Herald Tribune

What To Do: Help Companies Grow or Bring in New Ones?

November 14 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011: Jobs and how to get more of them — that’s the hot topic in my daily conversations, whether with local residents, business leaders or elected officials.

The frequently asked question goes something like this:

“Should we spend time and resources helping companies in the community grow or attracting new companies to Sarasota County?”

The emergence of Sarasota County’s insurance sector provides two cases in point.

FCCI, which started in Sarasota County in 1959, and Centauri Specialty, launching this month as a spin-off from Universal North America, established here in 2003 as a subsidiary of Puerto Rico-based Universal Group.

I-75 did not reach south of Tampa when FCCI was founded by local business owners 52 years ago. The founders could not find affordable workers compensation insurance, so they pooled resources and started their own insurance mutual with a handful of employees.

Since then, FCCI (fcci-group.com) has expanded to serve 48,000 policies in 14 states with a full suite of commercial insurance products.

Today, the company has 670 employees, with close to 400 based at FCCI’s Lakewood Ranch headquarters.

“We’re one of the largest private employers in Sarasota County, and we’re here for the long term,” said Craig Johnson, FCCI president and CEO. “We care about this community. We are a $1.8-billion asset company, yet we still maintain a family feel.”

By any measure, FCCI’s numbers are impressive. The company is on track to achieve $470 million in revenue this year and continue its trend of profitability, Johnson said. FCCI’s goal is to operate in 21 states and generate annual revenue of $700 million by the end of 2015.

While most of the company’s job growth will occur in the new markets FCCI enters, the company’s reputation as a great employer makes its 400 local jobs even more valuable to the community. Employee turnover is exceedingly low: a mere 7 percent (anything in single digits is phenomenal).

From entrepreneurial startup to insurance powerhouse, FCCI’s story demonstrates the value of creating a positive climate for organic growth by local businesses.

The Universal North America-Centauri story, meanwhile, shows the power in welcoming newcomers to settle here.

Centauri Specialty Insurance Co. (centaurispecialty.com), which provides residential insurance products, just opened its doors in Lakewood Ranch in late October.

The principals, Ricardo “Rick” Espino and Lora Rees, were top executives who established Universal North America’s (uihna.com) headquarters on Arthur Andersen Parkway in Sarasota.

After leading Universal’s growth for six years, Espino and Rees saw an opportunity to build their own business around a product line the company was willing to spin off.

“We expect to grow from four to 17 employees in the first year,” Espino said. “Our initial market focus will be the Gulf Coast states outside of Florida.”

Meanwhile, Universal continues to add jobs in Sarasota County. Universal President Miguel Barrales said, “We insure over 260,000 families in 17 states. This growth is supported by 170 team members currently, and there are plans to add 40 more jobs in 2012.”

What makes Sarasota County a hotbed for insurance company birth and growth? Barrales, Espino and Johnson agree that the attractive lifestyle and climate are keys to recruiting employees — and employers. Plus, the spin-off effect — when entrepreneurial talent leaves one company to start another — is a dynamic that feeds on itself.

Said Espino, “One success tends to brew others. When you have a success story like an FCCI or Universal North America, they spin off successful people. Those entrepreneurs are recognized for their past success, they get opportunities to start their own businesses or spin off companies. Successful people create other success stories.”

So, does job growth occur organically by assisting existing businesses, or by attracting new employers from elsewhere? The answer is “yes.”

Contact Mark Huey, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, at mhuey@ edcsarasotacounty.com. EDC
is the public/private partnership leading economic diversification efforts by working with community and regional partners.