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At the end of September, as the summer began to soften in Columbia, a team of executives from Columbia Insurance Group attended the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies annual conference in San Diego. One of the keynote speakers was Eric Wahl, a renowned graffiti artist and motivational speaker, but decidedly not an insurance executive. Still, he found a receptive audience in CIG’s marketing and communication specialist, Kate Stull.
“Oh my gosh, he was amazing,” Stull says. “He talked all about creativity, which is sometimes a little bit hard to do in the insurance industry, but it’s necessary to move forward.”
In some ways, this paradox reflects CIG. As insurance practices have tumbled and changed, it’s taken creativity for CIG to hold firm within its identity. The company is loyal to notions of personal service and honesty; it meets challenges with faith it will emerge even truer to its principles, like a sculpture emerging more clearly with each chunk chiseled off the marble. CIG celebrated their 140th anniversary in 2014, but there are no signs of complacency in advanced age.
The ‘Glorious’ Model
In Stull’s mind, the company’s character begins with the nature of its business model. CIG uses an independent agent model only, meaning they sell insurance products to unaffiliated partner agents. That model stands opposite a captive agent model, in which an agent provides products from only one insurance company.
“The challenge — and also the gift — that we take pride in is that our independent agents are advocates for our clients,” Stull says. “We may get chosen. We may not. But that’s the glorious part of the model.”
The inherent checks and balances hold a constant incentive for CIG to operate with integrity, an attitude that Stull traces back the company’s earliest movements in the 19th century. Insurance was scant on the frontier, but risk was not. So, farmers in Missouri formed mutual insurance groups to protect their property and the delicate local economy.
“CIG still supports that model,” Stull says. “And I don’t think it’s outdated. I think it’s honorable.”
CIG’s timeline, found on the company’s website, begins in 1874 with the creation of the Boone County Home Mutual Insurance Company, but their continuing narrative begins 15 years later, with H.F. Stapel.
Stapel founded the Missouri Farmers Mutual Tornado, Cyclone and Windstorm Insurance Company, headquartered in a long, two-story building in Rock Port, Missouri, nestled in the northwest corner of the state. Stapel started a sister company, offering mutual hail insurance, and also unsuccessfully ran for governor before his death in 1918, at which point his 24-year-old son, John, became the company’s second leader. John Stapel presided over the company’s move to downtown Columbia, first establishing an office on Ninth Street, then relocating to Hitt, and then to the Business Loop. The younger Stapel retired for a decade before resuming leadership, at which point he also presided over the company’s move to their current location, a former shopping mall off Paris Road.
Columbia is, among other things, an insurance town — one of the biggest industries in the Forbes profile of Columbia. CIG matured alongside Columbia’s other homegrown insurance players, among them Shelter and the Insurance Group.
The latter has been the source of past confusion. The Insurance Group is an independent agency that shops for different products to offer clients; Columbia Insurance Group offers some of the products that The Insurance Group shops for. The two are competitors in name only, and they routinely do business together.
A Big-Small Company
The independent agent model creates flexibility for CIG, which began expanding into other states in the 1980s. The company now maintains branch offices in Columbia, Atlanta, Austin, Omaha and Salina, Kansas, but their true reach, Stull says, comes from their partner agents. They’re strung along different towns throughout CIG’s service area, and the company uses these partnerships to learn about local customers needs. Stull calls these agents the “eyes and ears” of the company, and she’s proud to work with them.
“The Columbia Insurance Group supports small businesses, and an independent insurance agent is a small business,” she says.
The independent agency model becomes especially potent in a disaster. In the aftermathof the 2011 Joplin tornado, CIG leaned on area agents, and their collective response to the situation is a point of pride for the company.
“When Joplin happened, we were there within 24 hours,” Stull says. “I’ve talked to insurers personally, and they said that Columbia ‘gave me money for things I didn’t even know I was insured for.’ . . . When a disaster strikes, we show our true colors.”
In that particular disaster, Stull says the company’s personal relationship with agents allowed them to find clients the correct coverage.
The curated CIG network of more than 1,400 agents gives the company the impact of a superregional company with the ,quickness of a small firm. At the Columbia office, the corporate culture reflects smallness rather than bigness.
“Columbia is a small enough company that we all have access to each other,” Stull says. “That’s one advantage about working at a big-small company.”
Pruning and Feeding
The company — closing in on a century-and-a-half in business — has had only eight corporate leaders, from Stapel to current CEO Gary Thompson. Stull describes Thompson as a “wonderful leader” and says he “definitely subscribes to the servant-leadership model.” Thompson immerses himself in the activities of his employees and maintains the office’s signature accessibility. He has worked at CIG for 26 years, which he categorizes as “the 26 years I’ve been privileged enough to serve on the Columbia Insurance Group team.” Insurance, Thompson says, is a service industry, and that’s stuck in his mind as the company has transitioned to an online world.
“Long before me, leaders in our organization recognized that we spend most of our waking hours engaged in our work,” Thompson says. “With that realization, the rhetorical question posed was this: if we spend most of our waking hours at work, shouldn’t we enjoy what we do?”
CIG pays meticulous attention to employee health and experience. The company encourages employees to participate in local non-profits and serve on boards to better know the community. During the last United Way fundraising campaign, the company raised their $50,000 goal on the third day of a nine-day campaign.
Under Thompson, the goal has been mindful growth. He likens the company’s corporate structure to a garden; to be a good gardener, one must prune and feed appropriately. A few years ago, Stull says, the company stopped insuring individual homes, instead opting to focus on commercial lines of business. This year, 85 percent of revenue came from those commercial lines. CIG pruned, fed and grew.
The gardener creates something where there was once nothing, making gardening a creative act. It’s no surprise that the metaphor has caught on at CIG.