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Armored-car patriarch lets son have the wheel


James L. Dunbar Sr. remembers acting as both salesman and security guard for his start-up armored car company in Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s. Most days, he'd meet with clients in the morning, then put on a uniform and a gun to provide those services with his sole armored car in the afternoon.

"When I was 26, no one was going to knock me off," said Dunbar, now 71, in an interview last week. "I thought I would live forever."

But as his company grew across the country in the 1980s, Dunbar started to plan for a time when he'd no longer be in charge. That time arrived yesterday with Dunbar's announcement to employees that his son, Kevin, will be the new president of Dunbar Armored Inc., with responsibilities for day-to-day operations.

The elder Dunbar will continue as chairman of the board of the family-held company, based in Hunt Valley.

Dunbar has prepared for the transition ever since his sons, James Jr. and Kevin, began working at the multimillion-dollar armed security services company more than 20 years ago.

In the 1990s, he embarked on a path to solidify his company's future by mentoring young executives and adding a board of directors - and preparing Kevin Dunbar for leadership after James Jr. died in 1994 from pancreatic cancer at age 39.

Kevin R. Dunbar, 42, will inherit the helm of an armored car-and-security company whose primary business is to transport currency between businesses, banks and government, and is one of the main distributors of new money to Federal Reserve banks across the country.

With more than 1,000 armored cars and operations in 32 states, Dunbar Armored is the third largest armored-car and security-services company in the country in size and revenue - trailing only No. 1 Loomis, Fargo & Co. and Brink's Inc. It is the biggest family-owned armored car company in the nation, with annual revenue this year projected to exceed $180 million.

In addition to operating its armored-car service, Dunbar offers armed security guards, cash vault and money-counting, air delivery, alarm systems and ATM services through its subsidiaries.

Dunbar Armored traces its heritage to 1923, when Kevin Dunbar's grandfather, George Dunbar, co-founded Mercer & Dunbar Armored Car Service in Hartford, Conn. Disputes with his father over how to run the business pushed James Dunbar to find a new city for his own armored car business.

He chose Baltimore - "It seemed like a city that had a little bit of everything," he said - and called his company Federal Armored Express. James Dunbar renamed his company Dunbar Armored Inc. in 1996 after buying his deceased brother's armored car business in Connecticut.

By the time Kevin Dunbar joined the company as a security guard in 1980, Federal Armored Express was operating in seven cities and had annual revenue of $7 million. The company has since grown rapidly, thanks primarily to dozens of acquisitions.

Kevin Dunbar worked his way up through the company's sales force until his promotion to executive vice president in 1992, and then to chief operating officer in 1997. "I think it was a case of me cutting my teeth and learning what this business was about, and carrying the Dunbar name," said Kevin Dunbar, who has a wife and three children.

What helps this current transition, James Dunbar said, is the company's former president and vice chairman, Frederick A. Aus, who will take the title of chief executive and oversee long-range planning with Kevin Dunbar. His father credits Aus, who began as an accountant in 1971, with helping the company expand over the years.

But passing down a family business, experts said, is fraught with risks. "There is no blueprint, no pat answer" to transferring a family business, said Sandra P. Gohn, a partner in Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe LLP's private clients services practice. "It's what the paterfamilias wants to do, and the strength of his personality."

In fact, Gohn said, it's common for family businesses to be sold off - or even fail - after the demise of the trailblazing entrepreneur.

But James Dunbar said that won't happen to his company: "I've been standing in the wings the last few years just watching everybody to see if it's going to work. I think it's going to work."

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