Home 2009 April
JA: It’s Not Just About Building Birdhouses

Junior Achievement has changed over the years, but the mission is as vital today as it was in 1919.

A report from the Mass. Business Alliance for Education, released in October 2008, noted, “students in the 21st century must master skills that include: global awareness; financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy … creativity and innovation; critical thinking and problem-solving; communication; and collaboration skills.” JA provides skills to our young people through the financial and volunteer support of local businesses.

Nearly one in every four children in Springfield Public Schools is involved in JA this year, but there are more children who need the JA experience, and you can help by investing in JA. It’s good business.

In 1919, JA’s founders wanted to teach children between the ages 8 and 12 about this country’s economic way of life and give them the skills to succeed in an economy that was changing from an agrarian base to a manufacturing base.

The students were organized into clubs that had adult leaders and operated like a business. With the adults overseeing the program, the students developed an enterprise, made articles for sale, and learned how to operate their own company. The clubs were supported financially by local businesses. In the mid-1920s, the Junior Achievement Training Institute was built on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition, where Achievement Hall still stands today.

For nearly eight decades, JA remained an after-school program, where groups of high-school students, mentored by adult volunteers, formed a company, sold stock, made a product, and sold it with the goal of returning a profit to the shareholders. For more than 400,000 people in Western Mass., JA brings back fond memories of making birdhouses, aprons, wire hangers, hair products, or electrical gadgets.

Today, 90 years later, JA is part of a worldwide organization where more than 3 million volunteers serve 9.2 million students in 137 JA areas in the U.S. and in 97 other countries. Despite the tremendous growth, JA remains true to its mission “to prepare and inspire young people to succeed in a global economy.” However, while our mission is the same, our approach to providing economic and entrepreneurial education has changed.

Junior Achievement offers a wide variety of programs for students in grades K-12 that focus on business, citizenship, economics, entrepreneurship, ethics/character, financial literacy, and career exploration. The three pillars of JA’s foundation continue to be financial literacy, workforce readiness, and entrepreneurship.

Junior Achievement has continued to grow over the years because it delivers relevant programs and, like business, adapts to the needs of the community.

Today, JA programs are still delivered by local volunteers. The programs are found in schools, after-school programs, community youth organizations, and summer programs. JA’s programs can take place in one-day or in a series of weekly classroom visits. The program and the delivery method depend on the needs of the school or organization. The age-appropriate, interactive JA activities are correlated to the state frameworks in mathematics, language arts, reading, social studies, economics, and civics, as well as to the Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System.

Today, a Junior Achiever might be a first-grader who learned the difference between a need and a want; a fourth-grader who knows about human, natural, and capital resources; or a middle-grader who knows about budgeting, how to use credit wisely, and the importance of insurance. A Junior Achiever can also be a high-school student who has completed JA Success Skills and four hours of JA volunteer training and can be found teaching JA to students in grades K-3, learning first-hand the importance of teamwork, time management, communication skills, and service. –

Jennifer Connelly is president of Junior Achievement of Western Mass.; (413) 747-7670.

Sections Supplements
What You Need to Know to Profit in the Current Real-estate Market

As commercial vacancy rates continue to increase and property values decrease, the region is faced with more commercial real estate on the market. These properties may become distressed if property owners don’t address the hard realities of their real-estate holdings and enter into sometimes difficult discussions with their lenders and/or sources of capital.

Nationally and in our region, certain industries are being hit harder than others. Three that come to mind are hospitality, retail, and financial services. Here are some of the reasons why.

Companies are controlling costs by decreasing travel budgets, while individuals are reducing leisure travel to save money. Both of these situations translate into reduced occupancy rates at hotels.

Certain retailers are focusing on top-producing locations and closing locations that don’t contribute enough to the bottom line. Other retailers have already disappeared from the landscape and are unlikely to return.

Financial-services companies are trimming human resources and searching to reduce operating costs. Do they still need the same amount of office space?

Overall, most businesses are looking for ways to reduce operating expenses. To do so, many are renegotiating rental rates.

As a whole, the hospitality, retail, and financial-services sectors are substantial users of real estate. When they contract space to maintain their operations, the market can be left with a variety of empty buildings. On the other hand, property owners of certain types of real estate may be more immune to some of the downward drafts caused by the regions’ economy. But they still need to keep a watchful eye.

The contractions in today’s market are stressing the real-estate industry in the form of lower rental revenues and property values. Complicating the matter is the difficulty some property owners and developers have accessing cash and credit.

Property owners who borrowed money for a project based upon a specific value of the property at that time and who have an interest in selling the property or restructuring the debt may be ‘upside-down.’ In other words, they may owe far more on their mortgage than the property is worth today.

The Cap-rate Factor

Many of the financial problems inherent in our economy, such as reduced consumer confidence and spending as well as reductions in employment, contribute greatly to contractions in rental income and net operating income (NOI) for income-producing real estate. However, another factor that has significantly affected the fair market value of these properties is the increase in capitalization or ‘cap’ rates.

