The stress and fear caused by the rapid spread of Covid-19 in early 2020 presented a leadership challenge for Chris Hilger, chairman, president and CEO of Securian Financial.
“Our employees were very anxious,” Hilger says. He recalls thinking, “What can we do to help gain the confidence of our team and give them some direction?”
He knew that his employees would be forced to make many decisions without having all the information they wanted, so he elected to simplify their lives.
He describes a meeting he had early in the pandemic with his leadership council of about 50 people. In a virtual session, he told them, “We’re going to focus on three things. No. 1: Taking care of the people who count on us. No. 2: Protecting our financial strength. No. 3: Preparing for the future.”
Hilger says his objective was to provide clear priorities so employees wouldn’t be engulfed by an overwhelming “fog of chaos.” He reassured his leadership council that he wouldn’t second-guess executives.
“It was amazing how that just let the room exhale and empowered these incredibly talented people to go out and do their thing,” Hilger says, assessing his company’s pandemic response from his 21st-floor office in downtown St. Paul.
Through early 2022, Securian Financial has paid out $1.25 billion in Covid-related death benefits to about 14,000 families. “We didn’t know how contagious it was going to be or how deadly the virus was going to be,” Hilger says, but the company was financially prepared to handle a pandemic.
Securian Financial offers insurance, investment, and retirement products and services, which generated $6.9 billion in revenue in 2020. It had $97.8 billion in assets under management that same year. Its customer base spans the United States and Canada. About 3,100 employees are based out of two Securian Financial buildings on Robert Street in
St. Paul. When its subsidiaries and other offices are included, its workforce rises to about 6,950.
The company has a unique ownership structure, and it is not publicly traded.
“We are a mutual holding company, and essentially that means that the company is owned and controlled by the policyholders,” Hilger says. “We are accountable to the people that we provide the protection to.” He says he loves the governance structure because “it allows us to operate the business in a real long-term mindset type of way.”
“In his understated way, he is so fierce about how we build a workforce, how we secure our customers’ tomorrows.”
—Sara Gavin, board director, Securian Financial
Hilger, 57, grew up in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. But there are several factors in his background that reinforced his decision to live in St. Paul and work for Securian Financial.
He was born in St. Paul and lived in Minnesota until his family moved when he was in the second grade. A strong math and science student, Hilger knew as a college freshman that he wanted to work in business, so he majored in finance. After he graduated, he says, “I ended up going to work for Abbott
Laboratories in Chicago in their financial training program.”
After working at Abbott for a few years, Hilger took a professional turn that led to a lifelong career in the insurance industry. His mother, Melissa Eldredge, invited him to join her insurance agency as vice president of operations. Hilger said yes.
Without the benefit of a college degree, Hilger’s mother built Eldredge & Associates into a business that employed 15 people and sold insurance to financial institutions. Eldredge had deep Minnesota roots and was a high school graduate of the all-girls Visitation School in Mendota Heights.
Hilger was drawn to the “entrepreneurial culture” of his mother’s agency, which operated in Carmel, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis. After a couple of years, Hilger bought the agency from his mother, and he brought his brothers Pete and Dave into the business. They grew it into a big regional insurance agency that served states in the eastern U.S. In 2000, Hilger merged his company with a Dallas-based agency that served western states. The combined company was named Allied Solutions.
In 2004, Allied Solutions was sold to Securian. Multiple companies had expressed interest in buying Allied Solutions. When Hilger visited Securian to discuss a potential deal, the head of HR told him that he had worked with Hilger’s mother when Securian was called Minnesota Mutual. The man gave him a Minnesota Mutual annual report that included a photo of Melissa Eldredge, which is currently displayed in a gold frame in Hilger’s office.
In 2022, Allied Solutions operates as a wholly owned subsidiary. It employs about 1,300 people and Pete Hilger is the CEO. Chris Hilger led Allied Solutions for a few years after it was sold, and then commuted between Indiana and Minnesota from 2007 to 2010 while overseeing Securian’s financial institutions division.
Hilger and his family moved to St. Paul in 2010 when he was promoted to executive vice president. He quickly scaled the corporate ladder, becoming president in 2012, CEO in 2015, and chairman in 2017.
Sara Gavin, global chief client officer for Weber Shandwick, is a 19-year board director for Securian, which was rebranded as Securian Financial a few years ago. So she’s observed Hilger during his entire Securian career.
“In his understated way, he is so fierce about how we build a workforce, how we secure our customers’ tomorrows,” Gavin says.
Securian Financial is constantly assessing risks in a dynamic economic and business environment. “He knows that change is required, and he’s not afraid of that,” Gavin says. “I think about the entry into Canada, the digital transformation, the requirements of cybersecurity, the changing market, and investments made in marketing and brand positioning.”
To help him take on all of those initiatives, Gavin says that Hilger has built an excellent leadership team. Calling him “very smart” and “extremely warm,” she says that Hilger “respects and knows how to get the best out of his teams.”
As he surveys his career, Hilger says, he’s propelled revenue growth through increased sales as well as acquisitions of companies that are a good cultural fit. “About five years ago, we embarked upon an acquisition-driven growth strategy in Canada,” he says. “We have had a number of successful transactions that have helped us really gain a foothold in that market.”
In leading people, he says, “I’m very visibly collaborative by nature. I try to give people permission to push back, and it’s the way I learn, too.” Hilger says he’s able to make better decisions when he hears different perspectives and works with people from diverse backgrounds. Among his 10 independent board directors, five are women and two are people of color.
Hilger remembers his CEO predecessor Bob Senkler saying, “We have to be out doing good in the community.” He watched Senkler repeatedly get involved in projects to make St. Paul a better community. “He brought to life what it meant to be a servant-leader,” Hilger says.
He’s followed Senkler’s civic responsibility path. And Hilger was excited to discover that his great-great-grandfather Christopher O’Brien served as mayor of St. Paul from 1883 to 1885.
Hilger formerly chaired the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundation board. He currently serves on the boards of the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “Just do things for the common good, feel great about it, and make your community better,” he says.
“Public service is in Chris’ blood,” says Neel Kashkari, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “He brings his contacts and his experiences to help us understand what’s happening in the economy so that we can make the best decisions we can in setting monetary policy for the nation.”
Hilger says he can “talk about what is happening with supply chain issues and give real-life stories of how that is impacting the business community.” Hilger is deputy chair of the regional Fed board. Kashkari says that Hilger is in line to become chair in his next board term.
“Chris listens more than he talks,” Kashkari says. “He is always listening and learning. When he has something to say, we’ve come to learn to pay close attention, because it’s going to be pretty important and pretty insightful.”