sleep agonizing over who would get the license.
“I’m not afraid of making decisions,” he said.
Fry has always had a clear sense of direction. As a teenager growing up in Harford County, Fry knew he wanted to go to college and law school and return to Harford to get into politics. His inner compass was so sharp he passed up an appointment to West Point because it would delay law school and a political career.
Fry, a Democrat, caught the political bug at age 13 from a cousin who worked on Eugene McCarthy‘s 1968 presidential campaign. He remembers being moved by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and staying up late into the night watching the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions on TV.
At 27, Fry made his first run for the House of Delegates – a 200-vote loss in a primary field of 11 Democrats. He learned from that narrow defeat the importance of being prepared on the issues, something that marks his approach to the assignments he takes on. As a lawmaker, Fry was one of the few who actually read the budget books, said Bobby Neall, a former state lawmaker and Anne Arundel County Executive, who sat next to Fry on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
A leadership void?
Some might say that Fry’s involvement in so many of Baltimore and Maryland’s hot-button issues reflects a dearth of leadership in the city.
The roster of large companies based in Baltimore has shrunk over the years as longtime stalwarts like Constellation Energy Group, Alex. Brown & Sons and Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co. have been scooped up by out-of-town buyers. That leaves fewer big-company executives with time to serve on nonprofit boards and play a major role in Baltimore’s civic life. At the same time, many of the entrepreneurs running the startup tech companies Baltimore is banking on for its future are busy building businesses and have yet to play an oversized role in the region.
But Fry bristles at the suggestion that he’s filling a leadership void. He quickly says he does not see himself in the same class as William Donald Schaefer or Walter Sondheim, two of Baltimore’s civic giants.
“I sometimes get frustrated with some members of the press who talk about how Baltimore has lost all its corporate leadership,” Fry said. “I don’t think that’s true. There is a tremendous cadre of leaders here in this city, in corporations and not-for-profits and educational institutions.”
Here’s what some Maryland leaders are saying about Don Fry
“Don has a deep interest in government. He knows very much how it works. His first love is policy, legislation and the political process. That’s what gets him going.”
“He craves being part of the solution to things. He’s a solution guy. He wants to figure out how to get things done. Meetings are never about his ego. They’re about getting the job done.”
“He’s been an extremely effective leader. He comes from the General Assembly so he has strong political connections and knowledge of government and a great reputation with government officials.”
He’s a communicator and a good one. I also think he’s a listener. He spends a lot of time listening to CEOs and business leaders. He’s a sounding board for them. But first, last and always, he’s a problem solver.”
Bobby Neall, former state legislator and former Anne Arundel County Executive
“The secret to Don’s effectiveness is his web of relationships. Don knows everyone in the public sector and they know him. He’s credible because he’s viewed as an honest broker who people can trust.”
“I can’t even remember all the things I’ve asked him to do. At every turn, he’s been helpful to me as someone who can get things done.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Here are 4 people giving Don Fry a run for his money
Bertamini, Wells Fargo’s Maryland regional president, doesn’t keep banker’s hours.
In addition to his role at the bank, Bertamini, 57, is active on a number of boards.
He serves on the boards of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
Bertamini is also board president of the Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy, a school for pre-K through fifth grade in West Baltimore. And Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently tapped him as a board member for the Journey Home, an initiative to help address homelessness in Baltimore.
Bertamini said his civic-mindedness stems from his days growing up in Pasadena in Anne Arundel County. He brings his business skills to the table in working with nonprofits, Bertamini said.
“I have some very deep personal passions to be a resource in the community,” Bertamini said. “I grew up in a single-parent household and there were people in the community who helped me, so it is a way of paying it forward.”
Fetting stepped down as Legg Mason Inc.’s CEO in 2012 and now chairs the United Way of Central Maryland’s annual fundraising campaign. The campaign is more than halfway toward its goal of raising more than $23 million from the private sector.
