Industry the October 2011 issue

Dream Weaver

IMA Financial’s Rob Cohen lives his dream while helping others to create their own.
By Louise Lague Posted on October 1, 2011

Cohen, the chairman and CEO of IMA Financial Group, is perhaps Denver’s biggest booster who’s not homegrown (he’s from Wichita). But for 25 years he’s worked relentlessly on behalf of his adopted hometown. Primarily, Cohen says, the award, given earlier this year, honors his work with the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” which helps at-risk high school kids attend college. But not just with money. “Eleven years ago, my wife Molly and I agreed to ‘adopt’ 35 third-graders and stay with them all the way until they graduated from high school,” Cohen says. “It’s the most important and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. They made a difference in my life, too. They’ve been in jail, into drugs and gangs and not in good places. These are things I never would have seen.”

Since then, 34 of the 35 have finished high school—“the highest graduation rate in the history of the program,” Cohen says. Today, 84% of those students attend college.

“They’re just great kids born into bad circumstances,” he says. “I still talk to them all the time.”

A sports nut, Cohen co-founded the Metro Denver Sports Commission in 2001. After building a $300 million stadium for the Broncos in 1999, the city found it had no organization that would produce events or bid on tournaments that would bring income to the city. Cohen has spent the last 10 years working to bring the Winter Olympics to Denver as early as 2022.

There’s more. Lots more. Cohen is former chairman of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the board of trustees for Metropolitan State College of Denver. “I never thought that at 49 I’d be ex officio chairman emeritus of so many things,” he says.

Cohen’s activism began when he was a newcomer in town. “I didn’t have a sense of community or of belonging to something bigger than myself,” he told the Denver Business Journal. “It kind of hit me that, yes, I wanted to do this business thing, but I also wanted to do the community service thing.”

That spirit is reflected in the company Cohen runs, as his employees do the community service thing, too. Across IMA, Cohen says, “We give back to the community on company time. It’s part of our mission statement, which is ‘To Protect Assets and Make a Difference.’”

Employees tutor young students, deliver meals to the elderly, build homes and volunteer in schools. In June, a busload of IMA employees from the Wichita office traveled to Joplin, Mo., where they unloaded trailers and distributed donated clothes, toys, toiletries, books—and perhaps some hope—sent from all across the country. The Kansas City office filled a truck with donated clothes and water. The IMA Foundation matched contributions up to $5,000. “This is just the kind of company we want to be,” Cohen says.

It’s also a growing company. When Cohen joined the firm in 1986, IMA was earning $10 million in annual revenue. When Cohen was made CEO in 1999, that figure was $26 million. Twelve years later, Cohen estimates that revenue could reach $90 million.

Most of the growth has been organic. IMA employs 500 people in offices in Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City, Dallas and Denver. The company’s innovative business structure has top officers spread throughout its offices, and that’s by design. While Cohen leads from Denver, president and COO Kurt Watson works in Wichita, and General Counsel SueAnn Schultz is in Topeka.

“You don’t get this home office/branch office syndrome,” Cohen says, “and you don’t have this ivory tower mentality. This allows us the freedom to hire the best people wherever they’re located. We have a conference call every Monday morning, and almost every day we have airplanes going back and forth. If somebody says, ‘We’ve got a scenario here,’ and I want them all in one office, that can happen. We’re much more grounded this way.”

Of IMA’s success, Cohen says: “If you have a company that has a great business plan and marginal people, they’ll do fairly well. If you have great people and no business plan, you’ll do better. If you have both, you can really reach extraordinary results. We’ve been very good strategically. We have discipline and a willingness to plan, and an ability to make those action items happen.”

Employee ownership, Cohen says, is vital to the company’s accountability. “People act and behave differently when they are owners,” he says. “It creates a different mentality. We attract and retain the best.”

IMA employees work in teams, paired by complementary skills, a division of labor rooted in Cohen’s belief that every person has what he calls primary and secondary skill sets. “The primary are those that we’re world-class at, that we do as well as anybody else is doing them,” Cohen says. “Secondary skill sets are those in which we are very competent. I believe we should spend 80% of our time using our primary skill sets, and 20% on the secondary.”

This starts at the top, where Cohen shares the leadership role with Watson, the president and COO. Cohen says his own skills are in sales, strategic planning, community networking, industry relations and product development. Watson’s strengths are in attention to detail, operations, managing the budget, human resources and IT.

“We have done that all the way down throughout the organization,” Cohen says. “We team people up, and they spend 80% of their time on their primary skill set.”

