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- 2012 - April - 16th -

First Coast Success: Tom Van Berkel, The Main Street America Group

by Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor

Tom Van Berkel is the chairman and chief executive officer of The Main Street America Group. He moved the company’s headquarters from New Hampshire to Jacksonville 10 years ago.

Main Street America Group is a mutual insurance holding company that operates in 27 states. It employs 850 people throughout its organization and 160 in Jacksonville.

He also is chairman this year of the JAX Chamber.

The Daily Record interviewed Van Berkel for “First Coast Success,” a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.

The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.

These are edited excerpts from the full transcript.

You moved your company here. Tell us why.
We were in a very lovely spot in New Hampshire, but we needed to be able to attract executives, particularly mid-level professional talent, which was difficult to do in a more remote location. Beautiful location, but difficult to get to. So, we had purchased a company called the Old Dominion Insurance Co. in 1996, which familiarized us with Jacksonville, and in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, we decided to look for another location for our corporate headquarters.

Jacksonville was on the list along with other cities like Charlotte, Baltimore, Providence, Rhode Island, midsize cities up and down the East Coast.

We chose Jacksonville because of the great quality of life, the good cost of living, the short commute times, and also because it has an ocean.

What are the primary factors in relocating a company here? As chairman of the chamber, you’re involved in recruiting businesses, especially corporate headquarters, to the city. What do you use?
If you can get the decision-maker, that’s really important. If you can get the CEO of an organization to see what a great place Jacksonville is to live, that has a huge impact. But you can’t always do that. You aren’t always moving headquarters.

Many times you’re trying to build existing businesses that are here, or regional operations here, so we really try to stress the great advantages of living in a place like Jacksonville, some of which I’ve already named —great climate, good cost of living, lots of different types of housing options, good workforce.

When you put all those things together, it really does make it a very attractive location.

What are the challenges in recruiting headquarters to Jacksonville when you’re in competition with Greenville, South Carolina, or Raleigh, or Charlotte, you name the spot?
The places you named are all wonderful places to live. I think we just have to try to sell the things that make Jacksonville different from many of those other areas. Something as simple as what I mentioned earlier about the ocean. How many places have an ocean and a beautiful river along with all the other attributes we have here?

You really try to explain the differences that we have, although those are great locations, and they’re tough to compete against.

Tell us about Main Street America Group.
Main Street America is a property casualty insurance company, headquartered here in Jacksonville. We have close to $1 billion in premium, over about $2.2 billion in assets.

We have in Jacksonville about 160 employees, and 850 employees within the organization.

We write home, auto and small business insurance through a network of independent insurance agents throughout 27 states.

The economy has been in recession, and technically is out of the recession. What are you seeing in your company, and what are you seeing in the economy as a whole in Jacksonville?
Our organization for the last couple of years has had difficulty growing the revenue, growing the top line, because of the economy.

In our business, we’re insuring homes, autos, small businesses, and when you don’t have people buying more homes and cars and creating new businesses and things like that, it does make it difficult to grow.

Probably in about November 2011, we started seeing an uptick. And every month since then, we’ve been seeing more and more, particularly on the commercial side, where many employers are now adding more payroll, they’re expanding their operations. So we’re actually seeing some very nice growth so far here in 2012. I think it’s definitely on an upward swing.

I’m not sure the housing market has stabilized yet, but I think the overall economy is starting to see some good movement.

There’s obviously a concern with unemployment being as high as it is, but we definitely have turned the corner.

The JAX Chamber has about 3,000 members, and a lot of those are small businesses. What are the small businesses saying in terms of how the economy has been affecting them? Are they able to navigate all the issues?
I think there’s a lot more excitement from the small businesses. I’ve been trying to get out to the nine local area chamber councils.

We’ve got a lot more people attending the meetings now than we did a couple of years ago. There’s a lot more excitement, and people talking about their businesses, starting to see some growth.

I know membership has been down over the last couple of years. We’re now seeing some very positive signs, so again, I think we’ve turned the corner, we’re starting to see some more activity.

