HOWLAND, Ohio – Observers of the insurance industry have predicted the demise of the independent agency, saying that as customers go online for service and they find alternate ways to do business, agencies would become irrelevant, Shelley Taylor says.
Taylor, president of Paige & Byrnes Insurance in Howland, isn’t convinced.
“What we continue to find is people still need someone to solve their problems, someone that will answer their phone call or their email and that you see [someone] in the grocery store that wants to help you,” she says. “And that’s what we do.”
That’s the work that Paige & Byrnes has been doing for a century. The company, which handles personal and commercial lines from 30 carriers, began with the firm David Paige founded in 1921. That business later merged with Jim Byrnes’ operation in 1937. Later additions to the business included Bob Van Fossan Sr. in 1946, Charles Crouse Jr. in 1960, and Bob Van Fossan Jr. in 1969.
Today the company – co-owned by Taylor, her father, John, and brother, David – has 19 employees. John Taylor, who served as president from the early 1980s until his daughter succeeded him about five years ago, worked in the insurance business in Alabama before joining Paige & Byrnes in 1977 to assist with its efforts to acquire other agencies, an aspect that has “been a good part of our growth over the years,” he says.
“When I started in Alabama, I was selling property, casualty and also life insurance, which was a natural for here as well,” he says. “You’ve got to like people. You’ve got to know how to work with people.”
His daughter, who joined Paige & Byrnes 24 years ago, took a less direct path to the industry and the family business. Interested in the outdoors, she studied forestry and earned a baccalaureate in resources management.
“I knew it was not going to be a good fit by the time I got towards the end,” Shelley Taylor says. Decisions in organizations were being made by people who had master’s degrees in business administration rather than forestry majors, so she knew she would have to work on “the next step” to advance.
She returned here after completing her undergraduate studies to decide whether she was going to go on to graduate school, when her father said he had the “perfect job” for her at the agency as she made up her mind.
Instead of going to grad school, she kept working in the agency, taking on additional duties as people moved on.
“It was sort of fun. We would problem solve,” she says. “I had the opportunity to do a lot of different things.” When she went to get her MBA, she found her work experience was greater than that of her peers because of the opportunities she had at the agency.
The firm operates primarily in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties but also has clients in the Cleveland and Akron areas and in western Pennsylvania, John Taylor says.
One of the most challenging times in its century-long history was the tornado of May 31, 1985, which devastated parts of Newton Falls and Niles. The carriers Paige & Byrnes represent brought in claims adjusters from across the country to process claims, he recalls. Some of the adjusters had their checkbooks with them as they rode down the streets.
“They identified the loss and they were writing checks right out of the car,” he says. “It was pretty quick because in those situations the companies know that they can’t fiddle around. They need to get the checks into the hands of the people quickly.”
One of the major changes in the business since John Taylor entered the insurance field is the means of communication, with the advent of faxes, emails and the internet, he says.
“We’ve had to learn to be more responsive to what our customers want. There’s a whole spectrum of ways to communicate with customers and there’s no one right way,” Shelley Taylor says. In many cases, they’ve already talked to someone at another agency.
“It’s unbelievable what’s covered today and what was covered when I started in this business,” John Taylor says. In particular, he points to the shift in the 1980s to covering the replacement cost of contexts rather than on a cash value basis, “which meant there was depreciation,” and backup or sewer coverage. “It’s a necessary coverage to have because we have a lot of basements that get flooded and it’s a real help for a lot of people,” he says.
Growth in recent years has ranged around 4% to 8%, Shelly Taylor says. The balance between commercial and personal lines has shifted, with each representing about half of Paige & Byrnes’ business. That compares to personal lines representing about 60% of business a decade ago.
A lot of the development of new products in the business side surrounds cyber coverage.
“Money is disappearing while people are sleeping,” she says. “We have a lot of conversations around how you’re not going to have a fire necessarily but you’re going to have someone taking your money and you have to protect that, too.” Cyberattacks also affect personal lines, as identity theft becomes a greater concern, she says.
Both Taylors emphasized the importance of community involvement for the agency and its employees. That includes participating in Mobile Meals and service clubs such as Rotary and other organizations. There is hardly a nonprofit agency in the Mahoning Valley that Paige & Byrnes hasn’t been involved with, according to John Taylor.
Shelley Taylor has served on boards for the Northeastern Ohio Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Howland and Mercy Health. “We’re helping our friends and our neighbors,” she says.
“It’s essential for our business to be involved. You have to know people. You need to know how to help people,” her father says. “One of the advantages of being an independent insurance agency is we control our own time. So we have the ability to be part of any organizations that do service projects.”
As it positions itself for the future, Paige & Byrnes is celebrating its past on Saturday night with “A Hollywood Salute,” a concert by the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra that was originally scheduled for May 2020 to kick off the centennial celebration but was postponed because of the pandemic.
“Dad worked really hard on finding movie songs that are going to be familiar to most people that are hearing them,” Shelley Taylor says. “It will be kid friendly. I think everyone will enjoy it.”
As for challenges facing Paige & Byrnes, John Taylor points out that many independent insurance agencies are being bought out by venture capital groups, something his firm has resisted.
“That’s good for them and I’m sure that works out fine. They do well financially but we chose to continue like we’re doing,” he says. He likes to say the agency’s “next owner is 10 years old” – one of his grandchildren – and will keep it going several more years.
“The most important thing is we made a conscious decision we’re going to continue the next 100 years,” he says. “That’s a little bit different than everybody else but it’s because we have young people that are willing to go into the business and work hard and buy into the culture. We’re very fortunate.”
Pictured: Paige & Byrnes Insurance owners John Taylor, David Taylor and Shelley Taylor.