N.H. Bragg, a Bangor-based industrial products distributor, announced last week it will sell to an out-of-state company Jan. 1 after 164 years as a locally owned business.
It was the latest reminder that a changing of the economic guard has been underway in the Bangor area for a number of years. Just 25 years ago, the economic landscape of the region was dominated by businesses owned by local families, many of which had been in business for more than a century. Today, only a handful of those large, Bangor-based family companies remain in operation.
Though N.H. Bragg will retain its name, staff and operations in Bangor, its sale to Horizon Solutions of Rochester, New York, makes the company the latest in a line of local employers that have sold, moved or closed. The marquee Bangor names from the mid-20th century — Bragg, Haskell, Miller, Hutchins, Minsky and so on — are now all largely retired, and for the most part, their heirs have not taken over the family businesses.
Back in the day, those leaders not only did business in Bangor, but they also comprised the majority of Bangor’s philanthropic base and were omnipresent in local politics.
“You knew you could count on them to give money to your Little League team or your nonprofit. One of them would be on the [city] council, and they’d be on all the boards,” said Mark Woodward, former executive editor for the Bangor Daily News and a fixture on boards citywide for decades. “It’s an open question today, where the next generation of leadership will come from.”
The N.H. Bragg sale is just one reminder of the changing of the guard this month. On Monday, Miller Drug, once a family-owned pharmacy that employed more than 100 people in its heyday, announced that it will now be known as Northern Light Pharmacy. It merged with the entity now known as Northern Light Health in 2010 and became a subsidiary of the health system in 2014. It now employs around 80 people.
Few industries haven’t experienced that sort of change.
The Bangor area used to be a trucking hub, with companies hauling paper and other forest products throughout the Northeast. Today, Bangor-area truckers Pottle’s Transportation, H.O. Bouchard and Hartt Transportation do most of their business out of state or in southern Maine, while companies such as Cole’s Express — founded by the Cole family, who also founded the Cole Land Transportation Museum — are long gone. Barry Pottle, president and CEO of Pottle’s and the son of founder Clifton Pottle, told the BDN last year that the company’s Allentown, Pennsylvania, terminal is home to 65 percent of its truck fleet.
Dead River Company, the largest petroleum products distributor in northern New England, was founded in Bangor by the Hutchins family, who supported a number of institutions in the area with their philanthropy, including the University of Maine, Husson University, United Way and others. Dead River now does the majority of its business in southern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, and its corporate headquarters are in South Portland. Dead River bought out a number of other petroleum suppliers in Maine, most notably Webber Energy Fuels’ retail home heating division; Webber, long run by president Larry Mahaney, was another Bangor-based company.
Even further back, another iconic Bangor company, Bangor Hydro Electric, was purchased in 2002 by Canadian electrical supply company Emera, which took on the name Emera Maine in 2014. Robert Haskell, who was either president or chair of the Bangor Hydro board for nearly 30 years until his death in 1987, put his name on everything from a wing of Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center to UMaine scholarships.
Companies such as Standard Electric, a Bangor-based electrical product supplier run by the Stone family, sold to WESCO (formerly part of Westinghouse) in 1996, and Superior Paper Products, a paper product supply company started by the Minsky family, eventually sold operations to another company. R.B. Dunning, a company similar to N.H. Bragg in that it sold industrial products, went out of business in 1993 after 158 years.
Michael Aube, the former executive director of Eastern Maine Development Corporation and a former state economic development commissioner, said that shift from local to national ownership is not particularly unique to Bangor — it’s just part of a larger national trend toward globalization and streamlining operations, alongside a generational shift in ownership.
“You see this sort of thing in small metro areas around the country. As more decisions are made globally, it often requires that businesses move their operations to a different marketplace,” he said. “You also see the heirs of some of these businesses that don’t want to do it. They want to go into another career, and the business has to sell.”
Some of those larger, Bangor-area family businesses have survived — and adapted.
The Cross Insurance Agency is one of the largest insurance brokers in New England today, and, more than 50 years after its founding, still has its corporate headquarters in Bangor. The Bangor Daily News is in its fourth generation of Warren family ownership. Other names also remain, such as forest management firm Prentiss & Carlisle, fuel and trucking supply company Dysart’s, ice manufacturers Getchell Brothers in Brewer, meat processors W.A. Bean & Sons, and promotional apparel manufacturers W.S. Emerson, also in Brewer.
Another company, 110-year-old Dennis Paper in Hampden, solved the successor challenge by selling the company to its 125 employees through an employee stock ownership plan. The company has since seen extensive growth.
And, of course, local banks — most notably Bangor Savings Bank, which employs nearly 800 people in Maine and New Hampshire, and this year will complete work on its new $35 million headquarters on the Bangor Waterfront — continue to be major players in Bangor’s overall economic base, as do car dealerships Quirk, Darling’s and Varney.
Aside from lost jobs, what is likely the most keenly felt part of the loss of family-owned local businesses in the Bangor is the civic leadership those companies offered, Aube said.
“Many of the people at the helm of these businesses were outstanding public servants, who contributed so much to the community and who made the decisions — often really quickly and really simply,” he said. “Now, with those decisions being made out of state, kind of up the corporate ladder, it’s not going to be as easy to get that kind of investment in the community from the private sector.”