Commercial auto and trucking insurer Canal Insurance celebrates 75 years in the Upstate
In 1939, “Gone with the Wind” was released in theaters, the newspaper comic strip “Superman” debuted, the first NFL Pro Bowl game was held at Wrigley Field (the one in Los Angeles), World War II began and Canal Insurance was formed.
The founder of Canal Insurance was William R. Timmons, an enterprising entrepreneur who began his career by investing in real estate, focusing on commercial development on Hogback Mountain along with properties in North Hills at Hillcrest Drive and Gallivan Avenue and Bennett Street.
Timmons was so successful that in the 1920s he was hired by a group of Florida developers to take Florida residents who came to Greenville to the top of Hogback Mountain as they developed a golf course and a country club.
Sydney Taylor, Timmons’ granddaughter, said that her grandfather “had about four touring sedans that Cadillac made at the time, and he would load those touring sedans up with Florida people who came up to see Hogback Mountain. That was the big boom mountain then.”
Once the developers figured out Timmons was making more money on commissions from his tours than they were, they decided to do the tours themselves. Timmons sold his touring sedans, moved into the Poinsett Hotel building and began a real estate and insurance agency named Central Agencies that would later become Central Realty Corporation and the Wm. R. Timmons agency, respectively. The Wm. R. Timmons agency remains a distribution company for Canal Insurance today.
William R. Timmons also helped shape Greenville, serving as CEO of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce in the 1920s. Timmons was instrumental in leading the efforts to raise funds for the construction of the Chamber of Commerce building that was built in 1925 on South Main Street. He was also part of the Chamber of Commerce acquaintance tours, where a delegation of Greenville businessmen would visit businesses in other states, touting Greenville as a good place to relocate.
It was also in May 1920 that 28-year-old William married Eva McDonald. They shared a love of music, William as a second tenor and Eva as a pianist. The Timmons family continues to honor that love of the arts by supporting several institutions in the Greenville area, such as the Peace Center, the Warehouse Theatre and the Upcountry History Museum. The family also funds the Eva Music Scholarship that benefits approximately 14 music students at Furman University each year and more than 200 to date.
In the 1930s the remnants of the Depression left the Southeast poor and “made truckers the riverboat gamblers of the transportation industry,” said Rick Timmons, William R. Timmons’ grandson and third-generation family member, who came to the company in 1976 and has served as senior vice president of investments since 1981.
South Carolina, followed by North Carolina and Georgia, passed legislation demanding long-haul vehicles be properly insured. “William R. Timmons saw an opportunity to create a niche for his insurance agency if he could solve the insurance needs of these customers,” said Rick Timmons. On Feb. 27, 1939, Canal Insurance was incorporated.
By 1942, the William R. Timmons Agency was writing more insurance on truckers and commercial passenger vehicles than any other agency in the three states.
In 1945, Gordon Rodgers was added as vice president to the management team, playing a significant role in developing a coast-to-coast network of independent agencies. Rogers would remain with the company for 48 years.
The company was successful and growing when tragedy struck Canal on June 22, 1948. William R. Timmons was on a business trip to Columbia and was killed in an automobile accident. “The family quickly rallied around the company,” said Rick Timmons.
Bill Timmons Jr., a retired army captain and senior at Furman University, was 23 years old at the time. He “had to go into the business with all four feet,” he said. Bill Timmons Jr. left school to serve as secretary, manage investments and run the real estate company. A longtime employee, T.J. Mims, stepped up to serve as president and CEO.
In 1949, Charlie Timmons Sr. came to Canal to serve as treasurer and controller to work alongside his brother, Bill Jr.
Canal Insurance continued to grow and prosper, and by 1958 the company was licensed in 27 states and the District of Columbia. In 1960, Canal was operating in 42 states.
In the early years, Canal remained “a relatively small business” located at 10 S. Church St., behind what was then the post office, said Taylor. When the city began the Church Street bridge improvement project, that property was condemned and the company moved in the 1950s to 417 E. North St.
Canal outgrew that space, and in 1991 moved into the former Sears, Roebuck and Company building, where the company still remains today. Remnants of the department store remain inside with a set of escalators featured prominently in the middle of the building. “Those escalators were the first set of escalators installed in South Carolina,” said Rick Timmons.
In the 1990s Canal suffered another loss. Three quarters of the management team (T.J. Mims, Gordon Rogers, Bill Timmons Jr. and Charlie Timmons Sr.) that had led Canal for nearly 50 years, passed away – all while still on the job. But a new generation took the reins and Charles Timmons Jr. was named president in 1998.
Creating “a Compelling Story”
In 2005 Canal created a company oversight board of seasoned executives in the industry, and in 2010, for the second time, brought in a non-family member, David Firstenberg, to run the family business.
Firstenberg was a seasoned leader, having served in several executive positions at national and international insurance companies. Upon his hire, he was also added to the board of directors. “Canal is a very compelling story in the insurance business and very iconic,” said Firstenberg. “Being a part of that tradition of success is attractive” and is what led him to accept the position.
Today, there are 14 third-generation family members, 51 family shareholders and 237 employees that make up Canal Insurance. The company’s main office is in Greenville with two small offices in Charlotte and Atlanta. The 14 family members own 90 percent of the stock of the company.
The key to Canal’s longevity is its “consistent approach” to the business that Canal has always had, said Rick Timmons – not just to the insurance market, but also to its business partners and agents. “If you’re a good business partner and fair and consistent – that’s the kind of company other people want to do business with,” he said.
Firstenberg said the most important element that has brought the company to where it is today is “a culture of extreme diligence.”
Going forward, the company will likely build shareholder value by continuing to diversify the business into other forms of insurance and become even more profitable, Firstenberg said. In the past few years, Canal has already expanded into other forms of automobile and transporting insurance. But, said Firstenberg, “this is a wheels business, and Job One is to continue to get better and better at it.”
Canal is holding a party Thursday, Feb. 27, at Zen for its employees to mark the 75th anniversary. Mayor Knox White will read a declaration proclaiming it Canal Insurance Day.
On March 13, Canal will host an event at the Poinsett Club for its agents, shareholders and board of directors to celebrate the anniversary.
Other celebratory events will be held throughout the year.