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T-Birds’ Owners and Managers Continue to Push the Envelope

Front row, from left,

Front row, from left, Dante Fontana, Nathan Costa, Frank Colaccino, and Brian Fitzgerald; second row, from left, Paul Picknelly, Dinesh Patel, Chris Bignell, Chris Thompson, Sean Murphy, Francis Cataldo; third row, from left, Derek Salema, Peter Martins, Jerry Gagliarducci, John Joe Williams, Vidhyadhar Mitta, and James Garvey.

An Exercise in Teamwork

Back in the spring of 2016, a consortium of owners came together, bought the Portland Pirates AHL franchise, and relocated it to Springfield. It was said that this group brought hockey back to the City of Homes 10 days after it left. In reality, though, it has brought much more, including excitement, energy, innovation, and vibrancy — along with hockey. For doing all that, the team of owners and managers has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2017.

If you go on eBay this morning, you can buy a bobblehead featuring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wearing sunglasses and a Springfield Thunderbirds jersey. List price: $59.99.

But while you can buy it now, you can’t get it for at least a month or so.

That’s because no one actually has one to send to you. These items won’t be distributed until the Feb. 17 Thunderbirds game against the Providence Bruins.

The fact that this bobblehead is already for sale online demonstrates many things — from the incredible popularity of Big Papi to the awesome power of capitalism at work (60 balloons for a bobblehead?).

But it demonstrates something else as well: Just how far hockey has come in Springfield in 20 short months. Indeed, in the late spring of 2016, there was no hockey in Springfield. Well, there was no American Hockey League franchise, anyway.

Red Sox legend David Ortiz

Red Sox legend David Ortiz belts a foam baseball into the crowd during the game on Nov. 11. His appearance in Springfield represents just one example of the outside-the-box thinking that defines the new ownership and management team.

The Falcons, who had been playing at the MassMutual Center for more than 20 years, had pulled up stakes and were heading to Arizona. Into this void stepped what would become, by AHL standards (or any standards, for that matter), a huge ownership group of 28 that brought professional hockey back to Springfield.

Only, all 28 of them would be put off by that last phrase to some extent.

Indeed, they would prefer to say that hockey is just one of the things they’ve brought to the City of Homes. They’ve also brought imagination and entrepreneurship; Star Wars Night and $3 Coors Light draughts on Friday night; free parking in the Civic Center Garage (actually, it’s back by very popular demand) and … David Ortiz bobbleheads.

Evidence of all this was in abundance on Jan. 6, a frigid Saturday night when the wind chill was well below zero, representing a microcosm of what the team has accomplished and what it has become.

This was Blast from the Past Night, with the team donning Springfield Indians jerseys from the early ’90s for a tilt against the Providence Bruins. The night became a mix of nostalgia, high energy, and record sales at the merchandise shop.

“It was 6 below zero, and we had more than 6,000 people in this arena,” said Paul Picknelly, president of Monarch Enterprises and managing partner among the owners. “We sold out the place with families that are coming to downtown Springfield, feeling comfortable bringing their families downtown for professional sports.

“It’s not just about hockey,” he went on. “The previous owners’ mindset was ‘we have hockey in Springfield.’ What we’re saying is that we have something different that we’re offering the community.”

For bringing this family entertainment, this ‘something different,’ as well as much-needed vibrancy and even validity to downtown Springfield, the Thunderbirds team — not the one on the ice (although it is also a big part of the story), but rather the ownership and management team — has been selected by the leaders at BusinessWest as the recipients of the magazine’s Top Entrepreneur Award for 2017.

Several of the team’s owners and managers

Several of the team’s owners and managers gather on the ice in a host of jerseys worn by the team over the past season and a half. The ownership group is large (28 individuals and groups) but very engaged.

This group was chosen among a host of other intriguing candidates for many reasons, but especially the manner in which it has changed the landscape since that headline announcing that the Falcons were flying southwest — and we don’t mean the airline.

There is considerably more energy downtown on 36 game days and nights (there are actually a few morning contests as well, as we’ll see) between October and April, and maybe beyond.

But that’s just part of the story. Indeed, the T-Birds are a year-long phenomenon and a region-wide resource as well, thanks to an omni-present mascot and a management team laser-focused on keeping the team top of mind, even in the middle of summer.

The phrase ‘weaving our way into the fabric of the community’ was uttered by more than a few of the owners we spoke with recently, and this is exactly what the team has done.

For their ability to do that, and especially for their efforts to bring not only hockey but much more back to Springfield, the ownership and management team is truly worthy of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor.

Owning the Solution

They sound like characters on one of those Saturday morning cartoon shows.

But ‘Boomer’ and ‘Squeaky’ are real — well, sort of. They are the mascots, respectively, for the Thunderbirds and Balise Motors’ growing stable of car washes in Western Mass.

They appear together sometimes, and increasingly, and these joint appearances are just one example of the many ways in which the 28 owners of the Thunderbirds — Jeb Balise, a principal with the family-owned Balise corporation, is one of them — are involved and invested in the team and its success in Springfield and across the region.

Other examples abound, from construction company owner Dave Fontaine putting banners for the team at his construction sites, to Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners Peter Martins and Derek Salema running promotions at their stores (more on one of those later); from employees at Red Rose Pizza wearing T-Birds jerseys on game nights (principal Anthony Caputo is one of the owners) to Picknelly, a local partner with MGM Springfield, convincing that corporation to not only be a sponsor of the T-Birds, but to actively help market it after the casino opens this fall.

It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Indeed, just before a slot machine pays out to a winner, a screen will pop up asking the lucky player if he or she would like to buy a ticket to a Thunderbirds game, said Picknelly, adding that this is one of many ways the casino will help promote the team.

Collectively, these initiatives, and this involvement, speak to how unified these owners are in their desire to secure a long, prosperous future for this franchise. They have different businesses and different backgrounds — and many of them didn’t know much about hockey when they were approached about this venture — but they understood the importance of the team to the city, especially at that critical time in its history.

Indeed, using different words and phrases, the owners we spoke with said that the spring of 2016, when they all came together in this enterprise, was not the time (if there really ever is a good time) for Springfield to be without a hockey team.

Elaborating, they said that, with MGM coming in the fall of 2018, Union Station set to open soon, greater vibrancy downtown, and a general sense of optimism, the city needed to maintain momentum, not lose any.

So when Picknelly called and asked them to be part of a growing consortium of owners, they found it easy to say ‘yes.’

“I remember getting the call from Paul on a Friday afternoon; he said, ‘did you see the paper today?’” said Fran Cataldo, a principal with C&W Realty, referring to the day the Falcons’ owners announced they were selling the team to the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. “I said, ‘yeah, I did.’ And he said, ‘it’s not going to happen; we’re going to keep hockey here.’

“And in the course of 72 hours, we identified a team, negotiated a purchase-and-sale agreement, and made a deposit on the team,” he went on. “It happened very quickly, and the reason it did, and the reason everyone got involved from the ownership standpoint, is because everyone loves Springfield. We have diverse backgrounds, but we all love Springfield, and it’s an easy ask when you ask someone to invest in it.”

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys

Thunderbirds players wore replica Indians jerseys on Blast from the Past Night on Jan. 6, an event that became a microcosm of the team’s efforts to create energy and an experience at the MassMutual Center.

Cataldo, a long-time friend of Picknelly’s, said he’s worked with him on a number of initiatives that fall into the broad categories of economic development and improving the public perception of Springfield. And the purchase of the Thunderbirds fell into both categories, so be called it a “natural,” especially in the context of the question everyone was asking 21 months ago: ‘what if we lost hockey?’

“It’s more than losing hockey,” he said, answering the question himself. “You’re losing 4,000 or 5,000 people 30-plus nights a year downtown. They’re bringing their families downtown, they’re parking, they’re eating, they’re going out afterward; it’s a huge, huge economic engine for Springfield.

Frank Colaccino, CEO of the Colvest Group, who admits that he didn’t know a red line from a blue line when Picknelly called him, tells a similar story.

“He called me and said, ‘we’ve got to move quick; we need the support of people who work in Springfield and care about Springfield,’” he recalled. “I think it took me all of about five minutes to say, ‘Paul, do you think we’ll get our money back?’ He said, ‘yeah, I think we will,’ and I was in.”

Collectively, the ownership team being assembled needed to raise $5.5 million for the down payment on the team, and as it went about doing so, it focused on keeping the group local and committed to the region.

It even turned down more than $1 million from a New York investor that wanted in, but also wanted some controls in exchange for its investment.

“We all sat around this table and said, ‘we don’t want that,’” said Colaccino. “The person’s not from the area, doesn’t care about the area, and we decided we didn’t want to give up some of those controls. And it took some guts to walk away from that and say, ‘we’re going to raise this money.’”

In the span of about 10 days, Springfield lost hockey and got it back, but the act of buying the Portland (Maine) Pirates and bringing them to Springfield would be only the first expression of entrepreneurship with this franchise.

Net Results

The second, whether the ownership team realized it at the time or not (and they probably did), was hiring Springfield native Nate Costa to lead this venture.

Costa had most recently been working in the American Hockey League office in its Business Services Department, but he also had extensive experience in the field, if you will, working for the league’s San Antonio Rampage.

He arrived in Springfield with what he called a “blueprint” — one that called for not just hockey, but affordable family entertainment — but also with his hands full.

Indeed, the team didn’t have a name at that point, or colors, a uniform design, or even a lease with the MassMutual Center. All that got done, and Costa set about putting to work the lessons he learned in San Antonio, but also from watching some of the league’s most successful franchises.

From the outset, he said the focus has been on providing an experience, not just three periods of hockey, and also on making the team visible and active within the community. Doing those things requires a real commitment from ownership and the requisite resources to get the job done properly, something the previous ownership didn’t provide.

Chris Thompson, the Thunderbirds’ senior vice president of Sales & Strategy, who has worked with the team for nearly a decade and for three different ownership groups, described the difference between then and now.

“It’s a breath of fresh air having the support of the local investment group to give us the resources to be able to go out there and tell the story,” he explained. “We did some cool things with the Falcons back in the day, but we could never tell the story; the biggest difference between then and now is that the local group is fully engaged.”

It is also more entrepreneurial, a word that could be used to describe both ownership and management, said Costa, adding that this has become the team’s mindset largely out of necessity.

Elaborating, he said that, from his vantage point in the AHL offices, he saw what he called missed opportunities in Springfield, especially with regard to ticket sales at all levels, especially group sales and season tickets.

His goal upon taking over the team was to seize those opportunities.

“I put together a plan that I almost had in the back of my mind,” he recalled. “It was really focused on grassroots efforts — beefing up our season-ticket sales, doing more with marketing and on social media, and really taking an entirely fresh look at the franchise.

“I had absolute confidence, if we stuck to our plan when it came to ticket sales and having a sales mindset, that this could work here,” he went on. “And I think we’re starting to see that. It’s taken some time, but year one was a huge success on a number of levels.”

This was made clear by the team’s haul when it comes to year-end awards handed out by the league. The credenza in the conference room is crowded with such plaques, which recognize achievement in areas ranging from group ticket sales to “recovered revenue.”

Costa said those plaques result from a systematic look at all aspects of the operation with an eye toward making changes when they were needed, and that was often the case.

As it was with ticket prices, for example, said Costa, noting that, with the previous administration, all seats were priced the same. The new ownership has introduced price flexibility, dividing the seating bowl into several areas, with different prices for each one.

Another focal point was concessions. Using the team’s relationship with MGM, management was able to negotiate a Friday-night special on concession and beer sales in an effort to get more younger people and families in the arena.

Still another matter was parking, which was a recognized deterrent for many potential fans. So the club negotiated a deal whereby the team would make a payment to the city, enabling patrons to park in the Civic Center Garage for free, a step that brought immediate and lasting results.

“We really tried to take all the things we had heard from the previous couple of years and take them head on and find ways that we could make a tangible impact,” said Costa. “We did this not only for the casual fan, but the season ticket holders; they’re going to reap the biggest benefit from this because they’re coming every night.”

Goal Oriented

As for that aforementioned promotion at Dunkin’ Donuts, one that involved giving away two game tickets with purchases at the drive-up window on a specific day, the mere mention of it brought some wry smiles and looks toward the ceiling among those talking with BusinessWest.

This wasn’t a promotion gone wrong, per se, but one that didn’t go exactly as planned. And this created one of those good problems to have — sort of, but not really.

To make a long story a little shorter, far more people redeemed the tickets for this early-season game than management anticipated, leaving far fewer seats available for walk-up customers, a scenario the team has worked very hard to avoid.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

“It was the Friday after David Ortiz, so we were topical and people wanted to check us out,” Cataldo recalled. “The redemption, which is typically low for those tickets, was through the roof, and we essentially sold out of our tickets.”

Said Costa, “at the end of the day, we were turning people away at the box office, which you don’t want to do all the time.”

If the Dunkin’ Donuts promotion was something that went wrong — and that’s not the term most would prefer to use in reference to that night — then not much else has for this team.

Indeed, just about everything has gone exceedingly right.

Including the so-called ‘Shoot to Win’ promotion involving one of the team’s newest sponsors, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that was almost impossible to do — young Nathan Vila managed to shoot a puck into a hole not much wider than the puck itself from about 150 feet away to win a new Mercedes GLA SUV. But that’s only part of the story.

“It was just before Christmas, and the young man [Nathan] was heading into the service in a few weeks and gave the car to his mother to drive,” said Peter Wirth, a principal with the dealership. “You really couldn’t script it any better.”

There hasn’t been a script, per se, for anything the Thunderbirds and their management team have done since they started scrambling to get the team ready for the start of the 2016-17 season in that hectic summer other than do what entrepreneurs do famously — think outside the box, innovate, invest in the company, and take some calculated risks.

And these are exactly the personality traits that inspired Wirth and his wife, Michelle, to want to be part of what was happening with the Thunderbirds.

“We went to a few games, and they seemed to be doing things the right way … it might as well have been the NHL; they were delivering a really good product,” he said. “They think outside the box, and they create energy and excitement, and we wanted to be part of that.”

And nothing personifies those qualities more than the night David Ortiz came to Springfield.

In case you missed it — and that, too, was almost impossible to do — the Red Sox slugger appeared before and during the Nov. 11 game against the Laval (Quebec) Rocket. He drove an ATV on the ice, signed a ton of autographs, and whacked some foam baseballs into the sellout crowd.

It was a huge success, but it was also a considerable risk given the huge sticker price attached to an appearance from Big Papi. But it was a risk the ownership team was more than willing to accept it.

“That was a huge commitment — those big stars certainly don’t come cheap,” said Colaccino. “But when that idea was presented, everyone around this table said, ‘what a great idea.’ The number being tossed around to get him here was a big one, but not one person said, ‘no, that’s not a good idea.’ Having a baseball guy come to a hockey arena … that’s outside-the-box thinking, and it was hugely successful.”

Costa quantified the matter by saying the team reaped a three-to-one return on that sizable investment thanks to a mix of corporate sponsorships, additional ticket revenue, a VIP event, merchandise, and special Red Sox-themed team jerseys made possible through the team’s relationship with MGM. Elaborating, he called the Ortiz night not only a microcosm of that blueprint mentioned earlier, but an example of his mindset when it comes to the team and its ownership.

“From day one, I’ve looked at this as a business venture because they’ve put their trust in me to make this work from a business perspective, and I’ve never lost sight of that,” he explained. “So when I presented the Ortiz piece, it wasn’t ‘give me what I need to get him,’ it was ‘here’s what it’s going to do for us, here’s what the return is going to be, here’s what it’s going to do for the community and the Thunderbirds name in general.’

“And coming from the American Hockey League and seeing what other AHL franchises need to do in a market like Springfield … it’s very entrepreneurial,” he went on. “It’s grassroots; it’s rolling up sleeves and doing the dirty work.”

Knowing the Score

Meanwhile, Costa said the Ortiz night was a very needed step to raise the bar in the team’s critical second year.

Indeed, calling on his extensive experience in the league, he said it’s not uncommon for a team to do well in its first year as it brings something new and different to a region. It’s also common for teams to struggle in their efforts to maintain that momentum.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge in year two to continue that momentum moving forward, and I knew we needed something special,” he said, referring to the Ortiz promotion but also a full year’s worth of events.

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice

The Thunderbirds sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice at the Jan. 6 game, thanks to Snoop Dogg, his Indians jersey, and effective use of social media.

While Ortiz’s appearance in Springfield has probably been the high-water mark for this franchise, there have been plenty of other examples of outside-the-box thinking, risk taking, and, overall, an entrepreneurial mindset.

