Mt. Morris Mutual, 144 years strong and still growing
It started in 1875, when 12 farmers all of Norwegian descent met with their local church pastor in the small Waushara county town of Mt. Morris. Each donated $1.00 to organize Mt. Morris Norwegian Mutual Fire Insurance Company. Now, nearly a century and a half later, the name changed slightly to Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Company, it remains committed to its policyholders and the local people of Waushara County.
Unlike a stock company, a mutual insurance company is member owned. The oversight is provided by the company’s board of directors which are voted on by the policyholders at the annual meeting. During most of its first century in operation, Mt. Morris Mutual provided fire insurance to local farmers in Waushara and a few adjoining counties, with coverage being expanded to wind in future years.
A transition began to take place in the early 1980s. Howard Fenske and his wife Annabelle, took over management of the company which was moved from Wautoma to a back office in their home in the township of Richford. As its only two employees in 1982, the couple inherited a relatively financially strong town mutual insurance company. Premium writings were around $320,000 and Policyholder surplus was $258,249.
In 1985 the company purchased the Richford school house from Bill and Martha Wichner. The structure was remodeled and made suitable for operation. Mt. Morris Mutual began to expand its footprint into other Wisconsin counties and as a result growth followed. The staff grew from husband/wife (2) to now seven (7) employees and premiums expanded to around $2,500,000. The company had outgrown the smaller facility and the decision was made to add on to the existing school house.
In 1993 with premiums exceeding $2.5 Million and a growing staff, a major addition project was approved by the company’s Board of Directors to relieve current challenges and allow for future growth. The 3,900 square foot addition was completed in 1994.
Over the next 25 years, the company flourished. State expansion and additional product lines were established to include automobile insurance. Premiums grew by over $26.5 million over this 25-year period and the staff expanded to thirty-six associates. Management and the Board were once again faced with the challenges of accommodating growth.
The board was presented with two choices, another addition to the current structure or to build new. Firms were consulted to provide insights on the cost and challenges with each option. The current structure presented several challenges. The past few years water consistently entered the basement during spring months. Maintenance to the operations HVAC systems was continuous and ongoing and overall efficiencies related to the company operations presented other obstacles. Quotes were obtained by the Board to upgrade the current structure and add on to it. The costs to upgrade the current structure were nearly as much as to build new. It was decided to build new.
One major challenge remained, the historical and emotional connection of the Richford school house. Mt. Morris Mutual, President/CEO Daniel Fenske recalls, “I have lived and/or worked in this great community my entire life. My parents and grandparents lived and farmed in Richford. My grandparents operated a pickle station and lived just across the street from our office. I recall the penny gum machine at the old Wichner store and how it was a big deal to conjure a piece of copper from my father. The heated softball games which took place at the Richford ball park and the Lutheran church where me, my parents and siblings were all baptized, confirmed and married. They all surround our office. It was always a big deal to run over to the old school and play on the slide, merry-go-round and swings or participate in a family potluck, anniversary, or birthday.”
Setting forth a goal to maintain the entire school structure or at a minimum focus resources on maintaining portions of it to honor the historical and emotional attachment this structure has given this community was a priority. While the initial plan by the Board was to maintain the old structure and upgrade portions to use as a meeting hall for the company and community organizations, those plans eroded due to zoning challenges and space limitations.
While the bell and cupula have been removed for historical preservation and planned incorporation in the future, the overall structural integrity of the old school is still being analyzed. Asbestos testing is taking place and additional resources have been deployed to analyze all other options.
Moving the corporate office was never an option for the Mt. Morris Mutual Board. “Most of our 36 employees commute from the surrounding areas to include Adams, Westfield, Nekoosa, Wautoma, Neshkoro and Plainfield. A major objective was to maintain our current location not to inconvenience our great team,” explained Board Chairman Robert Hoefs.
Construction on the new corporate headquarters is taking shape. “This new facility will allow us to continue our historic connection to the agricultural industries and rural Wisconsin insurance market, while providing best in class services to our policyholders right from our home office here in Richford. It will harness rural characteristics blended with elements of the landscape of Central Wisconsin” stated Daniel Fenske.
Mt. Morris Mutual participates in the Adopt-A-Highway Program, maintaining about 1.7 miles of County Hwy B, which runs through Richford. They donate to area youths through scholarships, support 4-H and FFA livestock auctions and provide internships to aspiring professionals. In addition, they are committed to giving back to local active duty and veterans heroes.
Change is for certain, but the focus of this company to acknowledge their past and rich history is refreshing. President/CEO Daniel Fenske maybe best states this with a simple but powerful statement, “we don’t want to ever forget where we came from”.