WORTHINGTON -- Talking about the chain of ownership at the Demuth Agency can get a bit confusing.
The insurance agency was founded by Robert "Bob" J. Demuth, who turned it over to his son, Robert "Bob" S. Demuth, who eventually took in a partner, Robert "Bob" Bristow, who recently bought the remaining shares and took full ownership.
Whew. That's a lot of Bobs.
The first two Bobs -- from here on referred to as Bob Sr. and Bob Jr. -- recently sat down to talk about the history of the agency and the end of an era. Although it will still be known as the Demuth Agency, there will no longer be a Demuth working there, as Bob Jr. elected to take early retirement and pursue other interests.
As a young man recently discharged from the U.S. Navy following World War II, Bob Sr. returned to his native Woodstock and then moved to the Twin Cities, mainly because his sweetheart and soon-to-be wife, Betty, was attending beauty school there.
"I had two widowed aunts living up there, in St. Paul, so I thought I could go live with my aunts, and I'd be close to Betty," he explained. "I got a job at the First National Bank in Minneapolis."
After becoming acquainted with some young fellows who worked at an insurance company, St. Paul Fire and Marine, Bob Sr. landed a job there -- a much closer commute via streetcar.
Betty was also a native of Woodstock, and her parents owned and operated the liquor store there.
"Betty's dad got sick, so we took it over in 1953," explained Bob Sr. about his abrupt change in vocation and the return to southwest Minnesota. "But it was a dog's life. You worked all day and all night. We had that for four years. I had my license for insurance, and I thought I'd like to get back into an insurance office. I had an opportunity to go to Marshall and work in a bank up there, but I had enough confidence in myself to start my own agency.
"If I'd known how hard it was, I probably would have taken the job in Marshall," he added with a chuckle.
On May 1, 1957, Bob Sr. drove down to Worthington and rented office space on Worthington's 10th Street. A month later, he moved his young family to Worthington, and they lived in a house on Okabena Street. Those early days were rough going.
"We didn't have any money. Our rent was $60 a month," Bob remembered. "I'd work all day and then make two calls every night, set up appointments and go from one house to another. If I sold a homeowner's policy, the premium was probably $50 a year, but I could come home and say I had a good night. An auto policy was probably $30 every six months. I just had to be persistent."
On Saturdays, Bob Sr. would work at his office in the morning, then go home and watch the children while Betty spent Saturday afternoons working at a local grocery store.
"We never thought about eating out," Bob Sr. remarked. "We couldn't afford it. We had five children and budgeted $300 a month to live off."
At the time, insurance wasn't required for home or auto ownership; it was discretionary.
"The application was only this long," Bob Sr. said, indicating about a six-inch length. "All it asked for was your name, address and date of birth."
Things gradually began to look up as Bob Sr. became better known in the community, and eventually he had to find a new place for his office. Local builder Gary Roos offered him a corner lot on Oxford Street for $4,750, and he also needed to finance a building for an additional $8,750.
"I went to see my dad first, then Harry Dirks down at First National Bank to borrow the money," Bob Sr. said. "So I built the building, and it's been there ever since. That was probably in '63 or '64."
In a shrewd move, Bob Sr. was able to sell half the lot to another businessman, recouping most of the original cost and enabling him to pay off the mortgage quickly. He also decided to expand into real estate and asked Dale Delperdang to come aboard and handle that aspect of the business, which then became known as Demuth and Delperdang.
"Why I picked Dale, I have no idea, but he was a good partner," Bob Sr. reflected. "I ran the insurance, he ran the real estate. Betty came in to do real estate, too. She and Dale got along wonderfully."
Bob Sr. found another sideline in politics, first serving two terms as a city councilman before being appointed acting mayor and then mayor.
The next generation
When Delperdang left the business, the Demuths' son-in-law, Rich Green, married to daughter Jeanne, came aboard and filled the void in the real estate side.
In 1977, after receiving an offer to sell the business, Bob Sr. asked Bob Jr. if he had any interest in joining the agency. Bob Jr. had been working in welding for four years and decided to give the insurance business a try.
"I saw it was good to Dad and figured it would be good to me," said Bob Jr.
Bob Sr. and Bob Jr. worked side-by-side in the agency for about 10 years and enjoyed a comfortable working relationship.
"We had an understanding," Bob Jr. said.
"He knew who the boss was," replied Bob Sr. with a smirk.
"I bought into the agency in 1984," Bob Jr. continued. "When Dad decided to retire, I purchased the rest of the shares and became the sole owner."
Bob Sr. retired from business, but had another job -- mayor once again. Initially, he rented an office in the agency, but eventually moved his quarters to a vacant city hall space.
For a while, the Demuth Agency was staffed by just Bob Jr. and longtime administrative assistant Cissy Winter -- "a dedicated 40-year employee."
Foreseeing the need for another agent, Bob Jr. hired Bristow in 1993 and eventually offered him the chance to buy into the agency. Five years ago, Bob Jr. made the commitment to sell the agency its entirety to Bristow. After working through that transition, he recently decided to move on and is contemplating what his next endeavor will be.
"It was something he was very successful at," commented Bob Sr. about his son's years as an insurance agent. "I was very proud of the way he took of his customers."
That customer connection is what Bob Jr. enjoyed most about working at the agency, and he hopes to find another pursuit that will bring that same kind of satisfaction.
"The thing I'm going to miss the most is the daily interacting with the customers," he said. "I miss that already, helping them to resolve their situation."
In his 30 years of selling and servicing insurance, Bob Jr. witnessed many changes in the industry, both good and bad.
"I was thinking about that, and the two biggest changes would be the technology and the distribution system," he reflected. "Back when I started, everything was reduced to paper that was mailed into the company, and the changes were confirmed by return mail. Now, with real-time computers, it's all processed and completed before the customer leaves the office.
"As far as the distribution system, you can't watch TV without seeing an ad from companies inviting customers to deal directly with them. They're trying to do without the middle man."
"In this day and age, we've lost personal service," lamented Bob Sr.
Both Demuths are assured that their customers will continue to get that personal service at the business they founded and maintained for more than 50 years, a business that will continue to bear their name -- Demuth Agency -- for the time being.
"I started with one policy ... the first policy I sold myself ... and built the agency every year," said Bob Jr. "Now I've sold it, and I feel like I've come full circle."