Home 2008 October
Staying Calm Amid the Inevitable Tempests of Change

Hurricane WaMu. Tropical Storm Enron. The Lehman Brothers Tsunami. In the increasingly tumultuous climate of corporate America, it seems as if no place is safe.

Nowadays, most places of employment — from small businesses to multinational corporations — contain a pocket or two of whispering staffers fretting over the impending change that is about to hit their world, or complaining about the one that just took place. They have nervously listened to reports of economic doom and gloom, heard rumors circulating throughout the office corridors, watched a steady stream of co-workers come and go, and grumbled every time a new organizational chart was delivered to their E-mail inbox.

There’s no doubt about it: people are scared.

Whether it is the result of witnessing several of the largest bankruptcies in modern history, a hostile merger or acquisition, massive reductions in force, or simply a change in management, workers across the country are being negatively affected by the widespread changes taking effect in the workplace. Stress and anxiety levels are increasing, productivity is decreasing, and job-hopping is commonplace, thus further lowering already-basement-level employee morale.

If you have ever been in a major weather event such as a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, you are undoubtedly familiar with the few basic rules of survival and protection. Corporate changes are not unlike these natural occurrences, as they can often inflict similar emotional and financial upset. If you find yourself in the throes of yet another career shakeup, here are a few helpful hints for how not only to weather the storm, but also to emerge head and shoulders above your competition once the dust settles.

  • Expect it. Every year a hurricane will hit land somewhere. It is not probable; it is inevitable. Change in the business world is exactly the same. A company is an entity, and like all entities, it grows and evolves over time. In fact, it needs to change, because a stagnant company will eventually become a failed one. If you know that change — potentially a great deal of it — is guaranteed to happen, it will help you minimize the shock and denial that sometimes surface when it invariably hits.
  • Be prepared. When a big storm threatens a community, there are two key steps to adequately prepare: develop a solid plan and secure the necessary provisions. You want to know what you are going to do and what you need to do it. The same holds true for your employment. Before the storm of change hits, decide now what you want from your career and how your skills, credentials, and desires match your current employment. This may mean keeping your resume polished up, if only to boost your own comfort level and confidence. A calm, prepared employee typically survives the rocky roller-coaster ride of corporate change a lot easier. As for provisions, you may want to identify what financial needs you and your family have to be comfortable. Do you have all of your finances in place to ensure that these provisions are met? If not, it is wise to do so before the storm hits and your priorities are on other things.
  • Ride it out. OK, the storm has hit. You have a new office, boss, job, or company — or maybe you just found out that you no longer have any of them! The wind is howling, the shutters are banging, and the power is out. Everyone around you is panicking. What should you do when you are in the eye of the storm?
  • Now is the time to get grounded and centered. Take some deep breaths, and become your favorite tree (yes, you read it correctly: your favorite tree). Pretend that you have thick roots in your legs, and imagine that they are plunging deep into the ground below you. Trust that everything will happen exactly as it needs to in your highest good, and surrender to the Powers That Be. You are not in charge, but you have the ability to stay calm while the storm passes. Keep breathing!

    Clean up afterward. At this point you are surveying the damage. As you look around, you can’t help but notice the casualties and the huge amount of work ahead of you. First and foremost, give yourself permission to feel bad for a while, and honor the fact that you just went through a difficult challenge. If others are hurt by the change, extend a compassionate hand. But after a short period of time, decide that you want to get on with your life once again. Make a graceful exit from the pity party, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Start getting to know your new co-workers, learn the ins and outs of your new role or flesh out your next career trajectory. Whatever the results of the change are, know that the sooner you stop the self-destructive spin cycle of complaining, the quicker you will move back into a place of happiness and prosperity.

    The spate of corporate fear can be addressed when we take our cues from the lessons of Mother Nature. By adequately preparing for and weathering the inevitable tempests of change, you will clearly set yourself apart from the rest of the people who are still cowering around the water cooler, hoping that tapping their heels three times will return them to a safe, static work environment. Through awareness, preparation, centeredness, and acceptance, you will move swiftly through the blowing winds of change and ultimately emerge more joyful and successful than ever before.v

    Theresa Rose is an inspirational speaker and author of the newly released “Opening the Kimono.” As the founder of Serious Mojo Publications, Theresa specializes in fresh approaches to energy management, productivity, and creative development. Her past experience includes several entrepreneurial and management positions, including owner of an alternative-healing center, senior manager of marketing and product development for a Fortune 100 telecommunications firm, and vice president of a consulting firm specializing in higher education;www.theresarose.net

    Fostering the Development of a ‘Smart Grid’

    New England states have laid out an ambitious agenda to slow the growth in electricity use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, develop renewable resources, maintain power-system reliability, and lower costs. The sometimes-conflicting nature of these goals makes it difficult to align them.

