By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — When a billionaire like Warren Buffett speaks, people tend to listen —and they should.
When Buffett released his annual letter to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders two weeks ago, Wilkes-Barre was prominently mentioned.
At Friday’s gathering of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association at the Wilkes-Barre Connect’s THINK Center, the 21 members in attendance heard why Buffett’s comments were so important — and marketable.
“Close your eyes for a moment and try to envision a locale that might spawn a dynamic (property/casualty) insurer,” Buffett wrote. “New York? London? Silicon Valley? How about Wilkes-Barre?”
Buffett went on to say that late in 2012, Ajit Jain, “the invaluable manager of our insurance operations,” called to tell Buffett that he was buying a tiny company — GUARD Insurance Group — in that small Pennsylvania city (Wilkes-Barre) for $221 million (roughly its net worth at the time).
“In 2019, GUARD had premium volume of $1.9 billion, up 379% since 2012, and also delivered a satisfactory underwriting profit. In 1967, Omaha (Nebraska) seemed an unlikely launching pad for a P/C giant,” Buffett wrote. “Wilkes-Barre may well deliver a similar surprise.”
On Friday, Larry Newman, executive director at Diamond City Partnership — steward of the downtown — explained why Buffett’s comments resonated not only with Wilkes-Barre and Northeastern Pennsylvania, but around the world.
That, Newman said, will go a long way in opening doors of prospective targets of economic development folks, like the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, which hosted Friday’s meeting.
And meeting in the THINK Center was significant, Newman said, because Wilkes-Barre is just one of two — Pittsburgh the other — that has such a hub, or as Newman called it, “an entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Newman, along with Joe Boylan, executive director of Wilkes-Barre Connect, and Lindsay Griffin, chief operating officer and vice president at the Chamber, said the THINK Center is the first part of a three-step process for new businesses to evolve. They said the THINK Center offers co-working space, meeting rooms, hi-tech incubator services, and business services.
Newman said once the initial phase is complete, the business can move to the building’s second floor incubator center and to compete the evolution process, Kris Jones’ LSEO, a full service digital marketing agency, will offer search engine optimization-driven services that include SEO consulting, paid media, content marketing, and web design and development.
Newman noted that GUARD/Berkshire Hathaway began with two employees in the 1980s and has grown to a billion dollar operation.
“That’s why it’s so important to have this infrastructure in place,” Newman said. “And the value of Warren Buffett’s comments is incalculable. The growth of Berkshire Hathaway in Wilkes-Barre can be credited in some measure to the 1,000-plus employees from Northeastern Pennsylvania.”
Newman and Ted Wampole, executive director of the Luzerne County Convention and Visitors Bureau, talked about the importance of participating in the upcoming Census 2020.
Wampole said an accurate account of the region’s population us vital in securing federal funding for projects.
With the U.S. Census Bureau set to begin sending letters next week to launch the official start of the decennial count, the Keystone Counts coalition, which has 97 member organizations coordinating outreach and field campaigns across the state, is encouraging residents to take the pledge to be counted.
The pledge serves two purposes: Keystone Counts will send alerts to individuals who sign up to remind them to fill out and submit their forms, as well as offer assistance to individuals who may have questions or experience difficulties. This is the first time the Census Bureau is relying on residents to fill out forms online.
Beginning March 12, homes across the country will begin receiving invitations to complete the 2020 Census. Once the invitation arrives, residents can respond for their household in one of three ways: online, by phone, or by paper form, if it has been mailed to them.
Much is at stake in the 2020 Census. Since Census numbers are used to determine funding toward schools, health centers, public transportation, and more, ensuring that all communities are accurately counted is crucial. An accurate count also is essential to fair political representation.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.