Rhode Island is the base of operations for many businesses that have a big footprint beyond state borders, including healthcare giant CVS and beloved toy and game manufacturer Hasbro. The roots of many of these large companies run deep, while others opted to set up shop here after discovering the Ocean State and its well-known work/life balance (few are the places where you can stop work at 5pm and minutes later be dipping your toes in the sea or hiking deep into a National Historic Park). Though doing business in Rhode Island, or anywhere for that matter, is not without its challenges, for many companies, its advantages far outweigh its detriments.
Another company that continues to flourish in Rhode Island more than a century after its founding here is Amica, the oldest mutual insurer of automobiles in the country. “If you think back to 1907, the country was basically small towns, rural living,” explains Vince Burks, Department Vice President and Communications Director at Amica. “The main mode of transportation was horse-drawn carriage and there were only about 25,000 automobiles on the road, and there were mixed feelings about these ‘cars.’ It was primarily for the wealthy. Woodrow Wilson even said that the automobile was ‘the picture of the arrogance of wealth.’” But Burks says Amica’s founder, local businessman A.T. Vigneron, was watching all the changes happening in the country, including Henry Ford declaring he was making an automobile affordable for everyone, and got to work along with two clerks in a one-room office at 10 Weybosset Street in Providence (you can still see “Amica Building” emblazoned on the structure, even though the corporate offices moved to Lincoln in 1994).
Today, Amica’s campus encompasses five buildings where it employs almost 1,600 Rhode Islanders who take advantage of the amenities there: on-site free parking, a cafeteria, fitness center, and walking trails. The insurer’s offerings and corporate culture must be resonating as the employee retention rate is astounding. “You don’t get any bragging rights until you’ve been here 25 years,” Burks says with a hearty laugh. “I’ve been with the company for 36 years and the thing that’s so crazy is that I am not an anomaly at all.” Employees who reach their quarter-century milestone are immortalized with a brick in the courtyard and at an annual celebration dinner toasting achievements, accomplishments, and retirements; recipients fly in from all over the country to be fêted.
Amica has policyholders in nearly all 50 states and branches in 25 locations coast to coast. They don’t have the advertising and marketing budget compared to the nation’s best-known insurers, but growth continues to be the company’s objective as they look to gain more market share in both the Southwest and Northwest. Yet, the Northeast continues to be the lifeblood of the company. Rhode Island is home to nearly 100,000 auto, home, and umbrella policies. “And we have $2.7 billion in life insurance out there supporting people in Rhode Island.”
With such enviable attributes and success margins, a company like Amica has myriad reasons to be courted by other metropolitan business hubs, and it happens frequently. “We have actually been approached by many, many states inviting us to move and promising to give us incentives for doing so,” concedes Burks, citing tantalizing offers like major tax breaks. But the thought of leaving Rhode Island is unconscionable: “We’ve looked at it and we feel that this is our home.”
When it comes to bettering the Rhode Island community, Amica supports various nonprofits throughout the state via sponsorships, grants, employees who sit on boards at organizations helping others, and even a company-provided day off for volunteering.
“We understand the importance of not just being an insurance company and being a good corporate citizen, but being present in the community and helping where we can because there are so many underserved people out there,” says Burks, “and we understand there’s a responsibility to acknowledge that and to do what you can do if you are one of the key players in the state.”
“We have a great quality of life here: The access to great colleges and universities, the coastline down in Newport and Narragansett; it’s really the things that you’re able to do,” says Keith Kelly, Citizens Bank Rhode Island President. “We have great, top-notch employers here in a number of fields, but also, the proximity to Boston – an hour away, you’re in Boston; three hours on the train, you’re in New York City.” And of course, there’s the enviable Rhode Island culinary scene, Kelly insists. “I would argue we have the best Italian restaurants south of Boston here in Providence.”
Citizens Financial Group, Inc. is one of the oldest and largest financial services firms in the US. At the time it was originally founded in Providence as High Street Bank in 1828, the city was flourishing. It was toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, and 38 years prior, English immigrant Samuel Slater introduced the technology of machine-spun cotton to the US at his water-powered mill in nearby Pawtucket, modernizing textile mills near and far. High Street Bank was one of more than 60 commercial banks in the state, and the jewelry making factories – as many as 200 thriving before the turn of the century, earning the city’s distinction as the “Jewelry Capital of the World” – greatly contributed to Providence’s prosperity.
In 1988, the company was acquired by RBS Group, and the bank’s additional acquisitions expanded Citizens’ footprint throughout New England and into the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. Today, the company holds $187.18 billion in assets with about 1,000 branches in these regions. “We’re in 44 states at this point in time. In 11 of those states, we have a branch footprint, and in the others, we have small production offices or other larger facilities depending on the business unit that’s there,” explains Kelly.
If there was any doubt Citizens wasn’t committed to Little Rhody for the long haul, the company invested $285 million into a state-of-the-art corporate campus in Johnston in 2018 with 424,000 square feet of office and meeting space, plus ample recreation offerings: tennis, basketball and bocce courts, ball fields, soccer fields, and walking trails – all of which is accessible to both employees and the community at large. The facility is home to more than 3,000 of the 4,700 Citizen employees who call Rhode Island home.
“The investment we made in Johnston was a critical moment for us and really solidified our commitment to Rhode Island, the well-being of our colleagues, and the community around us,” says Kelly. “Part of Citizens’ credo is we really want to give back to the communities where our colleagues live, work, and play, and that was the heart of building the Johnston campus.”
