Federal Armored Express profits through expansion


March 09, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

When James Dunbar started his armored truck business in 1956, he had three goals: build up his fleet to eight trucks, fly in a Boeing 707 and drive a Cadillac.

He has long since met those goals, but the 62-year-old businessman continues to set new objectives. His Federal Armored Express Inc. is the fourth-largest armored truck company in America and growing fast.

Recently, the company acquired about 75 routes from the nation's third-largest armored carrier, Loomis Armored Inc.

"I want to be No. 2," Mr. Dunbar said, who at least for now does not aspire to overtake Brink's Inc., the largest armored truck company in the business with 1,300 cars in 43 states.

He still must surpass Loomis and Wells Fargo Armored Inc. before gaining that spot.

Each year, Federal Armored handles $1 trillion, transporting currency from Federal Reserve banks, picking up money from commercial outlets to deliver to banks, counting and sorting bills and coins and dispersing jewelry and precious metals from wholesalers to retailers.

Its clients include Giant Food, Safeway, Hecht's, McDonald's, Coca-Cola bottling plants, Amoco, Mercantile Bankshares, First National Bank of Maryland and General Motors.

The company's fleet has far surpassed Mr. Dunbar's goal of eight trucks, and now operates 500 armored vehicles and employs about 1,800 people in 60 locations. In addition to transporting valuables on the ground, the company also operates an air courier service and a center where it counts and packages coins and currency.

Aside from the Federal Armored businesses, Mr. Dunbar also owns Loughlin Security Agency, a uniformed guard and investigative service; Federal Security Systems, a residential and business security alarm service and E-Z Audit Bankpak, a supplier of heat-sealed, tamper-resistant security bags. But approximately 90 percent of his companies' revenues come from Federal Armored.

All of his businesses are run out of an unassuming building in an industrial park off Eastern Avenue in Dundalk. Altogether, Dunbar's companies employ 440 people in the Baltimore area.

"We're the best-kept secret around," said John H. Pratt Jr., Federal Armored's president and chief operating officer.

Mr. Dunbar's introduction to the armored car business came when he went to work for his father's firm. George Dunbar was one of the early pioneers in the armored truck business. He was working for a car dealership in Hartford, Conn., in 1923 when an armored truck broke down on its way to New York and stopped at the garage where George Dunbar was working. The owner was anxious to be rid of his burden and readily agreed when Mr. Dunbar offered to buy his truck.

George Dunbar had no intention of operating an armored car business, but only wanted to sell the truck to someone else, his son says. But after consulting with some local banks and the owner of the car dealership where he worked, the elder Mr. Dunbar and the dealership owner agreed to form a partnership )) and operate the armored truck service themselves. Their company was the first in New England.

Prohibition, however, spawned new competitors, as bootleggers and gangsters made transporting large sums of money more dangerous. Brink's began its armored service in Chicago in 1920. Loomis started on the West Coast in 1925.

"There were lots of Mom and Pop companies. If they had a truck, that was their company," James Dunbar said.

Even so, the armored truck industry operated in relative obscurity until the great Boston robbery in 1950 when a gang stole $1.5 million from a Brink's truck. The money was never recovered.

About the same time, Mr. Dunbar finished college and went to work for his father's company, starting as a truck washer and a guard. But after five years, he and his father had a disagreement and he left the company.

"I'm not sure whether I was fired or whether I quit," Mr. Dunbar said.

In any case, he left the business, and looked for the largest city served by only a single armored car carrier. That city was Baltimore. Although he'd never been here before, he moved in with the goal of cracking Brink's monopoly in the city.

He started Federal Armored Express in 1956 with a single truck. In the mornings, he put on a suit and went to stores and banks to drum up business. In the afternoons, he would put on a uniform and drive the truck to pick up money from customers.

"I found out in about 24 hours that my father was a lot smarter than I'd given him credit for," Mr. Dunbar said.

The company grew slowly until deregulation of the trucking industry began in the 1970s and Federal Armored was able to compete for contracts in other states.

In the 1970s, Federal Armored expanded into Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, opening offices even before there were commitments from customers. In 1976, Federal Armored won a contract to transport money from the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond to member banks throughout the Federal Reserve District.

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