Risk and Reward
Tracey Benison, president of Encharter Insurance in Amherst, says she deals in what some people may consider a dry topic, or ‘white noise.’ But to her and her team, it’s actually a vibrant, highly personalized process of helping people recognize the risks in their home and work lives, reduce those exposures, and make sure they’re well-covered when the unthinkable happens.
Trish Vassallo says there’s a certain gratification in matching insurance clients to the right coverage, especially when the worst — anything from a destructive hurricane to a violent car crash — happens.
“The best thing we can tell them is, ‘you’re covered for that,’” said Vassallo, personal lines director at Encharter Insurance in Amherst, and a 25-year veteran with the agency. But getting to that point takes time and communication, because each client is different.
“It’s really important to talk to the customer and understand what risks might be hidden, what they might be unaware of,” she told BusinessWest. “They may say, ‘I don’t drive for work, but I drop the kids off on the way to work, and do the same for my neighbors.’ That opens the door to further questioning, and we make sure they have the right coverage.”
Tracey Benison, who came on board as Encharter’s president two years ago, agreed, noting that the firm’s customers range from individuals with $500 policies to business owners whose premiums reach eight digits. “Basically, everyone who walks through the door has unique exposures we need to address. So we learn what’s unique about them and make sure they’re absolutely covered. A lot of people underestimate what their insurance needs are, and underestimate the need to get guidance from an experienced adviser. A lot of people are focused on prices and don’t purchase the right coverages.”
She said real-life examples are plentiful, including one individual she knows who had $20,000 in liability coverage on his auto insurance, and hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk; the victim racked up $350,000 in medical care.
“People say, ‘give me the best price,’ but they’re being penny wise and pound foolish,” Benison added. “And it’s not just the financial impact, but the stress. We want people to understand what their exposures are and what the best products are for it, and have them make a decision from there.”
The agency, formerly known as Blair, Cutting & Smith, traces its roots in Amherst back to 1879. In 1999, the firm was purchased by Plymouth Rock Assurance Corp. and changed its name to Encharter.
“But we remain independent, and we write as independent agents, but we work under the guise of Plymouth Rock, and we represent multiple carriers,” Vassallo said. “We don’t feed clients specific companies, but we look for the best product at the best price.”
Benison noted that many of Encharter’s 25 employees have been with the agency for many years, but plenty of new blood has come on board, including eight hires in the past year alone.
“It’s a growing office, and we want to keep growing,” she said, noting that 17 team members are licensed insurance agents. “That’s the majority of our staff, and to me, that’s a big part of what we do. When people walk through the door, anyone can help them with their insurance needs.”
What’s the Risk?
Encharter has long been a multi-pronged agency, offering a raft of products in both personal and commercial lines. On the personal side, customers cover everything from home and condo insurance to life insurance; from auto coverage to boats, motorcycles, even golf carts.
“We’re partnered with more than 50 carriers, which allows our customers to have access to a broad range of choices,” said Beth Pearson, commercial lines director.
But insurance isn’t just about making sure risk exposures are covered; the process begins with lessening those exposures to begin with, a process known as risk avoidance. “Insurance should be the last stop in the process,” Benison noted.
“One of the great things we do is educate people on exposures they might not be aware of,” Pearson added, noting, for example, that many commercial clients don’t comprehend the scope of today’s cyberthreats and the possibility of data breaches.
“That’s a very interesting phenomenon in the marketplace. Cybercrime and ransomware and stealing data are becoming more sophisticated, and our client base does not necessarily know how to protect their business from these cybercriminals and hackers. In the fall, we offer a cyber presentation in conjunction with the chamber of commerce because people don’t always understand what’s involved in cyber risk and ransomware.”
As for insuring personal property, everyone is different, Benison said. “You can put two identical homes side by side, but the risk for each of them is different. It could be because someone is working from home, or it could be a piece of jewelry or an antique. That’s why purchasing insurance online is a problem. There isn’t someone going to the next stage, giving them advice on exposure. Instead, it’s ‘get the minimum possible, get the sale, and move on.’
