What Erie Insurance means to its hometown is written on the walls of the Erie Insurance Arena and mixed into the concrete of a new $20 million training center and a new 1,000-spot parking garage on Erie’s east side.
What does it mean to have a Fortune 500 company with headquarters in Erie?
You might measure it in more than 2,700 local jobs, millions of dollars invested in the company’s eastside neighborhood and annual revenues of $6.2 billion.
Want to understand those big numbers? Stand in the so-called cash office, deep in the recesses of the company’s headquarters in Erie.
Here, thousands of checks are processed each day with high-speed sorting equipment that slices open each envelope and reads, records and credits each check as it flies past a camera faster than the eye can focus.
Checks worth $80, $90 or $100 add up to daily receipts worth millions.
Maybe it’s all the money.
Maybe it’s the turn-back-time appearance of the H.O. Hirt building, which was designed to resemble Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
But it’s easy to forget that there was nothing inevitable about the success of Erie Insurance, which turns 90 years old this month.
Instead, it began as a gamble that grew from the outsized dreams of two insurance salesmen with just two years of experience each.
History suggests they weren’t just any salesmen. Legend holds that the Pennsylvania Indemnity Exchange had to hire six salesmen to replace them after H.O. Hirt and O.G. Crawford resigned on Dec. 31, 1924.
Hirt, a former teacher and grocery manager, and Crawford, a former brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad, had a monumental task before them as they scrambled to find financial backers to launch the Erie Insurance Exchange.
Ninety-year-old Doris Becker, a longtime company underwriter who was born the same month and the same year as Erie Insurance, still tells the story about the company’s founding on the tours she gives to new employees and other guests.
A law that was pending in Harrisburg in 1925 would have required a new insurance company to increase from $25,000 to $100,000 the financial guarantee needed to launch a new company.
Driving in Hirt’s 1920 Dodge from one potential backer to the next, Hirt and Crawford worked through the winter to secure the financial backing they needed. With the needed money in hand, the Erie Insurance Exchange was issued a license on April 20, 1925.
Becker, who went to work at the company in 1958, offers new employees a link to that rich past during tours she gives 20 or 30 times a year. Becker was often among a core group of employees who worked Saturdays with Hirt, who would usually knock off work at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Hirt had his quirks. The co-founder of the company that writes the most auto insurance in Pennsylvania wasn’t much of a driver and got into a fender bender from time to time. And under his direction, the company also signaled the start and end of the work day and of lunch breaks with the ring of an electric bell.
“We dispensed with the bells after he retired,” Becker said.
Predicting the future
In 1953, just a few years before Becker came to work for Erie Insurance, Hirt apparently took pity on a young Tom Hagen who was working part time at a meat wholesaler in Erie as he got ready to attend classes at what is now Penn State Behrend.
Hagen, who was dating Hirt’s daughter, Susan, at the time, worked there each summer and part time while school was in session. Later, Hagen, who had served a couple years as a naval officer, was thinking of making a career of the U.S. Navy when Hirt “prevailed on me to come be his assistant.”
Hagen would later serve as chief executive of Erie Insurance for three years and serves today as chairman of the board of directors. He claims no special premonition that his new employer would grow to become the nation’s 12th largest auto insurer and 11th largest home insurer.
After all, Hagen remembers a boss who used to personally throw all the outgoing mail in his car and drop it off on his way home at the Griswold Plaza Post Office.
“I never had any qualms that it would be successful, but you don’t know how successful it was going to be,” Hagen said. “I think there was a positive mindset and we were trying to do the right thing.”
People like Hirt, Hagen and Becker were building the foundation for the company that exists today and setting the stage for a staggering pattern of growth.
When Hagen joined the company, Erie Insurance had assets valued at about $5 million. Today, the company’s assets total more than $13 billion.
“It’s been a great transformation,” Hagen said.
“They are a force for the community,” said Barbara Chaffee, chief executive for the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership. “It’s not only having their corporate headquarters here and a very large workforce, it’s also their community service, their beautification and renovation of the area in which their corporate offices reside.”
A tradition lives on
At a company steeped in its own traditions — one that’s published several editions of selected writings and pronouncements of H.O. Hirt — understanding what Hirt would or would not have done is studied like a Constitutional scholar might parse the words of the framers.
Chief Executive Terry Cavanaugh, who joined the company seven years ago, never met Hirt who retired in 1981, but keeps in his office a handwritten note containing some suggestions that Hirt left for his son, F.W. Hirt.
The note reads not like a mission statement, but a series of inspirations, jotted in pencil, some underlined for emphasis.
Among other things, the note advises: Insist upon thinking, avoid rules, never lose human touch and maintain a human complaint department.
Those ideas all remain top of mind, Cavanaugh said recently, moments after stepping out of a regular meeting he holds with a group of employees who work with him to address unresolved complaints.
It is no surprise to Hagen that the influence of H.O. Hirt lives on to this day in a half-million-square-foot complex where hallways are adorned with his quotes.
“When you think about it, he ran this place for 51 years. You can’t help but leave a mark,” Hagen said.
Hirt, whose partner retired in 1933, helped shape the first 90 years of Erie County’s second-largest employer and seems destined through the words and directives he left behind to have something to say about its future.
For Cavanaugh, “It’s a great reminder that individuals can make a difference.”
But it’s also a reminder, he said, that the company and its employees are shaping history themselves as they respond to disasters, resolve complaints, win awards from J.D. Power and invest in the community by restoring old buildings or building new ones.
“The good news is we have the opportunity to do new important and special things,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s in our DNA.”
There will be plenty of celebrating at Erie Insurance this year, but Cavanaugh said no one at the corner of East Sixth and French streets is content to rest on a proud past.
“I am never content,” Cavanaugh said. “I am confident of the company and very proud of where we stand. But content almost strikes me as an end state. There is more to do.”
It’s a statement that might just remind some of two young men who went into business 90 years ago, hopeful and confident that they could do better.
Article republished with permission from Times Publishing Company, Erie, Pennsylvania. Copyright 2015. Read on GoErie.com.