Monthly Archives: September 2012

Hartford Flying High With Delta

by Categorized: Economic Development Date:

An item here that I’d meant to post a month ago but it slipped away — good news for Hartford, Delta Sky Magazine profiled the capital city with a 16-page spread in its September issue.

That means hundreds of thousands of Delta flyers have caught a glimpse of the best of Hartford — including, yes that slogan about Revolutionary Spirit. Maybe it will catch on after all.

The spread includes all sorts f info about our city, useful to local residents. “Hartford: Long a magnet for Yankee ingenuity. Connecticut’s historic capital mixes business, bioscience and the good life.”

Check it out while it’s still in the sky.



Big Employers, Big Headaches

by Categorized: Economy, Jobs Date:

As Connecticut tries to regain its footing on the job-creation front, many small and midsize companies are hiring, as we saw at the Courant/FOX CT Top Workplaces awards event last week.

Likewise, we see progress at the Connecticut Technology Council’s Marcum Tech Top 40 awards, held Thursday night in Wallingford.

But many of the big employers, it seems, continue to struggle. We don’t know what will happen to a couple of hundred affected workers at The Hartford, which announced, as expected, the sale of its life insurance business to Prudential Financial. We know The Hartford’s CEO, Liam McGee, is doing what he can.

And now comes word that hundreds of Mohegan Sun employees are being cut, even as the casino operator expands outside the state, with some success.

The Complex World Of Your Supermarket Buying Habits

by Categorized: Commerce, Consumer Date:

Years ago at The Courant, our publisher, Marty Petty, was talking about supermarket ad buyers, and described them as “scientists,” so precise were they about markets and pricing.

Now I understand why.  In writing a column about the UConn/Courant poll on the economy, I focused on the question of consumers’ grocery buying habits.  It is, to say the least, a complex picture colored by crosscurrent trends.

The Food Marketing Institute maintains data on the industry, including overall sales at 36,000 supermarket locations — which are rising at slightly higher than the consumer-price index. Buyers are squeezing the growing number of retailers, but eating at home more in hard times, or so we think.

One thing that’s clear, careful buying is a national culture.

Poll: Is The NFL Referee Debacle Making You Turn Off Football?

by Categorized: Jobs Date:

Here’s a business question, not a sports issue: Are you fed up with the calls these NFL refs are making? Tired of seeing your sport become a mockery with head-scratching penalty flags and blown calls?

Or, are you drawn to the games all the more? Now we have a historic referee debacle on the order of the Jorge Orta call, and who would want to miss such a thing?

That was a question raised by one of the Mikes on ESPN’s Mike & Mike show this morning. If the lockout isn’t hurting business, why should the league give in to the refs?

In the long run, this sort of meltdown is bad for NFL business not only because entire games are being reversed by marred calls, but because, as we saw Sunday night, these refs can’t control the game. Football, and most any business, is about controlling chaotic forces.

Why would the NFL play hardball with so much at stake, and so small a demand by the refs? The question is about a few million dollars for a retirement plan, after all, in a league with $10 billion in revenues and growing.

One idea was floated by NPR’s mike Pesca even before the Monday Nightmare: The league doesn’t care about this small dispute but it needs to look tough for the real battle, when the players’ union contract comes up.

Pesca credited that idea to Gabe Feldman at the Tulane Sports Law Program.

But now the NFL’s toughness is starting to look silly. Tell us how you’re reacting.

Capital City Development Politics

by Categorized: Economic Development Date:

I took some swipes at the old CCEDA and Jim Abromaitis in my column that appeared in print today about Michael Freimuth, executive director of the revamped regional agency, the Capital Region Development Authority.

Fair? Obviously I think so, but certainly the Capital City Economic Development Authority got a lot of projects built over the years.  Trouble is, town officials and news reporters and columnists don’t handle an insular, relatively closed culture very well.

Suzanne Hopgood, chairwoman of the Capital Region Development Authority and Michael Freimuth, executive director Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant

That agency and its new successor have been and will remain in the political crosshairs from the start until infinity because of the nature of the beast: A regional authority, so-called quasi-public, meaning it’s subject to some sunshine laws but not others, created by the governor and the legislature, led by a politically appointed board to build developments that cost tens of millions of dollars and can be highly controversial.

