Building Legacy from Within

posted by TrueNorth Companies on Monday, September 19, 2022

Building Legacy From Within 

By Steve Gravelle |

“Our culture is what we call One TrueNorth,” said Jason Smith, CEO of the Cedar Rapids-based risk-management and insurance brokerage company that’s 2022’s Coolest Place to Work in the Large Business category. “It’s really about the understanding of clients, colleagues and communities. We all want to be part of something that resonates with us, that feels special, that is beyond what any one of us could do on a personal level.”

A product of TrueNorth culture over the company’s first two decades, Mr. Smith helps shape it for the future. He joined one of TrueNorth’s predecessor firms upon his graduation from the University of Iowa, three years before the 2001 merger of three smaller insurance firms formed TrueNorth.

“I’m a great example,” he said. “I started when I was between my freshman and sophomore years at Iowa, worked part-time through (college years at) Iowa, graduated on a Saturday in May of 1998 and showed up as an entry-level sales person that Monday. So, 24 years full-time, 27 years total, and now I’m CEO of the company. Our president (Trent Tillman), I hired him right out of the University of Northern Iowa almost 20 years ago. We want this to be a career destination.”

That includes TrueNorth’s ownership. The closely-held firm announced 13 new owners in March, bringing to 67 the longtime employees – colleagues, at TrueNorth – who hold equity. Colleagues become owners based on tenure and performance.

“We’re building the company to be a legacy company,” Mr. Smith said. “We’re building the company for succession from within. We’re vehemently committed to staying closely held, privately held.”

From $9 million in revenue its first year with 96 employees, TrueNorth earned $113.9 million in 2022. The firm now counts about 550 colleagues in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Ames, Denver and Chicago, with account managers, sales and claims staff working remotely across 23 states.

Supportive management

Management is supportive, encouraging and patient with showing new employees the ropes of the department. The employees are willing to jump in to help with learning processes and to answer any questions that come up. TrueNorth as a whole is very dedicated to celebrating and motivating their employees. 

Our executive team greets people in the hallways and knows almost, if not all, of the names of people in the business. The executive group is friendly and gets engaged in companywide events. 

Mr. Smith earlier this year began meeting with each new hire for an hour. After the new hire introduces themself, the CEO spends about 30 minutes on TrueNorth, “where we’re going and what’s important to us. Then we do an absolute open-forum Q and A. I say to them, ‘I’m very transparent as CEO. There’s no question off limits.’ We’re trying to set that tone right out of the gate: that you can be yourself here, that it is an intentional culture. It’s also a transparent culture, and there’s opportunities for everyone.”

Employee engagement

This company does a great job getting their employees engaged. Examples include small parties on the outdoor patio, holiday parties, team lunches, after hours get-togethers, etc.

– The office is a great environment, and there is always something fun to look forward to. Having access to downtown Cedar Rapids is an added perk.

 – I am excited to come to work because of the people. There are also events such as town hall, team huddle, and volunteer opportunities that make me feel more connected to the organization as a whole. 

“Whether you’re working in the buildings or you’re working from home, what things can we be doing to create colleague connections?” Mr. Smith said. “Food trucks, live music, face painting for kids, doing bag tournaments, doing things that might be after hours getting colleagues, getting families in the building together.”

Flexible options

The office building is extremely nice, an employee response said, and has multiple different areas for you to escape from your desk for a few minutes to reset yourself for the work day.

TrueNorth’s return from COVID-induced work from home is evolving, drawing on its colleagues’ experience and the insurance industry’s unique practices.

“We’re really working hard to support flexible work environments,” Mr. Smith said. “There are certain folks that want to be in the building. There are certain folks who want to work from home, and there are certain folks who like that hybrid approach. As an organization we’ve had a lot of that in our history. As a young sales person, I’m used to working out of car, a hotel room, an airport, my kitchen table. As CEO, when we flipped to 100% remote, it really isn’t that daunting to me.”

Mr. Smith said TrueNorth colleagues seem ready to return to company headquarters, the former Cedar Rapids Public Library that was re-purposed and renovated to become the home office in 2011.

Community commitment 

I love that TrueNorth offers colleagues paid, volunteer time-off. It helps encourage me to get involved within my community while not feeling “guilty” for taking time away from work. This initiative shows TrueNorth’s dedication to the community.

Volunteer time off (VTO), which affords colleagues paid time out of the office to work on community projects, is a recent benefit that ties neatly into TrueNorth’s emphasis on its neighbors.

“We’re in our second or third year and we’re super excited about it,” Mr. Smith said. “There are three ways to give: time, money or influence. Especially young colleagues that are new to the professional working world, they don’t have a lot of extra money. The gift of time, we want people to see TrueNorth colleagues out there in  the community making a difference.”

Companywide celebration

The benefits, Town Halls, luncheons they put on, food trucks that they have come in, the way they help you grow as a person and professional.

Perhaps the centerpiece of employee engagement, the company’s Town Hall is staged every June at the city’s McGrath Amphitheatre and features food trucks, beverages and up-and-coming musical acts.

“This year we had over 1,500 people at the party,” Mr. Smith said. “A lot of work goes into it, but you wake up Saturday morning after that week feeling pretty energized. It’s designed to continue to bring energy to the colleagues.”

Spouses are invited, and Mr. Smith plans to expand next year’s guest list to include colleagues’ children.

“Mom or Dad are away at work for 10 hours a day,” he said. “What do they do, where do they go? We believe if you can have that significant other and have the children a part of the overall organization or the culture, we believe that’s going to give us the ability to keep Mom or Dad here and engaged, but we also look at it as a future talent pipeline.” 

This article was originally published in the September 2022 edition of the Corridor Business Journal. You can access the original article here