Daily News

AMHERST — Amherst College named Michael Thomas its new chief financial and administrative officer (CFAO). On the finance side, he will be responsible for all finance functions of the college, including budgeting, accounting, financial reporting, long-range financial planning, and asset, liability, and risk management. On the administrative side, Thomas will oversee facilities, health and safety, and business services (dining and auxiliary), among key operating functions.

He joins Amherst from Middlebury College, where he was vice president for Administration and chief risk officer for the past two years and vice president for Finance and assistant treasurer for the previous four and a half years. He will report to and serve as a strategic partner to President Michael Elliott. His appointment is effective March 27, and he succeeds former Amherst CFAO Kevin Weinman, who became the president of Marist College in the fall of 2021.

In his more than nine years at Middlebury, Thomas led all aspects of financial matters, including accounting, financial systems and reporting, budgets, debt and cash management, and endowment reporting, as well as risk evaluation, campus safety, environmental health and safety, emergency management, and land and property management. He led several critical initiatives for the Middlebury enterprise, including the institution’s COVID-19-related operations; a student safety coalition initiative at the college; the acquisition, financing, and renovation of a residential housing facility of Middlebury’s Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California; the implementation of an enterprise resource planning system for a consortium of higher-education institutions, for which he serves as secretary of the board; and a major long-term financial-sustainability plan.

Before that, he was the controller and director of financial resources for Skidmore College (2006-13); the controller, manager of Financial Systems and Accounting, and a financial analyst for General Electric Silicones, Americas (1999-2006); and an associate at PriceWaterhouseCoopers (1995-98). He graduated from Union College with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and from the University at Albany with a master’s degree in accounting.

“I am excited to be joining Amherst College as the CFAO,” Thomas said. “I look forward to working with President Elliott and getting to know and work with the students, faculty, and staff to support the mission of the institution. Supporting Amherst College in the education of some of the brightest minds from around the world is an honor.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Pan Bus Lines is planning for the future and creating a new generation of leaders to drive the 90-year-old bus company to new levels. CEO Peter Picknelly recently announced five major promotions in management, including a promotion to chief operating officer awarded to an employee who started as a bus driver 18 years ago. Other promotions include vice president of Operations, vice president of Planning and Revenue, senior director of Marketing, and senior director of Maintenance.

“We’re planning for the next generation of leaders at Peter Pan,” Picknelly said. “These are very well-deserved promotions.”

Frank Dougherty started as a bus driver and has now been promoted to chief operating officer. According to Picknelly, Dougherty sent him a 20-page letter about everything that was wrong at Peter Pan Bus Lines more than 18 years ago. Picknelly asked him to join the team to help correct the situation. Dougherty was a driver, and he will now be leading the company.

Don Soja has been named vice president of Operations. He has been with Peter Pan for more than 20 years. According to Picknelly, Soja knows all aspects of the bus company, including charters, line runs, finance, and technology. Picknelly hopes he will lead the way for decades to come.

Timothy Grabowski has been promoted to vice president of Planning and Revenue Management. Picknelly said Grabowski brings a skill set that allows Peter Pan to continue strategic growth, and that he makes Peter Pan stand out among other bus companies and keeps Peter Pan moving forward.

Danielle Veronesi has been promoted to senior director of Marketing. If there’s a special project, Picknelly said, Veronesi is the one to rely on, and she’s always the one to volunteer. He added that Venonesi has made a big difference in the company.

Joseph Picknally has been named senior director of Maintenance for Peter Pan. Picknelly said Picknally has done an exemplary job in realigning the Maintenance department, and that he has big shoes to fill in the company; Picknally’s father, Thomas, was the company’s vice president of Maintenance for decades until his passing in 2021.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) announced the appointment of the interim Director Paul Lambert to the position of president and CEO, removing Lambert’s interim status.

Lambert joined the SSO as interim director in January 2022. He came to the SSO after serving for many years as vice president of Enshrinement Services & Community Engagement at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Since his appointment to the interim director position, Lambert has overseen the return to the stage of the SSO with six classical and two pops concerts in the current 2022-23 season, the first in more than two years as a result of the pandemic. He has been instrumental in adding new individuals to the SSO board, hiring key new staff, re-engaging with the corporate and philanthropic community, and launching a comprehensive communications and marketing program to support the current season.

Lambert succeeded interim Executive Director John Anz, who left the SSO to take a position at another organization.

