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How dark horse Norcross went from selling insurance at the track to the top in business, politics

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    George E. Norcross III's influence in politics has made him notorious, but it's his business savvy that's helped him build his empire.
    George E. Norcross III's influence in politics has made him notorious, but it's his business savvy that's helped him build his empire. - (Mary Iuvone)

    George E. Norcross III should have been celebrating. Instead, he was staring down representatives of Republic Insurance Co.

    The thoroughbred Spend A Buck had just won the Jersey Derby — skipping the more venerable Preakness and a chance at the Triple Crown — and a $2.6 million payday at Garden State Park, in Cherry Hill. International Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. had promised a $2 million bonus to a horse winning the Kentucky Derby, Jersey Derby and two other races at its track, and suddenly, Republic was balking at paying the bonus.

    Standing in Art Winkler's office at the track, Norcross, who had found Republic to back the bonus for a $150,000 premium, accused the insurance company of "weaseling out" of the deal, which the company said was voided because terms of the deal had been learned by the Philadelphia Inquirer, a violation of the agreement.

    Winkler, a friend of Norcross' father who was then ITB's general counsel, recalled Norcross looking the Republic representatives in the eye and saying he wanted to meet with them. Privately.

    "Have you ever seen George when he looks people in the eye?" said Winkler, who now lives in Virginia. "You feel a guy who is not going to let you out of the room without making his case — and probably winning it."
    Republic Insurance paid the $2 million within 48 hours.

    From his profanity-laced boasting on the Palmyra tapes in 2001 to his recent efforts to force a merger of Rutgers and Rowan universities, stories of Norcross' might as a South Jersey power broker have been told ad nauseam — sometimes screamed in newspaper headlines, sometimes whispered behind cupped hands.

    Often overlooked is his success as a businessman, driven by his competitive desire to be the best. Norcross has built an insurance business from the ground up more than once, and now heads Marlton-based Conner, Strong & Buckelew; is campaigning for Cooper University Hospital's ongoing expansion in Camden; and is behind the group of investors hoping to rescue Philadelphia's largest daily newspaper.

    "He's always the smartest guy in the room," said Winkler, who was also a senior executive at Cooper. "He's smart because he understands what he wants to achieve, he's focused on what he wants to achieve, he lets people know what he wants to achieve, he's great at persuading them at what he wants to achieve and … he goes in wanting to hit home runs."

    See also: Norcross can let his hair down — or shave it off
    Coming next week: The rise of an insurance empire

    Rutgers dropout

    The story of Norcross as a business titan begins when Rutgers University asked him to leave after his freshman year on the Camden campus. "I got warned the first semester that my grades were underwhelming and that my attendance in class was not encouraging. So they asked me in the second semester to focus on education, and I thought I might, but it turned out I didn't," he said.

    At age 19, Norcross began working at a card table in a basement office in Camden for Philadelphia-based Zinman, Grossman, Lichtenstein Co. after Ernie Schuck, a four-term assemblyman who died in 2009, introduced the young man to Jack Zinman.

    Norcross said he was turned down "numerous" times as a young salesman. How did he take it?

    "Same way I take rejection today," he said, then laughed. "I'm sure not well at all."

    But sales seemed to fit his personality, which led to his rising star status in insurance. It also was the job that brought him to the tracks.

    In 1978, Norcross didn't have an appointment when he showed up at Hialeah Park, just outside Miami, to try to meet owner John J. Brunetti. He got in the door with the name of a mutual friend in South Jersey.

    Brunetti watched a young man who was sweating in a brown wool suit and "didn't speak with any great authority" as he made his sales pitch.

    But the track owner saw something else, too.

    "I have kind of soft spot for self-made men. My father was one … and there was, in front of me, a reminder of my father," Brunetti said.

    Norcross got the Hialeah account, and eventually insured all the Brunetti Organization's business, including real estate holdings in Florida and New Jersey.

    "He always showed that appreciation and respect for us being one of his first and most important clients. Even as we became not as important in his portfolio, he always had that personal touch," Brunetti said.

    Brunetti remains a client, and good friend, today.

    "I consider him one of my key mentors," Norcross said. "He gave me my first big shot in being successful in the insurance brokerage business, and I am a very loyal person and I've never forgotten that opportunity."

    His work with Hialeah led him to ITB, where Norcross, according to Winkler, "knocked the more experienced guys out of the box" in landing its business, setting up the fateful day with Spend A Buck in May 1985.

    "We didn't expect him to be able to compete," Winkler said of Norcross, who was the youngest of the agents trying to win ITB's business. "But I guess as the world has discovered, George is a competitive person."

    Norcross' firm had an expertise in insuring livestock mortality — essentially, life insurance for high-priced racehorses — across the country, and his profile leapt in 1985 with Spend A Buck's success at Garden State Park.

    He took a personal interest, too, he said, becoming "a part owner of quite a few horses, racehorses, breeding horses and the like." He wouldn't say who his co-owners were, saying ownership would have been split among "20 other people." Norcross was an owner, along with Lou Guida and others, of Mack Lobell, which won the 1987 Hambletonian with a purse of $1.045 million. Norcross keeps a replica of the trophy on the coffee table in his office.

    Family ties

    It's hardly the only memento in his office, but more striking than the silver bowl are the photographs that line the walls. He will lead visitors around the room, telling the story behind each picture and often saying, "I remember that day like it was yesterday": the political event with a future president, his 29th birthday celebration in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, his daughter's graduation from college, spring training with his son and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.

