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Final flood chapter: A fortuitous office move

Cedar Rapids-based TrueNorth re-energized by trading downtown locations with library

By Bob Bloss

"The biggest adventure in the history of Iowa" is what some people called it.

If arguably not the biggest, then surely the Cedar River's flood that devastated Cedar Rapids and vicinity in mid-June 2008 clearly ranks among the state's most severe natural disasters of all time. Flood-related damage to downtown governmental and commercial properties was estimated at $500 million. More than 7,100 Cedar Rapids properties—83% of them residential—were affected. Mercy Medical Center, from which all patients were successfully transferred to other facilities, was impacted by floodwater that covered 200,000 square feet. The Red Cross had good news to report, though. No fatalities or accidental drownings were attributed directly to the flooding.

One of the major players in this "big Iowa adventure" has been TrueNorth Companies, the respected insurance and financial service organization founded in 2001 in Cedar Rapids following a merger of three successful regional agencies.

As one imagines, an enterprise such as TrueNorth has myriad responsibilities to a multitude of policyholders when the kind of severe damage that occurred suddenly in 2008 surfaces. We'll re-examine some of the factors involved then by back-tracking here to a January 2009 Rough Notes magazine feature story about the Cedar Rapids flood and how the TrueNorth family's teamwork met the challenge head on. And we'll also fast forward to 2012 now to describe the continuous body of incredible achievement turned in by TrueNorth on behalf of its clients—and its decisive role in revitalizing and modernizing the city's downtown area.

With the June 9, 2008, early prediction that flood waters with potential high-water record marks would rapidly approach Cedar Rapids, Step One of TrueNorth's strategy was to prepare to maintain client service and employee communication. Backup generators were ordered promptly to ensure that basic business could be maintained during an emergency. That challenge was met throughout the ordeal. (In fact, TrueNorth's administration had regularly scheduled employee drills as standard operating procedure in preparation for such emergency issues.)

Iowa's "big adventure" begins.

The Cedar River finally crested on June 13. Disaster response activity shifted to recovery mode June 14. And on June 23, TrueNorth offices officially reopened, bringing back the employees who had been working from home—in time to begin the extensive clean-up and resettling in.

Duane Smith, TrueNorth's CEO, clearly remembers the trials and circumstances of immediate concern then confronting the entire region.

"The whole downtown was just devastated," he says. "So many buildings suffered damage, some to a much greater degree than others. It was quickly discovered that the library building, a local landmark, needed extensive remodeling due the extensive flood damage. The library had taken on six feet of water."

Bill Teubel, TrueNorth chief financial officer, explains some proceedings that soon followed. "As the community recovered, the library board approached TrueNorth about the location where we'd been doing business for years, 421 Fourth Avenue. Because the library was forced to move due to the physical destruction there, they expressed interest in the real estate we were occupying. Through a series of visioning conversations and negotiations, we eventually ended up doing a reclamation project on what was the old, and now abandoned, library.

"When we reviewed the library board's proposal, we re-examined some future planning that had been underway prior to the flooding, and we looked very carefully at the library as, perhaps, a relocation consideration."

After careful study, and working closely with city officials, and with ownership contracts, TrueNorth expressed interest in purchasing the old library and moving its business operation there. And so the final chapter in TrueNorth's primary roles in this major Cedar Rapids adventure was getting underway.

"We both liked what we saw as good possibilities for each of us at the respective buildings," recalls Duane Smith. "Actually, we had not initially been planning to move. But in working with the city, the library building exceeded our expectations. It was really a beautiful place. We had been talking about our future company anyway for a while—analyzing our critical indicators related to financial plans, to our clients' experience, and to our culture. And a restructuring of the old library seemed to fit perfectly with that planning, especially after the city approached us with a request to consider relocating so that the library might be reconstructed on our site. The city's goal was for TrueNorth and the library to continue operating in the downtown area. That coincided with our goals."

Understandably, the transferring of real estate ownership involving the two prominent structures was not exactly a simple trade—not your starting pitcher for our shortstop, for example. It involved two separate purchases via due process for each entity's taking ownership of newly acquired property.

"When announcements of the proposed relocating were first made," recalls Dru Bridges, chief operating officer at TrueNorth, "it quickly and clearly rekindled the public's emotions that resulted directly from the 2008 flood itself, and its continuing consequences.

"The first stage of the community's emotions back then, of course, was anxiety and alarm. But almost immediately everyone became energized—energized to help in any way possible to diminish the disaster. The next stage, though, when the waters finally receded, was disillusionment. Because, even with the solid, welcomed assistance from FEMA, the Iowa state government, and other civic and commercial enterprises, it took longer than expected to begin a return to any kind of normalcy.

Bouncing back

"But progress took effect rapidly," says Bridges. "When TrueNorth was invited to sell our building to the public library, we agreed. Since our goal was to remain downtown, we took the challenge and proposed transforming the old library building for our own occupancy. We now have renovated and transformed the library's second floor, and other rooms and floors, and still have ample space available for our planned expansion.

