CEO Rusty Reid shows the way as Higginbotham shows its heart

Rusty Reid (Photo by Glen E. Ellman

With his affable nature, ear-to-ear grin and upbeat outlook on life, it is hard to imagine that Rusty Reid ever had an enemy or encountered adversity.

But he did have a life-altering event that turned his world around and eventually led to spectacular success as chairman and CEO of Higginbotham, the Fort Worth-based insurance, financial and HR services firm that is the largest independent brokerage in Texas and among the largest in the country.

“When I went to college, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” said Reid, 60. “I decided to major in pre-med to become a pediatrician.”

“Then I met organic chemistry,” he said with a chuckle. “We didn’t get along.”

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So, at the suggestion of the biology dean at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), Reid walked across the street to the business school.

While working on his bachelor’s degree in business administration, a fortuitous opportunity with Ramey & King Insurance in Denton came his way. It was almost as if fate intervened for Reid, whose father and grandfather had worked in the insurance industry.

With his degree in hand and his foot in the door of the insurance business, Reid took a job with Fort Worth-based American General Life Insurance Company and moved to Fort Worth in 1986.

Not long afterward, he met Bill Stroud, who was the sole owner of Higginbotham, an independent insurance agency founded by Stroud’s uncle, Paul Higginbotham, in 1948. Stroud took over for his uncle in 1962.

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In 1986, Reid was hired as the firm’s 12th employee.

Stroud took Reid under his wing and made him vice president of the company, which sold commercial property and casualty coverage, workers’ compensation and auto and home policies.

“Bill Stroud had four daughters, so I was kind of like the son he never had,” Reid said.

Three years later, 27-year-old Reid took over as CEO and began to flex his business acumen with innovative moves.

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One of his first initiatives was to create an Employee Stock Ownership Plan to provide employees with an ownership share in the company and serve as incentive to stay employed with the firm.

The employee ownership program is indicative of the importance Reid puts on friendships and relationships with everyone in his orbit, from employees to customers to members of the community.

“Rusty is one of the most successful people I have ever met,” said Michael Parks, who has been a partner with Reid in Higginbotham for 34 years. “He is very high energy, he has an amazing depth of wisdom and he is a great leader because he really does care about everyone.”

He is also passionate about philanthropy and is known for his generosity, Parks said: “He would give everything away if common sense didn’t prevail.”

As the company marks the 75th anniversary of its founding, Higginbotham is celebrating the milestone by spotlighting its remarkable growth and business achievements, the dedication of its 2,500 employees and its philanthropic impact to Fort Worth and the 90 other communities across 16 states where it has offices.

Today, the brokerage specializes in business and individual insurance policies, employee benefits, financial services, risk management and human resources services.

Early in his tenure, Reid and partners Parks and Jim Hubbard recognized the shift of corporate America toward managed health care through HMOs and launched Higginbotham into the lucrative business of employee benefits.

Reid also understood that selling products should be only part of the brokerage’s business. To set the company apart from the competition, he decided that Higginbotham needed to go the extra mile for customers.

“We do more than sell insurance,” Reid said. “We offer value-added services to supplement our clients’ insurance protection,” Reid said.  “We call these our Day Two Services because we provide them starting the day after their policy begins and keep delivering for the next 365 days.”

Higginbotham achieved even greater success when it began expanding into other communities, beginning with a merger with a Dallas insurance agency, followed by others across North and Central Texas.

At first, the expansion was meant to stave off attempts by larger brokerages to acquire Higginbotham.

In 2007, Higginbotham introduced its “Best in Texas” strategy aimed at promoting the company as the best insurance brokerage, best place to work and best community advocate in Texas. It resulted in mergers with independent insurance brokerages across the state.

Eventually, Higginbotham moved further afield, seeking out mergers with agencies in other states.

Despite its ambitious growth strategy, Higginbotham has always taken a careful approach to merging only with companies that share its culture and values, Reid said.

Prospects must prove themselves by passing the “Thanksgiving test,” a barometer of sorts devised by Jim Hubbard.

“If you don’t want to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with them, you don’t want to be a partner with them,” Reid said.

“He’s extremely relationship-driven,” said Whit Perryman, a longtime friend and CEO at Vermeer Texas-Louisiana, a heavy equipment distributorship that is a Higginbotham client. “He’s really a great leader in everything he does.”

Reid’s commitment to community service began with a friendly nudge from a confidant: “If you own a business, you need to be involved in philanthropy.”

Reid took that advice to heart. At first, he took on a sponsorship role with Fort Worth events that benefited charities.

Before long, Reid was serving on or chairing boards of nonprofit organizations.

Known for not doing anything halfheartedly, Reid assertively led the company in seeking out larger ways to give back.

In 2011, the company established the Higginbotham Community Fund through the North Texas Community Foundation in Fort Worth with $50,000 in seed money.

“We got the ball rolling and it’s been wildly successful, beyond our expectations,” Reid said. “Over the years, our employees have contributed more than $6 million to the fund.”

Besides donating to the fund, employees are also able to request grants to support the charities of their choice.

Charitable organizations benefiting from the fund include Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities and Meals on Wheels, to name a fraction of those that have received grants locally.

Another way Higginbotham supports service to others is through its Higginbotham Helps program, which facilitates hands-on volunteerism in communities where the company has offices.

During the pandemic, Higginbotham and its employees eagerly provided meals to tens of thousands of first responders and those in need of a lift.

For its 75th anniversary, Reid wanted to highlight Higginbotham’s intersecting priorities of celebrating its cherished relationships and helping others.

The celebratory year began with the goal of purchasing the Junior Grand Champion steer at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. Higginbotham prevailed in a bidding war and with money raised by the company’s local leaders paid a record-breaking price of $440,000 for a 1,343-pound European Cross named “Snoop Dog.”

The steer was raised by Sadie Wampler, 15, of Canyon, Texas, who will use her winnings to attend Texas A&M University. She is a member of the Randall County 4-H.

“It was something we wanted to do and was important to us this year,” Reid said.

Last month, the company used its annual Higginbotham Leadership Conference to showcase its commitment to community service. Among the highlights of the conference was the presentation of “Heart of Higg” awards to team members who have made significant contributions to culture and performance in roles outside of direct sales.

Reid said the company typically hosts its meeting in the Texas Hill Country but this year opted to hold it in Fort Worth to honor the city of its roots.

Instead of the customary golf tournaments, wine-tastings and spa experiences, more than 600 employees fanned out across Fort Worth to sling hammers or roll up their sleeves to load boxes or dig holes for plants while volunteering at 10 nonprofits during an afternoon of service.

Organizations benefiting from the Higginbotham “Volunteer Extravaganza” were Trinity Habitat for Humanity, Tarrant Area Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, the Ronald McDonald House, HOPE Farm, Cook Children’s Medical Center, the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History, OutTeach, and the American Heart Association.

“We wanted to demonstrate that at Higginbotham, we really do live our values,” Reid said. “I’m really proud of all of our employees. We don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk every day.”

While Higginbotham has been selected numerous times as one of the “Best Places to Work,” Reid credits his employees, who he regards as family, for the honor.

But for all he has accomplished, Reid said he derives his greatest joy spending time with his wife Molly, his three children, and four grandchildren: Molly Morgan, Mick, Janie and JR.

“I love having grandchildren,” Reid said. “Heck, if I had known it was going to be this great, I would have had more children.”