Legacy & Leadership: SouthGroup Insurance

SouthGroup Insurance Services is celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. According to a Bloomberg report, 80% of businesses fail in the first 18 months. We admire their longevity and are pleased to share their story.  The following is an interview with Laurel Branch President, Brad Kent.

What is SouthGroup Insurance Services?

SouthGroup Insurance Services is a full-service independent insurance agency.  At our core, SouthGroup provides Property & Casualty and Life & Health insurance to businesses and individuals from a vast array of insurance carriers.  However, from the perspective of a business philosophy, we are actively engaged in helping businesses and families assess and manage the risks they face in everyday life.  Our mission is to manage risk and build personal relationships and partnerships in an environment of trust, integrity, teamwork and stability.

How did SouthGroup Insurance Services begin?

The story of SouthGroup, while unique, is a familiar story of business evolution like many family owned American businesses.  We take great pride in the fact that we have been a locally owned and operated company for 4+ generations. 

Our agency has a very long history in Laurel, as we are currently celebrating our 100th birthday.  In fact, we have continually served the people of Laurel and Jones County for 100 years.  Our earliest roots date back to 1918 with the formation of the Graves, Lindsey & McLaurin agency which was located in the Pinehurst Hotel. In 1929 the business moved into our current location on Central Avenue in downtown Laurel. 

CT Ferrell

SouthGroup Insurance – C.T. Ferrill Building – Central Avenue

My great grandfather, John H. Jones, grew up in Clinton, Iowa, as did several of Laurel’s oldest families.  After a successful career as a publisher in Chicago, he ultimately moved to Laurel and opened the John H. Jones Insurance Agency whose first offices were also in the Pinehurst Hotel.  Both Graves, Lindsey & McLaurin and John H. Jones continued successful independent operations in downtown Laurel until 1983 when a merger created Graves, Lindsey, McLaurin & Jones (GLMJ).  At that time, the companies were operated by Russell Lindsey and my grandfather, Irwin “Skinny” Bradford.

My grandfather died not long after the merger.  That’s when my father, Charles Kent, took over as the 3rd generation to lead the agency.  GLMJ continued success and consistent growth over the next 30 years.  However, times change and industries evolve.  Like many industries, market conditions over the last 20 years have changed and driven consolidation within the independent insurance industry. 

SouthGroup Insurance Services was first conceived in 2000 by a select group of insurance agency professionals from 12 of Mississippi’s leading insurance agencies.  These agencies, widely recognized as industry leaders by their peers, convened to consider the challenges facing successful agencies and the solutions to these challenges that would enable them to offer an incomparable level of service to their clients.  Those solutions were the genesis of SouthGroup.

On January 1, 2002, with the official merger completed, those 12 original agencies began operating under the SouthGroup banner with corporate offices in Ridgeland. 

Today SouthGroup is the largest independent insurance agency in Mississippi with offices in 22 locations.  SouthGroup is also 1 of 2 agencies on Insurance Journal’s list of Top 100 Privately-held Agencies in the United States.

However, the unique quality that SouthGroup possesses compared with other large agencies is our “Main Street approach”.  Rather than consolidating all of our offices, SouthGroup has continued operating in each location.  This validates our strong belief in the importance of building close, personal relationships with our clients, and serving our local community. 

How do you think SouthGroup will be different 5 years from now? 

SouthGroup’s plans are to continue to grow.  Like most businesses, technology is changing the way that we operate. Whether it’s internal technologies to make our business work more efficiently, utilizing social media platforms to engage the community or transacting business online, technology is changing our business all the time. Today SouthGroup operates “in the cloud” and strives to be as paperless as possible.  I predict that we will continue to embrace technology, and therefore it will promote change that presents challenges, but also leads to increased profitability.

Who do you want people to know about your services? 

First and foremost, we offer a valuable service to anyone that purchases insurance.  As an independent agency, we do not work for a single insurance company.  We offer choice, and choice is a vital necessity to promote competition, which leads to value. 

More specifically, SouthGroup remains the dominant business insurer in Laurel and Jones County.  Whether you are a sole proprietor, or you operate a large enterprise, SouthGroup has the products and services to compete for your business.  This includes general liability, commercial property, worker’s compensation, commercial auto and more.  Our clients range from small “mom and pop” businesses to several of the largest employers in Jones County.

What is your best advice for those looking to participate in the growth, revitalization and restoration of Downtown Laurel?  Our goal as Laurel Main Street is to support our existing businesses and recruit new ones. Why should people want to be a part of Downtown? What have you learned that can help that person on the verge of making the decision to start his or her own legacy as a downtown business?

I am a staunch believer in strengthening from your inner core.  Whenever I travel, I am always looking for a downtown area, and I judge the vibrancy of a community on the look and feel I get from the downtown area. Because of this, what is good for downtown Laurel, is good for all of Jones County.  As downtown Laurel continues to flourish, this will lead to increased tourism and economic development, which in turn will provide a higher quality of life for our local families and businesses.  My recommendation to everyone is that they get involved.  This may be as simple as volunteering, or as complex as purchasing downtown property and starting a new business.  While it seems that downtown Laurel is reaching critical mass, I believe that this could be just the beginning of something much more substantial for our community. This requires involvement at every level – families, entrepreneurs, the business community and local government must be in lockstep if we want to take downtown Laurel to the next level.

