Columbus CEO: Here’s how Steve Rasmussen changed Columbus

 

Not one for the spotlight, the retiring CEO of Nationwide has been a quiet force of nature in Central Ohio.

The morning after he announced his retirement having spent 45 years in the insurance industry, Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen sat in his 37th floor offices at One Nationwide Plaza, surrounded by advisers and seeming like someone who had checked off all but one of the items on his professional life’s to-do list. His face glowed in the warm lamplight against a backdrop of rich wood paneling, an abstract portrait of Albert Einstein done in black-and-white on the wall to his left. Rasmussen could take pride in having led the teams that executed on the company’s well-laid plans. In the 10 years since his predecessor was unceremoniously dismissed during the midst of the greatest economic calamity the United States has experienced since the Great Depression, sales had more than doubled at the insurance and financial services giant from $21 billion to $47 billion. Thanks to the robust, decade-long economic expansion that had caused Nationwide Financial’s investments to balloon, profits were doing OK, even as ever-more-severe storms and wildfires buffeted the company’s P&C business. The company had been transformed from a geographically and historically diverse collection of brands brought together through acquisition into one identity: an eagle flying across a giant, blue “N” and a single tagline, “Nationwide is on Your Side.” Operations that once carried significant redundancy had been streamlined, and a leaner workforce of 30,000 was more engaged than ever, winning the company best-workplaces awards year after year. (About 13,000 of its workers are in Central Ohio.) The company was chasing innovation with investments in startups. Rasmussen had just one thing left to do: Help whoever was named to succeed him transition into a role as important and powerful as any, not only in Columbus, but probably in the state of Ohio. A man of process, Rasmussen seemed to look forward to the moment.

“I have every anticipation it’s going to go well and easily,” he says. “We’ll slide through our (annual) strategic planning process in the summer and I’ll slide out the door by the first of October or so. [But I’ll be available to help] with the transition stuff until the first of the year or so.” At 66, his departure came as no surprise internally (or externally). “More than a year ago, I told the board we’re kind of getting down to what the timeframe would be that I’m going to leave. And so we’ve worked our way toward this in rough terms. The board’s finishing up its process to make its final decisions and I don’t imagine it’s going it be too long before they make the announcement of who my successor is,” Rasmussen says. He pointed to a strong crop of internal candidates, saying, “we were very blessed. We have a great team.”

The idea that Rasmussen’s successor could be among this group seemed to be bolstered in the press release announcing his retirement: “Steve and his strong bench of leaders have positioned Nationwide for long-term success. As part of a deliberate and thoughtful succession planning process, the board is conducting a search for Steve’s replacement and we look forward to announcing a permanent successor to take Nationwide to its next phase of growth,” says Nationwide board chairman Timothy Corcoran. The board has retained a search firm, Rasmussen says, and he expects Nationwide’s next CEO to be appointed by summer.

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Corcoran’s family has raised beef cattle in Ross and Pike counties for generations, in keeping with Nationwide’s roots in the inception of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. In fact, 10 of its 16 board members are involved in farming in one way or another. Rasmussen credits that history with the company’s values around working together for the common good, a core that has led to Nationwide being one of the region’s most engaged corporate partners across philanthropic causes—it gave $351 million to nonprofit organizations over the past 10 years. Founder Murray Lincoln didn’t want to be in the insurance business specifically, Rasmussen says. “The profits weren’t necessarily the motivation,” he says. “This was how do we take those dollars and ... build things like tractor factories and a lot of other things [that make the company] a cultural hub of helping people.” Nationwide remains “very close to nine farm bureaus, and those agricultural roots are real, and they still exist, and we value that, and when I came in I wanted to be sure that we resurrected some of that,” Rasmussen says.

Hailing from Webster City, Iowa (population 8,070 as of 2010), Rasmussen is no stranger to the tranquility of rolling farm fields. Still, when he moved to Columbus to assume leadership of Nationwide’s property & casualty business in 2003, he and wife Cindy ultimately chose a place on the 24th floor of Miranova as their home. The view offered a vantage point of “The Bottoms,” a place filled with people who needed their help. They became pillars of civic life in Columbus, joining board after board, preferring to carry out their work in private, though they did serve as the United Way campaign chairs in 2012. The cause closest to their hearts, Rasmussen says, has been the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation–they have a son and granddaughter with Type 1 diabetes.

