Jay Zahn never saw himself as a surety-bond specialist, much less the chairman of a big construction organization.
Even now, 12 years after coming to concentrate on bonding for Menomonee Falls-based R&R Insurance Services Inc. and well into his one-year chairman stint for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, Zahn looks back with a mixture of surprise and gratitude. He has undergone a lot of change and growth, he said, since joining R&R in 2006.
He was quick to recognize at the beginning of it all that he had a lot to learn.
“I knew how to spell bond,” he said. “I kind of knew what it was.”
Working as an underwriter with a strong background in finance for a different firm for 20 years, Zahn didn’t have to know about bonding. But R&R, which had a business relationship with Zahn, acquired a bonding agency in 2006. When it hired Zahn, the goal was to have him learn from the two people who had been running that company and eventually take over for them.
“I was really successful where I was at,” he said, “and, for me, it was a leap of faith.”
It also was a leap outside of his comfort zone. Zahn, who described himself as an introvert, needed to do more than learn about bonding. He had to step into the construction industry, meet contractors and join associations.
That led to the ABC, though he made it clear his involvement in the group had nothing to do with merit shops versus unions; he’s also a member of the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin. At ABC, Zahn started out on committees, joined the board and then found himself elected chairman.
“It made me step out of my box,” he said.
If anyone had asked him in 2006 to join the ABC board, he said, he would have rejected the offer on the spot. His growth as a bond specialist and as a member of the construction community have helped him to step into his current role.
Still, the responsibilities that came with leading an 850-plus member organization scared him, he said.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, I’m an associate member running a construction outfit,’” he said.
Now that his time as chairman is winding down, he said, he’ll be sad to let the position go. Beyond offering professional development and relationships with contractors, it helped him set his introversion aside, Zahn said. He even managed to overcome his distaste for public speaking, keeping to what he said are the three Bs: Be brief. Be sincere. Be done.
His goal in the position, he said, was to keep a successful organization rolling and “on the center line.” What has he got in return? Plenty, he says.
“It made me challenge myself,” Zahn said, “and grow.”
The Daily Reporter: What surprises you most about your work?
Zahn: How much I like it. Being an introvert by nature, I thought that all the interactions that I have each day were going to be a challenge. It has actually been quite a learning and growing experience that has brought out the best in me both professionally and personally.
TDR: Which living person do you most admire?
Zahn: There are so many who have inspired me. But if I have to only pick one, it would be my son, Josh. He is a junior at UW-Eau Claire working on his finance major. My wife has said countless times, as have others, he is an old soul. His commitment and desire to be successful while navigating through personal challenges makes me want to be a better bond agent and, more importantly, a better dad and husband. I also have great admiration for my daughter and wife for following their passion to help others by taking a leap of faith and starting a wellness center, A Better Me.
TDR: What other job did you consider trying?
Zahn: Growing up, it was always a passion of mine to be either a police officer or firefighter. I took an accounting class my senior year of high school and that path changed forever. Although I seriously considered becoming a police officer in my 30s, it was a blessing that I didn’t because I wouldn’t be where I am today, which is in a good place.
TDR: What is your greatest fear?
Zahn: Falling is my greatest fear, which can be tough sitting in a tree stand. I believe this represents failure to me. I’ve always tried to put the best of me forward so that I wouldn’t fail in what I do.
TDR: What is your greatest extravagance?
Zahn: I am not an extravagant kind of guy. I asked my wife what she thought, and she laughed and said buying expensive Oakley sunglasses at Cabela’s with my Club Points. I would have to say, though, my GMC pickup truck is my extravagance. I travel so much throughout the state, so it is important that I have a vehicle that is comfortable, reliable and represents who I am. My truck is a symbol of strength for me, which I know men and women in the construction trades can relate to. You will know I’m in your area by my JZBOND plate.
TDR: What would you never wear?
Zahn: I would never wear spandex. I don’t feel comfortable in constricting any part of me, and, besides, it wouldn’t be a pleasant sight. I am pretty open-minded, but I will never, ever be a spandex guy.
TDR: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Zahn: It sounds cliché, but not sweating the small stuff is always a work in progress for me. I’ve gotten better over time, though.
TDR: What would your colleagues be surprised to find out about you?
Zahn: Although I am a hunter, I truly love animals and all that nature offers.