Not many businesses can boast of being around since before telephone, television, electricity or technology were even ideas. Few have traveled more miles than the trains, cars and airplanes that came after their founding.
The companies that have trekked from pre-Civil War to post-Civil Rights Movement share one attribute: they’ve struggled to change with the times while preserving the identities symbolic of their origin.
Perhaps there’s no better example than Westfield Group, a 150-year-old insurance and financial services firm in Westfield Center. In striving to steer the company successfully into the future, its leader says the challenge lies in knowing when the time is right for change — and how much change is necessary.
“I tend to have a very good vision about where we’re going, and I know that what we’ve done in the past won’t take us into the future,” says Cary Blair, a 40-year veteran of the company and its chairman and CEO since 1998.
Problem is, Blair says, resisting change can repel consumers. Embracing too much change can upset insiders. The trick is to drive systematic change while fostering both pioneering and progressive philosophies.
“If you ask a lot of our employees, they would say that what I’m driving is not systematic change, because some people in our organization feel we’re moving too fast,” Blair says, noting that Westfield Group has about 2,300 employees and comprises 20,000 independent insurance agencies across 16 states. “But that’s natural in the change process — the buy-in is often difficult.”
Off the fence
Blair says there was a time when a company’s identity endured for decades. Those days departed with blue suede shoes and black-and-white television.
To compete with a dynamic media and connect with restless consumers, companies need to revitalize the messages behind their corporate identities, and in some cases, reinvent their trademarked icons. Time and again, this company metamorphosed with that mandate in mind.
Initially known as the Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance Co. of Medina County, it sprouted in 1848 when a group of Ohio farmers formed the company to protect their properties. In 1851, it was renamed Ohio Farmers Insurance Co. — a name it held for the next 114 years. In 1965, it changed to Ohio Farmers Insurance Group, then to Westfield Cos. in 1971. In September 2000, to reflect the multifaceted enterprise it had become, Westfield Group became the name.
As the company evolved, so did its corporate icon. There was no definitive logo until 1878, when the image of a farmer sitting on a fence was used in an advertisement to symbolize its independent and hard-working philosophy. Over time, the image was altered as it tried to enhance its identity.
The farmer grew a thicker and longer beard. Flowers cropped up around his feet. Then, a tie appeared around his neck. Eventually his image transformed into a smiling Irishman.
Then he climbed off the fence and posed with a gray-haired wife. He was pictured holding an American flag. Later, he dressed in elegant striped pants and held a fashionable hat in his outstretched hand.
Concerned that the old man had wandered too far from his symbolic origins, in 1920 the firm restored its corporate symbol to the original farmer’s image. But when the name changed again in 2000, Westfield Group gave the 19th century image a most-deserved retirement after more than 120 years of service.
“In 1999, through an outside research firm, we’d started soliciting feedback from consumers, agents and employees in different locations throughout the country,” says Pat Schiesswohl, Westfield’s senior executive of corporate marketing. “What we got back were ideas and even sketches of images that depicted trust, knowledge and innovation — things they all wanted from an insurance company.”
Based on that feedback, and more fitting for a 21st century audience, the company’s new logo links three stylized triangles that graphically gain momentum in a three-dimensional effect which draws the eye to the center. The triangles, Schiesswohl says, represent the relationship among Westfield Group, the agent community and the policyholders. The perceived motion exemplifies working together toward a common goal. The focal point represents Westfield’s most important audience — the consumer.
“While it’s a new look, what we’re really saying is what we’ve always believed,” Schiesswohl says.
She says that ever since The General Assembly of Ohio granted Ohio Farmers Insurance Co. a unique charter in 1851, enabling it to operate as a stock insurance company without shareholders, it has operated solely for the benefit of its insureds, independent agents and employees.
And that, Blair assures, will never change.
Expanding the brand
The test of today’s CEO is to envision the future, then coax the company culture to a state in which that vision can evolve. Blair’s vision for Westfield Group is for it to become a worldwide financial services organization.
“To many people in our company, that sounds a very big stretch from the regional property and casualty company we are now,” says Robert Joyce, Westfield Group’s chief operating officer. “But if you look at the change we’ve had in the last three years, we’ve already taken a giant leap to becoming a worldwide financial services organization.”
Joyce says that, just as the company’s image has transformed over time, its services have been expanded and redefined to meet the needs of the market.
For example, in 1997, the company made a strategic decision to divest itself of its life insurance division and focus entirely on its property and casualty (P&C) business. Under the Westfield Group umbrella today, Westfield Insurance provides for about 99 percent of Westfield Group’s revenue.
