How Erie's Only Fortune 500 Company Invests In and Revitalizes the Neighborhood and City It Calls Home
At the eastern edge of Perry Square in downtown Erie, a bronze statue of The Commodore gazes out over the city. In his navy uniform, jacket unbuttoned, his messy brown curls frozen in time, Oliver Hazard Perry stands, his right arm lifted, his fist closed, save for his index finger which is pointing up and to the southeast.
That iconic pose – the one, so the stories of the War of 1812 go, he struck when he boarded the Niagara from the Lawrence after rowing through waves of enemy fire – captures Perry raising his right arm, as if commanding the future to become the present, while his left arm is tucked close to his chest, cradling the flag of the battered Lawrence, the past, too, now frozen mid-moment. The patina Perry stands at a crossroads of history, somewhere between a sinking past and an uncertain future.
Stand along side of Perry, staring eastward, and follow that pointed finger. A modest brick building, one surrounded by a chain-link fence, signaling the beginning of construction underway, sits at the corner of Sixth and French streets. The words "Erie Insurance Exchange" are centered above a red, double-door entryway on the building's north side and just below the number "1925" encircled in a stone wreath.
Follow that pointed finger just a bit farther south a few blocks to see the words "Erie Insurance," the phrase completed with the word "Arena" wrapping across the rounded entryway. The much needed renovations – over $40 million in total – to the former Tullio Arena on display for the entire city and region to see: An updated facility, modern in design and fresh in appeal, awaiting world-class performers to populate the stages and rising star athletes to take to the center.
Perry's statue stands, his pose locked in time, at a crossroads exemplary of Erie's past and future, at an intersection where the two find themselves in the presence of rebirth, restoration, and revitalization of The Gem City's oldest neighborhood. Perry's eyes remain affixed on the city's only home-bred and based Fortune 500 company, with roots firmly planted in Erie's lower eastside. That company is investing in and revitalizing the neighborhood it calls home and the city from which it draws its name one brick at a time, paving a solid future built on the foundations of the city's past.
Although it may be more recognizable to Erieites as the place where everything started for Erie Insurance Group, the small brick building on the corner of Sixth and French streets wasn't home to the company until 1938. When H.O. Hirt and O.G. Crawford first planned their company on a 10-cent notebook in 1925 and received a license from the Pennsylvania Insurance Department to begin operations, they set up shop in the Scott Block Building at the corner of 10th and State streets and worked there thirteen years before relocating to the former C.F. Adams Company headquarters.
While the business, now a multi-line insurance company that offers auto, home, commercial, and life insurance that extends through Pennsylvania and branches out to ten other states including Wisconsin, Tennessee, and New York, has grown and evolved with the times, its founding principles remain firmly rooted in one motto: Above All In sERvIcE.
So the stories go, when Hirt and Crawford scribbled out their plan on that notepad, they weren't setting out on some get-rich-quick scheme; instead, they were more genuine during their humble beginnings, more thorough and thoughtful in their vision, basing the company on what Hirt called "simple common sense, mixed with just plain decency." And for that, they turned to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you'd have other done unto you.
That understanding birthed the motto Erie Insurance still uses today, with the letters E-R-I-E raised from 'service', acting as a reminder of where their foundation lay both physically and philosophically, and in 1930, Hirt introduced a pin bearing the phrase and cemented the company's commitment to that notion for decades to come.
But before the phrase, the commitment, the vision, and the future, times weren't easy. Sure, it was the Roaring '20s, sure America was basking in prosperity that followed the end of World War I, and sure Erie was a city on the rise with other companies, like General Electric and Hammermill Paper tethering their roots in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania; but starting any business, especially one with just two men running the operations day-to-day, is never easy. Much of the success of companies and organizations on the rise during that time relied on more than just ideas, they relied on follow-through and hard work. From the fabled world record that Crawford set, writing 243 policies in thirty days just a year into the business, to Sam P. Black, Erie's first full-time adjuster and claims manager, living up to the pledge of 24-hour service by keeping an office phone extension in his room at the YMCA in 1927, Erie Insurance operated and then thrived under a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work mentality.
By 1953, Erie Insurance's footprint extended beyond Erie, reaching into Silver Spring, MD. Even though things in the insurance world in Erie were booming, Crawford decided to retire in 1933, leaving the then-45-year-old Hirt to his own. And as Erie Insurance grew outside of the city, things were growing within, too. Because of the burgeoning staff, the company erected a new home office in 1956, the H.O. Hirt Building situated on the north side of East Sixth Street. With a penchant for history and architecture, the former history teacher turned insurer wanted a timeless building, one that would never seem outdated, one that would never simply be lost in the concrete panorama of downtown Erie, leading the architects to construct a Georgian-style edifice, one paying homage to the cradle of American Insurance – Philadelphia – and an image that would become the logo of Erie Insurance.