It’s possible that CCEDA was hamstrung in its efforts to do more, and to work with towns. We may never know.  Abromaitis has his last day Friday.

Pawlenty, Wall Street And a Common Enemy

by Categorized: Banking, Politics Date:

At least when Chris Dodd took a lobbying job, it was with a group he had known and loved, the Motion Picture Association of America.

Hilariously, former Wisconsin Governor and presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty will now be a key lobbyist for the financial services industry, an irony captured by Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times.

Sorkin describes the ways Pawlenty trashed the banking industry over the $700 billion federal TARP bailout and related programs.  But as much as Pawlenty fought Obama and the banks over that, he and the banks opposed the added regulation, largely in the form of the Dodd-Frank bill, speaking of our favorite film industry lobbyist.

UnitedHealth Group Beats Aetna To The Dow Jones

by Categorized: Commerce, Health Care, Insurance Date:

There’s been speculation for years that a health insurer would join the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and UnitedHealth Group has beaten Aetna to the punch.

UnitedHealth started trading Monday in place of Kraft Foods, which will spin off its U.S. grocery business and change its name to Mondelez International Inc. next week.

Having Aetna on the bellwether list of what is arguably the 30 most important companies in the nation would have given Hartford three companies on the list, after United Technologies Corp. and Travelers, which is based in New York but has by far its largest headcount here.

Aetna is a giant and highly innovative health insurer under CEO Mark Bertolini, but size matters and UnitedHealth gets the prize with its 36 million medical insurance membership, covering 70 million people.

With 4,200 employees in the Hartford area, the addition of UnitedHealth gives the capital city huge influence in the Dow.  The company, based in Minnetonka, Minn., issued a press release Sept. 14 when it was named to the Dow Jones Sustainability North America Index and the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for the 14th straight year — but did not mention that on the same day, Dow Jones announced it would join the industrials list.

Fairfield-based General Electric Co., the undefinable conglomerate, is the only original member of the Dow, which debuted with 12 companies on May 26, 1896. GE was off the list from 1901 to 1907.

UTC, then called United Aircraft, joined in 1933 for a year, then came back in 1939 for good, as airlines were on the rise and the war effort was starting to crank up.

Travelers joined in 2009, replacing Citigroup, which had owned Travelers for a few years until 2002.

The health care sector has three other firms, Merck, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, giving far too much weight to drugs.

Food and beverage is left with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.  Probably that’s a good thing if you believe small and local is better for food than big and multinational.

Likewise, there are no health care providers on the Dow, which is a good sign since there’s no social, medical or economic advantage to nationwide hospital systems.

Missing from the index is Apple, the nation’s largest company by market cap and the perhaps company that makes the most waves with its new products. Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and Intel are all on there.

There’s some debate about whether and how much inclusion in the Dow helps a stock. UNH is up 4 percent since the Sept. 14 announcement, and was down 20 cents to $55.98 Monday, a day when the Dow was barely down.


Horrible State Jobs Report: It Wasn’t Really that Bad

by Categorized: Economy, Jobs Date:

It didn’t happen.

The state’s unemployment rate is said to have skyrocketed from 8.5 percent in July to 9 percent in August, according to a report from the state Department of Labor. And Connecticut employers shed 6,800 jobs.

If true, that would be one of the worst monthly labor reports ever, on par with the months in the teeth of the recession at the start of 2009.

But it’s not true. The unemployment rate didn’t jump by half a point, simply because that measure tends to be slow-moving.  This state did not have 17,000 additional people fall into unemployment in the space of one summer month.

At Pete Gioia at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association put it, “This report is suspect.”

Even state officials responsible for tabulating the numbers, are, as my colleague Mara Lee reports, openly questioning the data.

Still, as Gioia and other point out, we are certainly not moving in the right direction. Suddenly, after tracking the nation for most of the recovery, the nation’s richest state is badly lagging, as the U.S. jobless rate has fallen, slowly, to 8.1 percent.

The numbers are muddy, as the monthly reports often are. But with virtually no job creation in 2012, the overall message is clear: Connecticut is not doing well on the jobs front.  Whether that means state policies are at fault is another issue.

As Don Klepper-Smith of DataCore Partners put it, three years into a recovery, with 9 percent unemployment, something more than just a business cycle is at work here.



