Ed Largent — President, CEO, and Board Chair of Westfield, one of the most enduring companies in Ohio.
Very few companies in the world can boast the longevity of Westfield, which is celebrating its 175th year of existence. Originally founded by a small group of Ohio farmers in 1848, Westfield is now one of the largest non-public companies in Ohio, the largest employer in Medina County, Ohio, and has grown to be one of the nation’s leading property and casualty insurance companies, with recent international expansion, and as the largest writer of contract performance bonds in Ohio, with over $2.5 billion in direct written premium and $8.5 billion in consolidated assets.
Ed joined Westfield in 1986 and was appointed CEO and President of Westfield in 2015 after having served in a variety of previous leadership roles, including as Westfield’s Administration Leader and Chief Technology Officer.
In our conversation today, we explore the ingredients that make for longevity and unpack how and why Westfield has been able to balance its multi-generational growth and commitment to ensuring the financial stability of its customers all without sacrificing its own resiliency and antifragility through some of the most risk-on periods of American history. We talk about the importance of cultivating people and empathy, being grounded in purpose, and aligning culture around these tenets.
It was a real privilege to hear Ed's reflections on leadership and on Westfield’s history, present, and future going forward — please enjoy my conversation with Ed Largent.
This episode is brought to you byImpact ArchitectsandNinety. As we share the stories of entrepreneurs building incredible organizations throughout NEO, Impact Architects helps those leaders — many of whom we’ve heard from as guests on Lay of The Land — realize their visions and build great organizations. I believe in Impact Architects and the people behind it so much, that I have actually joined them personally in their mission to help leaders gain focus, align together, and thrive by doing what they love! As a listener, you can sit down for a free consultation with Impact Architects or leverage a free trial through Ninety, the software platform that helps teams build great companies, by visitingia.layoftheland.fm!
Learn more about Westfield — https://www.westfieldinsurance.com/
Follow Westfield on Twitter — https://twitter.com/Westfield1848/
Connect with Ed Largent on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/edlargent/
Connect with Jeffrey Stern on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeffreypstern/
Follow Jeffrey Stern on Twitter @sternJefe — https://twitter.com/sternjefe
Follow Lay of The Land on Twitter @podlayoftheland
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Jeffrey Stern [00:02:42]:
To kick us off. Congratulations on 175 years.
Ed Largent [00:02:46]:
Jeffrey Stern [00:02:47]:
Thank you for coming on to share the story of Westfield in celebration of an undeniable milestone here.
Ed Largent [00:02:54]:
That's my pleasure. Thanks for having me. Looking forward to it.
Jeffrey Stern [00:02:57]:
So I was thinking about where the best place to start might be and I was thinking that through the podcast, a lot of the stories that we get to hear and unpack are about what it takes to start something and to build something from scratch at the most nascent stage of entrepreneurship. And yeah, I would love to learn about Westfield's origins and founding. It's an important part of the story and we'll get there. But I'll put it out there at the beginning of our conversation today that a theme that I really would love to unpack with you is longevity. Because I think it would be a fair statement to say that every business ends at some point and it's just a matter of when. And over the grand scale of time, most things are ephemeral, but there's always a long tail where something persists for much longer than is probable. And when it comes to business, there are just not that many examples of organizations that can boast the kind of longevity and history that you have 175 years later. And so with that, I think it would be a fun place to start by just asking about how you build a business that lasts and stands this brutal test of time that most others do not get to survive. So when you think about longevity, what do you believe are the most important factors that set Westfield apart?
