Acuity has big plans to expand Sheboygan HQ

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. is not the only insurance company planning a massive corporate headquarters expansion in southeastern Wisconsin.

Sheboygan-based business, home and auto insurer Acuity plans to build a $130 million, 260,000-square-foot expansion of its corporate headquarters at 2800 S. Taylor Dr.

“Expanding our headquarters reflects our faith in Acuity’s future,” said Ben Salzmann, Acuity president and chief executive officer. “We need to plan and build now to be prepared to handle the growth in business that we will achieve in the years ahead.”

By comparison, Northwestern Mutual plans to build a $450 million, 32-story, 1.1-million-square-foot office tower at its downtown Milwaukee corporate headquarters campus.

Both projects are impressive and demonstrate the importance of the insurance industry in southeastern Wisconsin.

The Northwestern Mutual building will house 1,100 employees currently housed in a building that will be torn down and replaced by the new building, and another 1,900 employees that the company plans to add by 2030.

Acuity’s headquarters, which was last expanded in 2004, currently has 400,000 square feet of space and houses about 800 of the company’s 980 employees. The 260,000-square-foot expansion will begin in December and will take three years to complete. Once the expansion is complete, the 660,000-square-foot facility will have space for 1,600 employees, Salzmann said.

The project will also include a pair of parking structures, one on the north end and one on the south end, with a total of 1,500 parking spaces. The company plans to have face recognition technology to allow employees to open the gates to the parking structure without having to remember to bring an ID badge.

“Nobody shows up and said they lost their face,” Salzmann said. The system will keep the parking structures safe and secure for employees, he said. Locating a parking structure on each end of the campus will maximize convenience for employees, he said.

Once the new parking structures are built, the remaining surface parking lots will be converted to green space.

This project is only the first phase of a 20-year headquarters expansion plan for Acuity, Salzmann said. In 20 years the company plans to expand its headquarters to 2 million square feet of space, enough space to accommodate 4,000 employees, Salzmann said.

It remains to be seen if Acuity does indeed grow its headquarters to that size on that timeline, but the company has posted impressive growth in recent years. It has increased its revenue by $350 million over the last 36 months and now has more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The company also recently reached $3 billion in assets. The company has added 100 new employees each of the last two years and plans to add another 100 employees by next summer. Acuity recently started doing business in Wyoming and Montana and now serves customers in 22 states through 1,000 independent agencies.

Salzmann attributes Acuity’s growth to ongoing upgrades in technical automation and a work environment and corporate culture that results in low turnover of dedicated and highly-productive employees. As a result the company has one of the lowest expense ratios in the industry and can offer lower rates than competitors, he said.

The company’s employees embrace technological enhancements in automation because they trust that the company will not lay them off but will train them for new work responsibilities, Salzmann said.

Acuity has been named the best medium-sized place to work in America for four straight years by the Great Place to Work Institute. The company has a voluntary turnover rate of less than 2 percent, executives say. The ability to keep quality employees saves the company money on the cost of replacing them and keeps quality employees in place that make good decisions said Wally Waldhart, vice president of sales and communications. It takes three years for a new employee to become fully productive, he said.

“Our people have always been the reason for Acuity’s success,” Salzmann said. “We’re trying to get people excited, to believe in who we are.”

The employees also perform at a high level in part because of pride in working for a company that makes numerous contributions to the community and charities, Salzmann said. For example, last year the company hosted a gala that raised $250,000 to establish a neonatal intensive care unit at Aurora Sheboygan Memorial Medical Center. Previously there was no NICU available in Sheboygan County, he said.

That fund-raising event had a carnival theme that included a Ferris wheel erected inside the Acuity headquarters. The company’s expansion project includes plans for a 65-foot permanently installed Ferris wheel. The company has not decided if it will lease or purchase the Ferris wheel, Salzmann said.

The Ferris wheel is expected to be used occasionally by employees, but will primarily serve as a company “rallying point” and as an attraction for future fund-raising events there.

“It’s a little wacky, a little out there,” Salzmann said. “The purpose for it is to be a rallying point, a reason for people to come together. It’s a place where we will meet.”

The company’s employees will also be able to come together at a 2,000-seat theater-in-the-round that will be built in an area that will be added to the east side of the facility. The theater will be a place where company leaders can share information and answer employee questions. The theater-in-the-round layout will provide an upfront, transparent approach for the corporate leaders to talk to employees without a place to “hide” backstage, Salzmann said.

“Acuity is all about transparency and this is as transparent as you can get,” he said. “And future CEOs won’t be able to ignore this room. Put that new CEO in the firing line (before the employees). There’s no place to hide.”

A west side addition to the headquarters will provide new training space. The company often hires new employees that are considered smart but lack an insurance background and provides extensive training to them, Salzmann said.

“We are really running basically our own university within the company,” he said.

Additions to the northwest and southeast sides of the building will provide new office space for employees. New workstations will include a locker, larger desks that extend into the aisles, and a bench for others to meet in a workstation.

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