Call it an executive suite ah-ha moment.
Penn National Insurance officials brainstorming the words to describe their company produced “vibrant.” Also “innovative,” “personable” and “resilient.” Especially “resilient,” infused into a company always trying something new, “no matter how difficult the situation.”
That’s Penn National Insurance President and CEO Christine Sears talking. Around that same time, Sears and her team were preparing for Penn National Insurance’s 2019 centennial, excavating historical nuggets spanning the company’s agrarian origins to its position today providing property and casualty insurance in 11 states.
“We saw how it all came together, and we said that’s exactly right,” Sears said. “This is something that has been in our company for 100 years. We build trust, and we’re caring, and we build strong relationships. We’ve been rewarded by customers who have been loyal to us and continue to do business with us.”
Penn National Insurance is many things, all mirroring the milestones of Harrisburg and national history. It’s that building anchoring Market Square, a landmark in downtown Harrisburg’s turnaround that also leveraged historic preservation. It is a major supporter of education and civic needs. It stands among the top 10 percent of property-casualty insurers in the country.
The company dates to 1913, when enraged farmers created the Pennsylvania Threshermen’s and Farmers’ Protective Association to protest a state law limiting weights on the hulking shared equipment they drove from farm to farm.
After they won repeal in 1915, they turned their attention to workers’ compensation insurance—high on the nation’s agenda since the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York. The feisty Threshermen’s Association balked at paying the exorbitant premiums charged by government and private companies. So, on Jan. 6, 1919, the Pennsylvania Threshermen’s and Farmers’ Mutual Casualty Insurance Company filed for a charter.
As the eventful decades of the 20th century unfolded, the company kept pace, branching into industrial coverage. By the 1940s, auto insurance was big. Home and fire insurance joined the lineup in the post-war building (and baby) boom. In 1967, the name changed to Penn National Insurance.
There were down times and crises, missteps and reorganizations. CEO Sears recalled that recovering from a ratings slide in the 1980s required raising additional capital while being transparent in a bid to retain the business of loyal agents.
“You constantly learn and constantly research,” she said. “You understand what’s going on and try your best to put the puzzle together.”
At Linglestown-based Enders Insurance Associates, Penn National Insurance has been “one of our team’s best partners for close to 70 years,” since the company took a chance on rookie agent Donald Enders, Sr., said grandson and Vice President Andrew Enders.
“If they make a promise, they keep it,” he said. “They communicate openly and honestly with us and their clients. They’re good community partners, and they don’t flaunt it.”
All for Harrisburg
Penn National Insurance has never strayed far from its first office in downtown Harrisburg.
By the 1990s, the company had outgrown its landlocked, three-building campus at 18th and Market streets (landlocked because the owner of Sorrento Pizza refused to sell his building, to the eternal gratitude of staff in what’s now Harrisburg school district’s Rowland Academy). The suburbs—parking, no flood plain, bigger footprint—beckoned.
Mayor Steve Reed had other ideas. His legendary persuasion, plus a $2.7 million sweetener from the state and the company’s hard-nosed negotiations for air rights and parking, convinced then-CEO Jim Taylor to build in Market Square.
Except that historic but largely gutted office buildings occupied the site. Perhaps the Senate Hotel’s brownstone façade could be incorporated into the new design. Then again, “that can be tricky, and sometimes you never know what you’re getting into,” said Historic Harrisburg Association Executive Director David Morrison, involved in the negotiations then in his first stint as HHA director.
“Lo and behold, it turned out it was a top-heavy building and didn’t have a lot of structural reinforcement,” he said.
A Penn National Insurance official said that saving the façade would cost $130,000, with no guarantee of success. Morrison counter-proposed. Why not commit $130,000 to historic preservation in the community and HHA would withdraw objection to demolition, “which may or may not be inevitable, anyway?”
The Senate façade came down. Revenue from salvage rights bolstered HHA operations. The $130,000 seeded creation of the Community Historic Preservation Fund, which now stands at more than $239,000. Trustees have disbursed $100,000 in grants and loans for historic preservation and advocacy.
“There’s not much historic preservation money out there anymore, and this is all for Harrisburg,” Morrison said.
That original deal also launched a fruitful relationship, with Penn National Insurance sponsoring HHA events, and employees serving on the HHA board and committees.
The 15-story Penn National Insurance Plaza opened in 1996.
“Local historians view our coming downtown in the late ‘90s as the turning of the tide that reversed the trend of businesses moving out of Harrisburg,” said company spokesman Christopher Markley. “Bringing 500-plus employees downtown saw revitalization of restaurants and other businesses.”
Fabric of Community
Since the days when Penn National Insurance employees volunteered at Melrose Elementary School next door to their 18th Street campus, the company has committed extensive financial and volunteer support to the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation, the Joshua Group and Dauphin County Library System.
“They are focused on education, and not just traditional education, but all of those supplemental pieces that really make up the fabric of a community,” said Enders.
Penn National Insurance annually donates the maximum $333,333.33 allowed in earned income tax credits to the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation, said Executive Director Chris Baldrige. Total contributions of $6.5 million have brought health education to students and families, boosted early learning, sent students to Messiah College summer camps, helped high school students earn college credits and backed STEAM learning.
“Penn National Insurance is definitely a leader in supporting Harrisburg and the foundation and supporting the students and the entire community,” said Baldrige. “They are a great example of doing good within your own neighborhood and your community.”
United Way of the Capital Region has benefitted from Penn National Insurance’s “time, talent and treasure” for decades, said Executive Director Tim Fatzinger. Dollar-for-dollar matches have generated $10.5 million in combined employee-employer donations in the last 10 years. Volunteers swing hammers and sling paintbrushes for United Way Day of Caring. Company officials serve on United Way committees, such as the IT security expert who “saves us a ton of money” by sharing his knowledge.
Charitable organizations have “fewer and fewer” local companies to call on for support, Fatzinger said.
“By choosing to stay local and to support local entities and be involved in the community, it improves quality of life for all of us,” he said.
Community involvement is “a part of our fabric,” said Sears. “If you’re at the theater or an arts event or a soup kitchen, you will likely find one of our employees volunteering. It is a good basis for what makes Harrisburg strong.”
Sears is a Steelton-raised, Bishop McDevitt-HACC-Penn State Harrisburg product who said that she has “never strayed far because I enjoy the Harrisburg hbg area.” She joined Penn National Insurance as a financial analyst in accounting in 1980 and, like many employees, grew her career from the inside up.
Today’s diverse workforce generates “different perspectives, (helping) us be able to be more agile, to have different thought processes,” Sears said.
She believes that Penn National Insurance has been a good, stable corporate citizen and employer, “and through that, we have contributed to the community both from an intellectual capacity, but as importantly, from a community and philanthropic opportunity.”
Her hope for the next 100 years?
“Absolutely more of the same,” she said. “That we just continue to be able to thrive and change and be resilient and continue to make a contribution.”
Penn National Insurance is located at 2 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit their website.
TheBurg thanks Russ Banham, author of “Penn National Insurance: 100 Years of Helping People Feel Secure and Making Life Better When Bad Things Happen,” for historical background.