All those were on display on Blast from the Past Night, which highlighted the team’s success not only in creating an experience on the ice and in the arena, but in fully capitalizing on the awesome forces of social media.

In this case, the team put Snoop Dogg to work — or, more specifically, the Springfield Indians jersey he famously wore in the video for his song “Gin and Juice” — in its promotions for Blast from the Past Night. It was a natural tie-in to the evening’s festivities and inspiration for a $5 gin and juice special sold at the MassMutual Center that night.

“We sold $10,000 worth of gin and juice,” said Picknelly, noting that he and his son split one that night.

And then, there was Hockey Week in Springfield, staged in the middle of this month in an effort to bring people out during a difficult time of year and a few difficult days of the week.

The week started with a 1:05 p.m. tilt against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Martin Luther King Day. Youngsters were admitted to end zone seats for $5.55 courtesy of Friendly’s. The week continued with a Wednesday contest (those dates are always challenging) against one of the league’s most iconic franchises, the Hershey Bears. If the T-Birds won (and they did), then patrons’ ticket stubs would be good for the Feb. 7 game (yes, another Wednesday).

The week wrapped up with a Friday-night tilt against the Binghampton (New York) Devils, or a ‘3-2-1 Friday,’ as they’re called because a Coors Light, as noted, is $3, a hot dog is $2, and sodas are $1.

The unofficial goal moving forward, said Costa, with several owners nodding their head in agreement, is to make what happened on the night of that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion the norm.

Well, not exactly what happened that night, but the part about a game being sold out and patrons not to expect to be able to walk up to the ticket window a few moments before a game starts and buy some tickets.

“People are used to just walking up on game night and buying a ticket and getting a great seat,” Costa explained. “It’s not necessarily the case anymore, and from the beginning, that’s what we set out to do.

“What we’re trying to manufacture is urgency,” he went on. “That was the biggest thing we didn’t have coming into this. There was no urgency to buy tickets, no urgency to buy season tickets, no urgency to buy tickets early; we’ve tried to lay the foundation to change that — to create a sense of urgency.”

From all accounts, the team’s owners and managers are well on their way to doing just that.

Bottom Line

As he talked about the ownership group that he reports to, Costa acknowledged that 28 is a big number and one that most people would see as ungainly and something of a disadvantage.

He says this group is anything but that.

That’s because it’s not only large, but also visible on game nights and, most importantly, fully invested in the team, in every sense of that word.

“It’s been a huge benefit, and we couldn’t do what we do without it,” he said of the large group of owners. “We lean on them for support within the local community.”

Support comes in many forms — from getting much-needed introductions to exercising connections such as those needed to secure those Red Sox-themed jerseys for David Ortiz night, to bringing people to the MassMutual Center, as that Dunkin’ Donuts promotion did.

All that support has resulted in a changed landscape — where sometimes one can’t get a ticket on game night, and, yes, where David Ortiz bobbleheads are for sale on eBay two months before they’re actually handed out.

It’s a story of determination. A story of teamwork. But mostly, it’s a story of old-fashioned entrepreneurship.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

Paul Kozub Tackles the Hard Stuff to Take V-One National

Proof Positive

paulkozubcoverpicWhen he launched the V-One brand more than 11 years ago, Paul Kozub had a good product and a great story — the one about a commercial lender who quit banking to make vodka in his basement. As he prepares to take the brand national, he knows the great story isn’t nearly enough. The good product is the foundation of his efforts, but getting to the next level will be a daunting task. So he’s leaving no stone unturned, and these efforts have earned him BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2016.

He calls it ‘V-One Vodka Corporate Headquarters.’ Except when he opts to simply to say ‘the Church.’

Those are Paul Kozub’s chosen methods for referencing the former St. John’s Church on bustling Route 9 in Hadley, the 114-year-old structure he acquired in 2014 after some prolonged negotiations with the Diocese of Springfield and then spent months rehabbing, mostly by himself.

On the outside, it still looks like … a church, except for the huge slab of Goshen stone on the front lawn with the V-One logo placed on it, signage approved after months of hard talks with the town fathers.

On the inside, though, it looks a little like a bar and a lot like a banquet hall. Which it isn’t. Kozub doesn’t actually have a liquor license, but he can — and does — host a number of ‘tastings’ each year to promote his growing line of vodka flavors, as well as weekly sales meetings and a host of special events, including one on Christmas Eve for his family and his wife’s as well.

One fixture of V-One HQ is a large collection of vodkas, maybe 100 of them, kept on racks just off what used to be the altar long ago. You won’t find every brand here — there are more than 1,000 of them — but certainly all the recognizable names and then another few dozen recognizable only to those certainly in the know. Which he is, as will become quite clear.

Indeed, Kozub says he’s amassed this collection — and keeps adding to it — so he will know about the competition. Everything about the competition, that is — from the new flavors they’re putting out to the design of their bottles to the ingredients printed on the label.

Paul Kozub stands beside his new signage

Paul Kozub stands beside his new signage, placed on a huge slab of Goshen stone, outside V-One Corporate Headquarters, a.k.a. ‘the Church.’

Take grapefruit-flavored vodka, which all the major brands now have, for example. Kozub did.

“What I did was buy every grapefruit vodka I could find,” he said, while reaching for a few. “When I come up with an idea, like this one, I try every grapefruit offering I can get my hands on, with the goal of making mine unique.”

It is only through such research and legwork, said Kozub, that he will be able to take V-One from status as a ‘local’ flavor and make it a regional and then national and perhaps international brand.

Actually, V-One is already international, as Kozub explained while digging for his phone and scrolling to a photo of him next to a poster for his vodka at Frederick Chopin Airport in Warsaw (his vodkas are made in Poland and available in duty-free shops at several airports in that country), right next to similar posters for Rolex watches and high-end perfumes.

But, while obviously proud of that product placement, Kozub knows he is facing a long, winding, extremely difficult road just to take his vodkas beyond most of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, the places where they are now available.

However, with the help of some new investors to whom he is selling a small equity stake in the company, Kozub is poised for territorial expansion. The first target is New Hampshire, where Kozub is currently gaining the necessary approvals to secure shelf space in the state-operated stores that feature low prices that often entice people to cross borders.

After that, other New England states are being eyed, as well as the potentially lucrative but tough-to-crack Boston and New York City markets.

To get to the next level, though, Kozub knows he needs something beyond the proverbial ‘good story’ that helped him get off the ground and then well-established within the 413 area code. Most people in this region know it by now: it’s about how an intrepid commercial lender rising in the ranks at TD Bank put that career on permanent hold after deciding to take a small inheritance from his grandfather, as well as some inspiration from his entrepreneurial father, and create a new vodka label in his home.

“As I go into Miami, San Francisco, and other major cities, the story about the guy who started making vodka in his basement is great, but we’ll need much more,” he explained. “So I want to lead with the product itself, and how we tell our story.”

Efforts to move beyond his Hollywood-script saga and create a product that will appeal nationally essentially sum up what Kozub has been doing for the past 12 to 18 months or so. This is a multi-faceted assignment involving everything from lining up investors to initiating marketing pushes in some major cities, to months of hard work designing a new bottle for his vodkas.

Paul Kozub stands next to a sign for his vodka at Frederick Chopin Airport in Warsaw

Paul Kozub stands next to a sign for his vodka at Frederick Chopin Airport in Warsaw. While V-One is technically international, the next real challenge is to make it a national brand.

The sum of these efforts has earned Kozub BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2016. Established two decades ago, the award recognizes a centuries-old tradition of entrepreneurship in this region and honors those who are continuing that legacy, something Kozub summed up simply by saying, “I feel like I haven’t worked a day in 11 years.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Beyond those racks loaded with vodka bottles, Kozub has a number of other items, or props, lurking behind what resembles a bar counter (complete with bar stools) installed at the front of the old church’s nave.

One of them is a 50-pound bag of corn, bought at a nearby Tractor Supply Co. location, very effectively labeled (at least for this exercise) with the words ‘feed for cattle, sheep, and horses.’

Paul Kozub says he has a patent on his so-called ‘bottle jacket,’

Paul Kozub says he has a patent on his so-called ‘bottle jacket,’ one of many examples of how he’s leaving no stone unturned as he takes the brand national.

“This is what you feed cows — a lot of popular vodkas today are made from corn,” said Kozub, as he began a well-rehearsed presentation he gives to various audiences while not-so-delicately lowering the bag onto the counter so its weight can resonate. “It’s the cheapest ingredient you can find; it costs about six cents a pound, and it takes about three pounds to make a bottle of corn vodka.

“This is spelt,” he went on, holding up a small box of the hulled wheat that is his not-so-secret ingredient. “If you buy this at the store, it’s about eight dollars a pound; so you’re talking six to eight cents versus eight dollars.”

That bag of corn is one of many selling points used by Kozub as he goes about introducing his product and differentiating it from all those competitors. Others include the fake-fur-lined ‘bottle jackets’ and soon-to-arrive summer ‘bottle life vests’ (made in Poland) that he says are unique and patented.

“They’re something cool — no one can else can make a bottle winter coat like this,” he noted while holding one aloft. “Almost everyone has a box with two glasses in it. This is my equivalent, but I like to stand out.

“Over the past few years, I’ve been prepping for a national launch,” he went on while putting most of what is now on display at the church in perspective. “I’m trying to get the whole brand tightened and leave no stone unturned, because it’s going to take a lot to get from where we are to where I want to be.”

Those sentiments, and the aggressive, confident manner in which he backs them up, speak volumes about the passion and commitment Kozub has for all aspects of this endeavor, qualities that Shaun Dwyer recognized long ago.

Now the first vice president of Commercial Banking for Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, which is now financing aspects of the V-One venture, Dwyer says he’s known Kozub for 15 years now, or back to when they were both young lenders at TD Bank trying to earn their stripes. He’s followed Kozub’s adventures throughout his career, and summons most of the same adjectives and adverbs used by others to describe how the entrepreneur goes about his work.

“Paul is a driven, highly motivated guy who’s very focused on what he does,” Dwyer explained. “He’s passionate about V-One, which contributes significantly to its success. And he’s involved in every aspect of the business, from creating and testing new products and flavors to the marketing, to the distribution, to customer relations.

Shaun Dwyer

Shaun Dwyer, a commercial lender with PeoplesBank, says Paul Kozub’s passion for his vodka brand has been a key ingredient in its success.

“And he knows how to earn money, which is the most important thing,” Dwyer went on, adding that his client definitely used his years in banking to his advantage. “He’s done well. He hasn’t gone in over his head during the time he’s been in business, he’s taken smart steps, he knows his markets, and he knows he’s got a good product.”

While those comments neatly and concisely sum up Kozub’s first 11 or so years in business, marked by strong success — growth has averaged 20% per year, by Dwyer’s estimates — one really needs to go back to 2005 for a more detailed look at how things got started and, hopefully, a deeper appreciation for the chapters to the story now being written.

It was in October of that year that Kozub first graced the cover of BusinessWest. Actually, it was one of those smaller pictures at the bottom of the page that alert readers to the stories inside.

That piece revealed that Kozub entered banking with no real intention of making it a career. Instead, he was focused on following the lead of his father, Edward, who took Janlynn Corp. from a mom-and-pop operation to a business that employed more than 100 people, but tragically died while Paul was still in high school. He was, as he put it, working in financial services to learn the mechanics of small-business management from the “other side.”

While his father inspired him, it was his grandfather, Stanley, who is actually credited with giving him the proverbial push he needed. Family legend has it that he was a moonshiner during Prohibition, and young Paul, upon seeing a truck laden with potatoes pass his Hadley home, began conceptualizing a plan to make vodka with that vegetable as its base.

Using $6,000 his grandfather left him, he started in his basement, and, after a number of fits and starts, eventually brought V-One to the marketplace.

Over the ensuing years, Kozub and V-One would regularly grace the pages of BusinessWest, with everything from an actual cover story to a host of news briefs detailing everything from new flavors (there are now four) to awards (there have been many of those); from his purchase of St. John’s Church to his 10th anniversary in business, celebrated, as only they can in this business, 18 or so months ago.

Slicing through all those articles and updates, Kozub said the message they send is that there isn’t nearly as much glamour in this business as one might think, and far more challenges and high hurdles than one can imagine.

“It’s a difficult, incredibly competitive business,” he said, adding that each step in the process of growing V-One and bringing its brand to prominence has been carefully choreographed, with the goal of achieving marked — but controlled — growth.

And so it is with the next, very ambitious steps now on the drawing board and in the process of becoming reality.

Taking His Shot

Kozub told BusinessWest that, by his conservative estimates, it takes at least $500,000 to enter a new market — a state or major city, for example — and do the job right, which is the only way he knows.

“I’ve been thinking about how we’re going to grow and how we’re going to get bigger, and of course everything comes down to money,” he explained with a heavy sigh. “You need money to enter each state because you need salespeople, you need marketing, you need brand awareness … there’s a lot that goes into this.”

This simple math and sobering dose of reality made it clear that, for him to grow, he needed capital, probably in the form of investors willing to gamble on his brand in exchange for a piece of it.

New vans like this one, detailed with the V-One logo

New vans like this one, detailed with the V-One logo, are one of many ways Paul Kozub is building his brand.

Since he started V-One, Kozub has been largely resistant to the idea of taking on investors, not wanting to relinquish even a small percentage of his venture. But having gone about as far as he thought he could in the markets he’s in, and with a strong desire to continue growing, he understood he was at a crossroads.

So he started talking to some money people — in the careful, studious manner that has marked all of his activities to date.

“About 18 months or so ago, I was approached by a very influential person in the business who had started a similar company and eventually sold it for millions, and he wanted to invest in V-One,” he explained. “After months of negotiations, I found out that he really wanted to take over my company and not simply invest, so we cut off talks.”

Roughly a month later, he was approached by another group, based in Texas, he went on, adding that his research, and the negotiations, eventually led to a deal that will generate a few million dollars in capital that will enable him to expand the V-One footprint, if you will, in a few directions.

One is north, to New Hampshire and the other New England states, and then west and south, to New York and New Jersey.

It’s a bold step, and Kozub acknowledged there are risks. But the alternative, merely standing pat, does not reflect the established growth formula. And he will continue to move in a measured, controlled manner.

“When I quit my job at TD Bank, I went for it, and I knew that if I could sell 500 cases in a year I’d be able to make a nice living,” he said, adding that he long ago recalibrated his goals and aspirations. “So with this next stage, I’m going for it again, but we’re going to be very calculated moving forward, and we’re definitely going to test each market before we enter it.”

Elaborating, he said the financing from his new investors will essentially come in three rounds, which will facilitate and essentially drive this controlled pace of growth he described. And the first goal, as mentioned earlier, is basically the rest of New England, meaning New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont.

That includes Boston, he went on, where the company has really just put a toe in the water, with the understanding that penetrating that market will be extremely difficult, due to some well-established heavyweights in the industry.

“I just hired a PR firm in Boston to help me get established there,” he explained. “It’s a great market, but it’s also very tight-knit; getting into some of Boston’s famous restaurants is … next to impossible.

“The competition in these big cities is just unbelievable, because everyone wants to be there,” he went on. “For example, Russian Standard Vodka went to Boston seven or eight years ago, and I know they spent half a million dollars to get their brand going there, and it really didn’t do much.”

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti presents Paul Kozub with the plaque marking his selection as Top Entrepreneur for 2016.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti presents Paul Kozub with the plaque marking his selection as Top Entrepreneur for 2016.

This outcome helps explain that, while capital is obviously critical to the process of penetrating new markets, the product, or products, will ultimately determine how successful those efforts are.

Thus, he returned to that notion of leaving no stone unturned as he prepares to take V-One national.

Fifth Dimension

With that, Kozub went behind the bar again, this time to collect a thick file folder detailing his work to create a new bottle for his vodkas; his current model is a futura style, essentially something off the shelf, as they say in this business, and fairly common, with several brands using it.

He wasn’t about to reveal anything too specific about what he had in mind for this redesign, but did get into great detail about how this is a very serious — and expensive — exercise, worthy of as much attention as what goes inside the bottle.

“It’s always been my dream to have my own bottle because I have my own vodka that’s the only vodka in the world made from spelt, and we feel it’s the cleanest vodka in the world,” he explained. “We want our bottle to reflect that. As I roll out nationally and get on the shelves in Miami and San Francisco, I really want the bottle to stand out.”

Elaborating, he said that, through his contacts in Poland, he was introduced to what he called the “best bottle designers in the world,” based in Cognac, France. These designers gave him 13 options, all different in some way, and he has whittled that field down to two, and essentially one that he says he’s leaning toward.

Why is the bottle so important? In the vodka world, image is an important consideration, he said, and the ornate, decorative bottles one sees on the shelf — often doubling as works of art — play a big role in image-projection efforts. But practicality is also an issue.

