Rising Stars: Heather Freiburger, of Kunkel & Associates

Helping out at a friend’s dance studio several years ago changed Heather Freiburger’s life.

Aside from her regular day job, Freiburger worked the front desk at the studio and greeted parents as they brought in and picked up their children.

One of those parents was Tim Kunkel, president and CEO of Kunkel & Associates, Inc. The two would make small talk, and Freiburger was impressed by Kunkel’s personality and his generous treatment of his employees.

“I could see how passionate he was about his company and his employees,” she said.

Kunkel eventually hired Freiburger as an administrative assistant at Kunkel & Associates. She was nervous about the change, saying she didn’t really know much about the insurance business and wasn’t sure if she would succeed. Fourteen years later, the vice president of client services for Kunkel & Associates says it was definitely the right move.

“It was the biggest blessing,” Freiburger, 38, said of her growth in the company. “I had to learn from the ground up in every position. I have so much respect for everybody and all of those positions (I’ve held).”

She credited Kunkel, who died in 2013, with giving her more confidence by pushing her to challenge herself with new roles at work. She said Kunkel was a kind mentor who saw everyone as colleagues, rather than people who worked for him.

“I thought, what does he see in me that I don’t see in myself?” she remembered thinking after Kunkel offered her a management promotion. “He pushed me a lot outside of my comfort zone, and I was able to learn and grow.”

The experience has led her to be more mindful of going after opportunities and encouraging her children to try new things. Freiburger also credited Kunkel & Associates as a very understanding employer when it comes to work-life balance and family needs.

“I don’t have to feel guilty about being a mom when I need to be a mom,” she said.

Kim Budde, Freiburger’s nominator, said Freiburger is a great mentor and role model because of her compassion and work ethic. She added Freiburger always is eager to help with the company’s charitable efforts.

“She is a natural born leader whose positive attitude and energy makes her someone everyone wants to be around,” Budde wrote.

Freiburger’s past civic engagement also has included membership with Women’s Leadership Network of Dubuque and volunteering with Opening Doors.

“My parents raised me to work hard and good things will follow. If you put the time in, your hard work will be recognized. That’s what I tell my team. Be patient and stay the course.”