A Customized Approach: The story behind the creation of Integrity Financial

The original idea behind Integrity Financial came from a desire to break the mold and act on an entrepreneurial spirit.

Eric Johnson (Johnson Insurance), Jason Kleemeier (OneWealth) and Ben Applegate (Applegate Tax & Accounting), who bought out Jaysson Gurwell, an original member of Integrity, had all worked in the finance and banking industry early in their professional careers. Working with a variety of firms, banks and agencies, they found a desire to go above and beyond what big companies could provide. They particularly wanted to bring a personalized approached to their clients.

What they created was Integrity Financial, a Winterset-based life planning company integrating investment, insurance and accounting in one space. The three operators of Integrity Financial come from slightly different backgrounds, but they joined for a single purpose: to serve clients in all of their life needs in custom and personal ways.

Creating something

Eric Johnson and Jason Kleemeier grew up in small Iowa towns — Johnson in Stanton in southwest Iowa and Kleemeier in Rockwell City near Fort Dodge — and both attended colleges in central Iowa.

After graduation, their paths weren’t so similar.

Johnson went into the banking industry after a one-year stint in Omaha in finance. He relocated to Essex, a town of under 1,000 people in southwest Iowa, to work at a community bank for 10 years. In 2006, he moved to Winterset to become the vice president at Union State Bank.

While Johnson worked in rural communities after college, Kleemeier’s professional career started in Des Moines. He worked in finance until 1999, when he opened an Edward Jones office on the north side of the city. As a financial adviser, Kleemeier helped clients save and invest their money. In 2002, with two children, Kleemeier and his wife, Jess, decided to move back to their small-town roots. There was an opening to run the investment side at Union State Bank, and he joined the company in 2002.

After Johnson joined the bank, he and Kleemeier became friends. They started discussing the possibilities of going out on their own. Johnson didn’t have experience selling insurance, but his skills perfectly suited the industry. Kleemeier’s knowledge of investment could help people save for retirement. And Gurwell, another friend in Winterset who was a certified public accountant, could assist people with taxes and accounting needs.

In late 2007, the three started brainstorming around kitchen tables. They thought up brands, logos and how to actually achieve the transition. The more they talked, the more they believed in how their skill sets could complement each other in the life-planning businesses.

“It was dumb luck, honestly,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there was that in-depth of a conversation that if we put these three things together, it’s going to be great. We meshed it all together, and it was almost unintentional in the way it turned out.”

There was also the desire from all three guys to shed the corporate mold and go out on their own. They had the entrepreneurial bug.

“We all wanted to own our own businesses,” Kleemeier said. “We thought the businesses would go together. It was a positive to reduce overhead costs by sharing one office, one receptionist. That was the main driver.”

In 2009, Johnson left the bank to start Johnson Insurance, one of the arms of Integrity Financial. A few months later, Kleemeier joined him with his investment business, and Gurwell started his accounting business a year later. They all shared space in a new office on Madison Street, just north of Iowa Highway 92.

Growing from the ground up

It was a big risk for Johnson, Kleemeier and Gurwell to give up full-time jobs and go at it themselves. Johnson remembers not having one customer when he created Johnson Insurance. He called family and friends and inquired on what he could do to help them. Kleemeier was in a similar boat.

But they believed in the mission, and their businesses grew.

Four years later, in 2013, Integrity Financial outgrew its space and moved into a new office just south of Highway 92. By 2014, Gurwell was ready to leave the business, and Applegate, an accountant who had worked with Integrity Financial on a part-time basis, was Gurwell’s choice to take over.

Applegate was hesitant at first. He had jumped from corporate job to corporate job in his own career, sick of the culture and ethical dilemmas he faced. He decided to get out of business and help out his family farm operation near Earlham. But Gurwell eventually persuaded Applegate, who helped him file taxes during the busy season, to buy him out in 2014.

Applegate was immediately drawn to Johnson and Kleemeier. He loved their work ethics, values and personalities.

“All three guys had similar ideals as me,” Applegate said. “We were all fed up with the corporate world a little bit. I just didn’t know if I wanted to be a business owner, but Gurwell eventually talked me into it. Once I did it, I embraced it with open arms.”

Applegate has seen some growth in his business since then, expanding with a branch in Creston — which he later sold — and one in Waukee. Both Johnson’s and Kleemeier’s businesses have seen growth as well. Since the beginning of Integrity Financial in 2009, customers have enjoyed the access to all three different areas of planning. And each one is dedicated to serving their clients to the best of their abilities.

“They love they can stop in, and it’s one-stop shop,” Applegate said. “If we’ve got to run in at 11 p.m. on a weekend because something happened, we’ll do it. We are accountable and are there for our clients when they need us.”