#ShopSmall with Us on Small Business Saturday – November 24th

The #ShopSmall Movement is Coming to The City Beautiful!

On November 24th, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we will celebrate Small Business Saturday.

For decades we’ve rushed off to the big chain stores on Black Friday to crowd the aisles in search of that one great deal, or this year’s must-have Christmas toy.

Sometimes, in the excitement of it all, we forget that some of our most enjoyable shopping experiences can be found at a local shop, far from the hustle and bustle of the crowded department stores.

Small business owners pour their hearts into every detail of their business.  They strive to create an enjoyable and unforgettable shopping experience for their guests.  Now it’s time to celebrate these entrepreneurs who put so much love into every detail of their business and the experiences they provide for their customers.  

Be a Part of the #ShopSmall Movement

On November 24th businesses all over Downtown Laurel will not only open their doors, but will welcome shoppers with special events, giveaways, promotions and more! 

Business owners, As a Laurel Main Street member your business can join the #shopsmall movement and receive the attention of our nationwide audience as well as customized promotional tools and tips. You don’t have to be a Main Street member to participate, but we’d love to have you as a part of our #shopsmall team.

Shoppers, do you believe in supporting small businesses?  The #shopsmall movement is a great way for you to support local entrepreneurs while enjoying a unique shopping experience. The effect of an event like Small Business Saturday has a direct impact on the goals and dreams of local folks just like you. When you support Laurel’s small business owners, you’re telling them that you appreciate the work they are doing to further our city’s growth, and that you believe in them. So invite friends to shop with you.  Share your shopping experiences on social media using the hashtag #shopsmall.  Let small business owners know you value their efforts.     

Why #ShopSmall?

The impact of an event like Small Business Saturday can’t be limited to a tally of a single day’s sales, or a list of great deals. The value of an event like this represents something much bigger — an appreciation and support of small business owners, and the impact on the local economy.

Small businesses help communities thrive.  There are 252,019 small businesses operating in Mississippi.  They make up 99.3% of all businesses in our state.  Small businesses in Mississippi created over 5,000 new jobs in 2014 alone.  That means that almost half of all employees in the state of Mississippi work for a small business.  Small businesses help ensure local economies stay strong and vibrant.  When small businesses succeed, we all do.

Consider this: When you spend $100 at a locally-owned small business, $68 stays in the local economy. Compare that to the same $100 spent at a chain store where only $43 remains locally. With the average American shopper likely to spend over $684 on holiday gifts this year, shopping at independent businesses in your hometown has the potential to make a major impact on the health of the local economy.

As the official Neighborhood Champion for Laurel’s Small Business Saturday, Laurel Main Street has worked to bring together an incredible group of local retailers who are ready to welcome you during the November 24th event!

So join us on Small Business Saturday to get great deals, find some incredible and unique local gifts, and enjoy a fun shopping experience, but, most importantly – to support the folks who are trying to make a difference for our city!

Small Business Saturday is a national initiative aimed at helping local businesses compete during the critical holiday shopping season and aims to drive shoppers to local small merchants the Saturday following Thanksgiving. In 2017, an estimated 108 million consumers reported shopping or dining at local independently-owned businesses on Small Business Saturday — generating roughly $12 billion in reported spending. Join the movement and shop local on November 24th this year! 

#ShopSmall #ShopLocal #ShopLaurel

‘This the Season to Shop Local in Laurel!

For as long as I, or anyone else can remember, the merchants of Downtown Laurel have held their Christmas Open House on the first Sunday of November.  This serves as the perfect preview for a much newer movement, Small Business Saturday.  With more than 20 places to shop, browse, and eat in the walkable downtown area, this year’s Christmas Open House is sure to provide something for everyone on your shopping list!  Bring your friends and family and support our local businesses this holiday season!

Christmas Open House Details

Most downtown merchants and retailers will be open from 12-5 p.m. on Sunday, November 4th for the Annual Christmas Open House.  However, it is up to each individual retailer to set their own hours for this event, so if there’s a shop you don’t want to miss, be sure to check with them for their hours.

The Importance of Shopping Local

We’ve heard it stated time and again that local businesses are the backbone of a community, and indeed, they are.  Small businesses, locally owned and operated, are an integral part of our community. According to the American Independent Business Alliance, “Independent, local businesses employ an array of supporting services by “buying locally” themselves. They hire architects, designers, cabinet shops, sign makers and contractors for construction. Local accountants, insurance brokers, computer consultants, attorneys, advertising agencies help run it. Local retailers and distributors also carry a higher percentage of locally-produced goods than chains, meaning more jobs for local producers.” Sounds a lot like Laurel, right?

