Bonham Insurance Guides Agency to 75th Anniversary
By Dianne Alward-Biery
Cleaver Staff Writer
HARRISON – The Bonham Insurance Agency is the result of many years of evolution and adaptation to industry and client demands. It also is the culmination of multiple generations of insurance agents who have been solidly in their clients’ corners, guiding them in coverage choices which serve those customers’ best interests.
Essentially, plotting of the trajectory that eventually guided Steve Bonham into the insurance business began long before he was born. His agency’s evolution began in 1943 when area farmer Dan Holcomb decided he wanted to be an insurance man and became a licensed agent for Auto Owners Insurance. Holcomb had a daughter named Barbara who later married Frank McClenathen. After his stint in the military, McClenathen joined his father-in-law in the insurance business. Ultimately, Holcomb fell ill and McClenathen went into partnership with Keith First as the First-McClenathen Insurance Agency, which in 1968 marked 25 years as an Auto Owners agency.
An article in the March-April 1969 issue of Auto Owners’ corporate publication “The Emblem” notes that 25 years landmark and describes the First-McClenathen Agency and its personnel, including Barbara “Bobbie” McClenathen. It also lauds the recently remodeled and enlarged office, boasting of the “lively” avocado elm paneling and green tweed carpeting.
A 1975 Farwell Schools graduate, Steve Bonham entered the insurance picture while attending Northwood Institute in Midland. Larry Schofield of Farwell Insurance asked if Bonham had any plans after college and, learning he had none, offered Bonham the opportunity to work in his office on weekends and during school breaks to learn about the business. After receiving his degree in 1977, Bonham continued at the agency. When Schofield purchased the First-McClenathen Agency in Harrison Jan. 1, 1982 the business name changed to Schofield Insurance, and that was when Bonham was moved out of the Farwell office and became the Harrison agency’s sole agent and manager.
“He was kind of like a second dad to me,” Bonham said. “He taught me the trade, and he truly was my mentor. Ironically, Larry is one of my clients today.”
When Bonham took ownership of the company July 1, 1990 the name was again changed, this time to Bonham Insurance Agency Inc. He rented an office at 717 N. First St., which is now the site of Big Joe’s Auto Sales, and ultimately moved into his current building at 426 N. First St. in Harrison, a location which Bonham said has served him well. That remodeled building has grown to be the office he is most comfortable in and a place he where he still looks forward to going every day.
“When I bought this building in 1996, I always wanted to have a private office of my own that I felt really comfortable in,” Bonham said.
The building’s former owner was Frank Hilts and looking at the office today it is obvious the structure has come a long way from being a storage garage filled with water heaters, shower stalls, toilets and plumbing fixtures. After much remodeling and fine tuning over the years, Bonham would seem to have achieved his dream of that perfect office.
“It’s still fun to come to work when you can have somebody walk in the door and save them a little bit of money on their insurance and so they’re happy,” he said.
Bonham said his agency arrived in Harrison with several companies, and that Hastings Mutual, Westfield and Citizens are among those weeded out over the years. Now the agency writes mostly for Auto Owners and Pioneer State Mutual, as well as Foremost and Progressive.
Bonham said it works best to limit the number of companies represented because “You can’t keep them all happy.” He conceded that having more companies allows more offerings for clients in different situations, but all the companies want to be No. 1 in the office.
“Not everybody can be No. 1,” he said. “Auto Owners for me is my big carrier; without them I wouldn’t have the size I am today.”
While his agency serves commercial businesses, smaller storefront operations, individuals, workman’s comp and some life insurance customers, the past 36 years as an agent in Harrison have led Bonham to receive an extra-special award from Auto Owners in early August. That award, comprised of a plaque and a pendulum wall clock, marks the agency’s representation of that original Auto Owners contract for 75 years. Bonham also noted that Barbara McClenathen was recognized as having the oldest continuously running policy in his office, an automobile policy that was written in 1944.
“When Barb was here last week, I was sitting here looking at this policy,” Bonham said. “I know how old Barb is and I was doing the math. So, I told her that I knew how old she is and how old the policy is, and to make it work right, she would have had to buy the policy when she was 10.”
