How Dunbar Armored is transforming into a digital brand

By Matt Ward
Photography by Rachel Smith

Dunbar Armored, Inc. is situated precisely in the center of an industry where robbery is a constant danger — so much so that countless movie scenes portray ambitious thieves attempting to knock off the in-transit armored car or truck with the goal of making off with the precious valuables inside.

It’s no secret that protecting these valuables is serious work; the secret, however, lies in carefully building a brand that begets the trust and loyalty of thousands of customers nationwide.

Headquartered in Hunt Valley, MD, Dunbar Armored commands 85 branches across the U.S. It has 5,200 workers and 1,500 armored vehicles, and the company’s all-risk insurance covers 100 percent of the valuables it transports. Asked how he handles that responsibility, Dunbar Armored, Inc., president and CEO Kevin Dunbar replies: “It’s all I know, but it’s been an evolution.”

And that, perhaps, is the key to Dunbar’s journey from the bottom rungs of his family’s business to his current position as president and CEO. Dunbar, 55, is personable and confident. When pressed on his accomplishments in the business world, he’s humble. Dunbar is a talented salesman who has spent his entire career selling essentially the same basic range of products, all built around the transport of cash and valuables. He knows his industry, he knows his customer and, in recent years, he’s shown a knack for staying ahead of the curve on technology.

Learning from the trenches

NO WEAK LINK

With its strong reputation and long-tenured management, Dunbar Armored, Inc., operates at a steady clip, albeit with an entrepreneurial and highly calculated bent.

With family roots in the business that reach back almost 100 years, Dunbar Armored also benefits from an air of stability. The lobby at the company’s 44,000-square-foot headquarters houses the original Mercer and Dunbar armored car from 1923 and the original Federal Express Armored car from 1956. Upstairs, the eight-member executive board is staffed with folks who have been with the company for anywhere from 15 to 30 years.

“You see longevity because Kevin provides opportunities in career development and growth that you don’t see in a lot of organizations,” says Juergen Laue, president of Dunbar Digital Armor.“There’s constant feedback relative to performance and to opportunities [for advancement].”

Someone from a large corporation might look at Dunbar Armored and think the security company has too many layers of management, says Kevin Dunbar, Dunbar Armored’s president and CEO. But those layers of management, which are staffed with people with discrete focuses on security, safety, productivity and customer services, are part of the Dunbar formula.

Another important piece of the formula is to know when to build a new branch in a given city (a new, second branch is pending right now in Houston). Dunbar prefers to keep its branches relatively small so the manager can really know all his workers and the driver-guards can really know their customers.

“My guy controls 15 to 20 trucks,” says Dunbar, noting that once a branch starts to grow beyond that, he looks to add another of the company’s 25,000- to 45,000-square-foot trucking terminals nearby. It’s a strategy that allows the company to continue growing in a particular geographic area while keeping operations at a manageable, people-centric pace. “We want the guys to believe that we believe in them,” Dunbar explains, “because they’re getting the job done out there every day.”

Kevin Dunbar’s career started just after college in 1980 as an account executive with Federal Armored Express. But really, it started before that. Dunbar was born into the armored car business, just as his own father had been. Kevin Dunbar’s grandfather, George W. Dunbar Sr., co-founded Mercer and Dunbar Armored Car Service in Hartford, CT, in 1923. In 1956, frustrated with his father’s unwillingness to entertain his new ideas for the business, James Loughlin Dunbar, the youngest of George’s three sons, struck out on his own, opening Federal Armored Express in Baltimore.

So when Kevin Dunbar donned the Federal Armored Express uniform at his father’s company, he was keeping up a family tradition. From the outside, it might seem natural — predetermined, even — that the man in charge of Dunbar Armored should himself be a Dunbar. But in fact, Kevin Dunbar’s ascent through his family’s company has been organic and well-earned. He got his MBA going to school evenings and weekends. His vision for the company is intensely entrepreneurial. “Entrepreneurial with a focus on people,” he calls it. And he cut his teeth doing years of work on the front lines, first as a driver-guard, then as a salesman.

“I was really just on the street knocking on doors. It was the same as my grandfather had done.” 
Kevin Dunbar, president and CEO, Dunbar Armored, Inc.

For his first job, Kevin Dunbar drove an armored truck through Laurel and Annapolis and met face to face, day in and day out with Federal Armored customers. He learned how the company’s front-line managers operated, what they expected from their driver-guards. And he learned what customers wanted. That would all come in handy in his next gig as a salesman working out of a start-up office in the cold Upper Midwest.

It would turn out that Kevin Dunbar had a real knack for sales. His father had always been more of an operations guy, and Kevin would learn that side of the business inside and out. But it would be in sales that he’d truly find his feet as a businessman. “I believe it takes that face-to-face interaction for them to believe you can move their money,” Dunbar says.

