MMA in the Dakotas: The next generation of Howalt+McDowell includes Fargo office, new leadership

Feb. 27, 2020

This paid piece is sponsored by Marsh & McLennan Agency.

Continuing the status quo wasn’t an option: Jeff Scherschligt had a decision to make.

It was 2012, and Howalt+McDowell Insurance, the firm founded after World War II by William Howalt and Pierce McDowell, and led by his father, Lester, for years, had to look to its future.

As the insurance business gained complexity, Howalt+McDowell’s business clients were growing and increasingly in need of more resources.

So when Marsh & McLennan Cos. — MMC — reached out, Scherschligt decided to listen.

“Marsh & McLennan was the largest broker in the world, and they were setting up a fairly new division by buying large, locally owned, best-in-class-regionally types of firms,” he said.

“And then they were letting those people run their operation but bringing all the resources of the world-class agencies to help us handle these growing and complex accounts.”

Dubbed Marsh & McLennan Agency — MMA — the subsidiary was developed to provide the caliber of professional services offered by its flagship global companies with the local touch of a personal broker.

Howalt+McDowell made the transition in 2013, with Scherschligt continuing to run the office and maintaining the level of commitment to the community the firm had become known for over the years.

“When Jeff first talked about this opportunity with Marsh, it was really about sustainability,” said Kira Kimball, chief innovation officer, who has been with the firm for more than a decade.

“It was about bringing more resources to our clients and adding depth to our bench, and that has been very exciting to live into.”

A few years after Howalt+McDowell decided to join MMA, Tom Dawson was faced with the same call about 250 miles north.

His grandfather, Charlie, founded Dawson Insurance in 1917. Dawson followed his father and uncle into the firm when he joined in 1973.

Dawson went through a similar thought process as Scherschligt when he decided to become part of MMA in 2015.

“We felt we needed to do that to provide our employees with a larger agency with more resources and tools,” he said. “It also provides our clients with a lot of expertise we didn’t have prior to MMA, and it’s been a terrific company to be part of.”

Back in Sioux Falls, Scherschligt was working on his succession plan.

It led him to Steve Vlk, who began in the industry in 1984 on the health insurance side and later helped start a consulting division at Howalt+McDowell in 2003.

A former point guard for Northern State University, Vlk continued to see himself as an extension of the coach on the court. It drove him to seek a leadership role.

“What really drives me is creating a team and an environment that people can excel in and really make a difference,” he said.

Vlk was a proven leader who had become involved regionally with different MMA initiatives, Scherschligt said. He became CEO of the Sioux Falls office in 2018.

“And then Steve really was the one who took the bull by the horns and saw a vision for bringing our office and Dawson Insurance together to become one organization,” Scherschligt said. “And it was just kind of a marriage made in heaven.” 

Coming together

As both became part of MMA, the offices that were founded as Howalt+McDowell and Dawson began to see how much they had in common.

“Even though there’s 250 miles between Sioux Falls and Fargo, we’re very similar cities, and we’re discovering that the culture in the cities are similar,” Dawson said. “So it’s been very easy to bring the two offices together, and it’s been really easy for the colleagues to get to know each other and work together.”

It has been an ongoing process of becoming one office, and both say there are clear benefits.

“The Dakotas are pretty similar. We knew the Dawson folks and respected them greatly,” Vlk said. “We competed against them when we weren’t part of the same organization. But the key piece was their culture. Our culture is one of giving back and one of really taking care of our clients. So when we started thinking about all that, it just made a lot of sense.”

The offices had strengths that offset one another, both said.

Dawson does a lot of work in real estate management development, construction and hospitality.

Howalt+McDowell’s longtime major clients, which include several of Sioux Falls’ largest businesses, benefit considerably from a Fargo office and the expanded resources from MMA, Scherschligt said.

“And we think the combined organization just sets us up for future growth and expansion, and bringing more to our customers,” he added.

Vlk serves as CEO of MMA’s Sioux Falls and Fargo operations with responsibility for both offices, totaling nearly 200 employees serving nearly 7,000 clients for business insurance, employee health and benefits, and private client services.

“When I leave the organization every day, I look in the mirror and say three things: Did I make a difference? Was I true to my word? And did I give my employees what they needed that day? That’s really a ritual I do because it’s important they see me giving 120 percent, so they give the same,” he said.

Longtime employees such as Kimball said the culture that first drew them to the firm has stayed strong throughout the company’s evolution.

“I was really attracted to how we showed up in the community in terms of really caring and getting involved,” she said. “The culture of this office is really built on care and compassion for our colleagues, our clients and our community. It’s built into our DNA. And that culture was very similar to the Fargo office. So it made our pathway in terms of discovering each other and seeing the opportunities easily illuminated.”

MMA also continues to be what Kimball calls a learning and development organization, one that’s always growing its own.

“When we bring on new team members, we want to make sure they know there is a career path for them, and we’re going to invest in their skill development, and that’s a differentiator,” she said.

“Definitely, our office will be growing our team and our talent. The complexities of business are growing for many of our clients who might have been local or regional and now have national or global impacts. But again, we are benefiting from the resources of MMA across the country and the world. So thinking differently about how we bring on talent, where we bring on talent and how we invest in them is really going to be key to our success.”

Looking back, Scherschligt said he’s secure in his belief he made the right choice seven years ago – for the company and for the community.

“There’s been no drop-off in the philanthropic aspects of Howalt+McDowell, which was vitally important to me,” he said. “And I think the employees have gotten even better education and opportunities, and haven’t really felt the change of becoming part of a national company. I just think it’s been the right marriage for our clients, for our company and for our future.”

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MMA in the Dakotas: The next generation of Howalt+McDowell includes Fargo office, new leadership

Two established insurance firms have come together, backed by a major industry leader. Here’s the next chapter for the firm formerly known as Howalt+McDowell.

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