Sumner & Toner Offers Generations of Insurance ExpertiseThere’s an oversized postcard prominently displayed on the bookcase in the conference room at the Sumner & Toner Insurance Agency in Longmeadow. Its few words and accompanying photographs effectively tell the story of this enterprise and the recent history of the insurance industry in general.
Well, they begin to tell the story.
Pictured on one side of the missive is Warren Sumner, and on the other is William “Bill” Toner Jr. In between is a message, written in the form of a subtle warning: “Always treat your competitors with respect,” it reads. “You may end up sharing office space.”
That’s exactly what happened in 1998, when Sumner, a principal with the Sumner Spingler Insurance Agency, located on Williams Street, decided to join forces with Toner, a principal with Smith & Toner, located just a few hundred yards away on Bliss Road.
This merger, which came a few years after Richard Smith and Douglas Spingler both retired from the firms that bore their names, is typical of the many consolidation initiatives that have taken place in the insurance industry over the past few decades. Such unions have materialized with the knowledge that two companies can, theoretically, succeed better as one, with a shared office, computer network, telephone system — and philosophy about how to thrive in an increasingly competitive insurance landscape.
“We have me here, and Warren Sumner across the street,” said Toner, reflecting back on how and why the merger came about. “After three years of that, we said, ‘let’s merge.’ And when you put two businesses together, there are synergies — you don’t have to duplicate expenses.”
But what ultimately determines how successful such mergers are isn’t bottom-line savings on rent and utilities, said Sumner, but how well the new company melds the talents of the merged entities to effectively serve customers and negotiate the many challenges now facing those in a rapidly changing insurance industry.
And the company now known as Sumner & Toner — which sprung from an enterprise born 80 years ago — has been successful with this, Toner said, noting that his expertise in commercial products (especially with contractors’ needs), coupled with Sumner’s experience in personal lines and marketing, has given the company a competitive edge.
“There was and is good synergy between the two of us — we were able to bring our collective expertise to the table,” Toner noted, adding that the next phase of this process is greater use of social media to market the company and communicate with clients and potential clients.
And this is one of many assignments that will mostly fall to the next — and, in many respects, current — generation of leadership at the company, specifically Jack Toner (Bill’s son), and Bud Sumner (Warren’s son).
These younger principals have complementary skill sets as well, said the elder Toner, referencing Bud’s expertise in medical and professional offices on the commercial side of the ledger, and Jack’s work with younger individuals — both as an insurance executive and as current co-vice president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS).
For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest takes advantage of the recent milestone anniversary to offer an in-depth look at how Warren Sumner and Bill Toner came to be on that postcard, and what happens next for this enterprise, where things have certainly come together nicely, and in more ways than one.
As he traced the history of the company, Bill Toner started with his transition from work within an insurance company to owning an insurance agency.
It’s a significant if not uncommon career shift, he said, noting that insurance companies, or carriers, assume the risk for the policyholder and pay the claim when something happens. The agency, or what he called the “intermediary,” helps to market the different insurance products and services of the insurance companies, selling on behalf of those corporations.
Toner said he was drawn to the agency side of the industry after working for one of the many large insurance companies in Hartford. After serving in the Army for three years, he acquired from his father the Angers Agency Inc., the Springfield-based entity founded in 1933 that the elder Toner purchased upon his retirement from the General Accident Insurance Co. in New York. (It is the 80th anniversary of that business venture that is being celebrated this year).
Bill Toner said he ran that agency for 14 years, before opting to merge with Smith in 1984, and then with Sumner in 1998.
Warren Sumner was a marketing and sales vice president for Milton Bradley for years, but, as with Bill Toner, the entrepreneurial bug was biting, and he decided to venture out on his own by purchasing the Spingler Insurance Agency in 1987. A few years later, he merged with his friendly competitor across the street to form Sumner & Toner.
“My father has the advertising, marketing, and sales background, which, with the product knowledge in insurance, makes him a great salesman and advocate for his clients when a claim arises,” said son Bud Sumner. Currently, the elder Sumner is starting to get a small taste of retirement by reducing his hours.
