John Barrett: What Makes a City Ideal?



Photography by Brian Ambs

It is, by now, a widely accepted truth that Cincinnati is in a distinctly positive phase within its own evolution. The past handful of years have ushered in a level of economic activity, municipal improvement and civic pride the likes of which have not been seen for several decades.

In short: things just keep getting better for Cincinnati. And the same can be said for Western & Southern Financial Group. In fact, the trajectories, health and lives of the Queen City and this Fortune 500 company have become increasingly linked over the past century.

Initially founded in 1888 as a life insurance company, Western & Southern has consistently expanded its size and scope, eventually growing into the modern, diversified family of financial services companies that it is today. 

But what really gets John Barrett, Western & Southern president and CEO, fired up is the fact that, after a period of relative slowness, Cincinnati, which has been the company’s home for more than 125 years, is stepping fully into a new era of exhilarating growth.

“There are a lot of people and a lot of organizations that have worked hard to make Cincinnati an amazing place to call home,” he says. “But we’re not done.”

 

That “Wow” Experience

There are, of course, the many visible and tangible markers of Cincinnati’s growth: The Great American Tower soaring over the city; the revitalization of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood; countless new business enterprises. And then there are the less visible, slightly more abstract (but equally important) elements: a flourishing arts community, a strong charitable infrastructure, and an ever-growing sense of excitement about the city’s future.

Combine all of these features, Barrett says, and you attract something else essential to an ideal city: a new generation of talented workers eager (and proud) to call Cincinnati home.

After experiencing close to three decades of economic lethargy, the Queen City is practically buzzing with a reignited vitality as daring new developments and inviting green spaces pop up throughout the area. Barrett’s already present enthusiasm continues to swell as he discusses Western & Southern’s recently opened Residence Inn by Marriott (or ‘the Phelps’ as the locals call it) in the heart of downtown.

“It’s doing great! You can hardly get in,” he says with a laugh.

He notes that plans are already underway to spruce up Lytle Park and construct another hotel across from the new Residence Inn. That building, he says, is to feature an atrium (complete with seasonal indoor/outdoor seating) that will connect it to the adjacent building.

Emphasizing that projects like these create jobs, enhance the aesthetic beauty of the city, and attract businesses from other cities, Barrett suggests that they are also an external reflection of Cincinnati’s growing economic and energetic well being.

“You want the businesses that might consider moving here to have a ‘wow’ experience,” he explains. He emphasizes that making Cincinnati a unique and attractive setting for both companies and individuals is a community effort. Citing the contributions of Procter & Gamble and Great American Insurance Group in particular, he notes that the city is brimming with organizations that share Western & Southern’s commitment to — and vision of — the city’s future.

 

Drawing Them Back

Development, Barrett says, is just one piece of the puzzle. Placing community engagement and corporate citizenship at the forefront of its operation, Western & Southern provides gifts to more than 60 local nonprofit health and human service organizations. These entities include the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the University of Cincinnati Barrett Cancer Center (named after Barrett’s father, Charles Barrett, a cancer researcher and former Western & Southern CEO).

“We really try to put our money where our mouth is,” says Barrett. “Our gifting, as a percentage of our bottom line, is without a doubt the highest that I’m aware of in the city.”

In addition to lending its support to healthcare-related organizations, Western & Southern is working to improve the educational landscape for Cincinnati’s students. An example: the Greater Cincinnati Scholarship Foundation.

The 25-year-old organization, which helps students organize the college grants and loans they receive from other sources (and then covers any remaining incidentals, such as travel costs), has grown from a mere concept to an established fixture in the area’s educational infrastructure.

Assisting friend and former chairman and CEO of Kroger, Joseph Pichler, who conceived of the foundation, Barrett has served as the organization’s co-chair for years.

The two worked to build the foundation from scratch and, through the years, have been instrumental in contributing approximately $30 million to help students attend college.

Western & Southern has also partnered with two Cincinnati public schools, providing tutoring and financial assistance. Barrett admits that the ultimate goal of all of these activities is to not only provide students with a high-quality K-12 experience and support their higher education goals, but to also draw them back to Cincinnati with top-notch jobs and an unparalleled quality of life.

“I want people to get a rush when they come to Cincinnati!” — John Barrett

Noting that many young Cincinnatians have long been lured elsewhere during their college years and the initial phases of their careers, Barrett says that the city’s new era of rejuvenation is helping to position it as an increasingly attractive option for these young individuals.

“We’re seeing folks come back home to Cincinnati in their late 20s, when they’re starting to really refine their careers and start families of their own.”

 

Game, Set, Match

Western & Southern believes that its investment in education, charity, and the arts is just as important as other aspects of its work. Barrett maintains that these elements, though less tangible, are indispensable pillars of an ideal city.

This perspective played a pivotal role in the company’s decision to take over title sponsorship of Cincinnati’s professional tennis tournament 12 years ago. Barrett recalls the dramatic moment when the head of the tournament (which was, at the time, known as the Cincinnati Masters) informed him that the event had lost its sponsorship and was facing the eventuality of leaving the city.

“That was six weeks after the civil disturbances of 2001,” says Barrett, “and the city was still reeling.”

At a time when civic morale was deeply wounded, the tournament’s leaders were unable to find appropriate sponsorship in Cincinnati (and had received multiple attractive offers from other cities). Western & Southern’s senior team held an emergency meeting and made a unanimous decision: the tournament would stay in Cincinnati.

A year later, in 2002, the organization officially took over the tournament’s sponsorship. Barrett and the event’s leaders immediately set about making improvements, adding a women’s tournament (competition had previously been relegated to men only) and worked to improve the spectator experience by streamlining services.

More than 10 years later, the Western & Southern Open is still growing. Each summer, the world’s best players are joined by former greats, along with thousands of enthusiastic spectators from around the country.

“For about 10 days in the middle of the summer, the entire tennis world is in Cincinnati, Ohio!” Barrett says.

 

Moving Forward

It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of Cincinnati’s continuing evolution, but Barrett acknowledges that there are still a few hurdles to overcome. While Cincinnati is currently home to 10 Fortune 500 companies, he would love to see that number jump to 15 in the coming years. And though the city possesses the aesthetic “wow” factor, excellent schools and supportive community that will help draw these companies, Barrett recognizes that a low-tax business environment is essential as well. “Our politicians have to really help the city avoid being saddled with a large amount of debt,” he says. “It takes everyone behaving responsibly.”

Barrett’s perspective, however, is resolutely optimistic. And why not? His vision for the future of Cincinnati is not only clear and well rooted, but it’s truly beginning to become a reality.

“I want this to be a place where people get a rush when they visit,” Barrett says. “Truly. I want people to get a rush when they come to Cincinnati! And that’s exactly what we, as a city, are working toward.”

With Barrett and his team at Western & Southern on the front lines of Cincinnati’s transformation, it would seem that the ideal city is within reach.

 

Western & Southern Financial Group’s headquarters is located at 400 Broadway, Cincinnati, OH, 45202. You can reach them at (800) 333-5222. Visit their website at www.westernsouthern.com