John F. Barrett's Vision Shapes His Legacy
John F. Barrett
Photo by Brian Ambs
There are few leaders whose vision has not only shaped the tapestry of Cincinnati through business and philanthropy, but has also shaped their own legacy. In Cincinnati, we have been blessed to have a number of civic leaders who have risen to strengthen our city’s future while overcoming obstacles using their incredible innovative spirit and entrepreneurial passion to make our city better.
Champions of their generation, these outstanding Cincinnatians did more than simply contribute to society – they shaped the city that we live in today. Their strength and skill in the business world have been matched only by their passion to see our community flourish.
Starting out as a door-to-door salesman, Barney Kroger was destined to be one of Cincinnati’s champions. Relying on his business savvy after being turned away from an established company, Kroger opened his own grocery store, which later multiplied into over 5,000 stores in just two decades. During the Depression, he oversaw and donated to charities that helped those who were struggling and personally paid to reopen city playgrounds and funded tuberculosis research to fight the terrible disease that was plaguing Cincinnati.
Another civic leader was a voice for the working class who eventually became president of his grandfather’s company. William Cooper Procter kept his factories’ workers’ best interests at the forefront of everything he did. Some credit him for slashing the 60-hour work week down to 40 to be sure parents could spend more time with their children. Procter’s passion for Cincinnati’s families is further evident when he started the Cincinnati Community Chest, which is today’s United Way of Greater Cincinnati. His greatest legacy, perhaps, is growing and expanding Cincinnati Children’s Hospital through his endowment to fund medical research.
Seeing the writing on the wall that his family’s candle business was failing, John J. Emery returned to Cincinnati after receiving an education and traveling the world, ready to begin what is now a multinational company. While achieving personal success, this champion gave back to Cincinnati while following his vision to develop Fountain Square by building the Carew Tower and Netherland Plaza. Emery’s love for the arts was shared with the city when he created the United Fine Arts Fund, today’s ArtsWave, which supported the symphony, summer opera program, Taft Museum and Cincinnati Art Museum.
Hailing from Norwood, Carl Lindner Jr. is another example of a Cincinnati champion who turned his family ice cream store business, through multiple acquisitions over the years, into Great American Insurance Group. A personification of philanthropy, Lindner’s reach improved our city through education, jobs and sports.
Photo by Catie Viox
Today, John F. Barrett’s vision for civic engagement, philanthropy, and economic development is shaping our region much like the city fathers who came before him. John F. Barrett is a community leader whose legacy is beginning to take shape as he also pursues this goal. Since serving as the Chairman, President and CEO of Western & Southern, Barrett grew this company from a small Midwestern insurance company into a Fortune 500 company – all the while holding on to a vision that would shape his hometown for the better.
Barrett has taken calculated risks where others may have been content with what they had. When he took these risks, it was to bring a stronger future to not only his company, but to the current and future generations of Cincinnatians.
Most of us have taken note of all of the recent developments, growth and positive changes in our city: small businesses emerging and thriving, a strong economy, innovative medical research and a revitalized downtown area rich in culture that has something for people of all interests.
Many of these improvements to our city can be attributed to Barrett’s extraordinary vision.
“I hoped to make this a place where our kids would want to come back to after they went off to school and a first job,” says Barrett. “I’m hoping the culture of Cincinnati is such that children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents all want to be here for most of their lives because they see and love our city just as much as I do. That was the vision.”
As many of us know, Cincinnati has had its ups and downs.
“I grew up in Cincinnati and then moved away for 16 years,” explains Barrett. “When I moved back here a little over 30 years ago, I noticed that the excitement and vigor of the city I left were missing. Downtown Cincinnati used to be the place where people would come to work, shop, go to sporting events and see the best entertainment. We really were the hub of the region.
“Then our neighboring cities like Columbus and Indianapolis started to leave us behind as they invested in themselves. Naturally I just started thinking ‘We are so rich in culture and history. We need to get up, dust ourselves off and really set out to re-establish our leadership.’”