    Indeed, this is a critical juncture for New England. For decades, the region has faced formidable energy challenges, from a lack of indigenous fuel sources to historically high costs, a weak transmission system, and growing consumer demand. The introduction of competitive electricity markets a decade ago has provided a solid foundation for progress: almost $10 billion in private investment in new power plants has boosted supply by more than 30%, and $3 billion of long-overdue transmission investment with about $5 billion more being planned will result in a more-efficient flow of power throughout the region.

    The next steps can be achieved by developing solutions that accommodate and harness recent technological innovations to improve the efficiency of the power grid — in other words, to foster the development of a ‘smart grid.’

    This ‘smart grid’ means far more than the use of technology. It means establishing ‘smart’ policies that will bring new technology to all corners of the power system to optimize supply, transmission, and conservation. It also means being smart about resource choices in the long term, so that the region can diversify its fuel sources and lessen its reliance on natural gas and oil to produce electricity.

    On the regional level, smart-grid technology has been incorporated into New England’s power system operations so that grid conditions both inside and outside the region can be monitored. Moreover, ISO New England is committing funds for the development of an ‘Advanced Grid Simulator’ that will help determine how the grid will operate with the addition of intermittent alternative energy resources such as wind.

    New electricity markets were recently implemented to expand the types of resources used to meet consumer demand. New England’s markets now procure in advance not just traditional supply such as power plants, but also conservation resources that reduce electricity use and have never been included in the marketplace before.

    This fall, the ISO began a pilot program designed to test alternative energy resources, including energy storage, as a way to instantaneously balance electricity supply and demand. At the state level, policies are being implemented that will maximize the potential of these innovations and encourage their continued development. The state recently enacted the Green Communities Act that promotes the development of renewable resources and energy-efficiency programs.

    Meanwhile, the state of Connecticut passed energy legislation that promotes conservation and reduced demand to limit the growth in electricity use. Connecticut has become a leader in demand response, which provides financial incentives for customers to lower their electricity use during tight supply periods. And energy efficiency programs are giving consumers tools to better manage their energy use.

    Some New England states are either considering the adoption of smart meters or have already introduced pilot programs. Such technologies would provide consumers with real-time price information to enable them to better manage their use and lower their bills.

    The goals that have been set for renewable resources, conservation, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are ambitious, but feasible if industry and government continue to build on progress. Technology transformed the region’s economy in the 1980s and ’90s, and fostered improvements in productivity and efficiency in industries around the world. New England can be at the center of another technological revolution in power delivery and use — automating the system to make it more efficient and bringing the economic, environmental, and energy needs of the region into closer alignment.-

    Gordon van Welie is president and CEO of Holyoke-based ISO New England Inc.

    Cover Story
    How Robert Holub Plans to Take UMass Amherst to the ‘Top Tier’
    Cover 10/27/08

    Cover 10/27/08

    Robert Holub says it was the first pragraph of the ad placed in a higher-education trade journal that caught and held his attention.

    He doesn’t recall the exact wording, but it was something to this effect: that the president and trustees at UMass Amherst were looking to recruit someone who could bring the campus into the top tier of public research universities in the country.

    Only a few months before that ad was placed, Holub, then provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Tennessee, wasn’t looking for another job opportunity. But by the time it appeared, following some leadership changes in Knoxville and greater uncertainty about his future there, he was paying much closer attention to such postings.

    He was aware of UMass and its national reputation — like many others, he says the school is better-regarded outside the Bay State than within it — and was intrigued. But it was the ‘next-level’ nature of the assignment that also appealed to him. Many schools are looking to make such a jump, he told BusinessWest, and UMass has been for several decades now, it seems.

    Indeed, such ‘top-tier’ language is commonplace in ads posted by schools seeking a president or chancellor, he said, adding that this opportunity — with its blend of timing, institution, and lingering historical challenge — stood out in some ways and got him thinking about what might be the next line on his resume.

