A Downtown Institution
Bob Stewart says that when it comes down to the fine print, there’s not a lot of difference in the cost of insurance policies from one company to the next.
“It’s all about relationships,” said the president of Chase, Clarke, Stewart & Fontana (CCSF), an independent insurance agency with deep, 144-year-old roots in Springfield. “Any insurance purchaser can go down the street and find another policy that may be a few dollars less than the policy they have. But it’s not all about being the lowest price on the street; it’s about providing the best coverage and providing the best service you can for your clients.”
He said his firm isn’t unique in that respect; in the era of managed competition, a time when large, national insurance chains have flooded the market with marketing campaigns focused on bottom-line promises, independent insurers have been forced to focus on the personal touch, or, as he called it, “servicing the heck out of it.” Fortunately, he added, that’s long been key to the culture at CCSF.
“That’s how we keep business — return the phone calls, answer the e-mails, go see clients,” he went on, noting that house and office calls make even more sense as downtown Springfield prepares for three years of construction hassles related to the MGM casino and the I-91 viaduct reconstruction.
“With what’s going on downtown, the parking is horrible, so we don’t encourage any of our clients to come into our office; we will go out and see them. We’re always hopping in the car; that’s just routine. We’d rather go see our clients in their office or home and talk to them there. That’s part of the service aspect, too.”
And those clients are diverse, Stewart said.
“We don’t necessarily specialize in any one thing; we do an awful lot of personal-lines insurance — homeowners, auto insurance — but we do a large amount of commercial insurance as well, a lot of professional liability, medical liability, social-service-agency liability, lawyers’ liability. I have a small program of accountants’ professional liability, with clients all over, from Boston to Pittsfield. My brother [Jim Stewart] runs a church program; he’s a broker for a national church organization, the United Church of Christ.”
Jim Stewart is one of three vice presidents, along with Dan Fontana and Raymond Lukas, and they all bring different types of expertise to the table, Bob explained. “We’re all over the map. Ray is a financial planner by trade, so he’s done a lot of life insurance, employee benefits, and financial planning, so any stuff we need done on that end, that’s always his bailiwick.
“It really is a fun business,” he went on, “and I wish we were able to attract more younger people into the field because it’s a great business. It might not have all the glitter of a Wall Street job, and we are in downtown Springfield, which doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. But it’s a wonderful business, and we’ve been very successful over the years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”
For this issue and its focus on insurance, BusinessWest sat down with Stewart to talk about why he’s a believer not only in his industry, but in Springfield itself, and why he’s still excited after 42 years in the business about helping people and businesses protect what’s important to them.
Since William Fuller opened an insurance business in downtown Springfield in 1871, that firm has never been headquartered more than a couple blocks from where it sits now, on the corner of State and Main streets.
“We’re probably the oldest independent agency in Springfield — maybe in Western Massachusetts,” Stewart noted. “Basically, our history is a series of mergers and purchases over the years.”
Fuller’s agency was later acquired by Samuel Sherwood and William Cone, growing under their leadership and then with Sherwood’s son, Malcolm. Raymond Redfield then added the business to his own agency, along with the Oppenheimer Agency, which had started around 1880. In 1957, Redfield invited the Russell D. Chase Agency and the Arthur H. Clarke Agency to merge together as Redfield, Chase & Clarke.
Meanwhile, another agency had been thriving in Springfield — the Lewis J. Stewart Insurance Agency, started by Stewart’s grandfather just after World War I and later run by his son, Robert Stewart Sr. In 1966, that agency joined with the growing Chase agency, which was renamed Chase, Clarke, Stewart. Bob Stewart came on board in 1973, followed by Jim in 1980.
Click HERE for a listing of area insurance companies
But the consolidation process was far from over. In 1995, the agency merged with the R.J. Fontana Agency — bringing Dan Fontana into the fold — forming Chase, Clarke, Stewart & Fontana.
In 2000, the company purchased the Mutual Insurance Agency of Springfield, whose history dates back to 1827. Finally, in 2004, CCSF purchased the Lukas Insurance Agency of Springfield.
Through it all, the commercial-lines business has changed little over the years, save for occasional shifts in rates, but the same can’t be said of personal lines.
“That has changed drastically since what they call managed competition,” Stewart said. “Take auto insurance — back in the ’80s, we had probably about 12 insurance carriers writing auto insurance in Massachusetts, and not the big ones. No one wanted to come in because the state set the rates and said, ‘this is what you’re going to charge.’ Insurance companies were bound by those rules, and most of them felt they couldn’t make money in Massachusetts.
“But then the gloves came off and managed competition started,” he went on. “Insurance companies could set their own rates within certain parameters, so the field is much more wide open now. We’re now competing with the big insurance carriers from all across the country.”
Before this new era, he explained, independent agents wrote some 80% of auto policies, which was unheard of across the U.S.; that figure was closer to 40% or 50% in most states.
“That market share has dropped, and we knew it was going to,” Stewart went on. “And it has caused the insurance carriers we do business with, the independent-agency carriers, to really come up with some unique and unusual coverages and pricing to compete with some of the big companies that have come into the state. They’ve been very responsive. They’ve stepped up to the plate when they needed to compete from a pricing standpoint or from a coverage standpoint, by enhancing policies.”
Marketing has changed in some ways as well, particularly with the emergence of social media, which CCSF has put to effective use with a blog, where it shares information with various types of clients — for example, an article about cybersecurity for business customers, about insulation for homeowners, and about child car safety for motorists, just to name a few recent entries.
“That’s one way to stay in touch with them, let them know what’s going on in the industry, what kinds of things they can do to lower their premiums, protect their properties, and lower their risk,” he explained. “We’re been fortunate to have a young woman in the office who is really versed in social media. I’m kind of old-school, but everyone says it’s beneficial, so we’ll continue to do it.”
Selling a Promise
Stewart is just as pleased to see the changes emerging in Springfield — not just the casino, but a surge of activity and new business in the central business district that give him hope for the city’s future.
“When I started here in 1973, it was an entirely different downtown area. We had Steiger’s, Forbes, A.O. White, Johnson’s Bookstore — all sorts of stuff down here,” he told BusinessWest. “We went from that to seeing not much of anything in downtown Springfield. But I’m positive about the changes that are proposed and are happening. I they will benefit the city as a whole, not just downtown. I’m very positive about it. For those of us who work right in the center, what’s going on now in construction is inconvenient, but it’s an inconvenience that will be short-lived.”
Three years of construction and traffic snarls may not seem short-lived to some business owners, but with his company’s history sprawling back 144 years, he finds it easy to take the long view. Besides, there’s always someone new to get in the car and visit.
“For me, it’s really all about the people I deal with. We have a tremendous staff in our office, it’s fun to deal with them, and it’s fun to deal with all my clients — I really enjoy talking to people, going out to see them. That’s what makes it interesting. If I had to sit behind my desk all day, every day, I’d probably be miserable.”
Stewart is also gratified by a job where he helps people protect themselves against the worst, or at least mitigate hardships when they do strike.
“One client I’m dealing with now, his house was badly burned — a very extensive, very serious loss,” he said. “I talked to them a few times the last few weeks, and things are going smoothly, and the checks are getting cut. It’s good to see that what we’ve provided for them is actually going the way it’s supposed to, and things are being put back together without any further issues.”
At its heart, he concluded, “all we’re selling as an insurance agency is a promise, so we’d better be able to deliver on that promise when the time comes.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]