Be There When Lightning Strikes

Business

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GENERATION NEXT: Professionals

Will Penny became Burt Reynolds' driver, gofer and script editor when the Hollywood star came to the Flat Rock Playhouse to perform a one-man show in 1991.


PennysBill and Will Penny."I told him what he couldn't say on that stage," said Penny, a Hendersonville native who was an aspiring actor himself appearing for good money in television commercials.
Reynolds was so impressed he gave the young actor a scholarship to his theater school in Jupiter, Fla., and then hired him as his personal assistant in Los Angeles. It was an eventful time of natural and manmade disasters. After surviving wildfires, mudslides, the North Ridge earthquake and the Burt Reynolds-Lonnie Anderson divorce war, the prodigal son called home.
"I said, 'Do you have any openings?'" Penny said. His dad, an insurance man, said yes.
"He didn't tell me I was going to be the receptionist for the first six months," he says.
Bill Penny gets a twinkle in his eye.
"He got in on the ground floor like a sweeper in the cotton mill," he said.
When Bill Penny's grandfather, William Franklin Penny, contracted tuberculosis in 1911, doctors sent him to Hendersonville for drier air. Bill's father, William B., grew up here, earned a law degree, and practiced law for seven years before quitting for seminary.
"I ended up being a Methodist preacher's kid" living all over North Carolina, Bill says. But Hendersonville was always home. His father transferred to the Western NC Methodist Conference. After graduating from Wofford College in Spartanburg with an ROTC commission, Bill served his time in the Army.
"My intention was to go to law school," he says. "My uncle Earl asked me if I'd be interested in giving insurance a try and I said yes. I came here and met Will's mother Betty Stokes." They married in 1959.
Son Will (William E. Penny Jr.) had "gotten bitten by the acting bug," as the father put it. Will had an English degree from Wofford.
"I picked the major that didn't have the math requirement," he says, "and now all I do is math."
Even after learning the business for 20 years, Will points to his dad with admiration and respect.
"He's the only chartered property-casual underwriter in Hendersonville," he says. "It's the PhD of property-casual."
Bill talks about the other old lions of business who like him were young lions in the 1950s. "There were a number of men who made it a point to help me when I was getting started," he says.
Like nearly every other old-line Hendersonville business, the Pennys say long-term success comes down to relationships.
"It really just boils down to the core value of you take care of your customer and they'll take care of you," Will says. "We have generations of clients. It's pretty cool. When I first started, people would come in and tell me about how they started with Uncle Earl."
As for that extended trip to California, it did have its good outcome. It's where Will met his wife, Lynn.

Experience plus computers
The son of L.K. and Allene Pryor, Nick Pryor grew up on a dairy farm in Fruitland. His dad didn't pressure him to stay on the farm, and he didn't pressure his son, Jason, to sell insurance.
PryorsNick and Jason Pryor. He has been selling insurance since 1981. Before that he cut hair. There are some similarities.
"I have some customers from back when I was in that business. I still sell them insurance," he says.
He started Pryor Insurance in 1998. It's always been a family business and remains so today. The firm employs five Pryors, including Nick's wife, Denise, and a niece and a nephew.
Jason wanted to join the business from the start.
"Actually, when Jason was in high school talking to different teachers and guidance counselors he always said he wanted to be in the insurance business," Nick says. "I always laugh and tell everybody I don't think he knew that I worked as hard as I did."
What is the key to a family business?
"I think both of you have to listen," Nick says. "As time goes on, I probably listen more to Jason than I did. The automation is what's changed a lot. The younger guys fall right into the automation and want to do it. I pretty much turned it over to him. If it wasn't for all of that (labor saving technology) we'd probably have three more employees."
Jason, a graduate of Appalachian State, used his affinity for computers to complement his dad's experience.
"Insurance has stayed the same as far as all the coverages but how you get to that point is what's changed and that's what I've embraced," he says. Even with the use of technology, he's quick to add something his dad would second: "The computer doesn't know everything."
Jason says he would openly welcome his own children, 4-year-old daughter Maddie and a son on the way — if they wanted to join.
"I'd want them to have that option," he says, "because for me, honestly, I don't know if I'd be here if I didn't have that option" of joining a family business.
Nick Pryor is glad to have his tech-savvy son positioned to take over. But he knows his 33 years of experience has value that the fastest computer processor can't match.
"When I'm out of town," he says, "I still get a few calls."

