TrueNorth is the largest insurance and financial services firm of its kind based in Eastern Iowa. The company utilizes an entrepreneurial platform to provide client advantages beyond what is expected. The firm specializes in assisting businesses and individuals with tailored, comprehensive, and affordable insurance plans and financial strategies. Their broad range of services include risk management/property casualty, employee benefits, qualified retirement plans, executive benefits and business continuation, personal financial planning, wealth transfer, and much more. TrueNorth is headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with 13 additional brick and mortar locations across the US.
Throughout the last month, Jordan Timm, Corporate Relations & Reunion Giving Specialist for Coe College had the opportunity to sit down with five different employees of the TrueNorth family, four of them being alumni of Coe College.
- Kirsten Eddins '04, Vice President of Marketing & Brand Strategy
- Sam Hammes '10, Benefit Advisor
- Tara Widdel '05, Personal Lines Agent, Private Client Specialist
- Julie Bennis '02, Corporate Benefits & Wellbeing Manager
- Meghan Erhart, Talent Acquisition Specialist
They each offered valuable insight on their experiences from college and what led them to finding success in their current careers.
What is your current role with TrueNorth and what does a typical day look like for you?
Kirsten Eddins: "I am the Vice President of Marketing & Brand Strategy, my main objective is to protect, grow, and activate the TrueNorth brand. A typical day can be anything from working with our legal department on defending our brand, working on a merger and acquisition to take an existing brand in the marketplace and make them a TrueNorth brand, or working with my creative agency to see what our internal and external campaign will look like for 2019. It can truly run the gamut. The other big piece of my job is maintaining a positive workplace environment. I don’t define brand as a logo. Brand to me is the experience you have with the company. Our people are our biggest brand attribute. If customers or our surrounding community aren’t having good experiences with our people, it doesn’t matter what advertising we run or how pretty our logo looks on the side of the building, it's in direct conflict from one another."
Sam Hammes: "I’m in sales, so I meet with clients face-to-face a lot, working with them on their employee benefit insurance plans and setting up their employee benefit packages. I meet employers to talk strategically about what they are going to do for the following year when they renew each of their benefits. I also meet with employees to walk them through the options offered by their employer and to help them decide what benefit packages are best for them.”
What experiences led you to your current position?
Sam Hammes: "It's kind of a running joke in insurance, nobody ever wakes up and says they want to work in insurance someday. I knew TrueNorth was a good company and I had a connection through my superintendent from high school to somebody that knew one of the founders here. He helped to set me up with a couple of interviews and before I knew it I was a benefits advisor."
Can you suggest ways that our students could obtain this necessary experience?
Tara Widdel: “Look for any networking opportunities. I feel like our community is full of professionals that want to see young students stay here, thrive here, grow here, and they are all willing to show them the ropes. I know it can be scary at times but I really feel like that puts you a step ahead of the game. I also think it is important to find something you are passionate about. You might have to start in a lesser paying role, but trying to gain any type of experience in an industry that you are passionate about is important."
Are there specific opportunities within TrueNorth for students looking to gain professional experience prior to graduation?
Meghan Erhart: "We are very proud our internship program and we continue to improve upon it year over year. I think one of the things that helps us be successful is doing exit interviews with each intern to get their feelings on how the program went.
Each intern works in a specific department where they identify their own objectives and goals to achieve over that 11-week program. They have a leader that they report to and they touch base with them weekly to determine what they have done, what questions they have, and to discuss objectives for the week. They give them their own projects and let them have the autonomy to get it done and work through it how they see fit. The other side of that is more corporate driven. We do values training with them, so we actually mix them in with all of our other new hires and they get to learn about all of our six core values. They get to do some different workshop activities and learn from others. They also get to shadow different divisions and gain a holistic overview of how each division operates and how their specific role contributes to the overall success of TrueNorth."
Kirsten Eddins: "Our internship program is constantly evolving and it is a really cool deal! From an enterprise standpoint, for example you might be siloed into marketing for the bigger part of your experience but all the interns also work together on a combined project that solves something for the enterprise.
This gives them an early example of a more tailored experience in a specific department, understanding how their role and their department affects the entire enterprise, and then also gives them confidence to sit at the table with key leadership and be a voice, be heard, and have their ideas taken seriously, while also learning to take criticism in good, healthy dialogue. These are all essential tools they can utilize to become the professional they wish to be."
How can candidates set themselves apart when applying for their first positon out of college?
Julie Bennis: "The main thing that sets students apart is their diverse involvement in volunteering, internships, and extracurricular activities. If you can show that you are not only spending time in the classroom but are actively involved in other things as well, that shows good time-management and self-discipline.”
What positive aspects or negative aspects stick out most in a resume?
Meghan Erhart: "What you see from an initial glance does make a big difference. The biggest thing I personally see is spelling. If there is a spelling error in a resume, typically we will remove it right away because that shows that someone is either not very detail oriented or they didn’t take the time to proof things, which can attribute to what their character might be like in the workplace. So proofing it, having someone else proof it, spellcheck, all of those things are very important. The worst feeling is to get a resume from a well-qualified candidate that has a bunch of spelling errors.
