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Esko company building bigger, better headquarters

Ram Insurance President Steve Knutson stands in front of a sign showing how the new insurance building (being constructed behind him) will look when it's finished. Davis Helberg/Special to the Pine Journal

By early next year, Esko's largest private employer will have a new home and, finally, some elbow room.

Construction is underway on a $5 million-plus project for RAM Mutual Insurance Company that will nearly double the company's work space. It's a move that, in president Steve Knutson's tongue-in-cheek phrase, means "some of the employees won't have to take Vitamin D anymore to see the sunlight."

For years, about a third of RAM's 62 local employees have been wedged into the subterranean level of the brick office building just east of Esko High School. Combined, the main floor and the basement total about 13,000 square feet.

By contrast, the new structure will provide about 22,000 square feet on the main floor plus another 3,000 square feet of underground mechanical and storage space.

Construction began in May and the building outline is beginning to rise from the ground about a mile from Esko on East Highway 61, directly across from Torma Road.

As illustrated by an on-site billboard, RAM's new headquarters will feature a recessed main entrance separated by large wings on each side. The exterior walls will be a combination of gray brick and blue composite siding with white accents.

It was designed by Duluth architects DSGW (the "W" stands for Esko resident Randy Wagner) and the general contractor is Ray Riihiluoma, Inc., of Cloquet.

"For several years we discussed either expanding our present building or moving, but in December 2015, after meeting with representatives of DSGW, we decided to find a new location," Knutson said.

The 53-acre property purchased by RAM may be remembered by longtime residents as the Eino and Alma Granholm farm. The most recent owners were Roy and Angie Meyers of Duluth, whose retirement business, by quirk of fate, was called "Ramco." The name is still on the front of a building that RAM will keep for storage.

Besides cramped working conditions, parking has been an issue for years at RAM because employees and visitors have had only 50 spots available next to the office, but the new location will offer more than 100 spaces.

Altogether, RAM has about 75 full-time equivalent employees.

"We come from humble beginnings in rural Minnesota, so we want a place that's both practical and nice," Knutson said, "but it's important to know we're not building a Trump Tower here."

He said if expansion is required in the next 20 to 40 years, the structure is designed to accommodate additional wings on the north, or rear, side.

The company has been locally based since 1949 when Esko farmer-businessman Emil Johnson, executive secretary of the Farm Mutual Reinsurance Company (FMRA), hauled the corporate records home from Herman, Minn., in his pickup truck. FMRA rented space from Esko Mutual Insurance before buying the building in 1969. Expansions in 1970 and 1978 created the existing footprint.

FMRA changed its name in 1967 to the Reinsurance Association of Minnesota (RAM) and later became RAM Mutual Insurance Company.

Today, the company writes packaged supplemental home and farm insurance for 52 rural Minnesota township mutuals while also providing them with reinsurance coverage. Additionally, it offers a full complement of direct lines products (workers' compensation, commercial insurance, homeowners, and personal and commercial auto) in Minnesota and North Dakota and is represented by about 600 independent agencies.

Knutson joined the RAM staff in 2001 as senior vice president. He became president in 2003 when Lee Bondhus, who had served in that capacity for 18 years, retired.

A native of Starbuck, Minn., Knutson is a Concordia-Moorhead graduate (1982). He taught school and coached in Langdon, N.D., for two years before becoming a bank examiner out of Alexandria, Minn., for the federal Office of Comptroller of the Currency. Five years later he became manager of Holmes City Farmers Mutual Insurance in Alexandria, a position he held for 11 years before coming to Esko.

Note: RAM's origins date back to 1931 when seven rural township mutuals created a company to provide themselves with a reinsurance backstop. An indirect predecessor was the Finnish Local Farmers Mutual Fire Insurance Company, organized by Thomson Township farmers in 1911. The story is detailed in "Esko's Corner, An Illustrated History of Esko and Thomson Township," published by the Esko Historical Society in 2014 and available at several Cloquet and Esko businesses.