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Knowledge-Industry Firm Grows in a Small, Iowa Manufacturing City

A former mill town on the Mississippi River is home to an insurer that continues to expand and is working on attracting data-driven industry with its pool of college-educated workers.

Q4 2017
Dubuque, Iowa
Dubuque, Iowa
Editor’s Note: This article was supplied by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which approved and paid for this posting. A small Iowa city, Dubuque has grown into one of the state’s rising stars.


The mature trees, church steeples, brick streets, and warehouses of Dubuque, Iowa — all funneling down the bluffs toward the wide Mississippi River — seem more Appalachian than Iowan. There’s even a railway up the bluffs, similar to the inclines of Pittsburgh. Founded in the late 1700s, it’s Iowa’s oldest city, and it’s a beautiful place. By January 1982, it also held the unglamorous title of the highest unemployment rate in the United States — 23 percent. Today, Dubuque, which is more than an hour’s drive from another city with a population of more than 50,000 people, is home to an insurer with more than 800 employees that hires 50 to 60 new college graduates every year.

Dubuque started as a lead mining town, then grew into a port and lumber city, and moved into heavy manufacturing when Deere and Company built a tractor plant north of the city in 1946. Dubuque registered its record unemployment rate in January 1982 when the Deere plant shut down for a month. The Deere plant is still the area’s largest private-sector employer, with approximately 2,600 employees, but the economy has diversified since 1982.

A major player in that diversification has been Cottingham & Butler, an insurer that began as a main street agency in 1887, and continued operating as a small, family-operated business for decades. In 1957, when the company’s current Chairman, John E. Butler, joined the business, there were two other employees.

The company found success by creating insurance products for niche industries, beginning with the poultry business. Today, the company has five industries of concentration: trucking, tribal nations, agribusiness, construction, and manufacturing. In addition to Butler, the chairman, it is led by CEO David Becker, a Dubuque native with an MBA from Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law, who was working at McKinsey & Company in Chicago when Butler recruited him to the insurer.

Becker, who had lived in St. Louis, Boston, Washington, and Chicago, and was traveling for McKinsey four days every week, had some hesitations about returning home and potentially missing the excitement of working in a major city for the world’s largest management consulting firm. Now, looking back on the time he was missing with his family while living in Chicago, he can’t imagine going back there.

“You know, one of the things that really touched me, was I remember I left on Monday morning and my wife told me that our 3-year-old got up and he was looking out the window and said to her, ‘When's Daddy coming home?’ And it was gonna be four days,” Becker said. “When I go to Chicago now, which I do often, and I'm in traffic all the time, I say, ‘I don't know how the hell I did it for 10 years.’ What an amount of time that I wasted that really wasn't terribly productive.”
David Becker, CEO, Cottingham & Butler
David Becker, CEO, Cottingham & Butler
Attracting College-Educated Talent to a Company in Dubuque, Iowa
Despite its geographical distance from major urban centers, Dubuque is well situated near universities. Three private four-year universities are within the city limits: Clarke University (enrollment 1,000), Loras College (enrollment 1,600), and the University of Dubuque (enrollment 2,200). In addition, Northeast Iowa Community College has a campus 15 miles from Dubuque, and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville (enrollment 8,600) is 20 miles from the city. Further out, the major state institutions of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as a host of smaller colleges are within 90 miles of Dubuque.

It’s this pool of talent that sustains Cottingham & Butler’s growth.

“There's something like 500,000 college students within 90 minutes of Dubuque, Iowa,” Becker said. “Our mindset is that there's an opportunity challenge, and if you create good opportunities you should be able to find people. You may have to go tell them about your opportunity, and you may have to have the right training programs, but if you can't hire 50 to 60 good people a year when there are 500,000 college graduates within a hundred miles, you're not doing something right.”

Becker has found that the same promise of increased family time and connection to community that drew him back to Dubuque also resonates when his company recruits new employees.

“Most of the time if they're from Iowa and they find a good career in Iowa, they love it. They love the opportunity to raise their family here,” Becker said. “They have a lot of friends here and a lot of family here. When you're here you can really go do some things that make a difference in the trajectory of the city, and I think people really feel like it's home as opposed to you're just another person living there.”

The city of Dubuque and the state of Iowa have also done their part to change the community’s trajectory. The city spent almost $190 million, including a $40 million grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, on converting the riverfront from industrial to recreational use. For example, a half-mile recreational trail for pedestrians and bikers now sits on top of the city’s floodwall, which had completely cut downtown off from the river since its construction in the 1970s. The city’s latest endeavor, which is also receiving state support, is renovation of a 28-building cluster of historic brick warehouses adjacent to downtown called the Millwork District. Less than 10 years after beginning the renovations, many of the buildings are now occupied with tenants, including loft apartments, a co-working space, two breweries, two coffee shops, and a trendy restaurant, with construction of an 84-room Marriott Towneplace Suites hotel under way.

Public investment in place-making, so that Dubuque companies can more easily attract talent, is rooted in a collaborative spirit typical of Iowa cities.

“The people in Iowa are friendly, cooperative, and they're trying to find win-win not win-lose opportunities,” Becker said.

It’s a culture that extends to how Cottingham & Butler approaches employee training.

Training a Specialized Workforce in a Small Midwestern City
Cottingham & Butler began in an era of small, main street insurers. It is not the same industry today.

“I view our business as becoming incredibly data-driven, analytic-driven,” Becker said. “The whole mathematic side of it is really important.”

In response to this need, Loras College has created a Center for Business Analytics under the guidance of Loras alumnus and Oracle Corporation executive Rich Clayton. The program offers an executive MBA, a graduate certificate, and an undergraduate major in business analytics. It also organizes an annual symposium on the subject, which is heavily attended by Cottingham & Butler employees.

Cottingham & Butler also maintains a strong relationship with professors in the sales program at the University of Northern Iowa, recruiting and hiring many of its graduates.

The company turns to the local Northeast Iowa Community College for a number of training programs, from business and leadership to computer skills. Becker said this ongoing training, which is supported in part by the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s workforce training program, is critical for his business’ ongoing success.

His company is even involved in preparing the workforce at the primary school level.

“A lot of our folks go to the schools and teach,” Becker said. “Many of us, including myself, are on some of the school boards, in the high school secondary level, trying to make sure that what goes on in town is really important.”

This tight, community collaboration is evident in the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation, which Becker turns to for help in navigating state programs. In addition to workforce training, three Cottingham & Butler expansions in the last three years have been supported by almost $1 million in additional state funds through Iowa’s High Quality Jobs program. With these expansions, the company has invested more than $4 million, expanded into two more historic buildings in downtown Dubuque, and created at least 185 new local jobs. Becker said this tight relationship between business and government is an energizing part of being in Dubuque.

“I think it creates a culture of people that feel like they have a responsibility to contribute to the community, a responsibility to give back,” Becker explained. “But there’s also opportunity. If you've got ideas for things that need improvement, there’s an outlet to rally a set of folks to go make it happen.”
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