Boots on the ground

It was the early 1980s, and the business world still ran on carbon paper and landline telephones when Kevin Dunbar moved his young wife and infant son to Milwaukee, WI, where he took up work as a salesman in a small Federal Armored Express office. One new client at a time, he built up a customer base, landing new accounts for the company’s fledgling Western expansion. He was 24.

“I just walked in and talked to bankers, talked to retailers,” Dunbar says. “I was really just on the street knocking on doors. It was the same as my grandfather had done.” Dunbar landed accounts with hair salons, fast food chains, banks and hotels. Eventually, he reeled in a big fish: SuperAmerica gas stations, with more than 40 locations.

“We want the guys to believe that we believe in them.” 
Kevin Dunbar, president and CEO, Dunbar Armored, Inc.

The armored carrier business is a lot like FedEx or UPS, Dunbar explains: a UPS driver who spends his whole day in a small geographic area (Hunt Valley, for instance) is in great shape. His economies of scale grow every time he adds a stop next door to another one — more packages delivered in less time and less gas burnt doing it. Dunbar Armored works the same way, building as much density into its routes as possible. So once Kevin Dunbar had those gas stations around Milwaukee, he could start to connect the dots; now he could offer the businesses around each gas station better service for their armored transport needs. He soon brought on accounts with Marquette University and Marshall Field’s department store.

After three years in Wisconsin, Dunbar moved back to Baltimore to run the company’s security guard division before moving into sales management. Between 1987 and 1997, he served as senior vice president of sales, senior vice president of operations and then executive vice president in charge of both sales and operations. In 1997, Kevin Dunbar was named executive vice president and COO of Dunbar Armored; in 2001, he became president and added CEO to his title in 2009.

“You build your expertise; you build your skill set,” Kevin Dunbar says, noting that he’s learned important lessons from all his positions with Dunbar Armored. Now, Dunbar — an alumnus of Dulaney High School, James Madison University and the University of Baltimore, a member of the World Presidents’ Organization and a 2008 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year — has fully arrived at a new stage of life, one where he’s sharing knowledge rather than simply collecting it. To that end, he is a member of the Loyola University Sellinger School of Business Board of Sponsors, the Gilchrist Hospice Care Board of Directors, the M&T Bank Advisory Council for the Baltimore-Washington region and the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.

Physical and digital convergence

Kevin Dunbar recalls his father saying of the company’s entrée into Los Angeles: “We’re going to put our flag down out there.” Kevin himself had actually been the flag in Milwaukee. Today, he’s reading from the same playbook, pushing his company to stake a claim in a new business territory. Except this time, the geography is a bit different: this expansion is into the digital realm.

Dunbar Armored is the only national armored carrier whose drivers carry handheld digital scanners. The scanners — now in their fourth generation of upgrades — track packages, record dollar amounts, track the average length of each stop and send data back to Dunbar headquarters for oversight and analysis. If a particular stop on a driver’s route is averaging 10 minutes when it should only take five, for instance, a manager might check with the driver and the customer to find out if there’s a way to make things run quicker. Plus, Dunbar has brought new customers into the market with its cash-counting safes that transmit data back to a convenience store’s or restaurant’s home office.

“The customer wants us to do more than just pick up their money — they want [access to] information,” Dunbar says. “You’ve got to be entrepreneurial. You’ve got to be listening to your customer.”
And since the inception of Dunbar Digital Armor in September 2012, the company has been hard at work on a problem the entire business world is trying to solve: cybersecurity.

“We’ve got a long, storied history in the physical protection of things, and we believe the things we’ve learned in that arena transfer well to the digital space,” says Juergen Laue, president of Dunbar Digital Armor. “More and more of what’s valuable is the data that companies have, as well as their reputation online.”

Kevin Dunbar and his team are treating Dunbar Digital Armor as a start-up; they are funding it well and giving it the time and space it needs to grow. It’s not a few guys working on software in their spare time; Dunbar IT and Dunbar Digital Armor have a team of more than 40 technicians housed in the new Dunbar Technology Center in Hunt Valley. The concept is similar to that of other cybersecurity firms: have businesses outsource their cybersecurity needs (network protection, guarding against data breeches, online reputation management, etc.) to Dunbar. And they’ve already landed some big clients, one of whom they can talk about publicly: Since April 2013, Dunbar Digital Armor has been doing work for NASDAQ, protecting a piece of the exchange’s cloud-based offerings to the capital markets.

Christopher Ensey is Dunbar Digital Armor’s COO. He says Kevin Dunbar’s vision for the company’s cybersecurity business is backed up by an understanding of how much independence a tech start-up really needs.

