Work hard, play hard: Zywave grows by serving unique niche

Cover Story

Jim Emling

Dave O’Brien leans into each week with the mantra, “Around here, Mondays never suck.”

That saying is among the most coveted at Zywave Inc., a Wauwatosa-based computer software company that creates technology to inform and serve more than 3,800 insurance brokers across the world.

It is also the foundation of a “work hard, play hard” culture that has helped the company accelerate its growth in the 20 years it has been evolving its software offerings, according to O’Brien, chief executive officer of the company.

As of June 30, the company’s employee base stood at about 310, up from 273 at the end of 2014, spread among the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. In addition to those hires, Zywave welcomed 27 employees through the acquisition of Warwick, R.I.-based insurance agency digital marketing firm Intygral in July. All told, the company experienced 23 percent growth over the first six months of 2015.

Soon, Zywave’s office space will accommodate its growing headcount as the company prepares to relocate and consolidate its headquarters inside a brand new four-story building currently in development by Milwaukee-based Irgens. Zywave will become the anchor tenant of the 85,000-square-foot office building – which will be located in Wauwatosa’s Milwaukee County Research Park – as it will occupy about 70,000 square feet, with additional office space available for its future growth needs.

The company currently covers more than 44,000 square feet among three buildings in the Milwaukee County Research Park, with plans to tack on another 5,000 square feet in December.

Among the elements at the core of Zywave’s affinity for growth is a “backbone” of talented employees, according to O’Brien.

“They really can make or break your success,” O’Brien said, adding that much of the company’s talent is bred in the Wisconsin school system.

Zywave Inc. CEO Dave O’Brien
Zywave Inc. CEO Dave O’Brien

Succeeding from scratch

Zywave’s software primarily centers on serving insurance brokers, both on the employee benefits side and on the property and casualty side. The company is stocked with a variety of software tools that have the capabilities to manage human resource needs, analyze health claims data, and keep brokers up to date on compliance demands and industry trends.

One of the company’s first software offerings, Broker Briefcase, remains its flagship software tool today. Broker Briefcase acts as a digital marketing library of critical documents for brokers in benefits and property and casualty.

Near the very top of Zywave’s priorities is a push to stay in tune with the needs and pain points of brokers so its software directly supports their work, according to Katie Conley, vice president, services and support, at Zywave.

The company keeps tabs with the evolving needs of insurance brokers by hosting a team dedicated to content development and market research, and charges its staff to stay abreast of the latest articles for brokers.

Zywave’s roots date back to 1995, as the company emerged out of Wauwatosa insurance brokerage Frank F. Haack & Associates Inc.

In 1992, when then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s health care reform task force made a major play for a single-payer health care system – a national health care system – insurance brokers began to worry about their future job security.

That triggered the executives of Frank F. Haack & Associates to broaden its services beyond simply aiding clients with services related to claims and billing issues, according to Jim Mueller, former president and chief operating officer of the firm.

Haack & Associates’ leadership, which included Mueller and third generation owner, chairman and CEO Bill Haack, realized that it needed to introduce much more value to its broker relationships – value it added through electronic media.

The insurance broker, which was eventually divested in 2004, began to develop software tools that soon gave its leadership reason to launch an entirely separate company. Prior to the birth of Zywave, Haack & Associates had shown industry peers how it was leveraging technology to more broadly serve its clients – and consequently, accelerating its own growth, Mueller said.

“Ultimately, that success of doing more for your client attracted more and more clients to us,” he said.

The insurance broker’s software piqued the interest of peer brokers, who asked Mueller and Haack if they could buy it.

Zywave was formed to essentially outsource software products to other brokers to help them achieve success similar to that of Haack & Associates. The company got up and running with both Broker Briefcase and Decision Master Warehouse, an analytical tool for health insurance claims.

At the dawn of Zywave, the company shared space with Haack & Associates in a Wauwatosa office as Mueller and Haack headed both at once.

Mueller served as president and chief operating officer of Zywave from 1996 to 2005, and Haack was CEO from 1995 to 2013.

Among the factors critical to the company’s successful launch was the fact that Mueller and Haack were well-versed in the brokerage business through their own firm.

“So we knew brokerage customers very well, not only from a relationship standpoint, but we knew their business intimately since we were one,” Haack said. “That helped us craft products and services that we knew would really hit the sweet spot.”

