VOL. 8 | NO. 43 | Saturday, October 17, 2015
Fred Davis Looks Back on Long Career
By Andy Meek
Fred Davis can laugh about it now, but the founder of the Fred L. Davis Insurance Agency – which opened its doors back in 1967, the year before Davis was elected to the Memphis City Council – wasn’t always as sanguine about the color of his hair.
Fred Davis opened his Memphis insurance agency in 1967. Almost 50 years later, it still endures, thanks to Davis weathering the ups and downs of a business in which he's had to fight to keep his doors open. "But I survived," he says today.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The 81-year-old insurance veteran, who still comes into the office regularly (“Or these girls will dock me!” he chuckles), went gray a long time ago. It’s one of the more visible reminders of his many years in a business that saw him open one of the first black-owned insurance agencies in the South.
He was a politician once, too. Davis served on the council for 12 years, including a stint as its first black chairman. His business, though, is what endures – indeed, it’s nearing the half-century mark.
And all that time in the insurance world, it’s left him with his share of scars, as well as the gray hair and the satisfaction that comes with having built his own business.
“My family doesn’t gray,” he said. “Before my sister died, you had to look hard to find a gray hair on her head. But long before that, my hair was gray.”
When he’d get asked about it, he blamed it on his time in politics.
“But I lied!” he laughs.
“Trying to survive in this business is what did it.”
An insurance agency might seem like an unexciting paradise of paperwork, but for Davis, it’s been a scrap since day one.
He was trying to start a business at a time when “black agents could only sell substandard automobile insurance – and then they didn’t have a direct relationship with the company.”
Meanwhile, a new city charter in 1967 preceded a conversion to Memphis’ current mayor-council form of government that dates back to 1968. Davis was among those dealing with the politics of that new governance around the same time as the 1968 sanitation workers strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his fateful trip to Memphis.
“I’ll tell you a story. And it’ll be a true story,” Davis said, his cadence measured and deliberate. “Here I am, with an embryonic business. Trying to help establish a new government in Memphis and on top of that, working on an MBA.
“That was … almost a handful.”
Having mentors around him who he could lean on early in his career is one thing Davis pointed to as indispensable. And to Davis, an insurance business is the kind of thing you can only learn how to run by actually doing it, which necessitates being thrown into the fire.
Small business is a current area of focus for his agency, which has day care centers, churches and building contractors on its client roster. His firm also has handled much bigger work, like managing the insurance operations involved during the construction of the Cannon Center.
David said insurance is a litigious industry, one that demands excellence or “these ambulance chasers you see on TV looking for somebody who’s screwed up can sue you out of business.”
“One time, my internal compression was so tough that I broke out into hives and my wife had to take me to the emergency room,” Davis said. “From the stress of trying to survive it. But I did.”
One of difficulties he says exists for a black agent even today is the dearth of commercial business opportunities for black-owned firms. It’s one of the things that made it hard when he was starting out.
Industry peers also didn’t let him forget how the odds weren’t exactly piled in his favor. Davis recalls attending a statewide industry convention at Opryland, where some white insurance agents told him how rich he’d be “if you were white.”
They knew how hard it was to be successful themselves, Davis says. And they told him – with the effort you have to put forward to survive, a white man working just as hard couldn’t help but end up a wealthy man.
For Davis’ part, his life has included a wealth of experiences – in politics, in business and in the civic life of Memphis. He’s a founding director and past president of the Mid-South Minority Business Council, has served on the board of the Assisi Foundation and has received countless awards during his career.
And he has no plans to retire – hasn’t even entertained the thought yet, he said.
“Our niche is there’s a certain community that we understand,” Davis said. “And service is an action word with us. There are people who come in here who are very, very comfortable with us, and we have people who’ve been with us for more than 30 years. We’re insuring the grandchildren of people who started with us.”