By Tony Hooker
If things had gone a bit differently, there’s a chance that Roger Schweighart would have spent his career roaming the halls of a high school, teaching business courses and coaching baseball or basketball.
Suffice it to say that Schweighart, who recently retired as the president and owner of The Hillard Agency after nearly a half century with the company, made the right career decision. I recently caught up with him to reflect back on his career, what the early days of his retirement have been like, and to take a look at what the future holds.
A little bird told me that you’ve decided to put away your insurance ink pen. Is that accurate?
That’s correct. Officially January 1 of this year, but I told the guys I would stay on and do some crop insurance for them, and we finished that up on March 15, so really it (retirement) started on March 15.
How long were you in the industry?
Well, I started in 1975, so about 45 and a half years.
Wow. That’s a career, right? <laughs>
That’s the only job I ever had. Neal Tay came when I was doing my student teaching, I was going to be a teacher and coach, and he came to the house and asked if I would start working for him. I didn’t know him and I didn’t know insurance, so I kind of put him off for a while. At that time, it was hard to find a job as a teacher, so I thought I’d give this insurance thing a try. <smiles> It ended up being the only job I ever had, right there at the same agency.
What would you have coached?
I was interested in baseball, of course. Maybe basketball. I didn’t play golf at the time, but that would have been fun, too.
Did you ever have regrets about it?
Not really, and the longer I went, the less regrets I had! <laughs> I was on the school board for about 12 years, so I understood how the school district works.
You grew up in Villa Grove?
I grew up in Camargo. I went to school in Camargo and then went to Villa Grove for high school and the Eastern for college.
What subject were you going to teach?
That’s kind of an interesting story. <smiles> At the time I was a senior in high school, they were giving away free scholarships if you promised to be a teacher for two years after you graduated. My dad thought that was a pretty good plan! <both laugh> I did that, but I took business education, and when I got out, their plan had worked really well because there weren’t any jobs. <smiles> At least I had a business degree.
How’s the industry changed over the course of your almost 50 years in the business?
I think the biggest thing is automation. We used to write paper, mail it in the US mail and wait for them to mail it back. Now everything’s instant. I would have to say that’s the biggest difference. A lot of things are still the same. People want to have service and knowledge of what they need and that sort of thing. When they have a claim, they want to have someone there to help them out. That hasn’t changed. It’s the same thing, you’re buying insurance to cover any possible losses that you might incur.
Have the products changed?
Some. Not a lot. People still buy home and auto insurance. Life and Health Insurance. Health insurance has changed with Obama Care. Life insurance, believe it or not, is far less expensive than it used to be. Life expectancies must be much longer.
What was most satisfying about your career?
Just helping people. People don’t want to spend much time learning about insurance, so they just want to know that they can trust you to be their representative, knowing what to do and what products they need. It was satisfying, knowing that you could help them in their time of need. In 2016, we had hail losses in Tuscola. We had well over a thousand claims and almost everyone got a new roof and a new car windshield. That was gratifying. It was a lot of work, but it was gratifying knowing we helped so many people. We paid out millions of dollars in payments. It was nice to help people like that. We also have a real estate agency that I haven’t participated in and they have the same feeling, putting someone in a home, especially first-time buyers who are so happy to be able to move in to it.
Was there ever a time when you thought you couldn’t do it anymore?
Of course, there were days. <laughs> There are times when working with insurance companies can be frustrating. Some times you’re getting them to write a piece of business that they don’t want to write, or they’re charging more for a product than you think they should. That can be frustrating. Overall, I never dreaded going to work or anything like that. I enjoyed going.
Of course, you were able to sort of set your hours as an agent?
We’ve always had staff during regular business hours to answer calls, but the agents have had the freedom to pursue leads, so there is a bit of freedom in that.
Forty-five and a half years, getting up at 6 a.m. and getting showered and going to the office. What’s the next forty-five and a half going to look like? <laughs>
For the first few days, I did the same thing! <laughing> Now I’m starting to sleep a little bit later. There’s a lot of things you don’t worry about when you’re laying in bed at night like you did for the last forty-five years, things that are coming up at the office that you’re anxious about, and that’s pretty much gone. <smiles> That’s a nice feeling.
You’ve already started to do a bit of traveling. Can we expect more of that?
Karen and I got in the car and headed south, down to Tunica and then over to Branson for eight or nine days, so we’re going to try to do some more trips like that.
Were the golf clubs in the trunk?
Yeah! We got to play a couple of times, but the weather wasn’t very nice. We played a few times.
What would you tell someone who came to you and told them that they were interested in a career in the field?
I think you just said the correct word. It’s a career. It’s not a get rich quick scheme. It’s a lot of work, especially the first few years. You have to build up your clientele and get some customers. It’s not easy at first. That’s for sure. If you join an agency and you’re able to take over their book of business, that makes it a lot easier. I’m not going to lie, it’s a tough business for the first few years. You need regular customers as well as new customers. You can’t be getting a new customer and losing an existing one. You can’t have things going out the back door as fast as they’re coming in the front door. I’m very grateful for the customers who stayed with me. Some for 30 years or more.
How many customers do you suppose you’ve had over 45 and a half years?
Gosh, I don’t really know. I would say thousands, or at least hundreds.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I think our main plan is going to be watching our grandkids, we have five, play ball. We’re going to watch lots of ball games. I would like to thank all of the customers we’ve had over the years. I really appreciate them. I’d also like to thank my staff. The people I’ve worked with are terrific. They’re very conscientious and very loyal. There are two girls working there who have been there longer than I have. <smiles>
You’re an owner, correct?
I was, yes. I was the president and owner, and we’re going to be transitioning and Lon (Tay) and John (Schweighart, his son) will be the people who will be taking over. We’ve kind of had a perpetuation plan all along, where we hire people when they’re young and hopefully they’ll stay with us. That’s what Lon and John have done.
I suppose some day we’ll be seeing a third generation of Tays and Schweigharts working in the family business, hanging up their shingle?
That would be fantastic! <smiles>