MILROY, Indiana — A cold bottle of Diet Mountain Dew waits on her desk when Jean Ann Harcourt returns to her office.
She’s just given a visitor a tour of her family’s business, and she quickly unscrews the soda’s cap, then takes a long, appreciative drink, giving a slight nod as she sits down.
The bubbly, caffeinated drink is the perfect parallel to Harcourt, whose energy level seemingly hasn’t dipped much since 1975, the year she graduated from Ball State and took over running the company her father and mother and grandfather started six decades ago.
“I had planned to work for another company to get experience before going back to Harcourt Outlines,” she said.
She’d worked at the school supply outfitter, now named Harcourt Industries, since she was 12 years old, putting in half-days during summer vacations. That gig grew into a full-time summer job throughout high school and college, with jobs at Pizza Hut on Wheeling Avenue, UPS and in the bookstore when university classes were in session.
But in May 1975, just after commencement, Harcourt’s father asked her to come home for the summer to help out while a trusted employee was on maternity leave. Just as those months were drawing to a close, the unthinkable happened: Jean Ann’s father, Conrad C. Harcourt, ’50, died from a massive heart attack.
Harcourt’s advisers had been instructed that Jean Ann’s brother, Joe, ’73, was to become the vice president of sales for the company.
And Jean Ann Harcourt was tagged to take over production and the office needs — being groomed for the day she’d become the company’s president and chief executive officer, relieving her mother, Norma, who had assumed those positions immediately following her husband’s death.
She was just 22 years old.
Ball State helped her meet new challenge
“Suddenly I was the boss to people I had just been working next to.”
Though she was shocked when her father’s wishes became known, there wasn’t time for uncertainty. Harcourt kept moving forward with what she believed her dad would do.
“Mom had essentially been moving into retirement at the time of Dad’s death. So I just knew this was something I had to do.
“I remember we had just produced a notebook, and the (paper) stock quality wasn’t what it should have been,” she said. “I called everyone together and stood at the top of some stairs and then threw the notebook on the ground. ‘This is (garbage), and we’re not going to do it like this.’ I said. ‘Dad wouldn’t allow it, and neither will I.’ ”
The move helped establish Harcourt as the new company head — firm, fair and always family-focused. Family, in the sense of her immediate family and the larger connectivity of those who worked for Conrad Harcourt, many of whom still call Harcourt Industries home.
“Being a woman in business classes, in the old Army barracks (on campus), helped prepare me for the business world,” she said. “Business was definitely a man’s world back then. But all of my part-time jobs, all of my classwork and assignments, all of my experiences, including traveling abroad in the school’s London program, provided me with the tools I needed to make any business a success.”
It was shortly after taking over the company that Jean Harcourt, began using her full name — Jean Ann.
“Salesmen would come in wanting to see Mr. Gene Harcourt, and they’d get me,” she said. While she did have a little fun with it, she wanted everyone to be clear — it was Miss Harcourt, not mister. And salesmen who couldn’t adapt didn’t return.
Soon, two overarching themes were cemented in Harcourt’s psyche: persistence and possibility.
Adapting in the iPad age
What started as a company that focused primarily on classroom supplies, including the proprietary development of in-school vending machines that offered 5-cent pencils in the late 1950s, has evolved into a business that has stayed committed to its roots while being mindful of the future.
Now, in addition to novelty pencils, classroom planners and other vending machine products like erasers, Harcourt Industries continues to grow its student planner business and back-to-school packs.
Technology such as iPads in schools has led to further diversification into new markets: fundraising and athletic promotions. That includes Fat Heads (the oversized poster heads of celebrities often seen in the stands during televised sporting events), personalized student magnets and signs parents often put in front yards that feature a school’s mascot and a student-athlete’s name and uniform number.
They create thousands of bumper stickers, car magnets, two-pocket folders and dozens of other items that schools and businesses desire. And she’s always on the lookout for the next product that could be the must-have hit of a season.
“It’s not without its challenges,” Harcourt said. In lean years, she put up her own money to make sure payroll obligations were met, while workers themselves opted for temporary, and voluntary, pay reductions.
But the sacrifice during those harder times isn’t what the employees think of when they talk about Harcourt Industries.
“It’s not a job, it’s our life,” said Rick Bills, who’s spent nearly three decades there and today is vice president of purchasing and operations. “We’re family.”
Harcourt agrees, “Rick’s been like a brother to Joe and me.”
Others echo Bills’ sentiment.
Darlene Marlow, the woman Jean Ann Harcourt subbed for back in 1975, said, “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“I remember when her dad hired me.”
When Marlow and her husband were buying their first home — one they still own some 40 years later — it was Conrad Harcourt who helped them find the right place.
And she remembers when, after about two years with the company, she gave birth to her first child. It was Conrad Harcourt who came to see her.
“I was so stunned,” Marlow said. “I had just had this baby, and here comes Jean Ann’s dad up into the hospital to visit me.”
Those were kindnesses Marlow simply never forgot.
“This is home.”
A hometown-proud grandmother, trustee
These days, Jean Ann Harcourt starts her day as she has for years — with a daily devotional. Her faith and those prayers have given her strength, courage and peace, she said, to weather the rough patches and be enormously grateful for the many good times.
She’s a grandmother now, and “Nana Jean” unashamedly dotes on the little ones. In her home office, Harcourt has not only her desk but a child’s desk where her oldest granddaughter can color and play while Grandma works.
And she’s taken on new challenges in her professional life, getting involved in state and local Republican party politics, leading the charge for a new elementary school in her hometown of Milroy, Indiana, and becoming a Ball State trustee in July 2016.
Drive up and down Main Street in Milroy with Harcourt, and she can point out the house she grew up in, her church and the first house she and her husband, Terry Showalter, ’88, owned. She’s passionate about that hometown, located about 90 minutes southeast of Indianapolis, and takes care of those who, like her, have called it home their whole lives.
Harcourt is active in fundraising for Homes for Our Troops, and the front entryway of the Harcourt Industries building boasts not only a photo of her father but dozens of plaques and photos from Little League and high school groups that benefit from the company’s sponsorship.
That’s exactly how it should be, she said.
“This isn’t just one person,” she said. “I get emotional when I think about the hard work and loyalty of all our current and former employees. My husband, Terry, has just been a wonderful support for these past 35 years. He played a major role in raising our two children, Chrissy and Mike.”
And there’s still more to come. Mike Showalter, Harcourt’s son, is following in his Uncle Joe’s footsteps on the sales side of the operation, keeping those family ties to the business intact.
But Harcourt’s not stepping aside just yet.
“I still get excited when I come into work each morning. I have a picture of a pencil in my office, and it says, ‘Persistence — Now that we’ve exhausted all possibilities let’s get started.’ That’s really it. John Wooden said, Failure is not fatal, but failure to change can be. Every day I’m thinking about the ‘What’s next?’ or ‘What’s new?’
“We’re four generations now. And we don’t give up.”