A Chat With Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co. CEO Darwin Copeman

He lets his employees eat cake—just as long as they don’t call him boss

In 2009, when Darwin Copeman interviewed for the job of CEO at Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co., the directors told him he would have to spend 65 percent of his time on the road talking to people in the industry. That prospect didn’t appeal to him, so everyone made a deal: He would have to travel extensively only during his first year. Three years later, as Jewelers Mutual celebrates its 100th anniversary, Copeman spends as much time as ever out and about—and, he confides, “it’s become my favorite part of the job.” While he admits it’s very different being CEO of a ­jewelry insurance company as opposed to a more traditional insurance company (before ­Jewelers Mutual, Copeman was president and CEO of Cameron Insurance Companies), the business clearly suits him. “The thing I had to understand is we are really part of the jewelry industry,” he says. ­Copeman spoke to JCK about his leadership style, getting good people, and why he invites all his employees for a slice of birthday cake.

You head a large organization, and you deal with many mom-and-pop jewelers. How do you think the two kinds of groups are different?
We have a little over 200 employees, so there is a little more structure. For example, if there is a weather issue, we don’t talk to people individually; we can put something on the Internet. Yet when I greet a new employee, I greet them as a member of the Jewelers Mutual family. We are a small big company, I guess.

How do you keep that small-company feeling?
Each quarter, we gather together the staff in roughly thirds. We present to them what has taken place over the last quarter. I usually lead it off, but it ends with questions and answers. So it’s communication first and foremost, no surprises, keeping everyone aware of what is happening. And then each month as individuals turn another year older, we have what we call “Cake With Copeman.” So if your birthday is in December, we sit down and talk about what they are doing for Christmas.

Is that part of your management philosophy?
I believe in keeping your ego in check and making sure you listen more than you talk. I have one phrase I try to tell people: People do not work for me—they work with me. There is a word that I require never to be said and that is a four-letter word called boss. Boss ­connotes someone who gives orders, does not listen, does not collaborate.

How did that philosophy evolve?
When I first started working, I became the youngest officer the company had ever had. My stature is 5 feet 7 inches and I felt like I was 6 feet 4 inches, and I acted that way. I thought I had all the right answers. The CEO I was working for pulled me aside and said, “You love to hear yourself talk. And you do have a lot of good ideas, but a lot of them are what I would call prematurely correct. Put them in a box and let them age a little bit.” My management style has been formed by good constructive criticism by people who have been willing to give me feedback, even though I didn’t always want to hear it.

What are your favorite ­management books?
That’s all I read. All the Jim Collins books are really good. We have had everyone read Great by Choice. I also like Power of Alignment: How Great Companies Stay Centered and Accomplish Extraordinary Things by George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky. It’s about making sure that not just the CEO but the board of directors and the entire management team and everyone throughout the team understands the business plan, understands their roles, and feels ownership of it.

How do you motivate people?
I can never motivate people. But I can put them in an environment where they can become motivated or motivate themselves. We try to create a culture that speaks to caring, values everyone’s contributions to the organization, and recognizes them as human beings. We talk about the jewelry industry being an industry that is filled with passion. We try to replicate that passion. We try to feel an emotional connection to the people that we serve as our customers.

What do you look for in your employees?
I like people that have a smile that comes across on the telephone. Often, we look for people not with great depth of experience but who are great learners, who are ready to deep dive. It’s finding a personality instead of a résumé. For leadership positions, we look for people who have a high EQ [emotional quotient]—people who know themselves and know how to work with others. It’s a lot harder to find people with a high EQ than people with a high IQ.