After the national tragedy in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation’s oldest mission lost its insurance coverage because of its high-risk location. If it couldn’t secure new coverage, hundreds of needy New Yorkers would be deprived of basic needs. Merriam Insurance filled that void and provided the shelter with comprehensive coverage thanks to its expertise in writing policies for churches, missions and shelters.
But the agency wasn’t established on securing coverage for social services. Charles E. Merriam founded the agency in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1895 after starting his insurance career selling life insurance policies for New York Life. He was a natural, selling 1,158 paid policies for a total value of $1,932,847, an accomplishment considering typical policies during the Great Depression averaged $25 to $50 a year. He secured policies every month of his career except for July 1896.
Charles W. Merriam joined his father in the early 1900s and added property-casualty insurance and surety bonds to the family business. His son Charles entered the agency business in 1948 and succeeded his father as owner in 1961. And his son, Brian Merriam, joined the agency in 1983 as a producer and succeeded his father as owner and president in 1989. All told, the agency has been under family ownership for four generations and nearly 120 years.
Although Merriam Insurance originally provided standard services such as health, auto, home and life insurance, it has broadened over time to include specialties such as veterinarian insurance, bed and breakfasts, homeless shelters and rescue missions (including the YWCA’s Northeast regional council), title industry and attorney’s E&O, title industry bonds and cross-country skiing. Besides its insurance services, Merriam has offered fee-based professional liability consulting for the past 20 years.
A Century of Stories
The story of Merriam Insurance is a combination of American and insurance business history. “Our agency has persisted through two world wars, two great depressions and 20 presidents,” Brian Merriam said. Founder Charles E. Merriam once met President Lincoln on his honeymoon. The President must have been nervous; he introduced his new wife by her maiden name. Many of the agency’s stories illustrate three Merriam Insurance traditions: commitment to honest service, the value employees brought to the business and the seemingly genetic drive to work hard.
Opening a business in Schenectady afforded Charles E. Merriam an opportunity to sell policies to employees of General Electric, which set up its headquarters there in 1892. The agency is the oldest family business in the city. Charles E. did much of his business at night, realizing that “at home, after a good meal, with slippers on and possibly smoking an after dinner cigar or pipe,” his prospects were ready to talk.
Along with a good sales record, Merriam Insurance was known as an honest agency that employed honest people. One of Charles E.’s employees, Mr. Haskins, served as a broker in Rotterdam, N.Y. After collecting a premium and returning home, he realized an error had caused him to overcharge the client by 5 cents. Haskins walked all the way back to the other side of town to return the 5 cents.
As for its niche markets, Merriam Insurance is “very focused on providing insurance to groups that others may not even think about or know how to service well,” Merriam said. These groups fall into two main categories: missions, churches and shelters and recreational/vacation-based facilities such as campgrounds, bed and breakfasts and cross-country ski resorts.
The company insured its first homeless shelter, the Schenectady City Mission, in 1905 and has since developed relationships with other missions locally and nationwide. “After 9/11 there was a problem getting insurance in downtown Manhattan, and the oldest mission in the U.S. is in downtown Manhattan,” Merriam said. After the attack, the mission lost its insurance like many others in high-risk areas of New York City. Merriam leveraged its relationship with an insurer of other New York missions and the clout of the mission community to secure coverage. Merriam Insurance soon became known for its ability to work as an advocate for struggling missions facing coverage cancellations or major losses.
Merriam recognized the power a collective group of missions could have when approaching a single insurer. Brian Merriam recruited a group of missions, including the Assn. of Gospel Rescue Missions, to write policies offering insurance benefits at a reduced cost. Even missions outside of the New York region have found long-term value in Merriam Insurance’s group effort and expertise.
Merriam employees are well-versed in the concerns a mission or YWCA director might have. “Homeless shelters have nuances that make them difficult to underwrite,” Merriam said. Many missions and shelters rely on volunteers instead of contracted employees. Homeless guests or residents often are encouraged to work to gain experience and skills, and therefore pose certain workers’ comp risks. One mission insured through Merriam operates a lumber mill—something no insurer would be thrilled about, especially considering the uncertain backgrounds of mission guests. All of these unique problems are solved with Merriam’s custom group accident/health insurance program.
As for vacation destinations, Merriam provides coverage for buildings, business personal property, equipment, guest property, loss of income, employee dishonesty, computers, automobiles, and protection from lawsuits arising out of lodging, skiing and other activities so that “owners can sleep as soundly as guests.”
The agency offers more than coverage. “We believe in loss prevention and education, not just insurance services,” Merriam said. The agency takes several paths to educate clients. It sends out newsletters and e-blasts to clients and prospects, copies of which can be found on its website (merriaminsurance.com). It also keeps clients informed through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Merriam Insurance owes its growth to positive leadership, expert employees and acquisitions. “About every 2 years we either add a new producer or buy out a competitor. We constantly reinvest in our future growth opportunities,” Merriam said. In the last 7 years, Merriam has acquired the Riley Agency and the Clickman Agency. The goal of these acquisitions was to provide continuity to the protection and service of existing clients and increase value by offering better products.
Merriam’s employees enjoy a robust work environment. “We pay for many educational programs and increase staff salaries as they pass the various courses. One staff member had more letters after her name than she had in her name,” Merriam said. He said that education helps Merriam Insurance stay ahead in such an information- intensive industry.
Future plans for the agency involve maintaining a high standard of client service, looking for new markets that could benefit from its expertise and possibly creating captives to promote that expertise in its niche markets. Brian Merriam said the agency is capable of a bright future—with or without family leadership—based on the professionalism and experience of the other managerial staff.
This same expertise has earned Merriam multiple honors and awards during its 117-year-long tenure, such as recognition from the Chamber of Commerce, professional trade associations and political entities plus Best Practices awards and client appreciation plaques.
Brian Merriam’s advice for agencies looking for success is steeped in family history: “If you put service above self, people will gravitate to you and put their trust in you,” Merriam said. Service has been Merriam Insurance’s specialty for more than 100 years.