Later, Hirt had a replica of the Liberty Bell installed in the office, amongst various other artifacts to service as reminders of history and inspiration for the future. "Success in business," Hirt once said, "is not a matter of tricks and gimmicks," and his appreciation of history and attention to detail became something that pushed the company forward, guiding it for years to come.
Fast-forward through the decades – past the introduction of Erie Family Life Insurance, past the expansion of the home office into an old Volkswagen dealership and beyond, past the first appearance on the NASDAQ as "ERIE", past the debut on the Fortune 500 list – and Erie Insurance in its eighty-eighth year of existence is still growing. That growth all happened through the business of one thing: Selling insurance.
But selling insurance isn't sexy. Then again, neither is buying it. Unlike the groceries we buy and then eat, unlike the cars we purchase to drive us to the store, and unlike the domiciles for which we pay to reside and store our groceries, insurance is the one thing we buy and hope to never use. Because if we do need to cash in on our insurance, it means something's gone wrong, the unexpected's become reality.
Yet we all pay for it – the protection from what we assume to be the worst. We insure the things that matter to us because we fear losing them, and we emplace our trust in others to do the right thing when we need them most. And Hirt understood that.
"Insurance is the most important thing a person buys," he quipped in 1954, "because it protects him against the loss of everything he has in the world."
That serious approach to insurance separated Erie Insurance from other companies then and continues to distinguish it now among the talking pigs, the grunting cavemen, the human manifestations of chaos and disorder, the poorly animated military commanders, and the odd ex-Weekend Update anchors that flash across our glowing rectangles, luring us with a laugh, later leaving us scratching our heads.
Erie Insurance embraces that difference, a more austere and simple approach to a complex product. "Funny ads are great," an Erie Insurance billboard once proclaimed. "Until you have a claim."
One might even say: Above All In sERvIcE.
"It really captures [our mission] in a short phrase," former CEO and current chairman of the board Thomas Hagen says over the phone. "Some people might think it's kind of cute, but it really says what we are. Our founding purpose was to provide policyholders with as near perfect protection and as near perfect service as humanly possible and to do so at the lowest possible cost."
Terry Cavanaugh, who's been in his current position as president and CEO since 2008, says he sees building up other leaders as vital to his role, something that speaks to Erie Insurance's commitment to its employees.
"I'm spending time to make sure this business grows leaders, so that as it grows, there won't be a void of that talent and we can continue to have success for the next ninety years," he says during a phone call.
In a lot of ways, Cavanaugh seems similar to Hirt. He speaks at length about history and what one could learn from it. He's forward-thinking, recognizing the importance of trends like social media and how to adapt with the times. But like Hirt, who for decades continued to interview potential employees himself and would write a weekly newsletter to the company, Cavanaugh knows the importance face-to-face interaction plays at Erie Insurance – just like other CEOs before him.
"We've been able to find a good, solid committed workforce here," says Hagen. Hagen, who served as CEO in the early '90s, adds that hiring and developing good people has led to the company being able to give back to the community in which it got its start.
"This is the community that got us going and kept us going," he says of ERIE's place in Erie. "It's been a good community to us, and we in turn try to be a good to the community as we grow and prosper."
That growth is evident, especially through their ranking as a Fortune 500 company for the last decade. But Hagen says obtaining such a status wasn't really "a big deal," because it was a "consequence of continually growing." The bigger deal came, he says, "with the loss of other Fortune 500 companies in Erie."
That may place Erie Insurance on an economic island in Erie, or create the picture of an ostentatious oasis in a crumbling community coming from an association with big business, big banks, and big corporations – especially as Erie's business landscape continues to change, leaving its citizens to stare down an uncertain future while clinging to the past just out of reach. Hagen says, however, the history Erie Insurance has of treating its people – both customers and employees – with integrity and respect, the values rooted in the history of the company, set the company apart from that image of a monolithic corporation hailing solely to the almighty dollar.
"As long as I'm around," says the 78-year old, laughing, "I'll ensure we do – and that, that will be our success."
That success reaches beyond the walls of the Erie Insurance.
"Our company has always had a long history of community involvement," says Ann Scott, vice president of community outreach. "It's very important to us that the community where we work and live is vibrant and successful."
As Scott sees it, a thriving and growing community makes for a successful organization situated in the heart of it. From employees donating time to the Pfeiffer-Burleigh School – a twenty-six-year-old relationship – to contributing to Erie's arts and culture scene by way of organizations like ArtsErie, Erie Insurance is investing in the city it calls home.
There's one big way for the community to see that investment, growth, and expansion: The Erie Insurance Arena.
From a marketing standpoint, it makes total sense: a large display of the company's name broadcast boldly across the venue that houses some of the community's largest events. But from Cavanaugh's perspective, the brand awareness and recognition were secondary in the company's decision to purchase the naming rights for $3 million for the next 10 years.
