In 1925, a scant five years after women had won the right to vote and decades before women entered the workforce en masse, Harriet L. Williams established a real estate business in Milford.
With her inventor/husband retired yet three children to raise, Harriet, whose gender barred her from networking in men’s societies, met potential clients by socializing and also at church.
During the Great Depression, according to her grandson Thomas L. Williams, “It was tough. They didn’t have a lot of money.”
He said that the business used a payphone on High Street down from its office and also lent some clients money to finalize the purchase of a house. “She liked helping people,” her granddaughter — and Tom’s cousin — Gail Williams Urban said.
Realizing that homeowners needed fire insurance, she had also branched into the insurance business. Greatly diversified and with acquisitions that extend to an insurance company in Bridgeport, the , a full-service insurance center, has roughly 1,800 individual and family clients and 200 business clients today.
Key to a family business where both Tom and his cousin are now stalwarts are members who get along in a city they genuinely seem to enjoy.
From their youth, both Tom and Gail Williams Urban recall skating on Duck Pond, with Gail making visits to a movie theatre downtown, and Tom recalling a “terrific” shop called “The Milford Men’s Shop” and also a number of grocery stores — Grand Union, Fraser's Market, an A&P — not to mention other venues such as the Milford Pharmacy on New Haven Avenue and even a Grant's Five-and-Dime.
“Wow. Quite a bit,” said the two when asked if has changed, before their memories tumbled forth. “A lot of things changed after the mall went in,” remarked Tom.
What has remained in Milford are two rails each with a metal “W” outside one of the Broad Street locations the insurance business occupied over the years.
Gail’s father Merwin, who joined his mother’s Milford Homes Realty in 1938 with a stronger interest in insurance than in real estate, played a crucial role in keeping the Milford business in family hands.
To help keep the family business going, Merwin added a dry cleaning business, which is now defunct. Years later, when his nephew Tom was studying economics at the University of Connecticut, Tom said he wanted to go into business.
“He said, ‘When you get out, I want you to come here,’” Tom recalls.
At that point, Gail was out in Ohio, where she had attended Hiram College in the very northeastern part of the state. After her father acquired another insurance agency, he asked her husband Larry Urban if he would join the firm.
Like Tom, Larry is now a partner whose desk in the agency’s large, open space sits to Tom’s right. Employed at the agency part time, Gail handles the books, and Tom’s wife Susan works in the firm at a desk directly behind him.
With so many years of insurance under its collective belt, the family can point to “so many loyal insurers. They just renew their insurance year after year . . . people we didn’t realize were in-laws and neighbors. Co-employees. We get most of our insurers by referrals,” Tom said.
The one disadvantage to a family business that the Williams could identify was their inability to take a family vacation because an insurance agency must run 365 days a year. Before Merwin died in 2004, the family, they said, did manage an annual vacation at the Cape, with part of the family there for half of a week, others arriving for the next half, and the family together over the weekend for just one day.
Tom’s son Thomas J. Williams is the fourth generation of Williams to serve at the firm. Although he attended Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, he is quick to point out that he left Milford for only those four years.
He has a son, who is also named Tom. When asked if a fifth generation would join the firm, he replied genially that his son was only six years old and, so, at an age where he had not yet made up his mind.