We also look at what organizations have they been part of, do they do any volunteer work? What kind of soft skills or transferable skills do they have? We aren’t always looking for role-specific skill sets, sometimes it is more about what they have done to build up soft skills that can transfer into the role we are hiring for. That usually brings us to the point where we find a candidate that we want to talk to, see what their ideal career path looks like, and if it aligns with any openings we are looking to fill."
What do you like most about working for TrueNorth?
Tara Widdel: “People here truly care about each other and it's a fun place to work. I have been doing this for 13 years and honestly all insurance people know how to have fun. For example, this year our networking committee partnered with GreatAmerica to host a fun event known 1st Street Games. It was done on a Saturday and we played a variety of fun games including volleyball and a taco eating contest. It is also encouraging to see how many people want to come out in their free time to participate in things like that."
Julie Bennis: "Everyone here cares about each other. It is evident from top-level executives on down. You can walk through the halls and Duane, our CEO, will call people by name, which is a really good feeling. Then there are also family events as well. For example, there is a Christmas event called 'Cookies & Cocoa' where employees can bring their children in to have a picture taken with Santa. There is also a Halloween tradition where employees bring their kids to trick-or-treat through the building. As a company we care about employees and their families."
Meghan Erhart: "The culture and atmosphere within the organization. When I first came to TrueNorth everyone was automatically very welcoming and friendly. The other big thing for me is the transparency within the organization. We believe providing the same information to all, everyone can draw the same conclusion. It is really important to us that we continue to stay transparent and let everyone know about great wins we have had, as well as some ways we fell short and how we are learning, growing, and improving from that. It's really nice to feel like there is that trust within the organization and that everyone has the same information and same buy in from the company to help us continue to be successful."
How does TrueNorth differ from competitors?
Kirsten Eddins: "We look at things differently in the insurance industry. Many companies in the industry are notoriously known for not having the right perpetuation strategy and making sure if and when something happens to the leadership, the company can still go on. We have plans in place for well beyond our current leadership for what that perpetuation looks like. So there is really no fear when you are even looking at 2040 if TrueNorth will exist because we know what those plans look like and we are talking that far ahead.”
Sam Hammes: "We are very entrepreneurial. If you work hard here there is an opportunity you can get a chance to own a piece of the business and have ownership in the company. Similar in a sense to a law firm and being a partner at a law firm. Of course we are structured a little bit differently than that but there are opportunities to move up. I think that the opportunity to own something and be a part of the company growth is one of the most rewarding parts of working."
Tara Widdel: "What really drew me to TrueNorth was their vision and their forward thinking. I joined in 2013 and at that time it was impressive to me that they had a 2020 vision. It could be a little daunting but they build plans around it and they actually follow through on those plans. As a company they empower and support their employees."
What specific experiences from Coe College do you believe helped to shape you into the business professional you are today?
Sam Hammes: "Specifically to hard work, sports have played a lot of that role in my life. I played football at Coe and so just being disciplined, knowing to be on time, keeping a schedule, and learning to work as a team is huge. You learn a lot of skills throughout your sports career. Maintaining a cohesive team is a big one that translates directly into the workplace. You will have to work with a variety of people and frankly there will be people you do get along with and people you don’t. You still have to create a balance and understand that at the end of the day there is a common goal for you to work towards and you can work through issues."
Is there any key advice you would go back and give your college-age self?
Sam Hammes: "Take full advantage of a diverse range of opportunities. There were a few things I didn’t do at Coe such as traveling abroad for May term. I would say do those things if you have the chance. I would also really encourage building relationships with your teachers. They are there to help you and sometimes those end up being the longest relationships that you maintain after college. That is one of the advantages of a small school: you can get to know them on a more personal level."
Tara Widdel: "Dig into passions because when you get out into the working world it is not impossible but extremely difficult to change paths. Life happens, families start to develop and then your responsible for a little person and time away from that little person is hard to come by. If you do have to change directions, be brave enough to do it. Take that chance during this time in college. An extra year because you changed a direction is worth it for life-long happiness."
Any last pieces of advice you would like to offer to our current Coe students?
Sam Hammes: "Put yourself out there. Don’t go the traditional method of applying for jobs- looking online and applying for X, Y, & Z positions. If you find a position that you like, I encourage you to stop by that business. Write them a handwritten letter. You probably won’t get to meet them face to face, but just drop it off and say "Hey I am very interested in your company, I want to come help take your company to the next level. I think I can serve as a great asset to the team." I think that goes a long way. People don’t connect as often on a face-to-face level with technology and social media and those types of things. If you really want to stick out and not just be a number when you are applying somewhere, go try to introduce yourself to the person that is interviewing or the CEO if it is a small company. I think getting that human interaction with someone is a really great way to get your foot in the door somewhere."
Meghan Erhart: "Don’t stress about it too much. Companies want to hire you for you, so don’t try to be someone you’re not when you go into the interview. Just take a deep breath and understand that this is just a conversation. You want to be sure it is authentic match for both sides.”