Deadly Iowa tornado drives Kirt Walker from family farm to Nationwide CEO

Mark Williams
The Columbus Dispatch
Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker.

Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker can tell you the exact time he knew he wanted to go into the insurance business: 7:14 p.m. June 28, 1979.

That’s when a tornado ripped through the north-central Iowa town of Algona near where

Walker grew up on a farm, wiping out about a third of the town of 4,500 people, killing four.

“My brother and I were watching ‘Barney Miller,’” Walker says when a tornado warning flashed on the television screen. “My brother and I go out on our front yard and watch this tornado wipe out my hometown.”

Walker, 17 at the time, says debris swirled through the air as the powerful storm tore up homes, hurled vehicles hundreds of feet and uprooted trees.

“It was like watching the movie Twister,” he says.

Walker says the reason he can pinpoint the exact time is because that’s when the electricity went off in the house and the clocks stopped.

Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker decided to join the insurance industry after a 1979 tornado tore through his hometown in Iowa. “My brother and I were watching ‘Barney Miller,’” Walker says, when a tornado warning flashed on the television screen.

After the storm, he and his brother went into town, where an invasion was taking place, Walker says.

“The National Guard was there first. The [American] Red Cross was there after, and then the insurance companies.”

He quickly learned why insurance is so important to help families and towns recover from a devastating storm. That drove his decision to become part of the industry.

Walker had been laid off that day from his construction job because there wasn’t enough to do. He was rehired the next day as work began immediately to rebuild the town, a process he says took about 18 months.

“The Allied claims people were the first ones in town,” he says of the insurer that

Nationwide bought in 1998. “Ultimately, that stuck in my mind. I said I want to help people...This really is a noble purpose, this insurance thing.”

As he speaks during a July interview, Walker, 58, holds a framed photo that he keeps on his desk to this day, showing a bit of the damage that was done by the storm.

It is a photo of what he believes was the house of Mrs. Mawdsley, the junior high school music teacher, whose home was destroyed by the tornado.

The photo shows an overturned car on top of a pile of debris next to what’s left of the house. A piano sits at what appears to be the front of the home, where the roof is gone. The yard is covered in rubble.

“We know it’s her house because of the piano, and she had a Volvo,” he says.

Walker joins Allied

At the time, most Iowa farm kids wanted to be veterinarians.

Walker went off to college, majoring in business at Iowa State University with an insurance emphasis.

He received several job offers, but was particularly impressed with Allied and the person who interviewed him. The man asked Walker during a two-hour interview: “Do you really understand what we do as an insurance company?”

He was the reason why Walker ultimately choose to work for Allied.

“I like that guy. I like the company. I like the noble purpose,” Walker says.

When Walker was picked as Nationwide CEO in 2019, he replaced the man who had hired him 34 years before in Iowa: Steve Rasmussen.

“I was just so impressed with his professionalism, his reality about things,” Walker says of Rasmussen, who held the company’s top job from 2009 to 2019.

Walker and the Red Cross

Beyond setting the stage for his career, the tornado also began Walker’s relationship with the Red Cross.

A Red Cross volunteer offered Walker and his brother something to eat for their help in the aftermath of the storm. The ham and cheese sandwich and the Pepsi were free.

“If we don’t pay for this, who does?” he says he asked the volunteer. “We have donations from people, corporations,” was the answer.

“I’ve been active with the Red Cross ever since,” says Walker, who serves on the Red Cross board of governors.

So has Nationwide. The two have a partnership that goes back more than 75 years.

Last year, the Nationwide Foundation contributed $2.2 million to Red Cross disaster relief and $22.1 million since 2000, according to Nationwide. Nationwide associates have donated nearly 265,000 units of blood.

“Our missions are very similar. The Red Cross mission is to alleviate suffering in the face of the emergency, and that’s pretty much what Nationwide does as well,” says Gail McGovern, CEO of the Red Cross.

Nationwide also puts its intellectual capital to work for the charity, sharing software and helping with investment strategies, she says.

“[Walker] has a big sharp brain, and a big heart. He’s the kind of leader who’s persistent, but he’s kind,” McGovern says.

Nationwide has relationships with other charities, including Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Feeding America, the United Way, the United Negro College Fund and others.

Steve Steinour, chairman, president and CEO of Huntington Bancshares, agreed with McGovern on Walker’s effectiveness as a leader.

The two have known each for several years and have led, along with American Electric Power CEO Nick Akins, a $30 million campaign for the Mid-Ohio Food Collective. Steinour and Walker and their families have become friends, Steinour says.

“He’s just a wonderful person, a fabulous leader. He’s humble. He doesn’t look for headlines,” Steinour says.