“You think about everything, including how it’s going to fit in the bartender’s hand and how it’s going to pour,” he explained. “Some of these bottles that brands come out with … they’ll never be used in bars because bartenders don’t like to hold them and they’re very awkward to pour. We do very well in bars and restaurants, and the new bottle will fit very well in bartenders’ hands.”

Kozub’s intense focus on creating a new bottle is an example of how he’s still fully involved with every aspect of this operation, but also how his role is changing in some ways.

He no longer makes deliveries himself, and he lets his sales staff handle most of the roughly 100 tastings the company will schedule a year — although he still presides over several of them. Instead, he’s content to wear what he called his ‘CFO hat’ and the ‘strategic planning hat.’

He has the latter on all the time, as one might imagine, and there are many elements to it, from the bottle to the bottle jackets; from the marketing strategies for entering new regions to lining up investors; from ongoing renovations of ‘the Church’ (there is still a lot of work to be done) to determining when and if to add more flavors to the portfolio.

And there will likely be at least one flavor to join grapefruit, triple berry, lime, hazelnut, and vanilla, he told BusinessWest, adding that he doesn’t know what it will be yet, and there are several possible contenders for the light blue bottle he’s already picked out to give him a full rainbow.

The need to keep adding flavors, the need to keep undertaking strategic planning, is very necessary, he said, because this is a fast-moving, constantly changing industry, where trends change quickly and often.

Indeed, while vodkas — and, specifically, flavored vodkas — were all the rage just a few years ago, bourbons and other ‘brown whiskeys’ are now hot, and vodka is essentially flat, Kozub explained.

Meanwhile, tastes among all demographic groups, and especially the younger generations, are shifting away from mainstream offerings and more toward designer products, such as the myriad craft beers now populating the market.

Which means he is likely in the right places at the right time with the right products.

“As time goes on, I think there will be more people seeking out niche vodkas, or ‘craft vodkas,’ as I like to call them,” he explained. “If you have a bar, and you have Bud, Miller, and Coors on tap, your bar probably won’t be in business for long. You need to have those craft beers, and it’s the same with whisky, rum, gin, and vodka — that’s the trend.”

As he goes about tackling life in this constantly changing landscape and the myriad challenges still ahead of him, Kozub displays the same entrepreneurial spirit and not-so-quiet confidence that have defined his efforts from the beginning.

And while the stage is set to get exponentially bigger, he’s saying essentially the same thing he was when he was delivering cases to area liquor stores and restaurants himself.

“We have one of the best vodkas in the world — I just have to let people try it,” he said. “If I can do that …”

Glass Act

He didn’t actually finish that thought, but he didn’t really have to.

From the start, he’s always thought, and always known, that if he could make a good introduction, then people would buy his product.

In other words, he’s always had more than a good story about making vodka in his basement — a lot more. And as he prepares to take his portfolio of flavors national, he plans to add even more.

That’s what he means by “leaving no stone unturned” — even the one in front of V-One Corporate Headquarters.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur

Big Y Marks 80 Years of Ideas and Innovation

D'Mour Family

From left, Charlie D’Amour, Matt D’Amour, Nicole D’Amour Schneider, Maggie D’Amour, Michael D’Amour, and Claire D’Amour-Daley.

Roughly 80 years ago, Paul D’Amour, a delivery man for Wonder Bread, was told in fairly uncertain terms that he couldn’t advance in that company because of his name and religion. With this knowledge that doors would not open for him, he made his own door in the form of a small market in Chicopee. We know it today as Big Y. It’s now a $1.7 billion enterprise managed by the second and third generations of the family, a company defined by many adjectives, but especially entrepreneurial. To recognize that legacy, BusinessWest has named the members of all three generations its Top Entrepreneurs for 2015.

They call it the ‘Nice Try’ award.

Big Y Foods started presenting it annually a few years ago, said Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president of Corporate Communications for the soon-to-be-80-year-old company and member of its second generation of leadership.

It goes, she went on, to an individual or group that conceptualized an idea that looked good on paper, as they say, but just didn’t pan out for one reason or another.

“It’s an honor … but you don’t want to win it too often — one’s enough,” said Michael D’Amour, executive vice president of the company and oldest member of the third generation of leadership as he explained its purpose, relevance, and unique place within the company.

Maggie D’Amour, a store manager in training and another member of that third generation, agreed. “They tried changing the recipe for jelly donuts one year, and the customers really didn’t like it at all. Someone won it for that.”

Overall, the ‘Nice Try’ award, as Michael implied, was conceived as something to be proud of, noted D’Amour-Daley, who said Big Y is a company that puts a premium on innovation, entrepreneurship, ideas, and always looking for better, more efficient ways of doing things. And ‘Nice Try’ embodies all of that and more.

“We honor mistakes because that’s how we learn,” she explained, “and it’s important to learn from your mistakes.”

Founders Gerry, left, and Paul D’Amour

Founders Gerry, left, and Paul D’Amour set an entrepreneurial tone that has defined Big Y throughout its 80-year history.

The award and the philosophy behind it explains why Big Y is still here 80 years after Paul D’Amour, with assistance from his much younger brother, Gerry, and, later, sisters Ann Marie, Yvette, and Gertrude, opened the Y Cash Market in Chicopee. They also explain why the company now logs $1.7 billion in annual revenues; how it’s gone from one 30-foot-wide corner market to 63 supermarkets in Massachusetts and Connecticut; why it continues to expand into new business realms, such as convenience stores with its acquisition of several O’Connell Convenience Plus gas stations; and why it was recently named one of the Best Places to Work by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast.

And also why the members of three generations in this family have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2015. (See previous BusinessWest Top Entrepreneurs HERE)

“Since this award was conceptualized 20 years ago, it has gone to companies that have made significant strides over the previous year or two,” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti, “and also to companies that have displayed a strong entrepreneurial character throughout their existence.

“When it comes to Big Y, it’s a lot of both,” she went on. “This company continues to take bold entrepreneurial steps, such as the purchase of the convenience stores, but it has a legacy of entrepreneurship that goes back eight decades and has been constant throughout this company’s existence.”

Explaining the roots of that legacy, Don D’Amour, CEO of the company and the oldest member of that second generation, again relayed the story of how his father, Paul, a Canadian emigrant, left a decent job delivering Wonder Bread to start his own venture in the middle of the Great Depression.

But this time — he’s told this story often — he provided some keen insight into why.

“At some point, a gentleman at Wonder Bread pulled him aside and said, ‘you’re never going to be promoted in this company — you’ve got the wrong last name, and you’ve got the wrong religion [Catholic],’” he noted. “My dad went home, talked to my mom, and told her pretty much what this guy said. Later, he found there was a small market for sale in Willimansett. He talked to my mom some more and decided to take the plunge.”

His brother would eventually take it with him, after serving in the military, and also after conveying serious doubts about the viability of this business venture in a letter home to his family (more on that in a bit).

In the decades to come, the second generation, and then the second working alongside the third — just as the first worked beside the second — would take plunges of their own, none perhaps as risky as that original leap, but all of them constituting business gambles.

Some have been relatively minor — such as the introduction of in-store floral shops — while others have been considerable in scope, including forays into new markets, new geographic territories, and new ways of doing business.

Summing it all up, Charlie D’Amour, Claire’s brother and the company’s president, said that, despite this company’s proud history, its operating manual has one simple instruction: Look forward, never back.

Marketplace of Ideas

photo of founder Paul D’Amour and co-workers

This photo of founder Paul D’Amour and co-workers in front of the original Y Cash Market is one of a precious few in the archives from the early days.

As they talked about the exploits of their father (Gerry) and uncle, Claire and Charlie decided to move the conversation from inside a replica of the original market at the store’s headquarters on Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield to a nearby wall that holds a photo of Paul D’Amour and a few co-workers standing in front of the Y Cash Market.

They did so to point out, literally, just how tiny that original storefront was. But soon the subject matter shifted to how few items like this one there are in the company’s archives.

In fact, the early history of the venture is so incomplete that the month of the company’s opening in 1936, much less the exact date, is not known. Thus, significant anniversarie tend to be year-long events, and the 80th will be even more so.

Explaining this phenomenon, Charlie D’Amour said it came down to the simple fact that his father and uncle were too busy scripting their story to summon the time or energy needed to record it. As a result, there are few papers and photographs to display or refer back to.

One notable exception is that letter Gerry sent home to his family while in the service. It revealed, in not-so-glowing terms, his thoughts on the prospects for his brother’s entrepreneurial plunge.

“He really had his doubts about the business,” said Charlie while summarizing the missive from memory. “He thought Paul might be wasting his brains and talents on that market.”

Still, Gerry agreed to join the venture after returning from duty, and the rest, is, well, better-recorded history — at least the past half-century or so. And while Gerry was eventually proven wrong in his assessment of the venture’s potential, those first few years amounted to nothing less than a struggle for survival.

“There were a lots of ups and downs — more downs than ups, for sure,” said Don D’Amour. “They almost went bankrupt a few times, but they stuck with it.

“It was a very entrepreneurial start to be sure, and the company has always been entrepreneurial over the years,” he went on. “There’s always been a desire to innovate and try new things.”

Charlie agreed.

“One of the things that Paul and Gerry passed on to all of us was that they were restless in their desire to improve,” he explained. “They were continuously trying to find a better way to do things, and trying to evolve and change as the business evolved. And that continues today; this is a very, very dynamic business. It’s always changing; it’s never the same. We’re certainly not doing business in 2016 the same way were a year ago, let alone five years ago or 80 years ago.”

Being dynamic and entrepreneurial isn’t simply desirable, family members said repeatedly and in different ways, but is quite necessary in a retail landscape that is constantly changing and becoming ever more competitive.

Indeed, while a few decades ago, the company was doing battle largely against other grocery chains, most of them national and international giants, now it is also competing with the likes of Walmart, Costco, online ventures, and pharmacy chains that now have huge frozen-food aisles.

“There’s been a blurring of the channels,” said Charlie as he explained the ongoing shift involving retail outlets. “And that’s made for a much more competitive landscape.”

But, as the timeline above reveals, the company has always been aggressive in seeking new business opportunities and, as Charlie said, better ways of doing things. That chronology highlights everything from the first supermarket to movement into beer and wine sales; from growth through expansion of several smaller grocery chains to expansion into Connecticut and then Eastern Mass.; from the introduction of the World Class Market to expansion into pharmacies.

A common thread with each development has been improving the customer experience, said Charlie, adding that this is another philosophical trait passed down from the first generation.

And while what the company has accomplished is noteworthy, the how is perhaps an even more intriguing story. It comes down, said all those we spoke with, to creating an environment where ideas — including those that wind up earning someone a ‘Nice Try’ award — are encouraged, listened to, and often acted upon.

Making the Sausage

This brings us to the concept of strategic planning, which has greatly evolved itself over the years.

In the beginning — and for several years, actually — this was Paul and Gerry’s assignment, and it was done, in large part, on the fly, Charlie explained. Today, it is much more sophisticated and involves dozens if not hundreds of players.

The mindset is essentially the same, though: looking down the road as far and effectively as one can, anticipating need, envisioning business opportunities to meet those needs, and then making them happen.

This is essentially a 24/7, company-wide activity, but there are organized sessions as well, as two-day corporate retreats, staged every 18 months. These are staged off-site, but instead of exotic locales, the company has opted for local venues such as the Basketball Hall of Fame and downtown Stockbridge.

“We can’t afford a fancy resort — that’s not in the budget,” said Mike, one of several third-generation family members now with a seat at the table at these gatherings.

He noted that these sessions feature lively, open discussions, and egos are, as the saying goes, checked at the door, and titles and last names are not an issue.

“At these meetings, everyone’s basically CEO of the company; everyone’s on the same level,” he explained. “No topic is off-base, there are no sacred cows, and we take a nice, honest check of who we are, what we’re doing, and where we need to be.

“We’ll challenge each other in nice ways,” he went on. “And we’ll sit there, listen, take it all in, and try to understand where everyone’s coming from to make sure that, when we walk out of that room in a day in a half, we’re all in 100% agreement on what we’re doing. We don’t want half the room split or doing something just because my father says we’re going to do it or because Charlie says we’re going to do it. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing for everyone.”

Big Y’s second supermarket

Big Y’s second supermarket, in Northampton, represented one of many entrepreneurial leaps for the company.

Beyond the regular retreats, there are quarterly board meetings and twice-monthly team meetings, said Claire, adding that these and other vehicles are used to help ensure that ideas flow downhill and there is solid follow-up so concepts don’t get left behind.

Charlie agreed, and said there is one more level of management meetings, those involving family members.

“We are a family business, so it’s important that the family understands the role of the family in the business,” he explained. “Another of the things that Paul and Gerry taught is that the business doesn’t serve the family — the family serves the business.”

The various strategic-planning initiatives, as well as a recently penned vision statement, have helped provide the company with another important asset, one often missing at family-run ventures, said Matt D’Amour, another member of the third generation of management and the company’s senior director of Real Estate & Store Development: Alignment.

“One of the benefits of the big meetings is alignment and focus,” he explained. “Everyone is working toward common goals, and having that alignment has been key to our success.”

Mike agreed.

Big Y’s expansion into in-store pharmacies

Big Y’s expansion into in-store pharmacies represented one of many steep learning curves taken on by different generations of the D’Amour family.

“I think we have more alignment now in this company than perhaps we’ve ever had,” he explained. “People understand the vision, they believe in it, and they embrace their role within it. And that’s why I think this is an exciting time for us; we do have that alignment, and we can get a lot accomplished with everyone moving in the same direction.

“People have seen our sales the past few years, which have been stronger than others in the industry, and everyone’s asking what we’re doing,” he went on. “Well, it’s a lot of little things. There’s no silver bullet in this industry; it’s a lot of little things that have worked out over the past several years.”

Seeds of Progress

While Big Y’s story can be summed up as 80 years of entrepreneurial drive, it can also be categorized as the ongoing education of the D’Amour family in the grocery business — all three generations.

“Actually, it’s closer to five, because of the way the generations are staggered,” said Matt, noting the age differences among members of the same generation and how this wide spread of ages represented by family members has helped the company stay relevant.

And generate some humor. Indeed, Paul was 14 years older than Gerry, and subsequently, his son, Don, is significantly older than his cousins, Claire and Charlie — so much so that Charlie likes to joke (although Don certainly doesn’t laugh) that many people think the company’s CEO is his father. Likewise, Don’s daughter, Nicole D’Amour Schneider, says some believe Claire is her sister, not her second cousin.

Whether it’s three or five, there’s been a lot of one generation teaching the next, or older members of one generation teaching younger representatives. And that brings us to Charlie’s often-told story about how one of his many, early, and pointedly unglamorous jobs with the company was delivering produce, specifically watermelons. And as he retold it, he expounded on the philosophy that defined such learning opportunities, and still does, but maybe to a lesser extent.

“I had just gotten my driver’s license; I was 16,” he recalled. “And we needed to have some produce deliveries made. Don said, ‘meet me at our produce warehouse on Avocado Street in Springfield, and be there early.’

“I showed up, Donald put me in the truck, and it was a standard,” he went on. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to drive a standard.’ Then he said, ‘get in, and I’ll show you.’ He drove me around the parking lot once and sent me on me on my way. That was the extent of the training we had back then.”

Big Y’s latest entrepreneurial leap

Big Y’s latest entrepreneurial leap is into the convenience-store realm. This is a rendering of one of the Big Y Express stores in Pittsfield.

Things have changed considerably over the years — Charlie noted that his daughter Maggie’s current training to become a store manager is exponentially more involved than what he experienced in the mid-’70s — but the company’s approach is still grounded in the basic ‘sink-or-swim’ mentality espoused by the company’s founders — or similar phraseology that Charlie summoned.

“You can’t learn to swim by sitting at the side of the pool,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this mindset pertains to not only employees, including (or especially) family members, taking on new responsibilities, but the company taking new plunges, if you will.

As an example of the former, he gestured across the conference room table toward Nicole, who was minding her own business and handling a number of functions for the company, including training of store managers and administration of its formal ideas program, when it was essentially decided four years ago that she would manage the company’s new pharmacy division.

“I knew nothing about running pharmacies, so there was a real learning curve,” she explained. “It was a matter of coming in and running it as a business and taking that perspective, but also breaking down the silos between pharmacy and all the other departments and working more collaboratively together so we were presenting our customers with a one-stop experience.”

When asked what she’s learned over the past four years, Nicole joked that she can now pronounce the names of countless medications she never knew existed. She then turned serious and said that pharmacy, like all other departments in the store, requires a strong customer-service element, as well as an element of entrepreneurship.

