CEDAR CITY — At 84 years, Dixie Leavitt has reached the age where he could sit on his front porch, surround himself with his grandchildren and inspire them by telling stories of great men in history who have gone from rags to riches and built empires.
Or, he could tell them his own story.
Few Utahns have carved the kind of swath Leavitt has carved, and keeps carving. He is a Cedar City institution.
The insurance company he started out of his basement apartment 62 years ago is now the seventh largest privately held insurance brokerage in the nation. He and his wife, Anne, have six sons who all graduated from college and forged their own successful careers — three in the family business, three elsewhere. The oldest of those sons, Mike, is the former three-term governor of Utah and Cabinet member during the George W. Bush administration.
Dixie served in the Utah Legislature for 18 years — one term as a representative and four terms as a senator, including a stint as majority leader. As a churchman, he took a three-year leave of absence from business and politics when he was 54 years old to preside over a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint in England. Later, he and Anne served a second Mormon mission as directors of the visitors center at the St. George Temple. Today, they oversee the Dixie and Anne Leavitt Foundation, a charity that funds over 200 scholarships each year to Southern Utah University.
All this from a beginning that bordered on destitute when Dixie made his way to Cedar City from his nearby hometown of Bunkerville, Nevada, in 1947 armed only with a piece of paper that said the Branch Agricultural College (now Southern Utah University) would pay his tuition if he’d play on its football team.
He wound up becoming the school’s first four-year letterman in not only football, but also track, and served as student body president his senior year. As a green, and broke, college graduate in 1951 he embarked on his chosen career as an educator, staying in town to teach fourth-graders at Cedar West Elementary School.
But when school adjourned and summer came he decided to try his hand at selling life insurance just to make ends meet.
He never got back to the classroom.
Six-plus decades later, every day, rain or shine, Dixie still shows up at the corporate offices of the Leavitt Group, the headquarters for all affiliated Leavitt enterprises, in the heart of Cedar City, just up the road from the home where he and Anne have lived since 1955, and just around the corner from the Dixie Leavitt Business Building at Southern Utah University.
On a recent workday afternoon, the Deseret News caught up with Dixie Leavitt at his office for a conversation about his views on business, family, church and politics.
DN: Thank you for your time and this chance to talk. How much time do you spend at the office these days?
DL: I come every day. Two days a week Anne and I serve in the temple in St. George. On those days I leave (the office) around 10 in the morning. Otherwise I’m here through the day. All I can say is I’ve been blessed. I’m approaching 85. I walk each morning on the treadmill and keep going. I’ve worked hard and enjoyed life.
DN: The insurance business wasn’t your first plan. How did that come about?
DL: I started in the life insurance business the summer after I started teaching school. I was just a kid, 22 years old. It was a real learning experience, and scary, all those frightening cold calls. Anyway, at the end of the summer the manager of the company, a man by the name of Woody Romney — Elwood Romney, the all-state basketball player — came down to get my books. I told him I was leaving. He said, “If we can go out in a day and make a certain number of dollars, will you stay on?” The number he suggested was sufficient that I laughed at it and said sure, I’ll stay on if we hit it. We went out that day and worked on the things in the pipeline I had going and exceeded the amount we’d agreed on. So here I was. I had a verbal commitment to teach school in Sacramento. I was going to be teaching at a school on Dixieanne Avenue. My name is Dixie. My wife’s name is Anne. I thought that was an omen. We’d already given up our apartment. But we’d hit our number. So we decided not to move on to Sacramento. That was the story of my getting in.
DN: Looking back, how were you able to be successful in a very competitive industry?
DL: How can I put it so it doesn’t sound self-serving? It was the work ethic. Having the desire to do what you had to do to succeed, with integrity. Being willing to sacrifice. There isn’t the work ethic now that there had to be then. I see people who expect to be home at 5 or 6 o’clock for dinner every night. That wasn’t the case with me. My wife knew that was the golden hour, you might say, and when I’d get home at 9 or 9:30 she’d have something ready for me. So I can tell you our background had a lot to do with what we did and how we did it. I was willing to do what it took and so was she. You have to have a partner with you who is understanding and on board for the same thing. That was my wife. When Mike was born (in 1951) we didn’t have a car. We walked over the hill to the hospital. We didn’t have running water at the trailer. We were motivated because we didn’t have anything. We had to make it work.
DN: On the other hand, your sons weren’t raised in circumstances quite so dire. How did you instill your work ethic in them?
DL: Again, I couldn’t have done anything without a wife like my wife who agreed how important family was and making sure the boys knew how to work and not feel like they had a silver spoon in their mouth. What I’m saying is it takes a couple. It’s a team. Anything I’ve done, Anne has been right there involved. Over the years we acquired some property. We had a farm in Loa, where Anne grew up, and always had work there for the boys to do. They’d raise heifers and do chores and have responsibilities. They also worked in the business. At Christmastime they’d hand out calendars or datebooks for me. As I was building the business in the early years in Las Vegas I would take the little boys with me and we had some great experiences. They’d stay at the motel as I’d go do my work and we’d have time together. That was all calculated. I’d develop good relationships with them and I’d also relieve my wife.
DN: In a nutshell, what’s your advice for having success as a businessman?
DL: Establish relationships that are built on trust and friendship. Develop a reputation of integrity and fairness and never deviate from that.
DN: Is that the same formula for politics?
DL: Exactly the same.
DN: The only election you ever lost was when you decided to run for governor in 1976. And yet, you have said you consider that a win. Please explain.
DL: Well, you always hate to lose, but we do look at it as a real blessing. It allowed me to go back to my business and my family and that turned out to be a very good thing. A few years later (in 1984) I was able to go to England (on the mission) and a number of things, so looking back we can say it all turned out for the best. That campaign was also what got Mike started in politics. Right after I filed, I remember I left Cedar City for Salt Lake and Mike couldn’t see me going by myself. As we went around the Point of the Mountain, it was nighttime and we could see all the lights in the Salt Lake Valley and he turned to me and said, “Dad, we’re going to have to get to all those people.” That was really the start of his political involvement and likewise the termination of mine.
DN: The Leavitt Group has grown to a point where there are 115 different locations all over the western and southeastern United States, employing thousands, but at the top it’s still a family business?
DL: That’s correct. Three of our six sons are currently involved with the Leavitt Group. Eric is now CEO of the business, Dane is chairman and Mark is in charge of acquisitions. Mike hasn’t worked in the business since he was governor. He founded and owns Leavitt Partners, where he advises clients in the health care and food-safety sectors. David and his wife, Chelom, both lawyers, started the Leavitt Institute for International Development and have been involved in furthering legal reform in Ukraine and Moldova. Matthew, our youngest, is a pathologist and just in the last year moved from Orem to Salt Lake City to develop a center for pathology there. Anne’s health is great. She works in the temple with me two days a week.
DN: What is the main hope and purpose for the Dixie and Anne Leavitt Foundation that you and your wife established?
DL: Education is very important to us, and the foundation helps support Southern Utah University. Through the foundation, the university funds hundreds of housing scholarships each year. The purpose isn’t to build more brick and mortar; it’s the students we’re thinking of. I couldn’t have come to college without a scholarship, and it was the same with Anne. And still it was hard. We remember the days of living in that trailer.