Tom Ealy knows a few things about change. In mid-October, he stepped down as CEO and president of Ameriprise Auto & Home when American Family Insurance purchased the De Pere company for $1.05 billion. Calling himself “rewired” versus “retired,” Ealy says how business leaders deal with change says a lot about a company’s success.
“To succeed, you have to create constant, barely controlled change,” he said during a presentation that was part of St. Norbert College’s CEO Breakfast & Strategy Series. “If you don’t think or act like you’re in a turnaround, you’re going to find yourself in one and then it may just be too late.”
It’s not very often you can hear a business leader who just stepped down from a company give an inside look at a turnaround, but that’s just what Ealy provided less than a week after Ameriprise’s purchase was finalized.
Ameriprise isn’t the first business Ealy has led through significant change. Prior to joining the De Pere firm, he led Encompass Insurance to increased growth. He says leaders need to recognize change is needed and get after it.
“So many companies — like Sears — who were leaders at the time, failed to change with the times, what they were doing … and now they are either gone or nearly extinct,” Ealy said. “Change before you have to.”
Ameriprise has 1,900 employees nationwide, including 1,000 in De Pere. The company sells its insurance products through a branded partner, such as Costco. Consumers purchase Costco auto insurance coverage, but that product is actually developed and managed by Ameriprise.
Once he joined Ameriprise and looked around, Ealy decided the company’s focus of putting the customer first was wrong. “Now, don’t get all excited. Serving the customer is important, but you can’t do that well if you don’t have a sound company, so I adjusted the guiding focus to be building a strong company. From there, you can serve customers, employees and the communities well.”
Ealy, who admitted he begins reading a lot of leadership and business books but doesn’t always finish them, formed his own idea of leadership by watching others and just going out there to see what works and what doesn’t.
“Leadership is a contact sport. You, as leaders, need to get in there and get involved and hear what everyone has to say,” Ealy says. “I know there are more chapters to write in my career. I’m a firm believer in constant learning. I just know I’m done with insurance.”
Whatever lies ahead, I am sure change is involved.