Ed Largent [00:04:17]:
It's a great question. It's a complex one that does not, I don't think, have really a simple answer. But I'd start with the people and their commitment in a purpose driven organization. So we're mutual and we were formed in 1848 for our customers, and we exist today for our customers. Other than regulators, there aren't any other stakeholders that we exist for. And to start with having that purpose and then people generation over generation over generation that really believe in that purpose and then build a culture around that purpose, that becomes pretty powerful and sustainable, not easy. So in addition to that, I think there's things like resilience perseverance, pulling together through very difficult times and believing that you can persist. The legacy is important. And lastly, I guess I'd say once you get to a certain level of legacy, there's some power in that foundation. And we talk about this even today in 2023. There's no shortage of challenges out there. But there's something about having a foundation, of knowing. We've been through a civil war, world wars, the Great Depression. I mean, you can go down the list. And we know the folks that came before us, they made it through successfully. It was probably really hard and there was probably all kinds of tough times. But we're here and that gives us something that a lot of other places don't have. So, I don't know, add all that up. That's sort of a hodgepodge answer. But that's what I think about a.
Jeffrey Stern [00:06:04]:
Lot of threads there that I'd love to pull on and we'll maybe take them just one at a time. But you mentioned 1848, and perhaps it makes sense at this point just to travel back in the proverbial time machine and understand what the problems those farmers were facing in 1848 were. And what was the actual impetus for the founding of which I believe at the time wasn't even Westfield. It was by a different name. So what was the vision and how did it actually come together?
Ed Largent [00:06:36]:
Yeah, sure. So as you mentioned, you use the word farmers in Medina County, Ohio, in 1848. Farming was the way of life. There were a lot of hardships in 1848 for folks who were farming, one of which was the threat of fire. So if you can put yourself back in that time frame, if a fire struck a farm, it could literally devastate an entire family's lives permanently. So it was something that was feared greatly and was a regular threat. At that time, our industry was still pretty nascent, but occasionally a carpet bagger would come through town selling fire insurance from an east coast company. And the folks here hadn't had great luck with actually receiving payments for stuff that they bought from folks that they really didn't know. And so the community leaders who are farmers, I think, talked a lot about this, and we're probably always talking about it and how could they come together to figure out how to help the community with this horrible threat. And so in the community general store here in Ben Austin store in the circle on Westfield Center, this was a problem that they discussed. And they knew that there were companies on the East Coast that were insurance companies. And they identified one of our leaders who I think had a law background as well as farming. And they sent him off to Batavia, New York, for a year plus to learn about insurance on the inside of a property insurance company. And he came back and they together decided that they wanted to form an entity that would share risk across the community and that would be part of the community, not something states away that they didn't have confidence in. And so that's really the impetus, and that's how they got it started.
Jeffrey Stern [00:08:34]:
I imagine we could fill in an entire episode here just from there, talking about the history of the whole organization and how it evolved, which I am really curious about, but perhaps you can provide a compressed version of from that impetus. How does the whole journey kind of transpire and how the company evolves in kind?
Ed Largent [00:08:56]:
Yeah, it's hard to compress 175 years. But the long and the short of it is they started a company which required an active state legislature at that time, in 1848, which they received, and they began writing fire insurance. And as the decades passed, they were successful in pooling risk and taking care of customers. And so they grew, I would say very incrementally over decades and decades. But then the world advanced and the automobile showed up, and there were more risks to cover than just fire. And society evolved, and the company evolved with those changes. So we began writing auto insurance and other kinds of insurance that people needed. And we also began to expand throughout Ohio and then into neighboring states like Indiana and Michigan and West Virginia. I'd say very incrementally throughout the rest of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, and I'd say past World War II, we gained some scale and some steam and expanded into quite a few other states with our portfolio of insurance offerings all through independent agents. I should mention we've always offered our products through the Independent Agency System in the United States and began to grow more dramatically. We also got into some other businesses. We formed a life insurance company at one time, which we no longer have. There was actually a securities, like a mutual fund offering at one point in time. We started a contract surety organization which is still in business today, working on their almost 70 years in business, which provides bonds for contractors and some other kinds of bonds. And the business just grew and became successful. And as we head into the 21st century, we're a multibillion dollar organization that has the sophistication you would expect in the 21st century and continues to evolve our capabilities to meet the needs of our customers. But the thing that is the same is the reason we exist and what our focus is, which is our policyholders and our customers. And part of the other question you asked is at Westfield, especially as a leader, you learn throughout your career that your job is to take the organization, make it better, focus on those customers, and then pass it on to the next generation so that they can do the same.