But it’s not just about business. Citizens has a long history of giving back: “We’ve got three key pillars that we really focus our engagement around, and that’s fighting hunger, financial empowerment, and strengthening our communities,” says Kelly. Citizens sponsors the United Way’s 2-1-1 program, a free, confidential service that helps people find essential local resources, whether financial-, domestic-, health-, or disaster-related, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company also works with organizations helping low-income communities build affordable housing and promote positive livability in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Newport, and Woonsocket.
Another program Citizens supports is “Champion in Action” with NBC 10 WJAR. “It’s a great way for us to engage across a number of different not-for-profit platforms, whether it’s health and human services, whether it’s fighting hunger, or a variety of other causes,” says Kelly. Just some of the organizations that have financially benefited include The Autism Project; House of Hope Community Development Corporation, which seeks to end homelessness; Young Voices, which empowers local youth to become civic leaders and advocates for their communities; What Cheer Flower Farm for their environmental stewardship; and The Steel Yard for its commitment to community arts. Adds Kelly, “It gives us a chance to broaden our focus and vision, helping as many Rhode Islanders as we can.”
The founders of one multimillion-dollar company loved their adopted home so much, they named their business after it. Ocean State Job Lot was the dream of University of Rhode Island grads who had seen the success of closeout retailers in their native New York. “They were familiar with Rhode Island. They knew the cost of living and cost of doing business would be much more affordable in Rhode Island, so they decided to open the first store [here],” says the company’s CMO, Paul Conforti.
The flagship store opened in North Kingstown in 1977 and did $78 in sales that day. Forty-four years and 146 stores later, company sales exceed $750 million. “We’re in Pennsylvania and New Jersey now, all of the New England states and in New York, as far as Binghamton, on Long Island, and all throughout the Hudson Valley, so we have been slowly, steadily growing,” says Conforti. He says Ocean State Job Lot has “been content to grow organically and keep things moving on a steady pace.” That strategic pace means increasing from an average of four to six new stores annually to 10 to 12.
The company, which has established itself as the largest closeout retailer in the Northeast and one of the largest in the country, employs about 5,600 people companywide, more than 1,300 of whom are Rhode Islanders, and has been recognized as one of America’s Best Employers by Forbes many times over. “So it’s a real Rhode Island success story,” adds Conforti.
“We built a new corporate headquarters in 2005 and our warehouse – it was 750,000 square feet, and about three or four years ago, we added another 500,000 square feet to that facility. It’s the largest footprint building in the state and we’re looking at opportunities to add more space,” confirms Conforti.
Born and raised in Cranston, Conforti says that a lot of employees are returning to Ocean State Job Lot’s corporate headquarters in North Kingstown nowadays, and the past nearly year-and-a-half has shown Rhode Island’s easy access to New York and Boston, attracting talent looking for a lower cost of living. He asks rhetorically, “How can you not love this state?”
Charitable giving is simply part of the corporate culture at Ocean State Job Lot. The company states that as “value seekers,” that is, a company hinged on selling top quality goods at discounted prices, they are uniquely positioned “to make a dollar go further than most.” In 2004 they established the Ocean State Job Lot Charitable Foundation to fight hunger via mass food donations, help veterans and military families, promote children’s literacy, support pet adoption, and advance healthcare programs. During the pandemic alone, the foundation aided all of the communities in which it has stores with $25 million in financial and product donations ranging from hunger relief and equipment to critical PPE for hospitals, community clinics, other healthcare facilities, schools, and more.
Here’s a quick look at other major businesses who call Rhody home:
The subsidiary of multinational energy and automation company Schneider Electric, APC manufactures and provides key products and services for home and office data centers, from surge protectors to software – all out of West Kingston.
If you’re not already familiar with the healthcare conglomerate, CVS Health encompasses a retail pharmacy chain, pharmacy benefits manager (CVS Caremark), and health insurance provider (Aetna), among other brands, and operates out of a sprawling corporate campus in Woonsocket.
Commercial property insurance company FM Global works mainly with large corporations around the world from their Johnston HQ, offering loss prevention services in the Highly Protected Risk property insurance market sector.
Started by two brothers in 1870, Gilbane remains a family-owned and Rhode Island-based (specifically, Providence) company, specializing in construction and facility management that uses sustainable building practices and the latest technology.
A life-sized model of Mr. Potato Head waving to passersby marks this toy and entertainment company’s Pawtucket homebase, where the ideas for your favorite toys, board games, and even TV shows are brainstormed.
Located in that big glass building across from Providence Place Mall is a global leader in gaming, known best for slot machines and gambling technology that encourage responsible, positive, and informed play. The Creative Capital joins an impressive portfolio of HQs in the UK, Rome, and Las Vegas.
If you’ve ever fawned over a cute and colorful elephant logo printed on a hoodie or tee, chances are you’ve fallen for Ivory Ella. The Westerly-based online apparel and accessory retailer prioritizes purpose over profit: 10 percent of each purchase supports mission-based charity Save the Elephants.
This Providence-based company manufactures sustainable, efficient HVAC systems for homes, offices, warehouses, hospitals, schools, and more, in addition to creating cooling equipment for data centers.
“Swarovski” is synonymous with luxury crystal jewelry (and watches and decorations, too) hand-crafted and headquartered in Austria since 1895. So what’s the RI connection? Well, their North America HQ is located in Cranston.
A multibillion-dollar global leader in engineering and tech known for powerful aircraft, defense, and industrial brands, Textron runs offices around the world, but you’ll find their headquarters in the heart of Providence’s Financial District.
This wholesale distributor of health and specialty foods is one of the largest publicly traded in North America, and is the main supplier for Whole Foods Market. Its roots trace back to a small organic food store in Rhode Island, where UNFI remains based in Providence.