Celebrating the best of the Corridor’s C-suite

This year’s C-Suite Award winners, from left: Lucas Kuhlmann, ACT; Sue Freeman, GreenState Credit Union; Mike Gassmann, Van Meter; Kimberly Venner, Tanager Place; Brenda Lou Werner Willson, BankIowa; Jessalyn Holdcraft, NewBoCo; Tim Schroeder, Neumann Monson Architects; Wendy Nielsen, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust; and Dennis Bockenstedt, city of Iowa City. Not pictured: Dawn Jaffray of UFG Insurance. PHOTO ADAM MOORE


By Katharine Carlon & Dave DeWitte

Some started at the bottom and proved their mettle over many years, like Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust Chief Marketing Officer Wendy Nielsen, while others like UFG Insurance’s Chief Financial Officer Dawn Jaffray are relative newcomers who made an immediate mark. Some are focused on transforming their organization’s technology, while others are focused on building great cultures.

The 10 winners of the CBJ’s 2019 C-Suite Awards had 10 stories to tell about their journey to success at a Sept. 11 luncheon at the Cedar Rapids Country Club. But nearly all of them pointed to common tailwinds that have propelled them on their paths: surrounding themselves with a strong network of staffers and mentors, a love of the job, and the willingness to make mistakes and embrace change.

“It’s not about me, it’s never been about me,” said Mike Gassman, chief sales officer for Van Meter Inc., in a sentiment expressed again and again in the short acceptance speeches given by each honoree. “It’s not about us as leaders, but the team we work with.”

Tim Schroeder, president and chief operating officer for Neumann Monson Architects, called himself “a lucky guy in the right place at the right time,” pointing to his team’s dedication to “craft, community and clients” that has resulted in 27 state and 17 regional awards. Kimberly Venner, chief operating officer of Tanager Place, credited all her successes to those who “invested in me and believed in me,” particularly mentor Mary Flynn, to whom she dedicated her award.

“No matter where I have been in my career, I have always had amazing people who believed in me and reached out to me … people who supported me, challenged me and encouraged me to stretch,” she said. “I have been so blessed to have so many caring people in my career life.”

If being surrounded by a team of solid employees and advisors is step one, this year’s C-Suite winners seemed to agree that step two on the route to success is finding a passion – a role that inspires, challenges and forces continual growth.

“It’s been so much fun building the department,” said BankIowa Chief Human Resources Officer Brenda Lou Werner Willson, who began her 44-year career as a teller in the pre-electronic banking age and worked her way up the bank’s leadership team. “I get to see the best of our people – what their best skills are and the best of their work, and it’s been very gratifying.”

Of course, gratifying doesn’t mean easy, as GreenState Credit Union’s Chief Human Resources Officer Sue Freeman explained. Often it means making mistakes, learning from them and doing better next time.

“I get a little emotional because I’m knocking on that door of retirement,” Ms. Freeman said. “I’ve had a career, like all of you, that has had its share of bumps and adversity, but those are the times that have truly made it possible to learn and grow and appreciate the successes along the way.”

Part of that growth is being open to change, according to ACT Chief Technology Officer Lucas Kuhlmann, describing his organization’s emergence from what he called a “techno time capsule” and its rapid evolution.

And some of it, in the words of NewBoCo’s Chief Marketing Office Jessalyn Holdcraft, is just showing up and trying.

“It’s about going to the blackboard and raising your hand,” Ms. Holdcraft said, citing one of her fictional heroes, Press Secretary C.J. Craig of “The West Wing.”

We hope you enjoy the short profiles on each of this year’s C-Suite honorees on the pages that follow, and find inspiration for your own career journey. This year’s C-Suite Awards luncheon was presented by UFG Insurance and the Overture Group.

2019’s C-Suite Award Winners (click for profiles):
Tim Schroeder, President & Chief Operations Officer – Neumann Monson Architects
Kimberly Venner, Vice President of Operations – Tanager Place
Dennis Bockenstedt, Finance Director – City of Iowa City
Dawn Jaffray, Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer – UFG Insurance
Lucas Kuhlmann, Chief Technology Officer – ACT
Sue Freeman, Executive Vice President, Human Resources – GreenState Credit Union
Brenda Lou Werner Willson, Chief Human Resources Officer – BankIowa
Jessalyn Holdcraft, Director of Marketing – NewBoCo
Wendy Nielsen, Vice President, Marketing – Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust
Mike Gassmann, Chief Growth Officer – Van Meter