The controversial founder of an insurance company in St. Petersburg died at the age of 89

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

Menke, the longtime chairman and director of insurance company Bankers Financial Corp., died “peacefully at home with his family by 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 clients in more than 45 states. Menke served on the company’s board until the last months of his life.

“His entrepreneurial spirit and dogged persistence 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 hard to find people like Bob anymore who have been in the industry as long as he has and seen the changes that have occurred here in Florida,” said Ray Blackledge, executive vice president of American Traditions Insurance Company in Pinellas Park, who knows Menke for three decades. β€œHe lived it, he understood how we got there, the good and the bad, what we needed to do and what we did. It’s a shame for the industry.”

A graduate of the University of Florida, Menke founded Bankers in 1976 after the state closed its predecessor, Bankers Fire & Casualty, when its liabilities, primarily in the auto insurance industry, exceeded its assets. In the reconstruction, Menke sees no need to change the brand of the business. The strategy worked as the new company was able to retain almost 95% of the previous policy holders.

“There was still goodwill built up around the name and also we didn’t think you should hide behind a new name,” he told 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 fourth largest flood insurance carrier in the country. It also diversified its portfolio by adding products ranging from surety bonds to contact lens insurance to accident insurance for car dealerships and contractors.

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

As Bankers grew, some executives grew frustrated with state regulators, who they felt treated the company unfairly. In 1995, Bankers hired, with Menke’s permission, a private investigator to investigate the personal life of Kevin McCarthy, a powerful state insurance official who would later become Florida’s insurance commissioner. The investigator followed McCarthy into his private life and illegally tapped his phone in search of information that could discredit him before the state.

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The company admitted it hired the private investigator but denied knowledge of the wiretapping. Menke later described the investigation as “entirely legitimate” and said the subsequent state investigation into the bankers was “unfair and illegal” and a “witch hunt.”

Still, the company settled with McCarthy in 2000 for more than $2.5 million. Two years later, it agreed to pay the state another $1 million, suspend its chairman for three years and bar its general counsel from working with the company again. As part of the settlement, Menke retained his position on the bankers’ board. But the ordeal appears to have left him less enthusiastic about pushing for regulatory reform, Blackledge said.

“He kind of stepped away from the political side of things for a while and wasn’t there to help lead the way for probably almost a decade,” Blackledge 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 about 1,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $500 million. Last year, Bankers Insurance exited Florida’s homeowners insurance market, accusing the Legislature of failing to address “the financial challenges facing property and casualty insurers,” it said in a statement, including “fraud and litigation disputes that exponentially outpace every other state.”

Menke has always run Bankers as 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. to 2022 and, according to Meehan, was planning a 90th birthday party in June.

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

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