    By midsummer, Holub, a German scholar, wasn’t thinking about the UMass assignment any longer — he was already hard at work on it, or at least laying the groundwork for it. And by September, when he arrived at the Amherst campus, he was talking to media outlets and other constituencies, including alumni, faculty, students, elected officials, and others, about just what’s involved with taking such a school up a notch.

    There is no manual and ‘how-to’ guide for such work, he explained, adding that it comes down to making an across-the-board effort to improve everything from research to the volume of faculty awards; from endowment to the rankings in U.S. News & World Report and other publications.

    And Holub has already taken some steps in these directions.

    For example, he recently reinstituted the position of ‘vice chancellor for Research,’ and expanded the title to include ‘Engagement,’ in one of several organizational moves.

    “In examining the top public research institutions in the country, I have found very few that did not have a research office at the level of vice chancellor or vice president,” he wrote to the campus community. “If we are going to be among these top institutions, I believe it is wise to emulate their emphasis on research and research productivity.”

    Following, or attempting to follow, best practices established by the schools well ahead of UMass in the rankings will be part of the strategic plan for the university, said Holub. But such efforts don’t take place in vacuums, and are inherently complicated by a number of factors, he said, putting everything from campus politics to simple economics on that list. And at the moment, state financing is a rather sore subject, with Question 1 (a proposed end to the Commonwealth’s income tax) hanging over every public institution, and $1 billion in cuts already made by the Patrick administration ($12 million at the Amherst campus).

    But there are other factors, not the least of which is the fact that schools currently ranked higher than UMass in several of those categories have no intention of moving down the list.

    “They don’t sit around and say, ‘we’ve had our time in the top 25; let’s give our spot to someone else,’ and the 20 schools in our position don’t say, ‘we’re happy where we are,’” Holub explained with a laugh, adding that reaching the next level certainly won’t happen overnight.

    In this issue, BusinessWest introduces Holub to the Western Mass. region and details (to the extent possible) his intentions and plans to take UMass Amherst where no one has.

    School of Thought

    As he talked with BusinessWest in his offices in the Whitmore administration building, Holub referenced a wall of framed photographs and architects’ renderings. Together, they convey more than a decade’s worth of expansion and new construction — totaling hundreds of millions of dollars — that crosses several schools and departments at the university.

    The collection is impressive, and includes the integrated science building, the new Skinner Hall (home to the School of Nursing), the Isenberg School of Management, the recently opened integrated arts building, a recreational center currently under construction, the new, state-of-the-art central power plant, and many others.

    But they will all be coming down soon.

    “These are things that are already done, for the most part, and achieved by the previous administration,” said Holub. “There are a host of new projects coming via the capital bond bill; we don’t need to keep up the old ones.”

    Re-covering that wall with new building and expansion projects is just one of the official or unofficial goals that Holub has set since learning last summer that he had been the one chosen to take UMass to a higher tier — and a new set of pictures will provide some evidence of progress in that regard.

    But the real proof will come in the rankings, specifically those set by the National Research Council, or NRC, said Holub, who told BusinessWest that he wants UMass Amherst to join such schools as Michigan, Penn State, Berkeley, UCLA, and others among the top echelon of public universities.

    Gauging the scope of the work ahead, Holub said that several UMass departments have already achieved top rankings from the NRC — in terms of faculty awards, the school is in the top 20, for example — but in others, the school is well down the lists.

    “It’s a mixed bag,” he explained. “We do well in faculty awards, but in research, we’re down around 50 or so, and in endowment, we’re down below 100. We have some departments ranked in the top 20, and others that are unranked.”

    Questions about how to achieve across-the-board improvement no doubt dominated the interview process for the chancellor’s position, which Holub entered after nearly 30 years in higher education, 27 of them at Berkeley, which he placed in that top tier.

    Holub started there as an undergraduate adviser in the German Department, and eventually became chair of that department and served in that post from 1991 to 1997. He would move up the ranks, and eventually be named dean of the undergraduate division of the College of Letters and Science, continuing a career-wide focus on undergraduate education. He left Berkeley for Tennessee and its chief academic post in 2006.

    A change in leadership in Knoxville late in 2007 prompted him to start mulling career options, and he set his sights on a chancellor’s or president’s position.

    What appealed to him about UMass was the solid foundation on which to build — several academic programs are highly ranked — and the professional challenge that awaited him at the school.

    When asked where he starts, he said there will be several initiatives undertaken simultaneously, but research is obviously a top priority — hence the launching of a national search for a vice chancellor of Research.

    “We have to improve in research productivity, in terms of federal research expenditures,” he explained. “That’s the way in which the top institutions are measured; we do well there, but don’t do as well as the top tier.”

    The administrative change, with an emphasis on that word ‘engagement’ that will now be in the title, is a key first step in this initiative, he continued. “The research office should be able to act more effectively to assist faculty in doing their research, getting out research grants, and working with industry inside the state and outside it to attract research dollars.”

    Another priority is communication, he said, meaning both the internal and external varieties.

    “We have to make it known what is going on here, and what is so positive about what’s going on here,” he explained, noting that the accomplishments of the faculty are not as known and understood as they should be, for example. “Many of the surveys that you have, whether it’s the National Research Council or US News and World Report, are reputational in nature, and in the past, I don’t think we’ve done a good-enough job of communicating the excellent work that goes on here and the great research and teaching that are accomplished on this campus.”

    To achieve improvement, Holub has appointed Tom Milligan to the position of executive vice chancellor for University Relations, and has moved several units and individuals under this unit to “ensure a more consistent and coordinated approach in reaching and engaging our key constituents,” as the chancellor wrote in his E-mail to the campus community.

    Milligan is putting together a more-cohesive communications strategy for the campus, Holub continued, adding that several departments at the school have been handling what amounts to public relations, but these have lacked coordination.

    Textbook Examples

    While discussing what it will take to move UMass up in the rankings, Holub addressed some of the theories offered as to why the school isn’t on a higher tier, and why some question whether it can get there.

    The proliferation of quality private schools in the Bay State is often mentioned in this discussion, because of how those schools — Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke, among seemingly countless others — compete with the state university for students, faculty, and the attention of the press, especially the Boston newspapers that cover Harvard like a blanket.

    Meanwhile, distance from Boston is sometimes listed as a factor by those who believe Amherst is perhaps too remote to gain consistent attention from the Boston media, or to attract faculty and graduate students.

    Holub acknowledged these contentions, but quickly discounted most all of them simply by showing what other schools facing similar issues and challenges have done.

    Champagne, home to the Univerity of Illinois, is hundreds of miles of Chicago, he explained, and the Windy City has a number of top-tier private schools. But neither of those factors has kept the state university from reaching the place where UMass wants to be.

    Meanwhile, he said, students don’t usually choose between Harvard and UMass, or MIT and UMass — the university traditionally faces different forms of competition for students. And as for the press, Holub took the attitude that, while the university can and will work harder to draw attention to itself — as he outlined above — he believes that if UMass can generate the kind of news he’s looking for (not students getting arrested after Red Sox playoff games), then the media will cover it.

    So the task at hand is to create such news or more of it.

    Doing so amounts to a process, said Holub, adding that, for the past few months, he’s been engaged in what might be considered the first step: listening.

    He’s done a lot of it, while sitting across the desk from or standing at podiums in front of individuals and groups ranging from Allan Blair, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to distinguished alumni; from elected leaders in Boston and Washington to the school’s foundation board; from every dean on the campus to some current students.

    What is he hearing from them? Many things, he said, but one common thread is the need to move quickly and decisively to restore a sense of stability, something that is lost, or perceived to be lost, when a school like UMass loses as many top administrators as it has over the past several months.

    What is Holub telling those groups and individuals? Essentially, that he wants to take those departments not ranked among the country’s elite and elevate them there, while taking those with high rankings and pushing them higher still.

    “We’re the best public research university in New England,” he said, stating with no lack of confidence in his voice that the school tops UConn in that category. “But we can’t be satisfied with that; we want to be one of the best in the country.”

    Overall dissatisfaction with the status quo is what Holub says brought him to UMass.

    “If they had said that they were satisfied with the way things were going and that they wanted someone to keep operating in that way, I wouldn’t have been interested in the position,” he said, referring back to that job posting. “This university has achieved some great things, but it can do more and be more.”

    By the Book

    When asked if there were any often-cited examples of schools reaching that ‘next tier’ that he would attempt to emulate in some way, Holub said there are several, but that each story is different is some ways.

    The common thread is achieving a campus-wide commitment to excellence, and not allowing standards — or performance — to slip.

