Auto insurer National General moves operational hub to renovated space in Madison Park


National General Insurance, formerly GMAC, has moved from its tall building downtown to smaller, updated buildings in Madison Park. (David Rolfe/Journal)

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — National General Holdings Corp. wanted to make a statement when it moved its operational hub in Winston-Salem, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Mission accomplished, if the $9 million committed to renovating two office buildings at Madison Park is any indication.

National General specializes in underwriting auto insurance. Nearly 700 employees made the shift this month from the massive GMAC Insurance building downtown.

Rather than plopping employees into existing cubicles in the 116,000 square feet of space at Madison Park, National General capitalized on the gutted canvass that landlord KBR-LRC Madison Park LLC chose to create a few years ago to appeal to just such a tenant.

Byron Storms, president of its property and casualty operations, said the goal over the past year has been “creating an open, collaborative atmosphere for our employers, the look of which we are very, very proud of.”

With a tenant renovation allowance in hand, and Workplace Strategies Inc. on board, National General established an open, glass-filled atmosphere. Among other things, he knocked down a common brick wall that had separated buildings 5620 and 5630 on the first three floors.

Workplace is a facility planning and interior design firm in Winston-Salem founded in 2000 by Alicia Hardin and Peter Marsh. It specializes in commercial, health care and sustainable design, including playing a major role in the creation of Inmar Inc.’s new downtown headquarters.

National General persuaded the landlord to allow it to build a three-story atrium to serve as the official entrance to the buildings. The atrium contains the most prominent display of ceiling sound panels that wind through many of the larger rooms like the marks of a sundial.

The insurer brought in new furnishings and cubicle space, set aside several break rooms, chose to go with a new food and beverage station serviced by Gallins Foods rather than a cafeteria, and put its touch on renovations all the way down to the bathrooms. It added an in-house health clinic with a nurse practitioner. It also gained access to a back courtyard for gatherings.

“We were involved in most of the details because we wanted a consistent and invigorating look to the building,” Storms said.

With having essentially one parking space per employee, workers got a small bump in their paycheck from no longer having to pay a monthly rental fee.

The new look is in sharp contrast with the GMAC Insurance downtown building that the company and its predecessors either owned or leased since the 501,000-square-foot building opened in 1980. There have been few infrastructure upgrades there in recent years.

The overriding priority with the transition was better fitting the insurer’s workforce with its space needs.

For example, in the GMAC Insurance building, some units had employees spread out over four floors, said Chris Brooks, local vice president of human resources.

In the new space, those employees are on two floors, with the knocked-down walls and centralized stairwells offering much easier access for meetings and brainstorming.

“It gives us the look and feel of one building, and employees can see each other more frequently, so the silos are not as prevalent anymore,” Brooks said.

That was the goal the landlord had in mind with the gutted canvass strategy, said Greg Wilson with CBRE Triad, who is handling the marketing of Madison Park. The Triad office of CBRE was hired in May as exclusive marketing agent for the campus.

“The interior of the buildings was designed in the mid-1980s, and the landlord knew that any tenant would request a newer look,” Wilson said. “They opted to take the step proactively so to make the buildings much more marketable.

“They were agreeable to the atrium because they agree it makes the buildings more valuable to have one coordinated main entrance.”

Brooks said being closer to restaurants, banks and other retail is an advantage to employees, 70 percent of whom have a shorter commute to work.

National General was created as the brand to take the place of GMAC shortly after American Capital Acquisition Corp. bought GMAC Insurance Personal Lines in 2009.

Brooks said the move to new quarters represents a symbol of the clean break National General is trying to make with the financial uncertainties that clouded much of GMAC’s recent past. Similar infrastructure upgrades have taken place with GMAC facilities in Ontario, Calif., and St. Louis.

The Winston-Salem economy dodged a major workforce blow in June 2013 when National General committed to keeping a local operation. About 700 employees had been waiting since December 2011 for word on whether the company would keep its operations in Winston-Salem or move them to Cleveland, where National General had bought a prominent downtown skyscraper for part of its operations.

The anxiety surrounding GMAC was understandable considering that the company had been bought three times since 1997, and its local workforce cut at least 41 percent, or by at least 479 employees, in the past 7½ years.

Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, acknowledged the loss of the National General jobs is a economic setback for downtown merchants, which he hopes will be temporary

“It is a priority to get these buildings filled with new users,” Thiel said.

“These properties are all strategically located right in the heart of downtown, and they come equipped with plenty of on-site parking and access to many amenities, such as housing, restaurants, theaters and retail.”

Michael Clapp, a real estate appraiser, has said that with the campus being older, “it could be tough to reabsorb that much space in the current marketplace.”

Mayor Allen Joines said National General’s decision “will offer us an opportunity to recruit another quality, knowledge-based company to our community.”

Brooks said National General “feels we are two years beyond all the uncertainty.”

“We’re not longer rightsizing. We’re in hiring mode for a high-quality workforce.

“We pledged to not only remain a major employer in Winston-Salem, but to become an employer of choice in our industry,” Brooks said. “With what you see here, we believe we are accomplishing both goals.”

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