"It was clear that there was going to be a shortfall, as good of a job as the [Erie County Convention Center] Authority was doing," he says. "We talked to some of the people involved, and it was clear to us that we were going to have a world-class facility… What I didn't want was them to do this and then have to cut corners to the point that you wouldn't have that world-class experience."
A Chicago-native, Cavanaugh argues that a region can only be as successful as its urban center. And to him, this would help ensure in part the success of Erie's urban center.
"I want the city of Erie to be vibrant and a place that people can take pride in and utilize," he continues. "The arena was important, not necessarily for the brand, but for the community. Having a strong arena like that creates a vibrancy and attractiveness to this region. We have a big commitment financially and emotionally to downtown Erie and that building was our neighbor."
Hagen reaffirms Erie Insurance's motives: "We try to focus our community engagement and investments into the social service needs of the community – obviously you don't look for your name to be prominently listed – that's really more of our focus and emphasis. We just keep a little lower profile in our community outreach and philanthropy."
While the company may desire to keep a low profile when it comes to investing in the company, it's hard to keep a low profile when more space is needed for a growing organization, because with growth, comes expansion. For one, that means jobs, which are coming by way of a 52,000-square-foot training center to be located next to the company's new garage. Also included will be a two-story house with hands-on displays and fourteen vehicle bays and equipment stations.
Prior to the expansion, the company had had to outsource its training to third-party vendors. Now, the company will no longer need to do that once the project is completed in 2014.
But what about physical space – new bricks, new mortar?
"Our work to simultaneously preserve and further develop the neighborhood around our home office shows that companies can provide for the needs of a modern business while respecting and honoring the history of a community," Hagen said in a press release.
Keeping that delicate balance between growing a company while respecting historical structures isn't something new to Erie Insurance, it's just something not often talked about.
Jeremy Bloeser sits at a long table in a small kitchen space in a one-story white house on Parade Street. Pictures of properties in the area – Erie's Historic Bayfront neighborhood – populate a corkboard behind the table. A map of Erie, color-coded by sections, hangs adjacent to the photos.
Those photos, featuring homes with broken porches and litter strewn about the front yards, serve as reminders of what B.E.S.T. has done and is doing for the twenty-five-block part of Erie Bloeser calls home.
"I can't say enough good about Erie Insurance," Bloeser says, pausing to smile. "Their continued financial support, but even bigger is their ongoing personal support…"
The executive director of the Bayfront East Side Taskforce pauses to smile again.
He has reason to smile. B.E.S.T., first started in 1978 to improve the neighborhood ranging from Sixth Street to the Bay and from Holland to Wayne streets, is a nonprofit organization designed with a hyper-focus on revitalizing the region – converting those houses in the photos with languished lawns to things of residential beauty. Erie Insurance is continuing to invest in the organization and the region, helping to make the dreams of B.E.S.T. and people like Bloeser a reality.
"We can't thank them enough for everything they do," he adds. "They really are changing the way this neighborhood looks in a positive way. And we want to be a neighborhood that attracts people so that people desire to live in the Erie Bayfront neighborhood – that's our biggest goal, and we think we're moving in the right direction."
Erie Insurance recently committed $900,000 total ($150,000 per year) over the course of six years to B.E.S.T., and since 2006, Erie Insurance has contributed over $1 million total to the nonprofit.
The recent commitment, which runs through 2018, is helped in part by the PA Neighborhood Partnership Program tax credits by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development – in short, making it a win-win for Erie Insurance and B.E.S.T.
"I like to give them credit for everything, because we wouldn't exist if it wasn't for those funds," Bloeser says.
Under the direction of Bloeser and B.E.S.T.'s board – which features three Erie Insurance employees – the nonprofit buys blighted properties and then decides whether to raze them or renovate them. Since the area is Erie's oldest neighborhood, many of the properties weren't constructed up to today's codes, so demolishing makes more sense when restoring is no longer an option.
Razing buildings isn't specific to Erie. The New York Times recently reported that "for many cities, urban planning has often become a form of creative destruction."
In the same article published last month, Sandra Pianalto, the president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland argued that "It's not the house itself that has value, it is the land the house stands on. This led us to the counterintuitive concept that the best policy to stabilize neighborhoods may not always be rehabilitation. It may be demolition."
But this isn't a one-size-fits-all solution thereby advocating for the destructions of all things old. When history can be preserved, argues both Bloeser and Hagen, it should be. And fortunately for Erie, people like Bloeser are on the case and have the support and backing of organizations like Erie Insurance.
"We've built twenty-two new homes on empty lots created by the removal of blighted properties," Bloeser explains, and the organization has removed over forty-five blighted properties in the last twelve years.
