A CEO is on the market

There’s nothing quite like a forced yearlong break from work. Just ask Chris Littlefield. Littlefield, the former CEO of West Des Moines-based Aviva USA, is just more than halfway through a one-year non-compete agreement with Athene USA, the company that purchased Aviva USA in October 2013.

My curiosity was piqued when I saw that Littlefield was stepping in to replace former Wells Fargo & Co. exec Scott Johnson as one of the co-chairs of the Capital Crossroads Human Capital. It was a signal he planned to stay in the area, so I grabbed coffee with Littlefield, a Cleveland native and a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law, to discuss his plans for the future.

Littlefield, who moved to Iowa in 2006 after eight years as a senior VP at Dial Corp., said he has enjoyed the six months off, which has allowed him to spend more time with his three children - a senior and sophomore at Waukee High School and a fourth-grader. Perhaps more important for any local business in need of a CEO, he said his family intends to stay in Des Moines. And although he has enjoyed the time off, he does want to get back into a CEO role or perhaps a No. 2-type role with the opportunity to become CEO in the future.

The non-compete, however, is strict, he said, and prevents him from taking any job before October that is similar in nature to what he did at Aviva USA.

“I was treated very well by Athene on the way out,” Littlefield said. “We didn’t get along, but I liked them. They were fair and they abided by their commitments, so I don’t feel like I need to skirt along the edges of a non-compete.”

Littlefield said he has been approached about a variety of opportunities and explored opportunities in other industries as well, but nothing has been the right fit to this point.

It struck me that here is a guy who, over the course of three years, rose quickly from general counsel, to chief operating officer, before becoming CEO of an annuity company in 2009 during the height of the recession. Then he spent the next four years as CEO of one of the largest employers in the area, while shepherding it through a sale to Athene.

To put it bluntly, he’s seen a few things.

There aren’t many companies in the area comparable in size to Aviva, so I was curious if the size of the company was a factor in where Littlefield might end up.

“I don’t think the number of zeros (on the company’s bottomline) matters,” he told me. “It’s working with people, being able to make a difference, trying to deliver a product that people really love and enjoy.”

So, is there anything in particular he’s interested in doing once the non-compete is up?

“Ruler of the free world. U.S. senator,” he said with a laugh. “No, not really. You know the right opportunity when it arises.”

Cradle through career

Littlefield was asked by Human Capital Co-Chair and Waukee School Superintendent Dave Wilkerson and the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Mary Bontrager to serve as co-chair. Littlefield’s children attend Waukee schools, hence Wilkerson’s familiarity with Littlefield. The Human Capital actually began with a goal of formulating a long-term plan to ensure the area has a skilled workforce, and intended to create a “cradle to career” pipeline to attract and retain talent. Littlefield said one of the big things they are trying to do is reinvigorate the committee by broadening the focus to work on K-12 priorities, higher education needs and a new area: adult re-skilling needs. In other words, he said, shifting the focus from “cradle to career” to “cradle through career.”

Speaking of Wilkerson…

Wilkerson’s name has been percolating in a variety of discussions relating to education. In fact, we had a series of industry roundtables on manufacturing, STEM education and culture. In all three, and in countless other discussions, the education of our future workforce has been a huge concern. Wilkerson and the innovative work he’s been doing for Waukee school district since 2004 have been used as an example on multiple occasions. On last year’s Partnership trip to Washington, D.C., I heard Wilkerson talk about Waukee’s unorthodox standards-based grading system - he sold me; learn more here: bit.ly/1taLPpr. And Wilkerson was the visionary behind the recently unveiled Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS). The program, which will be housed in a $20 million facility, will have high school juniors and seniors work with business professionals in a range of disciplines. Read more: bit.ly/Tmlj03

Chris the recruiter

While meeting with Littlefield, we talked a bit about my days covering sports for the Iowa State Daily. I learned that his daughter Carlie averaged 10 points per game last year as a freshman for a Waukee basketball team that was one of eight teams to make the Class 5A state tournament. She hopes to play at the college level. I, of course, made my pitch for a favorite person of mine and one of the coaches I had the most fun covering, Bill Fennelly up at Iowa State. Sorry, coach, I’m not sure I sold Littlefield, a Hawkeye grad himself, but I gave it my best effort.

Connie the all-star

The above provides a nice segue to a fun fact I learned about our owner, Connie Wimer. Ask her about her days as the shortest player and leading scorer for her high school six-on-six women’s basketball team. With Wimer generously listed at 5 feet 4 inches, I can only imagine the rumors about her being the first woman to dunk are in fact true. I know I’d be nervous to take her on one-on-one.

Stat that speaks

One in 8 Iowans will be hungry tonight. The stat came courtesy Jerry Armstrong, chairman of the board of Meals From the Heartland, who shared it during his acceptance speech for the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines’ Better Together Award at the organization’s annual celebration luncheon on May 12. Armstrong’s organization was awarded a $2,500 grant, which he said at 20 cents per meal, would provide 12,500 meals. And yet, that grant only feeds 3 percent of the 400,000 hungry Iowans for one night.