Mike Tharp: Doing Well by Doing Good

A business and its owners flourish for a century as a Merced institution

September 3, 2011 

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Fluetsch & Busby Insurance Agency secretary and treasurer Jeannie Fluetsch- Bliss, vice president Doug Fluetsch and Peter Fluetsch, president, at the family's Merced, Calif. business Wed. Aug. 31, 2011. The siblings and their father run their family business, which was founded in 1912.

BEA AHBECK — Merced Sun-Star

What makes Merced, Merced? Mercedians. Meet the Fluetsch family. They've helped make Merced. For 100 years.

Later this month, Fluetsch Busby Insurance will commemorate a century of doing business here.

Insurance? You might wonder how insurance, a cousin of the dismal science, economics, could last 100 years.

One reason is Peter Fluetsch, grandson of the founder, H.S. Shaffer, who spent 42 Decembers riding round the county like a frontier circuit court judge, dressed as Santa Claus.

He wore through three Santa suits and many more beards and white wigs, sticky with the candy he would deliver to disabled kids all over creation. The insurance business he had inherited from his father and grandfather took a back seat for one month every year over four decades.

While colleagues ran the office, he handed out sacks of candy to kids, who got candy only once a year, when he would sit them on his lap or, if necessary, place a bag on their laps in a wheelchair or next to them as they lay in beds. By the last year, he was playing Santa to 450 children.

This insurance company, and the four generations who have owned and run it, have done well by doing good. They're not the only business in our county that has given back as much or more to their community as they've benefited from it.

But they are the oldest.

And without exception their zeal to make a profit has been matched or exceeded by their civic responsibility.

Ethics come from Eagle Scouts

It may sound too simple, but they have sold insurance and dressed like Santa or Elvis and run a major bicycle race for 20 years because they were Eagle Scouts.

"We followed the Scout oath," says Peter, semiretired in Twain Harte. "It's all part of our ethical guide."

Four generations of Eagle Scouts, including Doug, who with his sister Jeannie Fluetsch-Bliss, now handle day-to-day operations of the firm on 18th Street. "In business, if you follow those guidelines, you're always going to do the right thing," says Doug. "For our grandfather and great-grandfather, it was always a guiding force in their lives."

That helps explain why the Fluetsch name has been recorded so many times in the history of Merced.

The most recent example is Doug, who, almost single-handedly at first, brought the MERCO Cycling Classic to our city. He himself was a competitive cyclist for 20 years, and the event he helped start continues the family tradition of investing in the community since 1912.

First policy for fruit-drying barn

When Shaffer started here a century ago, Merced's streets were dirt and people got around in horse and buggy. One of his company's first policies was for a fruit-drying barn in Atwater. It was a three-year $300 policy, the premium was $8 and the company got a 30 percent commission -- $2.40 a year for three years.

The company changed and grew with the times. In 1934, the Shaffer Insurance Agency became Fluetsch & Shaffer when son-in-law and second-generation owner John J. Fluetsch joined. In the '40s, John changed the name again to Fluetsch Insurance Agency. Ralph Busby came on board in 1949, and Peter signed up in 1955 after graduating from Menlo College. After John died in 1966, the name was changed to Fluetsch & Busby and they moved from the Shaffer Building to where they are now on 18th Street.

All along they did more than sell insurance. John was a district attorney and Superior Court judge (he left the firm while he held those jobs). They've all been involved in the Merced Boosters because that's just what they do -- boost Merced. "The thrust is to bring investment and create jobs in this city," says Peter, "and to support people who make it a better place for our kids."

That's one reason Doug has backed the MERCO Cycling Classic and why he strongly supports a Wal-Mart distribution center.

Jeannie, no shrinking violet, became the first female member of one of the county's Kiwanis clubs. Within a year she was its president.

Together, they radiate optimism and enthusiasm. "Goodness is contagious," says Jeannie.

They agree that in Merced you have to make the right ethical choices in business. "If you don't," says Doug, "your clients are going to see you in the grocery store or getting gas. It drives you to make the right decision."

Giving back is what drove Doug to don a Vegas Elvis costume at a recent Kiwanis Casino Night to get donations to support Kiddieland. He watched YouTube scenes of The King's moves on stage and pulled off a money-raising performance.

After 100 years, the Fluetsch family has witnessed the crests and troughs of Merced. Yosemite Valley Railroad shuts down. Trough. Castle AFB opens. People rally. Crest. Castle closes. Gloom and doom. UC Merced arrives. Hope and joy. Merced gets overbuilt. Agony.

"There's going to be something next," says Doug. "We need to get employers here. We need to get jobs."

"Right now," says Peter, "people are afraid to think about a plan for today to get to tomorrow."

Between them Jeannie and Doug have five kids. There's probably one with the Fluetsch DNA that includes not only running an insurance agency but also a lifelong commitment to giving back.

Happy centennial to some folks who have helped make Merced, Merced.

It's worth repeating the Boy Scout values that made these Eagle Scouts into the kind of people who care, as Doug did recently when he took his two sons back to a graffiti-covered wall they had passed, opened some paint cans and covered over the vandalism.

Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent.

They've worked for 100 years.

No reason they won't last another 100.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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