    That’s why schools that are that top-echelon usually stay there, he continued, adding that UMass won’t easily take another university’s slot among the elite.

    “Every public university that’s in the top 25 wants to stay in the top 25, and everyone who’s 25 to 50 wants to get in the top 25,” he explained. “So, it’s a very hard competition.”

    Thus, UMass will have to earn its way to the top echelon, and the processing of doing so is already underway.

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


    Reality Store

    Area high-school seniors learned the financial facts of life at the Reality Store event hosted at Springfield Technical Community College on Oct. 17. Tables represented categories such as housing, transportation, clothing, furniture, child care, groceries, insurance, and financial institutions, and were staffed by local business volunteers. Each student was handed a card with a life scenario, including a fictitious age, salary, education level, marital status, number of children, employment history, etc. They were given a check register and had to allocate their funds to provide necessities of life; if they ran out of money, they were steered to the part-time job table to see if there were any jobs available for which they would qualify. The students came from Chicopee High School, Chicopee Comprehensive High School, Enfield High School, Enrico Fermi High School, and West Hartford High School. The financial-literacy event is held annually by the Enfield Public Schools, based on a national model pioneered by the Indiana chapter of the Business and Professional Women Assoc. At top right is Barbara Lyon, transition coordinator for the Enfield Public Schools, who has organized the Reality Store event for students in this area for the past five years.

    Driving Force

    All States Transport Inc. (AST) recently celebrated the official opening of its national headquarters at 1067 East Columbus Ave. in Springfield. Founded in 1985, AST is a freight-brokerage company with offices in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin, and it moves customer freight via road, rail, water, and air. From left are Pam Okeefe, an employee of AST; Angie Florian, a representative of the South End Citizens Council (SECC); Chris Kingston, AST; Leo Florian, SECC; Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno; Billy Kingston, president of AST; and Jennifer Irwin, Phil Ierasi, Mary Dinas, and Natalia Wichowsky, all employees of AST.

    County Strengths Dialogues

    Hampden County leaders gathered recently to discuss the strengths of the county and their vision for change. The luncheon at the Delaney House was part of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. “County Strengths Dialogues” in each of the counties of Western Mass. From left are Carla Oleska, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass.; Carol Klyman and Ellen Freyman of Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin; and Joan Kagan, CEO of Square One.

    Sections Supplements
    Restoration Firm Has a Niche That Soots It Well
    Gary Brunelle

    Gary Brunelle stands in front of the historic home on Elliott Street in Springfield, the latest addition to his growing portfolio.

    Gary Brunelle knows that, unlike business owners in countless other lines of work, he can’t expect to build his enterprise on the strength of repeat business.

    That’s because the commercial and residential restoration work he does follows a fire, flooding, strong-wind damage, sewage backup, or even a vehicle plowing into a home or storefront. In other words, calamities that usually — and hopefully — visit the homeowner or business owner once.

    “There is a little repeat business,” said Brunelle, co-owner of West Springfield-based Ace Fire & Water Restoration Inc., citing, as an example, some neighborhoods prone to flood damage and, in rarer cases, sewage backup issues. “But not a whole lot.”

    Thus, the task at hand for Brunelle and others, in what is considered an emerging specialty in the construction services sector, is to constantly generate new business. This puts a premium on marketing, he explained, noting that this is one of those businesses where people who need help and need it fast will resort to the phone book. Thus, he has several large, colorful, information-packed ads in those directories.

    But it also puts a strong emphasis on word-of-mouth referrals, he continued, or, to get right to it, on those things that generate such positive recommendations. In this case, factors include quick response, quality work, strong, effective communication between Brunelle and his clients, and, of course, helping people get back to a state of normalcy as quickly and painlessly as possible.

    The ability to do all that has helped Brunelle quickly grow his portfolio and, quite recently, add what will soon be its centerpiece.

    This will be work to restore the historic home at 2527 Elliott St. in Springfield (next door to the new federal courthouse) that was extensively damaged by an electrical fire last January. Its 8,003 square feet of space are “completely cooked,” said Brunelle as he gave a tour of what remains, adding that this will be a total rebuild (price tag: $1.6 million) that will take roughly 18 months to complete.

    “We’re going to strip it right down to the brick walls and rebuild it from the inside out,” he explained, adding that the former duplex will be converted into office space.

