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The direct selling industry lost an icon on Nov. 10 with the death of Harland Stonecipher, who founded one of the industry’s most unique companies, LegalShield. Stonecipher was 76 years old.
The concept for Stonecipher’s business brainchild was inspired by difficult circumstances. In 1969 he was involved in a head-on auto collision. Though the accident was not his fault, he was sued. The experience cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees and shook his idealistic beliefs about justice. But it caused the teacher-turned-life-insurance-salesman to begin thinking about how others could be protected from the nightmare he endured.
By 1972 he had created LegalShield’s predecessor company, which incorporated as Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. in 1976. Six years later Stonecipher’s old friend John Hail introduced him to the concept of marketing his legal services memberships through network marketing. Stonecipher served as CEO from the company’s inception until 2010, when he relinquished that title, but he continued to be active as Chairman of the Board and Founder. In 2011 MidOcean Partners, a private equity firm, acquired Pre-Paid Legal for $650 million and renamed the company LegalShield.
Today the company provides legal services to some 1.4 million families covering 3.7 million people across North America, and more than 34,000 companies offer the LegalShield plan to their employees as a voluntary benefit. The company has dedicated law firms in 49 states and four provinces in Canada.
LegalShield CEO Jeff Bell, who joined the company in mid-2014, reached out to Stonecipher soon after joining the company. He found that Stonecipher was kind, professional, and generous with his time and advice.
“One of my principles is that you need to find the truth within every business, and that truth resides in its people. I couldn’t imagine speaking to anyone who knew more about this business than Harland Stonecipher and his wife, Shirley,” Bell says. “I wanted to show my respect because he was the company’s founder, but meeting them was a surprise and delight. I only got to spend four months with him, but I treasured the time. He spoke to me like a father would. I valued his counsel about our team in Ada [Oklahoma] as well as our field leadership. He talked about the challenges, what to avoid, and how to motivate a volunteer army. He still spoke with such conviction and passion about free enterprise and access to the justice system. It will stay with me forever.”
Stonecipher’s passion for his business and his conviction that it could change lives may have been at least part of the reason he was so highly regarded. Few people called him by his first name. To most, he was Mr. Stonecipher—it was a term of respect.
John Long, LegalShield’s Vice President of Marketing Operations and spokesperson for the Stonecipher family, knew the company founder for decades. He first encountered Stonecipher in 1987 at their shared alma mater, East Central University in Oklahoma. Long was in the ’87 graduating class, and Stonecipher was being named the University’s Distinguished Alumnus and commencement speaker. Long then worked at Pre-Paid Legal for a short time, left to return to school, and then rejoined Pre-Paid Legal in 1999, working directly for Stonecipher.
“I had a glossy title, but the more heartfelt title would have been Harland’s Assistant,” Long recalls. “I did the things he didn’t have time to do so that he could be in front of the salesforce, traveling and motivating and speaking to them all over North America.” Long confesses, though, that he still feels a little uncomfortable using the first name. “Very few people called him Harland. He was Mr. Stonecipher. I never heard him instruct anyone to call him mister. He just drew that respect everywhere, even from his peer CEOs at other companies.”
He adds, “One of the first things Jeff did was ask to meet with Mr. Stonecipher and Shirley. That resonated with people around the country. I knew it would help Jeff, but I also knew it would help Harland and Shirley. In the last few weeks of his life he had gone back to referencing this company and himself as ‘we’—not that he was ever excluded. I know how important it was to him.”
Stonecipher was passionate about his business for 40 years, and in 2002 he was recognized by Ernst & Young as their Southwest Master Entrepreneur of the Year. He also became a sought-after speaker and addressed a variety of businesses and organizations, including several attorney general associations. He was just as passionate about his community. He and his wife used their wealth and influence to improve the community in numerous ways. His alma mater, ECU, recognized him as Distinguished Alumnus in 1987. He and Shirley later bestowed a gift to the university, which led to the naming of the Harland C. Stonecipher School of Business. An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Stonecipher was appointed to three consecutive terms as a Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Two other projects were especially dear to him. Both show his inclination to find ways to help others after tragedy strikes, as he did when he founded Pre-Paid Legal. The first was in 1999 when a rash of tornadoes ripped through Moore, Oklahoma—the first of three instances when tornadoes devastated the community. About 10 days later, Stonecipher and the then-Pre-Paid Legal team rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange, where the company was listed at the time. He and Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating used the occasion to announce that the Stoneciphers would be the initial contributors to a tornado relief fund, contributing $250,000 to help people impacted by the tornadoes.
Then, in 2005, his son Brent along with Brent’s wife and daughter died in a plane crash. To honor them and to help others, the Stoneciphers gave $5 million to build the Life Community Church, which includes a memorial chapel for parents and grandparents who have lost a child or grandchild. The church is located just southwest of LegalShield’s home office on Stonecipher Boulevard. Construction is expected to be complete in early 2015.
“They were happy to have created it,” Long notes. “They always said they hoped that no one has to endure what they did, but if that happened they could help comfort the parents and memorialize those who passed.”
Bell says that the LegalShield team is considering ways to appropriately memorialize Stonecipher. He notes that many of the Stoneciphers’ philanthropic contributions—such as the new church and the Harland C. Stonecipher School of Business at ECU—are lasting legacies that are already in place. In addition, the company’s headquarters office, chosen by the Stoneciphers and built on the highest hill in Ada, Oklahoma, is visible from every direction to anyone driving into Ada. It has a bust of Harland and Shirley Stonecipher and two other Pre-Paid Legal founders in its lobby.
“We don’t want to detract from those established legacies,” Bell says. “We’ll consult with Shirley and find a way to commemorate and institutionalize his memory. There are lasting legacies already, but I think we’ll find more to do.”
Long adds, “Mr. Stonecipher’s death is a tremendous loss—not just for me but for people all across America. But we have reason to celebrate. We are all far better off for having known and having been associated with Mr. Stonecipher for whatever period of time we knew him.”