Michael Tipsord, State Farm’s relatively new chairman and CEO, dispensed a double dose of confidence at this week’s Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council dinner.
First, there was the looked-for assurance that State Farm will maintain a giant presence in Bloomington.
Second, an acute awareness that the Mecherle-Rust legacy had been entrusted to him was obvious and woven into his clear-sighted assessment of challenges ahead — all of which led his listeners to believe State Farm is (pardon me for this) in good hands.
Now, to flesh out those elements heartening to the 600-plus people present Tuesday night:
Yes, it was good to hear Tipsord, in his first public appearance as chairman and CEO, actually say, “We’re not leaving Bloomington. Bloomington is our home. Bloomington is our headquarters. We’re going to have our single biggest presence in this community.”
That means Tipsord expects none of three newly-developed “hubs” in Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix will have more than about 10,000 employees each, about a third fewer than the 15,097 State Farm currently employs here — a number Tipsord expects to remain constant “for the foreseeable future.”
Yes, that’s a wiggle-room phrase that will trouble locals in charge of worrying, but it speaks to Tipsord’s reasonable reluctance to predict with certainty how evolving technology and demographics will affect society, the financial services industry and McLean County’s biggest employer.
He did reflect confidence that State Farm’s long-established business model that allows customers to connect with a close-to-home State Farm person can help the company maintain its leadership position.
But, he also said that with 90 percent of all auto accidents attributable to human error, driver-less cars will disrupt State Farm’s leading product, auto insurance, though not real soon. When it happens, he said, “other lines of business will matter more.”
Tipsord warned stepped-up government intervention in the marketplace could produce unintended consequences like higher prices and shrinking availability of products and services. But he also said big business should look in the mirror, suggesting bad actors are contributing to what he called “growing momentum” toward more government regulation designed to protect consumers.
This year, State Farm scuttled a decades-long tradition of inviting corporate retirees (like me) to an annual reception where the CEO provided a top-level briefing on how and what the company was doing, turning the hometown crowd into informed ambassadors to the wider community.
So it was good Tipsord presented himself to local community leaders, letting them know this McLean County native (Cooksville) and Illinois Wesleyan graduate (Class of ’81) took most seriously his responsibilities to the 27 million American households that have State Farm products, the 65,000 State Farm employees and their families, 18,500 agents, their employees and families, and to this community.
A couple of times Tipsord, a State Farm employee since 1988, seemed to almost endorse a perception that he can be a demanding leader, one willing to make unpopular but necessary decisions. He likened his succeeding the popular, even beloved, 30-year CEO Ed Rust Jr. to the guy who followed baseball Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig for the Yankees: Nobody, Tipsord said, knows his name and he wasn’t particularly popular.
What Tipsord didn’t mention was that Babe Dahlgren was both a hitting and fielding star in the first game he played when Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games ended — a 22-2 romp by the Yankees over the Tigers.
And the Yankees went on to win the World Series.
This and that
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