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D.H. Cuddy.

D.H. Cuddy and Alaska grew up together. And like all lifetime friends, each would be quite different without the other.

Cuddy's roots are planted firmly in his hometown of Valdez in a generation that produced schoolmates like Alaska's first governor William Egan, longtime Anchorage mayor George Sullivan and Permanent Fund Board head John Kelsey.

At 71, Daniel Hon Cuddy has a resume unlike many contemporary bank chairmen. It harkens back to Alaska's hardier days with entries such as cannery worker, heavy equipment operator, gold miner, pilot, soldier and lawyer.

Cuddy affectionately refers to his sudden bank presidency in 1951 as "being thrown to the wolves." It was his first job at the bank in which his father, Warren Cuddy, had bought a controlling interest 10 years earlier. His father's death left him the only surviving Cuddy child -- his brother David was killed in World War II -- and heir to the top post at First National Bank of Anchorage.

So the Stanford and University of Washington graduate set aside a budding law career and began to draw upon his wealth of other experiences to learn the family business. "A varied background is an excellent way to qualify you to loan money to people," Cuddy says.

Forty years went by before Cuddy turned over the reins to his son David, who assumed the presidency following 20 years at First National that began with a stint as a drive-up window teller.

A man who took few risks with his depositors' money, the elder Cuddy's gambles were on his community. He aggressively opened new branches as Alaska grew. "We were anxious to cover the whole state," he recalls. "In the early days I maintained an airplane that I flew to the branches."

Today, First National has 26 branches which Cuddy plans to visit this year as he reviews the bank's loan portfolio. His travels will take him to Sitka, Bethel, Fairbanks and all around Anchorage. It's that personal touch that makes him one of a special breed of banker.

That trait couldn't have been stronger in 1964 after the devastating Good Friday earthquake. Their Anchorage home damaged, the Cuddy family sought shelter in the downtown bank building. Its solid foundation spared it any serious damage. "A few filing cabinets fell down," Cuddy remembers.

To show his confidence in Alaska and Anchorage, Cuddy soon afterward announced plans to add eight stories to the bank's Fifth Avenue building -- and the city's first elevator. "The community needed something to energize it," he says.

That experience soon became a metaphor for the bank's very existence. That, and Cuddy's unrelenting practice of treating his depositors' money like his own.

The rockiest times came during the boom of the late 1970s and the early 1980s. It was then that Cuddy and First National took their hardest hits. Criticism of the bank's conservatism stung, but Cuddy held his ground. He insisted on selling loans and wasn't afraid to say "no" to prospective borrowers.

"We couldn't understand why the amount of buildings being built was being built," Cuddy says. "We quit any speculation in 1983. Other banks saw differently and continued to finance development."

What played out was a disaster for many banks while First National stayed rock-solid. Since 1984, Cuddy's pride and joy consistently has ranked as a national leader for safety and return on assets.

"It was a spiral, as hindsight would show," he says. "We were right. They were wrong."

He attributes the poor management of other institutions to ignorance of Alaska's volatile economy. "We always had booms. It's probably best not to get caught in the down side of a boom," he says.

Cuddy never did. When he took over as president, First National's assets stood at about $30 million. Today they top $1.3 billion. "You never would have thought that could happen," he says.

Would Cuddy do anything differently if given the chance? He doesn't believe in second guesses. "Never look back," he advises.

Despite all of Cuddy's business accomplishments, he doesn't even hesitate when asked of what he is most proud. "Why, I'm most proud of my family," says the father of six and the grandfather of 12.

Cuddy says he is secure putting First National in the hands of his son David and daughter Betsy Lawer, vice chairman and chief operation officer. Having shareholders in charge should perpetuate the bank's commitment to long-term gains over short-term risks, he reasons.

Lawer predicts the challenge will be sticking to her father's meticulously fair and high standards. "It's a pretty tall commitment to live up to," she says.

Cuddy's advice to the next generation of business leaders is not much different than what he taught his own children: "Get your education," he says. "Education is something that can never be lost. Wealth or capital can be lost. Regardless of what ever field you're in, if you have reasonable intelligence and a willingness to work hard, you'll get ahead. There are never enough of those people."

Finally, Cuddy doesn't buy the gloomy economic forecasts for Alaska's future. "If you look all the way back to the Russian occupation of Alaska, there's always been ups and downs," he says. "There'll be another up, you bet."

And for the pioneering Cuddy, the thrill of the Last Frontier will continue well into the 21st century. "The excitement hasn't quit," he says. "The opportunities here are tremendous. I would say they are greater now than they were 40 years ago."
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Title Annotation:Alaska Business Hall of Fame; one of Alaska's leading banker, Daniel Hon Cuddy
Author:Scaliotti, Lisa
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Alexander Winterbourne Brindle.
Next Article:Economic impact of the military in Alaska.

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