“Today, in retail pharmacy, you have to innovate and change in order to survive,” she explained. “We’ve worked hard at getting our folks in the pharmacies to understand that and approach their jobs in a completely different manner. They’re not just pill counters; they really have to engage with our customers and provide unique services.”

As for the latter half of that sink-or-swim mentality, the new-business-opportunities side of the equation, family members cited the expansion into convenience stores and the recent acquisition of the O’Connell facilities.

This represents largely uncharted waters for the company — although the second Big Y supermarket in Northampton had a gas station attached to it in the ’60s, said Charlie — but taking the ship in such directions is certainly nothing new, going back to 1936 and most of the developments that have happened since.

“We took another look at it because a lot of our competitors were getting into it, and as we looked at it, we said, ‘that business has changed,’” he noted, adding that, where once those who frequented such facilities also wanted convenience items, now they’re also interested in eating on the run.

And, given other changes in society, they’re looking to eat healthier than hot dogs turning on a warmer. This plays into one of Big Y’s strengths, Charlie noted, adding that this venture could amount to an opportunity for growth — or the next opportunity, to be more precise.

What’s in Store?

As for what happens next — in the grocery business in general and Big Y in particular — members of both generations offered a collective shrug of the shoulders.

“Where do we see this industry going? It’s going in a few directions, such as to online business, mobile payments, and maybe drones dropping your grocery bags at your front door at some point,” said Mike, adding, as others did, that there will always be a need for the bricks-and-mortar supermarket.

And whatever the future brings, this company will more than likely be ready for it, or out ahead of it, he went on.

One would expect nothing else from an enterprise that honors innovation, ideas, and, yes, those nice tries.

A Big Y Timeline

• 1936: Paul D’Amour, with the help of his younger brother, Gerry, opens the Big Y Cash Market in Chicopee and delivers groceries by bicycle.

• 1947: Paul and Gerry team up as equal partners and incorporate as Y Cash Super Markets.

• 1952: The first Big Y Supermarket opens at 790 Memorial Dr. in Chicopee.

• 1960: Fine wines and beer are added to the supermarket in Northampton, the company’s second.

• 1963: The company buys a second Northampron location and opens Big Y Wines & Liquors.

• 1968: Big Y doubles in size with the acquisition of Jumbo Supermarkets.

• 1970: Big Y expands self-distribution to include everything from bread to bananas.

• 1971: Big Y introduces new technology such as scanning cash registers.

• 1984: The company expands its operations into Connecticut with the acquisition of a supermarket in Stafford Springs. Big Y also purchases the Adams Supermarket chain.

• 1986: As the company turns 50, it boasts 21 stores and 1,600 employees.

• 1990: Express Savings Club program starts, an industry first, to exchange paper coupons with electronic ones.

• 1998: The company’s Store Support Center moves to 2145 Roosevelt Ave. in Springfield, bigy.com is launched, and Big Y Wines & Liquors becomes Table & Vine.

• 2001: The first Big Y Pharmacy & Wellness Center opens in the Longmeadow store.

• 2003: There are now 51 stores, including one in Walpole, the company’s first in the Greater Boston area.

• 2006: Fresh Acres opens in Springfield.

• 2013: Big Y Express opens as the first gas and convenience store.

• 2016: As the company celebrates 80 years, it has grown to 66 locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut and more than 5,600 employees.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Top Entrepreneur

BusinessWest Top Entrepreneurs since 1996

• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT

• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC

• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express

• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community

• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride

• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric

• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.

• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling

• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties

• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales

• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital

• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies

• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.

• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners

• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications

• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College

• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports

• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House

• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur
Paragus Founder Reflects on Life in the Very Fast Lane

DelcieEntrepreneur2014DPartYou know you’re getting somewhere in life when your first name is all anyone really needs to make an identification.

That was the case with people named Elvis, Ringo, and Tiger (OK, his real name is Eldrick). And, to a lesser extent, it’s working for the 29-year-old that BusinessWest has chosen to be its Top Entrepreneur for 2014 — Delcie Bean.

Or just ‘Delcie,’ because that’s all that’s generally required when he becomes the subject of conversation. That’s true in part because, well, let’s face it, there are not many Delcies out there. But it’s also because Bean, in just a few years, has become a dominant force in the business community — and also with regional initiatives in the broad realm of economic development, education, and even office design.

By now, most everyone knows the story of how he first started selling things, like Creepy Crawlers and Ozark Lollipops, to classmates in the second grade, and started his own computer-repair company at age 14, when he was too young to drive but had no shortage of clients willing to pick him up and drive him to their home or business.

Most also know that he shaped what was named Valley Computer Works and later renamed Paragus Strategic IT (after asparagus — well, sort of) into one of the fastest-growing IT firms in the country, a fixture on Inc. magazine’s lists of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies, now boasting $4.25 million in annual sales.

They also know that he was the driving force behind Tech Foundry, a nonprofit, launched last year and still in the midst of a one-year pilot program, with the goal of training unemployed and high-school-age individuals and matching them with the precise needs of area companies. It’s an undertaking that’s drawn the praise of local and state officials alike for addressing one of the business community’s most perplexing, and persistent, problems — the dreaded skills gap.

Some might also know that Bean is a principal with a second business venture. Called Waterdog, it’s what he called a “tech-distribution company,” which partners with companies that make technology products and helps them find markets for those products. The enterprise, based in downtown Springfield, is closing on a $500,000 angel-investment round involving the Springfield Venture Fund and River Valley Investors, and is expected to add another 10 employees over the next year.

But less is known about what drives Bean and fuels his many passions. During a wide-ranging, quite enlightening interview, it became abundantly clear that Bean is very serious about:

• Entrepreneurship and fostering more of it;
• Careful and precise allocation of what has become a precious commodity — his time;
• A business philosophy that goes way, way beyond simply making money;
• Work-life balance;
• Getting unplugged much more than most could imagine given his success, his line of work, and the age we live in; and
• Playing a very significant role in the revitalization of Springfield and this region as a whole.

In short, his answers to BusinessWest’s many questions were quite revealing, and what emerged from this Q&A was a sentiment that Bean wants to be, and in many respects already is, a leader on several fronts, but especially when it comes to the growth and maturation of this region as a center for innovation, entrepreneurship, and jobs, something it was a century or more ago — and that he believes it can and will be again.

“If I can serve any benefit to inspiring others to get stuff done and to get motivated, then to me, that’s what’s ultimately worth it,” he said. “We have to continue to prove to people that you can do stuff, and that these things are possible. And I think the more people that have that positive spirit and get in the right perspective … that’s what’s going to change the Valley and bring us back to the glory days. Springfield was one of the biggest cities in the Northeast at one point, and there’s no reason why we can’t return to those days, just in a different way.”

In Good Company

As he settled back into one of the comfortable chairs in the conference room at Paragus’ recently opened, ‘outrageous green’-dominated headquarters in Hadley, Bean started the conversation by relating an exercise he recently undertook with some colleagues.

“We started talking about all the things that happened just in 2014,” he explained. “Within about 12 hours, I’d thrown up this website called springfield99.com where we started listing all the things that happened just in Springfield and just in 2014. And it’s amazing just how many things happened in this one year alone, some of which I was part of, some of which I would have loved to have been part of, but all of which I’m just proud to say are going on in the Valley.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean says that a vibrant Springfield “is something I really want to play a role in.”

When asked for a list, he mentioned everything from the formal launching of Tech Foundry to the success enjoyed by Valley Venture Mentors; from TechSpring, the initiative launched by Baystate Health to foster entrepreneurship within the healthcare spectrum to the innovation center being built downtown; from Barbara Walters speaking at Bay Path University’s annual leadership conference to an American Pickers episode taped in the city that involved old Indian motorcycles.

“We got to item 45, and then we remembered that MGM got approval to open a casino,” he went on. “It was so cool to see that there was so much going on that isn’t necessarily in the shadow of the casino; it’s not a footnote to the casino — the casino is just part of this movement that’s going on.”

Before elaborating on the many aspects of that movement, BusinessWest first asked Bean about his various business ventures and what’s likely to happen next.

We started with Paragus, the IT-solutions company that now boasts more than 40 employees. The coming year shapes up to be an intriguing one, with Bean initiating an employee stock-ownership program (ESOP), and the Paragus team eyeing a host of avenues for expansion — in a variety of forms.

BusinessWest: Talk about the ESOP. It’s a big step, and there are risks involved. Why take this step now, and what does it mean for Paragus for the short and long term?

Bean: “In a lot of ways, this transition to an ESOP is a gamble on my part. I’m betting that the company will grow even faster and net even bigger returns in the hands of the employees than it would have if I had continued to remain as 100% owner.

“The employees will own 51% of the company, and I’ll own 49%, and the hope is that, by being owners and thinking and behaving differently, they will drive better results. It has to not only happen, but it has to happen at a multiple big enough to offset the growth I would have gained on my own if I had retained 100% of the shares.”

BusinessWest: How are you preparing your employees for what will be a dramatic shift in their role — and also in their outlook about the company and where it can go?

Bean: “We’ve spent that past 18 months preparing employees for that transition, because it is a big change. I led a class recently called ‘What Does it Mean to be an Owner?’ and we went through the process together of defining what are the characteristics of a truly great owner. I then challenged them to identify one characteristic that they had room to improve upon, and work with me one on one to develop an action plan for how they could make progress on improving on that characteristic.”

BusinessWest: Talk about your own role moving forward. Will it change, and if so, how?

Bean: “One of my goals and objectives is to create businesses that are not dependent upon me. Another way that I define success is getting people to be self-reliant, or empowered, or in a position where they’re not dependent on me. Every day, Paragus is less and less dependent on me personally, and that’s a huge mark of success.

“It means that we have a strong leadership team, it means that we have empowered employees, it means that we have good systems and processes. It means we have a healthy business. It’s great seeding companies and getting them started, but then empowering and finding just the right people, the right mix, and the right plan so they can grow and thrive and succeed on their own.”

BusinessWest: What is your long-term vision for the company, and how does the ESOP affect that? Is this a company that you envision someday being sold to a much larger entity?

Bean: “I decided a few years ago that Paragus was never going to be that company — it was never going to be the company that we grew to sell externally, and the ESOP is putting a nail in that coffin. By making an ESOP, we’re very publically saying, ‘this is a company that’s going to remain here in the Valley, owned by the Valley, and here to support and contribute to the Valley.’

“But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have big, aspirational goals. They want to look at some acquisitions, they want to open up some other offices, they want to expand into some other markets. They want to make this company big, and they want to be the ones who own it and do it. We don’t want to grow it to sell it.”


BusinessWest: Can Paragus meet all those lofty goals you mentioned by remaining a Western Mass. company, or just a Western Mass. company? There are some competitive disadvantages to being in this region, and it can’t be easy to recruit top talent to this region. Will Paragus still be a fixture here in five, 10, or 20 years?

Bean: “I think Paragus can always be here and will always be here. But if Paragus wants to continue to grow at 30% a year, as it has for the past five years, at some point, and probably not too far from now, they’re going to have to expand their market, and that might mean opening up a Paragus in another market. But that won’t mean leaving Western Mass.

“I can’t imagine a future where Paragus abandons Western Mass., but I can imagine a future in which we have a branch anywhere from Denver, Colorado to Hartford, Connecticut. In fact, there has been a lot of talk, probably just because people love the area, about Denver — it’s a really cool city going through some exciting times, and a place where the Paragus team members can see themselves having a lot of fun. There’s been nothing serious, but there has been some talk about how maybe, someday, that would be a cool place to put some new roots.”

Bean says the employee stock-ownership program

Bean says the employee stock-ownership program he’s initiating should enable the company to grow even faster and net bigger returns than if he remained sole owner.

The Future Is Now

BusinessWest: Let’s switch gears and talk about your participation in economic-development-related initiatives and your thoughts on Springfield and the region as a whole. If we were doing this interview 10 or 15 or 20 years from now, what would you like to have said you’d accomplished beyond success with your businesses?


Bean: “Right now, I have become so excited about the prospect of a revitalized, rejuvenated Springfield that I’d like to be able to say that, not only has Springfield accomplished that, but some actions that I took part in contributed.

“What that looks like is so hard to define, but I think it’s one of those things where you know it when you see it, whether it’s the energy or the excitement or the pure quantity of people on the street. But a vibrant Springfield is something I really want to play a role in.”


BusinessWest: You sound quite upbeat about the Valley’s prospects. What is the basis of that optimism?

Bean: “Things are coming together in many ways, especially in Springfield. Through Valley Venture Mentors, the innovation center, the accelerator program, and other initiatives, we’re creating entrepreneurial energy, and the possibilities are very exciting.”


BusinessWest: Beyond Tech Foundry and its mission of helping to create a large, talented workforce, what are some of the other ways you’ve become involved in economic-development efforts?


Bean: “I sit on two EDC [Economic Development Council of Western Mass.] boards, the Entrepre-neurship Committee and the Homefield Advantage Committee, and I really enjoy that work. I also get involved in other ways, such as mentoring entrepreneurs.”


BusinessWest: Mentoring entrepreneurs? Do you do a lot of that?

Bean: “I do, either through a program like Valley Venture Mentors or separately on the side. I also take phone calls … I don’t know how I got signed up for this, but people will come to me and say, ‘hey, I’m thinking of moving to the Springfield area, and someone gave me your name as somebody I should talk to before I move there.’ I’ll give them an idea about jobs and positions and what I think the economic landscape looks like and how awesome and exciting it is to be here right now. Maybe once a week I’ll get a call like that, and it’s great to know that, once a week, someone’s thinking about moving back here.”


BusinessWest: Many economic-development leaders are bullish about improved rail service between Vermont and Southern Connecticut. Do you believe such service can change the equation in this region, and if so, how?

Bean: “The Tofu Curtain drives me crazy, and I’m hopeful that maybe Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield start working better together. Maybe the ease of getting from one place to another because we don’t have to deal with the car … maybe it makes the communities more connected and work more synergistically.

“That’s my most aspirational hope for this train; we call it ‘the Valley,’ but it’s really two very distinct sections, and you could argue there’s three because of Franklin County. Look at Holyoke and Springfield — it is amazing how little those two cities work together, and they’re so much alike; they’re both Gateway cities within a stone’s throw of each other with similar problems and similar challenges, and they’re not working collaboratively as they should be, and I’m hoping one stop on the rail line changes all that.

“I’d love to see the Valley function as one neighborhood, and if you look at Silicon Valley and so many other parts of the country, they’re the same size as our valley, but we’re so much more insular. And people complain that it takes 20 minutes to get from Northampton to Springfield. Look at Boston — it takes 20 minutes to get anywhere, and they’re doing just fine.

“That’s my hope, that maybe this rail service gives us one less excuse to not do business with each other, or have lunch together, or have meetings together and not fight about whether it’s in Northampton or Springfield.”

BusinessWest: What about the casino? This is not exactly innovation, but it is economic development and jobs. Will this be a positive force in the city and the region?

Bean: “I have very positive feelings about the casino’s impact and what it’s going to do for the city, but I think’s it’s important that it doesn’t define us — and it doesn’t sound like it is. It sounds like we’re defining ourselves.”

Time and Space

BusinessWest: Considering the many types of demands on your time, you have probably become adept at how that resource is allocated. Talk about how you distribute the hours in your day and find time for everything you want to do.

Bean: “It’s definitely challenging. There are a lot of things competing for my time, and I’m one of those people who has a hard time saying no to things I’m passionate about or that I think are good and worthy. But there are plenty of things I do say no to; for example, I’m not an advocate for long meetings where there’s no clear purpose and the dialogue isn’t going to result in any clear action items. I’ve been to more than a few of those, and I’ve learned my lesson; those meetings do have a purpose, just not a purpose that I’m able to contribute much to, so I’ve learned that they’re not a good investment of my time.”


BusinessWest: Talk about those occasions, and those causes, for which saying ‘no’ is not an option.

Bean: “There are three different buckets that I put my time into right now, and maybe one sub-bucket. For starters, there’s Paragus and Waterdog; I work from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. most days, and in that 12-hour span, Paragus gets six of those hours, and Waterdog probably gets two of those hours. But what’s nice is that still leaves me with four hours a day, and that’s where I would put my outside interests or economic-development interests, or giving back, or however you want to classify that.

“A big piece of that goes to Tech Foundry, but that still leaves plenty left over to be a speaker at various events, to attend different meetings, to mentor entrepreneurs, to go to city planning meetings, and a lot of other things.”

BusinessWest: Time management is a critical assignment for all business leaders. Talk some more about your approach to it and how you get the most out of each hour in the day.

