2 min read July 2021 — Conner Strong & Buckelew is one of the country’s largest insurance, risk management and employee benefits brokerage and consulting firms. In an interview with Invest:, Executive Chairman George Norcross shares his insights on what awaits Camden and the South Jersey region going forward.
How would you characterize the service demand that is driving your growth?
It comes from all aspects. Large companies, which make up about two-thirds of the businesses we work for, are asking for property and casualty services. In almost all cases, they are self-insured, with some capacity for extreme risk management capabilities. About a third of our businesses require services around employee benefits and consulting all across the country. Given the scare that COVID put into many companies in America, they started looking at every dollar they were spending. Throughout 2Q20, people were scared to death of what was going to happen in the country. For most American companies, it did not turn out as bad as it was projected to, meaning businesses managed to continue in alternate ways. By and large, most companies adapted fairly well.
The pandemic created a whole new world order and I personally think it permanently changed the way business is going to operate. TD Bank, for instance, has managed to continue running a vast network of branches, all remotely, which is astonishing. The ongoing discussion is not how quickly we can return to work but, rather, how quickly can we create a new model that meshes working in a physical office building with working from home. Some companies are downsizing up to a third of their pre-COVID office footprint. Sometimes these types of economic black swans have a way of changing things that already needed to be changed in some way, shape or form.
What does the ongoing digital transformation look like for the industry and particularly for your firm?
Technology has enhanced the way we all do business. The insurance brokerage industry decided to start a company called Broker Tech Ventures, which specializes in investing in and promoting technological advances in our business so that we can share those with our clientele. We have put millions of dollars into that, as have other companies, to help enhance what we are doing. On a daily basis, your business either gets enhanced, providing the services your clients need or expect, or you’re going to miss your growth objectives and lose business. Failing to secure that constant revamp will cost you your spot at the forefront of the changes that are taking place every week and every month in any business.
The biggest capital expenditures, excluding bricks and mortar, are technological developments. The amount of money we as a firm spend in that rubric is astronomical. We are among the Top 25 brokerage firms in the country, but we are constantly changing. What we spent millions of dollars on a year and a half ago is now obsolete.
What does South Jersey have to offer in terms of healthcare, life sciences and research?
Our region is second to maybe Boston in terms of healthcare and life sciences. There are major medical schools and healthcare institutions here that rival those of Boston and New York. All that being said, the life science industry has gravitated in part away from New Jersey and more to Massachusetts because of massive tax incentives. Many executives in that industry describe Massachusetts as a less regulatory environment with grade-A universities — Harvard and MIT. New Jersey used to have a monopoly in terms of the pharma industry. To some extent, the perceived or real taxation and regulatory environment in New Jersey has, at least according to the executives we speak to, hurt significantly the dominance that it once had.
I serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Cooper Health System, Cooper University Hospital, and MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. In the first four months of this year, Cooper has been booming at all-time levels, on revenue as well as patient volume. We find ourselves increasingly near maximum capacity on a daily basis in every facet of our business. Our biggest segments are surgical surgery, trauma and cancer care at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. All of those areas are at double-digit revenue, experiencing booming growth. Not all institutions can claim that.
What factors are key in ensuring continued growth in the region?
Exceedingly low interest rates have had a lot to do with the growth we’re seeing in the country. There’s no reason to believe that interest rates are going to be altered any time in the near term, which is going to continue to promote real estate values. Places such as Cherry Hill are exploding in real estate activity. That was on no one’s radar. Real estate down at the Jersey Shore is up 30% on average. Construction planning is still going on. If you want to move to Camden right now, there is barely a square foot of office space available. Everything has been taken. Camden is in the process of another extensive demolition effort to take down abandoned, dilapidated properties. In the next budget cycle, we suspect additional resources will be directed to those efforts so tracts of land can be cleared for new construction, whether it be residential, commercial or otherwise. The Walter Rand Transportation Terminal was allocated $300 million for reconstruction. It’s going to involve a massive public-private partnership on top of simply the transportation center. The light rail line extension from Camden down to Glassboro is in progress as we speak. Private capital is now willing to come in and look at building things when five years ago nobody would take a look at Camden. It is no longer the most dangerous or poverty-stricken city in the United States. It still has a long way to go, but the arrow is pointing up.
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