Whether discussing his humble origins as the son of Tupelo sharecroppers or his rise to prominence as one of Oklahoma’s most successful entrepreneurs, Harland C. Stonecipher speaks with the calmness and warmth of an old friend, putting visitors at ease.
The penthouse apartment he shares with his wife, Shirley, on the top floor of the LegalShield building in Ada, symbolizes his achievement, but Stonecipher himself might as easily be talking over coffee at a downtown cafe.
“The key to success,” he said Monday, “is helping other people. I felt that was right for a long time, but only in the last few years have Shirley and I come to really appreciate that.”
Making his mark
Stonecipher is the founder of Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc., now LegalShield, based in Ada. Pre-Paid was the pioneering company in the U.S. prepaid legal service industry.
Created more than 40 years ago, Pre-Paid directly influenced the delivery of legal services to Americans and has provided a source of income for thousands of people. Stonecipher has won numerous awards for his leadership, including being named Oklahoma’s Most Admired CEO in 2010. He has been director of the Oklahoma and the U.S. Chambers of Commerce and is still involved in numerous civic and philanthropic activities.
A graduate of East Central University, Stonecipher contributed $2 million toward the construction of the new Harland C. Stonecipher School of Business, which is housed in the Chickasaw Business & Conference Center. He and Shirley will celebrate not only the center’s grand opening Thursday, but their 55th wedding anniversary as well.
“I think some of the folks here found out our anniversary was on the 22nd,” Stonecipher said, laughing. “It’s pretty exciting to celebrate both events at the same time.”
He said the center itself is dedicated to entrepreneurialism.
“That’s the driving theme behind it,” he said. “The Chickasaws wanted to promote that idea and bring more business students to Ada and ECU. That was my interest, too. Today, the only thing that will save this great country is to have more entrepreneurs out there developing new businesses.”
He said the new school is “state of the art” and will make ECU more attractive to students.
“They’d been working on it quite a while,” Stonecipher said of the concept behind the center. “When they contacted me, I did not have the funds available to make a contribution. I told them it would be a year or so before I was able to do that, but once they started, I am amazed at how quickly the building went up. It’s ready to go.”
Stonecipher emphasized the importance of schools like ECU.
“I think we need smaller schools. I don’t think everyone is suited for OU or OSU or Harvard. Had I not had ECU available — and I lived just down the road from Ada — chances are I would not have gone to college.”
He said making the move from tiny Tupelo High School to ECU was a big step for him.
“ECU was a big school compared to Tupelo.”
‘I wanted to make things happen’
Stonecipher and his family lived a rural life in Tupelo.
“We lived out in the country, and I tell people that the only running water we had was me running to get it,” he said. “It was pretty tough making a living and growing up that way.”
Graduating from ECU in 1960 with a major in education and a minor in English, Stonecipher decided to pursue a teaching career.
“It was all I ever knew or dreamed about. Then I realized there were other things I could do and wanted to do.”
For six years he taught speech, debate and English in Chandler and Okmulgee. While teaching, he made some vital discoveries.
“I realized that as long as I was working for someone else, there would be a limit on how much I could earn,” he said. “No matter how well I did as a teacher, I was still limited. I wanted to make things happen and to be compensated based on how well I did.”
Stonecipher switched from teaching to selling insurance. On his way to a meeting in Shawnee in 1969, he was involved in a head-on collision just west of Ada.
“It was a serious accident. I had insurance that paid for my totaled car, insurance that took care of my medical bills, but I was sued by the other party and had no money for legal fees.”
Finding a lawyer wasn’t difficult, he said, but coming up with the money to pay one was.
“I thought surely there was insurance available to cover legal fees, but it didn’t exist. I thought, ‘Well, that oughta be an easy thing to do.’”
The launch of Pre-Paid Legal was time-consuming and difficult, at a time when no such legal service existed in the U.S., but Stonecipher prevailed over the years.
“We started in 1972,” Stonecipher said. “We took it a step at a time. Funding was tough, because no one else had done it. I needed help getting off the ground. It took several years of losses before we began to show a profit.”
Educating the American and Oklahoma bar associations, as well as lawyers and ordinary people who might need legal insurance, was a battle that took many years to wage.
“People didn’t know lawyers or were intimidated by them or didn’t like them,” Stonecipher said. “The legal profession was only making a living from the top 10 percent of Americans; as time went on, they began to realize it’d be better if they served 50-80 percent, but that was a long battle getting them to understand that.”
As Pre-Paid was growing, Harland and Shirley also raised a family. Their sons, Brent and Alan, both graduated from ECU.
“I wanted them to go to college,” Stonecipher said. “I told them I didn’t really care what they majored in as long as they got a degree in something, and they did.”
The Stoneciphers tragically lost Brent, his wife, Tina, and their daughter, Nikki, in a plane crash in 2005. The tragedy led to the establishment of the Nikki Stonecipher Memorial Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to selected ECU students.
“We have eight students on scholarships now,” Stonecipher said. “We look for bright, aggressive students who, for financial reasons, might have trouble going to college.”
The Stoneciphers also contributed an estimated $5 million for the construction of the new Life Community Church and Memorial Chapel. The chapel will commemorate children who have died.
“We’ve been able to change a lot of people’s lives,” Stonecipher said. “We have hundreds of success stories out there. We have helped create over 150 millionaires through Pre-Paid. That’s the thing we’re most proud of — helping other people.”