Using its employees to connect philanthropy and business, Fireman's Fund rebuilds its brand
Fireman's Fund Insurance may have gotten its start helping firefighters' families. But just a few years ago, the company had its own fire to put out. In 2003, the company emerged from a massive reorganization. In 2000 and 2001, the insurance company suffered major financial setbacks that culminated in the losses the entire insurance industry faced on 9/11.
A new CEO initiated a restructuring that included dumping unprofitable businesses, consolidating support functions, and layoffs. "Morale was low," says Gil Roeder, director of corporate and marketing communications. "That severe of a restructuring left everyone shell-shocked. We knew we had to do something beyond traditional philanthropy. There was a real desire to go beyond that, to energize employees and make a statement to the marketplace that would validate what we were doing."
The company recognized that to rekindle interest in the company, it needed to rebuild its brand. And to do that, it needed to engage and energize employees. "Around the time we were rebuilding the company, there were the San Diego wildfires," says Danielle Cagan, community relations director. "And fire officials were saying they didn't have the tools to do their job efficiently. We thought this was a perfect opportunity to return to our founding roots and give a portion of our profits to firefighters."
The company began in 1863 in San Francisco, and got its name for an agreement to pay 10% of profits to widows and orphans of firefighters. Fireman's Fund still sees the needs of firefighters and fire departments as vitally important, not just to the company's roots, but also to the communities where employees live and work.
"Our CEO is absolutely committed to employees being a critical component of our business strategy," says Roeder. "He's championed employee communications. He knows the importance of leaders being visible to all employees and the importance of transparency. The tone is set from the top."
CEO Chuck Kavitsky joined the company in May 2004 and is building a much more employee-focused culture and connecting the company's philanthropic mission to its business model, Roeder adds. So as part of its philanthropic efforts for firefighters and fire departments, the company created the Employee Bucket Brigade, which gives employees the opportunity to support firefighters in their communities.
Every employee can nominate a fire department or fire-and-burn prevention program for a grant. Each quarter, a special regional task force of employees and insurance agents reviews the nominations. To date, Fireman's Fund has awarded $1.2 million in grants. The program has been vitally important in helping the company move beyond its recent financial troubles and in rebuilding its business, brand, and reputation.
Fireman's Fund is not a mass-market insurance company, Roeder explains. With a focus on certain markets, it tends not to use mass-marketing tools like advertising, except for some selective trade advertising. Empowering employees, the company's greatest brand ambassadors, is not only an integral component of Fireman's Fund's communications strategy, it's also an essential component of the company's ability to connect with communities and rebuild its business, explains Roeder.
"It has become so important to include employees, in terms of building the brand," says Melissa Kinch, a VP with Ketchum's San Francisco office, which oversees PR for Fireman's Fund's philanthropy program, Heritage Fund, including Bucket Brigade. "The program is completely tied to their history, and this [program] has become a huge source of pride for a lot of employees. It's a big part of who the company is, and it gives employees firsthand involvement in that."
After such a tumultuous turnaround, the company recognized that it needed employees to believe in the company again before it could convince external audiences. Fireman's Fund has engaged employees through an active intranet, which offers daily news, as well as quarterly town hall meetings. The company offers a half-hour course on the company's heritage and the needs of firefighters. To date, nearly 700 employees have participated.
"We weren't sure how receptive employees would be, and the response has been phenomenal," says Cagan. "They have become engaged. We have more than 40 Bucket Brigade captains who help coordinate the program."
Employees have taken the program beyond just nominations for grants. They have initiated their own volunteer work, taking ownership of the program to help with everything from fundraisers to painting curbs and installing smoke detectors.
"We're an insurance company, and like much of financial services, our business is in the hands of the employees who work with the business partners," says Roeder. "Much of the success of implementing a business strategy relies on the employees' support and belief in what the company is doing."
AT A GLANCE
Fireman's Fund Insurance
Competitors: AIG, Chubb, The Hartford, St. Paul Travelers, CAN
Key trade titles: National Underwriter, Business Insurance, Rough Notes
PR budget: undisclosed
CMO, Darryl Siry
Director of corporate and marketing communications, Gil Roeder
Manager of community relations, Danielle Cagan
Marketing services agencies:
PR: Ketchum, Peppercom
Advertising: Cole & Weber United, Maiden Lane