You don’t have to travel far for an audience with eyes glued to a business celebrity—all you need is an invitation to one of the exclusive NextGen Speaker Series events in Naples. In 2013, Michael Benson established the special speaker series in Southwest Florida after realizing his staff could benefit from hearing directly from successful businesspeople.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Benson attended Miami University (in Ohio); he started his career in Cleveland in the insurance business, working with Home Life for 10 years. He then launched an independent insurance consultancy company—Benson Blackburn. As the company grew to a national one with a mission to help families preserve and protect wealth, Benson found himself on airplanes 17 days a month to meet with clients. Wanting to mitigate the continual travel, he decided to follow his snowbird clients to Naples; he opened a secondary office in 2007. He also made the paradisical city his home at that time. It was the right move, as his client base grew from six to 250. Naples is now the primary office of Benson Blackburn.
Benson’s office in his new hometown was down the hallway from Richard (Dick) Schulze, founder of Best Buy. Schulze was a client of Benson Blackburn, and the two men had also become friends. One day, Benson asked Schulze to share some business wisdom with his young staff. Even though Benson was familiar with Schulze’s story, he sat in on the discussion and discovered he was learning as well. He also realized the content was too valuable not to be shared with others. As he states: “More people could benefit from hearing Dick’s story.”
Benson decided to start a speaker series that would run in January, February, and March—the high-season months in Southwest Florida. The series would be based on four pillars: leadership, mentorship, empowerment, and philanthropy. One Friday morning during each of these months, approximately 300 people are invited to attend the sessions. Speakers share their life stories, their business successes and failures, their struggles, and lessons learned. An unfiltered question and answer period follows.
“In the past 10 years, all but two speakers have been local,” explains Benson. Past speakers include Don Fites, former chairman and CEO of Caterpillar, Inc.; Michael Duke, retired president and CEO of Walmart Inc.; Ian Read, former chairman and CEO of Pfizer; and Jerri and David Hoffmann, founders of Hoffmann Family of Companies. Speakers are asked to contribute their time and talents without payment and instead select a local charity of their choice to which a $5,000 donation is made. To date, $100,000 has been donated to local charities from the speaker series.
“We have had a phenomenal response to the series,” reports Benson. Comments and questions range from “I learned so much” and “It helped me and my business immensely” to “When is the next one?”
Series speakers for 2023 will feature Michael Feuer, founder of OfficeMax; Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and Ave Maria University and once-owner of the Detroit Tigers; and Angie Bastian, cofounder of snack brand Boom Chicka Pop.
With the sale of Benson Blackburn in November 2022 to Alera Group Wealth Services, an independent, national insurance and wealth services firm, Benson is a clear choice to address next year’s attendees.