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Recognize & Celebrate businesses & people

Great Living Cincinnatians: Honorees

Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.

John F. Barrett

Awarded In 2024

John Barrett is a dreamer. Sure, he’s also the Chairman, President and CEO of Fortune 500 company Western & Southern, member of a long-time Cincinnati family, and a pillar in the Greater Cincinnati community, but at the heart of his success, one simple credo can be found: he followed his dreams.

“I’ve always been a dreamer,” said Barrett. “I would think about stuff that other people just didn’t care to think about. ‘Why would you do this, why would you do that? What about this?’ My thing was, I was eager. I was learning. I was building. I was having fun. I’m a different kind of guy that way. From your dreams you develop your vision. I want to be the best person or partner you ever dealt with. I want you to leave the room thinking, ‘That guy is a guy I can count on.’”

One of six children, Barrett’s parents put a premium on education and encouraged their children to do well academically. He graduated from St. Xavier High School and then from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in business administration, a step outside his family’s purview – his father was a doctor, so is a brother and a brother-in-law. Another two brothers and a brother-in-law are lawyers. He considered medicine, but in the end, business won out. Finance in particular. He is the only one of the six children that did not go to graduate school.

“The diversity of the financial services business is so exciting,” said Barrett. “There are so many things you could do. You’re not stuck.”

After UC, Barrett intended to work two years in New York City and then go to a good business school, but after hitting Wall Street in 1971, he just loved it and stayed with the Bank of New York for 16 years. It is the oldest bank in the country, founded by one Alexander Hamilton. Barrett loved the work, loved the people and loved the clients. In 1983 he was asked to start a bank in Delaware under the Bank of New York umbrella, where he could continue to run their corporate business in the region and, more importantly, start a credit card business. It was this position that solidified the foundation he’d already begun to lay of his business ethos.

“I learned early on, if you work really hard, you can accomplish all kinds of good stuff,” said Barrett. “So I worked hard, really hard to develop a reputation in the company for being a good guy, one you could count on – first in, last out every day. If you need something done, give it to me and that really paid off.”

Barrett was happy at the Bank of New York and was moving up nicely. So in 1987 when the opportunity arose to return to Cincinnati, Barrett wasn’t sure he wanted to change his trajectory. But his father, Dr. Charles Barrett, who was named CEO of Western & Southern in 1973 and Chairman in 1984, became terminally ill with cancer. In 1987, his successor Bill Williams asked Barrett to come back, and he went.

“I saw a situation where we had a wonderful traditional company, but we needed a new strategic approach,” said Barrett. “I was given the opportunity here to spend two and a half years as CFO to learn Western & Southern inside and out. There were no promises that I would ever run it. I could see strengths and I could see weaknesses. Mr. Williams was pleased with my work and I was named president in 1989.”

Barrett was named CEO in 1994 and chairman in 2002. His clarity of vision led him to restructure the company (started, acquired or sold more than 25 businesses), opening the doors to bring a greater variety of skill sets to essential positions. He has often referred to Western & Southern as a “meritocracy”, something he feels passionate about.

“It’s purposeful. We’re a driven group of people,” said Barrett. “We’re very serious about good people getting the best jobs and if you want one of the best jobs, you better be really good.”

Under Barrett’s leadership, Western & Southern has transformed from a small Midwest life insurance company into a national financial services powerhouse. When he joined the company, Western & Southern was not on the Fortune 500 list and assets totaled $3.6 billion. It has skyrocketed year after year up the charts, most recently leaping 58 spots in 2023 to land at 314, where it sits today. W&S now serves 6.5 million clients and its total assets have exceeded $100 billion for several years. It is one of the best performing companies in the life insurance world.

Barrett’s big dreams are built on his earnest passion for Cincinnati. He credits his father with instilling in him and his siblings a love for the city.

“When we were little kids, [he] would take us around and show us the history of the city,” said Barrett. “His family landed here in 1853, penniless, and they started a butcher shop. Over the years that turned into one of the largest meat packers in America (Kahn’s). My great-grandfather was head of the American Meat Packers Association in 1895.”

The Barrett family legacy in the region also contributes to his Cincinnati-centric activism – Barrett Cancer Center at UC was named for his father. His brother, Dr. William Barrett, now co-runs the center. Another brother, Michael, is senior judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, and his oldest brother, Fran, is a top real estate lawyer for this area.

He has carried on the family tradition of leadership, serving on a number of corporate and nonprofit boards over the years, including Cintas, the Anderson’s (Toledo), Cincinnati Bell, Convergys Corporation, Fifth Third Bank, the Cincinnati Business Committee, 3CDC, the Medical Center Fund for UC, the Taft Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Cincinnati Opera, among many others.

He is a member of The Business Roundtable (Washington, DC), a founding member of the Ohio Business Roundtable, and a trustee of Americans for the Arts (Washington, DC). He is a former member of The Financial Services Roundtable (Washington, DC), and a past chairman of the American Council of Life Insurers (Washington, DC).

Barrett chaired the United Way in 2001. With philanthropic attention largely directed towards 9/11 across the country, he decided to take a new approach. He launched the United Way Women’s Leadership Council and founded the Herbert R. Brown Society, both of which are still thriving today. It was the most successful campaign for the United Way during its time.

When possible, Barrett guides Western & Southern towards altruistic pursuits in the city, too. Cincinnati needed to be more attractive and strategic to attract top talent to town. Working with Mario San Marco (who Barrett brought to Cincinnati from his days in NYC,) retired head of Eagle Realty, Western & Southern’s real estate wing, Barrett helped pioneer the Over-the-Rhine renaissance over 30 years ago by purchasing two of the toughest blocks south of Liberty (Walnut Street between 12th and 14th) to create affordable housing. Today, it’s thriving. As is Over-the-Rhine. For San Marco and Barrett, the similarities between Over-the-Rhine and lower Manhattan were many, and so was the opportunity for a resurgence.
Western & Southern was also instrumental in the founding of 3CDC, laying the groundwork for the Over-the-Rhine revitalization that has taken place over the last decade.

Barrett believed that a great city required great business location opportunities, and so conceived of the Queen City Square building, and the rejuvenation of the eastern part of Downtown Cincinnati.

Part of Barrett’s vision was to make Lytle Park the centerpiece of an urban oasis and a safe and wonderful place for people to enjoy while working or living downtown. In 2013, the company purchased the former Anna Louise Inn property in the Lytle Park Historic District, converting the space into the Lytle Park Hotel, a top-notch hotel part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, which opened in 2020.

And just this year, Barrett navigated the path to keeping the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament, the oldest in the country, in the Greater Cincinnati region.

“We had to work hard to figure out how to keep that tournament in Cincinnati,” said Barrett. “Our company clearly had to take a backseat to keep it here. That’s what you do. It’s not about us. It’s not about Western & Southern. It’s about Cincinnati.”

Barrett carries on another family tradition: He is only the third person to be named a Great Living Cincinnatian after his father.

“I remember my dad said, ‘Never take score of your success until at least 70 years of age, because you’ve got to keep going,’” said Barrett. “It’s not something that I need, but it’s sure a nice thing to have, you know what I mean?”

“My own feeling is, I’ve still got a lot to do. I’m just hitting my prime. I’ve been blessed with the ability to have vision and some of the stuff we hope to do in the next five years is underway right now. We have a great vision. There is still much to be done and I just want to see if we can pull it off.”

If the past is any indicator of success, the odds are in his favor.

Nominate a Great Living Cincinnatian

Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization