GEORGETOWN — Bruce Poliquin’s first job after he graduated from Harvard with an economics degree was with Harris Bank in Chicago. His annual pay was $11,000.
What the job lacked in pay – even in 1976 dollars – it made up for in experience, said Poliquin. He worked for a trust division of the bank, and part of his job was talking to small-business owners in the Midwest about investing their pension funds.
Slaughterhouses, tool and die shops, electroplating businesses, carburetor manufacturers – Poliquin met with the owners, toured the operations and learned what made the businesses successful.
“It was a tremendous learning experience on not only how good businesses are managed, but what’s an environment that creates an opportunity for a business to succeed,” said Poliquin. “Businesses are most successful when they’re in a regulatory environment, in a cost structure, where they can be successful. That’s why Maine has such a horrible economy, and why our kids are leaving.”
Poliquin, of Georgetown, is running for governor in the Republican primary. As he campaigns in a field against six other GOP candidates, he hits relentlessly on recurring themes.
He stresses his management experience as an investment banker who analyzed companies and pension funds, contending that’s what Maine needs in a governor.
He talks about the state’s poor business environment, and how he would address it. And he raises his work with Maine youths, and the need to create jobs here so graduates can stay here, or return home if they wish.
He has no political experience, but that’s common in this year’s Republican primary. He sometimes sticks to his campaign’s talking points to the level where, in debates and forums, he doesn’t answer questions.
He has funded much of his campaign, contributing more than $550,000 to a total of $860,000, according to the latest state records.
“Putting my own money in is the right thing to do,” he said. “Any enterprise I’ve ever gotten involved with, I’ve had a commitment to it.”
People who have worked with him and know him describe a straightforward man who absorbs information and then acts.
“He’s a real straight shooter. Basically, when he says he’s going to do something, it gets done,” said John Moody, the construction manager who is working on Poliquin’s housing development in Phippsburg, Popham Woods.
Moody said Poliquin didn’t have much experience in construction when he first talked to Moody about working on the project. Poliquin asked for advice, listened and took in the information, Moody said.
Julie Moss of Yarmouth served on North Yarmouth Academy’s board of directors with Poliquin for about eight years, and he was president of the board for four of them.
“The thing that struck me the most was that he was very solicitive of everybody’s opinion, he wanted everyone’s input before he made a decision,” said Moss. “But once he made a decision, he made it. He was sure of himself, but very respectful of everybody on the board, and wanted them to feel part of the process.”
Poliquin grew up in Waterville. His mother was a nurse and his father was a teacher. His father held other jobs at the same time, refereeing basketball, umpiring baseball, running lobster pounds, renting beach cottages.
The family often talked about business ideas and plans, said Poliquin, and he was encouraged early on to work.
During winter, he would help shovel out people who had to get to work. He cut lawns in the summer, and saved enough money to buy his own metallic green stingray bike, with a banana seat.
When he was young, he became interested in going to Harvard.
On the advice of a guidance counselor, he and his family looked into boarding schools. Poliquin got into Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and supplemented his scholarship to the school by working in the library and washing windows for faculty members.
He went to Harvard on a scholarship, worked in the dining hall busing tables on Sunday mornings, and cleaned an office building in Brattle Square.
For job interviews, he borrowed a suit from his roommate. His father mailed him the dress shoes he had worn at his wedding 40 years before.
Poliquin took the job with Harris Bank, spent a few years there and then took a job in New York City with a consulting firm that evaluated corporate pension funds and matched them with investment companies to manage the money.
In 1981, he joined a small investment management firm called Avatar Associates. The firm was managing about $35 million of other people’s money, said Poliquin. When he left in 1996, he was the company’s third-largest stockholder and a managing partner, and the company was managing $5 billion.
In New York at the same time was Jane Carpenter, a Waterville native and a good friend whom he had dated off and on over the years.
She was working at the Brooklyn Museum’s lab in art restoration. Their time in New York overlapped for about five years, and the relationship became serious.
They got married in Phippsburg in 1989, 17 years after they met. The couple moved back to Maine, and Poliquin traveled back and forth to New York, still running Avatar with his partners. After their son, Sam, was born, Poliquin worked more and more from home.
In early 1992, Jane and her father drowned during a family vacation. Sam was 16 months old. Poliquin spent the next half-year making sure Sam was well and safe, and figuring out how to be a single parent, with help from his family.
Poliquin worked with Avatar for a few more years, with his mother and father watching Sam overnight when he made quick trips to New York.
He invested in small companies in Maine, from software firms to a bookstore. About five years ago, he started a real estate firm, Dirigo Holdings. “It was a way I could do something different and manage a process with different parts,” he said.
One of his projects was the ill-fated Stinson Seafood cannery redevelopment in Bath, which Poliquin wanted to make into a marina and condo complex.
The city never approved rezoning for the project, and an arsonist torched the property.
In the Popham Woods project, he said, he was told late in the process by state regulators that he would have to change the plans because of wetlands, adding a full year to the process of obtaining permits.
It’s a combination of experiencing such frustrations and knowing kids who want to return to Maine but don’t have jobs that spurred him to run for governor, said Poliquin.
While campaigning, Poliquin pushes the need to restructure the state’s permitting process and streamline government in general.
He opposes borrowing to supplement programs, would institute ways to measure the performance of government programs, and would hire professional managers to run departments, if elected.
“We need someone who’s got guts. Someone who’s not worried about the next election,” said Poliquin. “Someone who is a manager, who’s been successful with financial dealings, someone who understands the problems, someone who can lead this state and rally the forces, whether it be the populace or the Legislature, to do the right thing and fix this.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]