Former Redskin tackling politics Schoenke makes play for governor after big splash in insurance

May 18, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Ray Schoenke never made more than $50,000 a year as an offensive lineman in the National Football League.

Today, 22 years after he left the game, Schoenke says he is worth about $20 million -- a fortune that is largely fueling his uphill run to be governor of Maryland.

Schoenke, 56, got rich selling big-ticket insurance to some of the area's best-known businesses -- policies designed to boost the retirement benefits of their top corporate executives.

The former Washington Redskin became a major insurance player over the past two decades by aggressively carving out a niche in a new market in which the potential profits were soaring and the competition cutthroat.

"He worked his butt off," said Joel Koenig, a former partner who split with Schoenke a decade ago. "And he was lucky -- the business climate was right."

In September's Democratic primary, Schoenke will face the incumbent, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and two-term Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, both of whom have deep roots in Maryland politics.

Without the long public service resumes compiled by his opponents, Schoenke will likely need to impress voters with his American Dream tale of entrepreneurial achievement. But while Schoenke has little name recognition and no tangible backing in the state's political universe, he has another important election year commodity -- money.

He has pledged to spend $2 million or more of his own money, even as he seeks to raise significant sums from others.

He was the first gubernatorial candidate to take his message to television, purchasing a flood of commercial time in the Baltimore, Salisbury and Washington markets at a cost of about $400,000.

While few political observers give Schoenke much chance of winning, a longtime friend says they underestimate his determination.

"I've never known him to say something and not do it," said Howard Silverman, a Philadelphia-area insurance seller and friend of Schoenke's.

Schoenke began selling insurance even before he retired from the Redskins in 1976. He targeted an unlikely clientele -- college seniors and graduate students.

"I was pretty successful by sheer discipline," Schoenke said.

In the final years of his football career, he began using his contacts to expand his business. Each week, Schoenke presided over a Monday Redskins luncheon at a Rockville hotel. Schoenke paid other players to make the speeches to fans and review that week's game. He posted himself at the door, greeting everyone who came -- and having them sign in for door prizes.

"It gave me 2,000 prospects and the opportunity to meet some very successful private corporation owners," Schoenke said.

His celebrity as a member of Washington's premier sports team opened doors. By the time he retired, he says he was making about $80,000 a year selling insurance, far more than he was earning from football.

"It obviously didn't hurt him any that he was a part of that team," said William N. Haraway, a Prince George's County insurance broker who has competed with Schoenke for business. "But he knew what he was doing. Just getting in the door doesn't guarantee you anything."

By the mid-1970s, Schoenke began to grasp that a new, growing market was emerging in the business -- selling policies that would supplement the retirement benefits of well-paid executives.

Federal law had capped the amount companies could pay their top people in retirement, and financial analysts were finding new ways to generate income for those retirees using insurance contracts.

"I saw an opportunity to make a lot of money," Schoenke said.

He shifted his focus from smaller companies and targeted the region's biggest publicly owned firms. He knew he needed more legal and financial talent, so he cut his own salary in half and plowed the rest into the company he and Koenig formed.

The firm made its first big score in the late 1970s when it landed a major contract with Fairchild Industries -- the large defense contractor then based in Germantown in northwest Montgomery County. The deal with Fairchild brought Schoenke's firm a $250,000 commission the first year, he said.

Schoenke's aggressive networking and marketing led to deals with dozens of other major companies, including banks such as Maryland National and major retailers such as Hechinger's.

"We were very successful," said Koenig. "For the first several years, we just swept through this region."

Relentless determination

Friends and others in the business said Schoenke went after business with a relentless determination.

"He only knows how to win," said Koenig. "In so doing, he is so focused, he loses sight of some of the things around him."

Schoenke, who once played ball for the legendary but volcanic Vince Lombardi, doesn't argue with the assessment.

"I am tough. I am focused. People don't say no," Schoenke said. "If you do something wrong, I'm in your face."

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