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The humble origins of Epic — and 4 other iconic Dane County companies

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Today, one can’t help but marvel at Epic Systems’ sprawling Verona campus, which stands as a monument — or rather a series of monuments — to hard work, innovation, and seemingly limitless success.

But Epic started as many other iconic companies do — small, and with considerably more hopeful dreams and earnest goals than receivables.

In IB’s September print edition, we listed Dane County’s top 100 employers and profiled Epic and a handful of other thriving area companies. Not surprisingly, Epic topped our list with 7,400 full-time employees, which was up from 6,500 employees last year — which was up from 5,600 the year before that. (You’re likely seeing a pattern.)

Of course, that’s a far cry from the 1.5 employees the company started out with.

In case you’re wondering whether your own startup business could ever reach 7,400 employees and find its own Epic-like success, you needn’t look far for inspiration.

Here’s a quick look at the humble origins of Epic and four other local corporate icons:

Epic Systems Corp.

Epic started its long and prosperous life in 1979 after its current CEO, Judith Faulkner, launched what was then known as Human Services Computing Corp. at 2020 University Ave. in Madison (in a fairly nondescript office building that, astonishingly enough, was also once home to American Girl). Officially, the company had one and a half employees. Early on, Epic landed some data analysis work with the UW and a few government entities, and in 1983 it launched its Cadence software, a patient-scheduling tool.

For the next decade or so, the company grew at a steady but unspectacular clip. In 1985, it hit $1 million in revenues, and by 1990, it had 29 employees.

This building at 2020 University Ave. was an early home to both Epic Systems and American Girl.

A series of new product offerings, including EpicWeb, MyChart, and Hyperspace, accelerated the company’s growth, but even as it continued to experience a rapid expansion throughout the ’90s, it was a far cry from the Epic we’ve all come to know, appreciate, and stand in awe of.

In 2003, Epic landed a massive contract with Kaiser Permanente, but according to Faulkner, the biggest spur to the company’s growth came courtesy of George W. Bush, an early proponent of electronic health records, which by 2004 had become Epic’s stock in trade.

“If I have to zero in on a single event, it would be the presidential election debates when George W. Bush, advised by Tommy Thompson, spoke about the need for EHRs,” stated Faulkner in IB’s September print story on Epic’s remarkable growth

As most everyone in Badgerland knows, Epic has continued its astounding upward trajectory since moving to its current Verona campus in 2002. By 2005, its employee count had swelled to 2,050, and just three years after that it had added roughly a thousand more employees.

And while many other companies retrenched during the Great Recession, Epic continued to soldier on, topping IB’s largest employers list for the first time in 2013 (after leapfrogging UW Hospital and Clinics) and reaching 7,400 employees this year.

(For more details, check out this timeline, which chronicles Epic’s history through 2008.)

American Family Insurance

As with many other longtime Wisconsin businesses, American Family Insurance was built on the sustained success of the state’s agricultural industry.

According to the company’s website, AmFam founder Herman Wittwer was struggling to make a living selling insurance when he hit on the idea of providing auto insurance to Wisconsin’s farmers, whom he considered a lower risk than city dwellers.

Aware that farmers “drove less often and put their cars up on blocks for the winter,” Wittwer launched Farmers Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in Madison in October 1927. By the end of its inaugural year, it had 486 policyholders, who’d paid a total of $8,130 in premiums. More importantly, that same year it paid out a paltry $45.85 in claims, proving Wittwer’s hunch correct.

In 1930, the company began selling policies to non-farmers through the newly established National Mutual Casualty Co. By 1937, the company had 45,000 policyholders, and the next year, it collected more than $1 million in premiums.

In 1963, the company changed its name to American Family Mutual Insurance Co. to better represent its customer mix.

Today, American Family Insurance has operations across the country and a Dane County workforce of 3,587 full-time employees and 46 part-time employees. Still headquartered in Madison, its 2013 revenues topped $6.8 billion.

(For a more extensive history of American Family Insurance, click here.)


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