‘Just do the right thing’

The CEO of Milwaukee-based MGIC and the CEO of Prairie du Sac-based Culver’s both give their employees a simple but powerful guideline: “Just do the right thing.” That could be because they’re brothers.

Two boys from Prairie du Sac, Wis., grew up to lead major national companies based in Wisconsin. Their parents must have done something right.

Curt Culver, 62, is the chief executive officer of leading national mortgage insurance company MGIC Investment Corp. and its principal subsidiary, Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corp.

His brother, Craig, is the CEO of Culver Franchising System Inc., the company behind the Culver’s restaurant chain, which has grown to 517 restaurants in 22 states with more than 25,000 employees.

Curt and Craig Culver in Curt’s office.

What are the odds they would both be so successful?

Instilling values

The Culver clan. Top row: James and Georgia (Culver) Littlepage; second row: Sue Culver, Curt Culver, Lea Culver and Craig Culver; front row: George and Ruth Culver.

Craig, 64, never planned to go into the food service business. But, “Mom and dad were just such great examples for us, I never left the food service business,” he said.

He describes his late mother, Ruth, as elegant and warm, treating customers at the family’s restaurants like family members.

Seated on left: Curt and Sue Culver; seated in middle: Chelsea, Mandy and Brittany Culver (Craig and Lea’s daughters); Seated on right: Georgia (Culver) and James Littlepage; Standing: Patrick Culver (Curt & Sue’s son), Jessica Culver (Patrick’s wife), Craig and Lea Culver, Mike Chrisler (Brittany’s husband), Brad and Brent Bishop (Georgia’s sons). Not pictured: Christine Culver, Curt and Sue’s daughter.

“It felt like she wrapped her arms around people when they walked in,” Craig said.

Their father, George, was smart, hardworking and disabled from birth, but he never let that slow him down.

“I talk about dad as being a real risk-taker, an entrepreneur to the nth degree. He put all the marbles on the table,” Craig said.

The Culver boys, their sister Georgia, and their parents worked long hours at a series of restaurants the family owned growing up.

George and Ruth owned an A&W restaurant in Sauk City from 1961 to 1968, which Curt and Craig worked at starting at ages nine and 11, respectively.

Curt started doing payroll when he was 10. “He paid himself more than he paid me,” Craig says. Curt says that’s because Craig “was always half an hour late.”

After selling the A&W, the Culvers purchased The Farm Kitchen restaurant and resort in Baraboo, and Craig and Curt worked there during breaks from college.

Both brothers pulled 15-hour work days, six days per week. Curt got Wednesdays off, and Craig got Thursdays off.

On his days off, Curt would golf 54 holes and then drive to Madison for a date. Craig preferred to stick around the resort in his free time.

When they were working trash duty, the boys played skeet shooting with liquor and beer bottles and once put the resort’s “Closed for the season” sign in front of the dump to confuse people.

“Craig usually drove because I usually had a headache in the morning,” Curt said, since the drinking age was 18 at the time. “We had lots of fun in what was many hours of work.”

Though Craig was three years older, Curt jokes they almost graduated from college at the same time.

The restaurant business and its long hours weren’t for Curt, who wanted to use his math skills. Craig, on the other hand, had developed great social skills working with the public and employees at the family restaurants, which made him well-suited for the service industry.

Curt describes his father as hardworking – working 20 hours, seven days per week – and trusting. During his junior year of high school, George and Ruth allowed Curt to live in the family’s Prairie du Sac home alone after they purchased The Farm Kitchen.

At one point, George had surgery for detached retinas and was supposed to sit very still for several days to get his vision back. But he didn’t, because he wanted to get back to work, and his vision was never the same, Curt said.

“He was such a hard worker,” Curt said. “I didn’t agree with him on a lot of things, but that I did. They were great examples for all three of the kids, and it shows today.”

“They always surrounded themselves with great people,” Craig said. “Mom and Dad, they always worked so hard, but they knew how to have fun, too.”

Their sister, Georgia, is older and also served as a mentor while their parents were working hard at the restaurants. Georgia taught Craig to dance and Curt to sing, though both brothers say the other is no good at his skill. She’s still their head cheerleader today, they said.

The Culver boys learned by example and have passed lessons on to their children in the same way.

Trust your gut

Curt couldn’t find a job right out of school, so he stayed and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he says he was lucky to get into without financial work experience.

After graduating with a master’s degree in real estate finance and urban land economics in 1976, Curt landed a job at private mortgage insurer Verex and worked there for six years.

“I would have worked there all my life, but one of the individuals that was my boss that got promoted to CEO, I didn’t trust,” Curt said.

When he played golf with the boss, he moved his ball or didn’t count all his strokes. Something didn’t feel right.

“It’s funny how what you think are small career decisions, how major that turned out to be,” Curt said.

So in 1982 he moved to MGIC, one of the largest companies in the industry. There, the culture felt right so he stuck around for 33 years.

Curt was promoted to president in 1999. He served as CEO and president from 2000 to January 2006. And he has been CEO and chairman since January 2005.

It’s important to set an example as CEO, Curt said, even when the company is performing poorly.

His early work experience led him to develop a mantra he shares with employees today: “If you want something different, you have to do something different.”

Leaving a legacy

Curt announced in July that he will retire on March 1.

Over the past five years, Curt has guided MGIC through one of the company’s most difficult periods – a catastrophic housing market crash that nearly put it out of business.