A cap rate is based on the rate of return that an acquirer of a property is looking to earn (assuming no debt on the property). The most common way that income-producing properties are valued (and therefore sold or purchased) is by applying the cap rate to a property’s net operating income. Changes in cap rates are based on market factors and can have significant impact on the ultimate value of a property.

For example, if a property generates $800,000 in annual net operating income and the market cap rate for this property is 8%, then the value of the property would be equal to $10 million ($800,000/8%). However, if cap rates increase (which they have) and the new cap rate is 10%, this property would now be worth $8 million. Additionally, if the NOI decreases by 20% to $640,000, the value of this property now becomes $6.4 million.

As illustrated by this example, what we see today are rising cap rates and decreasing income from properties, which fuels declining property values. This combination creates challenges for property owners with loans to repay and lenders with decreasing values of loan portfolios. In short, property owners may be left holding undervalued real estate when compared to the original purchase price and the outstanding debt on the property.

Some lenders are looking to divest themselves of non-performing, undervalued notes discounting them by as much as 60% in some parts of the country. However, even at deeply discounted rates, some properties may not be a good value. For instance, if a lender applies a 25% discount to a $4 million note written in 2002 and the current value (because of credit issues with tenants, contraction of net operating income, and increased cap rates) of the property collateralizing it is less than $3 million, this may not be such a great deal.

The decreasing value of property is one of the characteristics leading to the credit crunch. Even though local and regional lenders are writing commercial real-estate loans to creditworthy clients, national lenders are most often looking to establish and strengthen relationships with the most-experienced and financially sound real-estate companies. Many investors still need access to capital to restructure debt and finance new projects.

Profiting with Distressed Properties

For clients with cash and access to credit, there are opportunities to pursue in the region. However, it must be ‘patient money.’ If you’re acquiring a distressed property with pre-existing tenants, do your research. When evaluating a potential acquisition, the final decision is as much a marketing decision as a financial one. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is the credit-worthiness of the tenants?
  • What are the lease rates and lengths?
  • What is the realistic rate at which you think current tenants will renew their leases?
  • What is the realistic marketability of the project given its location and the activity in the market?
  • Will you need financing for the project? Where will you get it?
  • Which lenders in the market are active?
  • How long can you support the property if it generates a negative cash flow?
  • What are the tax consequences of the deal?
  • This whole scenario, unless intelligently discussed, can be fraught with confusion, frustration, dead ends, and unique circumstances.

    If property owners and managers can look forward and realistically project their ability to retain their tenants, attract new tenants, negotiate their operating costs, and maintain a flow of capital, they will be better able to weather the storm and build a solid foundation for the future.

    When charting a course through today’s economic obstacles, a seasoned real-estate accountant is invaluable. Such an individual can anticipate challenges before they arise and revise business and financial models to position the organization for success. For instance, if a client is going through debt restructuring, it’s important that their accountant communicate with lenders to evaluate acquisitions and divestitures and help them minimize tax consequences.

    As real-estate companies and lending institutions throughout the region find themselves adjusting to the distressed commercial real-estate market, we advise working together in a spirited effort. By doing so, we will position our region for economic growth and prosperity.v

    Ed Kindelan is Real Estate Services Group leader at Kostin, Ruffkess & Co., LLC, a certified-public-accounting and business-advisory firm. Beyond traditional accounting, auditing, and tax consulting, the firm also specializes in employee benefit plan audits, litigation support, business valuation, succession-planning business consulting, forensic accounting, wealth management, estate planning, fraud prevention, and information-technology assurance. The company has offices in Springfield, as well as Farmington and New London, Conn.; (860) 678-6000;www.kostin.com

    Sections Supplements
    Two Major Studies on Prostate Cancer Leave Plenty of Questions Unanswered
    Dr. James Stewart

    Dr. James Stewart says an elevated PSA likely indicates the presence of some cancer, but cannot tell a man how serious the cancer is, or if any treatment is necessary at all.

    Two studies that were expected to answer some long-standing questions about prostate cancer may have only further muddied the water.

    At issue are two undeniable facts: screening for prostate cancer is up since the early 1990s, when doctors began placing an increased emphasis on the importance of early detection. And over the same period, the prostate cancer death rate has dropped. The big question, then, is whether that decline is largely due to increased screening, advances in treatment, or some combination of factors.

    Two major, long-term trials — one American and one European — both aimed to determine whether screening, specifically with the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test and traditional, digital rectal exams, makes a difference in mortality rates. The results clarify the issues somewhat, but are frustratingly lacking in solid answers.

    Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, wrote in his blog that he had eagerly awaited the results of the U.S. and European trials.

    “In the meantime, millions of men continued to get tested and undergo treatment, even though no one could really say if we were saving lives, or just sending millions more men to unnecessary treatment with all sorts of side effects,” he wrote. “Well, my friends, the waiting is over. The day has arrived. And I don’t know that we now have any better idea whether or not prostate cancer screening actually works.”

