Farmers have an almost pristine public image. Insurance companies, well, that's a different story. But Larry Wooten has helped figure out how to marry the two businesses in an effective way, while making a big mark on the state.
The president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation is retiring in December after 20 years as the go-to leader of the agriculture industry, the state's biggest economic sector. When national political leaders interested in farm issues visit, Wooten is inevitably on the must-see list, says Bruce Thompson, a Raleigh attorney and lobbyist at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLC. He's introduced Bill and Hillary Clinton and other Democratic Party leaders to the Raleigh-based trade association leader.
Wooten's clout equals N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, adds Brad Crone, a veteran Raleigh political consultant. "I've never viewed him as partisan. He's just pro-farmer," says Thompson, whose family has farmed in Franklin County for generations. "If you went back over the last 20 years, I'm sure you'd find that virtually every congressman would have good things to say about him, no matter their party."
In a lesser-known role, Wooten has also been a key player at N.C. Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Group, whose size dwarfs its public image. While day-to-day operations are led by Executive Vice President Steve Carroll, a 40-year industry veteran, Wooten heads the company's 12-person board. The duo may be the least-known billion-dollar financial executives in the state.
N.C. Farm Bureau Insurance sells more than $1 billion of property-casualty insurance annually, with revenue climbing 22% over the last five years. It trails only national giants State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in volume in the state. It's the biggest N.C.-based insurer, with 1.1 million policyholders who buy coverage on more than 1 million vehicles, about 400,000 homes and 14,000 farms.
The company's breadth is unique, with 187 offices in North Carolina's 100 counties. Each county has a nonprofit Farm Bureau board made up of eight to 16 volunteer members. The federation counts more than 577,000 member families who pay $25 a year for a membership that provides discounts on Ford vehicles, eyewear and other goods and services. (The fee hasn't changed since 1982.) When family members are included, the company's reach tops 1 million people--or at least 10% of the state's population, Wooten notes.