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On Leadership: Iowa’s insurance leaders transforming the industry through innovations


What does it take to transform an industry? 

That question was central to the conversation at the Global Insurance Symposium, a multiday conference held recently in Des Moines that convened insurance professionals from around the world to help envision and prepare for the industry of tomorrow. As an epicenter for insurance, Iowa has a pivotal role to play in defining the future of the industry worldwide, and Iowa’s leadership in innovation and insurtech were unmistakable at this event. 

Iowa’s storied history as an insurance leader is evident in the concentration of insurance companies in the state and the contribution of insurance to the state’s GDP; there are 212 insurance companies domiciled in Iowa, and we have the second-highest concentration of insurance workers in the U.S. According to a 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistic report and data, four of Iowa’s metros rank in the top 15 nationally for insurance workers, with the Des Moines-West Des Moines area boasting the most insurance workers of any metro area in the country — even greater than Hartford, Conn. In addition, Iowa is home to not only the symposium, but also the Global Insurance Accelerator and now BrokerTech Ventures. 

With a large part of the overall insurance ecosystem based here in Iowa, we have a unique opportunity to convene and connect key players and to use our knowledge and resources to drive change. True transformation takes visionary leaders and innovation, and we have both in abundance right here in the state’s insurance industry. Therefore, one answer to the question of what it takes to transform the insurance industry is this: Iowa’s leadership. 

I asked several Iowa insurance leaders how they are harnessing the power of innovation to transform the industry for the future.


Anant Bhalla, president and CEO, American Equity: Consumers need certainty of financial dignity in an increasingly uncertain world. This is becoming more evident each day. American Equity’s leadership team is focused on building an ecosystem of world class partners so when a client gets a promise or guarantee from American Equity, there is not just a company but an entire ecosystem around them. We are investing in the economy not just as a lender, but also as a business builder and landlord behind real assets like real estate and, over time, new areas like the rebuilding of infrastructure in the U.S. American Equity is building an ecosystem for financial dignity which is unique in our industry.

Dan Houston, chairman, president and CEO, Principal Financial Group: As we partner with customers and leverage insights, we have greater opportunities to personalize services that best meet their needs. There’s no specific technology, distribution channel, or product alone that will help us transform the industry. Rather it’s the experiences we create and our ability to help customers achieve financial security that will make the difference. It’s no secret that financial solutions can be complicated. As an industry, we need to simplify the way we communicate and leverage both digital and human experiences.

Scott Jean, president and CEO, EMC Insurance Cos.: At EMC Insurance Companies, we know that innovation can lead to enhanced products and services, better processes, engaged employees and improved top and bottom lines. It’s so important, we have incorporated innovation into EMC’s corporate mission and values statements. Also, we recognize that creating a culture of innovation doesn’t happen overnight — it is a long process that requires strategy, collaboration, trust, accountability and risk.


Jeff Russell, president and CEO, Delta Dental of Iowa: Innovation has to be more than a department – it must be integrated into the company’s DNA. Delta Dental is embedding innovation into every area of our company through our work with organizations like the Global Insurance Accelerator and deep understanding of our customers’ future needs. We are offering products that incentivize members to complete their regular dental and vision preventive exams, as well as plans with personalized benefits that recognize members’ unique needs. Innovation is also more than the “new shiny object.” Innovation is about improving operations and making life easier for all our customers – members, providers, brokers and employers.


Tom Swank, president and CEO, American Enterprise Group, Inc.: As leaders we need to encourage employees to think differently, challenge the status quo, and empower them to find solutions to get better each day in every way for our customers, distribution partners, each other, and our communities. The journey to becoming an innovative, agile organization is one of triumphs and obstacles, both of which provide important lessons. Traditional organizations are static, relying on what has always worked. Agile organizations not only recognize but embrace the need for change and adapt on an ongoing basis, using the data, knowledge, and experiences gained to become more stable, relevant, efficient, and effective. 

Terri M. Vaughan, professional director, Emmett J. Vaughan Institute of Risk Management and Insurance, University of Iowa: The insurance industry plays a critical role in helping individuals, businesses, and society deal with risk. The insurance mechanism makes the costs of risk transparent to society, and through their products, services and pricing, insurers provide the tools and incentives to address them. They help their customers reduce the impact of unexpected events and manage for an uncertain future. Innovation and technology can enable the industry to serve their customers more efficiently and effectively. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to stay true to the critical role it plays in risk management.  


Ellen Willadsen, chief innovation officer, Holmes Murphy: We surround ourselves with great people! This includes Holmes Murphy’s recent additions of a Chief Analytics Officer and Chief Technology Architect. These additions, along with our other great staff, help bring to life what we hear from the voice of our clients. We stay in front of trends through our leadership of BrokerTech Ventures, an entity Holmes Murphy started three years ago which has brought together 15 of the top 50 insurance brokers through the United States as well as 14 of the largest carriers to share insights and propel innovation.

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