"That 'energized' state of emotion has turned into a positive focus. Less than four years now, since that June 2008 disaster when the riverfront courthouse suffered significant damage, there's a new federal courthouse building a half block away. Most downtown companies have returned to business. A mall, featuring several street-level enterprises, is underway, and strides are being made to house many of the 40% of small businesses that were lost to the flood. Construction is taking place in residential neighborhoods even as some damaged homes near the river are still being razed."

Psychologically and emotionally, Cedar Rapids is bouncing back, according to CEO Duane Smith. "Key elements of success—vision, leadership, building, managing, and paying attention to detail—are clearly evident. At TrueNorth we find a good example of the ability to rebound. We emphasize 'permanent white water,' in effect, teamwork that embraces change and welcomes challenges and opportunities we're confronted with. That kind of positive activity stresses growth as a team. Progress, not perfection, is our goal."

That progress, and the key elements of success of which Smith speaks, are clearly evident from the compacted time frame in which TrueNorth returned to full speed ahead—in just two years, with the 120,000 square feet at its new facilities in the old library. When determining its new location and daily workplace components, the venerable Cedar Rapids agency kept all employees engaged in the entire process. Everyone had the opportunity to observe what was developing, giving them a chance to experience what was going to be happening.

Dru Bridges and General Counsel Randy Rings point not only to the important two years for preparing the new quarters, but they credit TrueNorth's employees with 24/7 dedication and effort in dealing with policyholders and the full range of risks required to determine what's right for those policyholders for the more than 45 months now since the 2008 disastrous flooding.

Kirsten Eddins, director of marketing, details the exciting progress of TrueNorth, not only after the 2008 flood, but over the decade and more since the company's 2001 founding.

"Even with that very brief business interruption at the time of the flood we have tripled our volume over the past 10 years, including activity at our branch and satellite offices. We've worked hard to be best-in-class in terms of our insurance and financial strategy and feel we're unique in having created a successful operating platform, which is basically an entrepreneurial structure for developing high-performing talent. At TrueNorth we want our people to be owners of their books of business—in effect, partners. With this operating philosophy, and our best-in-class goals, we aim for a revenue increase from $27 million to $94 million in the next 10 years.

"Allowing top-performing people to have a degree of ownership within their operating centers is a win-win situation for all concerned," Eddins continues. "And, just as they have met the challenges imposed by typical business stumbling blocks and by Mother Nature's wrath en route to achieving success for themselves and for TrueNorth, they're likely to plan to stay on board to continue producing effectively and efficiently."

Rebound and preparation

In the same inspired fashion that the TrueNorth professionals immediately took on the challenges of rebounding from the 2008 flooding, so did they rapidly and collectively prepare for shuttering their venerable headquarters facility to make room for, initially, a wrecking ball, and then the remodeling of their old home offices ultimately being transformed into Cedar Rapids' newly-structured public library. For nearly all of the TrueNorth veterans, the experience was bittersweet in character, because good memories and friendships and satisfying career accomplishments took place there at 421 Fourth Avenue. But their departure for new quarters coincided with the daily prospect of going to work at a newly refurbished, historic setting with the promise of driving the TrueNorth family on to future success as a national insurance and financial stalwart and a respected community leader in its own home town.

Downtown Cedar Rapids business and cultural landscape continues to recover and improve, with signs of a new state-of-the-art library growing out of the site where TrueNorth once had served the Cedar Rapids citizenry's insurance needs with attentive care. And by late November 2011, only a tad more than three years since the devastating flood, TrueNorth's monumental task of picking up stakes and resettling into its new "digs" was completed.

"Friday, November 18, 2011, was the red-letter day at TrueNorth," says Kirsten Eddins. Phone lines, of course, were always open for our policyholders to make urgent contact with the company, but at 4 p.m. we basically went out of commission for only about an hour and a half in total. Still, a small crew was continually on board to oversee and assist with any necessity.

"The activity of moving from our old location to the new was pretty constant over Saturday and Sunday. Everybody knew where they had to be, and where their materials and equipment were.

"On Monday morning, November 21, at 8 o'clock, doors at our new building were open, and the entire complement of employees had reported in. We've been back to work ever since!"

CEO Duane Smith, had arranged for all employees to gather together on that first morning at the new location. He warmly greeted them: "We are proud of our past accomplishments and are equally excited about our future. As we continue to look forward, we have embraced the slogan: 'The Best is Yet to Come.' We look forward to sharing the future with our clients and the community."

November has become a notable month for TrueNorth—and especially the 21st. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the company's veteran professionals who've successfully met so many outside challenges since the firm's 2001 founding refer to two separate November dates more as an irony than a coincidence.

November 21, 2001. TrueNorth raises the banner on its first official day in business.

November 21, 2011. Precisely 10 years later, TrueNorth opens wide the doors of its new Cedar Rapids offices.

Now for the next 10 years TrueNorth can concentrate on its goal of tripling its revenue.


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