“Kevin’s got this great way about him in that he knows the company is capable of delivering a really great level of service, but the medium is something he knows is going to take us a while to craft,” Ensey says, noting Dunbar Digital Armor is being given the latitude to bring in outside expertise and change directions quickly. “He’s been patient, and he gives us really constructive advice.”

Adds president Laue: “He’s definitely continuing the entrepreneurial spirit relative to his father and his grandfather. Kevin’s made his mark in terms of his investment in technology.”

A cybersecurity startup is a major in-house investment no other U.S. armored carrier is attempting. And Kevin Dunbar winces a little bit when discussing how much it really costs to bring in the most talented software developers. But with NASDAQ already signed up as an early customer, he notes the investment is already paying off. And, like that office in freezing Milwaukee, Dunbar expects his digital enterprise to be humming along nicely within a few short years.

An era of growth

Dunbar Armored has grown its market share in large part by launching itself into new cities, as Kevin Dunbar helped do in Milwaukee. “We just showed up” in LA, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix and Denver, Kevin Dunbar says. Those offices started out small, staffed at first with a few salesmen and a few operations folks, then grew bigger over time.

While those flag-staking start-ups have accounted for much of the company’s growth, a long period of acquisitions running from the late 1970s through the early 2000s played a large part as well.

“We’ve got a long, storied history in the physical protection of things, and we believe the things we’ve learned in that arena transfer well to the digital space.”
Juergen Laue, president, Dunbar Digital Armor

The acquisitions started with the purchase of Cauley Armored Car Service (a Pittsburgh company) in 1979 and Cincinnati Armored Service in 1980, which became the company’s sixth and seventh branch offices. Several other acquisitions of armored carrier companies followed. Then, in 1991, the company bought Loomis Sky Escort and set up a hub in Atlanta, giving a major boost to Dunbar’s air service. In 2008, Dunbar acquired Express Teller, an ATM sales and service company, expanding Dunbar’s reach in a market — cash on demand — that has helped keep cash a viable business in this age of increasing credit card use.

In 1993, James Dunbar bought Dunbar Armored Security, a New England firm his older brother had founded in the late 1970s after the original family business had been sold. That allowed Jim to finally bring the family name to Baltimore. In 1996, in a move that marked Kevin Dunbar’s arrival as a top man at the company, the firm officially changed its name from Federal Armored Express to Dunbar Armored.

Today, Dunbar Armored is the largest independently owned armored carrier in the country; the company prides itself on being privately owned and American owned. And while Dunbar is not as big as the three largest carriers — Brinks, Loomis and Garda — the company looks to always have better equipment and better tech services than its competitors and to maintain superior retention rates for its highly trained, highly skilled staff.

Keeping it low key

All of Dunbar’s 5,200 workers, some of them in rainy Seattle, others in Cerritos, CA, and others still off Rockaway Boulevard in Queens, NY, are responsible for the safe transport of other people’s valuables — often large sums of cash. The driver-guards are permitted to carry sidearms. They drive heavy duty, state-of-the-art armored trucks (and sometimes unmarked chase vehicles), moving money, jewels and anything else folks put a value on, up and down the streets, from vault to vault, all over the country, every day, all with Dunbar Armored assuming 100 percent of the risk for the transport. Elsewhere, Dunbar security guards keep sentry at businesses around the country, the first line of defense in the event of a robbery. And now, Dunbar is safeguarding data in the digital realm.

So, yes, the responsibility is something Kevin Dunbar says he grew into over time, and he seems to handle his role carefully and with confidence. Once a year, he travels to London, to Lloyd’s, to make sure Dunbar’s relationship with its insurer remains healthy. He still makes shoe leather sales calls, although nowadays they are reserved for the biggest clients, like Bank of America and Starbucks. He urges his managers to groom their best employees for promotion, to build “bench strength” into the company’s long-term plans — he’s formalized the company’s employee rating process, and managers are constantly asked to envision whom, based on the rating system, is next in line for promotion. “I want the guy that wants that next job,” he says.

Kevin Dunbar reads the New York Times Sunday “Corner Office” segment for ideas on leadership in business, and he supports politicians who favor peeling back federal regulation and reducing the tax burden on American businesses. He inherited his title, but he earned it, too, and he proves it by knowing everything he can about his industry and by having the courage to keep pushing his company toward emerging markets.

So the question seems an obvious one to ask a man who sits at the top of a large company with so many moving pieces: Have you considered appearing in an episode of Undercover Boss?
At this, Kevin Dunbar laughs — his friends have asked him the same thing. It might be neat to put the driver-guard uniform on again … but the answer is no. Dunbar Armored is not the kind of company that goes for big headlines. “We sort of like to keep it low key,” he says. CEO

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