Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at insurance and financial services company USAA on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. Watch for part two on Monday.

Hardly a story is told or written about the hometown-born financial services company USAA without using the word giant.

From its 13 million members to its local workforce of 19,000, from its massive office complex in Northwest San Antonio to its outsized impact on economic development and charitable giving, USAA has a monumental presence in San Antonio and a legacy few businesses can match. 

On Monday, the financial services giant adds another biggie — a milestone only a half of 1% of all companies ever see — the 100th anniversary of its founding. Founded by 25 Army officers who met at the Gunter Hotel downtown to form a reciprocal insurance exchange, USAA has grown into a $40 billion company that provides insurance, banking and investing products to members of the military, veterans and their families. 

Inside one of the largest suburban office complexes in the U.S., and in USAA offices around the world, the company will celebrate with food, music, speeches and special guests. 

Visitors to what USAA refers to as the “home office” will include some of its first insurance customers, known as members, along with descendants of the founders. The daughter of longtime CEO, Robert McDermott, is also expected.

The event, two years in the making, will feature employees reenacting periods in the company’s history, the opening of a time capsule from 1976 when the headquarters was built and the burying of another to be opened on USAA’s 150th birthday in 2072. 

‘Part of our DNA’

When it comes to many aspects of USAA’s role in San Antonio’s last century, the anniversary is as significant for the city as it is for the insurance and financial services firm established in 1922. 

The company estimates its economic impact on the state in 2020 came in at $11 billion, based on claims paid; taxes, bonds and real estate holdings; and philanthropic contributions. The figure does not include salaries.

USAA’s influence, especially when it comes to jobs and its home city’s growth, is exponentially larger.

“They’re one of our greatest homegrown legacies,” said Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the Greater:SATX, the local economic development foundation founded by McDermott in 1975. 

“They’re not just headquartered here. They were founded here and they’re a part of our DNA, primarily being that they serve those who serve, and we are Military City USA.”

Longtime CEO of USAA, Robert McDermott, center left, clutches a shovel during a groundbreaking ceremony.
Longtime CEO of USAA, Robert McDermott, center left, clutches a shovel during a groundbreaking ceremony. Credit: Courtesy / USAA

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff points to McDermott’s role in keeping the San Antonio Spurs in town — by becoming part of the team’s ownership group — as evidence of USAA’s wide-ranging influence.

“Not only did he build a successful company to new heights, but he was also instrumental in a number of projects in the community,” said Wolff , who was San Antonio’s mayor at the time. “They play a much bigger role than just as a company.”

Of the total 38,000 people who work for USAA today, which is more than 12 times its workforce in 1980, about half, or 19,000, work and live in San Antonio. 

Last year, USAA hired about 2,500 people for its offices across the country and in Europe, Saucedo-Herrera said, and it is now one of Texas’ largest tech employers. 

“They are growing like crazy,” she said.

Stable workforce

While the company’s employment numbers have grown and contracted over the years, with both hiring surges and layoffs, it’s not uncommon to meet USAA employees who have served all or a major part of their career at the company.

“You’d really be hard-pressed to find someone [in San Antonio] who doesn’t in some way engage with USAA … either as a member or maybe they’ve worked there at some point in time or their family worked there,” Saucedo-Herrera said. 

About 750 current USAA employees have been at the company for 30 years. 

USAA’s reputation for higher-than-average wages, performance bonuses, a matching retirement plan, tuition assistance and other perks has served as a benchmark for other local companies looking to recruit graduates, said Mario Vela, assistant vice provost of career engaged learning at UTSA.

“It raises all boats here in San Antonio,” Vela said. 

Last year, USAA set another benchmark, raising the minimum pay for its employees from $16 to $21 per hour.

The company’s longest-tenured employee, Marilyn Dworaczyk, has been at USAA for more than half its history, starting as a product manager in 1967 at age 18 and now serving as a program and project management lead in the property and casualty division. 

In the late 1960s, more than 90% of all USAA workers were women, said Taylor Clark, executive lead for the 100th anniversary project. Today, the workforce is overall more diverse and inclusive, he added, the result of making the employment practice a stated mission. 

An office with its own zip code

In February, Dworaczyk helped lead an internal kickoff organized to mark the company’s centennial year. During that event, a three-story replica of the Statue of Liberty’s torch was ignited using theatrical lighting. 

The torch is a standing installation in one courtyard of an office building so substantial that it sprawls across 5 million square feet on 282 acres of what was once a horse ranch on the outer reaches of town.

Workers stand in a lobby as USAA's headquarters is built in the 1970s.
Workers stand in a lobby as USAA’s headquarters is built in the 1970s. Credit: Courtesy / USAA

The headquarters rivals the size of the Pentagon — with its own zip code, three Starbucks, five cafeterias, three fitness centers and space enough for 15,000 workstations — and took more than three years to build. 

But it was McDermott’s vision to create a workplace that would help to attract and retain employees and serve the long-term needs of a growing company, said Ed Kelley, former president and CEO of USAA Real Estate, a wholly owned subsidiary managing the company’s real estate holdings. 

The move from a landlocked building at Broadway Street and Hildebrand Avenue to where its closest neighbors were the newly formed South Texas Medical Center and the main campus of UTSA did more than that. 

“When Gen. McDermott got with the Straus family and bought that land back in 1967-68, people were wondering, ‘Why are you headed for the sticks like that?’” Kelley said. “But he knew what he was doing. He created an incredible amount of value out there. And one of the reasons that entire area, in my opinion, is so dynamic is because of USAA.”

USAA President and CEO Wayne Peacock began his career at USAA in the real estate division in 1988, ascending to the top post two years ago. He is the first to hold that title who is not a military veteran. 

At the anniversary celebration, Peacock is set to read a letter McDermott, who was at USAA for 25 years and died in 2006, wrote to the future CEO in 1976, sealed in a time capsule 46 years ago. 

And Peacock will have his own letter ready.

In keeping with the company’s present-day focus on innovating for the future growth of the company, Clark said the new time capsule will feature such items as electronic devices and Zoom meeting screenshots for the future giant to behold.

Disclosure: USAA is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.