    The American study, dubbed the U.S. Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial, was spearheaded by the National Cancer Institute. Researchers randomly assigned more than 76,600 men to two groups.

    Participants in one group were given annual PSA tests for six years and digital rectal examinations every year for four years; the other group served as a control. The researchers found little difference in prostate cancer death rates between the two groups at seven years and again at 10 years of follow-up.

    In the other trial, called the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer, researchers randomly assigned 182,000 men between the ages of 50 and 74 from seven different countries to either a control group or a screening group, which required the men to have a PSA screening, on average, every four years and a digital rectal exam every other year.

    In following up, researchers found that screening reduced the rate of prostate cancer death by 20%. But, according to the authors, “1,410 men would need to be screened and 48 additional cases of prostate cancer would need to be treated to prevent one death from prostate cancer.”

    And there’s the issue. Even when PSA and other tests find prostate cancer, they can’t tell how dangerous the cancer is. Some prostate cancers grow slowly and may never cause a man any problems, while others are more aggressive.

    Because of a high PSA level, someone may choose to be treated, even though his cancer may never have manifested symptoms. Meanwhile, the treatment, which may include surgery, radiation, or other interventions, can have serious effects on quality of life. In a very real sense, the cure could be worse than the disease.

    “When one considers all of the problems associated with treatment for prostate cancer — urine incontinence, impotence, pain, and bleeding, among others — that is a lot of men left with a lot of symptoms to save one life,” Lichtenfeld said.

    Deadly … or Not

    It’s an important topic, to judge solely by the numbers. An estimated 186,000 cases of prostate cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2008, causing more than 28,000 deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. In addition, prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in men — behind lung cancer — and accounts for 10% of all cancer deaths. An American man has a 1 in 6 chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, with most of those diagnoses occurring at age 70 and older.

    Importantly, however, only one in 34 men will die of the disease, and many live full lives without much disturbance.

    “If you do a screening and your PSA is a little bit elevated, there’s a reasonable chance you might find cancer there,” said Dr. James Stewart, chief of Hematology and Oncology at Baystate Medical Center. “If so, then you have a big decision: do you have an operation to remove the prostate or get radiation? The downside of doing that is, you might not need to have it done.”

    The studies, he said, “did see a very modest decrease in death rates. But you have to balance the positives against the harm — how many men are being overdiagnosed and overtreated?”

    Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, noted in a written statement that, “for several years, many experts had anticipated these studies would show a small number of men will benefit from prostate screening, but a large number of men will be treated unnecessarily. And that’s what these studies show.

    “What we need to know is, what are benefits of prostate cancer screening, and are they large enough to outweigh the harms associated with it?” he continued. “And despite the release of this early data, we still cannot say whether the benefits outweigh the risk.”

    For example, the studies had some important limitations. In the European trial, the countries used different study protocols, such as enrolling men of different age groups. And in the American trial, men in the control group weren’t barred from getting screening tests, and many of them ended up getting screened anyway; by the sixth year of the trial, 52% of the men in the control group had undergone a PSA test, and 46% a rectal exam.

    Perhaps the most important topic being raised, Brawley said, is whether patients of average risk should be screened.

    “For many years, people who suggested this was still an open question have been criticized as not supporting anti-cancer efforts,” he noted. “In some respects, over the last 20 years, many have been eager to promote widespread screening based on the assumption that finding cancer early is beneficial. Now as these reports have begun to come out, we see that the results may not be as favorable as many had hoped or even anticipated.”

    Brawley added that he’s concerned that, if the information being reported from the dual studies is not interpreted appropriately by doctors, those covering the news, and by the general public, it could cause actual harm, by dissuading patients from approaching their doctors when actual symptoms arise.

    “There is a group of men who should be getting screened but who, after hearing this week’s news, may begin to shy away from testing,” said Brawley. “There is no debate that men who have urinary symptoms, such as frequent or difficult urination, a weak stream, etc., ought to be getting exams, including PSA tests. That is not screening; screening is testing asymptomatic men for signs of cancer. Men who have symptoms should be getting tests.”

    Into the Future

    As for those without symptoms, well, the debate goes on, said Stewart.

    “There are reasonable people on both side of this,” he said. “People might argue that the real benefits [of the studies] won’t be seen for 15 to 20 years, while skeptics would say the modest decline in mortality doesn’t compare to the side effects from all these treatments, that it’s not worth it.

    “My recommendation is that, for significantly older men, if you’re 75 and up, you’re not likely to get any benefit,” Stewart said.

    Dr. Mohammad Mostafavi, a urologist with the Urology Group of Western New England, agreed. “If a patient has prostate cancer in his 40s or 50s, that can probably become problematic,” he said. But if a patient in his 70s who has always had normal screenings suddenly has an abnormal one, it can force some tough — perhaps needlessly so — decisions.

    “What if the PSA rises a little bit? You don’t want to create anxiety, and you don’t want to be too aggressive in treatment. At that age, the cancer is probably going to be insignificant. But you have to respect the patient’s wishes.”

