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VOL. 121 | NO. 60 | Thursday, March 16, 2006

Tapping the Hispanic Market

Insurance agent tailors new businesses to growing population

By Andy Meek

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GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS: Customer service representative R. Alfredo Cruz and Marisol Soto, associate agent and office manager, start the day at Hickory Hill's Nationwide Insurance agency by knocking out some paperwork. Both regularly help Spanish-speakers with tasks most native English-speakers take for granted. -- Photograph By Rosalind Guy

Lauda Martin Davis has seen the puzzled looks before. When she sees them directed at Hispanics in Memphis who are struggling to accomplish mundane tasks, she thinks of her Hispanic father, a man who never quite overcame his own language barrier.

"He had the thickest Spanish accent you've ever heard in your life, and I saw how much trouble he had because of it," said Davis, vice president of Servicios Bilingual Services.

It's a memory that puts her current job in perspective.

From behind the counter in a small Hickory Hill office, Davis and a handful of other Spanish-speaking employees do what few business people in Memphis can: offer basic services to Hispanics in the hope that people like her father don't have to be met with blank stares when they need help.

Following the demographics

The place where Davis works actually is three businesses in one. A grand opening for the entire thing will be held Monday.

SBS - Davis' division - offers a mix of services to Hispanics, including help with bookkeeping, translation and getting a driver's license. It shares space with a U.S. Post Office branch that was set up to handle Spanish-speaking customers.

Occupying most of the building at 3546 Hickory Hill is a Nationwide Insurance agency. It, too, deals especially with a Hispanic clientele.

All the divisions are under the umbrella of Larry E. Crum & Associates. Crum is the Nationwide Insurance agent who jumped at the chance to serve a demographic that's leading a seismic shift in the area's population statistics.

"The people, they're just like we are. They want the same things we want: good jobs, good homes, good schools for their kids, and they pay their bills. It's just another culture is all, and we've learned how to deal in that culture because it seemed like another way to solidify our relationship with the community."
- Larry Crum Sr. of Larry E. Crum & Associates
Owner of nine Nationwide Insurance agencies in the Memphis area

One estimate has put the Memphis area's Hispanic population between 260,000 and 300,000 people, which does not include undocumented residents. The most recent census figures put Shelby County's general population at slightly more than 900,000.

"The people, they're just like we are," said Crum, who owns nine Nationwide agencies in the Memphis area. "They want the same things we want: good jobs, good homes, good schools for their kids, and they pay their bills.

"It's just another culture is all, and we've learned how to deal in that culture because it seemed like another way to solidify our relationship with the community."

Cashing in

The three new businesses share space in a well-established, 17,000-square-foot strip center that's owned by Boyle Trust and Investment Co. and not far from the hustle and bustle of the Winchester Road corridor. It's less than half a mile from the Hickory Ridge Mall at 6075 Winchester Road.

Crum said customers from all over Memphis and DeSoto County already have flocked to his agency since it opened around the first of the year. Many of them might notice at least one thing that's not typical for businesses in the area: employees at Crum's agency don't lock the door whenever a customer comes in.

Hickory Hill is popularly known as a stretch of Memphis where the housing market is sluggish, the foreclosure rate is high, crime is up and businesses aren't exactly flocking for new opportunities.

The area's bad reputation aside, Crum's insurance agency has had a presence in Hickory Hill for about three years, and he said he likes it just fine.

"We don't have bulletproof glass," Crum said, noting a feature other businesses in the area have. "And we're open until six at night, which is an hour past when most businesses are open."

"You know, I was concerned when we went to Hickory Hill. But we're in a strip center that's pretty safe, and we haven't had any incidents of any kind. Hickory Hill has been okay with us."

Cultural enclave

Ivette Monzon, assistant for Hispanic affairs to Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr., said the Hickory Hill community is home to a large Hispanic presence.

"Many businesses around there are closing, so I think (Crum's office) is a good idea," said Monzon, a Costa Rica native who has lived in the Memphis area for almost 30 years.

Davis, whose background is in accounting, is overseeing both the postal and bilingual services divisions of Crum's new enterprise.

"A lot of people here don't understand the ordinary things about living here," she said. "Typical things to you just aren't understood by them."

Some of those needs include writing business plans, basic birth certificate translation and aid with taxes. Davis has dreamed of working in her current job in some form or another since she saw her father struggle through life in America.

"I saw how much trouble he had, so I've always had the concept that I was going to do something like this," she said.

Monday's grand opening ceremony will be attended by officials from Nationwide's corporate office, the U.S. Postal Service and some influential Hispanic personalities, Crum said. As of mid-week, he was still in the process of confirming who would be able to show up.

If the office becomes successful over time, Crum said it could become a prototype for Nationwide agencies across the country.

All of the nine offices he owns reflect his desire to reach out to Spanish-speaking citizens and make sure people like Davis' father have somewhere to go for help.

"We put a bilingual person in our Olive Branch office, we put another bilingual person in our West Memphis office, and we just opened, on the first of January, a Hispanic insurance agency in Nashville," Crum said. "So we just recognize the diverse community is a good market."

PROPERTY SALES 128 234 13,285
MORTGAGES 80 152 8,323
BANKRUPTCIES 42 79 6,299