Jeffrey Stern [00:11:21]:
When you reflect on your career personally, where does your experience intersect with Westfield? How is it that you found yourself at the organization?
Ed Largent [00:11:32]:
Good question, because I'm only a 37 year employee, not 175. And so it's actually a fairly limited scope I've got. And I'm very honored to be leading the organization through this anniversary. But, yeah, I started in 1986 right out of college. I needed a job, quite honestly, and my life was moving very fast at that point in time. A lot of things going on was one of my offers and options and I didn't know anything about insurance. And at the time we had a very robust management training program for college graduates. And so me and 50 of my closest friends convened together here in Westfield. And I like to say they taught us how to spell insurance. The first thing they did was take us through a three or four month curriculum where they really taught us the fundamentals of the business. And then we all went off into our disciplines. And mine happened to be information technology at a computer science and a business degree. And so I went into the world of corporate It for more than 20 years and had, I think, about 14 different jobs where I either worked in or led every aspect of our information technology. And that afforded me the opportunity to work with literally every area of our organization and to gain an understanding of our business end to end, including our distribution channel and our customers. So that was a great career experience for me and it helped me cross paths with so many people around the organization and outside the organization that helped me learn. That sort of led me into corporate leadership positions and led me to the role I've got today.
Jeffrey Stern [00:13:06]:
Had you anticipated at the time that in retrospect, this is where you would be today within the organization?
Ed Largent [00:13:14]:
Never in a million years. Never in a million years. I needed a job, I needed to support a new family and kids came very quickly and it was probably about five years in before the light bulb sort of went off. For me, I'm a bit of a slow learner that I had landed in a place that really was a purpose driven organization and that was different. It was different than what some of my friends and family members were talking about. And I noticed the culture that surrounded that and how special it was. And so it took me a little while to realize what I'd landed in, but once I did, I thought it was pretty cool.
Jeffrey Stern [00:13:53]:
It is very cool. I'll pull back something that you mentioned from a little earlier on, which is that over the course of the history of Westfield, the world at large has experienced some pretty trying times over those years. Everything like you mentioned from wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, world wars, economic recessions, the most recent pandemic, natural disasters, the list goes on. And as a business that is based on understanding the risk that is associated with expected and unexpected events, I'm curious, just at a high level, what is the philosophy around risk and how you think about that?
Ed Largent [00:14:38]:
Sure, it's really important question. It's the basis of what we do. We try to understand risk and develop expertise in areas of risk and we don't do that in an insular fashion. Right. You have to be out in the world listening and learning from lots of people and experts to gain an understanding of risk and then to take that understanding and to offer a risk transfer mechanism that's efficient and effective for customers. And that is a never ending process. Right. Because risk changes in the world that you just went through a litany of events that just tells us the world changes. Right? We all know that. But risk changes as well. And so the risks we deal with today are very different than those risks in 1848 and they'll be different tomorrow. And so understanding how those risks evolve, how society evolves and then how we need to change our capabilities, our expertise, our understanding and our products is just a process that has to constantly go on. It's just a never ending activity. And one of the things in the industry we talk about is looking for new ways to help people manage risk because there's lots of risk out in the world that insurance doesn't today really offer solutions for. And so there's all kinds of opportunity to innovate and find unique ways to help people.
Jeffrey Stern [00:16:03]:
Do you find there is a tension between promoting that innovation that will help the organization build resiliency and a certain antifragility going forward balanced against Westfield's history and tradition and kind of the core identity? How do you kind of toe that line?
Ed Largent [00:16:25]:
It's not easy, and I think it's a challenge and it's something that an organization like ours is constantly working on. So it's interesting in the human dynamic, when people see and feel 175 years, there's a great appreciation for that and awe, but it also sort of brings this feeling of rigidity and lack of change, which is really interesting because the only way we got to be 175 is to constantly change throughout those 175 years. And because we're a mutual we're not a public company driven by shareholders and quarterly earnings, there is a danger that you can become rigid and overly conservative. And so I think part of my job and our leader's job here is to strike that balance, is to understand what's going on in the world, how risk is changing, and lead change in a constructive, effective way and manage that balance. And I would say that's a big part of my job and has been for quite a while. I think that's probably a similar challenge that founders have when they go through multi generations. Right? They're three generations in. It's easy, I think, for the mission to fade. And so the other thing I would say is one of the ways we keep that balance alive is to make sure that mission doesn't fade and that we are grounded in why we exist and our customers are changing, the world is changing and our customers are changing. So if we keep that front and center, it'll help us manage that balance.
