From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Closer Than a Brother

The disappointment was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. After twenty years in the convenience store and grocery business, with the dream of some day owning his own grocery store in his hometown of Holdenville, Oklahoma, Wilburn Smith was devastated. He had worked his way up to a $30,000 manager’s salary at the very store he wanted to buy, on the promise that he could purchase it from the owner when he retired. But when this fateful day came in 1980, the owner sold it to someone else.

Wilburn’s lifelong dream was crushed in one instant. His cousin, Mike Smith, whether out of kindness or because he saw hidden potential, asked Wilburn if he would be interested in selling the legal services of Pre-Paid Legal, a new company marketing legal plans. Mike was one of the first salesmen I ever hired at Pre-Paid Legal, my struggling company that was only eight years old at the time.

Salespeople were paid a commission on their sales, which meant Wilburn would have to make presentations to people face-to-face if he wanted to make money. After a week of training and completing twenty-five individual sales on his own, Wilburn was ready to start offering the service to groups, which offered the potential to make even more money. The only problem was that Wilburn was scared of public speaking.

Realizing this fact, Mike took Wilburn with him to give a team presentation to the Oklahoma City Fire Department. The first day went fine as presentations were done together and Wilburn could hide his nervousness. The next day, however, Mike was unexpectedly called away, and Wilburn was suddenly on his own. Scared to death, Wilburn drove around the station for thirty minutes and then sat in his parked car for another thirty minutes. Finally mustering up enough courage, Wilburn walked inside and gave his presentation. Much to his relief, the presentation wasn’t as bad as he expected, and by the end of the week he had signed up nearly fifty firefighters! Wilburn’s income his first year was only $25,000, but he knuckled down and performed even better the following year, doubling his income.

Around that time, John Hail, a longtime trusted friend who had played a significant part in saving our company from bankruptcy just a few years earlier, called me to say he had a great marketing idea that would be a huge boost to our company. As I listened, he outlined why Pre-Paid Legal should migrate its current commission-based marketing program into a multilevel marketing approach. I would have laughed in his face and walked away if he had been any other person, but I trusted John and knew he wouldn’t offer a crazy idea like this if he didn’t truly believe in it.

Hesitant to get into the multilevel marketing game, I agreed to let John give it a try on the condition that he start the venture at least 500 miles away from our company’s headquarters in Ada, Oklahoma. I didn’t want to be embarrassed if it flopped. Within the year, however, John’s marketing group doubled our revenues. He certainly had my attention! I then gave John permission to present the opportunity to our full-time sales force.

When John made the initial presentation, there was skepticism among the group, but one person was convinced that it was just what the company needed: Wilburn Smith. He saw the potential immediately and enthusiastically supported John’s proposal. Upon instituting the new concept, company sales went from $2 million to $42 million in four short years, and revenues haven’t been that low since.

Under this new sales system, Wilburn’s commissions began to climb dramatically. The company was so successful in writing new business that we found ourselves on the brink of disaster, as we had run out of money paying advance commissions. Compensation was similar to that of the insurance industry—we paid commissions three years in advance, so as the sales exploded, so did our need for cash. Now I was faced with two terrible options: stop paying advance commissions or go bankrupt.

We suspended the commissions until we could generate enough revenue to pay them again, and the fallout was that we lost most of our sales force, but not Wilburn! He hung in there, working harder than ever. He believed in me, in the service and in the company. I truly believe that if it weren’t for Wilburn, Pre-Paid Legal would not exist today.

After that gut-wrenching ordeal, I asked Wilburn to become the vice president of marketing and rebuild our sales force. I knew he could relate to the sales force, because he had “been there and done that” with the best of them, thus making his insights and leadership all the more valuable. Armed with a new marketing plan, Wilburn was off to the races and Pre-Paid Legal was back on track, growing faster than ever.

Over the years, Wilburn has held just about every position at our company and has stuck with me no matter what. If I gave him a task that I knew he didn’t like, he would turn around and do it with enthusiasm, with the end result always a work of art. With this in mind, in 1995, my wife, Shirley, and I went out to dinner with Wilburn and his wife, Carol. After dinner, I asked Wilburn if he could be in my office early next Tuesday, as I had some good news for him. He said he would, and we waved good-bye. The following Tuesday I handed Wilburn a press release and asked him to read it; as he did, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.

I had come to realize over the years that through life’s thick and thins, your parents, siblings and other family members are usually the ones who stick with you, enabling you to make it to the light at the end of the tunnel. But when you find a friend who will stick even closer than a brother, this is when you know you’ve found a very rare thing. And if you’re smart, you won’t let go of such a person! That is why I made Wilburn Smith president of our company.

Harland Stonecipher

EPILOGUE: As with any new business venture, when Harland Stonecipher began Pre-Paid Legal in 1972, he was looking for those certain individuals who could help him develop his business into a viable and successful dream.

Founder and CEO of Pre-Paid Legal, Stonecipher’s entrepreneurial spirit definitely rubbed off on Wilburn Smith and his many other dedicated employees and independent associates. Today, the company continues to grow and is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, providing legal services and identity theft protection to more than a million families and businesses in North America.

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John Gardner

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