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The Redwoods Group: Driven by Giving Back

A piece I wrote from our 2008 Top Small Workplace coverage!  The Redwoods Group has done fantastic work over the years in helping their clients and community, and their CEO, Kevin Trapani, argues that the good they do is simply a response of their faith, their compassion, and their dedication to others. He argues that they operate on the concept central to most faith communities – “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected” – and that this should ultimately be the unifying theme of all businesses.

The Redwoods Group is no customary insurance operation. With 87 employees, the North Carolina-based firm, a 2008 Top Small Workplace, specializes in cultivating a focus on safety at YMCAs and Jewish Community Organizations.
Since its founding in 1997, the company has operated with an explicit mission of service to others, dedicated to improving the lives of those in the broad communities within which it operates. The firm believes, and proves, that business can be a powerful force for positive social change while providing work/life balance and development of all its employees.
In addition to contributing a large percentage of their pre-tax profits to nonprofit organizations internationally (50 percent in 2006-2007), Redwoods is up front with its staff about its core value/requirement of participation by all in community projects. While the business has grown significantly in recent years, Redwoods argues that they are not driven by size or profit margin but, rather, to “make a difference.”
“What you have to understand is that it has to be about much more than your current leader, or even your company,” says Redwoods Group President and CEO Kevin Trapani. “It has to be about changing something fundamental about how this society works.”
Trapani didn’t shy away from a challenge when he founded The Redwoods and he certainly doesn’t now. Oft told is the story of the cocktail napkin, saved from a dinner, labeled with the blueprint of what would become the firm’s organizing principle: “Serve Others.”
“I think that most people who are doing good work in the world understand this. The problem is, for many years the only thing that anyone read about as a model for business was greed, and that’s never been sustainable,” Trapani says.
At Redwoods, success is built upon fundamental differences in how they insure clients. “That’s where we get our juice,” says Trapani. As opposed to moderating against volatility simply though risk differentiation (where variety and volume provide a buffer from loss) Redwoods makes it a point to specialize and gather loss causation data in an insightful way to drive behavior change in specific customer segments.
“I have been in insurance for going on 18 years and in no way does any standard insurance carrier I have worked for compare to The Redwoods Group,” says Senior Underwriter Linda Jaqua.
Jaqua goes on to state that it is the children who participate in YMCA and JCO programs, not the premiums acquired, that inspire the company’s efforts. The firm walks its walk by ensuring the safety of the all children in “Ys” and “Js,” regardless of whether a given program has yet to become a Redwoods client.
“This is what focuses the mind,” explains Trapani. “At the end of the day there isn’t anybody that comes in here thinking we’re in the business of insurance. They think we’re in the business of saving people’s lives.”
Having grown up in YMCAs, Dan Baum, Risk Manager of two years, says he came to work for Redwoods primarily because of their culture.
“I work here because every day we prove what is possible for a for-profit company,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of a company that makes a difference.”
Dan, like all Redwoods associates, participates in wider community service while on the clock. Each employee is expected to give 40 hours per year to community service, and many go beyond the call of duty in this respect. Soup kitchens, substance abuse recovery programs, women’s shelters – all benefit from the enthusiasm of the Redwoods staff. Baum and a coworker even assisted Habitat for Humanity in Zambia this past year.
Trapani admits that getting that balance right wasn’t easy in the beginning: “We ground through people our first five years. We were very demanding,” he says. Since then they’ve become more intentional in recruiting talent, placing the emotional demands of the job and the expectations of community service on the table from the get-go.
They’ve also become better at meeting employee needs once they’re on board. Mac Kendall, Regional Claims Leader of seven years, attests to this.
“We demand a lot of our employees, but we treat them like adults and family members,” he says. “We expect that our employees are whole people, with big hearts, outside interests and a drive to fulfill our mission.”
Hard times are upon us all and Redwoods isn’t immune to the pinch, having recently experienced their first-ever operating loss. But Trapani and his team remain confident that their comprehensive approach to safety and coverage will continue to win them clients, even in the face of new predatory agencies offering commodity-based, partial coverage.
Even when profits are thin, Redwoods continues to demonstrate an unparalleled commitment to community projects, if only in “sweat equity” and man hours contributed to local charities.
“For Redwoods to preach a larger purpose for business, then focus narrowly on profit during a recession, would be hypocritical,” observes Baum, reflecting a sentiment shared by many at the firm. “During tough times, you find out what really matters to organizations. And from day one, this company has existed to change the world.”
Company: The Redwoods Group
Web site: www.redwoodsgroup.com 
Industry: Commercial specialty insurance
Location: Morrisville, NC
Number of Employees: 87
Sales: $12.8 million

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