Honoring the Past, Insuring the Future
Bell & Hudson Builds a Legacy on History, Philanthropy, and Forward Thinking
The sign on the front of the building says Bell and Hudson Insurance was founded in Belchertown in 1890. But the agency’s president and owner, Jim Phaneuf, estimates that it was a bit earlier.
A history buff and active member of Belchertown’s Historic Society, Phaneuf found a yellowed copy of the Belchertown Sentinel, the town’s local paper, not long after taking ownership of the agency.
In the issue, dated Sept. 1, 1950, George F. Bell spoke with reporters on the occasion of his retirement, and said that in actuality, the agency was formed during the Civil War by Frederick Taylor, a Granby businessman who owned a textile mill and created an insurance arm to protect his own holdings.
The business stayed part of the Taylor family until 1913, when Bell purchased it, taking Byron Hudson on as a partner in the 1930s.
Bell & Hudson, in its current permutation, was officially incorporated in 1940, serving Belchertown and its surrounding communities ever since.
The business was sold in 1950 to the Fuller family, which maintained ownership until 1992, when Phaneuf took the helm after five years of employment with the agency.
He said that as the business continues to grow and change with the times, honoring both history and community remain high on its list of priorities.
“I’ve been the steward of this business for some time now, and I’ve watched the town grow — and along with it, the business,” said Phaneuf. “It’s a great community.”
Blizzards and Benchmarks
Bell & Hudson has a strong philanthropic presence in Belchertown, said Phaneuf, adding that the agency is ‘there’ for the community in myriad ways, from fund-raisers for cancer to disaster preparedness.
“We’re ready to serve our customers in a blizzard,” he said, “because it’s during those times that people need their insurance companies. We’ve made great strides to be ready, with electric generators and other things, and we started that before it was on more people’s minds after Katrina.”
The agency has received high marks for its efforts to streamline various insurance processes and to make them more accessible, including claims-handling and customer service. It has twice received the Mass. Assoc. of Insurance Agents’ Five-star Award of Distinction, given to agencies across the state that, through an extensive, on-site examination performed by the MAIA every three years, prove exemplary performance in a number of key areas, such as customer focus and human resources practices.
Bell & Hudson is currently one of 32 agencies in the state to receive the five-star rating, but Phaneuf said even without the prize, the process of identifying best practices is a valuable one, which the agency uses to continuously improve.
“Agencies must go through a three-day audit. Auditors meet with employees, and look at performance in critical areas,” he said. “They look to see if an agency has a clear mission, and that staff members are well aware of that mission. They look at decision-making, corporate values, technical issues … even if we don’t get the five-star rating, at the end we have a great white paper that shows us what things we need to work on.”
Making the Upgrade
But there’s also a record of what the agency is doing right. Bell & Hudson, which specializes in various types of insurance for both families and businesses — most of its corporate clients are medium- to large-sized outfits with up to 125 employees — excels in technology-based systems that automate standard inquiries, claims, and other communication between the agency and the insurance companies with which it works. Phaneuf said keeping up to date with these systems has allowed the business to grow without necessitating more staff; there are currently 12 employees, a number that has not changed much in the past decade.
“Because we started earlier than most with our computer system upgrades, our number of employees has stayed level,” he said. “The upgrades never end; they are an expense, but it’s something we have to do to maintain a competitive edge and stay ahead of the curve.”
At this point, Phaneuf added, Bell & Hudson’s offices are also close to being paperless, and the systems also help navigate the many different filing practices of the 10 companies with which the agency works.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to support many different companies, but as an independent agency, it’s good for us in the long run because we’re satisfying the needs of our customers, whatever those needs may be,” he said. “Essentially, we sell promises, and a core part of our business is making sure those promises have been fulfilled. Working with insurance carriers can be sticky, and that’s exactly why there’s a need for independent agents. We speak their language.”
To ensure that nothing gets lost in the translation, employees are required to complete mandatory continuing-education courses each year to stay equally current with new trends and practices.
“I keep the staff on a course of continuous improvement,” said Phaneuf, noting that this has also helped him retain qualified personnel over the years. “It’s a challenge finding good people, and our staff members are mostly local people who take pride in their work. We have very low turnover; the average tenure is 10 years.”
This course includes certification and licensing programs that lead to a number of professional designations within the insurance industry, such as C.P.C.U. (Chartered Property & Casualty Underwriter), C.I.C. (Certified Insurance Counselor), and C.I.S.R. (Certified Insurance Service Representative).
A Putt Above
Beyond their career obligations, though, Bell & Hudson employees are also actively involved with the community, often planning large-scale events on their own time.
The agency’s largest philanthropic endeavor is its annual Putt-a-thon, or mini-golf tournament, which raises thousands of dollars each year for the Jimmy Fund and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Fighting cancer is a cause that’s dear to many at Bell & Hudson; several employees have been closely affected by the disease.
Dana Farber currently benefits from 150 individual golf tournaments, and Phaneuf said early on, he and his staff wanted to break from tradition and try something different. They devised a mini-golf tournament that the institute at first regarded with some skepticism. But those doubts were quickly erased when residents in the greater Belchertown area flocked to Evergreen Golf three years ago to putt 100 holes, and gather pledge donations for each hole. Local businesses also serve as sponsors. That first year, Bell & Hudson presented a check for $17,000 to Dana Farber, and this year, it raised close to $40,000.
The event, combined with other community assistance initiatives the agency has launched, as well as its strong track record in implementing current technology and processes to augment service, prompted the Quaboag Valley Chamber of Commerce to name Bell & Hudson its business of the year.
“It’s an amazing thing,” said Phaneuf of the putt-a-thon. “The event is still evolving — we’re still working out a kink here and there, and it has rained all three years we’ve had it. But if there’s a need, the people of this community come together. We have welcomed children from age 6 to an 86-year-old woman who came out to support us — and finished all 100 holes.”
What’s more, the event has spurred other communities to begin holding similar putt-a-thons, and Phaneuf said Dana Farber credits Bell & Hudson with devising the model.
“It’s not just about golf,” he said. “Actually, it’s not about golf at all. It’s about people — we might have put it together, but the customers make it happen.”
The agency’s philanthropic work also helps Bell & Hudson foster a level of comfort among clients and in the community that began in the 1800s, when Frederick Taylor sought his own peace of mind by forming what would become one of Belchertown’s longest-held and most successful small businesses.
“People like doing business locally,” Phaneuf said, “and honoring that is what helps us succeed more than anything.”
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]