    Landing this huge contract was, Brunelle believes, a function of his company’s visibility and track record, which are the cornerstones to success, as he’s learned through nearly two decades of work in a business specialty he says he entered pretty much on a fluke.

    Indeed, Brunelle, a long-time carpenter, said that after one of many layoffs in 1990, he began what he expected to be a short-term assignment with a Connecticut company that specialized in fire, water, and related restoration — and he’s stayed in that business ever since. He made the transition from employee to employer in 2005, starting Ace Fire & Water with the confidence — and conviction — that there was ample room for another player in what was and is a somewhat crowded field.

    And thus far, he’s been proven right.

    “In a given year, about 3% of the population will be calling their insurance company about a loss involving some kind of damage,” he said, adding that this equates to considerable business across this region in both the residential and commercial quadrants, and Ace is succeeding in gaining progressively larger amounts of market share.

    In this issue, BusinessWest will explore how, and, in the process, provide some insight into a construction specialty that most people don’t pay much attention to — until they need it.

    No Smoke and Mirrors

    It is Friday, and as he talks with BusinessWest in his office/warehouse complex on Elizabeth Street, Brunelle is interrupted early and often by his cell phone.

    “This is typical for a Friday … there’s always a lot of calls,” he explained after handling another quick question, noting that clients typically pick that day of the week to get updates on the status of their projects, and crews in the field are always looking ahead to what will be on the slate the following week.

    Brunelle, who splits his time between the office and the field, with the latter earning a much higher percentage of his calendar, says there are many updates to offer on a typical Friday. The company usually has 15 to 20 jobs of various sizes ongoing at any given time, and, while half are completed in a month or less, some can take 120 days or more.

    And the jobs run the gamut. As the name of the company suggests, many of the projects are, indeed, fire- and water-related, with the latter category being replete with everything from flood damage to bursting pipes in the cold of winter; from so-called ice dams — a condition where ice builds up on the edge of a roof and water trapped behind it seeps into a home, damaging walls and ceilings — to dishwasher malfunctions.

    But there are other kinds of work as well.

    Indeed, mold remediation is becoming an increasingly common assignment for Ace crews, said Brunelle, adding that sewage backups are another frequently occurring annoyance for home and business owners, and there is considerable high-wind damage to address, as well. And then there’s the motorist who encountered some type of medical problem, apparently, and wound up driving his car into a home on East Mountain Road in Westfield.

    “That happens more than you might think,” said Brunelle of the motor vehicle mishap, adding that, in this case, the home was actually knocked off its foundation, making this a rather extensive addition to the Ace portfolio, which has been building steadily since 2005.

    That’s when Brunelle and partner Thomas Howe decided to go into business for themselves. They understood that this was a competitive field and that theirs’ was a fairly capital-intensive business, with several pieces of equipment to acquire. But they were confident that they could leverage their combined quarter-century of experience in the restoration field and become significant players in the market.

    Which they have. And Brunelle credits this success in large part to the experience he’s amassed over the years.

    Dry, Dry Again

    He recalls his entry into this business with a firm called Michaud Fire & Water restoration and his first assignment as what’s known as a ‘trim carpenter.’ “This is the very bottom rung of the ladder, the lowest of the low,” he explained. “And when I asked my boss, Gene Michaud, why I had to start there — because I had a lot of experience — he said that, if I wanted to learn the business, I had to start at the bottom and experience everything. And I did.”

    After Michaud sold the business several years later, Brunelle went to work for one of the break-off companies, and later joined what was then Action Fire Restoration in Chicopee and worked there for several years. By 2005, he and Howe, with whom he worked at Action, were ready to launch their own venture.

    With considerable help from the Small Business Administration, which assisted with the preparation of a detailed, 75-page business plan, the partners got Ace Fire & Water Restoration off the ground, with the requisite specialty equipment and something called IICRC, or Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certfication.

    As Brunelle mentioned, repeat business doesn’t come often in this line of work, so most all customers are new customers. Thus, the primary challenges for players like Brunelle are to attract these customers and then deliver the kind of customer service that will yield positive referrals, and thus business from those who have the time and inclination to do more than search the Yellow Pages after disaster strikes.

    Regarding the former, Brunelle understands that he must market himself extensively — more than most businesses his size — and he does this though the phone book, but also print, radio, and television ads that are building brand awareness. He’s also joined several business networking groups to enhance his referral-generation capabilities.