    The American Urologic Assoc. generally recommends screenings begin at age 50, but for high-risk groups, such as African-Americans and men with a family history of the disease, the recommended starting age is 40. Stewart argued, however, that no one should undertake a screening without a plan for what happens next.

    “Before you go to get screened, you need to have a conversation with your doctor about what to do with the results,” he said. “If you haven’t had that conversation, you shouldn’t get screened.”

    That’s because the treatment options can still be a major hindrance on quality of life — although modalities like robotics, cryotherapy, and brachytherapy are making it less invasive than ever before.

    “The way we think about the disease is constantly evolving,” Mostafavi said. “How we practice today compared to 10 years ago is very different. The treatment options are different, and the way we think about the disease is always evolving.”

    The only constant, it seems, are unanswered questions.

    Joseph Bednar can be reached at

    [email protected]

    Sections Supplements
    Westfield Bank Keeps Its Eye on the Ball
    The executive team at Westfield Bank: from left, Leo Sagan, CFO; James Hagan, president and CEO; Allen Miles, executive vice president; and Gerald Ciejka, legal counsel.

    The executive team at Westfield Bank: from left, Leo Sagan, CFO; James Hagan, president and CEO; Allen Miles, executive vice president; and Gerald Ciejka, legal counsel.

    It’s a story increasingly — and enthusiastically — being told by community banks in the Pioneer Valley. Simply put, while many large, national institutions have become trapped in a credit crisis partly of their own making, Western Mass. banks are well-capitalized and ready to do business. Westfield Bank is no exception, finding new avenues for growth by staying true to its core goals — among them steady and strategic expansion, a continued focus on commercial lending, and service that, as President James Hagan says, takes the bank to the customers.

    Westfield Bank, with 11 branches and a steady growth pattern over the past few years, has consistently been one of the region’s positive financial stories — but the opening of a new location is still reason to celebrate.

    Especially, bank President James Hagan said, when that new branch is a reflection of the institution’s success in a specific market.

    That market is Agawam, where Westfield Bank has seen a swell of retail and commercial business in recent years, which is why a branch will open on Route 57 in Feeding Hills in June.

    “Our Agawam branch is at full capacity, and we want to maintain and improve our service in that market,” said Hagan. “We own this land — we bought it decades ago — and we felt this was the right opportunity. It’s a high-visibility area, and we’ll run it similar to the Main Street branch, which is our second-busiest office.”

    Alice Babcock, vice president and director of community banking, said the current Agawam branch is one of the company’s oldest, and has long had strong market share. “But the changes in the community have been such that the branch is bursting at the seams. And we’ve found that 30% of those who use the Main Street branch have Feeding Hills zip codes.”

    In addition, the bank has several business customers in the Agawam Industrial Park, and the Feeding Hills branch will provide a more convenient site for them as well, she said.

    Making business easier for commercial clients, in fact, is a long-time priority for the bank, as evidenced by the rollout of its remote data capture service a few years ago.

    Westfield was the first community bank in the region to introduce the technology, which is essentially a device that scans checks at a customer’s place of business and allows him to make deposits remotely, even hours after most branches close. Babcock said the service has been a hit with customers, particularly those in towns without a branch nearby — especially critical when making inroads into Connecticut — and has been a selling point when attracting new commercial business.

    That’s important for a bank that has not branched out as quickly or aggressively over the past decade as other regional institutions, instead opting for gradual, deliberate growth in its footprint, and always with a strategy.

    Three years ago, that meant moving its downtown Springfield office to Tower Square to increase foot traffic, as well as opening a branch on East Main Street in Westfield with more space and visibility than its longtime Elm Street headquarters. That branch also boasts Sunday hours for customers too busy during the week to do their banking in person. And Saturdays and Sundays, it turns out, are that site’s busiest days.

    These advances — strategic new branches, weekend hours, new technology to make business easier — all fit a pattern, said Hagan, of bringing the bank to the customer. And in these trying times for financial institutions, that sort of strategy is more important than ever.

    Growth Pattern

    Westfield Bank has undeniably been in a growth mode. From its launch more than 150 years ago through the mid-1970s, its assets had grown to about $100 million, but three decades of rapid expansion have brought that total to $1.1 billion.

    In fact, total assets increased by $70.5 million last year alone, and net loans jumped by $59.1 million to $414.9 between the start of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 — primarily due to an expansion in commercial, industrial, and commercial real-estate loans, offsetting a slight decrease in residential mortgages.

    “We’ve had great success growing our commercial and industrial loans,” which now total $245 million, Hagen said. More important, business in that sector is up 17% over last year, and up 24% in commercial real-estate loans.

    At the height of this growth, Westfield Bank has also seen a shift in its administrative structure, with Don Williams, who handed the president’s reins to Hagan four years ago, recently stepping down as CEO, giving Hagan that role as well.

