Tom Lynch is chairman emeritus at Plastridge Insurance, which has been in the family since the late 1940s. His sons, Connor and Brendan, now run the agency. Tom has spent 50 years in the insurance industry. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Charles Elmore
Celebrating a 100th anniversary qualifies as no mean feat for any business in South Florida, but it’s hard to beat Plastridge Insurance’s claim for being dialed in to Delray Beach’s history: Its phone number was 1.
So it appears in telephone directories into the late 1940s: “Phone No. 1. Established 1919.”
Dialing was easy, maybe. Picking up? Not always a picnic. Everything from Depression-era business failures to a host of unrelenting hurricanes pounded the region over the decades.
“Florida was just a terrible place to do business because of catastrophes,” said Tom Lynch, 71, Plastridge’s chairman emeritus and a former Delray Beach mayor.
Yet in a place where a lot of people came and went, as did plenty of schemes to make a buck in paradise, the independent insurance agency planted itself and thrived.
Lynch himself is celebrating 50 years in the business as he turns over executive roles to his sons.
“To me, when you think of everything that’s happened in that 100 years, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, a Great Depression, several recessions and so much else, it’s really amazing,” said Connor Lynch, who now serves as the agency’s CEO with brother Brendan as president.
“I think we fit this kind of class of insurance agencies that is no longer in existence: in between mom-and-pop and big brokerage. One of the things I like is having such a strong community connection.”
Today the agency counts about 100 employees and $16 million in revenue, with offices in Boca Raton, Palm Beach Gardens and Stuart as well as on Northeast Sixth Avenue in Delray Beach.
Some things have changed over time. Once personal home and auto policies claimed a hefty share of the business, but now about 70 percent comes from commercial customers, such as condominiums, apartments, hotels, restaurants, and assisted living facilities, Tom Lynch said.
Though the agency’s roots remain firmly local, it is licensed in some 30 states, recently quoting a proposed policy in Hawaii, Connor Lynch said.
The challenge for an independent agency in South Florida particularly can be serving as the middleman lining up coverage from different insurance companies, not just one company that has “captive” agents. Disasters from the killer storm of 1947 to Hurricane Wilma in 2005 made legions of underwriters flee Florida’s risks like so many palmetto bugs at the snap of a kitchen light.
Tom Lynch recalls times when, for example, if he wanted to cover a hotel near the coast for $1 million, he had to do it by getting 10 policies for $100,000 from 10 separate companies.
The agency’s roots lie in an era before air conditioning and even before many local towns and cities had incorporated within their current borders.
Agent Amis Plastridge wrote policies in New England, where $600 of coverage on a home might cost $4.80 a year and require a special clause for a wood-burning stove, records from the time show. Then he set off for South Florida. He founded an agency in 1919 with partner Pierce Brennan in what would become Delray Beach.
In those early days, when the town was called simply Delray, the Bijou theater hawked four silent-movie reels for 10 cents. Abraham George’s store sold yard goods, button hooks and shoelaces. Some 1,051 souls were counted in the 1920 census.
But the region was on the verge of a huge transformation in which the insurance business would matter a lot to buyers, builders and lenders. Suddenly a place known for pineapples and other produce was being pitched as a playground for the well-to-do.
“People realized they could make a lot more money in real estate than selling pineapples,” said Kate Teves, archivist with the Delray Beach Historical Society. “The land boom in the 1920s completely transformed Delray Beach and Florida forever.”
In time, that would be followed by a collapse in land prices and a depression, but the agency plugged along.
By the late 1940s, though, Plastridge’s son Robert had enough. Storms proved unrelenting, including a 1947 monster with winds up to 145 mph in the days before hurricanes were named. It killed 15 in Florida, tore off roofs around the region, including that at Hialeah racetrack, and went on to take 51 lives, many in and near New Orleans. He sold the agency to Tom Lynch’s father-in-law, Paul Speicher, and the business has remained in the family since.
The hand-off was a package deal. “When he sold him the agency, he also sold him his home and moved to Georgia,” Tom Lynch said.
When Tom Lynch eventually took control of the business in the 1970s, he kept the Plastridge name even as the business acquired other insurance agencies. The name was familiar to people, he figured.
Continuity would become a hallmark in more ways than one. Today he proudly points to employees who have remained with the agency for more than 30 years.
That mattered to clients such as Luke Therien, owner of the Banana Boat and Prime Catch restaurants in Boynton Beach. They have been doing business with Plastridge since 1978.
“We kept the relationship with Plastridge because it was such a family business,” Therien said. “We had a giant royal palm come down on the roof during Wilma. We lost awnings and our main air conditioning system. We were really scrambling at that point. Tom Lynch was the very first one there from Plastridge. He knew who to call at the insurance companies to get things done quickly, and it paid off.”
Therien admired what he saw as Lynch’s strong sense of civic responsibility as a mayor of Delray Beach, chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board and board member of the state’s last-resort insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., among other roles. Lynch currently serves as the mayor of the village of Golf.
All that may have something to do with why customers kept calling. Even when the number was more than 1.
“Their ability to grow and evolve and keep their feet planted locally for 100 years has been an amazing feat,” said Jeb Conrad, president and CEO of the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce.