How Todd Strother Reimagined Legal

Todd Strother has created a team that connects to all aspects of EMC Insurance Companies’ business to better serve the company

After twenty-one years in private practice, Todd Strother didn’t think he’d ever leave. A native of Ankeny, Iowa, he’d met his wife—another Ankeny original—in Chicago. After starting his career at Foley & Lardner, Strother and his wife returned to their hometown to raise a family. Strother joined the Des Moines firm Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave in 1999.

One of the firm’s largest clients, EMC Insurance Companies, was a company Strother had come to know well, and when their longtime general counsel announced his intention to retire, an opportunity to move in-house presented itself. “I jumped at the opportunity simply because I knew what EMC stood for, how it treated its people, and its reputation in the community,” Strother says.

Strother was hired as general counsel in 2016 and has since been promoted to executive vice president and chief legal officer. He now oversees not only legal but also corporate office claims, compliance, government relations, governance, vendor management, enterprise development, administration, and facilities. But even before his latest promotion, he worked to realign and refocus the legal department, a move that has benefited the company in various ways—especially when they decided to go private in 2019.

Todd Strother, EVP and Chief Legal Officer, EMC Insurance Companies Photo by Steve McTee

New Beginnings

“When I took over the legal department, there was budget for a general counsel and four lawyers,” Strother explains. “Both the general counsel and the senior-most attorney, with twenty-plus years of experience each, were retiring at the same time. Two younger lawyers remained, and another young lawyer was hired at the exact time I was, so we had all this institutional knowledge heading out the door.”

Fortunately, the young lawyers who remained proved to be the bedrock for a legal team that has evolved considerably since Strother’s first day. “We worked together to figure out what we had, in terms of our knowledge and expertise, and where we might have some gaps,” Strother says. “We’ve built a team of absolutely amazing, fantastic lawyers with the kind of can-do attitude that is so important to this role.”

As Strother has risen at EMC, he says he’s been continually impressed by the growth of his legal team into new areas and parts of the business. “At least initially, we had lawyers who were all acting as generalists, and we decided that we could provide more value to the organization if we could get our team out in front of people with some specialization,” he says.

Strother feels it important to acknowledge the attorneys and other professionals currently on his legal team by name because he credits them with the success of the department. Each attorney handles multiple areas, he explains, but also specializes in certain matters.

Doug Van Zanten accrued regulatory expertise while assisting with board of director matters. Lee Henderson became the in-house expert for privacy and insuretech investment, partnering with EMC’s innovation department, senior executives, and finance team. Maggie White, hired in 2017, is the team’s employment law expert, tasked with partnering with HR for EMC’s 2,400 employees. Caroline Valentine, hired in 2019, has assumed purview over legal issues for the company’s assumed reinsurance business. And Michelle Leitch, hired just weeks before the pandemic began, assists with software contracts, insurtech investments, and other matters.

Strother also commends one of the young attorneys who helped him build the team, Barnes Kelley, who has since been promoted to lead the company’s Vendor Management Department. The team is supported by Tina Cornelius, paralegal, and Lauri Bloss, administrative assistant, who Strother said are also critical to the success of the department.

Strother has pushed his legal team to work on cross-functional teams and take a more active role in the nonlegal parts of the business that can still benefit from face time with a trusted advisor. The legal function invited department heads to meetings to get to know the team better. The evolution has been significant and meaningful, and Strother expresses great admiration for his team’s ability to stretch.

“These are all young people,” Strother says. “That’s what’s amazing to me. They’ve really had to take on leadership roles, and I can’t believe how fearlessly and successfully they have done so.”

Going Private

When EMC Insurance made the decision to go private in 2019, the legal team realized it could use addtitional expertise. Strother says the legal team had two options: take the easier route of farming out most of the work to more experienced outside counsel or double down on its efforts to be a more proactive business partner to the organization.

Strother says he didn’t just want to be a legal department that only handles legal matters and that outsources everything to outside law firms. Instead, he says, he felt it was important for the company’s board and executives to see the legal department taking a leadership role in terms of helping get this process established and the company ready to go down the path.

According to Strother, the attitude his team has demonstrated throughout the process was exactly what he envisioned when assuming the general counsel position in 2016. “That whole process showed me the teamwork that we were working to build here had paid off,” he says. “Everybody came with an attitude of wanting to add significant value to the process.”

Strother also knew that it was necessary to bring in the outside expertise that was needed for a project of this scope, so he helped the EMC board of directors retain the national law firm Foley & Lardner to represent the parent company in the transaction. Strother credits the Foley team with helping the board and company through this process. “The Foley team was incredible and really helped the board understand the process and their duties,” he says. “The board was very happy with their work, and I would highly recommend them to others.”

With more responsibility on his plate, Strother now has multiple teams reporting to him—but his leadership approach has remained consistent. “Not to sound like a book, but I work very hard to practice servant leadership,” Strother says. “I mean, to truly practice it. This is something our CEO Scott Jean and our executive team take very seriously. As a leader, you work for your teams, not the other way around.”

Strother says that EMC’s “why statement” of “Improving Lives” is one that he takes to heart. “It’s such a great statement for a leader, and all team members, because if you keep that in mind and strive to improve the lives of your team members, your agents, your policyholders, and your community, you’re going to accomplish some amazing things.”

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Foley & Lardner, LLP:

“Todd is not ‘just a lawyer.’ He is truly a value-added trusted advisor to EMC’s management and board. He seamlessly marries his knowledge of the company—its history, culture, and people, its unique constituencies as a mutual insurance company, and the insurance industry—with his legal acumen and big picture judgment to provide strategic and practical approaches to problem avoidance and solving.”

–Steve Barth, Partner

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Nyemaster Goode, P.C.:

“The guidance and support Todd provided to his team and our firm throughout EMC’s going private transaction was critical to its success. We are proud to have been a part of such a transformative event in the company’s history.”

–Mark Dickinson, Shareholder

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Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, P.C.:

“Todd helped lead our law firm before heading EMC’s legal department. I’m certain he will be just as measured as EVP to one of Des Moines’s most respected businesses in our largest industry.”

–Sean O’Brien, *Past President, Bradshaw Law

*December 31, 2020: Sean completed three years on the Bradshaw management team.  He was the law firm president in 2020.