Sunday, December 8, 2013
Elizabeth Noyce was unhappy with customer service after her Boston bank failed during the 1990 recession. And when she complained to her lawyer and close friend, Owen Wells, he had a suggestion: Why not start your own bank?
Noyce could do that. The divorced wife of Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the microchip and a founder of Intel Corp., she was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Maine Bank & Trust was born that year in Portland, an economic beachhead on recession-ravaged Congress Street.
Wells had other suggestions. And over the next few years, his ideas and Noyce's wealth made headlines in Portland. Office towers were purchased and refilled with workers; an L.L. Bean outlet was lured to Congress Street; 1,100 jobs were saved with a new bakery for J.J Nissen.
Noyce died in 1996, but Wells' ideas endured, with a foundation endowed with $225 million. In turning the ruins of Pineland Center into a national showcase for business and agriculture, and even in ventures that were less than successful, such as the Portland Public Market, Wells initiated one outsized plan after another to advance Noyce's vision of economic philanthropy.
Now Owen Wells is preparing to retire, although not right away, and not completely. He'll step down as Libra's president at the end of 2011, and be replaced by Craig Denekas, the foundation's vice president.
Libra Foundation has given away $145 million in Maine over the past 20 years, contributing to hundreds of organizations and causes and saving or creating thousands of jobs. Wells' pending retirement will mark the first real transition for Maine's most entrepreneurial foundation. The coming years will reveal whether new leadership has the creative spark to generate Maine-changing ideas and the authority, as Wells had, to carry them out.
SHARING HER FORTUNE
Noyce grew up in Massachusetts and lived with her husband in California. Her divorce left her with half the valuable Intel stock and a waterfront estate in Bremen, where she spent summers and moved to re-establish her life in 1975. She soon began giving away money to Maine charities and causes. She established Libra Foundation in 1989 as a vehicle for sharing her fortune with Maine.
Her relationship with Wells began around 1981, when he called her seeking help to fill Portland's then-empty art museum. Over time, Noyce came to trust Wells' instincts and judgement. Their shared love of Maine led to discussions about the best ways to help the state. They both came to realize it was through economic development.
''To Betty,'' Wells recalled recently, ''it wasn't the concept of starting a bank that was exciting to her. It was going into a branch, and a teller would say, 'Thank you, Mrs. Noyce, for giving me a job.' ''
Wells took that conviction to heart after Noyce's death.
Besides Wells, Libra had two other trustees at the time. They were Henry Brooks, vice president of the trust department at the former Bank of New England in Boston; and Pendred (Penny) Noyce, one of Noyce's three daughters.
In 1996, Wells brought them a list of 18 suggestions he had developed to further Libra's objectives.
''Some of them gelled and some didn't,'' he said. ''Some fell like a lead balloon.''
Among those that were rejected: Buy 100,000 acres of parkland a year; subsidize health insurance for low-income Mainers; build an airport in western Maine to bring in more skiers.
A majority of suggestions did gain traction, however, touching thousands of Mainers and many key institutions. They include subsidies to send children to summer camp, and a winter sports center in Aroostook County.
Some subsequent ideas that seemed promising turned sour.
In 1999, Libra offered the city of Portland seven acres in the Bayside neighborhood and $20 million for a new sports arena to replace the Cumberland County Civic Center. Following some public criticism and questions about the city's ability to pay the full cost, the offer was rejected.
Today, Portland is still struggling to upgrade the outdated civic center.
''We were ahead of our time,'' Wells said. ''I thought there would be more foresight than there was.''
Following a visit to the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Wells envisioned the Portland Public Market. The goal was to help local farmers and redevelop a blighted neighborhood. The market and attached parking garage opened in 1998, but never developed a viable business model. It was sold in 2006.
The market's failure was highly scrutinized, but detractors overlook its contributions, Wells said. It was an incubator for several small businesses that still operate today. It aided redevelopment in Bayside, and attracted the Whole Foods supermarket to the area.
Most of Libra's investments have made money. Many have been sold to the private sector, the proceeds paying for new projects and grants.