Cohen is the third generation of leadership at the company that has evolved into IMA. His grandfather, William C. Cohen Sr., founded W. C. Cohen Insurance in Wichita in 1937, which merged into Cohen-Steenrod in 1948. Rob’s father, William C. Cohen Jr., joined the company in 1954. Then in 1973, three Wichita family agencies—all “plugging along” in their second generation of leadership, Cohen says—agreed to become Insurance Management Associates. In 2000, the name was changed to IMA Financial Group. “As we evolved, we’ve been through a number of structures,” Cohen says. ”Now we do money management and not just insurance, so having insurance in our name is restrictive.”

Cohen grew up in Wichita—“a great place to be a kid,” he says. “It’s a Midwest community with great values, and you could ride your bike everywhere. It has four seasons; it was great for an athlete.”

Part of his early education was in community service, as in the sharing of candy and toys with less fortunate children. At the University of Texas in Austin, Cohen thought about studying law but instead earned a degree in finance and risk management. Like many an insurance scion, he had worked around the agency on school vacations, but he did not rush home after graduation to join the family firm.

“Chubb had the best training program at the time,” he says. “I wanted independence, I wanted corporate world, and I wanted to learn a lot about the business, and all that was Chubb. I connected with them. It was absolutely the right fit.”

After starting as a marine insurance trainee in Dallas, Cohen completed a second training, in commercial lines, in New York. He then moved to Denver to run the energy practice. “I enjoyed Chubb, and I could see myself staying there,” he says.

But one year, home for a holiday, he sat down with Paul Yankey, one of IMA’s partners. Yankey suggested that if Cohen waited too long he might never join the firm. “If you’re gonna do it,” Yankey told him, “it’s time.”

For Cohen, Yankey’s words hit home. “You get to a crossroads, and the smallest statement from someone can make a difference,” Cohen says. “So I thought I’d try it.”

Two weeks before leaving Denver, he met nurse clinician Molly Jenkins at a wedding and immediately invited her to go for a bike ride the next afternoon, but only after he finished a morning triathlon. “Turns out that she’s more competitive than I am,” he says. “All I can remember is how she kept going and going. How long before she says stop? I was smitten.”

Nonetheless, the plan was to head back to IMA in Wichita, where several young producers were joining the firm at the same time. “The company developed a unique producer training program. For nine months, I spent time in every department in the company,” Cohen says. “I worked a commercial desk and invoicing. I did risk control, surety bonds. And then I went into sales. All that has made me a better leader.”

A year later, IMA’s geographic expansion committee was thinking about the company’s next move and looking for a community, Cohen says, that had a “similar business mix of oil, gas and construction.” Denver topped the list. In 1989, IMA bought a $150,000 revenue agency in Denver. Cohen volunteered to move back and run it.

“The principal was going to stay and run it, but he was gone in a month and I took over,” he says. “What I liked the most about the opportunity to go to Denver was the idea of being in the family business and at the same time doing an entrepreneurial start-up. At 27 years old! Few people get to have that.”

Part of the motivation, of course, was what he calls “the Molly factor.” A year after Cohen returned to Denver, they married.

As the new branch grew, Cohen jumped into Denver civic life, happy to be rooted at last. “What I realized was that for 18 years in Wichita I had a place that was home that I gave to and that gave back to me,” he says. “Then I moved nine times. When I settled in Denver, this was going to be my home. I would give to it, and it would give back to me.”

It has worked pretty much that way. Cohen has pursued three passions in community service: education, sports and economic development. Now he’s using his own money to help revitalize the neighborhood around Denver’s Union Station by building a $30 million office for IMA, to be completed in 2013. The building is needed—IMA has already outgrown the space it built just 10 years ago. “We got a unique opportunity to be part of a complete renovation of Union Station. It will be like Faneuil Hall,” he says, referring to the Boston landmark, “a market and center place of activity.

“I had been in love with this project for awhile, but it was out of reach financially for us. But then this recession started and nobody was doing anything. The federal government was going to put money in if one private company would. We did our part, and the city ended up getting $300 million from the government.”

Cohen is unique, says COO Watson. “It’s one thing to grow up where you know people, but Rob came in really from the outside and has become a very respected member of that community.”

Cohen is grateful to IMA’s board for the time and freedom he gets to be so involved in the community. “I wouldn’t be good for IMA,” Cohen has told his board, if they restricted his involvement. “I wouldn’t be happy.”

But this is the company culture. “You can’t really create a culture,” Cohen says. “You have leaders with certain values, and you attract other leaders and people who share those values. When enough people share values, that becomes the culture. The people who don’t share them will leave.”

One of those values is employee health and wellness. IMA, in launching its own consultative practice in wellness, set up a model program that won the Wichita Business Journal’s Healthiest Employer award this year. The company is often heralded in lists of best places to work.

“He is a very holistic person. It is family, community and business,” says Bob Reiter, president of IMA Inc., the company’s insurance subsidiary. “If you can create a business that feels like family, that is not a bad thing to have.”

Louise Lague Contributing Writer Read More

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