Are you seeing small businesses hiring?
Yes, absolutely.

The chamber also is very active with Mayor Alvin Brown’s administration. What is the role of the chamber going forward?
We’re in a partnership, we’re collaborating with one another, we have a lot of the same desires and interests, some of the same objectives, and so we’re working very closely with the mayor.

Obviously we have loaned (JAXUSA Partnership President) Jerry Mallot at a dollar a year to the mayor to try to help put his organization in place, particularly around economic development. I think we’re starting to see some good signs there.

We’re very excited about the mayor, he’s all about jobs, and growing the economy, and making Jacksonville a greater place to live and work.

That’s everything that we stand for, so we’re working very closely with the mayor to try to accomplish those things.

You’re also involved with the Jacksonville Civic Council, and I know the civic council is similarly involved with the mayor’s office. How important is it for the mayor to be able to call upon the business leaders of the city?
I think it’s critical to have that close partnership, because we’re all about trying to bring more jobs to Jacksonville, which will increase the quality of life for everyone. So I think it’s great to have that partnership with the mayor.

Downtown also was a big focus of the legislation that the mayor’s office has introduced to City Council. What is the future of Downtown, especially recruiting business and jobs downtown?
Downtown is interesting. If you really step back and think about it, we probably have one of the most beautiful downtowns of any place I have traveled.

I’ve traveled quite a bit, and it’s amazing how much many cities have done with their downtowns, but they don’t have a lot of the same natural assets that we have with the beautiful river, for example, running through it.

We really just haven’t leveraged our Downtown to the extent that we need to. So I think we have a lot of momentum.

A lot of people that feel the same way — the mayor, the Civic Council, the chamber — we now have the opportunity to make some great strides in Downtown.

We’ve already seen some pretty good things happening, with EverBank making its announcement of bringing 1,500 jobs Downtown, and hopefully the creation of the Downtown development council to focus specifically Downtown.

When we’ve studied other cities around the United States that have very good, vibrant downtowns, they all have something akin to a downtown development council to really focus on doing what it takes to make downtown vibrant.

We’re also trying to raise money to rebuild the chamber building Downtown. We’re calling it “Downtown’s New Front Door.” When you come over the Main Street Bridge, we want you to see something that is very pleasing, very welcoming. We continue to raise funds.

Did you consider locating your company Downtown?
You know, we really didn’t. When we came here, it was really more because primarily, for most of our employees, it would be a little more difficult for them to commute Downtown, that we really focused on the area that we’re in now, which is right behind Tinseltown, in the Deerwood office park. It was really a consideration of where our employees at the time resided.

You told me in an earlier interview that you wanted to meet with new Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and talk to him about, if not relocating his headquarters here, perhaps starting another company here. How’s that going?
We’re still working on it. We’re very excited. Mr. Khan, I think, is just a wonderful asset to Jacksonville, and I think he’s going to build a great winning tradition with the Jaguars, and we’d also love to see him bring some of his businesses here as well, so that is a discussion still in motion.

The topic of this segment is success, and how you reach success. With the economy having gone through a recession, companies that have survived obviously do have some secrets for success. Do you have any that could share with new companies or people thinking about going into business?
I think our success has been paying attention to what we’re about, our culture, and the fundamentals of our business.

You can get distracted easily by having businesses or products that may sound appealing, but if you don’t really understand them, if you don’t understand your product line, if you don’t understand your customers, if you don’t understand your culture, you can get into trouble really quickly.

I think really paying attention to the fundamentals of what we do well has really carried us through.

We probably haven’t grown the top line as much through some of the more difficult lean years, but we did not want to sacrifice profit to grow more. That’s put us in the position now where we have a very strong balance sheet, we have plenty of capital to be able to take advantage of what we think are going to be some very significant growth opportunities as the economy improves.

A lot of companies that have done well do have a lot of money. When will we start seeing more of that put into capital investments or into hiring?
Speaking in broader terms, I do think that there continues to be a bit of a fear of overregulation. Some of the reaction to the financial crisis in 2008 has been a tendency to overregulate in many businesses, and I think that’s something a lot of companies are taking a close look at.

