Episode 259: Cultivating Community Wellbeing with Curtis Barnett

January 17 , 2024  |  By Brent Williams

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Curtis Barnett  0:00  
Our mission is to improve the health, financial security and the peace of mind of the members and communities that we serve.

Brent Williams  0:02  
Welcome to the be epic podcast brought to you by the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. I'm your host, Brent Williams. Together, we'll explore the dynamic landscape of business, and uncover the strategies, insights and stories that drive business today.

Well, today I have with me Curtis Barnett, and Curtis is the president and CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield. Curtis, thank you for joining me today. Hey, Brent, it's great to be with you. Well, Curtis, we've known each other for some time, you serve on the Dean's Executive Advisory Board at the Sam M. Walton College of Business so thank you for that.

Curtis Barnett  0:46  
Sure, sure. My pleasure. 

Brent Williams  0:48  
And coming up soon you'll be moderating the college's business forecast luncheon. And I'm really looking forward to the luncheon on January the 26th.

Curtis Barnett  0:59  
Yeah I am too Brent, it's quite an honor to be asked by by you and Mervin to to get to be a part of that program. I've been a big fan for a number of years I've attended in the past and certainly watched during the COVID years as well and have enjoyed the program and know that the people in Northwest Arkansas in particular, but throughout the state of Arkansas get a lot of value out of that program as well.

Brent Williams  1:20  
Absolutely, I think it is one of if not, if not the largest event that the college puts on each year. And if you're listening and having attended the business forecast luncheon in the past it it is it is quite an event. It's people from all over the state as attendees. But it's a really great chance to get a perspective on international, domestic, and local economic issues and trends. And I assume you've taken value from those in the past?

Curtis Barnett  1:52  
I have no question. I mean, for me, it falls almost perfectly for the annual report that I give to my board of directors and to our to our members that our annual meeting of members each year. So I take a lot of information that I gather from that meeting and share it because when we think about the economic environment, as well as the opportunities that may exist over the next year or two as we look forward. 

Brent Williams  1:55  
Absolutely. And the the moderator serves a really important role in this. And it is it's very intentional, that we have a business leader, moderating to be able to help put it in context, you know, for the audience, and honestly, probably for the forecasters or the economic economic experts.

Curtis Barnett  2:37  
Sure, sure. Yeah, as I thought through trends, I keep finding myself looking at it from from my vantage point and, and try to make sure that I'm looking at it more broadly. But also have to remember that you asked me to do this for a reason. So 

Brent Williams  2:50  
that's right. 

Curtis Barnett  2:51  
Hopefully my vantage point brings value to this as well.

Brent Williams  2:53  
Well, one thing I want us to talk about is what trends are on your mind. But maybe before that, I'd love for everyone out there to get to know you a little bit better. Like I said, I've gotten the chance to know you for for many years, but you serve as president and CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, maybe that'd be a great place to just start of you know, the organization and and the people that you serve

Curtis Barnett  3:21  
And Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, this is actually our 75th anniversary of the founding of our company, December 3 to be more precise is when we celebrated that and we're very honored to have opportunity to serve Arkansans as well as people from outside the state of Arkansas, we serve about 2 million members nationally. I think a lot of people may not be aware of that. A lot of that membership comes with some of the national account customers that we're able to help provide services to. We have a little over 3000 employees, have the Corporate Center here in Little Rock, one in Northwest Arkansas as well in Springdale that we opened nearly three years ago now as well as welcome centers and regional offices in seven other parts of our state. So truly are a statewide company and one that's committed to not only helping our members, but also we do our absolute best to be ingrained in the communities that we served as well. 

Brent Williams  4:16  
Because your mission I know is to promote health across the state.

Curtis Barnett  4:19  
That's right. Our mission is to improve the health, financial security and the peace of mind of the members and communities that we serve. And we talk about that often. And it's something that we take to heart and it's something that our employees are very proud of serve.