Jeffrey Stern [00:18:06]:
It's evident that the core theme here is going to come back to people and grounded in the mission. I have a lot of questions about it. I have a few follow ups specifically on that line of thinking, which is I'll ask the first about kind of succession and over the very long course of time, what was it like when you came into the role to lead the organization? What is the planning process look like? How is it instrumented to keep the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit alive? And how the organization at large kind of cultivates talent?
Ed Largent [00:18:46]:
Yeah, there's a lot in that. There's a bunch of questions. I think a lot of organizations do a great job with succession and they put a lot of energy and time and thought into it. We do as well. And I think because of our mission and our desire to be around for the next 175 years, our board, for example, takes succession extremely serious. And so there are multi year planning activities and actions that go into place, as well as leadership development and ultimately selection and then implementation of succession plans that go into place. They really want to be sure that the leader that's in the role I'm in is going to persist the legacy and manage that balance between innovation and conservatism that you mentioned. Beyond that, since I've been here at Westfield, there has been a huge focus on the development of our people throughout the entire organization. And I've benefited from that for sure throughout my 37 years. I've been very fortunate and I think that's linked to this as well. Right. Our people make this organization, period. And so investment in them, making sure that the culture persists and they create the culture that we think is important. There's a lot of focus on that. There's a lot of time and money spent continually in that arena.
Jeffrey Stern [00:20:14]:
It's really fascinating because from my perspective, in this kind of stark contrast to what I feel is the culture, if you will, at very early stage companies where it's almost a cult of personality around the founder. But if you're to have this longevity, it really has to be grounded in the mission and the culture at large.
Ed Largent [00:20:37]:
It does. You just said that very well. I don't know how many generations in we are, but we're a long way in generationally and so leaders here need to be grounded in that mission and we aspire to have a culture where leadership is a collective activity. It's not driven by one character. And if we can achieve that, and that's a never ending journey, but if we can, that will help pass this on to the next generation because it's not about the leader and their personality or their preferences, it's about the mission and it's about the culture. And the culture can sort of persevere itself. It's a bit of a lofty goal, quite honestly. It's not easy.
Jeffrey Stern [00:21:24]:
Ed Largent [00:21:25]:
Because people change. We hire hundreds of people every year and we're expanding and we're buying companies and expanding geography. And so it takes constant work to try to achieve that. Aspiration not sure we ever achieve nirvana there with the culture, but the effort, I think, makes it possible for us to persist the legacy.
Jeffrey Stern [00:21:47]:
Yeah. Maybe just a tactical follow up to that one. Which is what? That looks a little bit more like in practice. Because I feel like one of the problems that I would imagine is the case with succession and over time would be this kind of principal agent problem that would chip away at the equity of a company over time, where there isn't that alignment of incentives. So the question being, how do you align incentives over the long term to get the buy in of everyone on the team?
Ed Largent [00:22:20]:
Yeah, so the first thing that I want to make sure everybody understands is as a mutual, none of us own this organization, so we exist for the policyholders, we're regulated by the state and so if there would ever be a problem, we could go into receivership and the state would take us over. But there's not this equity thing that you just referred to with founders that actually is a big piece of the puzzle. Right? So beyond that, we all earn a market salary and we do have incentives and we try to align those incentives to the financial goals that will create success for the organization, not for our personal gain. And that means that back again, grounded in the mission and our customers. And so it's never easy. But at a mutual, I think it is different whether it's a privately owned, family owned, or even a publicly held entity, which helps with what you referenced.
