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A creative touch: Acuity's annual reports break from the norm with innovation, creativity and uniqueness that mimic the company's culture.

Open any company annual report and you'll find staggering lists of financial numbers, graphics and overviews of the year's activities and accomplishments.

But look inside a copy of Acuity's annual reports and you'll find anything but the norm.

That's because the property/casualty carrier's culture is typified by one word: innovation, said president and CEO Ben Salzmann.

That culture is garnering attention and bringing the company's annual compilation of financial assets and liabilities to life, he says. Over the years, those reports have come in all shapes and sizes--everything from a Guinness Book of World Records-style report to an intricately colorful pop-up book. Other sought-after staples were fashioned to replicate a record album, a pizza and, in 2011, the company sweetened its offering with a report that resembled a box of assorted chocolates.

The idea to create one-of-kind annual reports began in 2001 with the reign of a new management team, Salzmann said. That year he decided to incorporate his mother's elementary school report card in the report. "We changed the categories to things such as combined ratio and premium growth, and gave all categories an A+ other than 'classroom demeanor' and 'plays well with other companies'. Those two areas earned a C-, along with comments such as 'sometimes talks too much', 'seems to have an attitude' and 'often picks fights with the larger, national companies'."

Fast-forward to Acuity's latest report and it's a sign of the times with a storybook complete with audio and an embedded video screen. "Each year, we build in an annual theme with the reports," said Salzmann. This year's theme, "Word of Mouth," includes financial highlights under such slogans as "Telling It Like It Is" and "Shout It From the Rooftop" and is accompanied by a whistled version of the song Don't Worry, Be Happy when a button on the front cover is toggled.

Salzmann said the impetus behind creating innovative annual reports is threefold: "People never read traditional annual reports. We want to convey our culture and attitude and we are reaching out to our partners." Acuity writes business through 20,000 independent agents.

Each year Salzmann and vice president of sales and communications Wally Waldhart collaborate on a new design concept. "We spend a year just talking about different ideas and reflecting on where we are," noted Salzmann. "When we replaced photos of the building's interior and exterior beams with employees in our 2004 annual report, we had just finished a big building expansion and wanted to emphasize that the expansion was meaningless without our staff."

Employees are a critical component of the reports. In 2008, for example, the "Acuity's World Records" featured employees' children, staff accomplishments and community efforts. Also, a colorful spread showcased Acuity's actual claim to fame as a Guinness World Record holder. More than 575 of its employees donned matching custom-made attire of the renowned Where's Waldo? character to become the largest gathering of people dressed as Waldo, beating the previous world record of 127. [In 2009, students at Rutgers University broke Acuity's record.]

"We take the view with everyone we do business with that the insurance industry should be fun," Waldhart said. "That reflects our culture. And people who are having fun are more productive and make better decisions."

Employees first get a glimpse at a new year's annual report at a town hall gathering, Salzmann said. "The report is on their chairs when they arrive, and they receive gift certificates to local restaurants and the cinema, along with boxes of Girl Scout cookies, in what we call 'Dinner, a Movie and a Midnight Snack'."

Response to the reports has been "phenomenal," Waldhart noted.

"What's probably even more [phenomenal] than that is the anticipation of what next year's report will be."

Companies looking to make their annual reports "such a big deal," Salzmann suggested, "better be up for outperforming the industry.

"Over the past 13 years, when the current management team took over, we had a more profitable combined ratio--an average annual 8.6% more profitable than the industry," he added. "Our sales growth and surplus growth were both 300% more than the industry. It would be difficult to use your annual report as a big marketing media if year-after-year you're reporting that you did worse than the industry. But we have so vastly outperformed the industry that we can play up the reports and hype up who we are."

Acuity's annual reports have garnered national attention over the years. They have received numerous accolades, including the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals' international Hermes Creative Awards, gold American Advertising Federation's ADDYs, American Business Awards, CLIO Awards and MarCom Awards.

"Innovation is behind just about everything we do," said Salzmann. "The color and vibrancy found in our annual reports match the company's culture. Innovation is the key to how we drive home our message."

Acuity also uses innovation to boost employee morale. Staffers have been offered everything from mechanical-bull riding contests during the workday to rented roller skates to use down the company's hallways. In 2012, the company assembled a 45-foot rented Ferris wheel for a carnival held inside its Sheboygan, Wis. headquarters. Proceeds from that event benefited a local neonatal intensive care trait.

