Hiding in plain sight on Greenwich Avenue is one of the longest running business in Town: The Elkanah Mead Agency, which does business as Greenwich Independent Insurance.
Run today by Ric Wellington, who took over from his father Richard, the agency has its roots in Greenwich’s agricultural past, when for example a policy in 1900 was issued to Andrew and Annie Bridge for their house, carriage house, barn, horses, cows and hay on “Dublin Road” for a premium of $9.95.
Elkanah Mead founded the business in 1891, and for decades its office was across from Greenwich Library in the small brown shingled house that remains today.
Ric said his father and partner declined the opportunity to purchase that property for $5,000 some time in the late 1950s, citing its exorbitant price.
Ric and longtime employee Lisa Bologna, also a Greenwich native, have seen businesses come and go on Greenwich Avenue while the insurance agency remains anchored on the second floor of 87 Greenwich Ave.
They recall not only the days that Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors filled cones with scoops of ice cream downstairs, but have a memory of previous tenants of the building that houses the US Post Office at 44 Amogerone Crossway, which they can see from the office’s rear window. That building was previously home to a pet shop and before that was the hospital thrift shop.
The agency’s namesake, Elkanah Mead, was a leader in the Presbyterian church, distinguished by his thick red beard reaching down to his chest. He began selling insurance policies in 1891.
Calling his business the Elkanah Mead Agency Inc, Mead was the sole proprietor, doing business alone until 1908 when his son-in-law Carlton Bradley, the town’s probate judge, joined the business and eventually took it over. Mr. Bradley ran the business until about 1954 or 1955.
Eventually Bradley sold the business to Howard Reynolds, who had worked for National Fire Insurance selling property, casualty and life insurance through different companies.
“Howard was selling for National Fire Insurance and was calling on agencies in Greenwich – in those days there were a few – and offered to sell it to him,” Ric said, adding that Mr. Reynolds took on his father Richard as his partner.
“My father had just moved here and married a local girl,” Ric said, referring to his mother Catherine who grew up on Steamboat Road. Many in town remember her as their beloved Julian Curtiss School teacher.
Richard Wellington, Ric’s father, had been selling life insurance for Prudential Insurance, going door-to-door after World War II.
“My dad had been an Air Force pilot flying cargo planes, delivering troops between India and China,” Ric explained.
After Mr. Reynolds invited Ric’s father to join the independent agency in the mid 1950’s, they started bringing in insurance companies – some for casualty, some for property, some for home owners.
After they declined to purchase the property across from the library, instead selecting space in a new building at 87 Greenwich Ave, built by Greenwich developer and realtor Henry Imbres, they became one of its first tenants.
“Originally we rented just one room,” Ric recalled.
Lisa Bologna worked one summer between her junior and senior year of college in 1986.
“I had retail experience and wanted to have office experience,” she recalled.
“She started in 1992,” Ric said of his longtime employee. “It was like we never lost her.”
Mr. Reynolds died in around 1976 or 1977, and Richard Wellington became the owner.
“The day of my Greenwich High School graduation was the day my dad completed the purchase of the company form the Reynolds estate,” Ric recalled.
After college, Ric worked for a time at State National Bank and moved to Hartford, which was known as the “insurance capital of the world,” where he worked for a number of insurance companies until 1981, when he joined his father’s agency on Greenwich Avenue.
“All seven of us were in one room and all of us smoked,” Ric recalled. “There was no air conditioning or ventilation, but everyone had a desk with a typewriter and rotary phone.”
All the quotes were typed up on a typewriter after being looked up in a manual and calculated with assistance of an adding machine.
Ric recalled how in 1985, he talked his father into two technological advances, which were met with reluctance: a stand alone computer and a fax machine.
“A year later he apologized,” Ric said with a smile.
“With the computer, which did not connect to anything, we were able to get software from an insurance company,” he recalled. “They’d hand us a floppy disk to load and we’d run quotes that way.”