Of those necessary removals in Erie, twenty-seven empty green space lots exist now, and the funding Erie Insurance provides goes toward the upkeep of that space. From community gardens to proposed public art pieces, the area is ensured revitalization through investments like those of Erie Insurance, which helps fight against the perception that the area is violent, crime-ridden, and somewhere people in Erie don't want to be.
"There is a negative perception, and we're constantly battling that," Bloeser admits. "There are a lot of exciting things happening… [but] the job will never be done," Bloeser says of the restoration, the revitalization, and the constant re-building of his neighborhood. "We have made great strides by removing those forty-plus properties. We have improved this neighborhood."
And to Bloeser, that we includes Erie Insurance.
"They're strong partners [in this community] in many ways," he says. "They give financial contributions – I can never discount that – but we also get financial contributions from some of their employees who donate to us directly.
"Oh, and this building," he says, pausing to look around the room and out to his desk. "This is their building."
When B.E.S.T. lacked the funds to secure a headquarters, an office situated in the heart of the area, Erie Insurance stepped in and purchased what Bloeser now calls his workspace. In the back, there are two offices and a bathroom. From a room filled with filing cabinets, a desk, and a computer, Bloeser peers out the window.
"That building there," he points to a red house on East Fifth Street, "Erie Insurance just invested $85,000 to renovate it.
"Who does that?" he questions, almost still in awe and disbelief.
The donations of Erie Insurance go beyond brick and mortar and drywall and windows. Bloeser is using funds to install cameras throughout the neighborhood to further deter crime. To date, he has five cameras on Parade Street, and is looking to install twenty more in the coming five years in an effort to further deter crime.
So when preserving is possible and protection is added, a neighborhood can continue to flourish, and residents, both current and former, notice the good that is happening.
"I was very happy to hear that Erie Insurance made the decision to purchase this property and restore it," says City Councilman Dave Brennan, upon learning that the company purchased a home he had owned for three years on East Sixth Street. "Personally, it really feels good that a part of our family's past and Erie's past will now be saved for our future generations to enjoy."
An architect and someone with all eye for detail and a heart for preservation, Brennan added that he and his wife had the intention to restore the home – removing the aluminum siding, restoring the windows and original wood trim, and repointing the brick and stonework in the early to mid '90s. Erie Insurance, he added, had offered to purchase the building then, but due to zoning regulations, couldn't.
"Since architecture and our built environment are a physical record of our past, it is important that we do everything we can as a community to keep that history intact," he added. "So much of our past built environment has been destroyed in Erie and every building we can save and repurpose is a victory for our neighborhoods, our city, and our region."
Saving buildings at the same time companies are looking to expand can be a juggling act. The question becomes: Do we save the character of our city and retrofit older buildings so that they retain their outward character, or do we level them in search of entirely new structures?
"It is very important to me to retain the current character of the neighborhood. Although many houses have been purchased and demolished in this area of the city, retaining the density is very important to the residential character of the neighborhood," Brennan explained. "To me that character has value and I am a proponent to do everything we can to advocate to make the needed investments in these homes to avoid any more demolitions in the future."
As Bloeser recognized, though, Brennan too knows that sometimes demolitions can't be avoided for various reasons. But with investments like this, along with the purchase of the ninety-plus-year-old Pennsylvania National Guard Armory and conversion into office space for Erie employees, Erie Insurance is extending its campus footprint without refitting the area for a whole new shoe when only a new sole is needed.
Brennan, who serves on the board of Preservation Erie and will soon join the board of the newly formed Erie Neighborhood Growth Partnership, said he wants to bring Erie's neighborhoods back to their prior glory, and that "partnerships with Erie Insurance, B.E.S.T., Erie Neighborhood Watch, and the City of Erie are crucial" to achieving that goal.
Start back with Perry in his square and stroll down East Sixth Street, past the 101-year-old C.F. Adams building encased with silver fence, and there you'll again find that commitment to the area and the preservation of the neighborhood isn't new to Erie Insurance. On the south side of the street, out of the ground stands a white post and marker with blue lettering. It stands in front of the Gideon Ball House, an Italianate-style mansion built in 1862. The paragraph of description explains the significance of the house, why it was built, and what it was used for, but if you look closer, in smaller font at the bottom reads: Restored 1992 by Erie Insurance Group.
Go just a bit farther east and turn left to head north on Holland. There you'll find the Kennedy Row Houses, erected in 1832 and a similar paragraph on an identical marker detailing their history and importance. You'll also find a similar phrase at the bottom: Restored 1984 by Erie Insurance Group as part of the Federal Row Square Residential Development.
In the vicinity, there's also the Kennedy Double House, the Brewster House, the Tibbals House – all with the same marker, all with concisely worded histories on stamped shields of safeguarding from the Erie Insurance Group, a visual manifestation of an insurance policy on the history of the Flagship City, that we may not forget our past, and a clear sign of continued commitment to that service above all else in the future to come.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ERBenSpeggen.