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Acuity Insurance Named Best Mid-Size Employer. What is Their Secret?

Ben Salzmann

Ben Salzmann

By Barbara Bartlein

Acuity Insurance was designated as the best mid-sized employer in the nation by the Great Place to Work Institute in 2013.  This is the fourth time Acuity has claimed the top spot, and the ninth year it has been in the top five. No other company, of any size, can make these claims. Acuity, headquartered in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is a property and casualty insurer that operates in 20 states, generates $960 million in revenue through 1,000 independent agencies, and manages $2.5 billion in assets. 

“Being named the best mid-sized employer is important to everyone who counts on Acuity,” said Ben Salzmann, Acuity President and CEO.  “To our nearly 900 employees, it means Acuity continues to provide a positive, rewarding workplace.  To our agents and customers, it means they are being served by staff who enjoy working here and take pride in what they do."

In selecting a Best Company, the Great Place to Work Institute evaluates the relationships between employees and management, between employees and their work, and between employees and other co-workers.  They also look at work environment, culture, financial and other benefits, continuing education opportunities, employee participation and overall staff morale.

Acuity was not always like this.  Previously managed by John Holden, Acuity was “overly aggressive and made poor business decisions,” Salzmann said.  Work life at Acuity was highly formalized and systemized under Holden's rule.  Employees were not allowed to have personal items, like family photos, in their work cubicles.  A bell summoned employees to their desks, notified them of lunch periods and even announced scheduled restroom breaks

“The bell was the first thing to go,” according to Salzmann, who took over in 1999.  He joined Acuity in 1990 and served as senior vice president and chief information officer prior to becoming CEO.  Management became less formal, policies more open and employees more involved.  When Acuity rewrote its employee handbook a few years ago, only 20% of the original text remained as the company turned more decision making power over to employees.

“We have people starting at five in the morning and leaving at one in the afternoon, says John Signer, vice president of human resources at Acuity.  “As long as the work gets done, managers can be as flexible as they want with their schedules."

Paying attention to the work culture has paid off for Acuity.  While major insurance companies like Northwestern Mutual, and American Family Insurance have sustained large claims losses, Acuity has reached record sales levels.  Acuity has had annual growth rates exceeding 20 percent.  It's financial turnaround took a dramatic turn in 2002, a few years after Salzmann took the helm.  Net income increased from slightly more than $7 million in 2001 to $46.4 million in 2002.

Employee empowerment and flexibility has led to a decrease in turnover rate from the “upper teens” ten years ago to just four percent today.  On a recent visit to Acuity, I noticed togas hanging outside of cubicles around the office. 

            “What are the togas for?” I asked a manager.

            Laughing, she responded, “Oh, October was Octogafest.  We all wore them.”

            A far cry from a school yard bell calling you to work.

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