    As for customer service, Brunelle says his firm can provide a more-personable, hands-on approach then some of the larger players in this market.

    “This is one contractor who will return your phone calls,” he said, citing this particular Friday as a good example of his operating style. “Here, your file’s not sitting on the desk of a business on the 20th floor of a building in Chicago.”

    Elaborating, Brunelle said that he, like others in this business, keeps vast files of before-and-after pictures — for insurance companies, prospective clients, and other constituencies. What matters most in this business is how the contractor — and therefore the client — gets from one point to the other.

    “This is a people-oriented business,” he explained. “The people we’re working with have gone through something traumatic — it’s a difficult time for them. We’re small enough and personal enough to make that time less-difficult for them.”

    With this blend of aggressive marketing and strong customer service, Brunelle is looking to grow market share, especially on the commercial side of the ledger sheet, which currently accounts for only about 15% of his total volume.

    “We’re working to change that number,” he told BusinessWest, noting that larger players have a firm hold on the commercial market and he wants to alter that equation.

    Cellars Market

    In one of his television ads, Brunelle hints strongly at the non-repeat nature of the restoration business, and the fact that roughly 97% of the home and business owners in this market won’t have cause to even think about dialing his number in a given year.

    “I sincerely hope you never need our services,” says Brunelle in the spot, “but if you do …”

    It is the ‘but’ that has given rise to this emerging specialty within the construction sector, and also provided Brunelle with an entrepreneurial opportunity.

    He’s making the most of that opportunity by helping the victims of calamity get back on their feet — which, of course, is situation normal for Ace Fire & Water.

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


    David Panagore is now the former chief development officer for Springfield.

    After nearly three years in that post, he has left to take roughly the same job, if not the same title, in Hartford, leaving the City of Homes with a critically important executive search to conduct.

    Before getting to that, we’ll say that, while Panagore’s job performance is not the focus of this discussion, it should be noted that we believe he did a very capable job of giving Springfield something it hasn’t had in a long time — a real agenda when it comes to progress and economic development.

    While the Urban Land Institute report gave the city a blueprint of sorts for moving forward — identifying several development priorities, including Court Square, the South End neighborhood, the now-vacant federal building, and others — it was Panagore, who arrived at about the same time as the Finance Control Board, who got everyone on the same page and, for the most part, kept them there.

    He moved at sometimes-dizzying speeds and had a no-nonsense style that didn’t agree with everyone, but he succeeded in creating some forward momentum for Springfield — with regard to everything from its image to its marketing — and under some often-trying conditions.

    But as we said, this isn’t about the person who had the job; it’s about who’s going to have it next.

    That’s because, as Panagore said in what amounts to an exit interview with BusinessWest, Springfield is at a crossroads of sorts with regard to economic development. After years of talking about projects like the York Street Jail, Union Station, Court Square, the South End, Chapman Valve, and the downtown as a whole, there seems to be real progress toward action with all or most of them.

    What the city needs now is a successor who won’t simply bring these projects home, but also continue the fight to woo the development community to a city that is primed and ready, but needs the economy to cooperate and people to step forward and make some investments here.

    And that’s why this can’t be a political appointment — which it has been at times in the past — or one of those proverbial ‘national’ searches that always seem to end with the local good ol’ boy who needs a job or a better job. And there have been a few of those, too.

    Outside of the school superintendent’s position, this development post is perhaps the most important job in the city right now — or at any time, for that matter — and Mayor Sarno has to approach it with that mindset and, practically speaking, an appropriate salary range.

    In other words, cities get what they pay for in these situations, and in this case, the city can’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. An attractive package will be needed to bring someone who is equal parts visionary, facilitator, effective administrator, and leader.

    There may be someone in this city or this region who fits that job description and is ready, willing, and able to take on the challenge. We would suggest, however, that the city look hard (but not exclusively) at someone who might need an on-board navigation system to find Springfield City Hall. Such a person would have a learning curve, but wouldn’t be beholden to anyone or any group, and probably wouldn’t be swayed by past history and the negativism it often creates.

    As Panagore told BusinessWest, the projects on or near the drawing board in Springfield, aren’t simple, and each one has a long way to go. But with regard to these initiatives and economic development in general in the City of Homes, there is far more talk about what the city can do than what it can’t, more discussion about what could happen here than about what will probably never happen — which is refreshing.

    The city needs a development leader who can take all this and go somewhere with it. And that’s why this is a critical talent search.-

    Sections Supplements
    Business Owners Should Never Overlook Springfield’s Central Business District

    Economic cycles come and go (at least so far). However, parking, safety, and competition from suburban properties are the three ever-present factors that impact the downtown Springfield Class A office market. And, as is so often the case with commercial real estate and urban central business districts, perception is not exactly reality.

    Indeed, while these matters of parking and safety certainly constitute challenges, they are not as formidable as some make them out to be. Meanwhile, space in the suburbs does not come free of issues — or with free parking, either. In other words, there is some fiction that needs to be separated from fact on these matters.

    Let’s start with parking. It was getting a bad rap long before I came to the area in 1985. And while enormous progress has been made with the addition of the I-91 North and South garages, companies still maintain that they have trouble attracting employees, especially females, due in part to the cost (which has remained nearly constant for the last 10 years) and safety issues related to parking.

    Ironically, the cost of parking in downtown Springfield is a bargain when compared to other office markets in New England. Monthly parking in the City of Homes runs on average $80 per month in one of several covered garages or surface lots. Similar parking in Hartford is $200 or more per month, and in Boston it’s $400, or about as much as a car payment.

    Meanwhile, Hartford’s downtown environment isn’t any safer than Springfield’s, and neither is Boston’s. The fact is that some people simply have a parking-garage phobia. It’s the earthbound version of a fear of flying.

    One possible way to assuage this inherent aversion to parking garages might be to seek the help of the Springfield Business Improvement District. This seems like the logical organization to turn to, with such a perfect name for the job. The BID is supported by a special tax assessed on certain property owners in the designated district to improve the quality of the downtown business environment. For example, the Sovereign Bank Building makes an annual tax payment to the BID in excess of $50,000 a year. This is over and above the real property taxes it pays to the City of Springfield. All landlords, including the Class A and B office buildings, pay this tax in varying amounts.

    Some of this revenue could be directed toward improving the collective sense of well-being as it pertains to parking. The BID has numerous uniformed officers, intended to be high-profile, who could, when requested, serve from time to time as escorts between the office buildings and garages. It seems like the most fundamental service for the BID to provide.

    I don’t believe the primary objection to parking is really the cost. Parking translates into an additional cost of occupancy to a tenant of between $2 and $3 per square foot in rent if, in the extreme, the employer pays for 100% of every employee’s parking. Class A lease rates in the CBD top out at about $18 per square foot. With parking factored in, the rents are at $21 per square foot. In the prime suburban locations, the land of so-called ‘free’ parking, rents peak in the $25-per-square-foot range with parking.

    Viewed in this light, ‘free’ seems to have lost some of its meaning.

    Overall, the suburban office market has a significant impact on the downtown Springfield market. The suburban multi-tenant properties have been traditionally very close to capacity. When, on occasion, the suburban market experiences a sizeable vacancy, as was the case recently when ISO New England vacated 330 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke for newly built nearby quarters, a gold rush of sorts ensues. Two notable companies with downtown roots going back 20 years made commitments to the vacated space.

    Monarch Life Insurance left, as did the Novak Insurance Agency leaving Tower Square. The combined square footage left behind in downtown amounts to more than 30,000 square feet. Fortunately, most of this has already been absorbed.

    Liberty Mutual’s recent decision to locate at the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, as opposed to staking a downtown presence, plugs a 30,000-square-foot hole there that could have eventually lured away other CBD tenants. So, for the time being at least, the downtown area is the only game in the region for office users in need of large blocks of available space.

    Time will tell, but there is some optimism that business owners can look past downtown’s challenges and the often-misleading perceptions about that area, and help generate some real momentum in the CBD.

    Downtown Springfield is, has been, and always will be the center of culture, commerce, and government in the region. For many companies, it is the only place to be. The David L. Babson Company, Court Square Data, and Western Mass Legal Services have all re-upped their commitment to downtown. The Premier Education Group (Branford Hall) recently moved its executive offices from East Springfield to Monarch Place.

    These companies don’t need to be downtown — technology enables businesses to locate virtually anywhere — but they saw some of the inherent advantages to being in that area, and found space that will enable their companies to grow.

    Other business owners can do the same — if they can look past challenges and some lingering misperceptions, and see opportunity.

    John Williamson is the president of Williamson Commercial Properties in downtown Springfield; (413) 736-9400.