John F. Barrett, chairman, president and CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group, isn’t a big fan of short-term planning or leadership.

Pointing to the high turnover in the C-suite among some of Greater Cincinnati’s largest companies last year, Barrett says, “I think it’s a lot better if you have long-term planning and long-term leadership. It means long-term vision and long-term results.”

He sees the short-term approach as one of corporate America’s biggest failings.

“Compensation is short term and results are looked at in the short term. Ninety days is considered a good marking period,” he says. “Great companies are doing stuff to themselves which aren’t in the best interest of everybody.”

At a time when nearly one in five of those on the annual Cincy Magazine Power 100 have left or changed roles, Barrett remains firmly in charge. He’s been a fixture on the annual list of the region’s most powerful leaders for more than decade. In May, he will mark 29 years at Western & Southern, a Midwest insurance company he transformed into a $70 billion financial powerhouse. 

Barrett, 66, isn’t afraid of a challenge. He was instrumental in Western & Southern’s early investment in Over-the-Rhine real estate in 1989 when some people thought it was foolhardy. Western & Southern built the $400 million Great American Tower at Queen City Square, the city’s tallest building, in the midst of the Great Recession. Now Barrett is taking on cancer.

He and John Hayden, retired CEO of the Midland Co., are spearheading an effort to raise more than $100 million to attract the talent and infrastructure necessary to earn a National Cancer Institute designation for the Cincinnati Cancer Center, a joint effort of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and UC Health.

Considered the standard for cancer care, there are 69 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers across the United States. Cincinnati is the fourth largest city without one. For Barrett it is a no brainer.

“There’s nothing more important than your health,” he says. “What you want in a center like this is world-class research going on and top-notch clinical practices associated with it, and you also want it in many, many areas.”

Cincinnati has world-class treatment and research in areas such as eye cancer, children’s cancer and prostate cancer, he says, but it needs more.

“We recognize the importance of this,” he says. “If one of every two men and one of three women in this area are going to come down with cancer, what greater call can we have? I think it’s more important than our sports facilities and things like that.”

Creation of a national cancer center here was a dream of his father, Barrett says. The late Dr. Charles M. Barrett, who also served as Western & Southern chairman and CEO, was a nationally recognized cancer treatment specialist at UC for whom UC’s Barrett Cancer Center is named.

The idea has taken on new life under the leadership of Barrett’s brother, Dr. William Barrett, who heads the Barrett Cancer Center; Dr. Richard Lofgren, president and CEO of UC Health; and UC President Santa Ono.

Barrett says Ono has made raising the money a priority, but needed leadership to get it done. 

“We’ll get it funded,” Barrett says. At the annual Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber luncheon in November, Barrett pledged $10 million from Western & Southern toward the effort. Since then, Barrett says, he’s secured two more pledges of $10 million each.

It’s not just beating cancer that’s important: “The byproducts are awesome. If we bring lots of smart people to Cincinnati to call home, it will be a big deal. They generate lots of money. They use our better facilities, like the arts. They attract out-of-area clients for patient care.”

Barrett’s keenly aware of the need to attract and retain top talent for the city’s future. More than 20 years ago, Western & Southern started a Leadership Development Program to recruit top MBAs to the company for both summer internships and a three-year rotational program.

“It’s not a training program, per se,” says Barrett. “It’s an opportunity to move around in our company in six-month intervals and work with business heads. The results have been fantastic for us.”

There are currently 10 executives recruited through the program who are officers within the company in a variety of roles.

“We started the program because we wanted more talent. We had plenty of bachelor’s degrees, good mathematicians, salesmen and finance guys, but we wanted MBAs who might go anywhere in the company and not be targeted for a specific area,” Barrett says. “These people are worth their weight in gold.”

Barrett intended to go to graduate school after graduating from UC and went to work for the Bank of New York in New York City for some experience, but he says, “I was having to much fun to go back to school.”

After 16 years with the bank, he joined Western & Southern as CFO at the request of then President William J. Williams a couple years before his father died of cancer in 1989.

“This is a strange company,” Barrett says. “It gets its hooks in you. The culture is different from any I’ve seen. People love it here.”

Barrett says he has no plans to retire.

“I’ll keep doing this as long as they let me, as long as I’m adding something.”