“I am truly honored and humbled to serve in this position and appreciate the trust invested in me by the SSO,” Lambert said. “I am a longtime subscriber to the SSO and know how important the symphony is to the cultural landscape of Springfield and all of Western Massachusetts. I am passionate about the symphony and what it represents to all of us who love symphonic music and the arts. A successful Springfield Symphony requires the engagement of the entire community, and I welcome this new position in leading the collective efforts to see the SSO succeed.”

Lambert’s professional experience includes nearly 20 years with the Basketball Hall of Fame, initially as vice president of Guest Experience and Programming, and more recently as vice president of Enshrinement Services & Community Engagement. His work transformed the Hall of Fame Enshrinement into a nationally recognized celebration and media event that has served as the bedrock of the Hall’s development and outreach efforts.

Prior to the Hall of Fame, Lambert served as director of Event Production for the National Basketball Assoc. (NBA), working on the development and execution of live programming, grassroots initiatives, and international events, including the NBA Jam Session program, numerous All-Star Games, and successfully staged events in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Before working in the basketball industry, Lambert enjoyed a career in the professional theater, including roles as general manager of the Cape Playhouse in Dennis for seven years and as executive director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Conn. He also served as a production stage manager for many years.

Lambert serves on a number of local boards and community organizations, including the National Conference for Community and Justice, New England Public Media (where he was a board chair), the Loomis Communities, and the boards of Cape Cod Center for the Arts, the South Hadley Cultural Council, Longmeadow UNICO, and the Springfield Rotary. He is a graduate, cum laude, of Boston College, with a bachelor’s degree in English and theater.

Daily News

GREENFIELD — Members of the Greenfield community are invited to learn more about and share their input on redesign plans for Main Street on Thursday, Feb. 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the John Zon Community Center (snow date Feb. 21, same time).

The city is hosting its first of two community workshops on the curb-to-curb configuration of Main Street, including upgrades to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit accommodations, as it works with Fuss & O’Neill to develop design plans for a complete street rehabilitation. This effort follows Greenfield’s Complete Streets Prioritization Plan adopted in 2017 and its 2014 Master Plan: Sustainable Greenfield.

The workshop will also address how the redesign will promote safety at state-identified pedestrian and bicycle-crash clusters, upgrade infrastructure, and improve the intersection of Main and High streets for the safety of all travel modes.

The focus of this first meeting is to gather input from the public before design concepts are developed. A second community workshop will be scheduled in June to present design-concept plans and gather feedback before completing the 25% design for MasssDOT review.

“If you have ideas about the configuration of parking, crosswalks, or bicycle lanes on Main Street, now is the time to weigh in, so that feedback can be included in the design process,” Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said. “Though we’re working toward the 25% design, the time to voice your ideas is now because many key decisions are made in this stage before MassDOT begins its review.”

Wedegartner has appropriated $288,900 in capital funds for engineering and design of the project, which begins 100 feet to the east of Colrain Street and ends at High Street. Construction cost is projected at $7.78 million, funded by the state and federal governments. The project is on track to be included in MassDOT’s Transportation Improvement Program, and construction is slated to begin as early as fall 2026.

Cover Story Top Entrepreneur

Benson Hyde and Bruce McAmis Make Provisions a Regional Success Story

Bruce McAmis, left, and Benson Hyde, co-owners of Provisions

Bruce McAmis, left, and Benson Hyde, co-owners of Provisions


Grape Expectations

Benson Hyde was a financial advisor who wasn’t enthralled with the firm he was working for or the direction his career was headed in.

Bruce McAmis was a lawyer who would have preferred to be doing … well, just about anything else.

That was years ago. In the intervening time, let’s just say their paths crossed (we’ll fill in the details later), and they are now co-authoring one of the more intriguing entrepreneurship stories unfolding in the region.

It’s called Provisions, a wine, cheese, and much-more store that now has three locations: in Northampton, where it all started, in Amherst, where the plot thickened, and, most recently, Longmeadow, where it thickened even more, with the opening of a location in the Longmeadow Shops just before the holidays. They would have preferred to open sooner, but … well, that’s part of the story.

Indeed, expansion has come quickly — more quickly than they anticipated when they first drafted a business plan that has been revised several times already — because opportunities have presented themselves. Seizing them hasn’t been easy, but they’re managing to take a promising concept and run with it, even in the middle of a pandemic, as we’ll see.

The concept? Hyde described it in a number of ways, but maybe this one works best: “people like to talk about fine wine; we like to say we’re all about fun wine.”

By that, he and McAmis meant wine that comes with stories, products produced in ways that resonate with a younger audience that is embracing wine perhaps more than generations before them.

“Our focus is on smaller producers with a story,” Hyde said, “and being able to provide service on a personal level — when someone walks in the store and wants a recommendation, or wants to hear about where a wine came from, or wants a pairing suggestion and an idea for what would make a great gift.”

