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Insurance firm still a family matter

July 08, 2007|By JULIA COPLEY

When Leonard Summers was hired part time by the Erie Insurance Group in 1957, co-founder H.O. Hirt had already created the ideal that he hoped would set his small insurance business apart from the competition.

Sit down and talk with the young man who wants a policy. Go with your instinct. If you wouldn't let your daughter go out with him, Hirt said, don't sign him.

In addition to selectivity, Erie Insurance, based in Erie, Pa., prided itself on its personal attention to clients, according to the company's Web site at www.erieinsurance.com.

The company instilled its values in Leonard Summers, its new part-time Boonsboro man, who sold policies door-to-door in the muggy July weather.

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Family tradition

That was 50 summers ago, and Summers said he has seen his business flourish. Hired by Erie as a part-time salesman, he received a portion of the amount that clients paid for their policies. By 1977, he had enough clients to quit his job as an airplane mechanic and become a full-time insurance agent.

He sold the business, then called Leonard E. Summers Insurance, to his son-in-law Maurice "Mo" Hanes in 1985, and the name was changed to Summers and Hanes. The two worked together for about a year, and then Summers retired.

In 2001 the name was changed again, to Antietam Insurance Associates Inc.

The business welcomed a third generation in 2003, when Summers' grandson, Bryan Hanes, joined the business. Bryan turned down a career in the legal profession - he has a law degree from Roger Williams Law School in Rhode Island, and is licensed to practice in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Florida - to work with his dad.

Was it worth it?

"It was the best decision I ever made," he said.

Bryan Hanes said he regards his father as a mentor and friend, as well as a boss. Their combined areas of expertise - Bryan's legal knowledge, Maurice's commercial and business perspective - create a broad and expansive resource for their clients, they said.

They're not above a little interoffice repartee, though. Maurice teased about working with his son: "It's tough. Gotta keep an eye on 'im all the time."

Summers initially eschewed advertising, preferring word-of-mouth based on the quality of the service.

"If we offer good service and products, we thrive," Summers said.

Building a reputation for quality in a small, close community like Boonsboro, Summers said he often found that one satisfied client would recommend him to family and friends, so he would end up servicing an entire interconnected network.

Paying close personal attention to clients isn't merely a courtesy, it's also good business sense, Maurice Hanes said.

The nature of the insurance business makes it necessary for them to be selective with the coverage they provide. To generate a profit, they must be careful about how much of a gamble they take on a policyholder, he said.

Maurice Hanes recalled that when he took over the business in 1985, one piece of paper was all it took to have a policyholder signed up for whatever insurance was needed. Nowadays, he said, it's a lot more complex.

There was a time when his office could rate most things in five minutes, using books they had in the office. Today, they have to send the information to their home office and wait for personnel there to rate the client.

They've also expanded in the options they offer. Begun as a solely Erie insurance carrier, the firm now is independent, and can help clients to shop around with providers such as Zurich, Progressive, Safeco and others, as well as Erie.

More than a paycheck

Working in the insurance business isn't just for a paycheck, the three men emphasized. It's a way to interact with people, and help them out when they have a problem.

Maurice said, "It's a rewarding industry. You feel like you've touched a life."

Being familiar with the myriad insurance claims has made them a little more cautious than the average person, however.

Bryan said, "My wife gets on me about how defensive a driver I am, because I read all those claims and know all those things that can happen."

Will the business continue to be a family tradition? Bryan Hanes pointed proudly to a picture of a little girl in a green and pink dress, placed prominently in his office. "The fourth generation."

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