How A Data-Driven Company Recruits And Trains In A Small Midwestern City

Cottingham & Butler, the nation’s 30th-largest insurer, began as a main street agency in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1887, and continued as a small, family operated business for decades.

In 1957, when the company’s current Chairman, John E. Butler, joined the business, there were two other employees. Today, Cottingham & Butler employs hundreds of people in Dubuque, a city of just under 60,000 that’s more than an hour’s drive from a city of greater or equal size. To continue its expansion in an industry that has changed drastically, with a headquarters far from a major population center, Cottingham & Butler’s leaders have relied on partnerships with local universities.

In addition to Mr. Butler, Cottingham & Butler is led by CEO David Becker, a Dubuque native with an MBA from Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law, who was working at McKinsey & Company in Chicago when Butler recruited him. Becker has focused much of his efforts on keeping the company ahead of changes to its industry.

“I view our business as becoming incredibly data-driven, analytic driven,” Becker said. “The whole mathematic side of it is really important.”

In response to this need, Becker has worked with local Loras College to create a Center for Business Analytics under the guidance of Loras alumnus and Oracle Corporation executive Rich Clayton. The program offers an Executive MBA, a graduate certificate and an undergraduate major in business analytics. It also organizes an annual symposium on the subject heavily attended by Cottingham & Butler employees.

Cottingham & Butler recruiters also maintain a strong relationship with professors in the sales program at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and hires many of its graduates—many of whom are Dubuque natives the company convinces to return home.

In addition, the company turns to the local Northeast Iowa Community College for a number of training programs, from business and leadership to computer skills. Becker said this ongoing training, which is supported in part by the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s workforce training program, is critical for his business’ ongoing success.

His company is even involved in preparing the workforce at the primary school level.

“A lot of our folks go to the schools and teach,” Becker said. “Many of us, including myself, are on some of the school boards, in the high school secondary level, trying to make sure that what goes on in town is really important.”

This tight, community collaboration is evident in the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation, which Becker turns to for help in navigating state programs. In addition to workforce training, three Cottingham & Butler expansions in the last three years have been supported by almost $1 million in state funds through Iowa’s High Quality Jobs program.

With these expansions, the company has invested more than $4 million, has expanded into two more historic buildings in downtown Dubuque and has created at least 185 new local jobs. Becker said this tight relationship between business and government is an energizing part of being in Dubuque.

“I think it creates a culture of people that feel like they have a responsibility to contribute to the community, a responsibility to give back,” Becker said. “But there’s also opportunity. If you’ve got ideas for things that need improvement, there’s an outlet to rally a set of folks to go make it happen.”

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