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Jim House

Searcy man goes from claims to the course

By Lisa Burnett

This article was published March 2, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Jim House of Searcy spent years in the insurance industry before retiring and then purchasing a golf course in Searcy. He started his career in the insurance field in 1967 as a sales representative for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield and retired in 2006 as president and CEO of USAble Life.

Though Jim House came from a poor family, he worked his way up the corporate ladder through the years and spent 39 years in the insurance field working to serve others.

He was born in Alicia to a farm family. House attended first- through seventh-grade in Alicia but went to Walnut Ridge for high school.

“A grade school was all Alicia had at that time,” he said. “I graduated from Walnut Ridge in 1959.”

His parents stressed to House and his siblings the importance of finishing high school.

“My two parents had not finished high school, and they were dead set on all of us kids getting a high school education. To them, that was like a college education,” he said.

He worked for a year after high school but realized that he wanted to go to college.

“I just didn’t have money right out of high school,” he said.

House came to Harding University in Searcy looking for a place to start his college career.

“[A man at Harding] asked me and my cousin if we had any money, and we said, ‘No,’ and he asked us if we would work,” House said. “He fixed us up to go to DeKalb, Ill., to the canning factories where they can vegetables and foods.”

House and his cousin went to work at the Del Monte factory and worked all summer for $1.15 an hour to save money for college.

“You could work seven days a week, and all of the hours you wanted to, so we usually worked about 14 hours a day,” he said. “You’d take a little time out to eat and try to get a little sleep. We saved enough money to pay for our first semester.”

House said that when he first came to college, student loans weren’t available until a student had completed one semester.

“I was out of school working to make more money for my junior and senior year, and I came back to Harding after two years and met my wife,” he said. “She was from Searcy, and we were married at the beginning of my senior year.”

House graduated from Harding in August 1966 with a degree in business administration and minors in economics and biology.

His first job was with Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Memphis as a management trainee.

“I was there for 15 months, and I was having coffee with a friend of mine, and he said, ‘You know, I heard of a job you might be interested in looking at, and it’s in Searcy, Ark.,’” House said.

When his friend told him the job was with Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, House was reluctant.

“I said, ‘I don’t believe I want to sell insurance,’” he said.

After his friend explained that the company was selling insurance to businesses rather than to individuals, House took some time to think about the possible job opportunity.

“I didn’t even call [Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield] then. I probably went a couple of weeks and then decided to call [about the job]. … I interviewed and was hired, and we packed our bags and came to Searcy,” he said.

House and his wife, Sue, made the move in 1967, while she was pregnant with their first child. He started his career in the insurance field as a sales representative.

“I had five counties where I called on businesses and asked them about setting up group health insurance,” House said. “That was real early when employers had just started allowing insurance to be in their businesses. They allowed it to be payroll deducted.”

When House started working in insurance, he said, a single plan would cost around $10, and a family plan would cost between $18 and $19.

“It started going up from there to where it is today,” he said.

He worked as a sales representative for about four years.

“I did well in that. I think it was the third year that I was here that I was awarded with what they call the Salesman of the Year award,” he said.

House went on to become a regional sales manager for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

“That job meant you had about five sales people who you managed, and that covered about one-fourth of the state,” he said. “I did that for five years; then I was promoted to general sales manager.”

In that position, House was in charge of the company’s sales statewide and all of the regional managers for the state of Arkansas.

“That was a fun, fun job, but it was very hard,” he said.

He held the position of general sales manager for five years and was promoted once again.

“I was promoted to vice president of marketing in 1981,” House said.

While he was working with Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, he was also hired at USAble Life, a life-insurance company. USAble Life was a 100 percent wholly owned subsidiary of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arkansas when he started working with the company, House said.

“I had an opportunity to go over as president and CEO [for USAble Life] in 1985,” he said. “Our plan was to grow the company not only in Arkansas, but also outside the state. That sounded like something I wanted to do.”

He held the position of vice president of marketing for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield while he was also serving as president and CEO of USAble Life until 1992, when he started working solely for USAble Life.

When he became a part of USAble Life, he was fulfilling a goal he’d always wanted to accomplish.

“I loved my job [as vice president of marketing], but the idea of taking a company when it’s small and building it was a dream I always had,” he said.

House became president and CEO of the company when it had 21 employees.

“We built it to 150 employees with over 6,000 agents operating in 23 states, and we were licensed to do business in 48 states,” he said.

Working in insurance turned out to be House’s dream job.

“I would say, if I would have designed a job that had all the ingredients and challenges that I could think of when I was first hired [at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield], it would have been exactly [what I was doing],” he said. “There wasn’t any time to get bored with anything because every five years, I was advancing up the corporate ladder. Each job prepared me for the next.”

He moved through his jobs with both Blue Cross and Blue Shield and USAble Life with confidence, he said.

“I was in a company that put in a lot of training for its managers, so I had a lot of support and help from them,” House said.”I felt like I was accomplishing something with every policy I issued. With insurance, you’re not going to use it until there’s some crisis.”

House said he enjoyed selling insurance because it was a way to build relationships with his customers.

He worked until 2006, with 39 years in the insurance field under his belt. In 2008, he became what he calls “semi-retired.”

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had built a few houses part time with a partner, and I enjoyed it. I was on my third house when [the owner of The Course at River Oaks] died.”

A committee was formed at the golf course, and House was asked to serve on it.

“Somewhere along the way, the chairman of that group said, ‘Jim, why don’t you buy this place?’” House said. “I told him, ‘Because I want to play golf — I don’t want [it to be work].’”

After six months of people asking him if he was going to purchase the course, House said, he finally asked for more details about buying it.

“A couple of months later, we closed on a figure that I thought we could live with. I thought about it, and I talked to my wife and family about it because I knew that it would take up some retirement time that I was looking forward to,” he said.

House has enjoyed owning the golf course and finds joy in it.

“It’s been a really rewarding experience, as I thought it would be. We’ve got about 275 members. You get to know everybody pretty well,” he said. “You’d be amazed at how many stories that you hear.”


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