Research reports show that for every dollar spent at a local business, 3.5 dollars are recirculated into the local economy, which creates more local jobs. Money spent at a chain retailer often doesn’t leave that chain retailer, as they outsource most of their products and services.

When you shop locally, you get to know the people behind the business and you enjoy a connection you would not otherwise have. Our local businesses give our community its flavor. The combined presence of our town’s many local businesses makes it different from every other city in the world. By supporting those businesses instead of chains, you help preserve the uniqueness our community.  Local businesses define our sense of place, and their survival depends on our patronage.  So this holiday season, we urge you to SHOP LOCAL in LAUREL.

Loblolly Festival: Celebrating the Town that Timber Built

Like most southerners, I have a love/hate relationship with pine trees.  They’re immensely useful when building a picnic table or fluffing flower beds with the straw they provide.  But they also wreak havoc on allergy sufferers when pollen falls in sheets, changing the color of everything on which it lands.

Love them or hate them, the graceful southern pine tree is the foundation for our town and in a few short weeks we’ll forget all about its yellow pollen and sticky sap, and celebrate the town that timber built.

From Swamps to Splendor

Eastman-Gardiner Lumber Co.

In 1891, the Gardiner brothers from Iowa arrived in Jones county and purchased a sawmill operation and 16,000 acres of timberland and the Eastman-Gardiner Lumber Company was born.  The Gardiners and their cousins, the Eastmans, sent for their families and set out to build their own slice of paradise amidst the piney woods of Laurel.  As the men developed their business, Catherine Marshall Gardiner made it her mission to create a beautiful city for her family in the yellow pine capital of the world.      

Like many great innovators before him, John Lindsey watched the progress of the ever-growing lumber town. He recognized a need and created a way to solve it. Soon, The 8-wheeled Lindsey Log Wagon was patented and folks from all over the world came to hear of a little town in South Mississippi.

The 8 Wheeled Lindsey Log Wagon

The 8 Wheeled Lindsey Log Wagon

By 1908, Mississippi ranked 3rd in the country for lumber production and Laurel was turning out 1,000,000 board feet of lumber a day.

Next, Laurel Machine & Foundry was created to supply parts for the Lindsey wagon and William H. Mason invented a process to create a hardboard from the waste provided by the mills, supplying the little piney woods town with more jobs and even more opportunities for growth.

Masonite Corporation

Each inspiration, each problem solved was another brick laid in the bustling streets of a town on the rise. Laurel owes its foundation and its very spirit to the yellow Loblolly pine and those who saw ever-present opportunity even as the pollen covered their boots.

Be a #LoblollyLover and join us on Saturday, October 6, 2018 for a celebration of heritage in the town that timber built.

MMSA Downtown Revitalization Awards: Outstanding Community Transformation

The Mississippi Main Street Association‘s award for Outstanding Community Transformation is given each year to a Main Street program that has achieved a successful, preservation-based downtown revival. The recognized program will have accomplished major goals in downtown revitalization and has both qualitative and quantitative examples to show the measurable impact. A heavy emphasis is placed on the human resources it took to accomplish the work. On June 21, 2018, Laurel Main Street board president, Lew Yoder, accepted this honor at the annual MMSA Downtown Revitalization Awards in Jackson, MS. The following narrative was written by Ethan Davis and was submitted to the Mississippi Main Street judges panel.

Outstanding Community Transformation

How do you bring a town back? It’s a question that has no easy answers, and the answers that are given usually require years and more work than one might ever imagine. However, for Downtown Laurel, there is no question that the town has been revived in a powerful way.

It all started when a group of people who loved Laurel sat down together in a room and decided to start a Main Street Program. They couldn’t afford to pay the director or start projects or offer services, but they knew they had to do something to save their hometown. That group became Laurel Main Street’s first board. From there that group changed and grew. When one person couldn’t serve anymore, someone stepped in to fill the space, and here we are a decade later: Mississippi’s Downtown.

The change took time; it happened slowly, then all at once. LMS worked constantly to make Laurel a place where people wanted to live, work, and play. Projects of all shapes and sizes had to take place, and business recruitment was paramount. Results were small at first, but they grew with time.

About two years ago, things really started heating up. The events and promotions LMS produces had kept a steady stream of people interested in the downtown, which put us on the radar of some people with great hope for what Laurel could be. They pursued their dreams using LMS as a starting point and support system along the way. In the past two years, more than a dozen businesses have opened in Downtown Laurel representing millions in private investment, and more are coming. Vacant buildings are now the exception rather than the rule, and a person can spend all day downtown and still not visit all of the stores.

The local business owners are the hero of this story because they took a risk when no one else would. But, it never would have happened if that original group hadn’t met. It never would have happened if dedicated volunteers hadn’t served at LMS events or if the community hadn’t welcomed each new addition to the downtown family. LMS stands at the center of a web that is filled with people who are willing to work hard every day to make Laurel their home and to make their home worth preserving. The truly amazing thing is that the idea of Downtown Laurel is now an exciting one; it’s a place where change happens and futures are crafted. It’s a place where history is lived and not just remembered.