“Commercial insurance is the same,” she went on. “You could have two electricians side by side, but one does commercial work and one does residential, or one has employees, and one doesn’t. You have to look at what they do, where they do it, and how they do it, and help them find ways to protect themselves and their assets.”
That said, Pearson noted, it’s gratifying to become a trusted adviser to someone taking a risk and starting a business. “We see a lot of new business owners, people starting a contracting business, a day care, a restaurant, and we have the opportunity to help all those folks open doors and help them as their business grows. We become their partner for a long period of time.”
Clearly, matching a client with an insurance product isn’t just a numbers game at Encharter.
“Insurance is a contract — very specialized, hard to read, and a lot to understand, and customers need to have it interpreted for them,” Benison said. “You can buy a policy from X and a policy from Y, and they cover very different things. People sometimes don’t spend the amount of time they need to really know what’s being covered or not.”
With an eye on further growth, Benison has also led a push to forge affinity agreements with area educational institutions, banks, credit unions, and nonprofits.
“Essentially, we find groups of people with a need for insurance and deliver that,” she said. “We’re finding a lot of employers aren’t addressing the insurance needs of their employees. So that’s an easy way for us to grow our business as well as meet a need on their behalf.”
Meanwhile, Encharter has also ramped up its continuing-education efforts for employees. “A lot of agencies won’t pay for that, but we do encourage and support it,” she told BusinessWest. “I want people continuously learning. Ten years ago, cyber wasn’t even an issue. Drones — that’s a new thing. And driverless cars will be the next thing we’re talking about. The exposures are forever changing, and we need to be on top of it.”
It’s not surprising that an agency whose hometown roots go back 138 years makes a priority of community involvement. Encharter does so through support of organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Amherst and Springfield, Hitchcock Center in Amherst, Family Outreach of Amherst, and the Amherst Block Party. It will sponsor an Amherst Survival Center event this fall, and will be the lead sponsor on the 2017 Festival of Trees in Springfield. And a couple of weeks ago, at a new-teacher orientation at a local middle school, agency employees handed out backpacks filled with coffee cups, Dunkin’ Donuts cards, pencils, and other items to welcome the educators.
Some of those efforts are management decisions, but the agency also boasts an employee-run committee that meets once a month and targets organizations to support with fund-raisers like dress-down days; Plymouth Rock matches the donations.
“We’ve sponsored swimming lessons for students, the MSCPA, the Survival Center, and this month, Berkshire Children and Families,” Vassallo said. “They’re empowered to come up with that list for the whole year, not the corporation or management.”
The company also tries to tie its community offerings back into its core business; a good example is Distractology, a week-long program created by Arbella Insurance. “We’re bringing it to Amherst High School — essentially, they will be training high-school seniors on defensive driving for a whole week.”
It’s one way to stress that concept of risk avoidance in an era when 25% of all car accidents involve a smartphone, Benison said. “I drive around, and I see a lot of accidents, and I have to think it’s highly likely that some of them are because someone was looking at their phone — and it’s avoidable.”
Encharter will also be offering educational seminars in the community on risk-exposure topics, she said. “We’ll try to find a way to make it interesting. Most people think of insurance like white noise. We want to provide information in a way that resonates, is meaningful, and prompts people to take action.”
It’s the kind of material the firm already shares on its blog, another way it continually reaches out into the community to help people make the kind of changes that will make insurance claims less likely. “There’s a lot of good information in there, as simple as changing the batteries in the smoke detector, or clearing snow from the gutters and off the roof. Hurricane season can be a scary time as well; we want people to be out in front of it, so they understand what they should be doing now.”
Pearson was quick to add that making connections extends to the Encharter team itself, which enjoys many employee-appreciation programs throughout the year for going above and beyond in their work.
“There are a lot of benefits of working here at Encharter,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work at several other agencies, and Encharter is not only very generous, but thinks more about driving business toward the future, not just resting on its laurels.”
Such efforts will certainly help ensure its continued success in the town it has called home for almost 150 years.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org