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HIGH PROFILE: Curtis Barnett began his career making watches, is now CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield

by Jenny Boulden Special to the Democrat-Gazette | January 16, 2022 at 2:07 a.m.
“We’ve all seen firsthand the struggles and despair people can feel trying to get and afford care. If we’re going to help people live healthier lives, and we’re going to help them with their physical health conditions, we also have to help them with behavioral health conditions.” -Curtis Barnett (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

The life-changing experience that first showed Curtis Barnett what a smooth-running organization looks like was literally gilded in gold.

Barnett, 59, has a welcoming demeanor. His curiosity and intelligence are quickly apparent, and he's famously accessible and encouraging. As chief executive officer of Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, an organization that serves more than 2 million people, he leads more than 3,300 employees, serves on prestigious Arkansas boards and now chairs the National Institute for Healthcare Management (NIHCM).

But his gold-tinged story starts nearly 40 years ago, the unglamorous summer he worked so hard he could pour sweat from his boots.

Barnett's father, Darrell, worked for Timex in Little Rock for 40 years, working his way up from a materials handler into management. When Darrell's 19-year-old son needed a summer job following his freshman year at the University of Central Arkansas, it made sense Curtis would join his dad at the Little Rock plant.

"More than any other, that experience changed my life," Barnett says.

Barnett worked in the Gold Room, gold-plating watches before final assembly. The room was filled with vats of acids and chemicals, including molten gold, each piece needed to be carefully dipped in, then extracted.

"Each watch would make its way to me, and I would dip it in the last couple of vats, shake it off and put it on hangers to go through a long dryer," he says, pantomiming the motions, "It was hard work! These were dangerous chemicals, so you had to wear a thing on your head, and a rubber apron that covered all the way down, rubber gloves up to your arms, rubber boots up to your knees. I would finish the day so drenched, I could pour sweat out of my boots."

But Barnett speaks with reverence about working alongside workers who proudly did these jobs all their lives, not just one hard summer, to take care of their families.

"We were meeting high production standards, we were part of a team. We did the work," he says, pausing a moment as his voice fills with emotion. "These people were so good to me, generous and kind. They expected me to work, and they'd give me a hard time if they didn't feel like I was pulling my weight. But they wanted me to succeed; it was important to them."

That back-breaking experience of being a small part of something bigger, or -- to use a watch-making metaphor -- being the proverbial cog in a well-oiled wheel, left him with a "life-changing" confidence he'd never known. And it gave him lifelong respect for front-line workers.

"That perspective has helped me throughout my career at Blue Cross. And not just with our own employees, but people out in our state and the challenges they face," he says. "I'm constantly reminded just how wonderful and generous and kind they are, how hard they're trying."


Barnett's parents, too, were hard-working people whose work provided an "almost idyllic" childhood for Curtis and his older sister, Tammie (now Blakemore). Like his father at Timex, Barnett's mother, Phyllis, worked for the Sears automotive department for more than 30 years.

Barnett tells people he was born rich -- not in wealth, but in family love and support. He attended Sylvan Hills schools all 13 years, and he and neighborhood friends would daily walk to and from school and play basketball and other sports together.

Despite the success he'd find as an adult, Barnett says he was an uninspired student. "But I had big dreams, even then," he remembers. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, or how to get there, but I wanted a leadership-type role, something where I could influence people."

Darrell, who didn't attend college, was insistent that Curtis attend UCA, where Tammie was doing well. After resisting his father at every step, Curtis finally gave in and enrolled. He calls it one of the best decisions of his life.

"UCA changed my life in a lot of ways," he says. "I had a wonderful experience there. I made lifelong friends. It was a very nurturing place."

One of those lifelong friends and fraternity brothers (Phi Sigma Epsilon) is Kelly Robbins, now executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation. Robbins says his own interest in public policy started when Barnett prodded him to get involved in student government at UCA. "I count him as a dear friend and a mentor," Robbins says. "It's been exciting to see how successful he's been but no surprise at all. He was a natural leader people looked to."