At Casting Call for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Next Movie, A Thousand Stories of Hope

by Categorized: Commerce, Public finance Date:

Upwards of 1,000 people showed up Tuesday for an open casting call in Bridgeport for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s latest project, said to be a film about the Underground Railroad, set in 1850.

And everyone had a purpose for being there — students looking for excitement, jobless and even homeless people hoping for a paycheck, local professionals wanting in on the action, actors armed with 8-by-10 head shots, plying for a break.

Click here for a photo gallery of the casting call.

Among them was Henry Timberlake, a city resident who’s looking to end up on the silver screen, for sure, but also had a deeper motivation. As editor-in-chief for the African American Historical Association of Fairfield County, Timberlake was asked to help wrangle possible extras.

And wrangle he did, with so much gusto that he helped draw a crowd that tore through the entire supply of casting sheets hours before the open call ended.

Timberlake is also talking up the real local history of the Underground Railroad with Production One Inc., the Westlake Village, Cal. company that’s making the film.  He’ll show them the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses on Main street in the South End, built by free African Americans in the 19th century.

Absolutely, he said, that was part of the house-to-house network that gave an escape route to slaves from the South.

“It’s going to be a very educational movie, a big movie,” said Timberlake, one of the few hopefuls who wore a tie and jacket to the library.

His friend Omar Jones, an unemployed Bridgeport resident who’s worked in TV production, thanked Timberlake for passing the word about this opportunity.

For this city that’s seen better days, and for a state striving for and job-creating edge, this latest Hollywood feature film is exactly that — an opportunity.

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The Hartford’s CEO: Buyers Intend To Hire Our Employees

by Categorized: Insurance, Jobs Date:

Good news for employees of The Hartford who are moving to other companies in business unit sales: The Hartford’s top executive says he believes MassMutual and Forethought, two of the buyers, will offer jobs to virtually all of the workers — and keep them in the Hartford / Springfield area.

That’s the word from Liam E. McGee, chairman and CEO of The Hartford Financial Services Group, who updated The Courant on progress of the company’s transformation Tuesday.

Forethought is a Houston company that bought parts of The Hartford’s individual annuity business for an undisclosed sum. The company had said it would offer jobs to affected employees, but not where.

“Forethought really wants to keep all of the people,” McGee said in an interview. “I think they’ve already found space for them in the Hartford area.”

It’s not clear how many employees are affected by that deal but it’s believed to be in the hundreds.

MassMutual, which is buying The Hartford’s retirement services unit, with 700 local employees mostly in Windsor and Simsbury, has not said how many of those people it will keep, after they join the MassMutual staff in an expected fourth quarter close. There have been fears that many would be let go, because MassMutual already has about 1,200 employees in retirement services, mostly in Springfield.

“I think MassMutual is going to offer jobs to virtually all of those employees,” McGee said.

The reason: MassMutual’s retirement customers are typically larger employers, while The Hartford focuses on midsize and small employers, and MassMutual will need the people.

“I can’t predict the future,” McGee said, adding, “the facts are that MassMutual bought this business because they wanted to enter the small-to-middle-sized retirement business where they’re not a player.”

My view: He’s right, he can’t predict the future. No one knows the answer right now. The key to MassMutual keeping those jobs over time is whether it determines the skill sets are different enough from what they have, whether the contacts with customers hold their value, and mostly, whether the business can grow in a tough economy.

Regardless, it seems clear that McGee is making an effort not to just throw people under the insurance bus, even as The Hartford’s numbers fall.  At the start of the year, the company has 10,300 employees in Connecticut, down from a pre-recession peak of more than 13,000, but still well larger than Aetna or Travelers, which have 6,700 and 7,000, respectively.

McGee’s overall point is that The Hartford will emerge from the sales and restructuring in a much stronger position to generate capital. Sometime next year, he said, the company will announce what it will do with all this cash — buy back shares, make acquisitions, pay off debt, invest in existing businesses.  That would be a good dilemma to have, after the last four years.

There’s no updated employee number, but The Hartford has nearly finished its round of restructuring layoffs that started in 2011. And it’s too early to give a final target number for jobs, when The Hartford’s selloff of four businesses is completed.

“We’re running the company more efficiently than it was run before,” McGee said, but he added, “We will be the largest insurance employer in Connecticut when this is said and done.”