The P&C business offers a range of products and services for individuals and businesses: automobile, homeowners, inland marine, farm and livestock, burglary, general liability, fire and allied lines, business owners, umbrella coverage and package policies, and fidelity and surety bonds. Within its P&C category, personal lines account for 49 percent of Westfield Insurance revenue, with commercial lines providing 51 percent.
Scrutinizing the marketplace, Westfield executives acknowledged the Internet, financial service reform and other factors have significantly affected its core area of commerce. Cognizant that so much of Westfield’s capital was tied up in insurance risk, management decided to diversify and invest in other businesses with a different risk profile.
To that end, Westfield Services Inc. debuted in 1998 to provide business processing solutions and data management for P&C and life carriers, in addition to other outsourcing services for insurance agencies.
At first, Joyce says, the venture was unsuccessful because the division marketed its services to Westfield’s reinsurance partners. Due to changes within their own marketplaces, the reinsurers failed to develop the markets Westfield envisioned.
“Consequently, we had to reshift our focus to primary companies, insurance companies like ourselves and the independent agent,” says Joyce.
The delivery model also had to be revamped.
“Our initial vision was that we would create and build a policy delivery system, put the client’s policies on it and service it that way,” he says. “What happened was that we had to create a mechanism where we actually brought their system in house and serviced it. To do that, we had to bring in people resources.”
Charter effort, charitable endeavor
To insure the survival of Westfield’s sales channel — the independent agency model — the company had to change in other ways. After Westfield Group’s bank charter was approved in fall 2000 by the Office of Thrift Supervision, Westfield Bank debuted in February 2001 to provide a growing customer base with myriad investment services and insurance needs.
Jon Park, the bank’s president, says the idea was to leverage a multitude of relationships Westfield Insurance had with independent agents, small business customers, 1 million-plus policyholders in 16 states and the company’s own employees.
“Looking at where Westfield was historically positioned, we’d realized we had relied almost entirely on the independent agency system that is now under competitive threat from direct insurance carriers,” says Park, referring to ‘1-800-call-for-your-insurance-quote’ carriers.
“Our strategy now,” Park says, “is to provide customers with much easier access to decision-makers than they’d have in a large bank, while providing a full range of individual banking services at highly competitive terms and rates.”
To accommodate changes in its most notable diversification into the financial services industry, Westfield Group made a substantial investment in technology.
“Like most of the companies in this industry, our major systems were built about 25 years ago, so we’re all mainframe oriented,” Blair says. “Now we’re transforming into the online real-time environment with up-to-date systems that are also Internet based.”
Finally, in the spirit of corporate citizenship, Westfield Group Foundation was formed in December 2000. As a 501-C-3 charitable organization, it positioned the company as one that promotes scholarship, benevolence, competitive spirit and outstanding ethical conduct among young men and women.
“In the past, we had quietly contributed a great deal of resources to youth-related activities, and it was a coincidence that our foundation came about at the same time as our branding initiative,” says Dan Shumaker, the foundation’s executive director.
“But it didn’t hurt to be able to get in front of 15,000 kids and all their families with our Junior PGA sponsorship,” he says, referring to Westfield’s five-year agreement with the PGA of America to host and title-sponsor the 72-hole Westfield Junior PGA Championship, held for the first time in summer 2001 at Westfield Group Country Club in Westfield Center.
Breaking the mold
As an old-line company, Westfield Group is committed to its strategic rebranding, which is a recreation of sorts. The challenges in that can sometimes be overwhelming, says Park. The successes speak for themselves.
Compared to an old company like Polaroid, which couldn’t evolve because it couldn’t break free of its culture, Westfield is a very old, traditional and conservative company, Park observes.
“But we’re committed to breaking out of our mold, and we’ve already overcome several challenges by creating entrepreneurial pockets of businesses that can evolve under the corporate umbrella,” he says.
Sizing up the firm’s revamped identity, Blair says the new name encompasses all of Westfield’s business ventures, the logo illustrates its forward-thinking philosophies and the new tagline, “Sharing Knowledge, Building Trust,” is as authentic today as it was in 1848.
“As we continue to write our own history as an independent group of companies in the insurance and financial services arena, it’s important to know where it all began and how we got to this point,” Blair says. “But to get everyone to buy into the vision of the company as a whole, it’s a process of good communication, over and over and over again.” How to reach: Westfield Group (800) 243-0210 or www.westfieldgrp.com
Victoria Reynolds is a contributing editor to SBN Magazine.