Passion and planning power a pathway to philanthropy
In each installment of our Broken Glass series we talk with a woman in the independent agency system about the challenges and rewards she has experienced throughout her career. This month we visit with Karen K. Farris, CPCU, ARM, former president and chief executive officer of RHSB, a Dallas-based independent brokerage.
When you think about retiring from active management of your agency, where do your dreams take you? To long lazy days fishing at the lake? Traveling to exotic destinations? Finally reading the 100 great books of Western literature?
For Karen Farris, CPCU, ARM, that dream has taken a different form. Five years ago, after 30 years with Dallas-based independent brokerage RHSB, she relinquished her responsibilities as president and chief executive officer and assumed the position of chairman. For the past five years, she has divided her time between Dallas and her home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and she’s as busy now as she was when she was running RHSB.
Farris’s passion is philanthropy, and earlier this year she happily accepted an appointment as the chairman of RHSB’s newly created foundation, which serves as the firm’s philanthropic arm. The transition from active brokerage management to full-time philanthropist required careful planning, as well as buy-in from the executives who would be assuming Farris’s responsibilities.
Her insurance career path started 40-some years ago. After a decade with Aetna, Farris joined RHSB in 1982 as vice president of marketing. She was named president in 1992, and became CEO in 1994. “I had three goals in mind: first, to take us through our first internal perpetuation; second, to triple the size of the firm, and third, to have next-generation leadership in place so I could walk away from day-to-day management at age 60,” Farris says.
“I was blessed to be able to do that,” she adds, “and for the past five years have served as chairman of the board, while pursuing my philanthropic interests and serving on several for-profit and nonprofit boards. I can truly say that these have been the happiest years of my life, and I’ve learned a great deal on my journey.”
Then and now
When Farris began her insurance career in the early 1970s, it’s safe to say that attitudes toward women in the business were less enlightened than is the case today. “I was lucky because the culture at RHSB made discrimination against women a non-issue for me,” she says. “There were very few female producers at that time, but I don’t recall ever feeling that being female was a barrier. Often I found myself working with a female CFO or controller on the client side, and they welcomed me.”
Young women coming into the industry today, Farris observes, bring a quality she finds refreshing. “They’re accustomed to collaboration, thanks to the opportunities available in team sports. The young women we interview today who are just coming out of college seem to have a definite mental edge as a result of having competed. That’s a whole different kind of DNA than I had, and I think this is a positive development.
“Also, I think more fathers today are encouraging their daughters to aim high and pursue excellence, which serves them well in the business world. I meet very few men today who would say their daughters are not just as qualified as their sons to achieve anything.”
What significant changes have taken place in the property/casualty industry over the span of Farris’s career?
“We’ve seen a vast amount of consolidation among both carriers and agencies,” she remarks. “We have fewer players, but I think they’re stronger players.” Another change, she says, is the expanding role of technology. “We live in a 24/7 world, where we all want instant access to information and resources. It’s now possible for many of us to work anytime, from anywhere.”
Technology, she continues, “is changing the value proposition we deliver to our clients. Today it involves much more than just handing over a policy. Our clients expect us to deliver information, benchmarking, options, and solutions. We need to be able to quantify those services and assess a fee, rather than being compensated by a commission. Clients also expect us to be accessible and available outside the traditional 9 to 5 workday, whether by phone, text, email, or our website.”
Farris is clearly delighted with her new role as chairman of the RHSB Foundation, which began operations early this year.
“We have always done a lot in the community, and this gives us a chance to expand our outreach through a philanthropic arm and do things bigger and better,” she says. “We’ve established a relationship with the Community Foundation of Texas, which allows us to operate as a foundation, without having to comply with all the legal and tax requirements that are usually involved. We’re planning a big fundraiser for the fall. We’re patterning it after an event held by the people at Bolton & Company, our Assurex partners in Los Angeles. Our goal is to raise money to donate to some of our nonprofit clients.”
