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Disaster started Walker on path to Allied presidency


There you are, a teen-ager sitting at home, watching “Barney Miller” and thinking maybe you’ll become a veterinarian. The next thing you know, you’ve seen a town devastated and decided to spend your life in the insurance business.

That’s how it happened for Kirt Walker, anyway. At the age of 41, he’s the president of Allied Insurance, ensconced in a fine office in the company’s elegant new headquarters at 1100 Locust St. and overseeing 4,000 employees in 27 states.

To reach that point, Walker made career stops in Missouri, Denver, Santa Rosa, Calif., and Sacramento along with Cindy, his wife of 16 years, and their two daughters.

When he drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to make his first business call in San Francisco, he experienced a moment of realization: I’ve come a long way from a farm in Kossuth County.

Unlike most people, he also recalls the moment when the course of his life’s work was set.

Twist of fate

Twenty-five years ago, on June 28, 1979, 10 tornadoes whipped Iowa, killing five people. One of the twisters tore through Algona while Walker and his brother watched from the family farm at the edge of tiny Irvington. Walker had been laid off from his summer job with a contractor earlier that day. Interest rates were high and the boss couldn’t find any customers to hire him and his crew.

On June 29, there were hundreds.

“I became the liaison between the homeowners and the insurance companies,” Walker said, and the thing that stuck with him was not the money or the paperwork, but the personal aspect. For example, “one lady broke down and cried, and the claims adjuster held her and reassured her that a year from then her house would look just like it did before the tornado,” Walker remembered.

He decided that the insurance business was all about helping people in need, and he also decided that the people from AID Insurance Co. – an earlier incarnation of Allied — seemed to excel at that.

Walker made his own positive impressions while growing up near Algona, where he worked part time in convenience stores and Diamond’s men’s clothing store as well as construction. “If you asked my parents who was one of the best kids I hung around with, they’d say Kirt,” said Jeff Haas, a friend since third grade who still stays in close touch. “He’s always been the most personable, genuine, truly caring guy, and great fun to be around.”

After graduating from Algona High School in 1981, Walker attended Ellsworth Community College before getting his degree at Iowa State University. Then he wrote to AID, asked for a job, came to Des Moines for an interview and was hired. He started his career Jan. 6, 1986 – the year the company changed its name to Allied Group Inc. — as a personal lines underwriter.

Steve Rasmussen, the man who gave Walker that job, is a Webster City native who’s now the president and chief operating officer of property and casualty insurance operations for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., which acquired Allied in 1998. He’s also the one who picked Walker as the Allied president last year.

“Very early on, it was fairly obvious that he was going to have further potential,” Rasmussen said from his office in Columbus, Ohio. “We put him on a number of assignments early in his career, and it was obvious that his people skills were good, and he was pretty sharp.”

The long series of moves began with a year in Northwest Iowa, then the locations got farther and farther from home. “He’s always been willing to move to get the experiences he needed to grow,” Rasmussen said. “That’s not true of everybody. He wanted more, and he knew he had to go through a lot of chairs to get there.”

Walker moved here from Sacramento to become the Allied president, a post he assumed Sept. 1, 2003.

A full plate

As president, Walker has an agenda full of major goals. “Both Nationwide and Allied will double in size in the next five years,” he said. “Right now, Nationwide is sixth or seventh in size among property and casualty insurers, and our goal is to be number three by the end of 2009. We think we can do it. We’ll think about being number two or number one after that.”

Allied has added 250 employees this year in Des Moines, and the growth is expected to continue. “In the next five years, Nationwide will add 8,000 associates, and 2,000 of those will be with Allied,” Walker said.

Allied began operating in Virginia this year, fulfilling its goal of moving into at least one untapped state annually. Its ambitious 2005 plan calls for new operations in Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

“People want to work for a company like that,” Walker said. “If you sit still, you’re going to get passed.”

Growth also makes it easier for a company to contribute to its community, and Allied will donate more than $2 million in the Des Moines area in 2005, Walker said, citing the American Red Cross of Central Iowa, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the American Heart Association as prime recipients.

Walker also has thrown himself into charity work. He co-chaired the 2004 capital campaign for the local chapter of the Red Cross and is the chairman of the American Heart Association’s Heart Ball fund-raiser to be held next February.

“There’s a light in his eyes that says you don’t have to worry about it, he’s going to be successful,” said Leslie Garman, metro executive director for the Heart Association. “When I met with Kirt about the chairman’s position, I was very formal with my presentation. I had a whole folder put together, and at the end was a list of the top 10 reasons why Kirt should say yes to being chairman for the Heart Ball. He said, ‘Leslie, of course I’m going to do this. You had me at hello.’”

A matter of perspective

Walker can’t understand why anyone would consider insurance a dull business. “I think it’s an unbelievable industry to work in,” he said. “How can you not get excited when you know you’re helping people?”

He recalls visits to various disaster scenes and marvels at the “fired-up” attitudes found among the victims. He delights in the memory of handing large checks to people who had been devastated by misfortune.

“If we didn’t have insurance,” he said, “the world wouldn’t survive.”

Although some outsiders might see his occupation as dealing with columns of numbers and haggling over claims, Walker prefers to emphasize the personal element that first struck him 25 years ago.

“To me, insurance comes down to this picture here,” he said. “At a time of loss, how prepared is your company to handle the claim?”

He’s referring to a black-and-white photograph that always sits on his desk. It’s a picture of what that tornado did to Algona.

75 years and counting

The Allied Insurance company began in 1929 as the Allied Mutual Automobile Association. In this, its 75th anniversary year, Allied expects to collect $2.7 billion in premiums. Here’s a statistical look at the company.

• Last year, personal auto and homeowner’s policies accounted for 62 percent of Allied’s net written premium income, and commercial policies – businesses and farms — contributed 38 percent.

•The company takes in more than $800 million in annual premiums in California; in second-place Iowa, Allied collects more than $320 million.

•In 2003, Allied posted a 16.6 percent increase in income from net written premiums, compared with a 10.8 percent rise for the insurance industry as a whole. Measured over 12 years, Allied’s income from net written premiums has grown by 345 percent, compared with an 86 percent increase for the industry.

•Most insurance companies rely on investment income for their profit, posting losses on their insurance activities. Allied, however, made about 2.5 cents per premium dollar on its insurance underwriting activities in 2003.

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