The economy’s improving, but companies still have not made the kind of investments they really would like to.

Hopefully, we’ll see an environment where there’s a little more trust and confidence in business in general. And we absolutely need to be regulated, but we don’t want to go too far.

Jerry Mallot, who is the president of the JAXUSA Partnership, formerly known as the Cornerstone Division of the chamber, said recently that he predicts 2013, 2014, will be breakout years in Jacksonville. He didn’t go into any detail, but could you give us a preview of what he might be talking about?
I think he’s probably referring to all the great things that we have kind of in motion now. Again, some of the emphasis on Downtown, the economy starting to improve, some of the things that we’re seeing at the state level.

There are also some of the other things we’re doing in the chamber, the #ilovejax Twitter campaign, trying to increase our self-image, get the word out that Jacksonville really is a great place to live and to raise a family, and to run a business.

I think that in the next couple of years, there are going to be more companies that are going to look to Jacksonville to move their operations.

Are we going to see some announcements soon?
I hope so.

Any idea of what we might see?
I can’t give you anything, but there have already been a couple of very good announcements this year — the recent announcement with the Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie merger, and Bi-Lo agreeing to keep the corporate headquarters here, and moving probably a couple of hundred high-wage jobs. That was a really good announcement.

Hopefully we’ll be able to announce more this year.

What else would you like to share?
As far as my year with the chamber, to summarize the priorities: Downtown development is very big; supporting the port, which is a big driver of jobs here, that’s going to be very important.

We have a very close relationship with (Duval School Board Chairwoman) Betty Burney and the school district because we can’t have a world-class city without a world-class education system, and there are some things that we’re going to try to do to help support Duval County and to be able to improve the schools.

We have Buy Chamber, which our members, particularly the small business, love because it gives them access to many of the procurement officials and some of the bigger companies around town, and also provides a process for them to buy from one another.

I mentioned “I Love Jax,” which is really something that came out of our (September) Leadership Trip to Houston, where we sat around and said, you know, Houston’s done a great job with a lot of things, particularly downtown, but let’s face it, Jacksonville is a much better place to live. It’s a much prettier city, we think, and we need to build up our self-image to able to really promote Jacksonville.

That’s where the “I Love Jax” came out, and you’ll be hearing more about that.

You bring up self-image, and that is a topic that Jerry Mallot brought up recently and people have been talking about for a long time. That is, Jacksonville does not seem to have the strongest self-image. What should the city be doing about that? Is the city addressing that?
I haven’t lived here my whole life, so I’m not really sure why. I have noticed it, and then when you really kind of take a step back and look around, and again, you see the ocean, river, climate, all the outdoor activities, the sports and entertainment venues that we have, the NFL franchise, the Players (Championship), we have so much going on.

I was just up in the Northeast and it reminded me driving into the office today, the roads were smooth, and the traffic wasn’t too bad, the infrastructure’s very good, so I think we need to remember all the great things we do have.

Short of snow skiing, you can do just about anything here.

You mentioned the chamber becoming more involved with the educational system. Can you talk about that?
We’re still working on that. We know we want to help, but we’re not sure what that exactly is going to be. A couple of things that we’ve talked about doing is all the major employers represented in the chamber, including Main Street, are adopting a school in some fashion — tutoring, mentoring, doing supply drives, things like that.

We’d like to encourage all the chamber businesses to get involved some way in adopting schools and helping that way.

In addition to that, we’re going through a search for a new (superintendent) leader, so we’ve offered our help as far as identifying characteristics and maybe through the interview process and things like that.

There will be a new crop of leaders — a new superintendent, new CEOs of the JEA and Jacksonville Transportation Authority. There are a lot of new corporate leaders, too. Do you have any observations about the new leadership coming into the city?
I think it’s great. It’s great to have some new perspectives, and some fresh thinking coming into the city, and the new Bi-Lo executive is another good example. I think that’s great. We want to get them all involved with the chamber and maybe the other activities in the community. I think it’s good for the city.

kmathis@baileypub.com

356-2466

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