Following the April 4 announcement that Rasmussen would retire, business leaders across Central Ohio rushed to share their gratitude for his dedication to the community. It could have come off as routine, but with utmost sincerity, they lauded his business intellect, his extensive board service and the fact that he has continually made himself available to others who seek his counsel. It seems for Rasmussen, who has deflected personal attention in his 10 years as the chief executive of the region’s largest private company by revenue and one of its top employers, it has definitely never been about him, or the power he wields–except the power to make the world a better place.

“Steve is the role model for what a corporate executive CEO can do in a community,” says Dr. Steve Allen, the CEO of Nationwide Children’s Hospital, who is a physician by training and who also is retiring this year. “He is always available if I have a question or I have an issue I’d like to get a senior executive’s opinion upon. Steve has been incredibly generous with his time and to mentor me during the time he’s been the CEO at Nationwide. And I’ve found him just to be an incredible, thoughtful, strategic, visionary leader who sees his role as having a positive impact and bettering our community,” Allen says. Rasmussen’s predecessor, Jerry Jurgensen, made a splash with a $50 million gift to the hospital in 2006, renaming it in honor of the insurance company. In kind, under Rasmussen’s leadership the Nationwide Foundation created the Pediatric Innovation Fund and has seeded it with $10 million a year, totaling $50 million to date, enabling the hospital to hire world-class genomics researchers, bringing clinical breakthroughs to Columbus. That total does not include significant amounts Nationwide has helped raise for the hospital through Rasmussen’s renewed focus on the Memorial Tournament, where Children’s Hospital is the beneficiary, and sports marketing efforts with NASCAR’s Earnhardt family.

Another retiring Central Ohio leader, OhioHealth CEO Dave Blom, says Rasmussen “can get from zero to 100 miles an hour on any topic as fast as anybody I’ve ever seen because he’s just really smart, and he’s thoughtful, and he listens.” In 18 years at the helm of the region’s largest health system, Blom counts himself fortunate for only having three board chairs, Rasmussen being the most recent of them. (Characteristically, he agreed to continue in the role for an additional year to assist in OhioHealth’s own leadership transition.)

Of Rasmussen’s value to the board, Blom says: “You know, his profile running this huge company helps, and he’s been unbelievably successful at running Nationwide. He’s really advanced it. But I think the most valuable thing for Steve as our board chair is, I mean, everyone that I know has immense respect for him. It’s his character as much as anything that renders the whole feeling of respect for him as a person of integrity. He always does what he says he’s going to do, he’s honest as the day is long, and he’s very decisive.”

The list of institutions that underwent transformations while Rasmussen was involved also includes the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

“As important and critical a job Steve has at Nationwide, what I appreciated most about Steve was he’s just one of the most down-to-earth CEOs I’ve met,” says Pat Losinski, CEO of the library system, where Rasmussen spent nine years on the board. “I can tell you that in those nine years, I can probably count on one hand the times Steve might have missed a meeting or a committee meeting. He was a very dedicated, very engaged, very supportive and very strategic board member.”

Rasmussen helped guide the library through its 2010 levy and was instrumental in the sale of municipal bonds to fund its $130 million building campaign involving eight newly built branches and two renovations, including an extensive $35 million reimagining of the Main Library (that campaign has since expanded to include an additional four branches). Rasmussen was the library board’s president when it bought the Old Deaf School and sold the building to Cristo Rey Columbus High School in 2013, retaining the land and creating a plaza behind the Main Library connected to Topiary Park, “creating a civic space and civic energy that we didn’t have before,” Losinski says. Not surprisingly, Nationwide has been the largest corporate contributor to the library’s capital fundraising campaign, giving $3.5 million, he says.

“To know Steve on a personal level, you really understand just how much and how deeply he cares about the Central Ohio region. You can see [Nationwide’s] influence and their investment in so many nonprofits and so many important community initiatives–it’s hard to find a community board where there isn’t a Nationwide presence,” Losinski says.

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Rasmussen’s involvement in Columbus’ corporate and civic circles won’t end when he retires, though he says he and Cindy plan to travel, undoubtedly to spend plenty of time back in Iowa with their three sons and their grandchildren. He will remain on the board of American Electric Power Company Inc. and wants to add at least one more board position, he says. AEP CEO Nick Akins says Rasmussen’s experience in rebranding Nationwide not only externally but internally has been helpful to the utility’s leadership. ”[Nationwide was] ahead of us in terms of the cultural development. He certainly brought that to bear in our organization and the forethought associated with it,” Akins says. “Boards are very focused today on the culture of an organization and he was certainly instrumental in that.”

