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Schweizer business honor goes to Harpenaus

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Troy-based insurance firm honored by Chamber of Commerce

By KEVIN KOELLING
Managing Editor

His company was featured Jan. 28, 1985 as a News business of the week, which reported Robert Harpenau bought the existing firm in 1959 after trying a couple of different jobs. One of them had him selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door for Sears, and the report noted he called it his most profitable venture.

His current endeavor lasted much longer than the three weeks that one did, and has also been quite successful.

It is this year’s Schweizer Fest Business of the Year.

Harpenau said his first job out of high school was with Hubert Schipp’s construction company. That preceded a two-year stint as an Army mail clerk, which he earned by signing up for the draft, then bumping his name up.

“You could go move your name up. So by my age I wouldn’t have been drafted for two years or something,” he explained. “And I did that, but I forgot I did it and they drafted me, and I went.”

He underwent basic training, then guided-missile training, then was sent to Fort Polk, La., “on a temporary basis, and I just stayed until my term was up,” he said.

A wholesale milk route in Kentucky for Holland Dairy is also part of his resume.

“I’d leave about 4 o’clock in the morning, get home about six o’clock at night five days a week, and made good money,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”

Bill Elmer represented Lincoln Insurance of Jasper and provided coverage for Robert’s father, who was killed in a coal-mine accident near Saint Meinrad in 1948.

“That’s how Bill Elmer was acquainted with our family and myself,” Robert explained. “He asked me ‘have you ever thought about selling insurance as a career?’ ”

The idea doesn’t occur to many 21-year-olds, he said, but he went to work part-time for seven months, then became a full-time employee.

“I had been chasing Janice since I was 16 years old,” he said of the woman he married when they were both 20. “She kept body and soul together” during their early years together with income from her beauty-shop job. “We’ll have 56 years August what?” he asked her. It was a struggle for either to remember what day in August they wed, so “try the 25th,” he suggested.

“We’ve got too many things in August and we keep getting them mixed up,” she explained.

She also explained how his chase of her ended.

“I thought I had a good catch,” she said with a laugh.

She has tapered off, but worked with the company for many years.

Most people don’t see insurance sales as a glamorous career. Both Robert and Janice said it is rewarding, however.

“I don’t know of anything I could have done that would have been more rewarding in many ways, including acquaintances, people,” he said. “One thing that I do that most people don’t do is visit my clients in their homes. Office visits tend to be the exception instead of the norm, but that’s the way I was trained, and that’s the way I like it.”

“We have been so fortunate in so many ways,” he added, “family, life, health ….”

“When you’re talking about it being rewarding,” Janice interjected, “a lot of people don’t know where to go.” When Robert makes an insurance call, he may show a client how to get started with Social Security, she explained. “Some of these older people don’t know how to do that. He’s got them all spoiled, but he’s been good to them.”

The offerings he provides to customers have changed over the years, he explained. Insurance policies in the past were written with savings plans. Now insurance is less than 5 percent of his business and he focuses on providing retirement-savings plans. Many are geared toward religious, educational and nonprofit institutions, and his role is mainly that of a financial adviser.

“Retirement planning is a better term,” he said, explaining he works with both employers and employees. Saving is very difficult for most people, he said, but is eased with payroll deductions. He displayed a chart showing that $1,000 put aside each year, assuming 5-percent interest, would create a $66,644 nest egg in 30 years, more than doubling the actual investment.

Son Rick Harpenau has focused on the casualty side of the business since he graduated college, and “works as hard as I do,” his father said. “He’s here at 6:30 a.m. and stays until the job’s done. It’s an excellent casualty agency.”

“Everybody chips in – it’s a family business,” Rick said.

He noted that today’s “survival rates” are low for people starting out in the life, health and annuity business.

“You may start out with 10 guys today in metropolitan areas,” he said. “Within two years, most probably, eight of those guys are gone, and that’s with training and company support, office space, everything. To make a living at it is tough.”

For his father to have remained successful for years in a town Troy’s size, and to qualify for Lincoln’s annual conventions, “you’ve got to be in the top 5 percent of Lincoln across the country. You’re talking about (competing against) guys in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, where Lincoln advertises on the side of a baseball field, and being able to compete and generate revenue for a major life-insurance firm.”

“What he’s accomplished, whether he’ll admit to it or not,” he added, “and the way he does it will never be done again.”

Lincoln Financial Group is the fourth-largest financial company in the United States, Robert said, and his production has consistently ranked him within the top 200 or 300 agents.

That performance entitles him to attend company conventions, and they’ve provided opportunities for family members to travel together to places that have included Bermuda and, most recently, Hawaii.

In addition to long hours on the job, Robert has contributed much time to other activities. He was on the board of directors for Citizens National Bank for 25 years. He’s also been active in Kiwanis, and was honored by Indiana’s lieutenant governor in 1976 as one of eight outstanding club presidents “for his club’s work under his leadership in 1974-75.”

In April 1993, Robert became a board of trustees member for Catholic Community Foundation and its finance committee.

It was founded the previous year “with a mission to support financially the spiritual, educational and social needs of our Catholic community,” according to its Web site.
He’s also served with Saint Pius Church, Knights of Columbus, Perry County Memorial Hospital Foundation, Troy Utilities and a former group home for wayward children in Tell City, he said.

“I like to be part of something that’s moving,” he said.

He also owns 500 acres at Derby where he likes spend free time.

“He goes out there on Saturdays and Sundays and brush-hogs,” Janice said, “bib overalls and all. That’s his recreation. He doesn’t do any farming – he’s just the cleanup guy. Somebody else puts the plants out.”

“Bruce Miller farms the tillable ground,” he said. “I do the brush-hogging, and cut the brush. That’s my golf game.”

Rick provided a recent example of his father using an “old-school” approach to taking care of his customers. A woman who’d recently retired from an area school system died, and Robert was assisting her husband.

“They said he came in and helped him with things that didn’t even pertain to life insurance,” Rick said of Robert. “He sat there with the man and helped him through all his issues. There are a lot of teachers who look forward to seeing him every year, just because they know he’s going to stop by, whether you like it or not. His customers have trained him and he’s trained his customers.”

Robert credited Janice for her support. He goes home at more regular times than he used to, he said, but for a long time, “she’d never know when I was coming home until I show up at the door.”

“We met a lot at different places when the kids were in sports and that,” she said. “I would take them and he’d come, and he didn’t miss any of that stuff.”

“She’s been a perfect wife,” he said.

Harpenau will be honored at the annual Schweizer Fest Testimonial Dinner beginning with a social hour at 5:30 Thursday at the Knights of Columbus building at 947 11th St., Tell City.

Tickets are available from the Perry County Chamber of Commerce for $20, and reservations must be made by today by calling 547-2385 or sending e-mail to perrychamber@psci.net.