For 50 years, Duron Inc. has painted area towns red, green, blue and mostly eggshell white. The Baltimore-Washington area is literally saturated with Duron paint, with its market share at about 70 percent.

That's not bad for a company founded by a middle-class high school graduate who had to pound the pavement for a year to get a $7-a-week job during the Great Depression.

The late Harry Feinberg, a Baltimore native, had two lucky breaks in the paint business. The first was when a worker at paint maker H.B. Davis Co. got drunk at work and was fired, thereby opening a position for young Harry in the 1930s, when jobs were scarce.

The second break was a mixed blessing that came when Harry was fired from that job and took his severance pay to buy half equity in Norman Paint Manufacturing Co. in Washington and rename it Duron Paint Manufacturing Co., which had three stores at the time. The name Duron was the brainchild of Feinberg, who said it evoked durability and nylon, a product that then was considered cutting edge.

Feinberg, who died in 1996, was an energetic man whose business acumen had been honed by the Depression-era logic that those who didn't work, starved, said his son, current Duron Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Feinberg. Since childhood, Harry Feinberg had cared for his sick mother and other members of his middle-class Baltimore community, but he also desperately wanted to succeed at something of his own, Robert Feinberg said.

The company he poured his energy into was at 140 Ingraham St. in Northeast Washington, housed in a 4,000-square-foot, cinder block building in which the factory, warehouse, laboratory and general office were crammed together, Robert Feinberg said. Harry Feinberg sold paint from the back of his station wagon and offered free paint to contractors to market the company. He was an avid learner and a competent businessman, but he still would have been amazed by the company's current success, his son said.

Robert Feinberg, 59, still has the aura of the professor he once was. He speaks in well-turned phrases and likes to talk about the philosophy, more than the business, behind Duron. He talks about designing a company that gives employees, including himself, a sense of self-satisfaction and defers on questions about revenue and profit to Thomas K. Schwartzbeck, the company's president and a career businessman.

"I learned from philosophers at Oxford to think carefully about the questions you are asking before worrying about the answer," Feinberg said. For the company, that meant thinking about the underlying structure to get the desired results, such as sales growth and stability in the work force.

In 1974, Harry Feinberg bought the remaining shares of the company, which depleted his cash, and he was struggling, Robert Feinberg said. At the time, Robert was an assistant professor of biochemistry at Rockefeller University in New York and well into a career in academia, having graduated from Harvard and Oxford with degrees in chemistry.

"I had no intention of coming into the business, and for years I'd said, 'no,' because I perceived it as the nasty world of business," he said. But by 1976, Robert Feinberg still was making a salary of less than $11,000, trying to live in Manhattan with a wife, Betsy, and child on the way, he said. He wanted to have more control over his life, so he joined Duron as secretary-treasurer, he said.

"In many ways, it was much less nasty than competition in academia," Feinberg said of his new job. "The transition was not difficult, because I had learned how to organize work so that you could get a definite result" in chemistry labs, he said.

"One of my worries was coming here and being bored," he said. It was important to him to be excited about his new responsibilities, and he knew that would be important to workers at every level, so "we've created a culture in which people are asked to take ownership of what they do," he said.

Each store runs almost independently of the headquarters, with sales staff members making their own decisions on what to stock and what kinds of services to offer their customers, he said. "It was my desire to create a company that they are engaged in what they do," he said.

That may be why the company has remained nonunion. "We don't have a campaign going against them right now," said Thomas St. John, secretary-treasurer for the District Council 51 of the International Brotherhood of Painters & Allied Trades in Suitland. He said he hasn't heard complaints from workers at Duron's Beltsville plant.

Wes Shugart, a Duron store manager in College Park, said working for the company "is more like a career than a job." The 10-year Duron employee "loves the system where they let you swim or sink," because he gets to exercise his own judgment in how to run the store. His bonus is based on his performance and gives him extra incentive to help his customers, he said. "Beltsville is not big enough to baby-sit" by telling store owners how to handle every transaction, so they rely on people like him, he said. And their benefits to employees "are unbelievable" with generous profit-sharing plans, he said.

The company donates more than $130,000 annually to charities such as Christmas in April in Washington, Laurel Regional Hospital and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. Mostly, Feinberg thinks the best way of giving back to the community is to donate to its arts. Feinberg and his wife are avid collectors of Edo period art from Japan and serve on boards at the Freer and Sackler art galleries, the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Duron itself is a community, though it's experiencing some growing pains. In the past, the company used to host a family picnic for all the employees, but the company has gotten too big, Feinberg said. He used to walk into the warehouse and know everyone by name and know their families, he said. But in recent years, many Duron veterans have retired, and the tight labor market has created some turnover, he said.

But some things about the company will never change, Feinberg said. "It gets harder and harder to preserve the family feeling within the company, but we'll try to keep the feeling that [employees'] needs are being met and their creative capacities are realized here," he said. "That goes a long way to making people feel that they're part of the organization they work for."

TIME LINE

* 1949--Harry Feinberg buys half interest in Norman Paint Manufacturing Co. in Washington and renames it Duron Paint Manufacturing Co. Sales for the first year are $90,000.

* 1957--Duron moves to Beltsville. The company has stores in five states and the District of Columbia, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Massachusetts.

* 1974--Duron opens its 45th store and employs 450 people. Sales top $18 million, and Harry Feinberg buys out partner.

* 1976--Robert Feinberg joins Duron as secretary-treasurer.

* 1988--Duron opens its Atlanta manufacturing plant; the company's combined production reaches 50,000 gallons of paint a day.

* 1995--Duron acquires Philadelphia-based M. Buten & Sons Inc., a 29-store paint dealer.

* 1996--Duron founder Harry Feinberg dies; Thomas K. Schwartzbeck takes over as president.

* 1997--Duron acquires 12 stores in Chicago and Iowa from Fancy Colours and Co., based in Chicago.

* 1999--Duron acquires a single large store from Broward Paint & Wallpaper Co. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The company projects $320 million in sales for the year, has 2,000 employees nationally and will make 17 million gallons of paint this year.

* Future--Continue to add 20 to 30 stores a year through 2005, through acquisitions and building.