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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 29, 2019 1 year ago

MidAmerica takes a unique approach to hiring leaders

Company trains up-and-coming executives — including a Navy fighter pilot —with a core mission: Find a way to surprise and delight.
by: John Haughey Contributor

Steve Barber was named MidAmerica Administrative & Retirement Solutions’ vice president for business development and strategy in September. The Lakeland-based retirement and health care benefits company — which manages 2,800 plans totaling $1 billion in assets for more than 1 million public employees in 33 states — is girding for growth, and it needs people like Barber.

But Barber was not hired for his expertise in HRAs, FSAs, 403(b)s, GASBs, FICA alternative trusts, special pay plans or any other jargon-filled program. He was selected, instead, for his skilled experience as a leader.

Barber is among a cadre of “nontraditional” executives groomed under a CEO-In-Training program sponsored by Alpine Investors, a San Francisco-based equity firm that purchased MidAmerica in 2015.

A 2006 U.S. Naval Academy graduate with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, Barber spent 11 years as a F/A-18 pilot, accruing 1,500 hours of flight time and 273 career “traps” — carrier landings — during three deployments. Barber left the Navy in 2017 to enroll in Stanford University Graduate School of Business’s two-year MBA program.

“I loved every minute of the Navy, but I wasn’t keen on doing another 10 years,” he says. “I wanted to take the leadership lessons and the confidence the Navy gave me and apply it to the business world. Stanford provided me the opportunity to fill those gaps.”

During his second year at Stanford, he was recruited by Alpine for its CIT program, which it says “involves finding great values-led CEOs and working closely with them as CEOs-in-Residence to find and pursue founder-owned businesses poised for growth.”

“Sounded like a great fit,” Barber says, noting Navy officers, particularly Naval Academy graduates, are indoctrinated in individual initiative as expressed in Elbert Hubbard’s 1899 essay, “A Message To Garcia.” The CIT program exemplifies that same spirit. “That stood out to me,” he says. “They’re comfortable saying, ‘Just go do it,’ but they give you a team, assume you’re motivated and reasonably intelligent and can find ways to improve.”

When Barber earned his MBA this year, Alpine Investors offered the Californian — he still has a Carlsbad cell number — a CIT position among 30-plus “founder-owned businesses” in its portfolio. He chose MidAmerica — a $20 million company founded in 1995 as a two-man operation. It now has more than 80 employees, in Lakeland and Tampa.

“MidAmerica resonated with me,” Barber says, noting CEO and President Jim Tormey is also a Stanford MBA/CIT graduate who joined MidAmerica in 2016 and was named CEO last September. “I also liked the public sector focus because that is near and dear to how I lived the first 11 years of my professional career,” he says. “I want to do anything I can to advance [public workers’] interests, to have a more comfortable retirement, ensure they retire with benefits they’ve earned, with a mission-driven focus on those priorities.”

Barber is “comfortable jumping into” MidAmerica because he was routinely required to “jump into” leadership positions during his naval career.

“To me, [MidAmerica] sounded exactly like when I took over my first division,” he says, recalling how as an ensign with VFA 27 aboard the USS George Washington in 2010 he was assigned collateral duty as line division officer. Barber found himself in charge of airmen who armed, fueled and towed his squadron’s F/A 18s — each worth millions — around the swaying ship’s decks, crowded with other armed, fueled jets, in an orchestrated ballet of chaos conducted in weather extremes and amid the ear-splitting blasts, bone-jarring percussions and night-and-day tempo of an aircraft carrier at sea.

“I had no idea how to do any of this stuff,” Barber says, “but I was still expected to stand in front of these guys — ‘plane captains,’ the youngest sailors in the squadron — and be their leader. That’s huge, having lived through it.”

Barber admits he’s “still pretty new” to the complexities of public sector retirement/health care benefits. But as MidAmerica’s marketing and account management leader, his mission is clear: “Just go do it.”

“What that means,” he says, “is I’m always trying to find a way to delight customers, to ensure account managers are working continuously to keep clients delighted, to respond proactively to ensure our ‘white glove’ services are top notch and finding out what clients need.”

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