Jeffrey Stern [00:23:21]:
So you had mentioned the next 175 years and I want to get to that future state and hear about how you think about impact and planning and all the steps involved there. But I think it might be helpful just to set the stage before we talk about the future just in the present. And I know at some point, I don't know exactly when recently, but Westfield Insurance, you guys have dropped the insurance in perhaps a pursuit of a broader vision. I'd love to hear from you. What does Westfield look like today?
Ed Largent [00:23:58]:
I'll describe it in a couple of components. We are a standard lines property and casualty company with a number of businesses, portfolio of businesses that operate in the United States, regionally in 20 to 30 states, depending on what that is. That means personal insurance, so automobile and homeowners and umbrella insurance for individuals and families. And we also offer commercial insurance for businesses for general liability and property and auto and that's really and farm owners. We still are in the agriculture space that goes back to our roots and we are continuing to grow those businesses and expand some of those businesses in the US. We also own a bank. So Westfield Bank is about 21, 22 years old. It's a very successful community bank here in northeast Ohio. It also provides banking services to independent agencies across the entire country. And so that's part of our portfolio. And lastly, this is a new set of businesses. We started a specialty insurance business in the United States a little less than two years ago that has grown very rapidly. And we just acquired a Lloyds of London syndicate in London that will jumpstart the international arm of that specialty business. And so that takes us into a completely new world of insurance. It's 50 states in the United States and ultimately a global kind of a footprint from a customer standpoint. So that's Westfield today, I'd say a somewhat complex portfolio of mostly insurance businesses and a successful community bank on a.
Jeffrey Stern [00:25:40]:
Quick detour related to that really through the lens of acquisition of other organizations. I think given how important the cultural tenets are of what you're doing and that grounding in the mission what does the Vetting process look like for when you are considering a prospective acquisition?
Ed Largent [00:26:02]:
That vetting process needs to be way more than just charts and numbers and graphs. It's important to actually talk about values and culture. That vetting process, as you reference it, involves a lot of conversation and discussion and questions about values and culture. And I think a lot of folks that do acquisitions or inorganic growth would say the same thing that that Fit, a lot of people call it fit is really important and can help turbocharge success, or it can create all kinds of really interesting challenges. And so that's a high priority for us, is to ensure we have at least foundational alignment around our values and culture. And then from there, there's a journey because it takes time, because all of a sudden you got hundreds of people that show up and they've come from somewhere and they're coming into the Westfield family and we have to learn about them, they have to learn about us. And by the way, we hire a couple of hundred people a year as well beyond that, which is the same thing. And it's sort of helping them understand who we are, why we exist, what we're all about, and helping them sort of find their fit within this culture.
Jeffrey Stern [00:27:18]:
So, widening the aperture, we can talk a little bit about the future. Is the timescale that you think about when you think about the future, is it 175 years out? What practically are you working through as a team when you think about what comes next?
Ed Largent [00:27:34]:
Yes, I'm going to disappoint you here. It's nowhere near 175 years. It's five to ten, max. I'll tell you why. In the 21st century, I don't know hardly anybody that really can predict ten years out. I mean, if you just look at what's happened in the last few decades and so I wonder at times how constructive it is to really try to plan that far out. Now, with that said, five to ten is reasonable and we do have that kind of a lens. Just as importantly though, is that culture that I talked about. If the culture is strong and we've got the right people. The way I look at it is in the next generation, regardless of what they'll have to deal with. Flying cars and who knows what else they'll have. What? They need to figure it out and to come up with a plan that's appropriate for the times to continue to provide, to be an important part of society, helping our customers be protected from risk.
Jeffrey Stern [00:28:39]:
So understanding it's, it's not, you know, fully out there in in the future, it's it's a bit more practical. What what has you most excited when you think about, you know, what's coming next? What's on the horizon for Westfield? Looking forward?