    “It gives me a more global perspective,” Hagan said. “Before, it was more day-to-day, new product development, new sales development. Now it’s general management of the bank, how we utilize capital. And we have an awful lot of capital right now. In fact, we’re the third-most well-capitalized bank based in Massachusetts, with about $300 million.”

    The Feeding Hills branch is one way that money is being put to use, but so is growth in the bank’s commercial-loan portfolio, which — rather than being hurt by the recent troubles of lending institutions nationwide — has been able to benefit from the crisis in at least one way, Babcock said.

    “While the national banks are tending to hold back on new lending commitments to companies, Westfield Bank is still willing to entertain lending requests, and putting new business on the books,” she noted.

    “Primarily,” Hagan added, “we’re picking up loans that are now in turmoil at larger national and super-national institutions, those that have had difficulty in either extending credit or adding to their current debt load. But these are well-known, Western Mass.-based companies, and they’re having a positive effect on our balance sheet.

    “This didn’t just happen over the past year. It’s been a consistent marketing effort,” he added, noting that the bank has been in contact with some of these companies for a long time. “With some of the bigger accounts $5 million and up, it could take four to five years of consistent calling to finally get the account moved to your institution.”

    And the marketing message goes well beyond financial numbers, he added.

    “It’s a relationship. People want to know who you are and what your bank is about,” Hagan said. “They want stability, with a large capital base, a strong credit staff, and an excellent branch network. And we’ve been able to position ourselves as that bank and take advantage of other institutions’ problems.”

    It’s not just loans; Westfield Bank has seen commercial checking accounts grow by 10% over last year, in addition to 8% growth in retail checking and 35% in consumer savings accounts.

    “We haven’t had to put the brakes on at all,” Hagan said. “Lending is healthy, delinquency is low, and we’ve been able to position ourselves as an alternative to the national and regional banks.”

    Community Minded

    This success speaks, at least in part, to the bank’s growing reputation as a community-minded institution, said Babcock. “What we’re seeing on the consumer and business sides,” she noted, “is that customers are looking for a banker they know and can contact easily if they’re having questions.”

    In addition, Hagan said, Westfield Bank continues to take pride in its Future Fund, a vehicle through which it has given about $1 million over the past three years to various charities and nonprofits, particularly those that focus on children and education — hence the word ‘future.’ A Web site has been set up not only to track where the money goes, but also publicize events that benefit those organizations, and hopefully spur more community giving.

    The bank is on track to add another $350,000 in donations in 2009, he said, putting it right on track with the past few years. “This is a challenging time for nonprofits,” Babcock said, “and to keep the same level of commitment, we feel good about that.”

    Even in the midst of a full-blown national financial crisis, it seems, there’s still good news coming out of Westfield.

    “We don’t get the big highs and lows in this region, and our portfolio reflects that,” Hagan said. “Some sectors have dropped, like manufacturing, but other areas are looking pretty good.

    “The economy isn’t robust,” he admitted, “but we’ve seen positive signs.”

    Joseph Bednar can be reached at

    [email protected]

    Sections Supplements
    Restaurant Venture Will Light Up a Dark Spot in Tower Square
    John DeVoie

    John DeVoie, seen standing in the future home of the second Hot Table location, believes Tower Square is ideal for his venture.

    John DeVoie knows the recent history of the restaurant site in the southeast corner of Tower Square — it’s been vacant for nearly a year and has seen several establishments come and go over the past decade — and he’s not fazed by it one bit.

    That’s because he believes the failures, if some could even be called that, were due to circumstances or factors that had nothing to do with location. And, more to the point, he’s quite confident that he has a product, or model, that will succeed in that highly visible spot.

    It’s called Hot Table, a name derived from a form of fast, casual dining DeVoie experienced in Italy (more on that later), and placed over an eatery that he and his brother, Chis, opened in the 16 Acres section of Springfield roughly two years ago. The establishment features signature panini sandwiches — from ‘three cheese chicken’ to ‘steak horseradish’ — and has successfully drawn business from nearby MassMutual, Western New England College and other schools in the area, and the surrounding residential community.

    And when the brothers DeVoie, natives of Springfield, opened the doors to the eatery, they did so with the understanding that they were starting a business, not a single sandwich and coffee shop.

    “The initial plans called for opening a second location within 18 to 24 months, and we’re right at two years, so we’re on schedule,” he said, adding quickly that they would likely have moved sooner, but last fall was not the time to be seeking capital to open a restaurant.

    But long before last autumn, the location of that second restaurant started to come into focus. Officials with Tower Square and the DeVoie brothers started talking roughly a year ago, said John, noting that both had some clear objectives. The property’s owners wanted a stable tenant that could draw visitors to the corner of Main Street and Boland Way, said DeVoie, adding that he and his brother wanted a site with both vast potential and great visibility with which to expand and brand Hot Table.

    It took some time to get the deal done, but now that work has commenced at the site, there is optimism that the new restaurant will breathe some life into the still-struggling retail component within Tower Square, and provide more momentum for the DeVoies’ business venture.

