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Bruce Kelley at Bubba

5/1/2019

CEO of EMC Insurance Company shares his perspective on Des Moines and the insurance industry.

Bruce Kelley is the longtime CEO of EMC Insurance Company, a 108-year-old business in downtown Des Moines that employs 2,400 people, 1,400 of them in Des Moines. We asked him to lunch, and he suggested Bubba, a downtown café in an historic building a few blocks from EMC headquarters. Why Bubba?

“We have 21 offices worldwide. Four of them are in the South — Charlotte, Birmingham, Jackson and Dallas. Because Des Moines is the headquarters, we often bring people here from other offices for training and seminars. We like to take them to Bubba to find out what they think of Southern food in Iowa. They are often quite impressed. I have even heard things like ‘I wish we had one of these back home,’ ” he explained.

This Dixie style café’s motto is “Rugged and Refined.” To my sensibilities, it’s more refined than rugged. There are artistic displays of bowties, various woods used in smoking, southern antiques and cowboy hats. Owner Chris Diebel, whose family moved from Texas to Des Moines in the 1990s, displays a portrait of his grandmother and other heirlooms. The menu is mostly Texan but includes all parts of Dixie.

We ordered pan fried chicken and a steak sandwich and began discussing the insurance industry in general. Growing up in Des Moines, I used to think there were three kinds of jobs in the business — a few actuarial scientists plus salespeople and claims adjustors. If that perception ever truly existed, those days are long gone. Kelley explained.

“We have a diversity of expert specialties today. We hire engineers, mostly from Iowa State; lawyers, mostly from Drake and Iowa; risk assessment managers; people assessing reservation oversight claims (mostly actuarial scientists), and accountants. All college specialists have added value to us.

“Our business is heavily involved today with innovation. Drones are becoming a bigger part of the business. We have 400 people working in systems development. Data are more accessible than ever before, particularly weather data. That helps with risk assessment. Employees wear sensor devices now for security and safety. Computers are always improving, and we have to keep up — everyone does,” Kelley explained.

Kelley is the fourth generation of his family to run EMC. His great grandfather, John Alexander Gunn, created the company in 1911 by combining forces with John Jack Eddy, an insurance agent working in Iowa. The original focus was selling workman’s compensation insurance to employers. Bruce Kelley’s predecessor, Robb Kelley, was a towering man who stood six feet eight inches at the time when several NBA centers were not that tall. Bruce Kelley is a tall man himself, something that is unusually common amongst Des Moines insurance leaders. Hey, it’s a big industry here, with larger than life people running it. The Iowa insurance industry began when Ebenezer Ingersoll supposedly won the start-up money for the first Iowa insurance company in a game of whisk.

Contemporary legends of the local industry are often related to philanthropy and community involvement.

“We were a big supporter of the skywalk system. After that looked likely in the late 1960s, we committed to our new building downtown and to staying in Des Moines. We also encouraged several other businesses, American Republic (now AEG) for one, to stay here. That was a time of suburban flight and a key time in downtown history,” he recalled.

What are the biggest changes Kelley has witnessed in a lifetime in Des Moines?

“The skywalk was huge. I was happily surprised more recently to see so much downtown living. I am not impressed by the quality of the housing for downtown living, though, because cheap housing is an emphasis. Preservation of historic buildings has been a wonderful development. I was so sad to see the old Federal Building torn down. That would not happen today. Getting Nationwide and Wells Fargo here were big things — great companies. The creation of the Drake Agricultural Law Center was a wonderful development. Neil Hamilton started that,” Kelley said. Kelley also agreed with Jeff Fleming in a recent “Lunch with…” interview here who said that pride in Des Moines is far greater than it was decades ago.

Kelley and I share some Drake Relays lore. The final two relays of the event are named for my father and his great uncle John L. Griffith.

“I am a big fan of the Relays,” he said.

We are also both Roosevelt grads, Kelley in 1972.

“Mike Wellman was in my class. I enjoyed his book about growing up here. Bill Bryson’s book about growing up here is more popular, but that’s because it’s a comedy and Wellman’s book is a tragedy.”

Most insurance companies are thought to be humorless and staid. Kelley gave me a copy of EMC’s centennial celebration book to disprove that. The book tells stories about strange claims. (During the Depression they paid a farmer generously after his cows drank paint from a bridge construction project. Paint drinking was not stipulated compensation for livestock.) The book shows the company’s sense of humor, too. For their 75th anniversary, offices all over the country dressed in 75-year-old costumes. Robb Kelley once brought Spider-Man to the Des Moines headquarters.

Our lunch was scheduled just before Bruce Kelley led a group of agents to Austria for a week.

“Every year we reward our top producers from all our offices with a week-long trip somewhere. This year we are going to Vienna, with a day trip to Salzburg,” he said.

While the Des Moines headquarters accounts for most of the EMC employees, it’s not the most productive, nor the oldest.

“We acquired Hamilton Mutual of Cincinnati, a company that began in 1858. That is recognized now as our best office for profit and growth.”

Very little insurance is sold by EMC employees.

“We only sell 12 percent in Iowa. Eighty percent of our policies are written by independent agents. They have a better sense of their client base. That’s not typical; Farm Bureau sells all their own policies,” he explained.

The EMC headquarters has famously been compared to a bottle of Absolut vodka. Was that intentional?

“No, we just asked the architects to design a building that fit how we wanted to operate as a company. We got that. The vodka bottle was just an observation that caught on,” he recalled. ♦

Jim Duncan has been covering the central Iowa food scene for more than two decades.

One Comment

  1. Nice article on Bruce Kelley. By the way, as a retired journalist, I noticed you used these words in a sentence: “…an historic building…” Generally, “an” is used in front of words beginning with a vowel; however, the sound of the start of that word is also a consideration. If that word begins with a consonant sound (even though the letter is a vowel), then “a” should be used. And vice-versa—if it begins with a consonant, but starts with a vowel sound, then “an” should be used, e.g.”an honorable woman.”

    So “a” should have been used in front of historic.

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