When a company celebrates being in business for a century, it must be doing something right. Add another quarter of a century, and you have something truly special.
Founded in 1893, the Oswald Companies was created by James B. Oswald, who saw a need for an insurance company based on professionalism and customer service. He never realized that his vision would live on more than 125 years later.
Although it’s never forgotten its humble roots, the Oswald Companies has expanded its core values and today is enjoying phenomenal growth. Without much fanfare, Oswald has grown into one of the nation’s largest independent insurance brokerage and risk management firms, ranking among the top 50 largest insurance agencies in the country out of some 28,000 companies. It is also ranked among the top 10 of privately held firms in the industry, with the majority of its growth having come in the last 10 years.
In 2016, Oswald acquired Medina-based Hoffman Group, a move that represented Oswald’s fifth acquisition in the last five years. Oswald also made significant facilities investments in its five regional markets, including Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit and Toledo, while at the same time expanding its Cleveland headquarters through the addition of more than 14,000 square feet at the Oswald Centre on Superior Avenue. Its headquarters are now in excess of 90,000 square feet in downtown Cleveland.
Although its strategic acquisitions and facilities expansions are obviously important, the majority of Oswald’s growth over the last decade has been organic and achieved through its people, says Robert J. Klonk, CEO.
“When I joined the company 23 years ago, we had about 30 employees,” says Klonk. “We have doubled in the last five years and grown by at least three times in the last 10 years. Today, we have about 400 employee-owners.”
Since 1985, Oswald has been employee-owned, and Klonk credits its employee-owners’ commitment with its explosive growth. In an industry that is seeing massive consolidation among insurance agencies and carriers as well as an influx of private equity money, Oswald has remained staunchly independent.
“We have a culture that is worth fighting for,” Klonk says. “It’s a philosophy that is easy to understand. We make commitments to each other. We make commitments to our clients. We make commitments to the community. We believe in what we do. We believe in our people. And that is why we fight so hard to maintain our independence.”
Oswald’s culture is based on four core values that every one of its 400 employee-owners take very seriously, says Klonk.
“It starts with a passion for excellence,” says Klonk. “You can teach someone insurance, but you can’t teach them passion.
“And you need passion in order to be successful. We are absolutely performance-based, because, as owners, we all have a stake in this company.”
The second value is integrity, which Klonk describes as an inborn trait that someone simply has. It’s also a value that is essential to forging successful long-term relationships with clients and building new business.
The third is resourcefulness, which ties in directly with Oswald’s need to compete in an industry that is filled with larger publicly held corporations. Here, being an employee-owned company offers a distinct advantage over many other companies in the insurance industry.
“We realize that in order to grow, we have to innovate. We have to find better ways of doing things every day,” says Klonk. “We can’t sit back and let the government solve a problem or let a carrier solve a problem.
“We have to come up with creative solutions to help our clients every day. When you have 400 individuals thinking like that, you are going to find ways of being more efficient and more ways of helping our clients, while offering a greater value.”
Oswald’s fourth core value not only speaks directly to its business model, but also the editorial focus of this publication: commitment to the community.
“We give a lot of money back to all of the communities we serve and not just in Northeastern Ohio,” says Klonk. “Whenever there is something within a community where we can help, it’s very easy to get volunteers from our organization.”
Oswald’s commitment to community is not just lip service from upper level management. Indeed, the management team at Oswald leads by example.
Its current chairman, Marc S. Byrnes, serves as chairman of the board of the directors of United Way of Greater Cleveland. Byrnes also serves on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has served on bond issue committees for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the Metroparks. Byrnes also is chairman emeritus for the Cleveland Leadership Center, among his many other civic commitments.
For his part, Klonk serves as chairman of the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) and is a board member of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, Business Volunteers Unlimited and the Cleveland Leadership Center, among many other leadership positions held at nonprofits throughout his career.
Although both leaders are actively involved with philanthropic endeavors, they instead like to focus on the efforts of all of Oswald’s employee-owners. The company’s commitment to the community is focused through OswaldCARES, an employee-owner governing body that brings all fundraising and volunteer opportunities together under one umbrella. This body coordinates all ongoing philanthropic efforts that include charitable donations from the company as well as the time and effort of its management and employee-owners.
Oswald’s employee-owners also serve on a multitude of nonprofit boards while participating in fundraising programs and events. All told, Oswald’s employee-owners serve on more than 75 boards aiding causes including health and human services, the arts and children’s charities.
The company also sets aside “Days of Caring” when all are invited to work together for a common cause. Employee-owners are also encouraged to choose their own Day of Caring — on company time — to support organizations important to them personally.
Its philanthropic endeavors have not gone unnoticed. Oswald has been recognized in all its markets for its charitable efforts. Last year, the company grew its 2017 Harvest for Hunger Campaign by more than 100 percent. For its efforts, Oswald was presented The Bag of Hope Award by the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
When it expanded its facilities to include a new state-of-the-art conference center, Oswald also found a new way to give something back. David Jacobs, Oswald Companies’ president and chief operating officer, brought up the idea of making its new Oswald Conference Centre available for use by nonprofits.
“It really was Dave’s brainchild,” says Klonk. “We wanted a good conference space downstairs where we could hold meetings and seminars, but obviously we also knew we wouldn’t use it every day.
“Dave realized that many nonprofits simply don’t have a center like this or the funds to rent a center like this, so we decided to make it available to them free of charge when we aren’t using it.”
With a capacity of more than 100 people and state-of-the-art audio visual technology, the Oswald Conference Centre is now booked almost 365 days a year, says Klonk.
All of these philanthropic endeavors have had a halo effect. The company’s clients, partners and carriers recognize the company’s passion for community involvement and, in some cases, get directly involved or choose to refer the company to like-minded organizations.
Indeed, the company has built a reputation for helping its clients build philanthropic gifts. In addition to its businesses units, which include employee benefits, property casualty, retirement plans and personal risk, Oswald also facilitates personal life insurance and estate planning. Many major philanthropic gifts over the past several years have come from life insurance policies that Oswald has written.
Although Oswald is always cognizant of its clients’ need for privacy, “we do like to help people understand that there are ways they can maximize their gifts to charities that our clients really care about,” admits Klonk. “There is a lot of satisfaction in helping them do that — and that motivates a lot of our people.”
It’s also another way that shows Oswald’s appreciation to a community that has supported it since 1893.
So, what does the future hold?
Earlier this year, Oswald announced that it is embarking on a new strategic plan that includes commitment to community, ownership and accountability, technology and innovation, diversity and inclusion and training and development.
“However, as a company, we will continue to be privately held and employee-owned,” says Klonk.
The management team “is also dedicated to creating a path of ownership for all of our younger people,” says Klonk. “We want them to have the same opportunities that we did.”
That also will help build a new management team that will serve the company well as it moves into its next 125 years.