Haack also credits a solid, albeit small, technical and sales team for the company’s growth early on, as well as its solid product line.

“Probably most importantly we had a product that helped our customers grow, and very, very few brokerage firms out there aren’t interested in growing and being successful and meeting the needs of the customers,” he said.

Zywave’s growth for about the first 15 years of its life rolled out organically. Jim Emling, company president from 2008 to 2013, calls the business “homegrown,” since Zywave chased growth by hiring additional salespeople, building new products and continuing to expand its client base.

Zywave occupies 44,000 square feet of space in the Milwaukee County Research Park. It plans to move to a new building with more space.
Zywave occupies 44,000 square feet of space in the Milwaukee County Research Park. It plans to move to a new building with more space.

The company made its first acquisition in October 2010 when it acquired Specific Software Solutions, which specialized in workers’ compensation software. Its second acquisition, completed in November 2011, about doubled its size, as it acquired Emerging Information Systems Inc., a Canadian software company focused largely on financial planning.

During its initial two acquisitions, Zywave was owned by a private equity company, Vista Equity Partners, which invested in the company in November 2008. Five years later, private equity firm Aurora Capital Group acquired Zywave’s Insurance Solutions Division, at which point the financial planning software arm was split from Zywave and renamed Advicent Solutions. Vista Equity Partners retained ownership of Advicent Solutions, which is currently located in the same building as Zywave.

The change in ownership was followed by changes in leadership, as Haack and Emling left the internal executive team to pursue other opportunities.

O’Brien, who had been working as president of Zywave’s insurance division after the acquisition of Emerging Information Systems, ascended to CEO of the company in Haack’s place.

Under the ownership of Aurora Capital Group, Zywave has continued to pursue add-on acquisitions in order to feed its capacity for growth.

“It’s a growth strategy that they have proven successful in other companies that they’ve invested in, and they see a lot of opportunity for Zywave in the insurance broker space,” said Krissy Fischer, vice president, strategic planning and acquisitions at Zywave.

Among the most recent of the company’s acquisitions was Intygral, announced in July. Prior to that transaction, Zywave acquired Plan Doc Builder in September 2014 and FutureOffice Network in May 2014. While Plan Doc Builder creates a health plan document for employers, FutureOffice Network had offered products similar to those of Zywave, so through the acquisition Zywave was able to beef up its partner base.

The company does not plan to slow down its pace with strategic growth, as Fischer actively sources potential acquisitions every day. On average, she remains in touch with between 50 and 100 acquisition prospects at one time, not all of whom are ready to actively move forward.

“I really look for healthy businesses that are proven with our customers, that would be able to help our 3,000 brokers that we have today and also who have customer bases that would fit with the customers that we already have today if we were to bring them under the Zywave umbrella,” Fischer said.

Her approach is twofold, as she seeks companies that can directly cater to Zywave’s current client base and with customers who would benefit from Zywave products.

“We’re really excited about the future at Zywave,” Fischer said. “We’re growing very quickly, and we’re positioned for a lot more success.”

Zywave occupies 44,000 square feet of space in the Milwaukee County Research Park. It plans to move to a new building with more space.

 Investing in people

In addition to powering growth in client numbers and sales through acquisitions, Zywave heavily invests in its sales team to continue spurring organic growth.

Often, companies view sales as an art, whereas Zywave views it as a much more “well thought out process,” O’Brien said.

“We put a lot of rigor and process into sales,” he said.

After hiring sales staff, Zywave holds a boot camp-style training session to acquaint the sales force with the techniques and demands of the job.

O’Brien equates Zywave’s sales training to a semester in college. It runs eight to 10 weeks, with mock exercises and objections handling, and gives staff information they can use to help brokers

optimize their use of Zywave products.

O’Brien said he must make sure he is being smart about what he is doing, dedicates resources to the right places, and constantly checks what he is doing.

In hiring Zywave professionals, the company keeps a lookout for “hungry” individuals, O’Brien said.

They do not necessarily have to know what they want to do, but they must want to better and challenge themselves, he said.

Most of Zywave’s employees come from Wisconsin, according to O’Brien, who said he has found tremendous talent in the state’s higher education system.

Zywave also works to invest in its people on the human side, rallying team volunteer efforts and giving teams the freedom to commit to the causes of their choice.