Robbins says Barnett gravitated toward the authority figures in the faculty and administration. "Looking back, he seemed to have a deeper appreciation for them than the rest of us. Among a bunch of immature guys in the mid-'80s, Curtis really stood out."

Barnett speaks fondly of his UCA mentors. "A lot of professors took an interest in me," he says. "They'd allow me to ask them questions and spend time with them to understand different perspectives on the world."

One key figure was Charles Dunn, a political science professor and director of government affairs who would later become president of Henderson State University. At the start of his second year, Barnett was technically one hour short of being a sophomore. Dunn pointed out that meant Barnett could run for the student government association as a freshman. Just off his Gold Room summer, Barnett was enthusiastic about stepping up. He says, "I'd never served in any student council, but I wanted it, and won."

While still serving as freshman senator, Barnett successfully ran for president of the student government. "That exposed me to things I never would have been exposed to otherwise," Barnett says. "It was my first real taste of leadership."


After graduation, Barnett had a plan: like his mentors, he would get a Ph.D. and become an academic. He got as far as earning a master's in public administration from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville before his path led him to a different sort of plan altogether.

"I thought I'd take a year or two off to work and earn money," he says, chuckling, "but I never went back."

His first job out of grad school was as a research associate for the University of Arkansas System. He found one of the issues he researched particularly fascinating: improving the system's health insurance plan. The UA system was moving from a fully insured plan to a self-funded one that would allow more flexibility with benefits and control over rising costs.

"I didn't know anything about health insurance, but I was doing a lot of the research and analysis for the task force assigned to the plan transition," he says. He became the one the task force turned to for information. When interim president Gary Chamberlain told Barnett, still in his mid-20s, he was considering him to helm the transition, Barnett didn't hesitate.

"He'd barely gotten the words out of his mouth when I said, 'I'll do it!'' he laughs. "I knew it was a good opportunity that would evolve."

It did. Several years and promotions later, Barnett realized he most enjoyed tackling the challenge of health care affordability, and decided that might be best done working at a health insurance carrier.

"I'm an Arkansas boy. I was committed to this state, loved this place and didn't want to leave," Barnett says. "And when you think about health insurance in Arkansas, you typically think about Arkansas Blue Cross."

He joined the insurance company in 1993 as a primary care network plan manager, then advanced through the company managing various areas. In each, he emphasized building relationships that united communities in positive ways and showing customers and employees the leadership cared about them. It often made all the difference.


Barnett was elected CEO in 2017, before a global pandemic upended the entire health care industry.

Tommy May has been a member of the Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield Board of Directors for 41 years. He says Barnett is a popular and invaluable CEO able to rise to the challenges of these "precarious times."

"He's well-rounded, well-grounded and a great leader; Curtis truly is the people's choice," May says, also praising Barnett's keen listening skills and his vision during the pandemic.

Barnett helped Arkansas Blue Cross launch innovative programs to help Arkansans weather the pandemic's upheavals. One point of pride is its "Vaccinate the Natural State" campaign. In 2021 Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield executed the state's vaccine communications strategy, partnering with public and private organizations, and making a special push to get accurate information to Black, Hispanic and other populations disproportionately affected by covid-19.

Barnett also has a vision to improve behavioral health in Arkansas, which he says is more important now than ever. The Blue & You Foundation last year awarded $5.2 million to six Arkansas behavioral health organizations.

"That's an area I'm probably more passionate about than anything," he says. "We've all seen firsthand the struggles and despair people can feel trying to get and afford care," he says. "If we're going to help people live healthier lives, and we're going to help them with their physical health conditions, we also have to help them with behavioral health conditions."


But Barnett's focus and influence extend far beyond Arkansas. Nancy Chockley leads National Institute for Healthcare Management LLC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan national think tank, and its Foundation, which funds evidence-based research into health care challenges and best practices, and provides grants for in-depth, objective journalism about emerging health care issues. Last fall, Barnett was unanimously elected chair of both organizations.

