Sections Supplements

Taking Lessons from History

Dowd Agency Builds on a 110-year Legacy of Relationship Building
The principals at the Dowd Group, from left, Bob Gilbert, John Dowd, and David Griffin.

The principals at the Dowd Group, from left, Bob Gilbert, John Dowd, and David Griffin.

In the front lobby of the offices of the Dowd Group in Holyoke hangs a framed copy of the citizenship papers of the company’s founder, James J. Dowd, circa 1871.

There’s a portrait of Dowd on another wall, as well as some pictures of his descendents, subsequent presidents of the firm he started in 1898. In the conference room, there’s another portrait of Dowd, a few pictures depicting early 20th-century Holyoke (this company’s only corporate home), and a painting depicting the coastline of Ireland, from which the patriarch emigrated with the rest of his family in 1865.

The walls are so decorated to convey history and continuity, two things those with the Dowd Group are quite proud of, said John E. Dowd, fourth-generation principal, specifically executive vice president, of the James J. Dowd & Sons Insurance Agency. But while the company likes to talk about its past, it’s certainly not living in it, he told BusinessWest.

Indeed, the landscape in insurance has changed almost as dramatically as the scene in downtown Holyoke over the past century and a half, he explained, and the company has responded accordingly. It has expanded well beyond its Holyoke roots, with offices in Southampton and Amherst and clients across the Northeast and beyond, and it has diversified, with products now ranging from insurance to financial service to employee benefits. And it continues to be both innovative and entrepreneurial.

The latest example is a venture called WestMass Professional Insurance LLC, a recently created company led internally by Dowd principal David Griffin that is, in effect, an insurance wholesaler specializing in helping smaller agencies bring more options to customers and thus remain viable in a highly competitive market.

“We see this as a great opportunity for us to generate new business,” said Griffin, noting that WestMass was born as a way to co-broker the products sold by provider Promutual. But there are myriad opportunities for an agency like Dowd to serve smaller players in the market — with everything from insurance and financial services products to IT support — and the firm intends to take full advantage of them.

Innovation coupled with strong customer service and solid relationship-building efforts have been the keys to Dowd’s growth over the years, said Bob Gilbert, president and treasurer, who came to the company in 1975 and has seen it grow from just over $1 million in sales then to more than $40 million now.

“When asked how the company has achieved such growth, Gilbert, who joined it as a principal in 1975, said the formula is fairly straightforward, and the key is execution.

“You hire good people, you train them well, and you know your product better than the competition,” he explained. “It’s comes down to knowing your business, paying attention to customers’ needs, and learning how to listen.”

With his background in commercial sales, Gilbert has guided the company to what he called a 180-degree transformation, from an agency specializing in personal-lines products a quarter-century ago to one that now has 85% of its portfolio in the broad category of commercial work.

Moving forward, he wants to build on the company’s legacy of relationship-building, and take that ability in new directions, thus spawning new and different opportunities.

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at a company that is rich in history, and eager to write some new chapters to the story.

Irish Eyes

John Dowd says he enjoys talking about the company’s history, which is good, because there’s plenty of it, passed down by subsequent generations of the family. There are many singular events and circumstances, he told BusinessWest, which combined to give this agency its start — and to remain in business for more than a century.

It all starts with Dowd’s great-great-grandfather, also named James Dowd, who, when hard times hit County Kerry Ireland in 1865, came to America with his wife and 14 children. It was one of those children, James, who would eventually create the firm, although insurance wasn’t his original career pursuit or passion.

Instead, he started in retail (he bought the small grocery store he worked at) before becoming an assessor in Holyoke — the start of work in public service that included several terms in the state Legislature — and eventually board chairman. That was a post he lost when he and a colleague and eventual business partner, Jeremiah Keane, refused to bow to pressure from the mayor of the city and assign a modest assessment to the property of one of the mayor’s friends. In September 1898, they started Keane and Dowd, an insurance and real estate business, in Room 32 of the Ball Building, later known as the Holyoke National Bank Building.

James Dowd’s son, James J. Dowd II, attended Holy Cross College, as many members of this family have over the past century or so, and played baseball there. A pitcher, he was good enough to earn a contract from the Cincinnati Reds for the then-lucrative amount of $2,200 a year.

But a year later, in 1916, he gave up a promising career in baseball to take over the family business, then named James J. Dowd & Son after Keane left the firm to return to the assessor’s office following his father’s unexpected death.

“My great-grandmother called him and told him he had a choice to make,” Dowd told BusinessWest. “She said, ‘you’ve got the agency your father started and worked hard to build or your professional career — what’s it going to be?’ Obviously, he chose to quit baseball.”

Fast-forwarding through the company’s history somewhat, John Dowd said the company grew and prospered through the 20th century, moving several times (always staying in downtown Holyoke, though) to accommodate this growth, while successive generations of the family, as well as industry veterans such as Gilbert (in 1975) and Griffin (1998), have assumed leadership roles.

In 1947, the third generation of the Dowd family, James Jr. (John’s uncle), joined the agency, followed by his brother, John (John’s father), a few years later. They took the helm in 1960 when James J. Dowd II passed away. In 1974, John’s father passed away unexpectedly, leaving the company in the hands of his uncle; his cousin, James Dowd III, who joined the agency that year; and, a few months later, Gilbert.

By All Accounts

He had been working for Aetna, essentially teaching independent agents (including those at Dowd) how to sell commercial products — workers comp, liability, property insurance, bonds, and more — when he was approached by James Dowd Jr. about joining the agency in a leadership role.

“He offered me an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up,” he said, adding that, with his background in commercial products, the firm soon started gravitating in that direction.

