American Family helping set standard for “big company” role in emerging economy

April 2, 2015
Wisconsin Technology Council

Wisconsin Technology Council President lauds our support of entrepreneurship, innovation

From the outside, American Family Insurance might strike observers as a buttoned-down, old-line company operating in a traditional business market.

Beneath that blue-chip exterior beats the heart of a corporate entrepreneur.

Founded in Madison nearly 90 years ago, “AmFam” is a mutual insurance company that grew steadily but somewhat slowly across the United States for much of its history. Its property and casualty insurance sales are the foundation for about $7.4 billion in annual revenue and $20 billion in assets, good for a spot on the Fortune 400 list.

Long known for its attention to customers and community involvement, American Family has emerged as a prominent example of a company that values innovation — not only within its own walls, but inside companies in which it may invest or otherwise take an interest.

That message was stressed Monday at the second annual Wisconsin Tech Summit by Peter Gunder, American Family’s chief business development officer and an architect of the company’s innovation strategy.

Gunder spoke at an event that epitomized how large companies can interact with emerging companies, often to the benefit of both. The Tech Summit matched 15 major companies and more than 50 emerging companies — many with technologies tied to the “Internet of Things,” digital health and advanced manufacturing.

Throughout the day at the GE Healthcare Institute in Pewaukee, those companies engaged in more than 175 “speed-date” meetings lasting 15 minutes each to talk about possible partnerships — from exchanging research to investment to sales channels.

For the major companies, it’s often a case of staying ahead of the curve. They want to hear about ideas before their competitors. They also don’t want to rely purely on innovation from within, which can be difficult in larger companies that sometimes move more slowly.

Gunder noted how Google became a billion-dollar company in just eight years and that Facebook did the same in five, Tesla in four, Uber in two and Snapchat in one. And he noted iconic camera-maker Kodak is now out of business — despite having invented the digital camera in the 1970s. Gunder said his company realizes the need and potential rewards of embracing change.

“We live in an exponential era,” said Gunder, who quoted the book “Bold.” “Either disrupt yourself or be disrupted by someone else.”

American Family is one of just two major insurers — the other being San Antonio-based USAA — to add corporate investment to its business strategies. While American Family began investing in venture capital funds in the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2010 that it launched its own venture fund.

The company plans to see returns on its venture investments over time, but it also expects to benefit from investing in companies helping improve the company’s core business, which is insurance.

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