My first job here at Hoaster Gebhard & Co. was in the running for the worst job I ever had,” Christopher Gebhard, now president and CEO of that same local independent insurance agency, said. “My father, Peter Gebhard, merged his Insurance agency Gebhard & Co., Inc. with the older and larger Hoaster Agency in 1996, right at the time I had returned to the Lebanon Valley with a psychology degree from Vanderbilt University . . . and no job. Since the Hoaster Agency was not computerized and dad’s agency was, someone needed to do all the data entry to get Hoaster’s clients into his dad’s agency management software system, and I was available. I spent a couple of months locked in a small office here at dad’s new location at 719 Quentin Road (on Route 72 south of downtown Lebanon) eight hours a day entering client data into a computer.”
Chris explained that his father, Pete Gebhard, had started his own independent insurance agency here in Lebanon in 1975 after first working for a national insurance company. Pete’s first office was on Chestnut Street, a lovely tree-lined boulevard just a couple of blocks from downtown Lebanon, and that Pete soon established himself as a professional insurance agent and an emerging force to be reckoned with in the local commercial and residential/individual insurance market. “Now, almost forty years after dad started his agency,” Chris said, “the majority of our agency’s clients are still located within 35 to 45 miles of our office. Sure, we have clients spread across Pennsylvania, but most of our clients are local, Lebanon Valley businesses and families.”
Right after opening his agency, Pete Gebhard started his long association with the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce. He first served as a member of the board of directors and then served as Chairman of the Chamber in 1983, when his son Christopher was in elementary school. The original Hoaster Agency, founded by Eugene Hoaster in 1906, was a founding member of the original Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, and they have, through four generations, two Hoasters and two Gebhards, maintained continuous membership since the Chamber was founded in 1916.
Now, in 2015, at about the same age his father was when he served on the Chamber’s board of directors, Christopher Gebhard is a member of the Chamber’s board and also a member of the Executive Committee. “I am told that no one like me in the history of this almost one-hundred-year-old organization has ever served as Chairman following a father that previously served as chairman. So, if the Chamber’s succession plan that’s in place continues, I am looking forward to becoming the first ‘Legacy Chairman’ of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce,” Chris said. “This Chamber serves an important role in the economy of the Lebanon Valley and it has made a difference for our family’s business. It certainly helped prepare me for the leadership role I have taken on with Hoaster Gebhard & Co.”
Back in November of 1996, Chris was still working at his father’s insurance agency but did not intend to continue working for his father. “I was hanging out at Hoaster Gebhard & Co. while I was looking for a job. One day the agency rep for Cincinnati Insurance Company came in to talk with Pete and casually asked me what I was planning to do now that I had graduated,” Chris said. “I told him I was looking for a job and he said why don’t you come to Cincinnati and work for us?”
“I moved to Cincinnati shortly after that conversation, in late 1996, and worked for Cincinnati Insurance Company as a commercial underwriter,” Chris explained. “It was one of the key decisions I have made in my life. Cincinnati was a good place to live but it also helped me realize that Lebanon County was a very good place to live, work and raise a family, not that I had a family yet but I knew that’s what I wanted to eventually do – get married and have children.”
After three years of working with the Cincinnati Insurance Company, they asked Chris about his future with the company. Was he interested in leaving the Cincinnati office and going out in the field as a field representative? Chris explained that this was a great opportunity; field reps are a key position within a national insurance company and he was being offered an opportunity after a relatively short period of time at headquarters.
At the same time that Chris was thinking about his future in Cincinnati Pete Gebhard started to talk to his only child in the insurance business about Pete’s own exit plan.
“Dad made it clear to me that if I decided to come back to Lebanon and into his business that I was not entitled to someday take over his business, it was most definitely an opportunity that must be earned,” Chris explained. “In January of 2000, when I made the decision to leave the Cincinnati Insurance Company and return to Lebanon County (moving back into his old bedroom in his parent’s home) Pete made it clear to everyone that I was coming in as a regular employee and not a family member.”
“The past fifteen years have been quite an education for me,” Chris said. “As you’ll recall, business in the Lebanon Valley was outstanding in the early part of this new century, before the Great Recession. From 2000 to 2008 we saw many of our clients experience exceptional growth, in some cases growing faster than they ever could have imagined. Then, when the housing crisis hit and the economy and the stock market crashed, those same clients were affected just like everyone else in the region and across the nation.”
“2008, 2009, and 2010 were challenging, to say the least, but we kept our staff in place – actually hired a couple of people,” Chris said. “We were blessed that we came out of the Great Recession with our agency and our team intact and stronger than ever.”
Christopher Gebhard officially began the process of acquiring his father’s agency in 2007 and by 2014 became the president and chief executive officer of Hoaster Gebhard & Co.
Chris proudly said this about his team, “Our people are the agency’s most vital asset. Today, we have all the right people in all the right positions. When things go smoothly for our clients, as they almost always do here at Hoaster Gebhard & Co., success follows, and our team gets the credit for what we have accomplished.”