St Petersburg’s controversial founder of insurance firm dies at 89

Robert Menke founded Bankers Insurance in 1976. It grew from 10 employees to around 1,000.
Robert M. Menke, the founder and longtime chairperson and director of St. Petersburg's Bankers Financial Corp. and Bankers Insurance, has died at 89. He is shown here in the company's offices in 1987.
Robert M. Menke, the founder and longtime chairperson and director of St. Petersburg's Bankers Financial Corp. and Bankers Insurance, has died at 89. He is shown here in the company's offices in 1987. [ Times (1987) ]
Published May 9|Updated May 9

Robert Menke, the founder of one of St. Petersburg’s largest private corporations and a key figure in a scandal over attempts to spy on a state insurance regulator, has died at 89.

Menke, the longtime chairperson and director of insurance firm Bankers Financial Corp., died “peacefully at home with his family at his side” last week, according to a company statement.

Bankers Financial is the parent of a handful of insurance and professional services companies, including Bankers Insurance, which has customers in more than 45 states. Menke served on the company’s board until the final months of his life.

“It was his entrepreneurial spirit and tenacious perseverance that led him into the insurance business and laid the foundation for his success and that of Bankers,” the company said in a statement.

“It’s difficult to find people like Bob anymore, who’ve been in the industry as long as he had, and seen the changes that have gone on here in Florida,” said Ray Blacklidge, an executive vice president at American Traditions Insurance Company in Pinellas Park, who knew Menke for three decades. “He lived it, he understood how we got to where we got, the good and the bad, what we should be doing, and what we did do. It’s a shame for the industry.”

A University of Florida graduate, Menke founded Bankers in 1976 after the state shut down its predecessor, Bankers Fire & Casualty, when its liabilities, primarily in its auto insurance sector, outgrew its assets. In rebuilding, Menke didn’t see a need to change the business’s brand. The strategy worked, as the new company managed to retain nearly 95% of prior policyholders.

“There was still good will built up around the name, and besides, we didn’t feel you should hide behind a new name,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1987.

In the 1980s, the company was one of the first to dive into the flood insurance market, eventually becoming the nation’s fourth-largest flood insurance carrier. It also diversified its portfolio, adding products ranging from bail bonds to contact lens insurance to casualty for motor homes and contractors.

“As a small, regional company, that’s what you do,” said former Bankers president David Meehan. “You’re looking for pockets of businesses and things that are out of the mainstream, because you can’t really compete head-on with the big guys.”

As Bankers grew, some executives grew frustrated by state regulators, who they felt were treating the company unfairly. In 1995, Bankers hired, with Menke’s authorization, a private investigator to look into the personal life of Kevin McCarty, an influential state insurance official who would later become Florida’s insurance commissioner. The investigator tailed McCarty in his personal life and illegally tapped his phone in search of information that could discredit him with the state.

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The company admitted to hiring the private investigator, but denied knowledge of the wiretap. Menke later described the investigation as “completely legal,” and said the state’s ensuing investigation of Bankers was “unfair and unlawful” and a “witch hunt.”

Still, the company in 2000 settled with McCarty for more than $2.5 million. Two years later, it agreed to pay the state another $1 million, remove its chairperson for three years and bar its general counsel from ever working with the company again. As part of the settlement, Menke kept his position on Bankers’ board. But the ordeal seemed to leave him less enthusiastic about pushing for regulatory reform, Blacklidge said.

“He kind of withdrew for a time from the political side of things, and he wasn’t out there helping lead the way for probably almost a decade,” Blacklidge said. “It definitely changed their company plans and I’m sure Bob wouldn’t say it hurt his feelings, but I think it did.”

At its peak, Bankers Financial had some 1,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $500 million. Last year, Bankers Insurance left the Florida homeowners insurance market, blaming the Legislature for failing to combat the “financial challenges faced by property and casualty insurers,” it said in a statement, including “fraud and litigation which exponentially outpaces every other state.”

Menke always ran Bankers like a family business. His son-in-law, John Strong, is the company’s CEO, and his son Rob Menke has been president since 2016. Two other sons, Brent and Kyle, serve alongside Strong and Rob on the company’s board.

Menke himself was listed as a director of Bankers Financial Corp. until 2022, and according to Meehan, was planning a 90th birthday party for June.

“He really never stopped working or thinking or doing,” Meehan said. “He always had a project all the time.”