Making hay wherever he is: Meet Dave Wingert

Don’t text and drive. In the insurance business, that’s a risk-management platitude. But for Dave Wingert, it’s also a cautionary tale.

Dave and his wife, Sandi, were closing up their cabin in Minnesota, a place they retreat each summer to relax and hang out as a family. They had made a plan — Dave would pilot their fishing boat across the lake. Sandi would meet him at the landing with the truck and trailer.

He filled the boat’s tank full of gas and started the trip across. The trouble started when Wingert checked his phone for a text from her.

“In the split second I looked down at my phone, I must have hit a cross wave. Next thing I know, I’m going over the edge of the boat,” said Dave.

Dave had a life jacket — on the floor of the boat. Now, alone in the water, the boat circled him with its 40hp motor running at full throttle.

“They call it the circle of death because the prop clips you or you don’t have the life jacket,” said Dave. “Frankly, I could have been killed.”

Fortunately, another boater spotted Dave and his unmanned boat and the story had a happy ending.

Dave, Sandy, and their adult children Natalie and Jason all learned a lesson about safe boating. And Dave offers a public service announcement colored by his close call with the circle of death.

“When you’re using the boat, the life jackets are on and the kill switch is on a lanyard and is connected to you,” he says. “Had I fallen out that way, it would have killed the boat and I would have been able to get back in.”

The thing about life lessons is that they tend to carry over into other areas. The “circle of death” — and what it taught about preparedness and the nature of risk — surely did. As COO and acting president and CEO, Wingert never takes his eyes off the road (or the waves), always putting the safety — financial, physical, reputational — of Grinnell Mutual first.

From farm to finance

Wingert grew up on a row-crop farm near Oelwein, a rural community in northeast Iowa. Those farm roots fostered a strong work ethic and a willingness to take on challenges. He made hay — literally — and went to work, stacking it in the hayloft.

I never complained about being bored,” said Wingert. “I really learned to appreciate hard work and a positive attitude and the fact that those two things will take you further than anything else.”

In high school, Wingert spent his summers working for a local Angus beef farm but made time to raise hogs for 4-H projects — one of which was chosen grand champion. Wingert still has the picture of the big day — he’s the one wearing a FarMutual® hat. Reflecting, he chuckles, “It’s amazing how some things do come full circle.”

Wingert also made some lifelong friendships in Oelwein — notably his wife, Sandi, who attended the same church he did.

He enrolled at Iowa State University where he majored in accounting. Following graduation, he got married and accepted a position with Peat Marwick International (later KPMG), a Big Four accounting firm. It was also his introduction to the insurance business.

At KPMG, Wingert had several insurance companies as clients. There he discovered the thrill of challenging work — cutting edge projects with tight deadlines. Midway through his time there, Aviva — then the fifth largest insurance group in the world — acquired AmerUs, one of Wingert’s clients.

Wingert embraced the opportunity to work with a global organization, applying what he learned on the farm to the challenges of international finance.

Rewarding work and family life

“We had a lot going on at Aviva — international accounting, compliance, SEC reporting,” said Wingert. “We put in a whole new general ledger system across North America.” It was a huge undertaking — with a huge time commitment connected to it.

While Wingert was proud of his team’s work, he wanted to reestablish some work-life balance. His kids were growing up and he didn’t want to watch it happen from afar.

“I know everyone says this, but as you get older time really does fly. You have to make time for your family and family is priority one,” said Wingert. “I thought that f a good opportunity came along, I should pay attention to it.”

That opportunity came in 2011 when Jerry Woods, Grinnell Mutual’s then-CFO, retired.

“A friend gave me a heads up. If you’re looking for work-life balance, a great company, and great people, you might want to check it out. That’s what got me to Grinnell Mutual.”

During his tour of the home office, he got a taste of the company’s family atmosphere.

“I was doing the office tour, 3 p.m. on a Friday, and we walked by the old cafeteria downstairs. There appeared to be a wild card game going — you could tell they were having a good time. A gentleman by the name of Larry Jansen was holding court over that table.

“You could just tell there was a lot of fun, a lot of interaction, a lot of camaraderie.”

Wingert was sold.

“The biggest thing is that this company is a family. People are a treat to work with. Everyone has the best intentions,” said Wingert. “Everybody is so good about doing their best.”

Leading by listening

Whether its sitting with the senior leadership team, a large loss committee, or an agent advisory meeting, Wingert will be listening, assessing, and reflecting — usually with a tumbler of Diet Mountain Dew in his hand. He prefers to ask questions, listen, and analyze before reaching out with a conclusion or a decision. (It may be in his genes — you can the man out of accounting but…)

“You’ve got to have a positive, open attitude. How you express your own feelings about that change to others is so important,” said Wingert. “At the end of the day, how can we effect change and be part of the solution?”

Wingert points out that attitude starts with Grinnell Mutual’s core values —integrity, trust, respects, and valuing relationships.

Wingert reflected on a recent claims committee meeting.

“I could see the positive work our people do in action. We’re putting people back together,” he said, “and it’s done with a great attitude — it can be a lot of work to settle some of these large claims and get all the details and the facts. And it can be stressful for the claims people, too; there are some tragic things that have happened to our insureds. But our people handle claims with such care and humanity.

“So many claimants say it was almost like sitting with family to work through this. That says a lot about Grinnell Mutual and our people.”

Making connections

Over his seven years at Grinnell Mutual, Wingert has been the face and voice of the company for a variety of stakeholders.

“It’s fun to talk about the things going on here and how dedicated our people are,” said Wingert. “It’s good to sit there face-to-face with the customers and hear the same things our front-line employees hear.”

For Wingert, success starts with attitude, critical thinking, and a willingness to pitch in and do the work that needs to be done. When the company created new leadership roles in 2014 as part of a company-wide strategic planning initiative, Wingert accepted the position of executive vice president, overseeing support operations.

He worked closely with then-president Larry Jansen, Jeff Menary (then the executive vice president of line operations and now president and CEO), and others on innovative projects including insurtech investments in the Global Insurance Accelerator and Iowa Agritech Accelerator, and corporate rebranding — the first in over 50 years.

“In an organization this size, it’s hard to make everybody happy,” Wingert said. “But you need to get different perspectives and as much information as possible to make decisions that are best for the company, its customers, and its employees.”

Wingert’s experience as a vice president, and his close working relationship with Jansen and Menary made him an obvious choice for COO when Menary was named president and CEO upon Jansen’s retirement. It also prepared Wingert to take the reins as acting president when Menary was diagnosed with West Nile virus and spent several months recovering.

As Wingert adjusts to his role as acting president and CEO, he looks to make a mark by empowering employees and customers to do their best work.

“It’s a continuation of what we started,” said Wingert. “You don’t have to make wholesale changes just because you can. The ship is clearly headed in the right direction,” said Wingert. “We’ve got a great course set. and we’ll keep moving forward.”