It has been an effective growth formula. “The opportunities to grow a business are there in commercial, because you can write a couple of commercial accounts, while it may take you 40 personal-lines accounts to reach the same number. And it takes a lot of time to gain 40 new accounts.”

In the ’80s, the Dowd agency expanded geographically, first into Southampton with a venture now called the Dumont-Dowd Insurance Agency, and then into Amherst with the Cray-Down Insurance Agency. These ventures, along with the original Dowd agency and Dowd Financial Services, comprise the Dowd Group.

Through its existence, the company has always thrived through its success in relationship-building, said Gilbert, noting that early relationships were mostly with families and businesses in Holyoke, and that, in latter years, they were defined by a much-wider geographic area and a much-broader range of businesses.

It was relationships — those John Dowd forged when he was in college (St. Michael’s in Vermont, not Holy Cross) and later in Boston that helped the Dowd agency earn the business of Suffolk Downs in the ’80s and ’90s. Dowd remembers going to the track on many occasions. “I’d bring friends, we’d sit in the owner’s box and act like big wigs, while placing our $2 bets.”

And it was similar relationships, as well as some effective bidding, that helped the agency gain a lucrative contract with the University of Mass-achusetts, one it kept for 15 years, to insure buildings at its then-three campuses.

“We eventually lost that contract to politics,” said Gilbert, adding quickly that the company’s portfolio remains large and diverse, with clients ranging from the Eastern States Exposition to Sullivan Trucking to dozens of general contractors.

The challenge at hand is to continually expand that portfolio.

And as he talked about how to go about doing that, Gilbert returned to the matter of relationships, noting that the ability to maintain them and forge new ones is critical to continued growth in a region typically defined as a low-growth area, meaning one with little if any residential and commercial growth.

Gaining larger market share in the insurance realm, as in banking, to a large degree, comes through customer service, finding ways to distinguish oneself, even when many of the products and services being offered are similar in nature, and finding new avenues for growth and revenue, he continued.

Agents of Change

One such avenue is WestMass Professional, a venture that grew out of the necessity for Promutual, a writer of medical and professional liability coverage, to secure what’s known as a co-broker to work with smaller agencies to renew existing policies and write new ones.

That co-broker became WestMass Professional after roughly a year’s talks, said Griffin, adding that the new venture could lead to new and similar opportunities for co-brokering products, especially with changes in the automotive market from managed competition to open competition, in which consumers can effectively shop for lower rates.

“In Massachusetts, 85% of the personal-lines business was being written by independent agents, but because we were in a non-competitive state, there wasn’t a lot of product you could sell, per se; all you were really selling was your services,” he explained. “We recognized very early on that there would be a lot of smaller agents that would be limited in their competitive ability because they represented only one or a few carriers, and there might be an opportunity to wholesale to some smaller agencies so they could expand the portfolio of carriers they could represent.

“We broached this idea with our carriers first, to get their blessing,” he continued, adding that most of them gave it. And from there, the discussion of wholesaling certain products was expanded from personal lines to commercial products as well.

Eventually, three ‘portals of opportunity,’ as Griffin called them, emerged from this wholesaling concept: medical and professional, personal lines, and commercial.

Soon, other potential portals came into focus as those at Dowd anticipated other needs among smaller agencies. One such need is the ability to sell financial-services products — Dowd has a separate division that could make such products available — while another is for assistance with what Griffin called agency-management services, meaning everything from accounting to IT support — and Dowd has its own IT-support department.

And there are more opportunities on the horizon, he continued, listing everything from help with succession planning, or selling or agency, to help understanding and then coping with new privacy-of-information laws that were originally slated to take effect May 1, have been pushed back, but will soon become reality.

“These will impact an insurance operation in many ways,” said Griffin. “Our IT person is fully conversant on the law and how to come into compliance, and he’s knowledgeable on all aspects of the measure.”

The sum of these portals is a large opportunity to create a large and reliable stream of new revenue, said Gilbert, adding that the business plan for these ventures is still in progress. Several agencies have been approached concerning these services, and at least five have signed on, with the potential for many more over the coming months. There is already limited competition in the wholesaling realm, and the possibility of much more, but those at Dowd believe they have an attractive model, one that leaves participating agencies with desired levels of flexibility and control.

“With some models, you’re selling yourself to the devil, lock, stock, and barrel,” he explained. “Our approach is a little more hands-off, where you can use us in any of those disciplines that you want, but it isn’t a requirement that you use us for all of them.”

Dowd agreed. “The agencies get to maintain their identity, or their sovereignty, if you will,” he said, adding that the arrangement entered is a true partnership, or relationship — there’s that word again — that benefits both parties.

Overall, Gilbert said Dowd will continue to be imaginative and entrepreneurial in their approach to finding new business opportunities, personality traits that will be needed in a new era for the insurance industry, one defined by opportunities, but also heightened competition.

Traditions — at a Premium

When the Dowd agency turned 100 in 1998, the company marked the occasion in a number of ways. It printed a commemorative booklet telling the history, for example, and several members of the Dowd family paid homage to the founder at the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade that year.

“Several of us dressed up as Irish immigrants,” John Dowd recalled, adding that the plan was to get a horse and Irish trotting buggy and ride it down the parade route.

But things didn’t go according to plan.

It snowed heavily the night before the parade, and the owner of the horse to be rented for the day decided it was too dangerous to send the animal out on the slippery streets. So members of the Dowd family walked.

“My three-year-old daughter cried for most of the three miles,” said Dowd, adding quickly that the march has become a small part of family lore.

There is a great deal of history at Dowd — on the walls, in the family scrapbooks, and in decades worth of Holy Cross yearbooks. But while there is immense interest and pride in the past, this is an organization firmly focused on the present and the future.

And on making some more history.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

Related Posts