“People like to talk about fine wine; we like to say we’re all about fun wine.”

Of course, this story is about more than wine. It’s also about cheese — or cheeses, to be more precise. It’s also about spirits of all kinds now. It’s also about making connections with customers and the community, and educating people about wine, not just selling it by the bottle or case.

And, of course, it’s about entrepreneurship and two people settling into that role after working for others and not really enjoying it, and desiring something else.

McAmis and Hyde look the part, and they also sound the part, using words and phrases that anyone who has gone into business for themselves — especially over the past several years — would use.

“It’s been quite a ride … high highs and low lows; it’s been an incredible learning experience,” said Hyde as he talked about everything from accelerated expansion to coping with a pandemic that forced them to find new ways of doing business and had both of them venturing out to make deliveries themselves.

McAmis echoed those thoughts as he talked about their venture. He actually uttered the words “it’s been fun,” and then retracted the statement. Well, sort of. He said it’s occasionally been fun, but mostly it’s been a stern challenge, one that has tested them in all kinds of ways.

The Provisions owners aim to satisfy an evolving market

The Provisions owners aim to satisfy an evolving market when it comes to how people buy wine, and who is buying it.

“I love it … I rarely, if ever, take a whole day off, but that’s part of being an entrepreneur, I guess,” he said. “It’s been intense, but rewarding on many levels.”

For their work to make Provisions a regional story, one with many chapters still to be written, Hyde and McAmis have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2022. They continue a tradition of entrepreneurship in this region that goes back more than 300 years, and they join a distinguished list of previous winners of this award.

That list includes a college president, a hospital administrator, a public utility, the founders of several tech startups, many family-owned ventures, and several individuals and partnerships like the one forged by McAmis and Hyde.

For this issue, BusinessWest tells their story and, in the process of doing so, explains why they are more than worthy of this coveted honor.


Vintage Undertaking

They call it the ‘Provisions Dungeon.’

That’s the name affixed to the basement of the Northampton location, on Crafts Avenue.

And the name fits. It’s a large, cavernous space with several rooms of various sizes, all of them now crammed with wine and other products sold upstairs. The main area off the stairs was once a classroom where experts on wine passed on their knowledge to diverse audiences eager to learn more about this far-reaching, truly global subject. Now, that space has been given over to racks holding a wide array of spirits, with the classes held at the Amherst location.

“One of the important traits we’ve shown over the years is being responsive to what we’re facing. Whether it’s having to reshape everything because of the pandemic or with growth, it’s a matter of staying aware and staying flexible, and leaning into opportunities.”

Because the main floor is somewhat cramped, with little if any room for inventory, employees are constantly going back and forth to the basement, McAmis noted.

“We almost need to have extra staff on hand because everything that needs to be restocked is in the basement, and that means a lot of carrying cases of wine up the stairs,” he said, adding that the dungeon, where we talked with the two partners, is just one of the more colorful aspects of this evolving business.

Our story starts roughly 12 years ago, said Hyde, at one of the many dinners he enjoyed with his cousin, Alex Feinstein, founder of GoBerry, the recently closed frozen-yogurt store in downtown Northampton, and his wife.

Bruce McAmis, Benson Hyde, and Hyde’s wife, Toni DeLuca

From left, Bruce McAmis, Benson Hyde, and Hyde’s wife, Toni DeLuca, also the company’s wine and spirits buyer.

“He and I had become very close in the Boston area … he and his wife would cook me dinner, and I would bring the wine,” Hyde recalled. “When they got to Northampton, he called me up and said, ‘they could use a good wine shop downtown.’

“I was working in financial services for a company that I wasn’t thrilled to keep working for, so it was pretty easy to twist my arm and talk me into moving out here,” he went on. “I was inspired by his foray into small business.”

In collaboration with the Feinsteins and two other partners, Gordon Alexander and Nancy Baker, he opened Provisions on Crafts Avenue in November 2011. One of the first wine vendors he worked with was McAmis, who, as noted earlier, had a law degree but decided he didn’t want to make that his career. Instead, he ventured into the liquor-wholesaling business with a venture called Yankee Distribution.

After three years in business, Feinstein and Hyde were the remaining partners in the venture, and in late 2019, McAmis bought out Feinstein and became Hyde’s partner in Provisions.

“I thought that we could really grow the business and take some next steps,” said McAmis, adding that he became intrigued by the possibilities — and by Hyde’s determination to take the venture to the next level and scale up.