Fetting, 59, has been active in local nonprofits and on civic projects dating back to the early 1980s. As a junior executive at T. Rowe Price, Fetting worked with the Fund for Educational Excellence, a group then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer assembled to raise money for classroom initiatives in Baltimore City schools.
Fetting grew up in Northeast Baltimore in the 1960s and remembers the city going through some turbulent times. What left an impression on him was how business, education and government coalesced to solve the issues.
“It was a time of real challenges, but also of the community coming together,” he said.
Improving education is one of Fetting’s passions. He worked last year with then-city school’s chief Andres Alonso to help make the case for
$1 billion in funding for city schools.
Heading nonprofit Catholic Charities of Baltimore is Act III in McCarthy’s career. The West Baltimore native was a tax attorney and banker before leaving the corporate world in 2009 to become Catholic Charities of Baltimore’s executive director.
McCarthy, 52, has long been involved with Baltimore-area charities and nonprofits. He chaired a 2005 fundraising campaign that raised
$20 million for a new ambulatory services building at St. Joseph’s Medical Center. And McCarthy and his wife ran a 2009 fundraising campaign for Maryvale Preparatory School that raised $12 million for a new humanities building and athletic fields.
But it was the death of his daughter Erinn in March 2007 at age 14 of a rare form of bone cancer that got McCarthy thinking about changing careers.
“I watched her handle her illness with such dignity and grace,” said McCarthy, who was SunTrust’s Greater Baltimore regional president. “She never dwelled on why this was happening to her. Erinn made me stronger in my faith and wanting to live a life filled every day with purpose.”
When you head a Baltimore-area nonprofit with $2.1 billion in assets, you are going to have a major impact on the region’s civic life.
That is certainly the case with Monroe, the CEO of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The Owings Mills-based foundation funds organizations that provide services to the low-income, the vulnerable and the elderly. Its funding supports programs for caregivers, building and renovating school libraries in Baltimore, nutrition and health among other causes. The foundation has distributed almost $94 million in grants in Maryland in the past three years. It has committed $10 million to building and renovating school libraries in Baltimore.
“I really believe the job of philanthropy is to wrap a warm blanket around the community,” Monroe said.
Monroe, 45, joined in 2005 as the foundation’s first chief operating officer. She was promoted to CEO and president in 2010. Monroe previously worked as chief operating officer for the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Working for a nonprofit was a natural for Monroe. She grew up in Alexandria, Va., in a family where helping others was part of everyday life. Monroe’s father, a lawyer, made it his mission to help unemployed people find jobs. Her mother worked and still found the time to volunteer to teach reading to adults.
Don’s many roles
The list of civic activities in which Don Fry has been involved would fill a small phone book. Here are some of the highlights:
- Chairman, Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, 2008-present
- Member, Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, 2010-2012
- Chairman, search committee for new Towson University athletic director,
- Member, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s transition team, co-chairman of the Jobs and Economic Development Committee, 2010
- Member, Maryland Port Administration, 2007-present
- Member, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s transition team, co-chairman of the transportation work group, 2006-2007
- Member, advisory committee, Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore
- Member, Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Management Authority
- Member, board of directors, Visit Baltimore
- Member, board of directors, Star Spangled 200
- Chairman, Camden Yards Sports and Entertainment Commission
- Chairman, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Hire One Youth campaign
- Member, Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Property Tax Reform, 2007
- Member, Maryland Economic Development Commission
- Member, board of directors, Hippodrome Foundation
- Member, board of directors, CollegeBound Foundation
- Member, board of directors, Healthy Neighborhoods
- Board of visitors, R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, University of Maryland
Donald C. Fry
Title: CEO, Greater Baltimore Committee
Born: Killeen, Texas
Family: Married to Bonnie; one son, Matt, a senior at Towson University
Education: Bel Air Senior High School; B.S., Frostburg State College, 1977; J.D., University of Baltimore School of Law, 1979
Where you’ll find him outside of work: In the stands at Towson University basketball and football games, and on the golf course. A 12 handicap, Fry jokes he’s the third best golfer in his family. His son, Matt, is on Towson’s golf team.