Having big dreams that would transform an entire metropolitan area to become reality is no easy task. In addition to all of the economic obstacles that stood in his way, Barrett also found it difficult to get others to want to jump on board.
“One of the biggest challenges was getting successful people to do more,” says Barrett. “I tried to convince people that they have a lot more in them and that they have the brains to create more. I tried to instill a desire within them to not be satisfied, because, when they keep striving, there’s no ceiling to what they can do.”
To ensure that our children come back to Cincinnati, to realize that vision of our city as the best place to live, work and enjoy life, Barrett knows that we need a few key elements: good jobs (more headquarters), a stellar medical system, great schools, great housing and a wonderful quality of life.
After living in New York City, Barrett saw lower Manhattan turn into a destination for real estate investing, night life and entertainment. After returning home to Cincinnati, he set out to do the same with Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine.
“I looked at OTR and we started out small,” remembers Barrett. “We built new or remodeled living arrangements that are still there today, for example, Brackett Village. We encouraged investors to buy big chunks of property and things started happening. There was no large government money involved – just small businesses doing their thing.”
Even during an economic recession, Barrett held onto his vision of creating an ever-improving city. During the Great Recession of 2008, Barrett had the distinction of being the only American who was building a skyscraper.
“That was fun,” smiles Barrett. “We decided to build the Great American Tower then because there were no competitors building anything anywhere. We were able to land the best construction teams in the world and the best architects in the world. We offered jobs to hundreds of craftsmen from the region who would otherwise have gone unemployed.
“It was a vision that we had for a long, long time. We wanted to build the largest building in the city and change people’s perspective. It’s a spectacular mix of both modern and traditional. To be honest with you, I would love to build another one if the market warrants it.”
But Barrett’s vision wasn’t simply about constructing buildings. He wanted to preserve and enrich Cincinnati’s culture. So, in addition to revitalizing OTR and constructing the Great American Tower, Barrett and his team also helped breathe new life into two longstanding Cincinnati traditions: the Cincinnati Masters tennis tournament, now named the Western & Southern Open, which has created an estimated $48.7 million in economic impact annually, and the Labor Day fireworks.
“We saw that both of these events were on their way out the door and we didn’t want to see them go away,” says Barrett. “It’s not that we were tennis fans or loved pyrotechnics – we saw that these events were important to the people of Cincinnati and we had to keep them here.
“We stepped up in 2001 for the tennis and we’re glad that we did. Has that event sold anything for us? Probably not, and we knew it was never about that. It’s about people engaging with each other and keeping the quality of life for Cincinnati high – especially the lives of our own employees who work hard each and every day.”
Investing in social and cultural events to bring joy and entertainment to the city is far from the most selfless thing Barrett has done. This successful businessman, along with his brother, Dr. William Barrett, is tackling cancer.
Named for their father, the Barrett Cancer Center employs hundreds of physicians and researchers and has been continually ranked in the top of the nation for cancer treatment. People from around the country visit the facility at University of Cincinnati Medical Center to take advantage of this outstanding resource.
“Through research I saw that Cincinnati has a high instance of cancer,” explains Barrett. “One out of two men and one out of three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their life times. When I saw that Cincinnatians were getting on planes and going to other cities to get treatment, it became apparent that we needed to do something to take better care of our own.
“Our father started the Barrett Cancer Center and we didn’t want to settle for anything less than great. We want it to be one of the top cancer centers in the world. This is why we are striving to get the designation as a National Cancer Institute, which is only awarded to top research hospitals. The medical hub in Cincinnati is huge and keeps growing, both in size and innovation.”
Behind the scenes, Barrett has played a large role in nurturing that hub.
“When the governor was first elected, he asked me what could be done for Cincinnati with some funding, and I shared with him my vision for the Martin Luther King Drive interchange,” remembers Barrett. “It would be great to help all of the people who were wasting time and money sitting in traffic and, just as important, lessen the amount of pollution all of their stopped cars created, by making an exit there to empty right into the hospitals and the university. It also freed up over 600 acres for new development. It was a win-win.
“That also would put a stake in the ground for the entrepreneurial medical ventures feeding off of Children’s Hospital and University of Cincinnati Medical Center. There are four monster hospitals right down the street from one another and it makes you take a step back and say ‘Wow. Look at the amount of this talent all in one place.’ To me, it was definitely the right way to spend that money.”
Barrett has always supported new technology and new businesses – so much so, there is an award named after him: The John F. Barrett Entrepreneur Vision Award. This award recognizes business leaders who have taken risks for the sake of innovation and bettering Cincinnati.
It seems to go against logic that a businessman would be nurturing a company that might become his competition, but Barrett knows that more cutting-edge businesses in Cincinnati will help bring his vision to fruition.
“There’s an excitement among entrepreneurial people that is different from others,” says Barrett. “They’re thinking and doing – not just talking. They tackle challenges and learn to do more things with fewer resources. It’s always been fun for me to be with them and enable them.
“Honestly, we’re probably the last company in the world anyone would associate with backing entrepreneurs because we’re a life insurance company,” says Barrett. “Today we have 10 businesses, all somewhat different from each other, but all 10 of them are thriving – so we must be doing something right.”
Helping create stronger futures for others was instilled in Barrett in his childhood.
“My brothers, sisters and I were raised to look out for other people and always help whenever we can,” remembers Barrett. “I went to St. Xavier High School and the whole theme of the Jesuits there is ‘men for others.’ You don’t even think about helping people, you just do it.
“I remember when we did the state tax reform a dozen years ago and someone pointed out that I personally wouldn’t benefit from it. He asked me why I did it and I said ‘I never thought of it that way. If the tax reform was better for the whole state, we would all win.’
“All of our senior officers at Western & Southern serve on civic or charitable boards. It’s good for us, it’s good for them and it’s good for the boards.”
Barrett’s vision for strengthening the people of Cincinnati is far from over.
“Cincinnati has incredible potential. We have to take advantage of our advantages. We have the physically finest airport in the country and 9,700 privately owned companies within 100 miles of Fountain Square that do between $10 million and $50 million in sales. Our metro area is the largest in Ohio and our economy is the biggest in Ohio. There’s no reason we can’t do a better job attracting entrepreneurs and raising up local ones to be more active in our city. Cincinnati has to be the hub for the whole region again.
“Cincinnati has everything and yet it’s still convenient and affordable to live here. We have a wonderful quality of life without the overcrowding. It’s exactly what people are looking for.”
What’s next for our city? Barrett has always believed in creating a strong business area in Cincinnati.
“The social intercourse of a downtown area is huge,” says Barrett. “You have thousands of creative people who are striving to do better running into each other and bouncing around ideas. This was the genesis of revitalizing our business area with Queen City Square. We’re just getting started and, honestly, you haven’t seen anything yet.”
Barrett also has his eye on uptown Cincinnati near the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
“In recent years, UC’s campus has become astoundingly beautiful,” says Barrett. “The next big move will be McMillan down to Liberty. That area will become a wonderful place to live.
“I also think it’s spectacular what is going on in Covington and Newport. There has been some real effort invested there by some hardworking people.”
After working with Barrett since 1983, Mario San Marco recently retired as president of Eagle Realty Group and looks back fondly at his career working with Barrett.
“John has instilled in me the importance of making our region a better place and sharing with others the joy and satisfaction we experience through our collective efforts,” says San Marco. “He has the ability to visualize ways to improve things that might seem unattainable to others. Because of his wisdom, courage and work ethic, he almost always achieves the lofty goals he sets out to accomplish.”
Barrett is thankful to be around people who share his vision of a stronger Cincinnati.
“Through this whole experience, I realized that if you can get a few people to see the world the way you do, you’re a very lucky person.”
Western & Southern Financial Group is located at 400 Broadway Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information, call 866.832.7719 or visit www.westernsouthern.com.