Bean: “I have a very, very full calendar — every minute is booked between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and two nights a week I work late, and that usually means I have some event I need to attend. That’s where I’m really selective; there are so many great events in the Valley to go to at night, and I only pick two a week. And if I’m going to do a late night, I’ll try to do two or three things that night.

“I live an hour and 15 minutes away in New Hampshire, and a few years ago I hired a driver, so I use my commute time to do all my e-mail so that during the day I don’t even look at my computer — I just go from meeting to meeting as my phone instructs me to, and then I have two hours at the beginning and end of each day to catch up on e-mails, get proposals, or correspond with people.

“Hiring a driver was an economic decision. I ran the math and looked at how productive I could be with an extra two hours a day and what it cost to pay someone for those four hours, and decided it made perfect sense. This gives me a guaranteed two or two and a half hours a day when no one can walk into my office, call me on the phone … it’s just a guaranteed two hours of e-mail and going over proposals.”

Investments in the Valley

BusinessWest: You must get a lot of requests to serve on boards and take part in economic-development-related initiatives. How do you decide where to put your time and energy?

Bean: “We get a lot of those requests, and they all go to Margie, my assistant. She’s gotten to know really well what I’m passionate about, what I’m interested in, and what I’m not, so she will vet them, send me to ones that she thinks are worth me at least looking at, and then I’ll figure out what the commitment is going to be.

“For example, I’ve been very good about not getting on the boards of nonprofits, only because there are so many of them, it would be hard to choose, and I have my own nonprofits for which I’m president of the board, and I don’t want to distract from those energies. But there was an opportunity that came along where an organization is going to be forming a charter school in Springfield, and that organization, Up Academy, has a track record that’s just mind-blowing. It will take over an existing Springfield middle school, serve the same students and use the same money, but run it privately.

“I started hearing about that, and I started researching the track record and learning more about that organization, including the work they did in Lawrence, the work they did in Boston. It was so impressive that I did agree to join their founding board because I feel that education in Springfield has got to be a priority, and what it needs right now are some new, fresh perspectives, some new minds, and some new thoughts. So this was one where I broke my own rule and got involved.”

BusinessWest: You also get a number of requests to speak to different groups and offer keynote addresses at events. First, do you like public speaking — is it something you’ve become good at? And, second, how do you decide which speaking requests to accept?

Bean: “Speaking is always something I’ve enjoyed, and it’s always something I thought came naturally to me. I don’t know; I’ve never sat in the audience, so I don’t know how I come off. But it’s never something that’s made me nervous or uncomfortable.

“And what I really like about public speaking is having the opportunity to use that platform to energize an entire group of people at one time around a thought, an idea, an interest, an excitement level, and really get people to leave that room thinking differently and feeling differently. If I accomplished that, then I’m thrilled.”

BusinessWest: What have been some of your recent assignments, and did you feel you’ve been able to energize the room, as you mentioned?

Bean: “One of the most exciting ones I got to do recently was the Grinspoon Foundation entrepreneurship dinner, where they asked me to be the keynote speaker. What I liked about it was that here were 300 to 400 college kids who had a demonstrated interest in entrepreneurship, and were asking themselves those questions in their heads: ‘can I do this? Is this right for me? How would I even get started? Am I really cut out for this?’ And being able to share my story with those kids and talk to them about my experiences and my perspective on the situation and give them the confidence and encouragement to go off and do it … I certainly left that night feeling energized and excited.

“At least when compared to when I spoke at the Massachusetts Developers Conference. That was certainly fun and exciting, but I don’t think I changed a lot of hearts and minds that day. It will be the same when I speak at a Federal Reserve Bank event in Boston in January. That will certainly be fun, and it will be a great audience, but I don’t think I’ll change a lot of hearts and minds. Hopefully I will, because that’s when I really enjoy it — when I get a bunch of people really excited.”

Managing Expectations

BusinessWest: Let’s talk about your management style, your thoughts on running a business, and your opinions on what makes a true business leader. And maybe the logical place to start is by asking if you’ve had any mentors or any business owners you’ve borrowed from or tried to emulate.


Bean: “I personally like to draw on the best of everybody, so I have a handful of mentors, and there are things about them that I emulate and maybe things about them I’m not so keen on. I try to pull the best characteristics from everyone I know. But if there was one person I had to point to … I really like what [Zappos founder] Tony Hsieh has done, not just with that company, but his philosophy, his mindset, his personality.

“He’s someone who’s really gotten the economic-development bug and is trying to rebuild the entire city of Las Vegas, which was worse off than the city of Springfield was, and turn it into a vibrant, functioning city again. And that’s inspirational, because it’s rare that somebody with that much money, where there’s so little that he’s going to gain from this personally, is so passionate about a city and its revitalization. To see him dedicate his time and energy to that project definitely gives me encouragement to know that’s there’s nothing wrong with not spending all of your time trying to make money.”

BusinessWest: Can you elaborate on that thought, because making money is what has driven most entrepreneurs throughout history.

Bean: “There are some people who go from one enterprise to the next one to the next one, and it’s always about ‘how big can I make the coffers?’ There’s nothing wrong with that — that’s capitalism — but there’s a lot of room for also making sure you understand what makes you happy, what you enjoy, and for me, that’s seeing things happen. And if I can make things happen, even if those things don’t directly correlate back to some financial interest of mine, I get joy from the act of seeing them happen.

“Seeing Tech Foundry launch … maybe it helps Paragus someday with workforce — maybe. But there are many things I could do that are a lot less expensive and a lot less time-consuming, but seeing it happen, seeing those kids show up, seeing the impact on the community, that, to me, totally justifies the time, the money, and everything else.”


BusinessWest: Who else inspires you, enough for you to want to emulate them?

Bean: “There are so many people, it’s hard to narrow it down. I’m certainly inspired by (long pause) even Bill Gates to a certain extent. It’s a tough one — he’s very controversial; there are a lot of things you can say about him. But I’ll say I’m inspired by the fact that, despite all the money he’s made, he’s dedicated so much of his time to giving it away — but not just by writing big, fat checks.

“He’s trying to figure out how to make a meaningful impact on the world, whether it’s through the malaria work they’re doing or … he’s got a project where he’s trying to use spent nuclear rods to create clean electricity. It’s so much easier for him to write a check, but for him, as it is for me — not that I’m comparing myself to Bill Gates — he’s taking his time, his energy, and his passion and using it for more than creating wealth for himself.”


BusinessWest: Anyone in this region who has been a mentor or a source of inspiration?

Bean: “There have been many. The Davis Brothers [John and Steve, former third-generation owners of American Saw, now Lenox] are a good example. Those are guys who don’t have to be here; they can be doing a lot of other things, but they’ve chosen to spend their time, money, and energy impacting the community that they’re in, and in ways that are really inspirational.

“They could be doing financial investing in areas that are probably going to net them better returns, but they’re committed to everything from for-profit investment to not-for-profit investment, but also giving their time. The fact that Steve Davis is chair of the Entrepreneurship Committee, and John Davis has his Springfield Business Leaders for Education, another group I decided to join, shows they’re dedicating more than their time; they’re here every day, they’re giving their money, their effort, and they don’t have to be. And that’s inspiring. Watching them almost makes me feel obligated; if they’re doing it, how could I not do it?”

BusinessWest: You’re 29 years old, but you’ve been the boss your entire life. Most people have the opportunity to learn and grow by watching and drawing out those on the higher rungs on the ladder. You’ve never really had that opportunity; do you feel that maybe you missed out on some learning opportunities?

Bean: “That’s a good question. ‘No’ is the short answer. I had never been taught that who you learn from are the people above you in your own organization, because I’d never been in an organization big enough to do that. I was naive in the sense that I didn’t know that’s how it’s supposed to work.

“So I learned from everybody. I learned from my clients, from my vendors, from my banker, my lawyer, my accountant — I wouldn’t just let them do stuff for me, I’d make them explain it to me; I’d look over my accountant’s shoulder while he’s doing my tax returns and my books, asking him mind-numbingly boring questions, because I really wanted to know, and I needed to see the big picture.
“I learn from my staff, I learn from community leaders, and I read a lot. I’ve learned a lot from the books I’ve read; I can’t understate the amount of knowledge I’ve accumulated from reading some phenomenal business books.”

Hanging in the Balance

BusinessWest: We’ve talked about business, economic development, mentoring, community service … what do you do when you’re not doing any of that?

Bean: “When I’m really not working, I love just being with my family. We moved to New Hampshire because I love the outdoors and I love being in a rural environment. I’ve got two young kids — a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old — and I love just being out with my wife and kids.

Delcie Bean, seen here with his wife, Julia

Delcie Bean, seen here with his wife, Julia, and sons Delcie Bean V (Jack), left, and James, says he values work-life balance and has a strict no-work policy on weekends.

“We live on 16 acres that abut 16,000 acres of state land, and so we just love going on hikes in the woods — endless trails where you can never walk the same path twice. I love that stuff. I love just being at home with my family, just taking it really easy and relaxed.

“One of the reasons I moved up there is I spend so much time around people all day long, so it’s really nice being up somewhere where the only thing you can hear are the birds and the trees; it’s so quiet and peaceful up there.”

BusinessWest: Can you really just put aside the various kinds of work you have like that?

Bean: “I don’t really have much choice. It’s also very unplugged up there — we barely have Internet; I have a crappy DSL connection. Even if I wanted to work. it would be miserable.”

BusinessWest: Somehow, you don’t seem like the type who could be unplugged for very long.

Bean: “You’d be surprised. I work almost a 12-hour day, but then when I do get home, especially on the weekends, I have a very strict no-work policy. That time is for me and for my family. It takes a lot of energy to do what I do, and I need to kind of recharge and regroup, and part of that is being unplugged and not being ‘on.’

“When my wife and I go on vacation, we go to these really, really secluded destinations where we don’t do anything — we’re just vegetables where we just spend time with each other and there’s no other people.”

BusinessWest: Where do you go?

Bean: “My favorite place … there’s this villa in Jamaica on the other side of the island from where everyone else goes, in a tiny little fishing village. We rent it out, and the only people there are a cook, a maid, and a pool guy; those are the only three people you see the entire time you’re there. They make all your meals for you, and you live in this beautiful house with your own private beach and your own swimming pool. You can completely just unplug and relax; there’s no Internet, no TV. I just read and read and read, and enjoy disconnecting.”

BusinessWest: Where else do you go?

Bean: “I make a clear distinction between vacationing and traveling. We try to commit to a system where every other trip we travel — we’ll go to some city and walk around, like we just got back from Quebec City this past summer — and the alternating trip is what I call vacationing, where we don’t do anything.”

BusinessWest: Do you think you have a proper balance between life and work?

Bean: “I do, and that’s because I work hard at it. I decided to hire a driver around the time I had my first kid. It allowed me to get home an hour earlier because I wasn’t staying at work that extra hour doing my e-mail. So, except for those two nights I work late, those other three I make it home in time to put the kids to bed, and that’s important to me.

“And two days a month I go into work late so I can drive my kid to school. I really enjoy it, and it means a lot to him. Finding a balance was tough, and I’m very fortunate that my wife is able to stay home with the kids; that has helped a lot. And my no-work-weekend policy makes a huge difference, because those two days are 100% about being with the kids and the family.

“And that also speaks to my point earlier about how one of my objectives is to create businesses that are not dependent upon me. That gives me the flexibility to go to that Little League game when my kids get a little older, or that school play, and not feel like the whole world revolves around me being at my desk. I don’t want people so dependent on me I’m handcuffed.”

He Gets IT

To say that Bean has been successful in remaining un-handcuffed would be a huge understatement.

By carefully managing time, empowering people, and putting effective systems in place, he’s found the hours, the energy, the will, and the freedom to be a force in the Pioneer Valley on a number of levels.

And at 29, and with a firm commitment to remain at the forefront of efforts to both grow his businesses and be a part of the efforts to revitalize the region economically, he’s certain to be a force for years and decades to come.

Stay tuned.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur
Tim Van Epps Fuels Growth at Sandri

COVER0114aMike Behn was in Boston, “on a mission.”
His assignment in that spring of 2005 was to essentially finish the work started by his boss, Bill (W.A.) Sandri, the previous Christmas to recruit Sandri’s son-in-law, Tim Van Epps, to be the next leader of the Greenfield-based Sandri family of companies. At the time, the enterprise was known for its gas stations stretched across Western Mass., New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, but was also dabbling in everything from golf courses to real estate.
Behn, who was then running the motor-fuels division for the company and is now COO, didn’t believe this would necessarily be a hard sell, but he understood that he had some work to do to bring Van Epps west. After all, the then-29-year-old had a highly lucrative job managing a portfolio for Mellon Financial, and was clearly enjoying life in New England’s largest city.
“I was out in Boston finding my way, and I think I was doing pretty well,” Van Epps recalled. “My wife and I just bought our first condo right in the Back Bay — we were right where we wanted to be. And I had the best job in the world; I was probably putting in a total of 30 hours a week, and I had things on autopilot. Everything was going great.”
But Van Epps was admittedly getting bored with this life, and this mindset dovetailed nicely with the two things Behn said he had to sell to his recruit: lifestyle — meaning both quality of life and the rewards that would eventually come to the president of such a company — and, especially, opportunities.
Elaborating, he said the latter came in the form of waking up a company that he called a “sleeping giant.”
Indeed, while Sandri was, by most accounts, doing well, with more than 100 gas stations in its portfolio and an exclusive agreement with Sunoco that covered New York and New England, it was not growing, said Behn, adding quickly that, in this business, that means it was going backward.
“We were in a corporate coma,” he told BusinessWest. “I told Tim there were so many things we could do to make more money for this company and make it bigger and better than it was; it had been sleeping for years. I think that kind of talk definitely had an impact.”
So much so that Van Epps took his father-in-law’s offer, which amounted to a 60% pay cut — “I thought my wife was going to kill me at the time” — and came to Sandri as executive vice president.
To say that he woke up the company — and that he was certainly not bored as he did so — would be huge understatements.
He grew Sandri from an oil company into a $250 million, full-service energy firm, dealing in everything from wood pellets to photovoltaics. He has also expanded the main businesses, gas stations, through imaginative initiatives that have produced a 60% increase in the total number of gallons sold (the main measuring stick in this industry) to more than 70 million, with plans to get to 100 million in the near future.
One of his latest endeavors has been a push into the highly competitive convenience-store market. The Sandri name is now on five such facilities, and the ambitious goal is to increase that number to 25 or 30 over the next five years.

convenience-store market

Movement into the convenience-store market, including this location in Orange, is one of the many new business ventures launched by Tim Van Epps since he joined Sandri nearly a decade ago.

Not everything has worked according to the script, though. For example, a foray into car washes was scuttled when Sandri officials came to the conclusion that those facilities, while profitable, were ultimately less valuable to the company than the parking spaces they took up. Meanwhile, another investment in tire-pressure valves that would light up when the pressure was low produced only boxes of unwanted inventory and was quickly halted.
And there has been some divestiture in recent years, most notably selling off Fox Hollow, the company’s golf course in Tampa, Fla. — “it just didn’t fit into the portfolio anymore,” said Van Epps — as well as its lubricants business and some underperforming real estate, with the proceeds from those sales funneled into other ventures, or “redeployed,” as he put it.
But overall, Van Epps has brought needed energy, of a different kind, to this company, and for his efforts he has been chosen as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2013, thus joining an eclectic mix of business leaders and organizations that have received the award since it was launched in 1996.
“Like those honored before him, Tim personifies the entrepreneurial spirit that has defined this region for more than 200 years,” said BusinessWest’s publisher, John Gormally. “He has fueled the imagination of the Sandri company and positioned it for continued growth.”

Entrepreneurial Drive

Van Epps said his grandfather-in-law, Acilio Remo (A.R.) Sandri, was a colorful character with a keen mind for business, a healthy appetite for real estate, and a way with words.
“One of the things he used to say to me was, ‘we don’t sell dirt, son,’” recalled Van Epps, adding that A.R.’s M.O. was to buy property — he acquired a lot of it on or near Route 91 in the ’60s and ’70s, for example — and hold onto it, on the theory that someday it would prove itself worthy of the investment.
Well, Van Epps does sell dirt — he’s unloaded a number of parcels in recent years, on the theory that the proceeds from unused or underutilized property, on which the company had been paying taxes, could help Sandri grow some of its other ventures.
And that’s just one of the ways he’s distinguished himself from previous generations of company leadership. Van Epps said that, when he arrived, he had little appetite for standing pat — which is essentially what the company had been doing for several years — and went about his business with what he called a “day trader’s mentality.”
Before getting into what he meant by that, it’s necessary to set the stage for his arrival and chronicle the first 78 years of the company.
Our story starts with A.R. Sandri, who was born in Barre, Vt., but grew up in Greenfield. Soon after graduating from high school, he took a job working as a clerk for the Pan-Am Oil Co., and in 1930, he was offered a lease on a gas station at 155 Main St. in Greenfield, and subsequently started the A.R. Sandri Co. Recently renovated, that station is still in the company’s portfolio, and a landmark of sorts in a service area created and then greatly expanded by A.R. and W.A. that came to be known within the corporation simply as ‘Sandri Land.’
Its borders were broadened greatly in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, as A.R. began buying up real estate along what would become the I-91 corridor. At the same time he was bulking up his portfolio, A.R. was expanding the company into a fuel distributor and seller of heating oil, lube oil, and other related products. In 1964, he inked a deal with Sunoco to fly that company’s flag exclusively over the stations he was acquiring, and by 1969, he had 50 stations, as well as 2,200 heating-oil customers and 230 commercial and farm gasoline accounts.
In 1973, W.A. took the reins of the company, and within a few years he would launch initiatives that would achieve explosive growth. The most significant of these came in 1976, with the buyout of all Sunoco’s stations in Vermont and Southern New Hampshire, as well as New York, making Sandri, then with about 140 stations, the largest distributor of Sunoco gasoline, fuels, and lubes in the country.
Under W.A., the company bought a number of home-heating-oil companies, while also growing the lubricants business and developing some related ventures. And in 1987, he took Sandri in a completely new direction — golf.
Bernardston’s Crumpin-Fox

While the company has sold its golf course in Florida, it remains an aggressive player in the golf business and plans more improvements to Bernardston’s Crumpin-Fox, seen here.

He purchased the Crumpin-Fox Club in Bernardston from a friend when it was still a nine-hole layout, built a second nine, and then eventually added more layouts to what became known as the Fox family of courses within the company. Fox Hollow was opened in 1993, and in 2001, Fox Hopyard, in East Haddam, Conn., was added to the portfolio.
A few years into the new millennium, W.A., who passed away just over a year ago, started to get serious about succession planning and transitioning the company to the next generation of ownership, whomever that might be. Behn said there was no one in the Sandri family ready or willing to take over, and as a result there was actually talk of selling the enterprise. But eventually, W.A. set his sights on his son-in-law.
Van Epps remembers Christmas 2007 and, in particular, a discussion with W.A. over a single-malt scotch.
“We were sitting by the fire, and he said, ‘it’s becoming very common for in-laws to join family businesses,” he recalled. “He asked me if I would be interested in having a chat about the Sandri family of companies. And then he dropped it. A few weeks later, I was out skiing at Tahoe, and he called and asked if I wanted to come to Florida and meet his team.
“I liked what they were doing — I was curious about it,” he went on, adding that this curiosity turned into hard interest. “Then Mike came out, and we talked brass tacks.”

Burning Desires
Van Epps said the ensuing transition in leadership was a somewhat difficult time for both him and the company. “Stressful” was a word he used more than a few times to describe it, and “culture shock” was a phrase he borrowed to sum up what both he and most of his employees were going through.
He said the company was pretty set in its ways by the time he arrived, which meant, in his estimation, that it had lost a good bit of its entrepreneurial zeal.
He didn’t waste any time trying to find it again, and admits that this abrupt shifting of gears didn’t sit well with everyone. Meanwhile, Van Epps wanted to create his own team, rather than inherit one, and this resulted in some additional stress.
“You had people who were used to working for the former COO, and they were used to doing things their way,” he said. “I came in, and I wanted to change pretty much everything in the company, and when you have new blood that comes in and you have change, it’s stressful.
“From 2005 to 2008, it was pretty stressful to work at Sandri with all the changes that were happening,” he continued. “We lost some employees — I wanted some new blood in here, and I knew, when I came in here as an in-law, that I was going to have to operate this company as if it was my own money, and that’s exactly what I did.
“I had the mentality of a day trader — I guess I wanted instant gratification,” he went on. “And then you come to a company that’s been around for 80 years, and that’s not how it works.”
Moving quickly amid this culture shock, Van Epps put most of his focus on transitioning Sandri into a diversified energy company, a move that might seem to run counter to logic if one of the main products it sold was heating oil, but Van Epps believed it made perfect sense.
And he cited the move into the wood-pellets business — the company is now the largest marketer of bulk and bagged wood pellets in the country — as one example.
“In 2009, when the price of fuel oil went to $5 a gallon, we saw a runoff of our gallons of about 20%,” he recalled. “We wanted to know where those folks were going, and we soon discovered they were going to wood pellets, so we decided to get into that business.”
In March 2010, the company was awarded a $3.2 million grant from the Mass. Department of Energy Resources, which has been used for a variety of purposes, including the purchase of a small fleet of wood-pellet delivery trucks and the installation of several institutional, commercial, and residential renewable-energy systems, including facilities at Greenfield Community College, the Greenfield fire station, and other locations.
The company has made similar forays into solar and geothermal systems, and has met Van Epps’s goal of becoming what he called a “one-stop shop and energy company of the future.”

Getting Pumped
Beyond this diversity, though, Van Epps and his team have also fueled growth of the company’s core business — gasoline and gas stations — and recorded that aforementioned surge in the number of gallons sold.
That jump has come through some imaginative initiatives, including a partnership with the grocery store chain Price Chopper, which is a major player in New York and has a few stores in Massachusetts and other New England states.
Price Chopper teamed with Sunoco in one of the early rewards programs that have become prevalent in recent years, said Behn, adding that the lure of becoming one of the redemption stations for the program has prompted a number of formerly competing distributors to become Sandri partners.
“People could get 10 cents a gallon off for every $50 in groceries they purchased, with no limit on how much this could accumulate,” he explained. “We did a test in Keene, N.H., and the results were phenomenal. At that point, Tim and I went to Sunoco and said, ‘can we expand this program throughout our marketing area?’”
Sunoco agreed, and the program expanded first into New York state and then other regions, including Western Mass.
“We said, ‘we’ll give you coverage wherever you have a Price Chopper store; if we don’t have a Sunoco station, we’ll find one,’” Behn went on. “Tim and I hit the road, and in 2008, we convinced a number of distributors that are similar in structure to Sandri to take down their existing brand sign and put up a Sunoco sign, because they saw the power of the Price Chopper program.
“We’d go in with a PowerPoint and say, ‘here’s the program … you’re our first choice, and if you don’t want it, we’ll go to our second choice,’” he continued. “We didn’t miss on one, and now we have several distributors that used to be competitors that we’ve made into partners; it’s been a win-win for both of us.”
Another contributor to that surge in volume for the company has been its ability to convince independent station owners to take down rival fuel company flags and convert to Sunoco, said Behn, adding that, while the Price Chopper program is certainly a factor in the company’s success with conversions, Sandri’s quality of service and the fact that station owners can get the president of the company on the phone also play a big part in what is an ongoing source of growth.
Meanwhile, the company has been changing the nature of its portfolio in some respects, said Van Epps, as he returned to A.R.’s quote about dirt — and how he doesn’t agree with that sentiment.
Over the past several years, Sandri has sold many of its gas stations, redeployed that capital into other pursuits, and gained new wholesale customers in the process. In so doing, the company that once owned 140 stations now owns roughly 80 and supplies another 80, said Van Epps, adding that this shift toward becoming more of a wholesale company creates greater balance of fixed and variable margins.

A Matter of Convenience
Looking ahead, Van Epps said he still has that day-trader mentality, and is looking at ways to both geographically expand Sandri Land and, especially, make it more densely populated with business opportunities.
One of those ventures is the push into the highly competitive world of convenience stores, he said, adding that the company began to explore options in this realm roughly two years ago.
The initial thought was to embrace what Van Epps called the “urban model” of convenience stores, with the company leasing out its locations to a regional or national operator.
“We had meetings with some of these people, but at the 23rd hour, I decided that we could do this ourselves, and do it better ourselves,” he explained, adding that the Sandri name first went on such a facility early last year, and the current business plan calls for investing $25 to $30 million in what might eventually be 35 to 45 more stores.
“We’re calling these our ‘convenience stores of the future,’” said Van Epps, with four now operational — in Orange, Lee, Greenfield, and West Lebanon, N.H. — and more in the pipeline, with both new construction and rehabbing of existing facilities planned.
The challenge moving forward is to differentiate these stores in a very crowded market, said Behn, adding that Sandri intends to do that with such amenities and programs as free ATMs, 99-cent coffee, and customer-service representatives that reflect the company’s values.
And while the company sold its Florida golf course, it is by no means getting out of the golf business, said Van Epps, adding that it is essentially regrouping at a time of growing competition and challenge in this industry.
Elaborating, he said that when Crumpin-Fox was launched, there was very little competition in the high-end side of the business, both in this region and across the state, and as a result, golfers from around New England found remote Bernardston and made at least once-a-year pilgrimages.
But over the next two decades, the landscape changed considerably, with new courses such as the Ranch in Southwick and clusters of layouts — in Plymouth, for example — that gave the golfing public more options, which they have exercised.
This new environment has prompted Sandri to invest more than $1 million in the course, said Van Epps, adding that the immediate goal is to prompt golfers to “rediscover Crumpin-Fox.” Meanwhile, the company will look to sell more of that aforementioned dirt — some of the 600 acres the course sits on — for housing developments.
Looking back, and also ahead, Van Epps believes he and his team have the company positioned for stability and steady growth.
“Did we do everything right in the beginning? Absolutely not, but we’re at the point where I think we’re on the right track,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s no question that this company, which is operating in Franklin County, is going to be a lot bigger and a lot more successful than it’s ever been.
“We’re able to do some things now that we weren’t able to do in the past,” he went on. “We have a lot of pretty neat things going on here.”

Pedal to the Metal
Returning to that mission he went on in Boston to both recruit and “vet” Van Epps, Behn remembers meeting him at a Back Bay restaurant for lunch.
“This was his turf — it was a really exciting restaurant with a lot of young executives going in and out,” he recalled. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t think he’s going to want to leave this.’”
To make a long story short, he did. And the rest, you might say, is history very much still in the making.
Indeed, this is a story where some of the chapters have been written, but many are still in Van Epps’s imagination, waiting for the day trader to bring them to fruition.
“Bill and A.R. both wanted to see this company go on for five or six generations, probably more,” he said. “Five years from now, this company may not look like it does today, and that excites me; it gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me coming in here — the ability to go in any direction that we see fit to create growth and vibrancy.”
In other words, the sleeping giant is now wide awake.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports in Holyoke
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur
Herbie Flores Is Making His Vision for Springfield Reality

COVER0112aHeriberto “Herbie” Flores has always had a heart for needy people, partly because he grew up poor. From its humble origins 40 years ago providing legal and financial assistance for migrant farm workers, he has grown his multi-agency nonprofit, Partners for Community, into an $80 million force for economic development and community improvement. But he’s made bigger news with a series of real-estate acquisitions, including the Paramount Theater (seen here), that promise to transform Springfield’s downtown. The kind of long-term change Flores envisions for the City of Homes will require energy and passion — and BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2011 has no shortage of either.

“This city is coming back,” Heriberto Flores said. “People don’t want to live out in the woods.”
He was sharing a vision of a societal shift away from suburban sprawl back to a city-life model, especially as aging Baby Boomers increasingly seek to live close to all the amenities they need and desire, from food stores and restaurants to banks and performing arts.
As Flores spoke those words, he was standing beside the stage of the 86-year-old Paramount Theater on Main Street in Springfield, an icon of music and theater that has fallen into disrepair — but whose walls, ceilings, and fixtures are breathtaking in their ornate beauty, for anyone willing to look beyond the dust, grime, and faded paint.
And vision is something Herbie Flores has in spades.
Just as he sees the potential in the Paramount — a $1.75 million purchase that will require millions more to restore to a multicultural center for performing arts and community events — he’s also an unabashed optimist when it comes to Springfield itself, choosing to focus on the positives of the city and not the large pockets of poverty, high-school dropout rates, crime, and other issues that often color people’s perceptions.
“When you start looking at the assets, the city has clean water and natural resources. We have companies like Big Y, Peter Pan, and MassMutual. We have three TV stations in this city. We have Baystate Medical Center — how many people would kill to have a hospital like that in their region? And all the schools and universities … this is a very good region,” he told BusinessWest.
“I could live anywhere, but I live in Springfield,” Flores continued. “The investments we make in the city, some people say, ‘they’re paying too much for that.’ ‘Why are they doing that?’ But you have to invest for the future. I don’t believe Springfield will be in the position it is today in the future. I see the changes coming.”
For the past three decades, from his stewardship of a social-assistance network called Partners for Community to his more recent ambition to transform the city’s downtown, Herbie Flores has been the catalyst for many of those changes, and for those reasons, among others, he is BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2011.

Herbie Flores outside the State House in Boston, mid-1980s.

Herbie Flores outside the State House in Boston, mid-1980s.

“He’s making investments in Springfield, and this region, at a time when some people and businesses are dis-investing,” said BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien as he explained the selection of Flores as the magazine’s 16th top entrepreneur. “He directs a number of nonprofit agencies, but his actions, especially in recent years, are, in a word, entrepreneurial.
“Purchases like the Paramount and the Bowles building [further south on Main Street] involve risk, and they require vision,” O’Brien continued. “Together with other things happening downtown to bring vibrancy and a larger, more diverse residential population in that area, these bold steps could provide the much-needed spark that Springfield needs.”
Said Flores, “the city needs help, the city and the region; we have a responsibility to step up to the plate. There are problems, but you can’t just stand in the corner and complain. And nobody’s going to do it for you.”
That optimism doesn’t go unnoticed by those in Flores’ circle.
“I think very highly of Herbie,” said Russ Omer, vice president of Commercial Lending for Chicopee Savings Bank, the lead lender on the Paramount project. “He’s been involved in the neighborhood for 30 years, and I’ve always known Herbie to be community-minded. Whatever he did, he always did it for the betterment of his community. The Paramount is just one example of what he does for Greater Springfield.”
For this issue, Flores speaks about some of those initiatives, and discusses how he is creating a legacy that promises to keep improving Springfield long after he’s gone.

Street-level Perspective

Bowles Building

Herbie Flores says the acquisition of the Bowles Building could be a spark for downtown revitalization.

At one point during a lengthy interview, Flores brought BusinessWest to the Borinquen project in the impoverished North End of Springfield. The initiative involves the renovation of 41 units of low-income housing, as well as six commercial spaces, including amenities like a grocery store and a laundromat.
The $11 million project, completed in July 2011, combined federal tax credits, private-investment tax credits, Mass. Department of Housing and Community Development funds, city of Springfield HOME funds, and private financing — a good example of the tapestry of players Flores must weave together to turn one of his visions into reality.
And although it’s just one parcel amid one of the poorest neighborhoods in Massachusetts, when one stands under the rebuilt wood porches and clean, quiet doorways away from the street, it doesn’t feel like a low-income neighborhood.
“America was not built by rich people,” Flores said. “It was built by poor people who did something to create wealth.”
Flores knows something about starting poor. Born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, he was intimately acquainted with poverty as his family struggled for sustenance throughout his childhood. It was there, he said, that he began to identify himself with economically deprived groups and devote himself to service on their behalf.
He moved to Springfield with his family in 1965, then served with the Army in Vietnam in the late ’60s. He has remained active in veterans’ causes, and was named Springfield Veteran of the Year in 2001.
But it was his affinity with migrant farm workers that led to the development of an agency — the New England Farm Workers’ Council — to help them out with various needs, from fuel assistance to job skills to education. That agency would, in the decades that followed, morph into Partners for Community, an $80 million nonprofit with several departments under its umbrella.
Those include the Corporation for Public Management, which seeks solutions to welfare dependency, chronic joblessness, and illiteracy, and also focuses on providing services to those with physical and developmental disabilities; the Corporation for Justice Management, a leader in community-based offender re-entry services to reduce recidivism and address public safety; and New England Partners in Faith, which supports small, faith-based organizations.

Solid Ground
Those agencies share space with a number of private businesses in a number of buildings owned by the Farm Workers’ Council downtown, including 11-13 Hampden St., 1628 Main St., and 1666 Main St., among others.
About 25 years ago, Flores made his first forays into real estate through Brightwood Development Corp. (BDC), a nonprofit formed with the goal of providing housing and economic development on the north side of Springfield. As president and CEO of the BDC, he developed a $2.5 million shopping center, La Plaza del Mercado, on Main Street in 1995, followed by a $3 million neighborhood medical clinic, El Centro de Salud Medico Inc., the next year. That was immediately followed by a $2 million rehabilitation of blighted, multi-family houses in the North End.
His recent deals are helping him secure a wide swath of downtown, which will have a dual effect. First, the resulting critical mass of space will ultimately create economies of scale for development opportunities, as well as a diverse mix of inventory that will suit the needs of a wide range of potential tenants. Second, it will allow him to control the immediate environs around his buildings, reducing opportunities for negative elements to creep in.
The Massasoit building, which houses the Paramount, will be renovated as phase one of Flores’ planned downtown redevelopment. The theater will boast a completely new façade, with interior renovation of the seats and stage area, including all technical aspects of a performing-arts theater. Work on the four-story building, which will include other commercial and residential space, is expected to begin during the first quarter of 2012.
As Flores led BusinessWest through the cavernous corridors — including a projection room hollowed out of equipment and rows of narrow, beaten-up, red seats in need of restoration or replacement — he talked about the impossibility of pleasing everyone with a project of this scale, but with a clear belief that the end result will be worth all the give and take.
“You can work to do something for yourself,” he said from the theater floor, just in front of the stage, “or you can work to do something for society.” Clearly, he envisions a restored, vibrant Paramount as an example of the latter.
Then there’s the Bowles building, a property recently purchased for $2 million which currently houses the Student Prince restaurant; that structure will be phase two of the council’s planned downtown development. The office building will be renovated for commercial and residential space, with work beginning sometime in 2013. However, the adjacent parking lot, which will be converted to a four-story, covered parking garage, will be part of phase one and will be completed first.
Flores said the Bowles project could became a key initiative in efforts to prompt more people with disposable income to make downtown Springfield their mailing address, a necessary ingredient in any municipal recovery effort.
Flores has been a participant in two so-called ‘City2City’ excursions that have taken delegations from the Springfield area to resurgent cities — Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C. in 2010, and Grand Rapids, Mich. late last year — and said that, in both instances, investments in the downtown areas, and especially those in market-rate housing and entertainment-related ventures, provided sparks that translated into real momentum.
He says he wants to do the same in Springfield.

Glass Half-full
Flores said he enjoys the politics and networking necessary to bring together the necessary investors, both public and private, to create real-estate deals. And he enjoys the challenge of doing so at a time when many people still don’t believe in Springfield’s potential.
“Sometimes people tell you it’s a bad time to invest in Springfield,” he said. “But if you take that attitude, nothing gets done. You have to be able to see the opportunities and run with them.”
Simply put, it doesn’t matter whether people see the city’s glass as half-empty of half-full. “The way I see it, even if the glass is empty, then there are more opportunities.”
The number of projects occurring downtown, he added, will make the landscape more attractive to other investors, although many of the city’s problems — keeping kids in school, creating more jobs, etc. — will take more than time and money to solve, and he also believes Springfield desperately needs an infusion of young, middle-class residents. Still, he said, banks are willing to back realistic capital projects today, even though lending regulations are more difficult to navigate.
Omer called Flores an example of someone creating projects that the entire community can benefit from — the Paramount being a good example.
“He wants to make it available to faith-based organizations, Springfield public schools, and other community events, as well as some general entertainment,” he said, adding that the mere idea of restoring that building appeals to many longtime city dwellers.
“I tell the story that I grew up in Springfield, and I used to go to the movies there. They’d pass out free pencil boxes in the ’50s and ’60s. Today, it could be a museum in itself. I think it’s a great thing to preserve in Springfield, and now the city is going to get to enjoy it.”
Flores says he doesn’t envision the Paramount as a standalone attraction, but something that should operate alongside other entertainment venues and restaurants as part of a destination district for fine arts.
“The symphony should be doing a show, the Basketball Hall of Fame should be doing some kind of activity, the MassMutual Center should be doing some hockey, CityStage should be doing something, and the Paramount should be doing something,” he said. “If we think with a big vision, advertising will come in, and everyone can make money.”
Omer said Flores approaches projects with the big picture in mind, “kind of like a chess player, always four or five moves ahead of the pack. He’s a very bright, astute businessman, and over the years he’s been very successful at completing his projects.”

Something to Build On
In addition to his other endeavors, Flores is president of the North End Educational Development Fund, which administers the largest Hispanic scholarship fund in New England, providing college scholarships for underprivileged, inner-city Springfield residents — and, hopefully, starts them on their own journeys of success.
“I’d like to see another 25 millionaires come out of Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “If people can make money here, they will invest and stay. I see myself as a catalyst to open doors.”
As he walked around the Bowles building and toward his modest office overlooking Hampden Street, Flores said people have wondered what wealth he could have amassed as a for-profit real-estate entity. But he said he’s building more than just physical structures. He’s also constructing a legacy — through his nonprofit endeavors guided by a committed board — that will far outlast his own life and continue to remake Springfield for decades to come.
“I’m not making anything for myself,” he said. “I’m building all this wealth for the nonprofit, so that, when I’m gone, we’ll be able to do some good in the future. Money is neutral — money is not good or bad. Good people with money can do good things, and bad people with money can do a lot of bad things.
“I have tried to set up these programs and buildings to have something for the next generation,” he continued. “I don’t know who’s going to be here 25 years from now, but these programs and services will still be here.”
Flores said he believes people should take responsibility for their community with the resources they have, and he’s tried to run his business — and prioritize his life — that way.
“I’m hard on myself. I keep saying there’s more that can be done,” he said. “I ask, ‘did you leave it better than found it? What did you do to make this country better?’ I can honestly say I’m still working on it.”
To Herbie Flores, that goal is paramount — and reachable.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at businesswest.com

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: The Holyoke Gas & Electric Department
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies in Springfield
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports in Holyoke
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café in Northampton

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur
Fueling the Imagination: Pride Founder Bob Bolduc Stays Ahead of the Curve
Bob Bolduc, Top Entrepreneur for 2010

Bob Bolduc, Top Entrepreneur for 2010

Bob Bolduc said the concept came to him early last fall as he was pondering ways to say thank you to his ‘friends,’ a word he would use interchangeably with ‘customers’ early and often.

For years, Pride has offered free coffee on Christmas, New Year’s, and Veterans Day (Bolduc was in the Army and has a deep appreciation for all those who have served their country), but he thought it was time to take things up a notch — or several, as the case may be.

“Free coffee for the month of December,” he said slowly, as if to add emphasis and convey the enormity of this executive decision.

“A lot of people here looked at me funny, and some thought I was out of my mind,” he admitted while explaining the promotion that would involve the chain’s 24 stores, scattered across Western Mass. “That’s because we’re in the coffee business; it’s one of the things we do best, and it’s quite profitable.

“I can’t say how much it has cost us, but it’s expensive, very expensive,” he continued. “It’s worth it, though; it’s been fun, and it’s certainly created a buzz. This is a big cup we’re giving away — 16 ounces — not some dinky thing.”

With 10 days left in December, Bolduc could easily do the math concerning his coffee giveaway, and he was already declaring it a good business decision. And he should know, as he’s made quite a number of them in an entrepreneurial career that now spans nearly 40 years.

“There have certainly been some that haven’t worked out well,” he conceded with a hearty laugh, one of many that would punctuate his candid interview with BusinessWest. “But many have gone right for us over the years.”

Indeed, starting with his decision to get into the wholesale tire business in the early ’70s — and then out of it when the radial changed the landscape of that business by adding tens of thousands of miles to a tire’s lifespan — Bolduc has penned a number of success stories. And he’s made several of what he called ‘firsts,’ listing everything from the first fire-suppression system at a self-serve gas station to the first in-house Dunkin’ Donuts in this market; from cash acceptors at the fuel pumps to the first ethanol sold in Western Mass.

This body of work, as well as the indication that there’s plenty more to come, has earned Bolduc BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur Award for 2010.

“Bob Bolduc exemplifies what entrepreneurship — and this award — are all about,” said BusinessWest publisher John Gormally. “His career, most notably his work with Pride, has been characterized by risk-taking, having the vision to see the future of his industry, and getting there first in many cases, and simply being innovative; in many ways, he’s redefined the convenience store.

“We created this award to honor people who have those qualities — vision, innovation, and risk-taking,” he continued, “and he’s a very worthy recipient.”

Russell Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, agreed, and praised Bolduc for his career accomplishments, as well as his recent aggressive steps in the face of the worst downturn in nearly 80 years.

“Here is a man who didn’t sit back during the last two or three years of difficult economic times,” he noted. “He charged forward and has dramatically redone most of his properties and built new properties. And he ended up increasing his employment levels in our communities.

store at the North End Bridge

Pride’s ‘free coffee for the month of December’ promotion, prominently displayed on the store at the North End Bridge, is one of many risks Bob Bolduc has taken during his career.

“What he has done to the troubled property that used to be Valley’s Steakhouse, and after that Razzles, has put a whole new face on Springfield as one enters from West Springfield,” Denver continued, referring to the latest Pride store just east of the North End Bridge. “Where there was a vacant building, an eyesore, is now a thriving business that employs about 70 people; it’s a stunning turnaround.”

And like most projects Bolduc has taken on since he first went into business for himself, the North End initiative involved a good deal of risk that he considers part and parcel to being a successful entrepreneur.

“If you don’t take risks … if you just play it safe, you’ll limit what you can do,” he said. “There are lots of risks and gambles in business; it’s not for the faint-hearted, and it never really stops.”

Pedal to the Mettle

BusinessWest sat down with Bolduc near the end of the work day (at least for most other people at Pride), a time he chose because the preceding hours were packed with more pressing matters.

The 90-minute conversation was interrupted, briefly, perhaps a dozen times by employees stopping by Bolduc’s office on the way out the door with questions, answers, updates, and agendas for the following day. When asked about what appeared to be micromanagement, Bolduc smiled and said, “show me a successful entrepreneur who is not involved in every aspect of his business.”

He then proceeded to say he’s better than he used to be when it comes to delegating responsibilities, but that he still considers even the smallest of details paramount to his operation and thus worthy of his time and attention.

“Every decision you make is important when you’re talking about your business,” he continued. “There are no small matters.”

This penchant for micromanagement is one of many aspects of Bolduc’s personality that come across loud and clear after only a few minutes of discussing business and society in general and watching him operate. Others include a real passion for what he does — this is a man who went on for five minutes about the quality of the breakfast sandwiches in his store and how proud he is of them — and both concern for and commitment to the city of Springfield (where he grew up), but also the broader subjects of education and parental involvement.

“Springfield has a serious education problem, there’s no question about that — 60% of kids drop out of high school, that’s a problem, and 60% of the fourth-graders can’t read to fourth-grade level,” he said. “That’s why we’re big supporters of early-childhood education and the early years, because it’s been proven that, if we don’t get kids started on the right track, and early, they will never make it.

“We need to get more people involved, and we need to convince some parents — I said some, not all — to get more involved in their children’s education, and make them do their homework, see that they get to bed on time and have a good breakfast, and inspire them to learn. On a bigger note, the whole country needs to do that; we need longer school days and longer school years, and we need to raise our standards — a lot — if we’re going to compete in the global economy.”

In many ways, the Pride chain and its various causes — from books to pajamas to toys — reflect Bolduc and his priorities, and it’s been that way since the beginning, or when he started down the path to entrepreneurship, which is the road he knew he would eventually take even as a mechanical engineering student at Notre Dame.

“I knew I wanted to be in business for myself some day,” he said. “I thought I had it in me, and my father and grandfather were both entrepreneurs.”

Born in Indian Orchard, Bolduc attended local public and parochial schools. After graduating from Notre Dame he went on to Purdue, where he earned an M.B.A. — and he’s put both degrees to good use. “I always enjoyed the engineering part as well as the business part.”

After graduate school, but before enlisting in the Army and eventually serving in Vietnam, he worked as a quality engineer at American Bosch. Upon returning from Southeast Asia in 1970, he briefly went to work at his father’s gas station in Indian Orchard before buying him out, thus becoming the third generation of the family to run that business.

In addition to running the station, he became a tire and auto-parts wholesaler, specifically a distributor for BF Goodrich and Continental, and became proficient enough at it to be chosen to address a national sales convention of Goodrich retailers at age 30.

As good as he was at tire wholesaling, Bolduc saw the handwriting on the wall with the introduction of the radial — and also foresaw changes that would cut out two layers of ‘middle’ people in this business — and thus sold off the venture. He then moved into an emerging field on the business landscape, one that he would ultimately help shape locally: the self-service gas station.

Priming the Pump

He started with one, again in Indian Orchard, in 1976, and continued to expand over the next 34 years, and counting.

In the process, he would not merely create a chain, but continually break ground when it came to the concept of marrying the self-service station with another emerging phenomenon, the convenience store.

Part of this matrimony was taking what was then a small store that sold bread, cigarettes, and dairy items (many people called them ‘milk stores’) and thinking outside that small box, he explained.

“We were the first chain in Western Mass. to put a Dunkin’ Donuts in our stores,” he went on, “and, later, we were the first to put a Subway in our stores — and then everybody copied both.

“We already had our own little deli shops, but when I saw the Subway concept, I said, ‘let’s give this a try,’” he continued. “And as for coffee and donuts, we were already making our own coffee, and buying a full line of products from the [former] Liberty Bakery. I sold cakes, donuts, everything; you could come in here and order a wedding cake from us, and people did.”

As he expanded the line of products and services inside the stores, Bolduc also expanded geographically, moving beyond his Springfield roots across the Pioneer Valley. “We expanded as we saw opportunities arise,” he explained, adding that many of his locations have been enlarged and renovated over the years to keep pace with his vision of what his stores should be offering.

“We’ve built and rebuilt our stores to keep up with the times and keep up with the changes we’ve made as a company,” he said. “I’ve rebuilt some stores four times as we’ve evolved from a full-service gas station to a gas-only self-service, to small stores, to large stores, and, now, to super-large stores that are able to pump fuel into as many as 20 vehicles at a time — cars and trucks.”

Bolduc said that, when many people think of the Pride name, they associate it with gasoline. He understands this — well, sort of, because this is how and why many trips to his locations begin or end. But he becomes somewhat animated as he stresses that his chain is about so much more than that.

Bob Bolduc, center, with his senior management team

Bob Bolduc, center, with his senior management team

And to get his point across, he proceeded down the roster of what is now in the Pride inventory, for lack of a better term. This would be 24 stores; a commissary that makes baked goods, those aforementioned breakfast sandwiches, and a host of other items for those stores; 10 Subways, making Pride the largest franchisee in the region; six Dunkin’ Donuts locations (those spaces are leased out to the corporation); two truck stops; one package store; two beer-and-wine stores; a trucking company; a construction company; and a commercial fueling station for local fleets.

Today, in addition to Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway locations, the larger Pride stores are, in essence, full markets complete, in some cases, with shopping carts, and, in all locations, prices he says can compete with supermarkets.

Indeed, beyond the sheer volume of locations is what’s in the stores, Bolduc told BusinessWest, that should compel people to think of this as more than just a chain of gas stations.

“We’re in the milk business,” he said, again with a large dose of pride in accomplishment. “We’re a dairy store; we sell milk $1 or $1.50 less per gallon than the supermarkets. And it’s so fresh, because we’re turning it over every day.

“In some of the stores, we changed the name to Pride Market,” he continued, going on, in great detail, as always, about what his locations now offer. “We now have major food areas with all kinds of coffee, hot and iced, and our own brand of sandwiches, subs, and bakery items — fresh-baked cookies and muffins every day.”

This emphasis on price and variety is just one way Bolduc says he’s trying to take the perceptions about convenience stores — especially the one about how people have to trade this convenience for higher prices — and turn them on their ear.

“People from several generations wouldn’t think to buy in a convenience store because the price was too high,” he said. “You buy here, and you can save money.”


What’s in Store?

When asked if he and others at Pride spend much time studying consumers as they go about designing, stocking, and staffing Pride stores, Bolduc shrugged his shoulders slightly as if to indicate ‘not really.’

He said much of the success that he or anyone else enjoys in retail comes from instinctively anticipating what his customers or ‘friends’ want — like free coffee for the month of December — and then providing it in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

This thought process has taken him from simply putting Subway franchises in his stores to adding full delis and his own baked goods, as he described.

It also led him to the cash acceptors, which, it would seem to some, but not Bolduc, would work against the larger overall mission to get people into his stores.

“This saves someone the trouble of coming into the store and standing in a line to pay someone for the gas,” he said. “If someone was going to come in, they would come in anyway; this is a great convenience for people, and it’s worked out very well.”

And it also represents one of the many risks Pride and especially Bolduc have embarked on over the years. He said his goal has always been to make these risks calculated, and to manage the many gambles he’s taken, while also working to continually move his operation forward and to new heights.

And he says this is always a difficult task, no matter how much practice one has at it.

