If the Business Hall of Fame had a bricks and mortar presence, one of its important artifacts would be a cocktail napkin. On that napkin were the scribbles and notes of two legendary Cleveland businessmen — Robert J. Klonk and Pat Perry — from their first meeting with each other in 1999.
“We mapped out what would ultimately become ERC Health,” says Perry, former chairman and president of ERC, a premiere consulting, training, data and human resource company. “We both wish to this day that one of us saved that napkin.
Perry was brainstorming with insurance visionary Klonk, even then known for his innovative thinking.
“Risk management and insurance is a very matter of fact industry. It is what it is. But Bob invented new thought patterns and ways to look at employee benefits and reduce risk. Bob would talk about not only our partnership, but what the future held five or 10 years down the road for the industry. Almost 100% of what he shared about the future came true. And some of those organizations that bought into his ideas reaped tremendous financial rewards and amazing employee retention,” says Perry, now an author, keynote speaker and presenter.
In 2013, Klonk became CEO of the 131-year-old Oswald Cos., a Unison Risk Advisors Company, and was promoted to the dual role of CEO and chairman in 2020. Today the employee-owned insurance brokerage and risk management consulting firm is one of the nation’s largest and has more than 1,000 employees in five states. The company reports its revenue as more than $230 million.
Klonk joined Oswald in 1995, but it wasn’t easy for Chairman Emeritus Marc Byrnes to get Klonk, a loyal and experienced employee with another company, to initially commit.
“I had heard Bob was a tremendous benefits producer, and we met at the Cleveland Athletic Club in 1994,” Byrnes relates. “Bob came in with this great big black hair, a big broad tie, cufflinks, and I was sure he had a chain underneath his sleeveless undershirt. He looked like the Rocky Balboa of the insurance business. But a half hour later, I knew I had a partner.”
In addition to the ERC Health Plan, Klonk was responsible for two other major Oswald health consortiums — one for Northeast Ohio private schools (Independent School Benefits Consortium) and another for private equity pools. Oswald, an employee-owned company since 1985, has grown mostly organically over the years, but Klonk is also given credit for leading the 2020 creation of Unison Risk Advisors, formed by the merger of Oswald and RCM&D, a Baltimore-based risk and insurance company.
“Sure, Bob made mistakes. Some of them cost both of us,” says Perry, commenting on Klonk’s “only-human” status. “But you know what was fun? We took calculated risks, and we loved it. When you venture into new territory, you are going to miss a few times, and we missed a few times. But we also learned from that and developed a new approach. Bob was never a finger-pointer. He always assumed responsibility.”
Over his four-decade career, Klonk says the model in his industry has evolved into one of more risk management with a focus on prediction and prevention.
“We can’t prevent all losses, but we try to predict now instead of waiting for loss to occur,” explains Klonk. “There is more risk today than ever before with things like cyber risk. We also have a lot of catastrophic losses, not just in the United States but all around the world. And those things affect the capacity of insurance companies to pay claims. You can’t just be a generalist anymore.”
“When our clients go to sleep at night, we want them to have peace of mind knowing that they are covered if anything happens,” he adds. “Clients don’t always know what to ask for. It’s our job to make sure they get the right coverage.
Klonk admits his first venture into sales and then gravitation to insurance while in his 20s wasn’t because he was star-struck by the product. But it was a decent-paying job and was recession-proof.
“I wanted to be a lawyer, but it was financially above my means. And I wasn’t the best student in the world,” confesses Klonk, who attended Padua Franciscan High School, where he “learned more there by accident” than he “could have anywhere else.” (He is currently establishing an endowment at the school to provide eligible students the necessary tuition to attend.)
Klonk’s mother became a young widow when he was only 10, and he took it upon himself to look after her and his sisters. Those who know Klonk well say his challenging youth and background have given him a unique understanding of his chosen career as well as empathy.
“I found out that I liked talking to people and forming relationships with them. And I like the complexity of solving problems for people,” says Klonk, whom Byrnes calls “compassionate” and who has a “quick sense of humor and has a high mental acuity.”
Klonk is currently chairman of the board of the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers. Previously he was chairman of the Council of Employee Benefits Executives in Washington, D.C., and chair of Assurex Global, a prestigious partnership of privately held brokers.
“When Obamacare came down, Bob was one of the top guys nationally in our industry,” says Byrnes. “He was closely tied into and connected in Washington, D.C. He was there protecting the insurance industry at that time and was recognized by the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers for his efforts."
There is no doubt Klonk has solid admiration from his peers.
“Bob is perceived by national insurance groups as a thought leader,” says Perry. “I would watch the other leaders in our community of insurance and risk management, and they would always look to Bob. He was the guy everyone was following. He could, and still can, run rings around the brightest minds when it comes to looking at solutions and the long term. He shook up the insurance industry.”
Klonk is a tough leader and very competitive, according to Perry. But he also notes Klonk is humble and has done “so many things for so many people that no one knows about.” On a company-wide level, Oswald Cares is the business’s umbrella organization for all its fundraising and volunteer activities.
“We take a lot of pride in the fact that every year we give back more to the community than we did the year before,” shares Klonk.
Klonk is also chair of the executive committee for the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. The organization’s mission is “to attract, create, manage and enhance significant sporting and competitive events” with a goal of supporting the local economy. According to the organization’s 2022 Impact Report, the group hosted 10 national sporting events in the most recent year, providing $155.1 million in economic activity. Additionally, Klonk has served on boards for the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) and Business Volunteers Unlimited, also holding numerous other nonprofit leadership roles.
This year, Oswald Cos. was named a Downtown Business of the Year by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. The award acknowledges those who make significant investments in their business to attract and retain talent.
“I am an intense person. Some people would say I am very intense,” admits Klonk. “And that intensity drives passion. But I don’t kid myself. I get recognized because as an employee-owned company, everyone has a piece of our successes and failures. I am fortunate enough to lead a great company.
“I take pride in the many awards I have been given,” he says. “But as important to me is being a great husband and father. I just want to be on my patio with my wife, a glass of wine and a good cigar.”
When complimented on the order in which he places his three wishes, Klonk replies, “I’m not stupid.”