Running at full throttle

Running at full throttle

O’Hare, Edward

the age of 46, when most CEOs spend more of their spare time on the golf course for what one author called “a good walk spoiled,” Eldon Oldre began a five-year fling with auto racing. Strapped into a 600-horsepower NASCAR racer, Oldre dueled with hotshots half his age in the chase for the checkered flag on short, dirt tracks in the Upper Midwest. If the contrast in the choice of sports is striking, it is no less striking in the choices made by Oldre to build CFG Insurance Services, Inc., in Minneapolis-from a two-man shop in 1974 into one of the largest privately owned agencies in Minnesota.

With $3,500 in seed money and the same daring and panache that would eventually put him in the driver’s seat, Oldre and his brother, Dallas, went full throttle 26 years ago-seeking to set up a one-stop, full financial services agency, at a time when most start-ups took the slow, traditional insurance lines approach. But it wasn’t long before Oldre ran smack into the hard reality of the business world. “It took only a few months before our vision of a multi-dimensional financial services firm serving small and medium-sized businesses was reduced to the reality of how just to survive,” says Oldre.

Not to worry-a short pit stop to rethink the game plan and Oldre was back on track. “We realized the answer of course was to grow one client at a time.” And grow it did: to more than 2,500 clients, 126 employees and more than $11 million in annual revenue. And looking ahead, Oldre likes what he seesboldly predicting that revenue for CFG will soar to $20 million by the year 2004.

“We built CFG on a tradition of innovation,” says Oldre, whose mantra might be described as: “If it ain’t broke, break it”-and build new models and new ways to better serve clients and the community. It shows in the panoply of products and servicesfrom insurance to employee benefits to human resources consulting-provided to clients. It shows in the aggressive employeerecruiting program that keeps CFG ahead of the curve and ahead of the competition. And it shows in the unique and exciting charity fundraiser linked to Oldre’s love of auto racing that contributes thousands of dollars each year to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of


That tradition of innovation comes center stage this month when CFG undertakes its most ambitious project: Workforce 2001, a totalsolution conference and expo for organizations of all sizes which are searching for more effective strategies for selecting, managing and rewarding their number one resourcetheir employees.

To be held September 27-28 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the national-quality conference and trade show is the first of its kind in the Twin Cities, says Oldre, and is expected to attract more than 600 persons representing a crosssection of American business.

With three keynote sessions and 26 breakout sessions, the conference will explore the full human resources canon: from creating a workforce that thrives during hardship or chaos to retaining and promoting top talent into leadership roles; from getting the greatest return on employee benefit dollars to complying with all the laws and regulations employers face today

“It will be a learning and training experience for those who are responsible for hiring and training employees, as well as those who are responsible for leading their organizations into the future, regardless of what their positions or titles may be,” says Oldre.

For Oldre, Workforce 2001 is the capstone of CFG’s years of dedication to dealing with its own human resource needs and those of its clients. Talented and dedicated employees are the building blocks of any successful organization, says Oldre, and CFG leaves no stone unturned to get its share. With near missionary zeal, CFG pursues young job candidates on college campuses and at job fairs throughout the Midwest. It takes on all the trappings of a “draft,” with its fulltime recruiter zeroing in on top prospects with the same care as an eagle-eyed major league baseball scout looking to sign up promising high school and college players. In June, the “draft” produced 22 new employees, cherry-picked from more than 400 candidates who expressed interest in joining CFG. All have solid business, technical and communications skills as well as their own individual selling points.

In its recruiting, CFG is guided by the Greek economist Paraeto who developed the 80/20 rule-that 80% of all problems are solved by 20% of the people and 80% of all sales are generated by 20% of the people, and so on. “We want to be sure that CFG gets the ’20percenters,'” says Oldre, who acknowledges that this task becomes harder as more and more talented young people are enticed by the siren songs of the dot-toms and other high-tech companies and their promises to make them instant millionaires.

“We’re a mature industry; we can’t make those promises,” says Oldre. “But we can promise them the opportunity to join a first-rate organization,” he adds, and that, he believes, is CFG’s strongest selling point. “If you have an exciting organization, people want to be part of it; we attract people because of the culture of the organization, not necessarily the business we’re in.”

The new people agree. Betsy Arnold, a graduate of St. Cloud State University: “I joined CFG because it is a growing company that has found success in the past and has a bright future ahead of it. I was impressed with the dedication CFG employees had toward that success and I felt CFG had a lot of great opportunities for me to build a promising future for myself.”

Scott Holmes, a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Duluth: “I chose to work for CFG because of their strong commitment to serving clients and dedication to success. I was comfortable with my choice because I had trust in their decision that I was a good match for their work environment.”

The attention paid to recruiting and the expertise developed in training and managing its own staff has enabled CFG to develop a much-in-demand human resources consulting business. “It started as a value-added service for clients without full-time HR staff-initially a telephone hotline for Q’s and A’s,” says David Flotten, administrative supervisor of the program, and one of four staff lawyers who, among other things, help steer clients through the labyrinth of state and federal regulations and legislation governing the workplace.

Today, the human resource services program operates under its own division, CFG Employer’s Services, and offers clients an extensive list of services, including human resource audits, applicant assessment tools, human resource information systems, employment handbook development, sexual harassment compliance and training. And Oldre sees potential for expanding this service nationwide, perhaps in partnerships with other agencies and accounting firms, among others.

CFG’s innovative bent in its business dealings extends equally to its activities in the communitynowhere more so than in the CFG Race Car Classic. Started three years ago, the classic grew out of Oldre’s own lifelong fantasy to drive race cars. “When you consider that auto racing is the No. 1 spectator sport in the country, it was really a no-brainer to tap into the same fantasies of others,” says Oldre. But Oldre did more than that, creating the classic as a charity fundraiser for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Minneapolis, whose culture of mentoring young people closely mirrors CFG’s own mentoring of its young employees.

Called a “Drive for Kids’ Sake,” 175 persons got the chance to turn their fantasy into a real life experience-to drive an actual race car at race car speeds-in this year’s classic, which raised nearly $50,000 for Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Along with a video tape to relive their moment of glory, the drivers got the added joy of knowing that their dollars will help BBBS match at-risk children with adult volunteers who spend a few hours with them each week, providing understanding, emotional support and a sense of direction. And Oldre is quick to add that studies show that children who enjoy this type of friendship with a caring adult, benefit from positive changes in school attendance, relationships and self-esteem. And we all benefit because these adult friends have kept the small problems of thousands of children from becoming major ones for the community.

Phil Losacker, director of volunteer services for BBBS, says there is a waiting list of nearly 400 youngsters hoping to be paired in one-on-one nurturing relationships with adults. “The money raised by CFG will go a long way toward making that possible,” says Losacker.

Reflecting on the growth and success of CFG, Oldre says nothing beats the feeling a business owner gets when the system you created works as it should. “Even after 26 years of solving our clients’ problems, I still feel exhilarated when a client or prospective client realizes how CFG’s team of specialists-in human resources, retirement plans, employee benefits, property/liability and workers compensation-can help them achieve the vision they have for their organizations,” says Oldre. “We continually work to understand the problems and potential problems that threaten our clients’ success in achieving their dreams and vision, and-more important-develop and find solutions to those problems.”

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Sep 2000

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