Bud Sumner, who started with Aetna but founded his own small agency in Needham, decided to merge that venture with Sumner & Toner in 2001, giving the company a foothold in Eastern Mass. and Rhode Island — geographical diversity that has benefited the company in a number of ways.
The current leadership team became complete when, after a brief stint as a leasing agent for a real-estate company directly after graduating from Georgetown University — his father’s alma mater — Jack Toner joined the company in 2007.
Together, the two generations of Sumners and Toners are doing what agency operators across the region are trying to do — maintain and ultimately grow market share at a time of change, heightened competition, challenge, and opportunity.
All of those dynamics come together amid the proliferation of online giants such as Geico and Progressive, said Jack Toner, adding that these companies present a challenge because their marketing pitches and promises of savings are alluring, and they essentially eliminate that intermediary role that agencies play.
But they also represent an opportunity, he went on, because those same agencies can let clients and potential clients know that they usually can’t click their way to solutions for their insurance needs. This is the message he’s imparting to many young professionals in YPS, some of whom are buying insurance for the first time.
“The product that we’re offering and the services that we promise to offer are sophisticated,” said Bill Toner, explaining his caution for online one-size-fits-all insurance products. “It’s a complex sale; people think that they can go online to buy auto and home insurance — and they can — but they don’t have the expertise to know what they are missing, and that sophistication of the sale brings us to the table because we can offer that advice.”
Bud Sumner agreed. “Anybody can save you 15%; just don’t call them when you have a claim, because all [national online companies] are doing is raising your deductible and lowering your limits.”
Or they’re taking away coverage, Bill Toner added. “We have the philosophy that we should take the time and labor, which is our capital, to invest in the relationship so that, six months to a year later, they’ll realize we’ve been something of value for them. That’s our general philosophy of business.”
The two terms ‘challenge’ and ‘opportunity’ could also be ascribed to other changes within the industry, said Bill Toner, specifically citing the deregulation of auto insurance in the Commonwealth in 2008, which allowed insurance companies to set their own rates, and agencies to offer package discounts for auto and home or auto and boat, Bill said.
“This was good for the consumer — they got discounts,” he explained. “But it was good for us because we were able to develop the entire account and develop relationships.”
But Sumner & Toner isn’t out to sell everything to everybody, he went on, noting that, with a client base that is 60% personal and 40% commercial, the agency would rather offer advice and good service instead of pushing what Bill calls the ‘horror-story’ campaign. That would be advertising by fear, as in, what would happen if someone came over to visit and fell down the stairs?
“Our proposition has always been a quality product and package that will fit into your financials, which you can afford and protects your assets,” said Jack Toner.
Still another challenge moving forward is creating a strategy for effectively using social media to promote the agency and its services and also communicate with clients and potential clients.
“That’s a whole other arena we’re entering into,” said Jack Toner. “I think that our industry has a place, or is finding a place, in social media, and while we’re not totally sure where we want to place ourselves, we’re very aware of it.”
Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other forms of social technology have created new marketing avenues, but industry-wide, there is no clear consensus on how to best meld these vehicles, said Bill Toner, adding that the company is currently grappling with the question of whether to hire someone to devote specific time to social media.
Predicting the Future
Stating that he’s not an actuary or a meteorologist, Bill Toner explained that the future will only get more expensive for the consumer through property-insurance premium increases due to the many recent instances of Mother Nature’s wrath and the potential escalation of extreme weather globally.
“Obviously, the insurance companies set their rates contemplating catastrophic things, because no insurance company I know of went financially bankrupt or went out of business,” he said, referencing the recent past and its tornadoes, ice dams, freak October snowstorm, and more. “But they found that it was difficult and that, actuarially, they have to cover catastrophes like what we’ve all experienced, because they’re predicting scientifically that it’s going to happen moreso in the future.”
There is no crystal ball for Sumner & Toner to predict the weather, but putting clients together with the best products — and assisting them with their claims should catastrophes, large or small, happen — is the firm’s main mission.
And the effective way they’re varying that mission is proof positive of what’s written on that aforementioned postcard. Sometimes, companies do wind up sharing office space with their competitors, and, in this case, it brought together families, generations, and a shared formula for success.
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]