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FIRST NIAGARA FINANCIAL GROUP BUYS INSURANCE AGENCY IN ALBANY

First Niagara Financial Group, continuing efforts to expand its insurance sales, said Friday that it bought an Albany commercial insurance agency.

Terms of the purchase of Brooks-Byer Associates were not disclosed.

Brooks-Byer is a boutique agency specializing in property and casualty insurance and surety bonds for clients in the construction industry. Brad Byer, the agency's president for the last 12 years, will join the Albany office of First Niagara Risk Management as vice president, along with two other employees.

John Hoffman, CEO of First Niagara Risk Management, said the purchase will "enhance our construction expertise in the Capital Region" and will bring new resources for the bank's commercial customers.

"We saw great customer value in combining with a firm that is very professional and represents such high quality insurance carriers," Byer said. "First Niagara Risk Management also has significant construction expertise and we hope to expand that."

Banks and thrifts are aggressively buying insurance agencies to provide a complementary and steady flow of fee income on top of their banking businesses. Banking and insurance products have long been seen as related financial services.

This is the third insurance agency First Niagara has acquired in the last few months, as it tries to rapidly build a statewide insurance presence to match its growing branch network. The Lockport-based thrift acquired The Bostwick Group in January as part of its purchase of Hudson River Bancorp, and also added L.A. Lama Insurance Agency in Ithaca that same month. The thrift previously bought two agencies in Rochester in July 2003.

Today, First Niagara Risk Management -- originally Warren-Hoffman & Associates when the thrift bought it in 1998 -- is one of the top 100 agencies in the country. It's the second-largest agency in Buffalo, No. 8 in Rochester and No. 5 in the Albany area, ranked by premium volume.

Products include personal and commercial insurance, surety bonds, employee benefits, life and disability insurance. It has 150 employees in six upstate New York offices, and expects $22 million in revenues this year.

Officials have also expressed a desire for further agency acquisitions, especially in Ithaca, Syracuse and Albany.

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com