NATCHEZ — If you think today is a hard time for someone to launch a new business, consider the Byrne Insurance Agency Inc., which started in business in 1928 — just before the Great Depression.
Despite the challenges of keeping a business afloat during the Depression, the Byrne Insurance Agency has thrived through the 75 years that have seen many changes in the industry and in the Natchez-Adams County area.
“Probably the biggest change since I got into the business is the number of agencies out there,” said Johnny Byrne, the third generation of the Byrne family to be involved in the business. “There are a lot fewer agencies in the business than when I started in 1979, and when my father and grandfather started in the business. I think that is a sign of the times. You have a tendency for businesses to become larger and end up merging with others, or selling out.”
The Byrne Insurance Agency was originally known as the Evans-Byrne Insurance Agency, owned by William J. Byrne and William L. Evans. Several years later Byrne bought out Evans. The agency acquired the Lucius Butts Insurance Agency in 1988, and Butts continues to remain active with the agency. Then in 1998 Byrne Insurance merged with Burns-Hicks Insurance.
Another change over the years has been the status of independent agencies. Byrne said when he first got involved with the business, there was concern about the viability of independent insurance agencies. Independent agencies can provide customers with coverage from a number of different insurance companies, as opposed to an agency that provides coverage with only one company.
Byrne said the advantage of representing a number of companies is that if one company pulls out of the marketplace, he can offer clients other options.
“If a company decides it doesn’t want to write any homeowner’s coverage in certain areas of state, that directly affects the guy who writes for only that company,” Byrne said. “When we have one that stops writing coverage, we have other companies we can offer to customers. We have fewer insurance companies in Mississippi than we used to have, but we have been fortunate to always have some good companies. I believe independent insurance agencies are one of the best delivery systems of insurance there is out there. It has been good to me and my family.”
Byrne Insurance is now one of only two independent agencies in Natchez. The company employs 18 people.
A family business, earlier uncles and cousins were involved, as well as the current owner’s father and grandfather. Now that the uncles have passed away, and cousins have opted to go into other businesses, Byrne is the last family member at the agency.
Byrne credits the success of the business to providing only the best in coverage combined with personal service. And although the company has a comprehensive Web site that provides answers to most common questions about insurance, Byrne believes most customers prefer getting the information they need directly from their insurance agent rather than in the Internet.
“I think insurance is still a people business,” Byrne said. “People who buy insurance for the most part want to sit down at the desk across from someone, and talk to them. At least in my town, that has been my experience. The computer is great for exchange of information. But when I sell insurance, I still sit down across the desk from customers and talk to them face-to-face.”
Currently the availability of insurance in Mississippi is a concern. Some companies have pulled out of the state citing large losses, and others have applied for large premium increases.
“Of all the companies doing business in our state, their overall experience has not been that good,” Byrne said. “As a result the companies have asked for substantial increases in premium or they will withdraw from doing business in Mississippi. People will see increases in their home, car and commercial insurance. But we still have some good companies working really well with us. The important thing is to keep these companies doing business in our state. The fewer companies you have, the less competition, and the higher the premiums are going to be. That is a concern of our industry right now.”
Another concern is tort reform. High jury awards have been in part blamed for skyrocketing claim costs for insurance companies. Byrne said he believes that Mississippi has moved in the right direction with the Legislature’s recent adoption of tort reform measures.
“Hopefully, the Legislature will continue to work with businesses to come up with some additional tort reform,” Byrne said.
Another difficulty is the current state of the economy in Adams County. Recently it was announced that International Paper is closing down, costing the area one of its largest employers and 640 jobs.
“We have seen downturns in the local economy,” Byrne said. “Business like ours are only successful if our customers are successful. You certainly want your customers to be successful.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org</a.