Ed Largent [00:28:54]:
Yeah, it goes back to that concept of evolving risk. If we think about our lives just as individuals and we think about businesses and what they were dealt with 20 years ago, ten years ago today, and what they'll be dealing with tomorrow. There's a lot of interesting opportunities. I sort of jokingly mentioned flying cars. That's going to happen. There's a whole bunch of things that we all know will happen. We're not exactly sure when it will happen. Right. And so that's new problems to solve for customers and that's part of that evolutionary process that is quite exciting for us. Right. Insurance sounds pretty boring to lots of people, but when you get into this industry you realize that it's pretty darn interesting and there's a lot of aspects that are very intriguing. And so I think as I look forward over the next 1020 years, what we do is going to look very different and we will have to continue to evolve and change. Climate change is another one. We're hearing about that on a daily basis and we're hearing about the implications there that has direct implications to our world because we do insure property not only in the United States but soon to be beyond the United States. And so that's a great example of the world changing and the world evolving and we've got to figure out how to change and evolve to meet the implications of those changes.
Jeffrey Stern [00:30:18]:
What do you find are people's biggest misconceptions about perhaps not even Westfield but insurance at large that you wish folks had a better grasp of?
Ed Largent [00:30:29]:
It's a very complicated business that involves a contract that is usually scores and scores of pages long and full of legal terminology and that makes it very difficult for the average person to understand. I think most people at the highest level understand they need it and it is a way to protect them. But I think we are constantly trying to figure out how to simplify the understanding for the average customer out there. And because it is a legal contract, it does have to have legal terminology because if it doesn't, you won't stay in business very long. But that's something our industry is constantly working to achieve. The other thing I would say is I mentioned this already, that it's sort of a boring, stayed, multiple, 200 year old industry. It's a pretty old industry, but once you work in the industry you realize it is anything but boring to be very interesting. And lots of different career, different kinds of career opportunities within a company like Westfield.
Jeffrey Stern [00:31:37]:
What do you find are the biggest challenges facing Westfield? Maybe another way phrasing is like what does keep you up at night? Understanding that constantly evolving to risk is part of the whole process.
Ed Largent [00:31:53]:
Yeah, I mean, that would range from anything from really dramatic catastrophic weather events that would impact large swaths of our customers. Right. That's one of our top five risks that we monitor and manage carefully. But that's always a possibility. I think an unusual or abrupt shift in how. We are regulated within the United States and even beyond the United States that could force us to change the way we do business and potentially make us less relevant for customers is a concern and a worry. There's a couple of examples. The last thing I'd say, though, is because of the way our industry is built and the assets that we're required to carry to cover future liabilities, because we don't know our cost of goods sold when we make a sale. We're a very resilient industry. And it's perfect timing to talk about this because we've got a bit of a banking thing going on out there with a couple of banks in the United States and now with Credit Suisse and Europe, and you can find quite a bit out there that contrasts our industry. We're always the last man standing, I like to say. We have to be there when everybody else isn't, whether it's the Great Depression, the Great Recession, the pandemic. We have lots of experience where the industry is there and we're built for that. And so that helps me sleep, quite honestly. There's other industries that just don't have that kind of stability.
Jeffrey Stern [00:33:31]:
Well, it seems it's not just a stability. There's a certain discipline that is required that, I don't know, thinking even just more generally about humans that we're not it doesn't come naturally. I feel like that level of discipline, how structurally is that kind of woven into the organization?
Ed Largent [00:33:54]:
It's a great point because it does take discipline. And there's a lot of experts in a company like Westfield, I mean, a lot that help us understand the past and analyze the past and look at trends, all of that expertise understands will always be wrong. Predicting the future is impossible. We're going to do the best we can, but we're going to have a conservative philosophy there because we want to be there for the next day for our customers after the calamity happens. And so understanding trends, projecting the future, and then understanding we're going to be wrong and accounting for that does take discipline. But if you do it and you experience it over and over again, you realize how critical that discipline is. And very few property casualty organizations fail. But the ones that do generally have lost their discipline in managing their capital to ensure that they're prepared.
Jeffrey Stern [00:34:51]:
How do you think about competition and kind of differentiation, westfield's advantage within the market at large?
