DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes beats industry trend to make golden anniversary

mjohnson@bradenton.comDecember 24, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Stuart Gregory really likes what he does for a living.

Fifty years after co-founding one of Bradenton's oldest independent insurance agencies -- DesChamps, Gregory, & Hayes -- the 79-year-old is still at his desk every day.

He could have quit or sold out to a regional or national company long ago. Still could. But that would mean putting roughly 15,000 clients into the hands of people who likely know nothing about Bradenton.

He just won't do that. Not in the town he has called home for half a century.

"We want to be known as a concerned, community-minded agency," Gregory said.

Selling insurance in Florida isn't easy. The state has the most expensive homeowners insurance rates in the nation, averaging $1,993 annually according to a recent report from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Many homeowners insurance carriers pulled out of the state in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, leaving independent agents with little to sell. Independent agents had to search far and wide for carriers that would write policies on Florida property.

DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes saw its access to carriers drop by two-thirds in Andrew's wake, but was still able to write polices with about 10.

For a company to reach 50 years under the same ownership through these conditions is "absolutely a milestone," said Fred Phelps, director of business development for the Tallahassee-based Florida Association of Insurance Agents.

"They're one of the best," he said of DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes.

DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes traces its roots to the Strong Agency, a Bradenton insurer that started in 1908. Gregory and his business partner, English DesChamps, purchased it in 1964, when it was known as the Fant Agency.

Over the years, the agency bought three other local insurers to grow its client base. English DesChamps sold his ownership interest back to the agency in 2008.

A native of Jacksonville and a Florida State University graduate, Gregory came to Bradenton after working for another agency in his hometown for five years. He wanted to make a better living and saw moving to a smaller town to be a "bigger fish" as the way to do that.

Now employing 27 people, DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes is on its second generation of owners. Gregory's son, Andy, joined the agency in 1992 as the company president. Tom Hayes, the agency's CEO, became an owner in 1983, though he only added his name to the company shingle this year.

Stuart Gregory remains

majority owner.

The offices have been housed in an 11,500-square-foot building on $1.37 million worth of property on the shores of Wares Creek since 1994, the agency has drawn attention from larger companies looking to purchase its book of business. Offers come about once a month.

Making it 50 years without agreeing to a big payday is something few agencies do.

"Most agencies would have been bought and sold several times over," Hayes said.

The three owners agree that the key to doing good business in Bradenton is giving face-to-face service to clients, and marketing diverse products. While nationwide direct insurance writers such as Geico sell and service their products online or over the phone through customer service agents, DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes still visit with clients in and out of the office.

Clients can choose from dozens of carriers the agency represents to get products that meet their needs.

The agency's current business profile has about one-third of its business coming each from commercial insurance policies, personal policies, and financial services and securities. The agency's annual growth is about 10 percent.

Hiring has not kept the same pace, since computers allow every employee to handle a larger amount of business every year. However, Gregory believes the agency will be hiring additional employees in the coming years.

DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes has largely avoided the temptation to expand its geographical reach. The agency had a branch office in Lakewood Ranch, but closed it in 2008. About a decade ago, it purchased a Venice agency, but sold it shortly thereafter when Gregory found he "couldn't do right" by Venice clients without having an owner on premises.

The agency stays in the public eye by being part of local causes. Stuart Gregory is just finishing his term as chairman of the Manatee Community Fund. Hayes is the treasurer of the Florida Studio Theater, while Andy Gregory is a director with behavioral health care nonprofit Manatee Glens.

DesChamps, Gregory & Hayes isn't the only long-lived legacy independent insurer in the area. Bradenton Insurance has been under the same ownership since 1954, while the Ludwig Walpole Agency in Sarasota has been family owned since 1933.

No younger members of the Gregory or Hayes family are expected to step into the agency, Hayes said. Future ownership of the agency will likely go to agents and employees.

The agency owners have yet to decide how to mark the 50-year anniversary, but will do something in 2014.

Matt M. Johnson, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027.

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