Today Farris is putting her management and leadership skills to good use, as she coordinates events for the many nonprofits whose work she supports.
A cause that is dear to her heart is the new George W. Bush Library in Dallas. “Interestingly, the library opened at the same time I became chairman of RHSB,” Farris says. “I volunteer as a docent one day a week, and I’ve been involved in our 9/11 programming, some of which we’re doing in a partnership with the Reagan Library in California. I love this work because it’s so different from anything I did as a CEO,” she says enthusiastically. “We currently have a fascinating exhibit of President Bush’s paintings. It’s called Portraits of Courage, and is the President’s tribute to wounded military veterans. President Bush first picked up a paintbrush after leaving the White House in his late 60s—proving that you’re never too old to learn a new skill.”
A civic organization in which Farris has long been involved is Rotary. “I joined Rotary back in the 1980s, when women were first allowed to become members,” she recalls. “I always wanted to become more active and go through the chairs, but with 170 members it’s a full-time job, and I already had one at RHSB. Eventually the stars aligned, and when I stepped out of my CEO role at RHSB, I had the opportunity to serve as president of the Park Cities Rotary Club. One of our strategic initiatives was to address the problem of hunger, and our project was to raise money to buy a mobile food pantry for the North Texas Food Bank. We raised over $250,000, which was enough to buy the truck and have money left over to cover the operating costs of the pantry for the first year. It was a great way for me to make the transition from running RHSB, because I was in charge of a major project, but it was totally different from what I had been accustomed to doing every day.”
Farris also volunteers with Meals on Wheels. “Once a month, I deliver food with a 91-year-old business partner from RHSB—one of the founding partners. He’s an amazing person in great physical condition. I drive the car, and he runs in with the food. He is what we all want to be at that age—and he continues to be an inspiration to our firm.
“I’m also involved with the Agape Clinic, which provides low-cost and free medical and dental care to indigent people. Another organization in which I’m active is Attitudes & Attire, which works with women who are making the transition from difficult life situations to the workplace, and helps them rebuild their self-esteem. A couple of years ago, we introduced a workshop for female veterans. Many of these women went into the service to escape abusive situations and encountered even worse situations in the military.”
Farris is a long-time volunteer with the American Heart Association and serves on its insurance task force. “That’s kind of fun for me in the sense that I’m the buyer instead of the seller. It gives me the opportunity to use my insurance knowledge to help a nonprofit.”
Given the roster of Dallas-based nonprofit entities to which Farris dedicates her time, it may seem surprising that Farris is ever able to escape to her home in Colorado. “Except for on-site volunteering, just about anything I can do in Dallas I can do from Colorado,” she says with a chuckle.
“It amazes me how much need there is in the nonprofit world, and definitely on the business side,” Farris reflects. “Everything from strategic planning to financial management, recruiting talent, and corporate governance. Throughout my career, I learned to work in a collaborative environment with 12 fantastic shareholders, and that translates well into the nonprofit world, where you have to manage the interests of donors, staff, executives, volunteers, and members or recipients of aid.
“Something I’ve learned from my philanthropic work is that it’s easy to motivate people when you sign their paychecks. It’s a lot more difficult to motivate people in a volunteer environment. I’ve had to step back and think about how to approach this challenge. I’ve learned that to motivate volunteers, I need to be passionate about our cause and convey that passion in a way that inspires them to get on board and give their best. Most volunteers are busy people—jobs, families, church, other nonprofits—and many activities compete for their time. If I can’t tap into their passion, they’ll go elsewhere.”
From leading a major brokerage and mentoring employees to organizing fundraisers and delivering meals to senior citizens, Karen Farris brings to every endeavor her business acumen, passionate dedication, and a very big heart.
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Do you know a female agency owner, principal, or executive who might make a good subject for a future Broken Glass profile? If so, please contact Elisabeth Boone, CPCU, Senior Features Editor of Rough Notes (email@example.com), and provide some details about the woman, as well as contact information. We’ll take it from there.