MGIC provides mortgage insurance for borrowers with low down payments, and many of those borrowers defaulted on their mortgages during the downturn. The company took billions in losses.

While the picture was grim, and it was unclear whether MGIC would stay in business, the company kept up its heavy involvement in charities in the community.

“You need to set an example as CEO – the financial trappings that go with that are things you should be sharing,” Curt said. “I was in a position where I felt I should (give to charity).”

The family culture Curt helped build at MGIC kept morale up, even through raise and bonus freezes. Making those kinds of decisions kept him up at night, he said.

“It was the people that I worked with. The management team – I never lost hope,” Curt said. “One of the chief hopes I had was I prayed every night. Families go through tough times together, but they’re family and they stick together.”

Curt led the company through the quagmire, and MGIC has finally emerged on the other side. In the second quarter of 2014, the company reported net income of $45.5 million, up from $12.4 million a year prior. Today, MGIC has primary insurance in force of $159.3 billion, covering about 1 million mortgages.

In 2013, the company raised $1.2 billion through debt and equity offerings to stabilize its recovery.

Finally, Curt felt he could leave the company in the same shape he found it and pass the reins on to another leader.

“We were either going to make it or we weren’t, and I didn’t think it was fair to hire someone to come in (and replace me),” Curt said.

Patrick Sinks, 57, who currently serves as president and chief operating officer, will take Culver’s place as CEO and join the board of directors. Culver will become non-executive chairman.

But while some may feel relief at leaving so many sleepless nights behind, it will be tough to say goodbye, Curt said. In his message announcing the retirement to employees, he said:

“My years at MGIC have been special. Even when things were so difficult, I still loved what I did. The reason – we had so many talented and dedicated co-workers to work with through each issue that I never lost hope. And through your dedication and loyalty, we not only persevered, but we are about to embark on a road to nirvana. And I couldn’t be happier for all of you.

“As Pat will discover, the CEO job is a lonely one – you get paid a lot to make decisions that can change lives. And the buck stops with you. But, the rewarding part of it is how people rally around decisions, regardless of the implications to them, as long as they are steeped in good judgment and fairness. As I have discussed with you many times, you all had a simple mandate from me, one learned by me from my parents as I grew up in the restaurant business, and that was ‘just do the right thing.’ And you have, much to our company’s benefit. Thank you!”

Fighting to survive

Craig and his wife, Lea, decided in 1984 to open up the first Culver’s in Sauk City, with help from George and Ruth.

Craig had graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and was working at McDonald’s, when he decided to join his parents in the family business.

It was a struggle competing with other fast food chains with lower prices, Craig said, but the family chose to use the best quality ingredients available rather than compromise on price.

“We just about didn’t make it through the first year,” he said. “We’d have a few cars in our parking lot. One of them was mine; one of them was my dad’s.”

In the first year, Culver’s had about $300,000 in sales. Today, individual Culver’s stores sell more than that in one month.

Craig worked long hours and did whatever it took to get the job done, he said.

“It doesn’t matter what business – everybody works hard,” Craig said. “Nothing’s given to you. You’ve got to earn it every day.”

Like his brother, Craig knows the importance of culture to a business. He focuses on hiring team members who will wow customers with their attitudes.

“Our ButterBurger and our custard – they taste good, but they taste a lot better when they come with a ‘please’, a ‘thank you’ and a smile from the heart,” Craig said. “We do have a great reputation, and I’ve always said it’s about the leadership. If we don’t have the right leadership in our restaurants, they will fail.”

And because it’s a franchise system, owners are running the stores themselves. Having skin in the game makes a difference in attitude, Craig said.

Like MGIC, Culver’s had its share of struggles during the recession, posting much lower comparable store sales in April and May 2009 and fighting to right the ship.

“You’re thinking, ‘What the heck are we doing wrong and how can we correct it?’” Craig said.

In 2014, comparable store sales are up significantly, and the company has been gaining some market share. In Florida alone, Culver’s will grow from seven to 20 restaurants in the next year and a half.

Culver’s is also involved with local charities, offers a scholarship program for employees, and Craig earlier this year made headlines when he supported a tiered national minimum wage increase based on age.

Lessons learned

Curt feels ready to leave, but will keep an office at MGIC in his new role. He’ll continue to be involved with the board of Wisconsin Energy Corp., Culver’s, and in the multitude of nonprofit organizations he supports.

And in his newfound free time, he’ll golf, of course. Traveling and spending more time at his home in Naples, Fla. are also on the docket.

“I’m really looking forward to waking up in the morning and not having an agenda set by someone else – and sleeping the whole night,” Curt said.

Craig isn’t sure retirement is on the horizon yet, since he’s busy growing Culver’s nationwide. There are more than 500 stores now.

“Regardless of how big we are, I want to always think of ourselves as that overachiever,” Craig said. “I don’t want to ever see us full of ourselves.”

Craig advises young people to do something that they have a passion for, and that makes people happy. Curt advises them to find balance in their lives and remember to do the right thing in every situation. His “Five Hs” are: Stay healthy, deal honestly, have a sense of humor, hustle and have humility.

“If I had a regret, business careers have cost time not only with your immediate family, but with your brothers and sisters – with their families too,” Curt said.

“You do what you have to do, and you try to keep as much balance as you can,” Craig said.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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