Brent Williams  4:33  
Well thank you for the way you invest in our state and in the communities around the state. Tell us a little bit about your career journey because one doesn't just land in the president and CEO job.

Curtis Barnett  4:45  
Well, I've been lucky I was elected CEO in 2017. But this is actually my 30th 

Brent Williams  4:52  

Curtis Barnett  4:53  
with the company as well. So just celebrated 30 years, and it's one that never necessarily expected but it's flown by the blink of an eyes. It's move that quickly. And fortunately, you know, throughout my career, I was able to work in a lot of different parts of our company and started out working in communities working closely with large employers, primary care physicians, hospital administrators, mainly in rural parts of our state, throw in a product at the time that we had called the primary care network product. And I worked in about eight different cities in Northeast Arkansas, Southwest Arkansas, and would meet with these groups of individuals, large employers, again primary care doctors and, and hospital administrators and work on ways that we can help manage cost and provide good quality health care in those local communities and towns like Osceola, towns like Batesville, which you're familiar with, town Ashdown, DeQueen places lock that in. And it really gave me a love not only for our business, but I love and even greater appreciation for the people of our state, and the challenges that they deal with every day to provide good affordable health, health care in those communities.

Brent Williams  6:08  
You know, one thing you said there that I think it's interesting that many might not think about, you know, for a company like Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, is that you're working with not only your members, but you're working with hospital systems, providers, community stakeholders, there's a lot of stakeholders with what you do.

Curtis Barnett  6:28  
Oh, no question about that. And, and we're so dependent on one another, that you really the success overall, is how well that you can work together and how well you can collaborate together. And that doesn't always show through. And in many cases, you know, we find ourselves at odds on different types of issues. But at the end of the day, when we're sitting down with hospital leaders, physician leaders, we find ourselves much more often than not working toward a common goal. 

Brent Williams  6:57  
So you worked in rural areas of the state. And then I assumed that continued to evolve?

Curtis Barnett  7:03  
I did and, and was promoted from there worked in our product development area for a period of time, got to be the business lead in our pharmacy division, mass pharmacy division. And that was a period of time when you really saw direct-to-consumer advertising began to take off in the pharmaceutical industry. So a lot of demand for prescription drugs at that time. So we were trying to manage the demand for those drugs with with the cost implications of that as well. And how do we go about doing that. So that was a fascinating period of time. And then in the late 1990s, around 2000, we had a part of our business that was going through a systems conversion, getting ready for y2k, you remember when that was a big deal. 

Brent Williams  7:03  
I do, 

Curtis Barnett  7:03  
and was struggling with that, and the company asked me if I would take that division over, and in maybe help be involved with turning that around. And that was really a turning point for my career. And it was a turning point in many ways, for my life as well, because that was the first opportunity, I had to lead a large group of people. So I had about 125 or so people who reported up to me at that time, which seemed very large, especially at that time, and we were going through a difficult time. But it was long days, a lot of hours. But it was one of those that was so rewarding, because we turned it around and we made that organization even better than what had had been before and really set it on a on a path to be successful in the future. And that was a great time.

Brent Williams  8:37  
And that sort of launched you into the next phase of your career?

Curtis Barnett  8:41  
It did, it did I continue to be involved with the operations part of our company, which when you think of a payer, a health plan like ours, that's a lot of claims processing, customer service, membership support, a lot of our information systems and technology areas. So at one point before I became CEO I had had over half of our 3000 employees reported up to me so really have been involved in the people side of our business, the technology side as well, but very much grounded in the people side of our business throughout my career, which has been very rewarding.

Brent Williams  9:13  
Yeah. Well, you know, in getting to interact with you, I think probably every time that I've talked with you one on one, I hear you talk about your people, and how important that is to you as a leader.

