THE INNER sanctum A little piece of the past
Finding Jim Herbert’s office is a bit challenging. Although he is founder and CEO of Neogen Corp., one of Lansing’s greatest corporate success stories, his office is stuck away in the corner of the first floor of the Center for Microbiological Excellence, which used to be the Allen Street School on Kalamazoo Street.
There is no easy entrance to the building, but the persistent visitor can find a door that leads to the building’s interior. No receptionist is in sight.
Founded in 1982 with a $50,000 investment from Michigan State University, Neogen’s 2016 revue reached $321.27 million, with a market cap of $1.52 billion. Twelve-hundred employees work for Neogen around the globe.
Certainly Neogen has the resources to build a flashy corporate headquarters somewhere in the Lansing area. Instead, they have chosen to buy old Lansing schools, warehouses and other abandoned structures. In total, the biotechnology company owns 15 buildings and 307,000 square feet.
The 77-year-old Herbert has no plans of retiring. He grew up on a Tennessee farm where the Memphis International Airport now stands. He has an easy, folksy sense of humor and speaks with an aw-shucks drawl. He even has a history with a certain superstar who some people say never died.
Because of his down-home style, no one would guess the fortune Herbert has accumulated from the company that few people in Lansing even know about. Some savvy folks may see that his name is the same one that is on the front of Sparrow Health System’s new and impressive cancer center. Herbert, along with Dr. James Herman, donated $2.5 million for the state-of-the-art facility.
Neogen certainly can afford to build a big, fancy skyscraper as its corporate office. Why did you choose to be housed in old Lansing schools?
When we started out, we didn’t have the money to do anything else. We wanted something to call our own without renting for our labs and offices and things.
We figured an old school would work, because they have good, hard surface floors. The classrooms are about the right size for our labs, and they have plenty of plumbing because little kids had to go the bathroom all the time.
So that led us to look at schools, and the first one was the Oak Park School, which was decommissioned. We had the opportunity to buy that one with nothing down on a land contract. We paid about $200K for it, because no one wanted it. They asked us what kind of interest rate we’re thinking of paying on the land contract, and I said we weren’t thinking of paying any interest rate. Well, we ended paying some crazy small interest rate.
We started to fall in love with these old schools, so now we own this one, the Oak Park, another on South Cedar. One of the buildings on the main campus was built with money by Ransom Olds for the care of needy children. We bought it from the county, and the county gave the money to the women’s shelter and we matched the funds, so they built a better and more suitable space across town.
Tell us about some of the items on your walls and bookshelves.
That rope in the corner is from Argentina. I have a ranching operation in Texas and I own many Western artifacts. My ranch is south of Dallas and is about 1,000 acres. There’s a copy of a (Frederic) Remington sculpture and that huge longhorn cow skull is from my ranch.
That’s a photo of the first car I ever owned. It’s an old Chevrolet, 1953. The old Philco radio dates back to the 1930s. Someone gave it to me, and it ended up here. Like so many things, someone brought it in: “I saw this, and I thought you oughta have it.” That’s where the stuffed animal came from. His name is Neon. All this stuff kind of piles up.
When you decide to retire, what are you going to do with all this?
More importantly, what is my successor going to do with all this? That’s a painting of the Hill Country of Texas near my ranch. I’m there not near enough – about four to five weeks a year. It’s pretty close to (former President George W.) Bush’s place.
How many buildings does Neogen own in Lansing?
Fifteen buildings.On the main campus, there were houses in the neighborhood; and over time, when one became available, we bought each house, cleaned it up and fixed it up. We have a travel department in one, our marketing department in another. When you look at 15 buildings, several of them are houses.
The houses are side by side, and the people work together well. They have a little kitchen, which is now their break room.
Years ago, we’d bring people together to have what we call “hallway meetings.” It was started when we had one building and few enough employees where we could, at the end of a quarter, have everybody come down, stand in the hallway and Herbert could talk about how good we did in the quarter and where we are going. They became known as hallway meetings.
Now the hallway meetings have outgrown any hallway, and we go to the Lansing Center for our corporate meetings.
Why did you choose to have your office hidden away like this?
I moved from the main headquarters because, when I was there, everyone who was standing in the lobby wanted to know what Herbert thought – my office was in the main corridor.
I felt managers needed to do daily operations by themselves. I felt if I was going to run the main company, I’ve got to give the guys a chance to run the day-to-day operations over there. I’ve got to give the guys room to run the place right.
As you notice, we don’t maintain a receptionist here. It’s not really open to the public.
When we first bought this building, we wanted to move microbiologists, (research and development), tech services and people dealing with live cultures – we’ll put them all in one place and we’ll put them in the old Allen Street School. Microbiologists can be irreverent, and they need adult supervision, so I’ll just move my office over there. It keeps me off the beaten path.
There were problems when we moved into the new building. Everybody got upset – they didn’t want to move to the ASS, the Allen Street School. They didn’t like the implication. So I said, “I’ll solve that. Put a sign outside that calls it the Center for Microbiological Excellence.” Soon they were saying, “Do you get to move to the new center?” Aha! It became a center and everyone loved it. Words are everything.
Why do you like this office?
I wanted this room for my office, but it was entirely too big. I wanted a wall in the office but didn’t want to cut it down the middle because it would destroy the cabinets. Well, we have some good carpenters in our facilities group, and they did the work. This table works well for two or three to use. And if the meeting is larger, we just move over to the conference room on the other side of the wall.
I travel internationally a good bit – probably 30 percent of my time. And I keep up with all my 250 people in Scotland and England, and that group reports directly to me, so that’s how we’re growing that part of the business. We just had an opening in Australia. We’re also in Brazil, Mexico and China.
Who is that in that old picture over there?
Oh, that’s me and Elvis when I was growing up in Memphis. He was a few years older than me. I grew up on a farm where the Memphis airport now sits, so when I was a kid we used to bail hay on land that became Graceland. It was called Graceland because of Dr. (Thomas) Moore, who we knew owned it, and his wife was named Grace. He named the place Graceland and sold it to Elvis.
The first time I met Elvis, I was a junior in high school and he came in from a tour. He had just moved into that house and it had a lily pond. Elvis said, “Let’s shoot bullfrogs on the lily pads.” So that was the first time I met him, shooting bullfrogs with a 12-gauge shot gun.
Elvis was out on the road after that, but he always had somebody on the gates guarding the property. By this time people started to come to the gates and stand around a lot. We knew his cousins and the guys around the gates and Elvis was seldom ever there. But the guards knew us and they let us in, and everyone else was looking at us. We promised the guards we wouldn’t get out of the car so we’d enter the gates, drive around the Omega Circle and drive out. We had more fun during those years, it’s no big thing, just a little piece of the past.