Wilburn Smith was living his dream in Holdenville, Okla., during the late 1970s. He was serving as manager of the local IGA grocery store, working hard each week, with the promise of ultimately being offered a chance to purchase the thriving business.
Then something unexpected happened.
The store owner, for whom Smith had worked for over a decade, sold the business out from under him. The promise of ownership disappeared and, in 1980, with no other training and no other prospects, Smith took his cousin, Mike, up on an offer: to sell Pre-Paid Legal plans.
Taking a leap of faith, Smith launched a career that would span three decades and see him rise to the role of president of a New York Stock Exchange company. Along the way, his grocery store salary would be eclipsed and multiplied … by hundreds.
“Wilburn was never afraid of work,” said his wife, Carol. “He just needed a chance. He got that chance through Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. and the rest is, quite literally, history.”
Smith nearly matched his IGA salary in his first year at Pre-Paid Legal, but his mentor, Pre-Paid Legal founder and CEO Harland Stonecipher, wanted him to do better. The next year his sales commissions doubled, and doubled again the following year. By 1983, he was earning six figures selling a $15-per-month product.
In 1984, Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. adopted multi-level marketing and the ensuing growth spurt was almost too much to handle. Commissions dried up and money to operate was running near zero. Stonecipher recalled in his autobiography, “The Pre-Paid Legal Story,” that “our entire sales force left – except for Wilburn. I tapped him to rebuild our sales organization.”
Smith responded by following the best advice he was given: figure out what you do well and do a whole lot it. Both he and the company rebounded from the late 1980s lull and saw further explosion in the 1990s. He was named president of the company in the late 1990s and continued that position until he stepped down on his own accord to assume the role as national marketing director.
In that role, Smith continued to build the Pre-Paid Legal sales force. His travels throughout North America frequently drew standing room only crowds eager to hear how this small-town Oklahoma entrepreneur had made it big. Working in tandem with Stonecipher, he helped lead to the emergence of the Ada-based company as a jewel on the New York Stock Exchange.
His message – be persistent and consistent – described his work ethic and dedication.
“This business (sales) is simple, but it’s not easy,” he frequently told the audiences. “You have to get used to being told ‘no’…some will, some won’t.”
Smith knew what he was talking about when he said the business wasn’t easy. At least twice during his tenure he was saddled with serious illness, including a battle with cancer in the 1990s that left him in intensive care for over 50 days.
It was during those times, he said, when the true beauty of his business emerged: he continued to be paid on memberships he had sold as well as those his organization sold while he was unable.
Over the last decade, Smith continued in his role as national marketing director for the company. His health had continued to decline and he was faced with the need for a kidney transplant as well as other ailments. Still, his business thrived and his income grew.
Ultimately, Smith lost his battle with the many health issues that plagued him over the last five years of his life. He passed away in May of 2011 and hundreds of friends traveled to Ada to show their respects for the man who had influenced their lives in such a positive way.
His wife, Carol, decided to memorialize his work ethic and “persistent and consistent” message. A $250,000 gift to East Central University allowed for the creation of the Wilburn L. Smith Center for Entrepreneurship inside the Harland C. Stonecipher School of Business. The center will be a focal point of the school, permanently affixing Smith’s name with Stonecipher’s name.
A formal program announcing the Wilburn L. Smith Center for Entrepreneurship will be held on May 8 at ECU. This luncheon event is part of the school’s annual “Entrepreneur of the Year” recognition made available via the Leonard Limes Endowed Lecture. Several of LegalShield’s top sales people will be on hand for the event to comment on the influence Wilburn Smith had on their careers.
“We are so pleased to have Wilburn’s name tied not only to Harland’s name, but to the idea of entrepreneurship,” Carol said. “It’s a wonderful way to honor his name and career and it’s also a chance to do the same for Harland, who meant so much to Wilburn, both personally and professionally.”