Ed Largent [00:35:00]:
With such an old industry, differentiation can be very difficult. And I think this is another thing that's tough for customers because they often don't really see a big difference. At Westfield, we go right back to our people. Part of our culture is empathy and caring. You can take all the technology that we all have and the products that are sophisticated and how we deliver those, all that stuff is critically important. If you add a human element of caring into that, it is magic. And I know it sounds trite, but it's real. We're all still human beings and we all still have feelings and we care. And so our claims operation would be just one example. We have hundreds and hundreds of stories about how we go about handling an event a customer has that can be minor or can be it can be catastrophic. And you know, that caring, showing through really can be differentiating.
Jeffrey Stern [00:36:01]:
So understanding the, you know, the practical time horizon is is in the the near future. But when you do think about that next 175 years, it's an interesting question to even think about it all, because I don't think most startups think about necessarily like legacy or what is the impact that you hope to have looking back in retrospect and what success actually looks like. So I'm curious if you even think about that or if there's an intentionality around that.
Ed Largent [00:36:35]:
I'd say we think about it in the sense that for the time that we're here in this generation, we want to position the organization the best we possibly can for success for the next couple of generations. So that is, what talent do we need, what capabilities do we need? What moves do we need to make in the portfolio of our businesses so that the next couple of generations isn't behind the eight ball, but they're actually on the front foot and positioned to serve even more customers? That's a mentality that I think I have and many of us have here at Westfield.
Jeffrey Stern [00:37:17]:
So what would you say is success? What does that mean?
Ed Largent [00:37:23]:
It's first and foremost being there for our customers when they need us and growing our serving more customers. We're on a really important part of society. You and I couldn't live the lives we live without the ability to transfer risk efficiently, whether it's our cars or houses or anything else, offering that service to society and then expanding it, serving more customers. That goes right at our mission. And we often say you're either a growing, thriving organization or you're probably declining. And we don't want to be declining, which means we want to continue to be growing and thriving. And by the way, it's a whole lot more fun to be part of a growing, thriving organization than one that's going the other way.
Jeffrey Stern [00:38:09]:
So one thing I wanted to ask you about, and I think it's perhaps related to the culture piece, but in this ever increasingly remote friendly world that we're living in, I do know that there is an importance to kind of a proximity of people that you have at Westfield. And just in researching the story, that it's a whole community and town that's based around the organization. So I'd love to just hear what that actually looks like in practice and how you think about its importance.
Ed Largent [00:38:44]:
It's extremely important, I should say sort of pre pandemic. I think a good 25% of our employees were fully remote workers around the United States. So that's not a foreign concept to us. With that said, we now have a higher percentage of fully remote and a pretty high percentage of hybrid workers and more geographically spread all over the place. And so it's made us think more and harder about culture. The culture we aspire to, we articulate very clearly and we have practices that we know if we exhibit those behaviors and practices will promote the culture. And we found that those practices can be effective remotely as well as in person. With that said, it's easier in person. There's just something natural that occurs between human beings when you are not staring each other through a webcam. And so we're figuring things out along with everybody else here, right? I mean, I think things are still changing. It's still so soon since the pandemic that I think there's just more to learn and we're definitely learning and adjusting.
Jeffrey Stern [00:40:01]:
So I want to ask a few more personal questions about your own journey through this and some of the reflections or learnings that you've had in this role. And to start, I'll just ask, what are you most proud of reflecting on your career at Westfield?
Ed Largent [00:40:22]:
I'm proud of the success the organization has had in 37 years and the magnitude of growth and the customers that we serve and how we go about our business. But I'm probably most proud about how the culture has evolved. It's more clear than it was 37 years ago. It was sort of in the air, it was in the ether, and after some period of time, you sort of got it. And now we're just very overt about articulating what it is and why we desire a certain culture and then what the behaviors or practices are that really help promote that culture that's I think accelerated our ability to persist that culture. And I hope long after I'm gone that work will help persist the place for generations to come. I'd probably put that at the top of the list.
Jeffrey Stern [00:41:14]:
What have been the most surprising lessons that you've taken with you? Things that really you did not anticipate or expect coming into it?