She laughed and told him the policy was probably her father’s, and Bonham went on to explain that at that time it was easy to add someone to a policy and if the policyholder became deceased, the policy could be assumed by the named party.
“Today you can’t do that,” he said. “The industry has changed so much, you can’t do those things you did 20-30 years ago. But that policy is 74 years old, and it just happens to be her, and her dad was the one who started this thing. It’s just kind of cool.”
Bonham spoke with great fondness for his predecessors in the Harrison agency, and for their loyalty and contributions to the community they served. He does, however, lament the changes he sees in his industry, some of which are driven by a younger generation of consumers seeking the bottom-line price for insurance while having no interest in establishing a loyal one-on-one relationship with an agency.
“Millennials today don’t know the concept of loyalty,” Bonham said. “You might write them today because you’re the cheapest, but next year they’re going to shop again, and if you’re $10 higher than somebody – they’re out the door. My older clientele are loyal.”
He said additional challenges in the business are the need to inspect every property thoroughly before issuing a policy, and the industry-driven use of an “insurance score” whose main component is the credit score. Those elements add premium costs in an area where many properties are deteriorating with age and a large portion of the community struggles financially.
“And even though you may be with another company, your claims history follows you,” he said. “And the next company has access to it. It’s amazing the number of people who can’t remember they had a $30,000 fire or that they now have a youthful operator in their household they’re trying to hide. It’s amazing the things they forget; honesty’s always the best policy.”
Bonham also spoke of the need to revamp the no-fault requirements to add a fee schedule for medical costs and prevent the rampant abuses of that system. He also noted the lack of awareness by many older people that Medicare coverage does not extend to injuries suffered in an automobile accident.
Bonham credits his smooth-running office to the efforts of his two full-time office staff. They include Shirley Schram who has been with the agency for nearly 20 years, and recently-hired Emily Gee. Bonham said he also uses the part-time services of a man who does inspection and appraisal work.
And for those who may have been wondering since February, Bonham acknowledged former employee Mary Cooper and her friend for the office’s Frostbite Festival 2018 Minion ice sculpture. It was among the many finely-crafted pieces which fell to unseasonable rains, preventing the audience the sculptures truly deserved.
Steve Bonham has been consistently including local military service members in his print ads, and when asked about what inspired him to do so, he gestured toward a poster on his wall. That U.S. Air Force recruitment poster bears an image of his son, Marshall, who had done seven tours of duty in the Middle East.
“I’ve had a soft spot for the military since 2003 when my son graduated from high school,” he said. “He enlisted in the Air Force, graduated in June and by July he was at boot camp in San Antonio, Texas.”
Bonham said he realized there are many more local people who serve the community who should be recognized and said that is when he began adding individual fire fighters and law enforcement officers.
“I’ve had people comment on it and they think it’s really cool,” Bonham said.
Bonham said there are some misperceptions among people about how insurance works, and that he encourages people to seek policies with higher deductibles. He also favors counseling people regarding making small claims vs. paying cash for minor items which may be covered, because anytime a claim is made it will affect rates for a period of three years. Bonham reminded that insurance was originally set up to provide a safety net against catastrophic loss, not to pick up small losses.
“It wasn’t meant for ‘Oh, a rock hit my storm door and I need to have it fixed,’” he said. “That’s almost along the line of maintenance, but people still have that attitude of ‘I have insurance, you should pay for it.’”
When asked what more he might like readers to know about him or his business, Bonham was quick to respond.
“I just want the community to know that Auto Owners has been a big part of Harrison for 75 years, and I think they’ll always be a presence in this town,” he said. “There’s always going to be an Auto Owners agent in this town, and in 25 years they’re going to celebrate a 100-year anniversary with someone. I’ve been able to receive a 50-year plaque from Auto Owners and a 75-year plaque from Auto Owners.
“I’ve put my share of time in with Harrison and Harrison’s been good to me,” Bonham said. “They’ve treated me well even though I don’t live here. [He lives in Clare where he raised his children.] I’ve worked here for many years and the town’s been good to me.”
For more information about the policies and services offered by Bonham Insurance Agency, give the office a call at 989-KELLOGG 9-7143. Bonham and his staff will be happy to point potential clients in the direction that will best serve their needs.