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.