Chockley says Barnett is "extremely well-respected" nationally, and health industry leaders are following innovations Arkansas Blue Cross is spearheading in the state.

"Curtis is always well-versed on the issues from a big-picture policy way but also brings a keen eye on operational detail. What makes him special is his thoughtfulness," she says. "When he speaks, everybody listens."

Chockley says that in her career she has worked closely with about 60 CEOs. "Curtis is at the very top of those," she says. "Some CEOs relish the title, but I think he relishes the ability to help others and improve the health care in Arkansas and the U.S. Plus, he's just a great guy, a class act through and through. He's got it all."

A big part of that "all" is Barnett's wife, Karen, who is retired from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; and their 24-year-old son, Collin, who lives in Memphis. They live in downtown Little Rock, and in their free time, the Barnetts enjoy spending time on the water at their lake house in Heber Springs. Barnett is also a runner ("not a very good one," he qualifies), and runs in several 5Ks each year.

These days, Barnett especially enjoys being vice chair of UCA's Board of Trustees (the university in 2018 also honored Barnett with its Distinguished Alumni award). He says, "It's tremendously satisfying to see a lot of those same wonderful qualities that were there when I was a student really haven't changed. It's still a very nurturing place that cares about kids, especially first-generation college students. I think they do an outstanding job of helping people, and that's core to what that university is."

He says Arkansas' beauty, quality of life and people are too often underestimated. "When we're recruiting, we've found that if we can just get people here to visit, we have a greater than 90% chance of hiring them," Barnett says. "We have as a state so much to offer, but we need to continue to challenge ourselves, to ask, 'What could we create together?' And 'Why not us?'"

Barnett keeps in his office an oversized cut-out of a key, several feet long, in vibrant Blue Cross blue and white. On it are Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield's three "key" priorities. "Those are three things I think about daily," Barnett says. "Take care of our customers. Take care of our communities. Take care of our employees.

"We take care of people."


Curtis Barnett

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Oct. 31, 1962, Searcy

• MY HAPPY PLACE IS: On Greers Ferry Lake with family

• A QUOTE I THINK OF OFTEN: I don't have a quote, but I have a favorite word: Persevere. My wife, Karen, had the word framed for me several years ago to display in my office. It's the first thing I see when I get to the office each morning and the last thing I see when I leave at night. It reminds me that life isn't a straight line and to keep striving. There is great power in perseverance.

• MY PETS ARE: Two miniature dachshunds, Charlie and Chloe. We live in downtown Little Rock and if you're ever downtown you're likely to see us out walking our pups.

• THE WORLD NEEDS MORE: People who see mental health conditions and addiction as treatable diseases, not as personal weaknesses. We must eliminate the stigma around behavioral health if we're going to help more people live better and healthier lives.


• MY WIFE HAS: The most fervently held beliefs and feelings of anyone I know. When she believes in or loves someone or something, she's all in -- 1,000%. She cares deeply!

• MY PLAYLIST INCLUDES: A lot of Earth, Wind & Fire and Van Halen

• MY FAVORITE PODCASTS: I have two. Both are hosted by Jon Meacham: "Hope, Through History" and "It Was Said."

• SOMETHING I LEARNED FROM MY PARENTS' GENERATION: The importance of hard work, honesty and unconditional love. I saw it on display every day when I was growing up. My parents never took a shortcut on anything.

• PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO KNOW: I'm probably one of the last people on earth who still cooks popcorn in a pan on the stove. I've cooked popcorn this way almost every weekend for the past 25 years when we're watching movies or a ballgame. It's a family treat and tradition. No microwave popcorn for us.


  photo  “Those are three things I think about daily. Take care of our customers. Take care of our communities. Take care of our employees. We take care of people.” -Curtis Barnett (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Print Headline: Curtis Edwin Barnett


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