    "I always keep mementos everywhere because they remind me of great things in my life," Norcross, now 56, said. "I love things when you look at them and can say, 'boy, what a nice moment,' particularly when you're having a tough day or a rough day."

    Norcross revered and adored his father, George E. Norcross Jr., known as "Chief" to his four sons. The elder Norcross died in May 1998; his son's voice gets softer as he pulls mementos out of his wallet that belonged to his father: a driver's license, a photo, a badge from his days on Cooper's board.

    "Maybe these are the kind of things that keep you in touch with," said Norcross, his voice trailing off before adding "whomever."

    Norcross learned much from his father, a powerful South Jersey labor leader. Father and son shared a skill set that was "really in the genes," said Angelo Genova, a Newark-based management-side lawyer who interacted with the elder Norcross on labor issues.

    The connection is perhaps best seen in a devotion to Cooper, where Norcross has been a trustee since 1990 and his father served as a trustee for 22 years.

    "He is motivated by his sense of history, his family history," said Susan Bass Levin, president and CEO of the Cooper Foundation. "He admired his father and wanted to carry on that tradition and very much wants to be a role model to his children."

    Norcross is credited with major developments at Cooper and the surrounding area, including the new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, a $100 million Cooper Cancer Institute expected to open next fall, a $250 million patient pavilion completed in December 2008 and nearby revitalized projects.

    "That area of Camden, it's like Oz. You turn the corner, and the color comes on the television set," said Christopher J. Paladino, president of New Brunswick Development Corp.

    Norcross believes the revitalization of Camden rests on improving public safety, public education and medical education. It's one reason he fought so hard for a merger or alignment between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.
    "Each of these things are building components of taking a lost city and turning it back into what it was when my dad was a kid, which was the epicenter of South Jersey," Norcross said.

    The effort hasn't gone unnoticed.

    "Do a Google search. How many people who don't have to … ever talk about Camden? The only other person who talks about Camden is George," said William P. Hankowsky, a real estate executive who has known Norcross since the mid-1970s, when Hankowsky was leading Camden's community development department.

    Norcross also has been criticized, though, for his work at Cooper and the surrounding area. Camden advocates have charged Norcross used his political power to steamroll through changes in the neighborhood, while a March 2012 Inquirer story listed millions of dollars in hospital contracts made to businesses connected to Norcross and other insiders, and reported that Norcross had used his influence to repel Cooper competitors. People also question Norcross' quest to bring a medical school to Cooper, a goal his father began working on in the early 1970s and that the son finished after then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed an executive order in 2009 allotting money for the medical school.

    Those critics are looking at "a caricature," said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, now an associate at Integrity House, a substance abuse treatment provider. Norcross, McGreevey said, gets his reputation because he's not complacent.

    "You have to crack heads to do this," McGreevey said following a groundbreaking ceremony for the cancer institute earlier this year. "George is willing, and has the courage and sense of self to head through that landmine to accomplish that end."

    'You might lose everything'

    His latest project involves a minefield even more dangerous than Camden — earlier this year, Interstate General Media LLC, of which he is managing partner, purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

    But it didn't take long for Norcross to convince longtime business partner Joseph Buckelew and Hankowsky to join an investment group to buy the newspapers from Philadelphia Media Network earlier this year. During a 15- to 20-minute conversation, Norcross told Buckelew the price was right, the newspaper had a tremendous tradition and the company had a solid core of seasoned workers.

    "When he put his money up, I was willing to put my money up," said Buckelew, who was approached near the end of the process. "He's not a cheap guy, but he's cautious when it comes to investments."

    While discussing the possible purchase, Hankowsky, who heads the $6 billion Liberty Property Trust, of Malvern, Pa., said he and Norcross talked about how the newspaper industry is "stunningly challenged."

    In fact, Norcross told him, "assume you might lose everything," Hankowsky said. "And I said, if you're interested, I'm interested. … He doesn't do anything halfway."

    "The business side of the Inquirer is going to take 18 months, at least, of pretty intensive time to restructure and reorient that into a successful business enterprise," Norcross said. "How do we reintroduce and reinvent a business enterprise that has been failing for so many years?"

    The two newspapers share the news site Philly.com, which Norcross called "the transition vehicle" for the company, "but you still have, I don't know, we have 1,600, 1,700 employees there. We have a lot of legacy business structure in place that needs, you know, to be evaluated. … we are, I think, in a really good position, but it's challenging and very time-intensive."

    Norcross has no doubt that he can, again, win.

    "I think you can take a troubled asset and a challenged asset and turn it into something pretty special and a newspaper of great prominence in a large media market is a one-of-a-kind, prized asset," Norcross said. "I don't really think there are going to be significant financial rewards in this enterprise, but over time, to the extent my family stays involved with it, my children or otherwise, that would make me very proud."

    Norcross has been widely criticized for the purchase, with concerns that he will try to use the media for his own political or business agenda ­— though the owners have pledged not to interfere with the news operations.

    "I believe it will effectively cease to be a real newspaper and become a house organ for these guys and their friends," Buzz Bissinger, a Philadelphia author who was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team when he worked at the Inquirer, told The New York Times in February when the sale was being discussed.

    Norcross dismisses such talk.

    "There were those who would say he's buying it to control the media, and I'd say to them: don't flatter yourself. You don't control the media. The media is much bigger than everybody today," he said.

    E-mail to: sharonw@njbiz.com
    On Twitter: @sharonannwaters

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