    “The corner spot at Tower Square is the most visible location in downtown, and the importance of having a vibrant business at that location is imeasurable,” said Russell Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield. “Hot Table has proven at its Breckwood Boulevard site that it knows what it takes to attract professionals and students alike to their business to be profitable.”

    Said DeVoie, “we’re happy to be lighting up that corner. This location is going to help us brand Hot Table. Everyone goes to Main and Bolland eventually, and when they do, they’re going to see our name, and so when we go to Westfield or West Springfield, or another community in the region, people will know us.”

    As he talked about the factors that led to the recent press event announcing Hot Table’s pending arrival downtown, DeVoie flashed back to a visit to the 16 Acres restaurant last year by Fred Christensen, Tower Square’s senior property manager.

    “He came to see the operation, and when he arrived, there was a long line of people going almost out the door,” DeVoie recalled. “He saw all the people with MassMutual badges and noted that they not only drove a mile to get there, but probably had to walk a mile first to get to their cars in the parking lot. That was enough for him.”

    As for DeVoie and the Tower Square space, he was pretty much already sold, although there was considerable negotiating still to do. And the ensuing deal appears to give both parties what they want and need: for Tower Square, a drawing-card tenant that fills a highly visible void; and for Hot Table, an affordable location at one of the region’s busiest intersections.

    That figures nicely into the growth plans for the business, which DeVoie conceptualized after spending 18 years in corporate sales for Alcoa and realizing that it was time for something else. “I was 40, and I knew that, in sales, they generally try to put you out to pasture when you’re 50,” he explained. “I had some time to go, but that 10 years comes up fast.”

    DeVoie said he has long wanted to launch his own business, and when he started seriously considering options, he focused on one apparently common in Italy. There, small shops called Tavola Caldas serve hot, fresh food and desserts quickly to their patrons. The literal English translation of that phrase is ‘hot table,’ the name trademarked and then given to the venture by the DeVoies and their brother-in-law, Don Watroba, also a co-founder.

    The three chose a somewhat tired strip mall across Wilbraham Road from Western New England College to start their venture, citing its proximity to MassMutual and several schools, and also what they considered an “underserved” area.

    And they used that same word to describe downtown Springfield. Indeed, while there are several restaurants downtown, DeVoie said there isn’t anything quite like what Hot Table has to offer — a mix of gourmet coffee, unique panini sandwiches, and affordable prices.

    “Our intent was to start our company in Springfield, grow our name regionally, and then see where that takes us,” he said, referring to the initial five-year plan and speculation about what might follow.

    “We wanted the second store to be close to the first one, and we looked at the demographics of what we do, specializing in breakfast and lunch, and said, ‘OK, where’s the highest concentration of people working in one spot in Western Mass? It’s not Longmeadow, it’s not Northampton, it’s not Holyoke — it’s downtown Springfield, and that’s where we want to be.

    “And in our efforts to build a regional brand, what better place to drop a store than right in the heart of the biggest city in Western Mass. and in the best piece of real estate in the city?” he asked as he continued. “That was evidenced by our press conference; we didn’t have a press conference when we opened in 16 Acres, and we wouldn’t have had one if we were opening in West Springfield.”

    That press conference was attended by a number of civic and business leaders who expressed the hope that Hot Table would create a spark in the downtown and eventually help light up much more than one currently dark space.

    And DeVoie believes his venture can provide one.

    “Knowing the history of that site, I’d say there is an element of risk involved with it,” said DeVoie. “But we’re very confident in the product we sell and the service we provide — and we’re also confident in Springfield and in Tower Square.”

    —George O’Brien

    40 Under 40 Class of 2009 Cover Story


    Back in 2007, when BusinessWest’s inaugural 40 Under Forty honorees gathered for a group photograph outdoors, the sky was clear and bright — appropriate, since the clouds that now darken the nation’s economic outlook were a long way off.

    It was an impressive group of entrepreneurs, innovators, and community leaders — in short, success stories that any region would be proud to tout. Last year’s group of honorees — in the second go-round of our annual celebration of the region’s young talent — was equally impressive, even if the economy was growing shakier by the week.

    This year, economic bad news is everywhere, and the clouds only seem to get darker by the day. But guess what? Our third 40 Under Forty class shines just as brightly as the first two.

    Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone with a finger on the pulse of the region. In fact, the vibrancy of the area’s young achievers — and getting younger; this class includes more 20-somethings than either of the previous two — gives those who care about Western Mass. plenty of optimism about the future. Even in the midst of perhaps the worst recession in 70 years, these individuals are starting and expanding companies, growing profits and creating jobs, seamlessly taking the reins of family businesses … and, in most cases, staying intimately involved in their communities through service on boards and volunteer efforts with charitable organizations.

    Better yet, they’re creating lasting legacies that will inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Check out Kathy LeMay, this year’s highest-scoring honoree, who is cultivating philanthropic connections that will make a difference throughout the region for years to come. Brenda Wishart has worn a number of hats over the past decade, all aimed at building the next generation of entrepreneurs. Corey Murphy takes time away from his insurance agency to help kids read and do well in school — maybe giving a leg up to a future 40 Under Forty winner along the way.

