Ross Hays made his living by talking to strangers.
Married at an early age and living in Tampa, Hays was hired to sell life insurance in the early 1970s. Soon, he helped this company develop an insurance product that could be sold through workplaces on a volunteer basis. Around the same time, he became acquainted with staff members at a newly minted nonprofit health care center, UF Health Shands Hospital.
More than 40 years later, he’s getting to know strangers, again. This time, by making a gift to fund the Ross Hays Endowed Fund for Professional Development or Scholarships.
How did Hays leap from insurance salesman to philanthropist, particularly for scholarships?
In 1973, he left college to pursue his career and support his young family. During the last decade, he became very involved in raising scholarship funds for underprivileged youth. He has worked extensively with The First Tee of Tampa Bay, an international youth development organization introducing the game of golf and its inherent values to young people, and the Evans Scholarship, a program that provides full tuition and housing to golf caddies with limited financial means. He’s raised millions for both organizations.
“I thought it would be a neat thing to try and do at Shands in some shape or form,” he said.
His lengthy relationship with UF Health Shands began when the human resources department was housed in a single-wide trailer “just west of the smoking pavilion.”
“I met with the human resources director, who at the time had only been on the job about 30 days,” Hays recollects. “There were only 2,500 people on the job, and I spent three months speaking with about 2,000 staff members.” As he got to know UF Health Shands staff members well, his company was able to offer more benefit products that the growing hospital was unable to provide, like short-term disability, dental insurance and identity theft protection. His company grew as well. Because of his relationship with the hospital, they were able to reach other health care organizations and apply the same benefits model.
“Our work with Shands has helped us grow The Elan Group into one of the premier employee benefit groups in the state,” he said.
Two years ago, he and his partners were approached by large insurance conglomerate, Assured Partners, who were interested in buying his company. They sold, while continuing to manage their organization. This presented Hays with the opportunity to create funds that could benefit UF Health.
He turned to Janet Christie, UF Health Shands Senior Vice President, Human Resources.
“I wanted to know if there was a way I could help employees from an HR standpoint,” he said.
“The suggestion was made that there were employees in HR who might want to improve their situation by increased education. Learn new disciplines. Maybe employees weren’t doing that because of the expense of it. The funds could be used in that way and have real impact for existing employees.”
Now, he continues to work with UF Health Shands Human Resources on this new endeavor.
“Our partnership with Ross and the Elan Group has been beneficial to UF Health Shands since it started back in the late 1980s,” said Janet Christie, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, UF Health Shands.
“Ross’s desire to invest in the professional development of our employees further demonstrates his commitment to our organization. We are looking forward to rolling out the scholarship offering in 2021 and thank Ross for his generosity.”
Hays feels he’s been lucky. It’s what has inspired him to give back where he can. He loves children, and he wants to help others “have a chance to be lucky, too.”
“I don’t have a college degree. I made that decision to get out and start doing it,” Hays said.
“If there’s a way I can help other folks get that education, that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what life should be all about. Reaching out and helping your fellow man.”