From a personal development perspective, O’Brien encourages staff members to test their limits each year by trying one or two things to which they have never before been exposed. Rather than move through life in a perpetual rut, he compels them to move beyond their comfort zones so that they can look back upon the prideful moments in which they chose to try something new.

A rendering of Zywave’s new headquarters in Wauwatosa.
A rendering of Zywave’s new headquarters in Wauwatosa.

Work hard, play hard

In today’s business world, it is not about the big beating the small, according to O’Brien, but rather about the fast beating the slow.

That kind of pressure to constantly accelerate and innovate can induce a lot of stress, O’Brien said, and creates a “work hard, play hard” mentality.

To spread that mentality throughout the company, Zywave employees follow five core cultural focus areas: Have fun, step up, own it, drive growth and bright future.

Lissie Crichton-Sapp, a partner support specialist at the company, has worked at Zywave for nine months and has become part of what she describes as a “very rewarding” culture.

“We work hard, but we also are rewarded for all the hard work that we do,” she said. “Everybody’s smiling all the time. Everybody just seems really excited to be there.”

With responsibility for fielding incoming questions from Zywave clients and troubleshooting to address their issues with Zywave products, her days are often unpredictable.

“I’m excited to go to work every day,” Crichton-Sapp said. “I like that my day isn’t always predictable. It’s not your typical cookie cutter position, and it’s not your typical cookie cutter company either. There’s something really special about them and that excitement kind of flows down from the executives all the way to each individual department and employee.”

Kyle Doyle, an account executive at Zywave, describes it as a fast-paced, energetic culture and a nurturing environment.

Doyle, who focuses on company sales, spends most of his work days surrounded by noise as sales successes are celebrated with an office gong and theme songs specific to each account executive. A done deal ignites both the gong and a team member’s personal anthem. Doyle’s own sales strides are applauded by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations.”

With the growing industry Zywave belongs to, the company expects a lot of out its employees, Doyle said. But that hard work is rewarded.

“Work hard and you’re going to see the fruits of your labor, essentially,” Doyle said. “They’re going to compensate you well and give you the recognition you deserve.”

Among the ways that Zywave rewards its employees is through staff outings and activities. During the company’s quarterly meetings, everyone congregates to recap company successes and administrative priorities, as well as join together for company fun. This past summer, Zywave employees ventured to Horny Goat Brew Pub for food, beverages and volleyball tournaments. Each winter, the company hosts a formal event that includes a meal and dancing.

“It’s work hard, play hard, definitely,” Doyle said.

A rendering of Zywave’s new headquarters in Wauwatosa.
A rendering of Zywave’s new headquarters in Wauwatosa.

Movin’ on up

To better accomodate its growth, Zywave will relocate its headquarters to a larger office in a brand new building next summer. The building will be located at 10100 Innovation Drive in the Milwaukee County Research Park – not far from the three buildings out of which Zywave currently operates.

Zywave will spread its team out on three of the building’s four floors, occupying the entire top floor, about half of the third floor and part of the ground floor, where the company plans to offer a cafeteria for its employees, as well as a stage for live employee performances and open mic sessions. Just outside, the company will create an outdoor workspace for employees to enjoy seasonally, with tables, a fire pit and a grill open for employees to use.

In front of the building, Zywave plans to create space for employee wellness activities and equipment for Bublr Bikes.

The new office will better reflect Zywave’s identity and culture, according to O’Brien, as it includes intentional elements of fun along with open spaces and collision spaces that will be conducive to employees in collaboration mode.

Upon moving into its new home, Zywave will vacate the three other spaces it occupies in the Milwaukee County Research Park, including its current headquarters at 10700 Research Drive.

The new office will accommodate about 400 employees.

O’Brien anticipates a “tremendous” amount of opportunity standing before Zywave, particularly in its organic growth initiatives. Along with significant opportunities to add insurance brokers as partners, he said there is plenty of opportunity to sell more products to the company’s current client base.

There is also potential to add to Zywave’s current suite of products by either building new products in-house or investing in complementary products created by other companies.

Haack, who still serves as vice chair, board member and shareholder at Zywave, also sees a wave of opportunity for the company he launched with just a handful of teammates at his side.

“We created a product and a niche that is uniquely helpful for brokers, and we’ve been able to stay at the leading edge of that market,” Haack said. “And so the bottom line is we have a great service that is really helpful to our customers, and as long as we continue to fulfill that mission we’ll continue to grow.”

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