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MSU alum exceeds early expectations

As a young man in Mandan, Roger Looyenga's career goal was teaching business at the high school level. Instead, he became the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

His professional success derived from an artful blend of hard work, balance and timing. Even in retirement, he continues to wear that success lightly.

"I never aspired to anything, except to do the very best I could possibly do," he said. "It was never my goal to climb the corporate ladder. When I became CEO, it was completely by surprise."

Looyenga served as CEO of Auto-Owners Insurance Group from 2004 until his retirement in 2008. He was the firm's chairman of the board from 2006 to 2009. The Michigan-based firm offers a full range of insurance lines in 26 states.

Looyenga's upward ascent began when he chose to attend Minot State because of its size and proximity to home. A diverse group of faculty members mentored him. Pearl Stusrud guided him through his business major. Ron Archer advised his fraternity. And Helen White stressed to him the value of public speaking.

"She got me enthusiastic about making presentations, which was a big part of my career for 40 years," he said.

Looyenga majored in business education and minored in psychology. He also served in student government, directed Sigma Tau Gamma and played varsity tennis.

When he graduated in1968, he went to Minneapolis and took a job with the Hartford Insurance Company. After a year there, he transferred to Auto-Owners Insurance Group. He served in company offices in Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan, where he met his wife, Ann.

When the Looyenga became CEO at Auto-Owners, he found that he was actually first among equals. He facilitated a 10-person team that made all corporate decisions.

"No one of us is as smart as all of us put together. It's the power of team thinking," he said.

Looyenga presented MSU with a $100,000 gift in 2010 to initiate a program in business leadership, a neglected area in higher education.

"We put too much emphasis on management, which is directing processes, versus getting people to perform based upon their abilities," he said.

Each student in the leadership program receives a copy of Looyenga's book, "Take the Stairs," which stresses that success in business and in life derives from hard work, not shortcuts.

To read this article in its entirety, or other articles like this, check out the Spring 2013 issue of Connections Magazine [pdf].