Ed Largent [00:41:24]:
I've got a technology background. I spent a whole lot of years in the world of complex technology, which was great, enjoyed it, loved it. At some point in my leadership journey, I realized technology is great, but it doesn't matter. People people make everything work. And at the crux of just about every challenge comes down to people. So my emphasis definitely shifted from early on in my career to what I paid the most attention to, to definitely where it is today. All of that stuff is super important and it's very cool. And having the capabilities our customers want and need is critical, but the people behind all that are riding alongside all that are more important. I'm not sure it's surprising, but it's definitely a great learning of mine. Through my career.
Jeffrey Stern [00:42:17]:
Yeah, no, that one actually resonates quite a lot. I've also found that it ultimately always.
Ed Largent [00:42:24]:
Comes back to people. That's a good thing.
Jeffrey Stern [00:42:26]:
It is a good thing. It is a good thing. For an entrepreneur who is thinking about, in this context, trying to build an organization that outlives their own time at it. What advice would you offer up?
Ed Largent [00:42:42]:
If I reflect on the Westfield story and I try to put myself in those folks shoes, I think it's, you know, entrepreneurship is about taking risk. And I would say don't let maybe a desire or a thought about legacy and multi generations hamper your willingness to take risks. So those folks that started Westfield, they took a huge risk that had probably a high likelihood of failure. And I'll tell you, within the first five years, they made a couple of decisions and they made some moves that were we still to this day don't know exactly why, but boy, they were, in hindsight, great moves, but they didn't stop taking risk and doing what they thought made sense and was right. When you get maybe over a couple of humps in the startup entrepreneurship mode, you can start to think more about legacy. And I think family owned organizations do this for sure, but don't let it take your eye off the ball.
Jeffrey Stern [00:43:48]:
Yeah, it's challenging because I think that in just a survey of history of companies is at the heart of why most of them will fail over time. So I think we've covered a lot of ground here. And before we make our way to our kind of closing questions, I just want to pose a greenfield question space for comment. Are there aspects of your own journey, of the work you're doing at Westfield kind of doubling down on anything that we talked about that you feel is particularly important that we haven't gotten into the depth that you would like to.
Ed Largent [00:44:24]:
You'Ve covered a lot. I'm not sure I've got anything that I would pull forward that you haven't touched on. I've heard you are a great interviewer. Well, thank you.
Jeffrey Stern [00:44:35]:
Well, our traditional closing question is for not necessarily your favorite thing in Cleveland and in the greater northeast Ohio area, but for something that other folks may not know about. A hidden gem, if you will. So I'll ask you for a hidden.
Ed Largent [00:44:54]:
Gem in the yeah, I knew this was coming and I thought about it, and fortunately, I don't think there's that many hidden gems. I can't come up with anything that people wouldn't know about. The one thing for me personally and my wife might put into that category is on the culinary front, and it would be Momoco modern Mexican cuisine in Ohio city. We just have for years and years, absolutely loved that place. And it reminds me that we got to get back there at some point because it's been a little while, but I don't think that's a hidden gem but maybe there's some folks out there that haven't heard of it. And if you haven't, check it out because it's world class.
Jeffrey Stern [00:45:36]:
I second that. It is one of my favorites.
Ed Largent [00:45:39]:
Jeffrey Stern [00:45:39]:
Glad you mentioned it. Well, I really appreciate you coming on and taking the time. I want to congratulate you again on 175 years. I think it's an extraordinary milestone and so really appreciate it. I really enjoyed the the conversation today.
Ed Largent [00:45:59]:
I did too. Thanks for having me. And as as we say at Westfield, after 175 years, forever forward, if folks.
Jeffrey Stern [00:46:06]:
Had anything that they wanted to follow up with you about, what would be the best way for them to do.
Ed Largent [00:46:11]:
So yeah, I'd say email would be great. So it's firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm on LinkedIn as well, so that'd be another way.
Jeffrey Stern [00:46:21]:
Well, thank you again, Ed.
Ed Largent [00:46:22]:
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