For example: Nissen was built for $15 million and sold for $22 million. Maine Bank & Trust was started for $17 million and sold for $49.2 million.
''The history of this is, we go in, we try to do some good, and we leave,'' Wells said.
WELLS IS THE GLUE
This process has worked because of Wells' unique relationship with Noyce and with her daughter, who is board chairman. Wells has been the glue holding together Libra's mission, Penny Noyce said.
''I've always trusted Owen to know the answer to the question of what my mother would have thought,'' she said.
Wells didn't always develop his strategies by himself. He tapped a brain trust of close friends and business people. Two became Libra trustees: William Ryan, currently chairman of TD Bank, and Duane ''Buzz'' Fitzgerald, former president of Bath Iron Works. Fitzgerald died in 2002. His illness, Noyce said, made her realize that Libra must prepare a new generation of leaders.
Wells was a bit resistant at first, she recalled. ''He was a little offended, like we didn't think he was doing a good job,'' she said.
But by 2001, a generational handoff was taking shape. Wells recruited Jere Michelson from the Baker Newman and Noyes accounting firm. Michelson, who is 40, is now Libra's vice president and chief financial officer.
Wells also brought in Denekas, who had worked at Wells' former law firm, Perkins Thompson.
Denekas, 45, helped structure the Nissen bakery deal and oversaw the Pineland Farms project.
Following Wells' lead, Michelson and Denekas have begun serving on boards of institutions that were important to Elizabeth Noyce, such as Maine Medical Center and the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. They are seeking the connections Wells gained over 30 years, and access to the next generation of thinkers who care about Maine.
''None of us can replicate that,'' Denekas said of Wells' experience. ''But I don't think the fertility of ideas is going to change one bit.''
Michelson said 10 years of working with Wells and the trustees has outlined a clear path to follow. ''He's been preparing us all along,'' Michelson said of Wells. ''So the course of direction isn't likely to change.''
Rounding out the management team is Erik Hayward, assistant vice president. Hayward, who is 27, manages the Libra Future Fund, which attempts to attract young people to Maine.
Wells, who is 66, will remain a trustee. But Libra may get new blood by expanding its board. Brooks died last year; Ryan is 66; Penny Noyce is 54.
''I'd like to see some youthful faces on our board,'' she said.
GENEROUS BUT ROUTINE
Like most investors, Libra saw the value of its assets fall sharply in 2008. Despite that, it donated nearly $8.5 million last year in Maine. But largely absent lately from the list of generous but routine grants are the new and innovative undertakings for which Wells and Libra have become known.
What will happen next at Libra is of interest to Maine's grantmaking community.
Libra pioneered venture philanthrophy and was the first Maine foundation with enough money to make substantial investments outside the stock market, according to Janet Henry, president of the Maine Philanthrophy Center. The idea of starting a bank or buying office buildings was revolutionary at the time.
''In the next stage,'' she said, ''there are going to be different issues, but it's very important for the foundation to stay true to its mission.''
Wells was able to take unusual risks while still honoring the founder's intent, said Meredith Jones, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Community Foundation, a leading public charity. ''He's a very creative individual,'' she said. ''Let's just hope they can sustain that.''
Most recently, Libra Foundation has been in the news not for bold initiatives, but for consolidation. The foundation announced last month it would end its summer camp scholarship program, which has served 33,000 children and cost $30 million.
This action, Noyce said, doesn't signal a diminished commitment by Libra, which by law must distribute at least 5 percent of its assets each year. It's part of an effort to refocus, look at what the private sector can do and maintain the resources for new ventures.
But as 2010 gets under way, no one at Libra is prepared to talk publicly about the next grand plan, and how it's likely to emerge. ''Libra is meant to forever be a resource for the people of Maine,'' Noyce said. ''That's going to mean making bold, new initiatives and being open to proposals.''
Those ideas could still flow from Wells. Characteristically, he downplayed his role.
''If they give me an office and a desk, I'll come in and read the Wall Street Journal,'' he said.
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or