By Rod Lee
A first look at the brick-faced front of 274 Main Street in Webster is all it takes to realize that the three-story building is one of the downtown’s oldest structures—as well as one of its most strikingly conspicuous; it stands out, in part, because of its position next to a parking lot.
The Charniak family bought the property from Henry and Bessie Stayman in the early 1980s as the new home for Charniak Insurance Agency Inc., which had previously been situated a short distance away in the Vito Block of Main Street.
Until deciding to retire, the Staymans had operated Kulin’s Specialty Shop, which sold baby clothes, bed and table linens and related merchandise.
“My dad (Henry Charniak, founder of Charniak Insurance), my brother Paul and I purchased the building in 1982. We renovated the first floor and moved in—in 1984,” Steve Charniak said during a conversation in a small upstairs conference room the afternoon of December 21. Buoyant at the age of 63, Mr. Charniak has passed his cheerful disposition along to his son Chris, a third-generation principal in the business.
That Charniak Insurance has survived as a full-service independent insurance agency offering auto, home, commercial and life insurance for more than 60 years can be attributed to the family’s foresight in adjusting to changing times and a changing marketplace. Typifying this was a decision several years ago, stemming from a suggestion by Steve Charniak, to add Progressive to its lines of coverage. This gave Charniak customers more than half a dozen insurers to choose from (including Commerce, which is the largest employer in town and the largest auto insurance carrier in the state).
Of even greater importance, Chris Charniak said, Progressive gave Charniak Insurance the opportunity to “do a good job” with its coverage of “toys:” motorcycles, boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, golf carts and mopeds along with “niche commercial auto products.”
A bonus too, Chris Charniak said, is that Progressive is able to issue policies on vehicles that have not been registered in Massachusetts, and Progressive provides an automatic $3000 worth of accessories coverage on motorcycles.
As an agency with multiple lines to choose from, he said, “our customers can come to us and we can shop product for them and find them the best rate.”
The Progressive decision “was based on their brand,” he said. Progressive’s impressive “claim service” has proven to be an asset and reaffirmed to Steve and Chris Charniak that an affiliation with Progressive made sense.
Asked if—as a result of the addition of Progressive—he was now a Cleveland Indians fan, Chris Charniak smiled and said, “no, still very much a diehard Red Sox fan. But I’ve been to Cleveland. You can see Cleveland in eight hours, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, dinner and an Indians game” [at Progressive Field].
His intention was not even to follow his grandfather and his dad into the insurance business, although, he said, “in high school I worked here in the summertime and after school too, mostly filing. Grunt work.” After studying chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins University he accepted a job in that industry in Chicago, where his wife was going to graduate school. “In 2009 the company I was working for was bought out, and my dad asked me if I was interested in moving back. The original plan was something else. My wife is from Maine. We both wanted to come back. It’s worked out very well.”
Charniak Insurance’s beginnings were humble enough. Henry Charniak was employed at Cranston Print when he first started selling insurance out of his home. Steve Charniak has been part of the business for 41 years, Chris Charniak since the fall of 2009.
“We take the perpetuity thing kind of seriously,” Chris said.
“In terms of what he contributes, working alongside his dad, Steve Charniak said “Chris has been engaged and is bright.”
Chris arrived shortly after Progressive entered the Massachusetts market and at roughly the same time as the state went from “managed” to “open” competition. This has been great for the consumer because prices for insurance went down (but on the flip side of that claim, costs went up).
Steve and Chris Charniak are happy to call Webster home. As a town with large insurers Commerce and Mapfre also on the scene, it is a virtual mini-Hartford. Charniak Insurance is right in the center of a mild resurgence in the business district; a new police station is in place and a new library is in the works. “When government invests in infrastructure, it makes everything better,” Chris said. In another positive sign, he said, “Mapfre just went through a national reorganization and decided to maintain its presence in Webster.”
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.