John Barrett Q&A: Western & Southern CEO says we are a region with momentum

Western & Southern hiring 600 more agents in 2014

John Barrett is one of Cincinnati’s most powerful business leaders, having spent more than 20 years at the helm of Western & Southern Financial Group.

The life insurance company has grown tenfold to $55 billion in assets under Barrett’s leadership.

But his influence doesn’t end there.

Barrett serves on the boards of Convergys Corp. and Cintas Corp. and his civic involvement includes board leadership at the Cincinnati Business Committee, Cincinnati Art Museum and Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. The company’s 2011 development of the Great American Tower at Queen City Square and its still-evolving plans for the redevelopment of land surrounding Lytle Park makes Barrett a key figure to watch in 2014 and beyond.

Barrett supplied answers to WCPO’s 2014 Business Survey . What follows are excerpts:

Q: Are you more optimistic about your company’s future than one year ago?

A: (Yes). Western & Southern’s performance since the financial crisis has been stellar. We are stronger now than we were before the crisis. We have a long-term focus that allows us to manage our resources most effectively in up or down markets.  Our capital strength is at a record level as is our capital-to-asset ratio, which is more than double the average of the 15 largest publicly traded U.S. life companies. We are incredibly well positioned.

Q: Are you more optimistic about the region’s future?

A: (Yes).  Cincinnati is definitely a region with momentum. We are excited about our new mayor and his leadership. The city has had a run of substantial and successful infrastructure developments kicked off when Queen City Square was completed in 2011. The progress at the Banks, Washington Park, Over-The-Rhine as well as the Casino and now Lytle Park certainly has set the expectation that major projects can be accomplished here.  I also think that our national profile is on the rise. No question we have some challenges still to be addressed, but we are so fortunate to have a solid core of diversified Fortune 500 companies that provide a strong and resilient economic backbone for the region.

Q: Are you more optimistic about the nation’s future?

A: (Yes).  Despite the uncertainty of our national economic policy, we are cautiously optimistic about 2014. We’d like to see a slow and steady return of interest rates to more market-based levels.

Q: Will your company’s employment increase, decrease or remain the same in the next 12 months?

A: Western & Southern has grown our Cincinnati-based employment over the last 10 years. We remain hopeful that Cincinnati’s employment rate will increase even if modestly, but our real employment growth opportunity remains in our national field sales force. These are the people selling our products and services to millions of American every day. We’d like to add 600+ agents nationwide throughout 2014.

Q: Is the Tri-State a plus or a minus to finding potential employees?

A: (A plus). The biggest personnel challenge currently is in the IT field. We have a serious shortfall across the market. Local universities and businesses are collaborating to fill that pipeline, but there is an immediate gap that is problematic. Cincinnati is gaining national attention for its economic development progress both in terms of infrastructure and as an entrepreneur development hub. Those are the types of things that must continue to help potential employees – no matter their line of work  – see Cincinnati as a preferred city to start or further their careers. One of our goals over recent years has been to attract our children to return to Cincinnati to pursue their careers. That is now happening.

Q:  What is your company’s biggest impediment to growth?

A: 1) The uncertainty of the national economic policy.

     2) The low-interest-rate environment presents the next biggest challenge to our growth. What drives our ability to weather this kind of rate environment is the diversification of our family of companies. Western & Southern         subsidiaries sell products, services and solutions that span the spectrum. We serve individuals, businesses and institutions with life and health insurance, annuities, mutual funds, and real estate and investment management products and services. It is this diversity combined with a prudent risk management process that allows our company to fair far better than others no matter the economic tide.

Q:  What is your company’s biggest catalyst for growth?

A: The growing demand among Americans for the products, services and solutions we offer. People are realizing that they have the power to ensure their financial security, and Western & Southern is a valuable partner in helping them get there.

In addition to outstanding solutions, our robust capital position coupled with our mutual holding company structure enables us to take the long-term strategic view without the short-term quarter-to-quarter pressures so many others face. This combined with a workforce that isn’t afraid to roll up its sleeves is integral to our success. Western

& Southern views business growth as an opportunity to enhance efficiencies and improve business processes.

Q: Which local infrastructure project is most important to the Tri-State?

A: The Brent Spence Bridge is the most vital North-South link in the Midwest. It is integral to commerce across the region and country.


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