A bulletproof way to make money

Armored: A one-man, one-truck operation becomes the third-largest U.S. armored car company.

September 14, 1999|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Maybe it's the nature of the trade, or just the nature of the age, but at Dunbar Armored daily life is defined simply: It's a battle between the "good guys" and the "bad guys."

For Mike Gambrill, former chief of police in Baltimore County and now senior vice president of operations at the Hunt Valley armored car company, a recent shooting at an Owings Mills bank of a would-be robber by a Dunbar Armored employee epitomizes the company's daily struggle.

"We have what everyone wants: money," he explains.

For the largest privately held armored car company in the nation and the primary deliverer of new U.S. currency to Federal Reserve banks and branches, the existence of the "bad guys" has fueled the expansion of a one-man, one-truck operation to a multimillion-dollar business. The company has opened three branches this year (and will open three more this fall) and, with the Aug. 1 acquisition of competitor Loomis, Fargo & Company's Miami Air Courier Operations, has entered the international arena.

The company has 810 armored trucks, employs 3,500 in 78 locations from Baltimore to Los Angeles, and ships several billion dollars in money and valuables daily.

On Aug. 31, Dunbar Armored, the largest of the six Dunbar divisions, ended its fiscal year with gross revenue of $147 million, up 19 percent from $124 million in fiscal 1998, according to Frederick A. Aus, vice chairman and president.

The company draws on a family history of more than 75 years in the armored transportation business.

Fate or ingenuity first got the Dunbar family into the business in 1923. George Dunbar founded Mercer & Dunbar Armored Car Service, the first armored car company in New England, after an armored truck broke down at the car dealership in Hartford, Conn., where he and partner Floyd Mercer worked.

In 1956, it was George Dunbar's youngest son, James, then 27, who brought the family trade to Baltimore after a disagreement with his father.

"Every time I went to my father to suggest things, he'd say that's not the way things are done. I decided I'd go off on my own and start my own company," Dunbar said while vacationing at his summer home in Connecticut recently.

After studying the demographics of major cities on the East Coast, he decided on coming here.

"I looked around the country for a city that didn't have much competition, and I thought Baltimore looked like a good community," he said.

Dunbar dubbed his business Federal Armored Express, the name it retained until 1996, when the company adopted the family name to unite all the related companies and divisions.

Initially, Dunbar said, he painted his only truck white and blue like the U.S. Postal Service trucks at the time to make it appear he had a larger fleet. In about five years, the company had expanded to 35 employees and five armored trucks.

Dunbar opened its first subsidiary company, now called Dunbar Guard Services, in 1960. The company, which originally carried James Dunbar's middle name, Loughlin, provides private investigation services and uniformed guards for banks and other businesses.

James Dunbar and his father eventually reconciled their differences, and his company even sub-contracted jobs from Mercer & Dunbar. The company continued to grow, outliving the older company, which George Dunbar sold in 1970.

There were two events that accelerated the company's expansion: the 1971 addition of Aus, a young accountant, and the deregulation of the trucking industry in the early 1980s that allowed it to expand nationwide.

"I think Fred had a lot to do with the success and growth of our business," James Dunbar said. "I knew where I wanted to go, and Fred knew how to get us there."

It was fate, again, that brought Aus to the company. Now vice chairman and president, he said: "I came to do an audit and never left."

At that time, Aus said, the company had a gross annual revenue of about $700,000, a fleet of 18 armored trucks and 120 employees.

It was under Aus' leadership that the company made its first acquisition -- the 1979 purchase of Cauley Armored Car Co. of Pittsburgh.

Aus said that prior to deregulation, shipping companies had to apply for permission to compete with existing companies outside city limits. When deregulation lifted those restrictions, it made it easier for smaller firms to move into new areas.

Since then, Dunbar has made 19 acquisitions and expanded nationwide. "Half of our growth has been through acquisitions, and the other half has been through the strength of our sales force," Aus said.

In 1981, James Dunbar's son, Kevin, joined the company as an account executive at its sixth location in Milwaukee. Now 41, he serves as executive vice president and chief operating officer. Dunbar's oldest son, James "J" Dunbar Jr., also worked for his father's company, serving as corporate vice president and director before his death from pancreatic cancer at age 39 in 1994.

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