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Chase, Clarke, Stewart & Fontana celebrate 185 years in business

Date: 11/7/2011

Nov. 7, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Around the conference room of Chase, Clarke, Stewart & Fontana are artifacts displayed that speak to the long history of one of the oldest existing businesses in Springfield. There are fire helmets from a century ago and glass grenades filled with what is thought to be water that were flung into fires.

There is also a framed piece of paper that speaks to the very purpose of the insurance agency: the very first policy underwritten by the Mutual Fire Assurance Insurance Company in 1827 — the company that started the present business.

Chase, Clarke, Stewart & Fontana is about to begin its 185th year in business and Robert Stewart, president of the company, James Stewart, vice president, retired president Robert Clarke and Brewster Sturtevant, the retired president of the Mutual Insurance Company of Springfield — another company that figured prominently in the history of the company — recently discussed the changes seen in the insurance field over the company’s long life.

That first policy was for the home of Joseph Carew whose home was located at what is now the corner of Main and Carew streets. The policy was for just fire protection and was worth $2,600 with an annual premium of $62.40.

Carew was president of Mutual Fire Assurance Insurance Company.

Sturtevant said that in 1827 insurance for one’s home was still a relatively new conception. The policy was just for fire protection.

Robert Stewart noted that policies were simpler and “nobody sued.”

Clarke noted one of the major changes in the insurance field was that before 1960s, agents were basically salesmen “who didn’t know the fine print.” From 1960 through 1980, he explained that agents had to understand the details of the policies and coverage.

“Customers became more sophisticated,” Clarke said. “Coverage became more sophisticated.”

Agents went through training to become accredited “to warrant the trust of the customer,” Clarke added.

The major difference from 1980 through today is that customers are concerned about the “bottom line.”

Robert Stewart said the insurance business is “very much relationship and knowledge driven.”

“We hopefully get the best policy for our customers, but at the best price. We want clients for the long term,” he added.

James Stewart added that insurance companies that rely on the Internet sales — such as Geico and Progressive — “take very little of our business.”

The partial deregulation of car insurance in Massachusetts was also a major event in the state’s insurance history.

“Rates went down and there was more research done for customers,” Robert Stewart said.

“Customers are a lot smarter than they used to be,” James Stewart added.

Chase, Clarke, Stewart & Fontana has 23 employees and does business in the entire northeast, the men said. James Stewart noted a specialty the firm has developed is serving the insurance needs of churches and currently have 280 in its program.

Robert Stewart noted the company also does much work with nonprofit organizations.

Since the 1940s, the company has been in the building at 101 State St. It’s a very appropriate address as it is the former home of Mass Mutual, before that company built its headquarters further east on State Street.

The company is committed to being in downtown Springfield, Robert Stewart said.

“As difficult as it can be in the last 30 years, we still want to be here,” he explained and added downtown used the be “a center of the insurance business.”

City Councilor Timothy Rooke is also a vice president at the company and said, “Over the last 184 years our agency has survived recessions, depressions, natural disasters, civil unrest and parents adding their children onto their automobile policies. Our benchmark of success has and continues to be to properly insure and protect our clients and make them whole after any loss.”

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