Bernie Flynn, president and chief executive officer of New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group, is a Jersey boy, from Burlington County, and his identification with the state is especially strong. “Not everyone is as committed personally to the state of New Jersey as I am,” he says. “I met my wife at the shore, and I’ll be here for the rest of my days.”

But he notes also that the high cost of living here poses challenges for some people. “We see many policyholders with retirement money crossing to Pennsylvania or retiring to Florida,” he says, referring to states where withdrawals from 401ks and IRAs are subject to easier tax laws than in New Jersey. “We’d like to see New Jersey be an environment where folks can retire, and retire comfortably.” And that, he says, will require a bipartisan effort to reduce taxes.

Flynn will speak at a luncheon panel on New Jersey’s current economic climate and the potential for future growth, Tuesday, March 11, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., sponsored by the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce at Trenton Country Club, 201 Sullivan Way. The other speakers are Thomas Bracken, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and Wayne Hasenbalg, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Cost: $55. To register, go to www.midjerseychamber.org. For more information, E-mail info@mercerchamber.org or call 609-689-9960.

Speaking from his perspective as both a business leader and chair of Choose New Jersey, an agency charged with marketing the state to out-of-state businesses, Flynn speaks to the strengths of the New Jersey economy:

Location and talent. Flynn sees New Jersey’s location on the Northeast Corridor and its talent pool as its two biggest strengths economically.

Improved regulatory environment. Flynn also notes a better regulatory environment, pointing to his own company’s experience with regulatory changes regarding auto insurance. “You may recall from more than a decade go, auto insurance was as dramatic a political issue as property taxes,” he says, explaining that it was solved through a bipartisan legislative effort in which Governor Jim McGreevey and his administration passed a reform measure that maintained appropriate regulation while allowing companies to compete for the auto insurance business of New Jersey’s drivers.

As a result, says Flynn, national insurance carriers like Geico and Progressive entered New Jersey, signaling the return of a competitive marketplace. “All of sudden we had extensive advertising for auto insurance, new jobs being created, and companies coming in and setting up shop,” he explains.

Broad-based economic strategy. Flynn also highlights the benefits of the broad initiatives of the Christie administration over the last five years to spur economic development. One is the Red Tape Review Commission, chaired by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, which is engaged in an ongoing review and reform of the state’s regulatory process. A second is the New Jersey Partnership for Action, also overseen by Guadagno, which comprises the Business Action Center — a “one-stop place for businesses to address any red tape that may be in the way of setting up a going concern in the state,” says Flynn; the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which the state’s website calls the state’s “bank for business”; and Choose New Jersey.

Cooperation between business, government, and educational institutions. Also falling under the umbrella of the Partnership for Action, says Flynn, are New Jersey’s efforts to align business strategy and economic development through the department of higher education and the state institutions of higher learning and research. “They are interacting with the business community in a manner that is more robust than we have seen in past,” says Flynn, noting the connections being established between both the pharma and technology industries and New Jersey universities.

In the face of all these strengths, says Flynn, New Jersey’s tax environment poses a significant challenge to bringing in new businesses and satisfying existing ones. “We are not as competitive as those in the business community would like us to be, as relates to our surrounding region,” says Flynn. “We have made strides with the Christie administration as relates to tax structure but have a long way to go.”

What Flynn proposes is “a macro type review so that we are competitive with our neighboring states,” because it is easy for businesses or individuals to a friendlier tax environment. Granting that “substantial revenue is needed to run the government and provide services to the citizens of New Jersey,” Flynn says, “if we could combine a competitive tax environment with other advantages the state has — location, talent, and quality of life — New Jersey would find itself at the top of the heap for businesses, and for high net worth and middle class individuals.”

Regarding manufacturing, Flynn notes a shift in the trend of manufacturing jobs leaving the United States because of increasing labor costs in developing areas and suggests that New Jersey has about 250,000 manufacturing jobs. “From a high-tech standpoint,” he says, “there is a need for enhanced efforts to train our people to meet the high-tech manufacturing needs of New Jersey companies.”

Flynn’s father worked as treasurer for the Philadelphia Bulletin and then for a textile manufacturer, and Flynn himself studied business administration with a concentration in finance and economics, graduating from Fordham University in 1982.

The next year Flynn worked in Washington, D.C., as a volunteer at Gonzaga College High School. He tutored children from Northwest Washington during the year and also worked in the school’s summer program. “Jobs where you don’t get paid are terrific,” he says, noting that if he had been paid, he might have followed a different career path. Instead he went on to Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, graduating in 1986.

Starting in 1987 Flynn served as a New Jersey deputy attorney general, eventually named as counsel for the commissioner of insurance. In 1993 he joined New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance as a staff attorney and was named senior vice president and general counsel in 2004. He has been in his current position since 2008.

“Leadership and bipartisanship with regard to our business climate are critical, and we’ve seen success,” says Flynn, noting the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, which is helpful in terms of both retaining businesses in New Jersey and attracting businesses to the state.

Perception studies done by Choose New Jersey reveal that across the country the perception of New Jersey as a place to do business “has improved greatly over the past five years,” Flynn says. These studies have also helped Choose New Jersey to precisely target the sectors the state wants to bring in — pharma, technology, and financial services.

“If you’re anyone paying attention to the business trade press, you see the efforts other states and cities make,” says Flynn. “We’re in the game. Before this administration came into office, we were not in the game, and it was a primary objective of this administration to change that dynamic and put New Jersey front and center into the conversation with regard to businesses looking for a friendly and supportive space in which to relocate.”

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