CARIBOU, Maine — Whenever John Swanberg spoke to a small business owner in Aroostook County, he’d ask, “What can I do for you?”
As president of Aroostook Savings & Loan for 30 years, Swanberg became known for lending small business owners a hand when they had a great new idea, were going through rough financial times or just needed a friend to offer advice.
Swanberg died from cancer on Dec. 6, one day shy of his 62nd birthday.
For those who knew him, his death marks the loss of one of Aroostook’s greatest mentors for small business owners. That reputation means a lot in a region that prides itself on boosting resources for aspiring entrepreneurs. Swanberg was a community innovator in his own right, helping found a local brewing company.
“He was like a brother to me,” said Jeff Baker, owner of JB Sheet Metal in Caribou.
Nine years ago, Baker was one of 65 employees who were laid off after closure of the former Caribou location of Central City Sheet Metal, now known as Twin City Sheet Metal. Baker wanted to start his own business, but his local bank did not give him a loan due to past financial issues.
When Swanberg caught wind of Baker’s story, he invited Baker, whom he had never met, to his Caribou office at Aroostook Savings & Loan early in the morning, before the bank had opened for the day.
Three months later, Baker opened JB Sheet Metal, which he continues to operate as the only sheet metal and fabrication business in Caribou.
“John looked beyond the dollar figures and looked at the person in front of him,” Baker said.
Baker and Swanberg’s relationship grew from purely business to friendship. Even after Baker’s business was up and running, Swanberg always asked how things were going.
When COVID-19 hit, Swanberg worked to help make sure Baker and other business owners received their share of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.
If he had closed his doors, Baker doesn’t think he could have reopened. Swanberg worked tirelessly in a short time to make sure small businesses received help, Baker said.
A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Swanberg first moved to Maine in the 1980s to pursue what became a short-lived career as a dairy farmer. Already a University of Maine graduate, he returned to his alma mater and earned degrees in agricultural economics and finance.
After he and his wife, Andrea, moved to The County in 1983, he worked at Farm Credit in Presque Isle before becoming president of Aroostook Savings & Loan.
Swanberg was involved in numerous local organizations and endeavors, including the Caribou Rotary Club, Feed the County, Caribou’s Business Investment Group and Caribou Utilities District board of trustees. But what satisfied him the most was helping The County’s small businesses thrive.
Along the way, many of those business owners, including Paul Daigle, became some of Swanberg’s greatest friends.
Daigle is the fourth generation of his family to have owned and operated the Frenchville-based Autotronics, which manufactures ambulances and other emergency vehicles for municipalities.
In 2012, major heart issues hospitalized Daigle long term and forced him to step away from the business. Most banks did not want to provide financial help because his children, who took over the business, were only 17 and 19 years old at that time.
But Swanberg stepped in and provided financing to keep the business afloat.
“He helped us out when nobody else would,” Daigle said. “A big part of me went with John when he passed.”
Swanberg and Daigle remained friends throughout the rest of Swanberg’s life. Even in his final days, Swanberg made sure to ask Daigle how business was going.
None of those stories are surprising to Swanberg’s close friend and business partner Chris Bell of Caribou.
Bell and Swanberg’s friendship dates back to 1983, when the Swanbergs first moved to Aroostook. Aside from raising their families together, Swanberg and Bell were two of 13 local businessmen who helped create Northern Maine Brewing Company, Aroostook’s only brewpub, which opened in 2016.
From some of the earliest beer recipes to the wooden farm beams above one of the dining room entryways, Swanberg’s fingerprints are all over the restaurant, Bell said.
But despite being a home brewer himself, Swanberg’s motivation in cofounding the restaurant was less about beer and more about community.
“Anyone who knew John knew that he wanted to support the Caribou community and Aroostook County at large,” Bell said. “I don’t think you can find a better person to represent community spirit.”