    By most expert accounts, the clouds will clear. And when they do, what will be left standing are the 40 Under Forty and others like them, who are working hard to build a buzz — and a foundation for long-term economic health — in the Pioneer Valley and beyond.

    And now, we’d like to tell their stories, so you can be inspired, too.

    —Joseph Bednar

    The Class of ’09

    40 Under 40 Class of 2009
    Age 39: Senior Relationship Manager, NewAlliance Bank

    Brandon Braxton hasn’t forgotten the excitement of buying his first home.

    It happened in 2004, about a year before his adopted daughter, Caterina, was born.

    “It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. That meaning has been hammered home to Braxton since he joined Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity in early 2007 and met some of the grateful homeowners.

    “Knowing where your children will grow up is something many folks take for granted,” he said. “But for those who don’t have that luxury, it’s life-altering.” The graduate of Amherst College signed on with Habitat when he heard his alma mater was donating land for four homes, with the goal of having up to 10 classes of students work on their construction. “It seemed like a great project, and the mission of providing affordable housing and home ownership is something I believe in,” he said.

    By September of 2007, Braxton was president of the board of directors. He is dedicated to the progam’s expansion, which has taken on personal meaning as he has gotten to know and witness the excitement of the homeowners and their children. “The mission becomes very tangible,” he said. “We are making the community a better place, but it’s far more personal.

    When you ceremonially hand over the keys, it’s an amazing feeling. And it’s nice to have 0%-interest mortgages, which I can’t do in my day job.” His position as senior relationship manager at NewAlliance Bank in West Springfield makes him acutely aware of developments in the area housing market and the difficulty of finding affordable housing in the Pioneer Valley.

    He is dedicated to Habitat and says he is lucky to work for an organization that supports his volunteer work. His wife, A. Rima Dael, is also dedicated to making a difference and was in BusinessWest’s inaugural 40 Under Forty class in 2007. “We are proud to be a 40 Under Forty couple,” said Braxton.

    —Kathy Mitchell

    Sections Supplements
    Dental Health Clinic’s Creation Is a Story of Determination, Perseverance
    Mike Foss

    Mike Foss says there were several points when he thought the new dental clinic wouldn’t become reality, but a host of players persevered.

    Mike Foss says he felt “almost dizzy” at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the new dental clinic at Springfield Technical Community College a few weeks back, and this wasn’t because of the seemingly endless array of one-liners from speakers about how he had to give up his office in order for the facility to be built.

    Rather, it was because he, probably more than anyone in the room, knew what it took to make that occasion possible. And also because he could recall several times over the past few years when he thought this ambitious vision — a conveniently located clinic that could serve 10,000 families living within a mile of the campus — just wasn’t going to become reality.

    “It’s been a very, very frustrating project, and on a number of levels,” Foss, dean of the School of Health and Patient Simulation at STCC, told BusinessWest several days after the ribbon was cut. “It was frustrating for me personally because it took us so long to get here and there were three or four times when I thought this project was dead, and I knew how important this was to the community and how it needed to happen.”

    The fact that it is happening — the clinic is slated to open its doors sometime in May — is a testimony to the patience and determination of the many players involved, said Foss, listing, for starters, the college (specifically its president, Ira Rubenzahl, who was instrumental in finding money for the project), and also Western Mass. Hospital, which has long operated a dental clinic for its patients and those in the community, and saw a need to place such a facility in downtown Springfield.

    There were other prominent players as well, he said, including Partners for a Healthier Community, the Springfield-based agency that, among other things, was strongly supporting a broad, region-wide oral health initiative. There was also help from the Preschool Oral Health Task Force and a number of area elected officials, especially state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, who chairs the state House Oral Health Caucus.

    “There was all kinds of juggling being done,” said Foss, “all kinds of work being done by individuals and groups to pull this off. In the end, it all came together.”

    This story begins roughly four years ago — none of the parties involved recalls exactly when — or soon after then-Western Mass. Hospital President Blake Molleur, knowing that needed renovations at the hospital would require finding a temporary new home for the facility’s dental clinic, set out on a search. When he and others, including Partners for a Healthier Community Executive Director Frank Robinson, found such a site — in Building 20 on the STCC campus in space that was once a dental clinic and then home to Foss and other administrators’ offices — they quickly decided to remove the ‘temporary’ designation and replace it with ‘permanent.’

    “As Frank, Blake, and I were looking the site over and I walked them through it, we just sort of turned to one another and said, ‘this isn’t something that should happen; it has to happen.”

    The reason why can be found in some old photographs, kept by Dental Assistant staff members at the college and viewed by Foss whenever the project appeared headed for a serious impasse — and there were many such occasions.

