American Family Insurance group’s succession plan calls for Chair and Chief Executive Officer Jack Salzwedel to continue as chair and CEO until Jan. 1, 2022.
American Family Enterprise President Bill Westrate will serve as CEO-elect starting January 2021 and will succeed Salzwedel as CEO one year later, with Salzwedel continuing in the role of board chair.
The plan was initiated by Salzwedel two years ago and developed with the board of directors.
The year-long transition of CEO responsibilities is not unusual for large companies and is intended to ensure continued operational and customer service excellence, according to Paul Shain, presiding director of the American Family board, who called Westrate the “perfect leader to continue the journey that American Family has embarked upon under Jack’s leadership.”
Salzwedel called his 10-year tenure as American Family CEO the “honor of a lifetime.”
“Staying true to who we are as a mutual company owned by our policyholders, we have intensified our focus on meeting their needs and preferences, both in the short-term and long- term,” he said. “We have become significantly more agile, innovative and courageous, blessed with employees and agency owners who care for our customers, communities and each other.”
Salzwedel’s time with American Family spans back to his childhood when he helped out at the office of his father, American Family agency owner Tom Salzwedel.
After graduating from Wartburg College, Salzwedel joined American Family in 1983 as a claim adjuster. Two years later, he became an American Family agency owner and over time advanced into sales management, which included a period in Milwaukee where he worked to rebuild community relationships and enhance insurance availability to the city’s Black community.
After serving in a variety of executive positions, Salzwedel become CEO and chair in 2011, succeeding one of his closest mentors, David Anderson.
During Salzwedel’s CEO tenure, American Family increased its investment in its exclusive agency owners through product and technology development, while simultaneously expanding into new geographic markets and distribution channels through acquisitions of three other insurance companies (The General, Homesite and Ameriprise Auto & Home Insurance), and a merger with another (Main Street America).
The insurer has also been investing in technology and data platforms including through its own data science and analytics lab. The company accelerated its use of data and analytics with its purchase of two firms: Chicago-based software company Networked Insights and HomeGauge, a home inspection software company.
American Family’s venture capital arm, American Family Ventures, has been active in supporting technology-focused insurance and risk management startups including Ring’s home security system; CoverHound’s auto insurance quoting system; and Bunker, a startup digital agency for gig workers.
The changes have enabled American Family to grow from a regional insurer to a national enterprise. It has expanded its operating states from 19 to 50 and has seen its policies in force grow to more than 12 million and employees to approximately 13,500.
The company also gained policyholder approval to convert to a mutual holding company in 2016.
American Family Transformed
Under his stewardship, American Family enhanced employee programs and benefits – including a $20-per-hour minimum wage – and increased philanthropy and involvement in the community, including the establishment of the American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation and American Family Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. The company also launched the American Family Insurance Championship, a PGA TOUR Champions golf tournament in Madison that has raised millions of dollars for the American Family Children’s Hospital and other charities.
“American Family believes in our people and our communities. It is impossible to be successful without them, and they deserve and need our support,” said Salzwedel.
There have been a few legal skirmishes along the way. A group of agents sued over what they claimed was their misclassification by the company as independent contractors rather than employees. The insurer prevailed in the case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2016, a jury awarded a Missouri woman $20 million in punitive damages in a retaliation and age and sex discrimination claim against the insurer.
Westrate has served as president of the American Family enterprise since 2017. Most of his 26- year career in the insurance industry has been with American Family. He joined the company in 1996 as an actuary and rose through the leadership ranks, including stints as vice president of the actuarial and personal lines divisions. After serving as executive vice president of the personal lines and commercial-farm/ranch divisions, he was elected chief operating officer in 2014, a role he filled until becoming enterprise president.
Westrate said plans to build on company’s legacy.
“Our foundation as a mutual company is rock-solid,” he said. “Our strategy as a national multi-line, multi- channel insurance provider is sound. And, our people and commitment to an inclusive and diverse culture will continue to fuel our success.”
Source: American Family
*This story ran previously in our sister publication Insurance Journal.