Fred Faust, principal of The Edge Group, Inc., a real estate consulting firm, previously was an assistant to U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas. He shares the following essay:
This is another entry in a series about people in the Greater Lowell area who have taken initiative and achieved special things. Feel free to suggest others who should be so recognized and have interesting stories to tell.
George Duncan: The Kid and the Kool Aid
As a kid in the Back Central neighborhood of Lowell, George Duncan didn’t drink the Kool Aid, he sold it.
“I started when I was very young on Back Central Street. I realized that you could make a lot more money selling things then waiting for your parents to give you your allowance. I realized that by taking initiative and by offering a product or a service, you could find a way to make money and then do other things with it. So I started very early in business.”
His Kool Aid stand, according to Duncan, gave him his first business lesson. That included “organization, follow up, customer service, just putting things together.” Later endeavors comprised raising and training homing pigeons with his dad. This developed into a successful breeding business. “Right there in the back streets of Lowell we were selling champion homing pigeons around the country and even the world,” Duncan remembered. As another indication of future enterprise, Duncan single handedly organized an entire neighborhood carnival with 30 booths. “It was a lot of fun,” he says.
Duncan attended Lowell High School. For a time, he described himself as “drifting” through his courses. He even considered applying for a job at a local shoe manufacturer. His professional career may not have happened at all, if a history teacher at the high school, Wyman Trull, had not sensed potential in a young George Duncan. Trull befriended and challenged George to work harder and to focus on academics. Duncan cites Trull as his earliest mentor. That close and meaningful relationship lasted for many decades, according to Duncan, until Trull’s passing. After graduating from Lowell High, Duncan attended and received a business degree from Northeastern University U.C. evening program.
Duncan eventually found employment at the then dominant local financial institution, Union National Bank. There he encountered the ultimate local banker and civic leader, the legendary Homer Bourgeois. Bourgeois was not just the President of the bank; he was the major player in the Lowell community. Duncan says that when someone needed to get something done – from a loan to an apartment to a job, they went to “Uncle Homer.” Duncan recalls, “That was the way it was done, people would send you to Mr. Bourgeois and tell you, “Uncle Homer will take care of that.” It was said that Bourgeois controlled banking, the hospitals, major businesses and, occasionally, City Hall. Duncan was able to take advantage of the overall learning experience at Union National Bank to better understand the benign side of community linkage.
Another key in Duncan’s career was his association with Edward Redstone. Redstone owned First Bank in Chelmsford and Lowell. Redstone, whose father created the theatre chain that brother, Sumner, leveraged into a billion dollar media powerhouse, was brilliant but could have daily mood swings. Duncan had a sense of calm and patience that complimented Redstone’s force of personality. Duncan became president and eventually CEO of First Bank. As bank mergers swept out smaller banks, Hartford National Bank purchased First Bank, and then was merged into Shawmut Bank. Redstone retired, but Duncan bided his time, gathered a core of former associates and on January 3, 1989, launched Enterprise Bank and Trust. Located on Merrimack Street, in the Old City Hall Building, it had no drive up and no suburban branches.
Did Duncan ever have doubts about starting a bank at a time other financial institutions were failing? “I didn’t really have doubts,” he noted. “Did people tell me I was a little crazy to start a bank? He doesn’t answer, but laughs. First, I got to know a lot of people within the community. Second, I knew how to run a bank because I’d picked up knowledge and experience over the years. I also put a lot of people into business. So I knew I could go to these people and ask them to be customers and shareholders.”
Duncan’s instincts and contacts proved critical to success. He and his team raised sufficient capital and built a very local Board of Directors. A key board member Duncan credits is businessman Arnold Lerner. “Arnold was and continues to be invaluable as a board member. In terms of leadership and counsel, Arnold is one of the advisors and mentors I’ve always relied on.”
The Enterprise “Statement of Values” includes a very basic principle:
“We play an active role in making every community in which we operate a better place to work and live.”
Why was Duncan confident that a new, small community bank could compete?
“I saw that the banking industry was going the wrong way. The big banks were eating up all of the community banks and the merged banks weren’t treating customers well. Locally, one of the larger banks had failed, along with several others. So the timing happened to pay off. We were there as a new bank but with a lot of experienced staff people and a great board. That ability I had as a young person to organize was there and I was able to pick good people. Those are the things that I had the experience and confidence to do.”
Duncan was asked why his was willing to take a risk on downtown Lowell.
“I was highly invested with the rebirth of the downtown. I drank the same Kool Aid that people like Paul Tsongas and Pat Mogan drank. There was really no compelling reason to build a bank in downtown Lowell. In a lot of ways it would be much easier to have gone out and build an operations center on some big piece of land and not cope with many kinds of urban issues.”
The commitment to Lowell ultimately delivered a major bank operation to the downtown. Duncan, who has been described as a self- made architect, has added first class design, flowers and art to the mix at the bank’s 21 branches. Every bank has original art and plantings, when possible. It’s not so much a brand but a personal ethic.
“My daughter, son and friends have kidded me that the reason we’ve done so many banks and branches is not really about business, it’s about gardens and art and architecture. And I say well those are really three very important things.” Duncan smiles and reflects. “Well, it does give me the opportunity exercise three of my hobbies.”
Duncan’s own modest office is located close to the main teller line at Merrimack Street. It features glass panels and a door that is almost always open. Duncan stepped down as CEO and the Board designated Jack Clancy as successor in 2007. Clancy along with Duncan and President Richard Main have worked collaboratively since the founding of the bank. Assets now exceed $2 billion. There are more than 400 Enterprise Bank employees. To his self-professed dismay, despite stepping down as CEO some eight years ago, Duncan’s pace seems not to have slowed. At 75 years of age, Duncan says he is still “one of those people that get up early in the morning with a head of steam and looks forward going to work.”
What motivated Duncan today?
“I like people,” he says. “I enjoy the company of my family, people and friends. Beyond whatever I learned as a young kid, I was very lucky to have teachers, business people whom I learned from, and a lot of great mentors.”
When asked about the future of Lowell, Duncan links the continuing commitment of the bank and other businesses to further progress downtown. He is positive about Enterprise Bank’s continued growth and Lowell as well.
“Given all that’s going on with Middlesex Community College, the UMass Lowell and the Hamilton Canal Gateway, I feel Lowell is really about to pop. It’s going to be based on innovation, new businesses and start-ups. I see new people moving into city as well. I think the culture is going to grow and change. That will be a benefit to the city as a whole.”
Duncan is proud of the growth and evolution of the bank.
“We’ve gone from being a small company to a business that’s listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. It is still, though, a local bank. What’s next? Going forward we have a big empty parking lot. Eventually, if the bank continues to grow and prosper I can see us building a large corporate headquarters on that parking lot next to Old City Hall.”
While classically understated, to Duncan, the bank’s success is a corollary to the best that Horatio Alger had to offer.
“My father always said never to underestimate America. I feel the same way about investing in business and investing in Lowell. I feel that Lowell has a great future. There are lots of terrific things going on. I’m very proud of the fact that as a nationally listed business, we’re located right here on Merrimack Street in downtown Lowell.”
From Merrimack Street to Duncan’s childhood Back Central Street home, it’s just under a mile. It is pretty apparent, however, that George Duncan has come a long way.