By Collin Lueck
Rich Poirier is excited about the direction Church Mutual Insurance Company is headed into the future. President and CEO of Merrill’s largest employer, Poirier is leading the company as it evolves to meet the changing needs of the insurance marketplace while remaining dedicated to its roots in Merrill.
“At Church Mutual, we are proud of our 121-year history, our nationwide footprint and our deep, hometown roots in Merrill, Wisconsin,” Poirier said.
Church Mutual was founded in 1897 by a group of Lutheran pastors and business leaders in Merrill to provide insurance to local houses of worship. The company has grown to be the national leader by a wide margin in that market.
“Insuring churches is what put us on the map,” Poirier said.
However, a decline in church membership nationwide has prompted Church Mutual to broaden its horizons. Simply put, fewer people are going to church, so there are fewer churches to insure.
“The problem we have today is that the church going population has declined precipitously,” Poirier said. “Our ability to grow in that space is limited.
“Our focus is and always will be churches,” he added. “We will make sure we remain the leader in that space.”
Recognizing the need to diversify, Church Mutual has branched out in recent years. The company now insures public schools, including school the districts in Merrill, Wausau and Racine. It also insures senior living facilities, camps and conference centers, and non-profits nationwide.
“Diversification is critical,” Poirier said. “We can’t rely anymore just on churches.”
Rumors of layoffs are false, Poirier asserts. In fact, the current employee count of 1,066 is one employee more than at the end of 2015. About 800 of those employees work in Merrill.
Church Mutual has automated some processes and procedures throughout the company to increase efficiency, Poirier said.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to avoid that for quite a while, but we must continue to automate to be successful and competitive,” he said.
Most employees impacted by those changes have been retrained for other positions in the company. Church Mutual has also committed to assisting employees displaced by any future transitions.
“We will do our very best to find those people new jobs in the company,” Poirier said. “We will send them to Northcentral Technical College to retrain them, and we will provide a stipend while they’re in school. The goal is to find them another job here, and if not here, elsewhere.”
Becoming a high-tech leader in the industry requires a highly skilled workforce, Poirier points out. Insurance is becoming more and more complex, relying on data, analytics, sophisticated business models and innovative technology. Employees of the future will need to be well educated to meet the demands of the industry and policyholders.
Church Mutual remains committed to developing that workforce in Merrill, Poirier said.
“The reality is it’s going to be harder to roll out of Merrill High School and get a job here,” Poirier said. “Most of what we do here requires further education.”
Again taking a proactive approach, Church Mutual has developed or thrown its support behind local education initiatives.
Starting in 2015, Church Mutual now offers the IT Scholars Program to area high school graduates as a means to attract and retain aspiring IT students. The program covers tuition, books and fees for four years (two at NTC, two at a four-year college) plus a part-time job at CMIC IT while the student is in school. Students must maintain 3.0 GPA and agree to work at CMIC four years beyond graduation. Several students are already attending college on Church Mutual’s dime under the program. For the 2019-2020 school year, Church Mutual will be offering the program to students statewide.
Church Mutual is also a main sponsor of The Branch, a program through Northcentral Technical College that helps develop young entrepreneurs.
“We sometimes lose our best and brightest to other companies in other cities,” Poirier said. “The problem is we don’t often get them back. We want to bring some of these kids back to central Wisconsin and the way to do it is through jobs and opportunity.”
Embracing technology, Church Mutual is emerging as a leader in proactive measures aimed at reducing claims.
For example, the company has invested in four fire trucks in California to protect the churches it insures there from the threat of wildfires. When fire threatens, the trucks are deployed to spread fire-retardant foam on the facilities and property at risk. Given the current fire season, interest in the pilot program has been high.
Following a shooting last year at one of the churches it insures, Church Mutual is putting significant resources into armed intruder training for its customers. An armed intruder alert app is among several mobile apps the company is currently developing. The company is offering the same training to its own employees.
Church Mutual has also developed a sensor that alerts policyholders if the temperature in the church or school drops to a level where the pipes could be in danger of freezing.
“All this innovation started right here in Merrill,” Poirier said. “Merrill is going to have emerging technology. That’s going to bring jobs and those jobs are going to be here in Merrill.”
To further foster the growth of technology in its Merrill operations, Church Mutual is in the process of establishing a holding company. The new structure offers many advantages. For example, the structure could be advantageous should Church Mutual want to buy tech startup companies in the burgeoning “insure-tech” industry, which develops innovative products for insurance companies. Under a holding company structure, Church Mutual would remain a mutual company.
On the home front, Church Mutual and its employees have greatly invested in the Merrill community.
The company’s annual United Way campaign has raised more than $1.1 million since 2000 to support the Merrill area and its citizens. In 2017 alone, the company donated $150,000. Church Mutual’s employees donate and fundraise, and the company matches those contributions dollar for dollar.
Church Mutual’s foundation, CM CARES, and its employee association continue to make financial gifts to support additional programs and services in the area.
“We’re really excited about what that’s going to do for Merrill,” Poirier said. “We always want to be one of the cornerstones for this community.”
A special employee benefit, the CM Serves program, encourages employees to help local organizations through volunteering, and they are offered paid time off to do so.
Church Mutual also offers innovative benefits such as the on site “Daib and Fehland Founders Garden,” which provides fresh produce for the Community Food Pantry of Merrill.
The Northwoods Veterans Post, which will be home to local veterans organization and scout troops, is being built on 4.3 acres of land donated by Church Mutual.
As of June 2018, Church Mutual had more than $1.8 billion in assets and more than $715 million in policyholders’ surplus. Church Mutual has policyyholders in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Church Mutual’s recognitions underscore the company’s prominence in the industry. Church Mutual has received the following accolades, in some cases for many years running: A.M. Best Company “A (Excellent)” rating; 2018 Ward’s 50 Top Performing Property and Casualty Insurers; BenchmarkPortal Top 10 National Customer Service Center; Wisconsin 75 by Deloitte US, 2016 and 2017; and Futuremakers Partner by Wisconsin Technical College System.