(Editor's note: This is the second story in a miniseries about some of the Auburn area's oldest businesses. We're not only sharing their histories and how they've evolved over the past 100 years or more, but also how they're doing under the economic stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stories will continue to run Sundays in The Citizen's Lake Life section.)
AUBURN — Insurance firm Adams & Son, Inc. keeps a quiet presence inside one of the most impressive homes on South Street.
Its conference room, for instance, contains stained glass transom windows, an ornate golden chandelier, and walls of meticulously carved wood. And between the oaken pillars and moldings are portraits of each of the firm's four generations of ownership: founder Charles G. Adams, followed by Karl Adams, Charles R. Adams and its current president, Douglas Adams.
His portrait hides behind the door when it's open, he joked Thursday.
Self-effacing as he may be, Douglas nonetheless presides over one of Auburn's oldest family businesses.
Charles G., his great-grandfather, started Adams & Son sometime in the late 1800s. But because the date isn't certain, the firm plays it safe and puts "1900" on its stationery, Douglas said.
"In the beginning, I wanted to make sure the business survived. But now I want to make sure I survive, because I'm working harder than I've ever worked."
Charles G. started Adams & Son after serving as the Cayuga County clerk. As clerk, he needed to provide bonding services, so someone from insurance company U.S. F&G traveled by train from Baltimore to appoint him, or authorize him as an agent. The firm specialized in bonding until Charles G.'s son Karl took over and expanded significantly into life, business and personal insurance.
That expansion, which would continue under Charles R. and Douglas, is the reason Adams & Son isn't just one of the oldest businesses in Auburn. It's also one of the most accomplished.
Douglas is a little less self-effacing about that.
"We deal all over the world, all over the country," he said. "We're not the little, down-home place that everyone thinks we are."
His father, Charles R., began making trips to Lloyd's of London, taking the firm global in step with manufacturers in the second half of the 20th century. For instance, one of the firm's clients was Columbian Rope Co. And when the Auburn rope producer moved its operations to Mississippi, or when it began sourcing manila hemp from the Phillippines, Adams & Son went with them.
It was also while Charles R. ran the firm, in the 1960s, that it moved into its current South Street home from where the Cayuga County Office Building is today.
In the '70s, Douglas went to the University of Colorado on a full ride for football. He planned to become a doctor, but the practice schedule led him to switch to business. Even then, he would have said "no" to following in his father's footsteps for most of college. When he took an insurance course, though, Douglas realized just how prepared he was for the world of premiums and deductibles.
"From osmosis at the dinner table, I probably could have taught the course," he said. "They finally had to take me aside and say, 'Shut up and you'll pass the course.'"
Douglas was hired out of college by Liberty Mutual, then went to work for Chubb in New York City. In 1986, he found himself back in Auburn at Adams & Son. Now, he was the son.
He took over the firm in the late '90s. It continued expanding to other countries, and today, it has relationships in Canada, the Caribbean, France, Denmark, New Zealand — "just all over," he said. And it's not only U.S. companies doing business overseas that the firm works with, but also overseas companies doing business in the U.S.
What keeps all those companies working with "little, down-home" Adams & Son in Auburn, Douglas believes, is its personal focus.
"We call you, we talk to you, we get back to you. It's still very much a people business, and relationships make a huge difference," he said. "We make a point of visiting our clients in person, wherever they are in the world. I just find that's invaluable. The fact that they know you, and trust you — it really makes a big difference."
That personal focus has proven valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic. As it began in China in January, almost every one of the firm's clients asked Douglas how their communicable disease and virus exclusions worked. But since that period of "all-consuming" research, the pandemic has been less disruptive for the firm, he said, and even for its clients in the travel and hospitality industries.
One recent change, however, has taken place closer to home: The firm's local clients, many of them longstanding, have been coming into the office to pay their bills less frequently.
Another change on the horizon has nothing to do with the pandemic. Douglas' brother, Peter, will one day become the fifth Adams to preside over Adams & Son. He came to the business 14 years ago after working for Chubb and The Hartford, Douglas said. Until then, though, the firm's current president will continue enjoying his work with clients across the world from his office in Auburn.
"It's really rewarding to listen to their stories and care about what they're doing," he said. "It's not, 'Give me your money.' It's, 'Let's solve your problems.'"
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