BALTIMORE'S Provident Bankshares had its beginnings more than a century ago as a savings bank for merchant seamen. But it hasn't been all smooth sailing of late for the $1.7 billion-asset institution.

After converting to a commercial bank in 1987, Provident lost money three out of the next four years. "We had a very poor loan portfolio," Peter M. Martin, the bank's president and chief operating officer, said flatly.

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