Profiles in Business
Insurance Exec Has Modesty Element Fully CoveredSam Hanmer could play football for Bill Bellichick.
Well … he could handle the pre- and post-game interviews with the media, anyway.
He sure sounds like one of the Patriots when he talks about his career, his life, and the things that define it. He’d much rather talk about the team than himself, and there’s an unassuming, ‘just-doing-my-job,’ ‘it’s-really-no-big-deal’ tone, or attitude, to much, if not almost all, of what he says. However, there’s a little more dry humor than most of the Patriots display.
Consider this comment when asked how he was able to exponentially grow what is now known as the FieldEddy Insurance Network in the 14 or so years after he took the reins as CEO soon after his father retired from the agency known as Field, Eddy and Bulkley:
“I think the thing I’ve done best is put together a really good team of people,” he started. “I want people to be smarter than me when they come here — which isn’t saying much, believe me; that’s not exactly a lofty goal. Together, this team gets it done, and they’ve enabled me to achieve a good work-life balance.”
There was similar modesty when he was talking about his athletic ability and proficiency in various sports.
Indeed, when asked if he was in an over-40 hockey league (he’s 48 and loves the game), he said, “no, but I’m certainly ready for one. I’m still in an over-30 league, and those guys are too fast for me. I’ve got to move on.”
On skiing: “I wouldn’t say I’m good at it … I’d leave it up to the people I ski with to say how good I am.” And on his exploits in triathlon competitions: “I just do the sprints, which is a half-mile swimming, 15 miles on the bike, and a three- or four-mile run,” he said, noting that these events progress markedly, distance-wise, with the so-called Olympic, half, and full, or ‘ironman,’ triathlons. “Each year I think I’m going to do an Olympic or a half, but haven’t gotten there yet; primarily, it’s the swimming that’s holding me back.”
Despite the understated tone to all these comments — and Hanmer’s insistence that his partner, FieldEddy President Timm Marini, who did spend some time playing for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins; his son, in training to be a marine biologist; or virtually anyone else would be a better profile subject for BusinessWest — there is an intriguing story here. Actually, several of them.
The first involves business, of course, and the expansion of FieldEddy well beyond its roots in downtown Springfield, an initiative that Hanmer orchestrated, and that continues today, although current market conditions have brought a temporary halt to the spate of acquisitions.
There’s also a strong track record of community involvement, especially with the YMCA of Greater Springfield, where Hanmer is in his fourth year as board chair and in the middle of his second search for an executive director with the recent departure of James O’S Morton for the Hartford YMCA.
Overall, there seems to be an attractive work-life balance that many business executives are still searching for. Indeed, thanks to that team he mentioned earlier, Hanmer was able to take Fridays off last summer and fall and spend more time at a home he purchased a few years ago in West Yarmouth. And with ski season now in full force, he’s thinking strongly about continuing that schedule into the spring.
The house on the Cape hasn’t helped Hanmer’s golf handicap — weekends there mean less time to play and practice — but he still gets out regularly enough, and there are those other sports, and even a fascination for ’60s and ’70s muscle cars, especially the Pontiac GTO.
“I’ve owned three of them — I’m a car nut,” he said, listing a ’65 tri-power, a ’65 four-barrel convertible, and ’67 hardtop, with a tinge of lament in his voice as he uses the past tense. “I’ll get another one … someday.”
For this, the latest installment of its Profiles in Business series, BusinessWest talks with a man who doesn’t like to talk about himself, but managed to do so just long enough to paint an interesting self-portrait.
Hanmer was talking about the swimming leg of one of those sprint triathlons he’s taken part in, this one in Ludlow — but if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear he was expounding on the ultra-competitive world of insurance.
“The pack never really separates,” he explained, noting that there are dozens of people in a small stretch of water, kicking and clawing to gain some ground. “You get kicked in the face, punched in the face, and elbowed, and of course the anxiety level picks up; it gets a little crazy out there, a little wild.”
To some extent, though, FieldEddy has managed to gain some degree of separation. It now boasts more than 70 employees after acquiring several smaller agencies over more than a decade of aggressive expansion efforts, a crital mass that brings many competitive advantages. Still, this is a changing, ultra-challenging business sector, impacted most recently in the auto realm by a number of national online companies, such as Geico and Progressive, jockeying for position in a state that recently changed the rules to stimulate greater competition.
“It’s great for the consumers — they’ve seen up to a 20% reduction in their rates,” he explained. “The business has changed for us; it’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just different. We’ve seen our share of the direct writers get a foothold here, but we’re starting to see that come back because they’re taking some rate increases.
“Geico has done a very soft launch in Massachusetts,” he continued, noting that that the company has been in the Bay State for more than a year, but has yet to make a lot of noise beyond its heavy marketing. “I’m just worried about what happens when they really want to pull the trigger.”
