Jeff Fetters, chairman and CEO of Federated Insurance Companies, says he has a fear of failure — a healthy fear, that is.
Healthy because it has helped to drive him, to continue to ask what he may be missing, what else he could be doing, and what he should be chipping away at to get better.
That same healthy fear helped save Fetters’ career when, he admits, he was failing as a district marketing manager, his first leadership role with Federated.
The Owatonna-based company was ready to send Fetters back to sales, where he had previously done well. But Fetters didn’t want to go. “I don’t quit things,” he said recently. Instead he asked for a week to put together a plan to improve his performance and make his district the company’s top performer.
Federated obliged, and Fetters, focusing on clearer communication and greater accountability for both employees and himself, delivered. Fetters’ rise through Federated’s corporate ranks culminated in his appointment as chief executive in 2009 and his election as board chairman in 2012.
Fetters, who has been at Federated for 39 years, today oversees one of the country’s largest mutual insurance companies, with $8.1 billion in assets, as it reported in April. Federated’s insurance products include property and casualty, life, disability and workers’ compensation for companies in select industries.
Federated in 2018 completed the six strongest consecutive years of financial performance in the history of the 115-year-old company, which has 2,500 employees and operates in 48 states and the District of Columbia.
“All of the employees get credit for that,” Fetters said.
In response to his 2019 Top Workplaces recognition as the top leader in the large company category, he also shared the credit.
“When I think of leadership I don’t think of me,” Fetters said. “I think of me as one of 11 leaders that we have here on our executive team. [The award] feels frankly a little bit odd to me. I think about the leadership as our executive team, and frankly for that matter a whole lot of others in our organization. ... I just have a role here like others have roles.”
And every role is important to the company’s mission. That’s why the CEO emphasizes outstanding performance in the so-called “major activities” of every job. The company bases performance reviews and leadership development initiatives on how well employees execute their major activities.
“For you to develop and be the best property and casualty underwriter or the best field claims person or the best marketing representative or best processing person, there’s probably five or six or seven things that you have to be outstanding at,” Fetters said. “How will you put a person in a leadership role that doesn’t know how to do those six things excellently?”
To that end, Federated offers leadership courses and extensive job training at a learning center in a former mall the company renovated, a short drive from Federated’s noted Prairie School-style office building in downtown Owatonna.
“We need leaders at Federated, and not just at the executive level but at all levels,” Fetters said. “We’re constantly trying to develop people to help them be as successful as they can be so we can give them additional responsibilities down the road.”
Serving the community
Fetters said he tries to be transparent about good news and challenges. He likes to set clear goals and objectives and then delegate. He favors frequent communication. He describes himself as “a Christian man, led by the Bible.”
Fetters grew up on a family farm in Indiana, then worked at a small farm-equipment dealership after getting an accounting degree from Ball State University.
The owner had hoped to sell the dealership to Fetters but died without a succession plan. The Federated agent who had handled the dealership’s policies encouraged Fetters to join the company, which he finally did in 1980.
Fetters and his wife, Marty, are leaders of the Federated Challenge, a yearly charity event that Fetters said has raised more than $35 million over 15 years. Last year’s event raised more than $2.8 million for Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations in Minnesota and for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which counts Fetters as a board member. More than 100 Federated employees volunteer for the event.
Fetters is active with Owatonna Forward, a coalition of business, government, education and foundation partners, and has committed $20 million from Federated to a new high school in Owatonna.
In addition to their Owatonna home, Fetters and his wife also have a place on Lake Minnetonka, near their son and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo.