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March 24, 2014 | last updated March 27, 2014 4:00 pm
2014 Business Leaders of the Year

Cross Insurance CEO Royce Cross builds on his father's legacy

PHOTo / Tim Greenway
CEO Royce Cross expects his family’s insurance company will continue to make acquisitions whenever and wherever it makes sense.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway
Royce Cross, CEO and president of Cross Insurance, stands inside the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, which will carry the company name for 15 years.

Royce Cross, Large Company Business Leader

President and CEO, Cross Insurance

Age: 62

Favorite place outside of work: Home — forest behind my home — or Green Lake

Leadership icon: Having worked alongside my father for more than four decades, without a doubt my father has had a profound impact on my career.

Maine's biggest challenge: We need to create an environment where there is opportunity in the state such that our young people want to stay and others want to base their businesses here.

Maine's biggest opportunity: Maine has some really great quality people that routinely compete and win on a regional, national and global basis. Along with the people employed at Cross, Maine businesspeople have been great giving us support to grow our company. This talent pool will embrace additional opportunities.

Best business advice: Focus on building talent within your organization and allow them to be creative. Don't quit — stick with it.

Cross Insurance

74 Gilman Road, Bangor

President and CEO: Royce Cross

Founded: 1954

Services: Commercial and consumer lines of insurance

Value of premiums: Close to $1 billion

Employees: 625 in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island

Contact: 947-7345 www.crossagency.com

Shortly before midnight on Dec. 31, Royce Cross, president and CEO of the Bangor-based Cross Insurance, signed an agreement to acquire the assets of Willis of Northern New England Inc. for an undisclosed sum. In ringing out the old year with a strategically important and major acquisition in hand, Cross had every reason to celebrate a banner year for the company founded by his father in 1954.

The purchase brought into the company's fold a well-respected competitor considered the largest underwriter in the health care, nonprofits and construction industries in Maine, adding depth and breadth to Cross Insurance's service offerings. It also brings the company to almost $1 billion in premiums, making it one of the largest insurance agencies in New England.

Not a bad ending to a year that included four other purchases, an expansion into Rhode Island and the opening of the new Bangor arena and events center that will be bearing the Cross name for at least the next 15 years under a $3 million agreement reached with the city of Bangor the previous summer.

For Cross, who joined his father's business in 1970 typing insurance policies, the past four decades have been an exciting "roller-coaster ride" marked by 103 acquisitions that have expanded the company's footprint to include 625 employees servicing more than 100,000 customers out of 30-plus offices in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. But as far as the company's geographic reach has extended, the company is still run by old-fashioned Maine values — integrity, honesty and straightforwardness — all embodied by Cross, which has earned him deep respect within the insurance industry.

"I've always considered myself very lucky to follow my father into this business," he says. "I look forward to coming here every morning. If you enjoy your job, as the saying goes, you never have to 'go to work' in the morning."

Having the family name on the business, he says, keeps him grounded, especially so now that the company's footprint extends throughout New England. It's a perspective, he says, that's rooted in the values that arise naturally from its origins as a hometown insurance company.

"We insure our neighbors, we live here in town, I went to school here," he says. "Everyone would know who you are. So the importance of the family name to our branding as a business is certainly there. It's part of us. You take personal ownership of what happens … our product, ultimately, is trust. If you lose that trust, you're out of business."

He expects the company will continue to grow through acquisitions, adding that virtually every one so far occurred because the seller had approached Cross Insurance first. The strategy driving the acquisitions, he says, is based on whether the acquired assets, customers and expertise will strengthen Cross Insurance's profit centers involving personal and commercial insurance, employee benefits and construction bonds.

It's also guided by the selling agency's reputation and the insurance companies it represents.

"Remember what your mother said? 'You're known by the company you keep.'" Cross says, acknowledging the wisdom of that saying was driven home more than 20 years ago when a purchase failed, largely because he hadn't sufficiently checked beforehand the company's standing among its customers and the insurance companies it represented.

"I took too much for granted," he says of the acquired company that was jettisoned a year later. "It was quite upsetting to me. I tried to figure out what I did wrong. I realized I bought an agency without knowing the people ahead of time. Lesson learned. We've been fine since then."

Cross says the company's business philosophy is a reflection of how his father, Woodrow Cross, built the company: one customer at a time.

He admits to being an early-morning rival to his father, who at the age of 97 is at his desk each day by 7 a.m. The younger Cross relishes the quiet before 7 a.m., an ideal time to handle emails, compile his daily to-do list and generally set himself up for the day ahead.

"Once we get past 7 a.m.," he says, "the day takes on a life of its own."

Cross says the $3 million naming rights agreement reached with Bangor in 2012, which ensures the name "Cross Insurance Center" will be featured prominently for 15 years at the new 8,000-seat multi-purpose sports and entertainment center, is not simply a marketing and branding decision. On a more personal level, it brought his father back full circle to when he was working a night-shift job as a construction laborer running heaters to cure cement for the original Bangor Auditorium that opened in 1955 — a job that supplemented the family's income during the first year of running his own insurance agency.

"Bangor has been very good to us," Cross says. "My father went from having no business at the start and now we have a very successful business. We thought this would be a way to give something back to everyone who's helped our business grow. It's a way of saying 'Thanks.'"

But he's quick to credit his employees as playing an equally important role in the company's other civic activities.

"It would be very wrong to say it's all about us," he says. Employees volunteer their time or make their own donations in support of local causes that range from church-led food drives to volunteering at local nonprofits. "Giving is a very personal thing. Some people give financial support, other people give their time. Our people show up in a variety of places doing what they can. The list goes on."

Cross says the company's expansion outside of Maine has helped to broaden its expertise. In the earliest years, when its focus was on serving businesses and individuals within the greater Bangor region, the wood products and paper industries were a logical area of expertise. As it expanded southward into southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts' North Shore, the company added technology and pharmaceutical companies to its roster. Moving into the Boston area, with its heavy concentration of colleges and schools, the company gained expertise in providing affordable accident and health insurance to students.

"Each of these profit centers has different needs," he says. "That's one of the things I've always enjoyed since I first got into the insurance business: We work with different people and different industries. We get to travel to them and see their businesses … I've always liked that."

More recently, Cross says, helping companies manage their employee benefits has generated growing revenues for his company. He says the Affordable Care Act — the most significant regulatory overhaul of the U.S. health care system since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 — has been both a challenge and an opportunity to offer expertise to businesses grappling with the law's various requirements. Even with its complexities, Cross says his perspective on the ACA is guided by a key lesson learned from his father and verified by his own life experiences since joining the company in 1970.

"Anything that creates change, creates opportunity," he says. "We've long held that opportunities exist all around us. It's simply a matter of recognizing the opportunities that arise in the changes that are happening."

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