A man for his times
Former MBTA President Stephen F. Dunlap believed in relationships and trust
When Steve Dunlap became president of the Maine Good Roads Association (MGRA) in 1976, the organization was struggling and state roads were deteriorating at an alarming rate. He saw a major schism in public opinion that threatened the state’s economy.
“The climate toward Maine highways is confusing,” wrote Dunlap in his inaugural president’s message in The Maine Trail. “Those who advocate more industry and more jobs for Maine people are the same persons who would take steps to greatly reduce spending on Maine’s road systems. Yet all agree there is no hope for expansion of Maine’s industry and luring new industries without an improved highway system. . . They cannot have it both ways.”
He proposed a slogan that would become the organization’s marching orders during his time as MGRA president: “Good roads mean business.”
That simple, straightforward approach was characteristic of the man who represented the fifth generation of Dunlaps to work in the family insurance business – the Dunlap Corporation – and who followed in his father’s footsteps to become not only head of the family business, but a leader in the community. Stephen Dunlap died October 12 after a nine-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 69 years old.
Born in Lewiston in 1941, Steve grew up in Auburn and spent most of his life there. He was the son of Elizabeth (Betty) Fosdick and Malcolm B. Dunlap. He attended Auburn schools, graduated from Kents Hill Preparatory School and went on to Boston University.
He entered the family’s insurance and bonding business – the Dunlap Corporation – in 1963 when he was in his early 20s. He was the fifth generation to join the agency that had been founded by his great-great grandfather Charles F. Dunlap in 1869.
He and his sister Catherine Thorpe were called on to take leadership roles in the firm in 1973 when their father Malcolm died suddenly. Working along side his grandmother, Alice, Steve served as president and later CEO of the agency from 1973 until the company’s merger in 2001 with Hilb, Rogal & Hobbs Company (HRH). From 2001 until his retirement in 2007, he served as chairman and chief executive officer of HRH Northern New England. HRH merged with Willis and today is known as Willis of Northern New England, Inc.
Under his leadership, The Dunlap Corporation expanded, and was named one of New England’s largest and fastest growing insurance and bonding agencies.
A strong believer in always putting the customer first, Dunlap personified the role of trusted advisor and advocate for his clients. He built lifelong friendships with many of his business clients and was known to always conduct business with integrity, to listen to his clients and always go the extra mile.
His long-time friend and business associate Curtis Roberts of Texas described him as “the gentle giant” that would do anything and everything he could to help . . . He treated the most powerful and the penniless with the same compassion and attention and never missed an opportunity to assist anyone who could benefit by his hand.”
Dunlap was the quintessential “people person,” and he thrived in business and leadership roles. He believed in the power of relationships and trust and was known to be partial to his clients in the construction industry.
“He loved the contractors, that was his favorite piece of the business,” his wife of 47 years, Sharon Dunlap, told the Portland Press Herald. Maybe that was because so many of his contractor clients ran family-owned businesses, valued hard work and faced many of the same challenges that he and his family did.
He was the second in his family to take on a leadership role in the MGRA, the predecessor organization to the Maine Better Transportation Association (his father Malcolm served as president in 1957). Steve was the only person in MGRA/MBTA history to serve two terms as president, and his steady hand at the helm was critical for the organization that at the time was struggling to rebuild itself after a particularly challenging time in the industry.
During his tenure, the organization successfully recruited new members and worked to raise awareness of the role transportation infrastructure – specifically an efficient highway system – plays in economic development. His daughter, Deborah Dunlap Avasthi, the current MBTA president, is the third Dunlap to serve in the post.
Dunlap was never one to walk away from a challenge. That was evidenced by his leadership of MGRA, and by his other professional and community contributions.
“If there was a man up there in the ivory tower saying something couldn’t be done, he would tell them, ‘Oh yes, it can,’” said his wife, Sharon Dunlap.
He was an innovator and willing to take risks to solve a problem. For example, he was instrumental in creating various workers’ compensation self-insurance groups that Dunlap introduced and managed after the workers’ comp insurance crisis in Maine during the early 1990s.
In addition to his duties as agency president, Steve was well known for his energetic drive and commitment to many community, state and national organizations.
Dunlap received many honors and accolades during his personal and professional career. He received the Maine Transportation Achievement Award in 1994 and also received a Maine Achievement in Construction (MAC) award and the Maine Newcomen Society Award.
An effective fundraiser, he was generous with his time and resources in supporting many important causes and campaigns whether related to community projects, sponsorships at charity and association events, or political fundraising. He was not afraid to go ‘dialing for dollars’ to ensure funds were raised to accomplish a mission.
Commenting about her dad, Deborah said, “Dad was always known for his optimism and enthusiasm. Whether it was a tough business negotiation, helping a client, celebrating an employee or client’s accomplishment or enjoying an event or holiday, Dad was in the moment and forever the optimist that things would work out well and be fine. He had tremendous faith in his employees and clients and always looked for the positives in a tough situation.”
Deborah also admitted to being moved by all her father’s friends and business associates who have shared their remembrances of her dad. “It has been comforting to read and hear some wonderful stories of Dad’s caring, thoughtfulness and effective leadership these past few weeks,” said Deborah. “He took great pride in The Dunlap Corporation and other organizations he belonged to and the clients that he served. I know if he were here today, he would be pushing me to ensure that MBTA continues to succeed in our mission of advocating on behalf of transportation venues throughout Maine.”
Since becoming president of the MBTA, she’s had the opportunity to look back at the issues that her father and his fellow board members faced and is struck by the similarities: “For all that has changed since 1976, many of the same challenges still exist today. My dad traveled the state endlessly in his car and agency airplane and was a strong believer that good roads and runways made a difference in Maine’s economy. Anyone who had the pleasure of traveling with Dad knows he often was in a hurry to get somewhere and efficient transportation was important to him,” said Deborah. “My goal will be to try to build on his past MBTA accomplishments and hope that all our members will join me in this effort.”
Despite all his commitments and activities, Dunlap always believed that family came first.
He enjoyed traveling with his wife and cherished his summers at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester with his Chris Craft motor boat. He liked to ski in the winter at Sugarloaf USA; was a NASCAR fan enjoying annual trips to the Daytona 500 and races in Loudon, New Hampshire; and enjoyed special trips with close family and friends.
He is survived by his wife Sharon; daughters Deborah and Jennifer; sister Catherine Thorpe; and four grandchildren, Douglas and Ashley Markson and Evan and Elizabeth Avasthi.