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Retiring Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen pledges jobs will stay in Iowa

Des Moines Register logo Des Moines Register 5/22/2019 Kevin Hardy

Over his 45-year career, Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen has watched the insurance business change dramatically as an onslaught of new competitors and technology reshaped the industry. 

Yet Rasmussen, an Iowa native and veteran of the Des Moines insurance scene, says the basics of risk management remain intact.

"The industry fundamentally has not changed a great deal, but how we do business has changed," he said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. "Maybe things are coming at us a little faster, but there's always competition."

a man wearing a suit and tie: Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen plans to retire from the insurance giant in October. © Special to the Register Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen plans to retire from the insurance giant in October.

Rasmussen recently announced plans to retire from the insurance giant in October, after more than a decade at the helm. He is a native of Webster City and graduate of the University of Iowa and was the president of Iowa's Allied Insurance before joining Nationwide in 1998, when the Ohio-based company acquired Allied. 

Since then, Nationwide has grown to become one of central Iowa's largest private employers, with some 3,700 workers in downtown Des Moines. The city is home to the company's second-largest employment base, behind only its corporate headquarters in Columbus.

While the insurer has cut nearly 200 local jobs in recent months, Rasmussen predicts Iowa will always be an important employment base for the company long after it loses his voice as a longtime advocate in the C-suite. 

"Iowa's been very good to us as a market and a job market," he said. "And we're going to continue our commitment to that area because it's important to us. It will stay important to us."

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Des Moines is a 'logical place' for Nationwide

When Nationwide acquired Allied, it was seeking to broaden its footprint west of the Mississippi River and expand beyond its exclusive business model with Allied's independent agency platform. 

"From the beginning, they didn't really want to move the operations, because they wanted to keep that culture and they wanted to learn from it," said Terri Vaughan, who was Iowa's insurance commissioner at the time of the acquisition. "I think that's part of the reason so many people from Allied have gone on to successful careers at Nationwide: They’re good business people, and it was a well-run operation."

The company offers a full range of insurance services across the U.S., including car, motorcycle, homeowners, pet, farm, life and commercial insurance. Its financial services include annuities, mutual funds, retirement plans and specialty health services.

Nationwide nearly doubled its Des Moines employment base after the acquisition. Since then, the insurer has come full circle, announcing plans in April to shift the whole company toward Allied's independent agency distribution model by July 1, 2020.

Vaughan, now the Robb B. Kelley Visiting Distinguished Professor of Insurance and Actuarial Science at the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University, said Rasmussen had a "huge impact" locally with both companies. Much of that came in the way of Nationwide's 2002 investment in a new corporate campus in downtown Des Moines. 

Aside from its longstanding commitment here, Vaughan says Des Moines makes business sense for the Fortune 100 company. More than a quarter of the gross domestic product of the Des Moines-West Des Moines metro area comes from the finance and insurance sectors. And the Iowa Economic Development Authority counts nearly 200 insurance companies with headquarters in Iowa.

"Des Moines is a logical place to have a presence in insurance because of the ecosystem we have here," Vaughan said. "No one can predict the future, obviously, but I would think Des Moines would be one of the last places they think they need to leave."

Nationwide execs were 'pioneers' in downtown Des Moines

Long after Rasmussen relocated to Ohio, he's maintained strong relationships within Iowa's business community. Nationwide is actively involved in efforts like the Des Moines Arts Festival and regularly gives to groups like United Way of Central Iowa. 

"They are big players in driving economic growth in central Iowa," said Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. "Overall, Steve achieved a lot as president and CEO of Nationwide, had a very distinguished career, and we're very grateful for the attention he continued to give to Greater Des Moines."

a group of people standing in front of a building: Galen Barnes, president of Nationwide Insurance; Steve Rasmussen, president of Allied Insurance; Gov. Tom Vilsack; Gene Phillips, chairman of the Polk County Board of Supervisors; Jerry Jurgensen, chief executive officer of Nationwide; and Mike Blouin, president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Nationwide corporate campus in downtown Des Moines in 2001. © Nandell Bob, Copyright 2001 The Des Moines Register;Yes-desm Galen Barnes, president of Nationwide Insurance; Steve Rasmussen, president of Allied Insurance; Gov. Tom Vilsack; Gene Phillips, chairman of the Polk County Board of Supervisors; Jerry Jurgensen, chief executive officer of Nationwide; and Mike Blouin, president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Nationwide corporate campus in downtown Des Moines in 2001.

During Rasmussen's tenure, Nationwide helped push development of the Western Gateway area in downtown Des Moines. The insurer first opened its 1100 Locust St. campus in 2002 — preceding projects like the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield's corporate campus that now define the area. 

"They were pioneers in terms of making investments," Byers said. "That was a huge deal."

With the 2009 addition of offices at 1200 Locust St., the Nationwide campus grew to 1.2 million square feet. 

Byers said local economic development officials would work to maintain a strong connection to the company's headquarters in Columbus after Rasmussen's departure.

"Every company we deal with, eventually the CEOs will retire or move on," he said. "As an economic development organization, it's always important that we continue to nurture and develop those relationships."

Employment drops as company works to grow more efficient

Over the past five years, Nationwide's total employment has dropped across the company, Rasmussen said, even as revenue has increased. The company reported 2018 revenues of nearly $47 billion.

But Rasmussen views declining employment levels as a universal reality in the insurance sector and the wider business community. Technology has increasingly automated tasks like those that used to be done by call center workers, and more employees work remotely. 

"All of this is trying to be fundamentally more cost-effective. I don't think that's different from any industry out there," he said. "Every insurer, every bank or whoever — we're all trying to get efficient and cost-effective."

The CEO said he felt it was time to step aside and let a new generation of leaders guide the company. He doesn't quite know what retirement will look like. But he does plan to spend more time in Iowa with his kids and grandchildren. Long after he and his wife moved to Ohio, they have maintained a townhome in West Des Moines. 

"My guess is we're going to kind of reverse that process," he said, "and maintain something smaller here and something larger in Des Moines."

As he prepares to exit the company, Rasmussen says he remains bullish on Nationwide's future. 

"In many ways, I feel it's a better organization than when I found it," he said. "And I suspect it will be a better organization for the next leader when he or she moves on."

Kevin Hardy covers business news for the Register. He can be reached by email at kmhardy@dmreg.com or by phone at 515-284-8541.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Retiring Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen pledges jobs will stay in Iowa

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