Never a cross word
Dr. Bill Garrison is glad to have his son as a partner in their dental practice.
"I never pushed him and I think maybe that's why he decided to do it," he says. "He had to want to do it. I let him know Bill GarrisonBill Garrisonit was available if the interest was there. I never wanted to push him into it because I think that is a horrible thing for a parent to do. You hear of stories of people who are just miserable in their career because their parents wanted them to be a doctor or a lawyer."
Dr. Garrison and his wife, Mary, made sure young Patrick had science-oriented toys like microscopes.
"He just gravitated toward science," he said. "He had friends whose fathers were doctors and he said, 'Ooh, they get called out a lot more than dentists.' I got to spend time with the children; I wasn't always gone."
Patrick's East Henderson High School classmate, Matthew Mullinax, is in another father-son practice. Matthew joined the law practice of his father, Tim. Garrison and Mullinax are 1996 graduates of EHHS.
After graduating from dentistry school at UNC in 2004, Patrick, now 35, joined his dad's practice.
"After I knew that I was going to pursue a career in dentistry, I was sure I would join his practice," Patrick said in an email. ""It is great to be able to work with my father. We are able to work independently the majority of the time, but it is nice to have someone to consult with when challenges arise.
"Before I joined the practice I had many people comment what a challenge it can be to join a family business. In my experience it has Patrick GarrisonPatrick Garrisonbeen a good partnership. My father has been totally supportive and I feel like we work well together."
Drs. Garrison don't spend much time outside work talking about extractions, gum disease or whitening procedures.
"That's one thing we don't do," says Bill, 63. "When we're together out of work we rarely talk about work. We're talking about children, grandchildren, fishing, anything. We rarely bring work home. When we're at work, we work, and when we're at home away from work, we play. We're back to the typical father-son relationship, whereas at work we're associates."
As for the hazards of a family business, Bill Garrison is like his son. He's heard of them but never seen them firsthand.
"I guess liabilities could be if you had any personality conflicts," he says. "We've been working together for nine years and I don't think we've had a cross word."

Two careers, two proteges
Tom Apodaca has been successful in two careers — as a bail bondsman and a politician.
He's got sons who have followed him in each.
ApodacaTom and Tate ApodacaBrandon Apodaca, 30, is the fourth generation in the family to go into the business of making sure suspects show up for their court date. Tom's father, Victor Apodaca Jr., followed his father into the bail bond business in El Paso, Texas. After a short stint as a banker in Hendersonville, Tom, who grew up in Durham, started A&A Bonding Agency.
Brandon runs it now.
"I got my bail bond license as soon as I turned 18, the summer before I went to college," Brandon says. While attending Western Carolina University, he worked parttime at the family's Waynesville branch. During summers and holidays, he helped his dad at the Hendersonville office.
"I kind of grew up going in that office when I was a kid," he says. "I remember vividly going in there. There was people with money and guys walking around with handcuffs. It was neat to be in there. I was kind of intrigued."
A&A moved from Church Street to West First Avenue across from the jail. When county built a new jail behind the Courthouse on Grove Street, A&A followed its clients there.
Brandon's great-grandfather, Victor Apodaca Sr., started a bail bond business in El Paso that became one of the biggest in the Texas. His grandfather ran it before he died earlier this year and now his uncle, Victor "Trey" Apodaca III, runs it.
"At the age of age of 14 my grandfather started working for my great-grandfather," he says. "I actually worked for Vic. I took a semester off and worked for Apodaca Bail Bonds. They wanted me to see a big company. It's quite different. I think the most we had here was four to five agents. When I was out there, there were 17. At one point it was probably the biggest in the country, at least that's what I've been told. Of course Apodacas exaggerate."
He's a hands-on boss.
"I'm involved in about 95 percent of the skip chases and skip captures," he says.
"We don't make any money by picking anybody up. We just don't lose money. People watch 'Bounty Hunter' and think this a glorious line of work. It's not. It's tedious, it's tiring. It can be dangerous."
Tom Apodaca expanded into sureties and bought a travel agency before winning a seat in the state Senate in 2002. He's risen to the post of Senate Rules Committee chairman, a top leadership role. When Mark Meadows won the 11th District congressional seat last November, he hired Tate Apodaca, 26, as a field representative based in Hendersonville. "I think it's a good fit for him," Sen. Apodaca says. "We were all shocked" he wanted to try politics. "He's doing a good job. He does a good job with constituents; he's able to coordinate with my office in Raleigh."
Would he want Tate to go into politics?
"I don't know if I would encourage it but I could certainly see it happening," he says. "I think that's something you have to decide for yourself that you want to do."
Brandon, who is single, endorses public service over chasing bail skips. He says his little brother is good at it.
"I would hope my children would go along the lines with what Tate's doing, in public service," he says. "He won't admit it but I can see that he would be good. I think he'll always be political in some aspects, have his hand in some public service."