How Hanmer arrived at this position to reflect on, and react to, all these changes is an intriguing story. His father was the majority owner of a firm known then as Field, Eddy, and Bulkley, but Hanmer didn’t go to work for him upon graduation from UMass Amherst in 1984.
“I was interviewing at UMass for jobs, and went with the one that offered the most money,” he explained. “And that was with Liberty Mutual in Boston.”
Ironically, his girlfriend and future wife, Jenny, was working for the agency (she started part-time while they were both at UMass) when he ventured off to the Hub.
While Hanmer enjoyed his time in Boston — he said he spent many an afternoon and evening in the bleachers at Fenway — he soon returned to Springfield to get married and join Field, Eddy, and Bulkley.
He started in sales, but soon moved to the financial side of the business when the then-treasurer suffered a heart attack and had to leave the company for some time. He eventually gravitated back to sales and, in 1995 when his father retired, stepped into a leadership role.
And it wasn’t long before he started to capitalize on a trend within the industry — small, often mom-and-pop operations struggling to adjust to changes and technology began looking in earnest for exit strategies — to grow by acquisition.
Pedal to the Metal
Over the next dozen years or so, the firm acquired a number of agencies, some with familiar names known across the region and others with names known across the city or town in question. That list includes the Curtis and Hodskins agencies in Monson, Aliengena in Palmer, LDS in Three Rivers, Meadows in East Longmeadow, BPI in Springfield, Remillard in South Hadley, Buckley Bridge in Windsor Locks, and, most recently, Lawson, Marino & Bertera, another Springfield-based agency specializing in employee benefits.
When asked to evaluate his body of work with regard to growing the company, Hanmer was his usual modest self, almost Tom Brady-like.
“In the aggregate, it’s working,” he explained. “I’m not going to say all of those agencies are what I thought they were or that everything’s worked out exactly as I’d hoped, but for the most part, it’s worked, or it’s working; we’ve done well.”
Looking ahead, Hanmer said he continues to scan the horizon in search of new acquisition opportunities, but he’s not expecting additional expansion in the near term.
“There’s been a couple that have come across my desk,” he said, “but things are still pretty uncertain out there right now, especially in health care. And in personal lines, well … it’s really hard to put your finger on what might happen there. It’s a very competitive marketplace.”
In the meantime, he says his day-to-day job description at the moment involves working more on the business than in it — something else most area executives are striving to do. “But that’s difficult when you’ve been working in the business as long as I have,” he said.
Equally hard is achieving that desired balance between work, life, and community involvement, but Hanmer seems to found something approaching the right formula.
In addition to his lengthy stint as chair of the Y board — prolonged because successors due to succeed him have been unable to do so — Hanmer has donated time and energy to other agencies and causes. These include Bay Path College and the Springfield Museums, both of which he serves as a trustee, and Mason-Wright Retirement Community, where he’s a corporator.
He’s also a long-time member of an organization known as YPO, the Young Presidents’ Organization, a global network of young chief executives that currently boasts about 17,000 members in more than 100 countries. The local group acts as a de-facto board of directors for smaller companies that don’t have one, he explained, adding that roundtable discussions among members have helped him grow as a business leader and tackle some of the hard decisions he’s had to make over the years.
Hanmer also saves plenty of time for his family, especially his three children — Jessica, 25; John, 24; and Margo, 21 — and his two bulldogs, Bentley and Nola.
As for sports, as he said, he’s still in the over-30 league, playing left wing primarily, “but I go wherever they need me.” He’s also an avid skier and snowboarder — he sold his place at Mount Sugarbush and now rotates between Stratton, Okemo, Mount Snow, and, occasionally, Killington — and a triathlon veteran looking to get better in the water.
“I always thought I was a pretty good swimmer until I did one of these things; I found out in a hurry I wasn’t as good as I thought as I was,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the quality and quantity of competition usually leaves him playing catch-up when he gets out of the water and onto the bike.
“The good news with the swimming,” he continued, “is that it’s so short that being behind the pack means only about 20 seconds or half-minute, which you can make up on the bike, which is my best strength.”
Time will tell if Hanmer graduates to an Olympic or half-marathon this year. He’s optimistic that will happen, but not exceedingly so.
He’s also not sure about the year ahead in insurance, where the economy continues to be a factor, and a green lizard and a woman named Flo are making things even more interesting in a business known for intense competition.
What is certain is that he will continue on in his understated way, giving credit to the team and essentially directing attention away from himself.
“That’s how I am — we just keep looking for ways to do things better and get ahead,” he said, sounding, again, like a certain hooded-sweatshirt-wearing football coach.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]