Steinour called Walker a servant leader with a deep moral conviction.

“He’s so quiet that most people in central Ohio won’t recognize all he and Nationwide do,” Steinour says.

After storms, Nationwide routinely sets up an operation in a parking lot handing out water, baby food, leashes and bowls to anyone who needs it. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the insurer provided lifetime free pet insurance to the dogs who searched for survivors amid the rubble of the World Trade Center towers.

“One of the things we talk about is mission moments that matter,” Walker says.

The key to success

The notion of becoming CEO became more than aspirational about 10 years ago as Walker steadily moved up through the ranks of Nationwide with postings throughout the country.

Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker

“What I love about this job is that there is something new that surfaces all the time,” Walker says.

But the key to success is his leadership team.

“Where leaders sometimes fail is that they think they have to be the smartest person in the room,” he says. “At one point, hopefully early on in your career, the light bulb comes on and you surround yourself with people who are better looking, run faster, are smarter and can think more strategically than you can.”

Challenges of 2020

Nationwide’s revenue, which it does not disclose, is split between financial services and insurance.

The company is one of the largest financial services and insurance companies in the U.S. with $47 billion in sales, a data point that Nationwide defines as a combination of premiums paid by policyholders along with new deposits and assets that come through the company’s financial services arm.

The company $797 million in 2020 operating income and last year, it paid $16.9 billion in claims. Nationwide defines operating income as income after paying claims and benefits and deducting operating expenses.

Nationwide has about 26,000 employees with about half in Columbus. Big outposts are in Des Moines, Iowa; Scottsdale, Arizona; and San Antonio.

The balance between insurance and financial services has helped the company through hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires along with recessions, market crashes, the financial crisis more than a decade ago and more recently, the biggest public health crisis in a century coupled with the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Nationwide shifted 25,000 workers to work from home in four days as the pandemic took hold in March 2020.

“We value people. We’ve got to get people safe,” Walker says.

Following Floyd’s death, Nationwide held a rally for workers, awarding $1 million to fight racism.

“I’m not Black, but I do know the difference between right and wrong because I think my parents raised me correctly,” he says. “I’m not going to stand for wrong.”

Nationwide does simulations every year of potential crises. Nothing could predict what happened in 2020.

“It was an interesting year, but it was highly successful for us. So you reflect and say if you can get through 2020 and be highly successful, you can probably handle anything that comes at you,” Walker says.

There are lessons Nationwide learned from the pandemic that will help guide the business going forward.

Among them: Consumers have become more value conscious, especially at a time when many still are working from home and aren’t racking up the miles driving.

Nationwide expects more drivers to switch to coverage in which they are charged by how many miles they drive. It’s called telematics, and it can  save drivers up to 40 percent.

By 2026, Nationwide expects as many as three-quarters of new customers will want such coverage. They also will be asking for pet insurance to care for the dogs, cats and other animals they adopted during the pandemic.

At the same time, Nationwide is responding to consumers’ demands to more easily get quotes on coverage.

“We knew this day was coming,” Walker says.

Consumers want the ease of getting a quote or buying coverage online, and many are doing business with their cellphones.

On the financial services side, Nationwide has worked to help consumers save for retirement. Many companies and governments, for example, now automatically enroll new workers into retirement plans.

“With automatic enrollment, automatic escalation, the savings that people have is incredibly more on a dollar amount basis than for people who don’t have that,” Walker says. “We all need a little nudge.”

Once people hit retirement age, they are looking for annuities that can provide steady income, he says.

“In retirement, I want to know how much I have to spend every single month,” Walker says consumers tell the insurer. “Can you help me on that guaranteed income for retirement? It’s a huge thing for us right now.”

Nationwide hiring passionate workers

One of things that Walker likes is for Nationwide to hire people with the same desire he has to help others.

“We love to hire brand new people, and we hire for attitude. We can teach them everything else, but if they don’t have the right attitude, this isn’t a good place to be,” he says.

The company’s new mission statement—“We protect people, businesses and futures with extraordinary care “—reflects Walker’s belief that Nationwide is a protection company.

“Let’s face it, a lot of people get jobs and they turn them into careers,” he says. “In my mind, this has been a passion.”

mawilliams@dispatch.com

@BizMarkWilliams

Kirt Walker

CEO, Nationwide

Age: 58

In position since: 2019

Previous: President and chief operating officer of Nationwide’s financial services business from 2009 to 2019

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Iowa State University; master’s degree, American College of Financial Services

Community involvement: Columbus Partnership, Mid-Ohio Food Collective campaign, American Red Cross

Resides: Columbus

Family: Married, two adult children