“In this business, you have to be a high-risk taker, and you need to have a very strong stomach at times,” he explained. “You don’t get to build a chain of our size with the real estate we have without taking some gambles and putting serious money on the table.

“And then, of course, you have to make it work,” he continued. “And the same goes for other decisions you make; when you’re an independent operation like ours, there’s no fallback — if you make a mistake, there’s no one to catch you.”

As an example of this risk-taking, Bolduc sited the North End location in Springfield, the biggest in the chain. It’s known to many long-time, or very-long-time, residents as the Valley’s Steakhouse site, even though that restaurant has been closed for decades. Bolduc expressed hope that it will someday be known as the ‘Pride site.’

He said he acquired the property a decade or so ago, sensing there would be an opportunity, but going on with the intent of being patient until he knew the time was right.

“I wanted to be sure I could build and operate the kind of facility the site deserved,” he explained. “So I took my time developing it.”

Eventually, two years ago, just as the Great Recession was getting started, he decided to move ahead. Why then, when most business owners were hunkering down?

“I just decided that it was the right time,” he said. “How did I know … I can’t tell you that.”

Today, Bolduc, along with a young leadership team (comprised mostly of women), is mulling the next gambles and the next steps in the evolutionary process for the chain and the genre. And while Bolduc did indeed use the word ‘I’ quite a bit in his talk with BusinessWest, he stressed repeatedly that what he’s accomplished in 34 years has been a team effort.

“I’ve hired a lot of great people along the way,” he said. “I owe it all to them and couldn’t have accomplished all this without them.”

And, often in concert with that team, he continues to get involved in the Greater Springfield community and especially the City of Homes, with support for everything from Springfield School Volunteers to Square One to the Springfield Falcons.

He said that, like many who grew up in the city and have watched it struggle in recent years, he’s eager for a turnaround and doesn’t believe it’s far off. And, like many, he said part of the problem is a lack of self-confidence and a preoccupation with all things negative.

“Yes, we have problems; all cities do,” he said. “We need to work on those problems, especially those involving our schools, but all we hear, unfortunately, is the negative.”

The Bottom Line

Bolduc was non-committal when asked if he would be repeating his free-coffee promotion through December later this year.

As with many other aspects of his business, he knows, or probably knows, the answer to the question, but isn’t exactly eager to share it.

What he does know, and can share, but in a very vague way, is that he is going to continue to develop ‘firsts,’ and strive to remain at the forefront of the ongoing evolution of the convenience store/self-service gas station.

He’s not sure how many times he’ll have to tear down and rebuild or find new, often-innovative ways to assemble sites and create locations. But he’s quite sure he’s not done taking risks — “because that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about.”


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Sections Top Entrepreneur
John Maybury : Driven to Succeed
January 7, 2008 Cover

January 7, 2008 Cover

John Maybury was only a few months out of high school when he embarked on what started out as another in a series of odd jobs, but would eventually become a career and very successful entrepreneurial venture. He began selling workbenches, shelving, and industrial stools, but soon partnered with his father to start a diversified business in the competitive field of material handling. Today, the company reflects Maybury’s passion for technology, commitment to excellence, and drive to continuously improve. His success — and methods for achieving it — have earned him BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur Award for 2007.

John Maybury says that for him to get involved with something, there usually has to be some element of danger.

He’s an avid snowmobiler and skier, and he’s scuba dived, skydived, and flown planes (he doesn’t so much anymore). “If it has a motor, then I’m interested in it,” he said, noting that he probably had 20 cars before his 18th birthday. The only time you’ll find him on a golf course is for a charity tournament, and he’s taken part in many. He has to drive the cart, and he’ll invariably tinker with it to get it to go faster than the club pro might like.

He approaches all these danger-spiced activities with a philosophy, or thought process: to know and understand the risks, push the envelope — but not too far, and have fun. And this is the approach he takes to business and Maybury Material Handling, a venture he started while attending Western New England College 32 years ago, and trying to figure out just what to do with his life.

He took a cue, of sorts, from his father, who worked for many years as a salesperson then sales manager, specializing in, among other things, items in a field known as material handling — meaning equipment used to move, store, retrieve, and catalog inventory, records, parts, and other items.

The Younger Maybury started off as a free agent, selling various product lines to companies like American Bosch, Moore Drop Forge (later known as Danaher Tool), and other large manufacturers, using mostly contacts from his father to get his foot in those doors. He enjoyed enough early success to inspire his father to take a leave of absence from the company join him a venture that would put the Maybury name on letterhead, if not over the door — they started out as a home-based operation, but quickly outgrew those facilities.

Over the past three decades, Maybury has grown his venture into a highly diversified operation now specializing in sales, service, rentals, and training for equipment ranging from forklifts to work stations; from mezzanines to modular offices. The company has expanded and moved several times, the latest step being construction of a 42,000-square-foot building on Denslow Road in East Longmeadow, not far from where he and his father built the company’s first home on the site of an old tobacco barn.

But it is not merely what Maybury has accomplished that has earned him BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2007 award. Rather, it’s also the how that has made him this year’s honoree.

To say that this is a company that reflects the character and drive of its owner would be a real understatement. It is, like Maybury, technology-focused, employing the latest hardware and software to enable employees to do work better, faster, and cheaper. It’s also excellence-driven; it was among the early winners of the Pioneer Valley Excellence Award, and Maybury has his sights set on a Mass Excellence Award, and has the ambitious goal of earning the coveted Malcolm Baldridge award within the next decade.

And this company is people-oriented, with an emphasis on fun. At the 2007 All Associates Year End Gathering, for example, staffers were broken into teams for a spirited contest of ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?’ featuring several special guests from nearby Mapleshade Elementary School.

The teams were formed with the goal of breaking down departmental barriers and inspiring people in different capacities to work together toward a common goal — in this case, triumphing over the other teams and winning some cash ($4,000 was put on the table).

This philosophy of working together is at the heart of the company’s success, said Maybury, noting that he stresses teamwork in every facet of the operation, and it has yielded steady sales growth, cutting-edge continuous-improvement practices, and a workplace that attracts and retains top talent.

In this issue, BusinessWest examines what drives Maybury — literally and figuratively — in his quest for excellence, and why his story of entrepreneurial daring is an uplifting, and ongoing, saga.

A Real Spark Plug

As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the new plant and posed for a few pictures, Maybury displayed some of that passion he has for all things motorized.

He jumped onto one of the newest and most versatile fork truck models, showed all that it can do, and then maneuvered it in out of some tight spaces. “I can handle these better than most people who drive them for a living,” he said, noting that he’s fluent with every piece of equipment on his showroom floor, and needs to be if he is to properly serve his clients.

Maybury got his first practice on a forklift back in the fall of 1975. He was a freshman at WNEC and also working several part-time jobs to help pay his tuition. One of them was at Milton Bradley — now known as Hasbro Games — and its East Longmeadow plant. He worked in what was known then as Department 26, moving around pallets of games like Monopoly, Life, and Chutes and Ladders, for loading onto boxes that would be packed into freight cars for transport on a rail line that no longer exits.

When Maybury returns to Department 26 these days — he’s made several visits over the years and still runs into people he worked with three decades ago — it is to help Hasbro stay on the cutting edge of material-handling equipment and processes. The toy maker is just one name on a long and distinguished client list. Others include regional and national manufacturers, distributors, and retailers including Friendly’s, Big Y, Lenox, J Polep, JCPenney, Macy’s Target, Wal-Mart, and even Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

Maybury supplies racks and shelving, conveyors, forklifts, and other equipment to the casinos to move and store money and chips. It also played a lead role in helping Mohegan Sun set a record a few years ago — with an 18-foot-tall, seven-tiered wedding cake weighing 15,032 pounds, or 7.5 tons. Maybury engineers created the huge platforms, or cake separators that the cake rested on (they were supported with steel pipes made by the company and painted to match a frosting sample) and also positioned massive, 30,000-pound-capacity scales in order to give the casino the exact weight.

The current, ever-growing client list and show of diversity and imagination put on display at Mohegan Sun provide evidence of just how far this company has come from its humble beginnings. How Maybury has orchestrated this evolution and progression is a story of entrepreneurial drive, vision, and ample doses of both luck and determination — mostly the latter.

Recalling how things got started, Maybury said that in addition to his forklift adventures at Milton Bradley, he also worked at Big Y, SIS (now TD Banknorth), and other area companies while trying to choose a career path. Instead, one chose him.

Growing up, he recalled, the conversations around the dinner table often revolved around his father’s work in material-handling equipment, and he eventually gravitated toward it himself.

“I grew up with it, and was kind of fascinated by it,” he said, re-emphasizing his childhood interest in all things mechanical, which manifested itself in early exploits in snowmobiling, mini-bike and motorcycle riding, and an endless parade of cars. “I would go into where my father was employed, go out back, and see all that equipment; it was something that really interested me.”

That company was Stanley Handling Equipment Co., later to be called StanLift, in Agawam. It was sold while Maybury’s father was executive vice president, and he then left and did consulting work for a similar venture based in Boston.

“It was at the supper table one night … I asked my father if he thought I could sell the things he used to sell,” Maybury recalled. “He said, ‘let’s give it a try,’ and we did.”

He started as an independent agent of sorts representing dealers trying to penetrate the Western Mass., market, selling workbenches, industrial stools, shelving, pushcarts, and other items needed by manufacturers that didn’t require help with installation, and was helped considerably by some of his father’s contacts.

“I’m 18, 19 years old … these people basically adopted me like a son or a grandson, because I was so young,” he explained. “I would go in, show them the book, show them the prices, tell them how much I needed to make, and they were cutting me orders.

“If I had any questions, I would go and ask my father,” he continued, adding that as the orders started rolling in, the father-and-son team saw a business opportunity unfolding before him. With a $25,000 loan from what was known then as First Bank — “they enjoyed the signature of the 40-year-old father much more than the 19-year-old son,” said Maybury — they were off and running.

Hitting on All Cylinders

Beyond the changes in street address over the years, the company was also in a constant state of change and diversification, said Maybury, patterns that have made it unique in the material-handling sector.

After starting with benching, shelving, and stools, the company moved into larger shelving installations, and two-story installations, including some work for Subaru of America. These installations would require lift trucks, he noted, adding that in the beginning the company would rent such equipment for jobs, but later purchased a fleet of the vehicles to ensure it could get a job done — and on time.

These ‘installs,’ as they were called, were usually done over a weekend, when a plant was shut down, he continued, adding that the mechanics hired to do these jobs often had little to do during the week, so the company started subbing them out to other businesses.

This was the beginning of Maybury’s power equipment division, which sells, leases, and maintains forklifts, scrubbers, sweepers, and other pieces of equipment and accounts for roughly 50% of total revenues.

Maybury remembers when the fleet consisted of one van (he still keeps a picture of it his files) and five hand trucks. Today, it’s 30 vans and more than 300 left trucks serving an area that stretches east to Worcester and south into Northern Conn., but Maybury says the company goes wherever its customers want.

It’s done work in Pennsylvania for Friendly’s, for example, and also in Nebraska, Texas, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere for other clients.

This constant evolution has yielded a company that Maybury describes as a “solution provider,” and one that has no across-the-board competition.

“Our competitors are silo businesses,” he explained. “We have lift truck competitors, shelving and rack competitors, conveyor competitors, and mezzanine competitors, for example, but there aren’t any real solution providers that can address the full scope of material handling like we do.”

Summing up what his company does, and simplifying matters as he does so, Maybury says his team of 100 employees helps clients become more efficient, thus making them more profitable and competitive in the face of increasingly global competition. And throughout its existence, the company has essentially practiced what it has preached — using technology, processes, and teamwork to simplify and streamline operations and provide new opportunities for growth.

“We’re about as paperless as a company like this can get,” said Maybury, citing just one example of how the company works to take time and waste from its processes, while also serving customers more efficiently. The company has used self-directed work teams, the Kaizen process, and other strategies to reduce process times and reduce errors.

These efforts were rewarded with a Pioneer Valley Excellence Award in 2005, what Maybury calls the first step in an aggressive drive to winning a Baldridge within the next decade. Established in 1988, and named after former Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge, a strong proponent of quality management, the award is given to companies to large and small judged to be outstanding in seven areas: leadership; strategic planning; customer and market focus; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; human resource focus; process management; and results.

Maybury said that while his goal is on winning the award, his focus is on doing the things necessary to achieve that end, which means not achieving results, but sustaining them, which is the key to not merely filling a lobby with plaques and trophies, but also taking a company to desired heights in terms of efficiency and profits.

And for this, Maybury returns to the subject of teamwork, specifically a team of ‘Level 5 leaders’ as defined by business writer Jim Collins, author Good to Great.

“I have a human resources manager, a controller, a power equipment division manager, a material handling division manager, and a sales and marketing manager, and those positions support our strategy and our goals,” he explained, “and our initiatives and action steps are carried out by that group of people.

“Into everything we do over the course of a year we come up with some critical impact factors that will impact our business either in a positive or negative way, and then we develop strategies and action steps and come up with goals and plans so we deploy a common theme,” he continued. “If it’s self-managed teams, then it’s self-managed teams until we get it; if it’s paperless, it’s paperless until we get it; if it’s proper deployment of technology, it’s that until we get it; we don’t just say ‘let’s do this,’ and then it never happens.”

Gasket Case

There has been considerable deployment of communications technology over the years, said Maybury, adding that the progression of steps, such as the outfitting of service technicians with tablet PCs to eliminate all use of paper, is consumer- and service-driven.

“We don’t have technology just to have technology — we have technology to be the accelerator for our processes,” he said, noting that the use of the tablet PCs and aircards that provide Internet access eliminate the need for everything from paper receipts to repair manuals.

Which is significant, because each technician needs vast amounts of information at his or her disposal to maintain or repair the wide range of equipment sold and serviced by the company.

“With the technology and advancements, our technicians now have the ability to go online,” he said, “and go to the manufacturers’ sites, get their technical service bulletins, get schematics, get parts resources, and communicate by E-mail with the supplier so we can get all the information we need without having any books on the trucks.”

There are countless other examples of putting technology to work to streamline processes, allow people to do more work in less time, and even save a few trees, he continued, noting that technology is just half the equation; the other is the people who use it, and the company is careful to invest heavily in them, as well.

This strong focus on people was on display at the All Associates Year End Gathering, a tradition at Maybury for nearly 20 years now.

As the name implies, everyone who works for the company (and they’re called associates, not employees) is required to attend. In recent years, the date was moved from just before Christmas to the middle of the month to make it easier to fit into the holiday schedule.

As in prior years, this day-long program had a packed agenda, starting with a welcome from Maybury, a quick review of the safety record (169 days without a lost-time accident by Dec. 14), and then a comprehens
ve review of the company’s 401(k) program delivered by Charles Epstein, president of Epstein Financial Services.

“This is a good time to be a having a review,” said Maybury, noting the stock market’s rocky third and fourth quarters and the questions it would generate. “This is a time when people need information about their money and what to do with it to make it grow.”

The agenda continued with reviews of the health and dental plans, a look back at the accomplishments of 2007 and a glance ahead to the goals for ’08, a celebration of anniversaries (there was a 25th and two 20ths, among others) and new associates, a question-and-answer period, and that spirited round of ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.’

The associates’ day, and the specific parts of the program, are reflective of Maybury’s desire to make his a people-oriented company, one focused on helping employees balance work and life.

Finding that balance is something Maybury has had to work at himself, noting that, over the years, he’s managed to make time for his family, community activities, chamber of commerce duties (he was president of the East Longmeadow chamber for two years), work on boards such as the one at Baystate Health he’s a member of, and even some snowmobiling.

“When I balance my family with my business and the community, that makes me feel better,” he said. “I could probably lock myself in here for several more hours a day, but I wouldn’t have the same self-satisfaction. And I like to learn — I’m a constant learner … I don’t think I’ve every stopped.”

Growth Engine

The Maybury company may be essentially paperless, by its president proudly hangs on to an item that could have been recycled years ago.

It’s a placemat from the Fort restaurant in Springfield, on which Maybury scribbled the preliminary business plan for a subsidiary, or sister business, he started with a partner in 2005 called Atlantic Handling Systems. Based in the New Jersey community of Ho-Ho-Kus, it offers entry into a new, large market, and provides new opportunities for growth.

There was and is that requisite amount of danger with the Atlantic venture, he explained, adding quickly that this latest endeavor, called ‘Baby Maybury’ by some, amounts to a calculated risk, one that has worked out very well and holds considerable promise for the future.

And getting it off the ground has been fun, which, like that element of danger, must be part and parcel to everything that intrigues our Top Entrepreneur for 2007.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]