"People might say, 'gee, isn't that all expensive?'" Waldhart said. "But we have an employee remover of just 1%. It takes three years to train someone in insurance to be productive, and the industry now is losing nearly 11% of its employee population each year. The cost to replace them, recruiting expenses, lost productivity and lack of good decisions over those three years is expensive; you can't put a value on that. So it makes much sense to put forth these efforts, and companies that are the best places to work are the most successful ones."

Acuity has certainly earned that honor. It is the only organization in the nation to be ranked in the top five of the Great Places to Work Institute's "The Best Mid-Sized Company to Work For in America" for nine consecutive years.

"You hear many buzzwords today, like everyone in the industry is doing the same thing or they all have their finger on the pulse," said Salzmann. "But most companies aren't really living up to that hype.

"We have a very strong customer segment orientation, something everyone claims they have. But if you look at their materials and computerized systems, they really don't. That's where we work very hard," he added. "For many companies, two weeks before their annual planning they look at what they did last year and try to find something new to say. But at Acuity, every month we bring in project managers assigned to strategic planning projects to give status reports. We go through that every quarter with our full board and build customer segments."

The company has been serving customers since 1925. Today, it generates $1 billion in annual revenue and, in 2012, Acuity reported $2.475 billion in total admitted assets and $95 million in net income, according to A.M. Best Co. data. While it now writes in 20 states, Acuity continues to expand geographically, most recently into Pennsylvania, Salzmann said. The company is currently in the process of rolling out plans in Wyoming and Montana, and hopes to soon present three more states to its board of directors.

Learn More

Acuity--A Mutual Insurance Co. A.M. Best Company # 000468

Distribution: Independent agents

For ratings and other financial strength information visit

'ACUITY'S STORYBOOK YEAR'--its 2010 annual report--took nearly two years to create. Acuity partnered with one of the top paper engineers in the world, Andrew Baron, and renowned children's book illustrator Aaron Boyd. After countless meetings and iterations, and 2,500 emails, the report was distributed to employees and agents.

2009 REPORT--a red and white pizza box contained a printed pizza report complete with the title "Acuity serves up a delicious report for 2009." Financial information and charts were set up like menus, and recipes and puzzles were found inside the colorful book.

2001 REPORT--Acuity's first "unique" annual report was designed after President and CEO Ben Salzmann's mother's elementary school report card. Subjects were changed to categories such as combined ratio and premium growth, all of which received an A+. "Classroom demeanor" and "plays well with other companies" were graded a C-.

2007 REPORT--The Hop on Top annual report was accompanied by Dr. Seuss-like illustrations and rhymes, along with quirky characters, colorful illustrations and clever copywriting elements. It was complete with a hard cover and a signature page, and included insurance jargon and bar graphs showcasing the year's results.

Notable Acuity Annual Reports

2002 REPORT--Letting the Numbers Speak for Themselves was the winner of a Gold ADDY Award in 2002. That award recognizes the very best regional advertising. The oversized annual report dramatically touted Acuity's successes by showcasing pertinent operating results in large, copper foil numbers against a black background. DuFour Advertising created the report's design.

2008 REPORT--Acuity's World Record report in 2008, along with its 2009 Rock Speaking Tour schedule and tour collateral, garnered three Gold ADDYs by The American Advertising Federation Fox River. The report highlights Acuity's results and accomplishments in categories such as "greatest policy count," "most valuable agents" and "highest salvage and subrogation recoveries."

2011 REPORT--The 2011 A Sweet Year report was sent to recipients in a one-pound box of chocolates. Inside the report, colored bar graphs and charts were replaced by gumballs and licorice sticks that depicted financial results. "We also mailed out candies and invitations to all of our independent agents, gave speeches and now are working on creating virtual speeches where agents can earn continuing education credits," said President and CEO Ben Salzmann.

2012 REPORT--The latest annual report is themed "Word of Mouth" and includes a video screen embedded into the book. The front cover is a mirrored cutout, and company executives highlight financials as the song Don't Worry, Be Happy is played when recipients push a button.
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Title Annotation:Property/Casualty
Author:Chordas, Lori
Publication:Best's Review
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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