Over his 35 years at Principal Financial Group, Dan Houston has counted himself as fortunate to have known six of his predecessors who have led the company as chairman, CEO and president.

Having seen the leadership of two former CEOs, J. Barry Griswell and Larry Zimpleman, during the financial crisis, Houston gained an appreciation for their leadership as they made tremendously difficult decisions.

“If you really think about it,” Houston said, “that’s the test of the mettle of leadership, when things are really difficult and challenging. I know that it made all of our leaders at that time better for having had that experience.”

Houston, who became the 15th president of the global financial services company just over three years ago, was named Best CEO as well as Best Metro Business Leader this year by Business Record readers. Principal was also voted Best Large Company with a Bright Future, along with Best Life Insurance Company.

The Fortune 500 company has continued to make significant investments in Greater Des Moines beyond the Principal Riverwalk project, including hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate its downtown corporate campus, as well as its annual leadership in the Principal Charity Golf Classic.

Houston, who was born in Council Bluffs and raised in Houston, began his career with Principal as a retirement sales representative in the company’s Dallas office in 1984, and has held more than a dozen different leadership roles.

“I can’t think of a time I wasn’t excited about going to work,” says Houston, who espouses a philosophy of servant leadership.

In the community, Houston is in the homestretch of a second year as chair of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. He also chaired the campaign to recruit the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for a second visit to Des Moines, and is active with United Way of Central Iowa.

At the national level, he is vice chairman of the American Council of Life Insurers and will chair that organization next year. He is also a member of the executive committee of the Employee Benefit Research Institute. He sits on the Business Roundtable, which includes the leaders of 250 of the largest U.S. companies that do business globally. Houston also serves on the board of the Partnership for a Healthier America, a national nonprofit working to address childhood obesity.

Houston typically closes each correspondence that goes out from his office with, “We press on.”

“You go take the mountain every day. I love getting up every day and coming to work and doing something productive,” he said. “I am optimistic, but I’m guarded about making sure I have good facts to make good decisions. If you think you’ve got it tough, look at how some people struggle and spend a day in their shoes.”

What makes a good CEO — what do you aspire to be as a leader?
It could be kind of a cliche, but I still think it comes down to, are you a servant leader or not? You do it because you want to meet the needs of the customers, create an environment for people to do their best work, and that’s all about servant leadership. Those attributes are about not being selfish, keeping your ego in check. It’s certainly about putting in the time and energy to help coach and develop people. In some instances you’re more successful than in others, but at the end of the day I think we’ll be judged on whether you made it a better place than when you started.

Why has Principal chosen to invest so much in Greater Des Moines?
You know, it starts with the customer — first we have to serve the needs of the customers. We get a lot of customers, joint venture partners, regulators and rating agencies. So we host a lot of groups from all over the world. We want to recruit the best talent from all over the world, and our front door needs to be representative of the kind of company that we are. So to the extent that we’ve made investments in infrastructure, it’s about our ability to attract and retain talent. The second half of that, of course, goes beyond that to the Principal Riverwalk and all the other aspects of Des Moines. That’s why I volunteer locally, to try to ensure that Des Moines is a great place to live, work and play. And to the extent that we can create an environment that has sports facilities, restaurants, bars, water activities, bike trails and environmental qualities like clean water and air, that’s how you attract talent here. 

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in retirement savings? 
We’re here to serve the needs of small to medium-size businesses, individuals and institutions. Those are really our three market segments. … It’s really providing comprehensive benefits that help people protect as well as accumulate wealth for retirement, so it isn’t just about 401(k) plans. The second part of our business is around global asset management — we do business now in 80 different countries around the world. Lastly would be around individual investors — retail mutual funds and IRA solutions. And I would say things are actually going quite well. I give a lot of credit to the millennials. Although they’re graduating with a fair amount of student debt, they’re actually good savers. So the net saving rate in this country has actually gone up, not down. Consumer debt is staying about even, though of course there is college debt that people have to pay down. … The market is quite healthy right now.