CASA GRANDE — Life has a way of throwing curveballs. In the late 1970s, Janie Garza Brown was looking for work and found a job at an insurance shop. She had no idea that one day she would be running that business.
Then again, she also didn’t know she was meeting her future husband.
But such was the case when she got a job working at Bill Brown Insurance Agency. Brown started the business in 1976 out of the downtown Casa Grande building that now houses Thompson Safe, Lock & Key. Shortly after, he would move to a larger location at 888 E. Jimmie Kerr Blvd., where it still exists today as Auto Insurance Specialist.
It was a small operation back then, with just Bill, his sister Laverne and Janie doing everything out of the office. That turned out to be a blessing for Janie since she was able to learn how to do everything involved in the business. She started out just filing papers, then answering phones. Then Bill sent her back to school until 1987, when Janie received her license to be an insurance agent.
Having taught Janie everything he could about the business, Bill retired in 1990, leaving the business to Laverne and Janie. Janie took over sole proprietorship a few years later and re-named it Auto Insurance Specialist. Bill gave her his blessing to do whatever she wanted with it.
Right away, Janie looked to expand the business. Bill had been renting out most of the building for apartments, something she didn’t like. She gave the tenants notice, then tore down some walls and opened up much more office space. Now there are six employees working there — Ronda Sotelo, Monica Diaz, Sally Carmargo, Maria Coronado and her son Eric Rivera.
She also remodeled the whole place, changing the building from its previous log cabin aesthetic to something more in line with what to expect in a place like Casa Grande.
Janie describes Bill’s business philosophy as being very old-fashioned, to the point where when she took over there weren’t any computers at the office. That was when AIS became even more of a family venture.
Rivera started coming into the office to help in the late ‘80s and until he graduated from Casa Grande Union High School in 1993. He then attended college, where he studied computer networking. He came in and built the whole computer system in the office. He served with the Marines after that and came back to work with his mom.
“I’ve been stuck here ever since,” he said, jokingly. “It’s hard sometimes. It’s tough because we’re both the same. But for the most part, it’s good.”
Janie expects him to take over the business after she moves on, and then her granddaughters after that. She said it’s important that this remain a family business.
While the name of the business might imply that they only specialize in auto insurance, AIS actually works with all sorts of insurance, including home, commercial, renters and more. They’ve also become known for insuring people who are going to and from Mexico.
“I can insure anything,” Janie said. “Especially people with a lot of tickets.”
Rivera credits the long-term success of AIS to his father’s commitment to helping those that others wouldn’t. Rivera said the larger companies in town wouldn’t help people with a lot of tickets or if they had a DUI. Bill would take in people from the reservations or Mexico.
“He invested in people,” Rivera said. “Those from the middle class started coming to him.”
That spirit is being passed down through generations. That’s why, even though more and more insurance companies have come into Casa Grande, AIS continues to have customers who have been there since the business opened, and why those customers’ kids and grandkids are now regulars in that office.
They also value their position in the community they’ve served so long. In 2011, Rivera started God’s Hands at Work Ministry, working with his young daughters to provide meals and other assistance to those in need around Casa Grande.
“People might go somewhere else but then they come back because that place didn’t feel like home to them,” Janie said. “Here, it feels a lot more homey. People come here and they know us and they like to talk to us.”