During Rasmussen’s tenure, Nationwide has been named one of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, a Great Place to Work by Gallup and a best place to work for LGBTQ equality by the Human Rights Campaign. It also has been honored by the National Urban League, Black Enterprise and more. A third of its executive roster is women and people and color, and a quarter of its board is female. “They’ve made a lot of progress at Nationwide on inclusiveness and their diversity program,” Blom says. “Steve has been a great coach for me as we’ve advanced ours, and that just goes to his caring compassionate side.”

During Nationwide’s culture-building phase in the past few years, the dress code was relaxed to jeans every day, and its minimum wage was raised to $17. Gallup came in and worked with the company’s teams on engagement at the employee-to-employee level, creating buy-in around best practices for working together. The company also participated in a Gallup StrengthsFinder analysis, including Rasmussen, who, smiling, declined to reveal his top five strengths for this story, though Chief Administrative Officer Gale King recalls they were in the accountability theme.

King, who has worked with Rasmussen since his first day in Columbus (which she recalls as hectic), credits him with “unparalleled insurance and business acumen. But you know when I think of Steve, I think of the fact that it’s always about the company and not himself. He’s very empowering. He believes that the company is only as good as the people who run it. And he believes in providing his leaders with the autonomy to make the decisions they need to make.”

Leading a company through a shift in culture is daunting, to be sure, but Rasmussen approached it in his matter-of-fact way, managing to throw in a dose of Midwestern heart. “First of all, you’ve got to be sure that you’ve got the entire organization on the same page,” he says. “It still all boils down to bringing people along and then building trust in those people that this really is our vision, and we’re doing it for the right reasons. You have to build that communication with people because they’re going to be the ones who have to execute on it.”

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When the Rasmussens took up residence two floors below the top of the Miranova condo tower in 2005, they had a weekly Friday-night view of all the police helicopters over Franklinton to the west. “You know, a lot of it was a very troubled area,” Rasmussen says. “Today, I don’t know that I’d walk from one end of it to the other, but you know it’s come a long way, and I would guess in the next five years it’s going to come a lot further, so it’s all good. There’s a lot of great opportunities out there.” Nationwide’s real estate investment arm, Nationwide Realty Investors, has put down stakes in Franklinton with the purchase of several parcels, though plans aren’t set for them, Rasmussen says. ”[NRI President Brian Ellis has] a crafty eye looking for things to develop. We’re still not 100 percent finished between [the Arena District] and Grandview Yard, things we’re taking a hard look at,” he says.

Make no mistake: The massive physical changes led by the company on the western edge of Downtown and across Route 315 have been a matter of business investment, Rasmussen says. To Ohio Congressman Steve Stivers’ ears, that means jobs. “What they’ve done for Central Ohio as a developer both continuing in the Arena District and what they’ve done under Steve’s leadership at Grandview Yard have transformed our community, and they’ve continued to bring jobs into our community. They made a commitment to hire a thousand veterans. As a veteran, I care a lot about that. They actually under his watch hired pretty quickly over 2,000 veterans.”

Rasmussen has spent time working on urban issues in Columbus and as a member of the board for the National Urban League, where he was instrumental in bringing the organization’s national conference to Columbus last fall, says Congresswoman Joyce Beatty. “I’ve had a relationship with him not only because of my role as a member of Congress and serving on the Financial Services Committee and Insurance Committee, but here’s the CEO that [served on the board of] the National Urban League. And got so invested in opening the doors for African-Americans,” she says.

Marc Morial, president of the New York City-based National Urban League, with which Nationwide has held a longstanding relationship, said as a board member Rasmussen challenged him to think long-term. “I had an opportunity to go to Columbus, go to Nationwide corporate headquarters, and have a long sit-down conversation with Steve and asked him if he’d join our board. We’ve always had business leaders on our board, and he accepted that challenge and served on our board many years. I think he has been a transformative leader for Nationwide by building a company that is known certainly in a way today that it wasn’t. I mean, my kids would sing his jingle, ‘Nationwide is on your side.’

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rob nichols