    “Every time I got discouraged, I pulled those pictures, taken years ago when the Dental Assistant faculty were doing screenings in the school district,” Foss said as he recalled when the photos were taken. “They called me in and said, ‘Mike, you need to see this first-hand; they opened this kid’s mouth, and it was simply bombed out. Her face was disfigured from infection, and permanent teeth were completely rotted away.

    “It was so horrifying to me,” he continued, “that it kept me going when things weren’t looking so good. I kept thinking that if the parents of that kid could have brought her to a clinic like the one we wanted to build, she would have been taken care of.”

    In this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at how the new dental clinic came to be, and what it means for the constituency it will soon serve.

    Sound Bites

    Derrick Tallman, Molleur’s successor at Western Mass. Hospital, said records he’s seen indicate that there has been a dental clinic at WMH since just after World War I. Created originally to serve patients of the hospital, the clinic has seen this clientele change, from tuberculosis patients in the early years to, in recent times, those on ventilators, with neuromuscular disorders, Alzheimer’s sufferers, those needing end-of-life care, and others.

    In the mid-’80s, the clinic expanded its scope and began serving people on an outpatient basis. Clients included those diagnosed with HIV, said Tallman, adding that eventually there was a much broader constituency that he described as “underserved and underprivileged.”

    Many of the individuals being served by the clinic would board mass-transit buses in Springfield for the ride to Westfield, said Foss, noting that, when WMH went looking for what was going to be a temporary site to which to relocate the clinic, downtown Springfield was deemed the ideal location.

    And soon, the focus turned to STCC, which was accessible and had — or could assemble — the physical space for a clinic. In fact, as Foss said, his office at that time was once a dental clinic. “We had most of the infrastructure right here — there was a waiting room, office space, a storage area … it was all here.”

    STCC also had students in a Dental Assistant program who could do the clinical-component portion of their studies at a facility right down from the hall from their lab.

    It was an intriguing picture that made sense on a number of levels, said Foss, who told BusinessWest, tongue-in-cheek, that there was “one little setback” standing in the way of the plan becoming reality.

    “No one had any money,” he said, adding quickly that there were, in fact, several pockets of money — WMH had some annually budgeted for its outpatient clinic work, for example — but not enough to meet the projected $600,000 price tag (a number that kept climbing) to get the venture off the ground.

    So, while the vision started to come clearly into focus, many of those aforementioned players set about finding some funding.

    Robinson, for example, approached the Oral Health Foundation, funded by Delta Dental of Massachusetts, and helped secure a $200,000 grant for the new clinic. Meanwhile, Rubenzahl, who arrived at STCC just a few months before the search for a new clinic site commenced, helped in the effort to successfully lobby the state Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) for funding to renovate in Building 20. Meanwhile, Partners for a Healthier Community contributed $50,000 in seed money to get things started, said Foss, who recalled some of the early meetings with Oral Health Foundation officials.

    “They wanted to interview all of us, all the players, to see how serious we were and to see if we actually had a plan of action,” he said. “Of course we had a plan of action, and we shared it with them. They were very excited about the possibility of funding us, at least to some point. They went back to their board and sold the project.”

    Teething Troubles

    That plan of action, as Foss called it, was to create a clinic with five chairs that would provide full dentistry to uninsured and underinsured individuals and families, and serve as a clinical site for STCC students. The clinic would make dental care more accessible to people in Greater Springfield — there are a few clinics already in existence, but continuity of care has always been a challenge — and thus create progress with one of the region’s most pressing, and vexing, health care concerns.

    As good as that picture looked, there were a number of hurdles to clear before anyone could think of cutting a ceremonial ribbon.

    “There was the time when we discovered from the architect that the cost was going to be several hundred thousand dollars more than what we had in the bank,” Foss recalled. “Then I think we had a little hope of money, and then we didn’t, and then we did again, and then we didn’t again. But then the state came through.

    “We had even decided at one point that we were going to have to a do a phased project until we could raise additional funding,” he continued, adding that this project was defined by fits and starts that made the process frustrating but the end result more enjoyable.

    “Every time we talked to the architects, the price went up — they’d bring up something else that I couldn’t see how we could pay for,” said Foss, noting that there were other challenges, including changes in leadership at both WMH (the president’s office) and STCC (director of facilities) to contend with.

    “All this was sometimes frustrating to me personally, because I had already made the commitment — that it was going to happen,” he continued. “Part of my job was to get a hold of anyone’s ear that I could and explain to them just how necessary this clinic was.”

    In the end, Foss, Robinson, Molleur, Tallman, and others succeeded in getting their points across.

    Something to Chew On

    Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno had probably the best line about Foss having to abandon his space for the new clinic. He said that people usually didn’t leave an office until the voters decided it was time — or words to that effect.

    Foss laughed at all the jokes, and eventually went to the podium to accept a plaque — one that will hang in his now-former office — that acknowledges all the hard work and perseverance that it took to get the clinic open.

    The greater reward for all those involved will be the work going on in the chairs behind the plaque. It will hopefully help transform those pictures Foss used to gain additional inspiration for this project into distant memories.

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