Curtis Barnett  9:25  
Oh, there's no question. And I mean, it really is everything to our company. I mean, we talk every day about the human side of healthcare. Certainly technology is important and we want to be best in class in technology and aspire to be as good as we possibly can. But at the end of the day, the human side of healthcare is what makes the difference. And so we stress that on an ongoing basis. You know, we love our members we think our employees are key to to serving our members effectively. Employee engagement is a big part of one of the biggest metrics we look at we've been very lucky over the years to build a culture that really reinforces employee engagement. And we just got our results back matter-of-fact in the last couple of weeks and once again, with the benchmarks that we do, we finished among the top 10% of employers nationally in employee engagement scores. And that's something we're very proud of.

Absolutely, as you should be, well, congratulations, 

Thank you. 

Brent Williams  9:36  
Well, as you you know, think about moderating and think about, you know, the audience that typically attends, you know, our business forecast lunch, and again, businesses from throughout the state. You know, I'd love to pick your brain a little bit about, you know, some of the things that you're thinking about maybe don't have fully informed opinions on or fully developed opinions on, I should say, and maybe I'll just start with healthcare, you know, it's the area that you're focused in very, very important to Arkansans, just as you're looking at the state of healthcare, and what's coming, any anything on your mind?

Curtis Barnett  11:01  
Well, I think when you look at health care, probably the biggest challenge we face today is around shortage of providers, you know, we're seeing it in physicians and nurses and other professionals as well. So, you know, are we doing the things that we need to be doing at this point to really shore up our, our supply of providers going forward, especially when you look out over the next five or 10 years, the pandemic took a took a huge toll on employee participation rates in those areas. And it's one that we've got to continue to, to shore up and improve as we look to the future, especially when you think about health care going forward, aging population, when you look at the health status, that unfortunately, if it's not getting worse, it's sort of not getting any better, either. And so we're going to need a robust workforce going forward in healthcare in order to be successful. So that's one area I'd like to spend a little bit of time. I think another area is, you know, we recently a lot of attention paid to the lithium deposits in South Arkansas, lithium extraction and Exxon Mobil's their their announcement in the last couple of weeks. And when you think about Arkansas, you think about what's been going on in Northwest Arkansas for really last many years with the boom that's occurred there, and the economic strength of that region, Northeast Arkansas, with steel industry and Mississippi County, in particular. Fort Smith, you know, which has been improving over the last several years, but now is ready, I think, to even take another big jump with a pilot training program that's going to be offered through the through the with the Air Force and all in that community. And now South Arkansas, I think a lot of people are describing that, that we're in that we could be in a golden age of economic development here in the State. And I'd like for us to maybe spend a little bit of time talking about that. And do our panelists agree that we are in that golden age? And if we or even if especially if we aren't, what are a couple of actions that we can take to make sure that we do continue to move forward the way that we can and take advantage of this momentum?

Brent Williams  13:09  
Yeah, you know, I agree that Arkansas seems really well positioned across the state in many ways. You know, you mentioned all of those different areas. You know, we also see tourism and outdoor recreation growing. We see the arts growing. So it is an interesting time in Arkansas.

Curtis Barnett  13:30  
It is it is and then what conversation wouldn't complete be complete in this day and age without talking about AI? To some extent, I think we're now we're just a little bit over a year since chat GPT, you know, was released. And so you think about the attention that AI and especially generative aI have gotten over the last year. And I'd like for our panelists to talk a little bit about how they see that really impacting our economy, and then which industries they feel like are best positioned at this point to really maximize and optimize productivity as it relates to AI.

Brent Williams  14:10  
Yeah, I think that will be an interesting discussion. And particularly, you know, there's always this balance, right of productivity and potential job loss. I know, you know, I have my own thoughts about the way that technology tends to disrupt, but it tends to grow, you know, the economy, but certainly, there's different views and opinions on that. 

Curtis Barnett  14:29  
That's right. That's right. I think you and I have talked before and it's something that we talk again about within our company at Arkansas Blue Cross, how do we find that harmony, you know that harmony between, again, being human focused, and then technology and I think with with AI and the potential that it brings, it's going to be even more incumbent upon us to find that sweet spot and then balance that you're talking about.

