John A. Gunn was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on June 26, 1861. His family moved to Dakota Territory when John was in fourth grade. His formal schooling ended then, but he was home-schooled by his mother. At age 17, he began a varied career, first as a section man for the Union Pacific Railroad in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Within a few years, he was writing policies for Pottawattamie Mutual Insurance Association, and then moved to Plum Creek, Neb., to sell windmills. Gunn went on to selling farm machinery for J. I. Case Company in Des Moines, Iowa, and, eventually, became general manager.
About 1907, Gunn and a partner formed the Gould Balance Valve Company in Kellogg, Iowa, producing valves for steam engines. He accepted leadership positions in the Iowa State Traveling Men’s Association and Iowa Manufacturers Association, which put him in a key position to help found Employers Mutual Casualty Association. He became a board member of EMCA in 1911 and was soon elected president, earning $2,000 a year beginning in 1914, when EMCA began business as a workmen’s compensation insurer.
In 1920, Gunn was given chief executive powers at EMCA and a salary of $5,000. He continued to lead the company until 1940 at age 77, when he resigned as president of EMC. He cited poor health and asked that he be named as chairman of the board. He also requested his son, John W. Gunn, be named president, and John F. Hynes named vice president. His wishes were granted. John A. Gunn died of cancer on Nov. 23, 1941.