As 2015 approaches, Kershaw County’s oldest continually operating business is celebrating its 150th anniversary by doing what it’s always done: offering a wide variety of insurance products with competitive pricing and hometown service.
Charlie J. McDowell opened what would become Kennedy Insurance Agency in downtown Camden in 1865. In its 150th year, that makes the insurance broker not only the longest active business in Kershaw County, but among the oldest in the nation.
Things are, of course, a bit different now. In 1865, McDowell only offered fire insurance and used nothing but paper to maintain its records. In 2014, the agency not only uses computers for much of its work, it has a new name: the Van Horn Agency, named after the man who has owned and operated the business since 2005, Steve Van Horn. Van Horn, 67, and his son, James, 35, who has worked with his father for two years now, offer home, auto and commercial forms of insurance; workman’s compensation; and bonds. In addition, the agency offers all forms of insurance connected with the equine industry.
While things are always changing, Van Horn said his company is still “rocking and rolling along.”
“We thought it was a good time to put our name on it,” he said. “We feel good about where we are right now.”
The agency includes several long-time employees: Vivian Cooper, who started working at Kennedy Insurance around the same time as Van Horn in 1980, works on coastal insurance products; Carol King, who has worked with the company since 2001, is Van Horn’s “go to” person for personal insurance needs; Jill Hudson, a licensed agent for 10 years, handles commercial lines of insurance; and Miranda Huepenbecker has handled both administrative and insurance duties for many years. For the last several years Jackie Montgomery, a long-time Camden real estate agent, began helping Van Horn by focusing on equine-related forms of insurance.
“She’s still in real estate -- that’s 99 percent of what she does, but she’s licensed to do our stuff,” Van Horn said.
His most recent hire is Whitney Groat Hendricks, the agency’s receptionist who also handles computer entry duties.
When Van Horn bought out R.M. Kennedy IV’s share of the company to become Kennedy Insurance’s sole owner nine years ago, he was taking control of a business he’d maintained a relationship with since the early 1970s. At the time, he was working for Traveler’s Insurance in Charlotte when he met Kennedy, Kennedy’s father and their partner, Jack Hale. In 1980, R.M. Kennedy III and Hale sold the business to Kennedy IV and Van Horn, who moved to Camden with his wife, Liza.
That may have been the beginning for Van Horn, but the agency’s history stayed mostly with the Kennedy family while moving its offices a few times.
According to Camden Chronicle articles from 1976 and 1979, B.O. Kennedy took on a partner, David R. Williams in the 1880s and the agency became known as Kennedy & Williams Insurance & Real Estate Co. In 1885, B.O. Kennedy gave the business to Williams. Meanwhile, another Kennedy, R.M. Kennedy Jr., was orphaned and raised by an uncle, A.D. Kennedy. When R.M. Kennedy Jr. graduated from college, he had every intention of getting into the cotton business. Instead, in 1915, he purchased the insurance agency from Williams. It was he who would drop the Williams name, but not until after the previous owner’s death.
R.M. Kennedy III took over the agency in 1934 after graduating from The Citadel the year before. After his father, R.M. Kennedy Jr.’s death in 1968, R.M. Kennedy III sold one-quarter interests each in the agency to Jack Hale, one of McDowall’s descendants, and his own son, R.M. Kennedy IV, who joined the firm in 1969.
Earliest references to Kennedy Insurance place the business on Broad Street. In 1976, Kennedy Insurance merged with C.P. Dubose & Son Insurance. A year later, it moved to West DeKalb Street, but moved back to Broad Street years later.
Now located on the southwest corner of the intersection of Rutledge and Market streets, the Van Horn Agency is relying on its long history of service while looking ahead. That history includes Van Horn himself, carrying on a family legacy of working in the insurance field. His father worked as a broker, as does his brother in Philadelphia and an uncle and cousins in New Jersey.
Back in 2005, Van Horn noted the two biggest changes were computers and the consolidation of insurance companies. Today, he says the number of insurance carriers has stabilized, but he wouldn’t be surprised if some further consolidation takes place in the future.
“Companies are always exploring various marketing opportunities and multiple forms of delivery,” Van Horn said, noting that some companies’ use of social media is evolving.
The other technological change he said the insurance industry needs to prepare for is self-driving cars, a reality companies like Google are trying to reach.
“I won’t see it, but when cars can drive themselves, the risk of accidents will really diminish. The cost of (auto personal injury) insurance will go way down, ultimately,” he said. “The challenge is to keep progressing. We don’t have a crystal ball.”
Van Horn said, however, what might be difficult for the insurance industry should be a “great thing” for the American public in terms of both self-driving cars and alternative fuels.
That brought up another challenge he talked about: climate change, although he shied away from using the term.
“Right now, I don’t think the insurance industry has a handle on weather problems. Each company is coming out with changes in their property insurance terms. You might end up with higher deductibles for hail … in some places, you may not even be able to buy certain kinds of insurance for a reasonable price,” Van Horn said.
What the Van Horn Agency does, regardless of the market’s ups and downs is help customers find the right insurance at the right price from whichever of the many companies it brokers for have to offer. He said his son, James, is focusing on personal, home and auto insurance.
“He’s helping to beef up our marketing in that businesses, using his contacts with his peers, bringing in younger clientele,” he said.
Van Horn said the one age group that seems to be growing for the agency is 30- to 45-year-olds.
Whatever the future may bring, there’s a good chance the Van Horn name will be a part of it, continuing the Kennedy legacy stretching from 1865 to the future with 2015 right around the corner.