Brent Williams  14:52  
I suspect one thing that we will hear at least something about is what's happening with inflation and the way that you know, maybe it's slowed down, but certainly it's something I'm sure you've been paying attention to.

Curtis Barnett  15:02  
We have, you know, very closely and when you look at, you know, the job market still tends to be very strong right now, we do see inflation, I think continuing to come down, you know, economic growth tends to continue to be positive. But, you know, there are a lot of indicators out there, that would give you some cause for concern. And certainly, for those companies that are in the transportation industry, they've seen, you know, freight recession, we've heard that quite a bit referenced over the last six to nine months. And if you think of that as a leading indicator, then what does that mean for the general economy at some point?

Brent Williams  15:38  
Yeah, that's that is exactly right. You know, I think also interest rates will probably come up if I had to guess.

Curtis Barnett  15:46  
That's something we can all identify with. And exactly, I think it will no question and just the the overall tightening of the money supply, and what does that mean for economic activity going forward? 

Brent Williams  15:57  
Yeah. And certainly, I assume there will be some discussion about, you know, predicting the Feds next moves, which many, many like to do, can be a little hard to predict. But certainly, that's clearly, have having an effect and will continue to have

Curtis Barnett  16:14  
No question, as well as I mean, just think about the geopolitical situation around the world right now. We have two wars that are being fought, you know, we've got our challenges, certainly in our relationship with China, between China and the United States. And so how is that going, you know, here recently, we've had some maybe attempts to follow that relationship, we'll see if those are beginning to take hold. And then it really you think about coming out of the pandemic, and a lot of countries United States included, really took a more proactive view of industrial policies. So again, how can you build a more resilient economy within your own country and be able to produce more things there? And we certainly are seeing that in the US with the semiconductor industry funds going there. And so what has been the impact of that not only in our country, but also globally as well. So I think there's plenty to talk about. And I don't know that there's ever been a more time, when you think about economic conditions and issues, as well as the political environment, where these things come together in such an impactful way. 

Brent Williams  17:19  
Yeah, that's right. You know, there's a lot happening out there, right. And and disentangling those things is not always easy, and maybe not even always possible, because they do interact with one another. But, you know, if you think about, you know, we've talked about inflation, we've talked about interest rates, they've been moving. You just mentioned geopolitically, you know, lots of things happening across the world that have both short and long term impacts to them. And then I suspect, you know, it'll be January 2024, we're in an election cycle next year, domestically, right. So you put put that all together. 

Curtis Barnett  17:56  
Well not only do you have what's our own election here in the United States, but it seems like I read recently, two thirds of the democratic nations of the world will be going through an election in 2024. So we're going to see a lot of political activity, again, that's going to influence things economically throughout the world during this time period.

Brent Williams  18:15  
Curtis as a, as a CEO, you know, when you think about right, these are broad issues that are happening across the world. And this is this is why this moderator's role is so important. How did how does the how does the CEO leader of an Arkansas company, how do you distill that and think about, and then how do you bring it, you know, into your company? And either use it actually, or communicate it, you know, correctly to the organization?

Curtis Barnett  18:43  
Yeah, that's a great question, Brent. And it's something that, that I feel like is one of the most important jobs of a CEO is to really be that link to the outside world, the external world and to take this information. And certainly you always need, you know, good, good support from your, your leadership team to be able to do this, but to take that information, and to begin to distill it in such a way that it can be of value within your organization. You know, we spent quite a bit of time just as an example, earlier this year, watching, obviously, very closely, the Congress and where they approve a budget, you know, going forward, what are the implications for our business? And we have to be thinking about that, you know, in healthcare, what happens if certain types of payments gets suspended or other issues began to take shape? What does that do? You know, we have an investment portfolio, you know, that we rely upon for for income. And so what happens to that so you begin, you know, modeling and thinking through all those issues, and again, it's an important part of my job, I feel like is okay, what is, you know, where do we really focus when there are so many different things out there that that could distract you if you're not careful.

Brent Williams  19:57  
So, Curtis, you know, as CEO, I know you spending some of your time thinking, you know, you've got to manage to the quarter and and annually, you're thinking 5, 10 years out? How do you kind of balance that in your role?

Curtis Barnett  20:12  
Yeah, Brent, that's a great question. And you know, what I try to do is, is balance is a great way to say it, and it probably is a little bit seasonal as well, and especially first quarter of the year, again, thinking much more longer term at that point, and not just looking at the rest of the year. But again, that three to 5, 10 year time period, spend quite a bit of time other parts of the year as well, thinking through that we have our board, we bring them together for dedicated retreat session in the summer spend a lot of time getting ready for that as well. So if I had to ballpark it on time, I'd say probably, I don't know, 40% or so of my time is really spent thinking out in the future like that.

Brent Williams  20:56  
Well, one thing I really liked about the forecast luncheon is there's some there's some near term information. And then there's certainly some longer term information. And so you kind of get a, you get a view, geographically local, domestic international, but then you also get it over time horizons as well.

Curtis Barnett  21:15  
That's right. You know, one thing I've enjoyed doing is I get the, again, I do provide each March a really actually required through our bylaws to provide a annual report to our members and to our directors. And so as I'm working on the one for this year, I always go back and look at the previous years. So how right was basically. And I'm pretty good

Brent Williams  21:39  
Pretty good forecaster.

Curtis Barnett  21:40  
I wouldn't say that I'm great, but I'm pretty good. I hit it more times than not. And, and it's amazing, when you look at that. And in sometimes it's just a matter of degree things that you really thought were gonna be, you know, significant issues, they turned out to be an issue, but not quite as much as you thought, but then those that kind of sneak up on you as well. So it's always interesting and helpful to go through that exercise and that process, because, again, my role is to help interpret that for the rest of our organization, it is so important.

Brent Williams  22:13  
Yeah, that's right. And I think that that's so much of the value that really comes out of the business forecast luncheon. And, you know, another thing that I think we'll we'll get to see is there, there's some real localized issues that we'll discuss, one of which, you know, in Northwest Arkansas, particularly, is housing and availability of housing and affordability of housing. And I think probably that affordability is is something that stretches across every region of Arkansas.

Curtis Barnett  22:42  
That's right, there's no question and, you know, not only are we in statewide employer, I mean, we have a significant employee presence in Northwest Arkansas. So we hear that from our employees, we'd like to have even more employees up in Northwest Arkansas as well. But one of the challenges that we do run into is affordable housing. So we know that the business leadership, the Northwest Arkansas Council, others have made housing a priority. You know, we're certainly supportive of that and glad to play any role that we can to help make that happen. But that is one that's going to be critical. We think in order for that region to continue to grow the way that it has and really be all that it can be going forward. 

Brent Williams  23:20  
Absolutely. Well, Curtis, thank you for agreeing to be our moderator. I know you'll do a fantastic job. And I really look forward to getting to hear the international perspective. The domestic perspective, I'm a little biased, the statewide perspective with Mervin is usually my favorite he tends to be one of the most entertaining.

Curtis Barnett  23:47  
Well, Mervin is quite the talent, there's no question so so Brent I again, I'm looking forward to it. Thank you again so much for for allowing me to to serve in that capacity. And and I can't wait, 

Brent Williams  23:58  
me either. 

Curtis Barnett  23:59  
All right. Thank you.

Brent Williams  23:59  
Thank you. On behalf of the Walton College thank you for joining us for this captivating conversation to stay connected and never miss an episode. Simply search for be epic on your preferred podcast service.

Brent D. Williams

Dr. Brent D. Williams serves as the Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas and holder of the Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair.

With a deep commitment to fostering excellence in business education and thought leadership, Dr. Williams brings a wealth of experience to his role, shaping the future of the college and its impact on students and the business community. A native Arkansan, Dr. Williams earned his Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Arkansas, specializing in supply chain management.

As the Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Dr. Williams is focused on advancing the college toward its vision of being a catalyst for transforming the lives of its students and a thought leader in business.