With the addition of the fax machine, the agency could get information for customers on the spot rather than waiting for messengers or regular mail.
“Back then it was a big deal to carry a beeper,” Ric joked.
Ric’s father Richard died in February 1995, having worked until his last day.
“One of the last things he said, when someone in the office asked how he was feeling, was, ‘Better than if I was at Knapps,'” a reference to the funeral home a few blocks down Greenwich Avenue, which coincidentally is the longest running funeral home in Greenwich, operating since 1846.
“We’ve always tried to make ourselves a company that meets the local community’s needs, Ric said, adding that in Greenwich that has meant a focus on retail, financial and investment companies, as well as personal family insurance.
“We’re an independent agency, so we are not tied to any insurance company, nor do we push business to any particular insurance company. We try to find a good match.”
Ric noted how the face of retail in Greenwich has completely changed.
“There was a time walking up and down the Avenue when you’d know every single merchant,” he said. “Now the merchants are franchises.”
Greenwich Independent Insurance also works frequently with local non profits, charities, PTAs and neighborhood associations.
“Professional liability has become a highly requested and desired insurance product, especially for the non profits,” Ric said. “If you have a volunteer group of directors, they want to know if they are sued that the organization has coverage.”
Despite concerns about the future of retail, Ric said he is optimistic about the future of Greenwich Avenue.
“The world is a busier place, and the internet makes shopping convenient. I’m guilty. I shop on Amazon too,” he admitted. “But the Avenue is a pleasant place to walk up and down and the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce does a good job.”
Back in the day, trollies ran along Greenwich Avenue. Until October 18, 1970 it was a two-way street with parallel parking.
Businesses have come and gone including Woolworths. he recalls the old fashioned drug stores.
“You could go and get egg creams,” he said, referring to the beverage classic that consisted of milk, carbonated water and flavored syrup. The drink contained neither eggs nor cream.
Ric and Lisa rattled off names of other Avenue staples no one would have imagined would shutter, including Greenwich Restaurant (which was a Greek restaurant with a counter), Al Franklin’s, Hallmark, Quinn’s Market, The old Pickwick Plaza Hotel, Chancy D’elia, Mead’s Department Store, Marks Bros and Colony Florist to name a few. And who could forget the watering holes at the bottom of the Avenue including Mickey’s and Hegarty’s Pub.
Ric, who serves on the RTM said he regrets that years ago the town raised $5 or $6 million from parking meters for a parking fund, which was never used for that purpose.
It seems the parking crunch is a timeless challenge in Greenwich.
Back in 1969, the town entertained but scrapped a proposal for a three story Lewis-Elm Parking Deck behind where Greenwich Hardware operated for decades. The idea was proposed as a “modern” solution to the timeless parking crunch.
The proposal for the deck pointed out, “Since it will be principally used by women, its design is essentially based on the habits of the woman driver.”
In October 2011, during Hurricane Sandy, tides were so high that houses took on water in their first floor, and some in their second stories.
Three houses in Old Greenwich caught fire during that storm. The wind spread flames up and across to the roofs. Even cement foundations burned and crumbled.
“We insured a property over there and they lost their entire house,” Ric recalled. “The foundations were still burning the next morning when we met representatives from Chubb and fire marshals. “They wrote a check for the policy limits that day. Thank God we had it insured properly.”
Ric said the settlement was well above what the customers were insured for.
“You don’t expect to lose your foundation. And because codes have changed, the cost can be multiple of what you’re insured for. They paid what it cost to rebuild.”
“We’re still very face to face,” Ric said of his agency. “We refuse to ever bring in an answering machine, and we don’t do voice mail. We have 24 hour service.”
Also, most of his employees have been in town a long time or grew up in Greenwich.
“We have strong ties to the town, and everyone has an iPhone and tablet for after hours,” he continued adding that often times customers don’t have a chance to call during the work day and he receives emails late into the night.
“If there’s a snow storm and we’re at home, our customers are at home too. We’re busy when we’re not in the office,” he said.