Those plans started to materialize quickly, but first — actually, at the same time — the business had to contend with the pandemic, which hit Northampton and its downtown, dominated by restaurants and clubs, extremely hard.

“We stayed open the whole time, but we weren’t open to the public, obviously,” McAmis recalled, adding that, like other ventures of this kind, Provisions relied on pickup and delivery, which constituted new, and expensive, ways of doing business that had to be learned and mastered.

“Main Street was a ghost town,” he said, noting that he was making many deliveries himself, and could see that Provisions, State Street Liquors, and a CVS were essentially the only businesses with lights on in that historically vibrant area.

The new Longmeadow location

The new Longmeadow location came about rather unexpectedly and before the partners were really ready, but they jumped on the opportunity.

Overall, the pandemic was a learning experience and test of the partners’ mettle, said Hyde, adding that, while business was brisk — sales ballooned during the pandemic for many different reasons — business was also much more difficult.

“We had to completely pivot our business model and completely rethink how we worked with customers and how we operated the entire store,” he recalled. “It was intense, and we made a lot of mistakes before we eventually got things ironed out.

“We were really lucky because we had attracted a staff that was really committed,” he went on. “I don’t think we could have done it if we didn’t have such a loyal and committed staff — it was extremely hard.”


Case in Point

But at the same time they were enduring the pandemic and its many challenges, the two partners were still thinking about expansion and that proverbial next level.

And, as noted earlier, that expansion has come about more quickly, and more profoundly, than they had anticipated in any version of that business plan, primarily because opportunities presented themselves, and they were determined to take advantage of them.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2021: Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta, owners of Tower Square in Springfield
• 2020: Golden Years Homecare Services
• 2019: Cinda Jones, president of
W.D. Cowls Inc.
• 2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
• 2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of
Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and
CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of
Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of
Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of
Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president
of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

The first such opportunity came on King Street in North Amherst, with the opening of Bottle-O, what McAmis described as “an easy, in-and-out beer and wine store where you can grab some cheese.”

As for the expansion of Provisions, the two partners had long targeted Amherst and Longmeadow as the most logical communities to take their concept, and they started with the former, primarily because opportunities in Longmeadow are harder to come by.

Specifically, they started in North Amherst and the emerging Mill District, for which Cinda Jones, architect of that ambitious undertaking, became another of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs three years ago.

When Atkins Farms decided to leave its space in the sprawling mill complex, Jones approached Benson and McAmis about taking that square footage. They did, recognizing an opportunity to take the brand to a new area and a site that is rapidly becoming a destination because of its array of shops and eateries.

The Amherst location opened in November 2020, still the height of the pandemic, and there have been some growing pains due to COVID, the emerging nature of the Mill District, and the fact that the complex is somewhat off the beaten path.

“It’s taken a little bit of time for word to get out that we’re there,” McAmis said. “But we are growing; we’re seeing green shoots.”

Hyde agreed. “We believe in their vision; they have created a really cool space there,” he said, adding that a planned move to another location at the Mill District, amid an emerging ‘food cluster’ at the complex — with a brewpub envisioned for the space they’re currently occupying — will generate even better results.

As for the Longmeadow location, McAmis said it came about through some “dumb luck.”

Indeed, a space in the Longmeadow Shops next to Max’s restaurant became available, and McAmis noticed the listing while doing a random search for space in Longmeadow last spring.

“As soon as we walked in there, we realized that it was well-suited for what we were looking for,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the timing was not exactly ideal because of everything else they were dealing with, they decided to press ahead and get it done, knowing that such opportunities — in that town and in that location — do not come about often.

“Longmeadow happened maybe a year or two sooner than it would have in a perfect world,” he said, noting that the partners were still engrossed in making the North Amherst location work. “It just felt like a bit of a rush to us to contemplate that, but we also didn’t think we would get a better opportunity; not only is it in the Longmeadow Shops, it’s right in the heart of it — so we went ahead. And now that it’s open, I’m happy it’s open.”

Hyde agreed. “The consequences of not taking that spot were huge; I don’t think we would ever have found something that ideal,” he said, adding that the location is close to East Longmeadow and Northern Connecticut, providing an opportunity to introduce the Provisons brand to some new customers.


Taste of Success

When asked what might come next for Provisions, Hyde and McAmis looked at each other, laughed, and offered a collective sigh.

The body language and sound effects made it clear that they’re not contemplating additional expansion at this time, and are instead focused on settling in — in every aspect of that phrase.

Elaborating, they said they want to put their new locations on solid ground, build the brand, and, well … keep doing what they’ve been doing all along.

Specifically, this means listening to customers, responding to what they’re saying, and providing an overall product that is in many ways as distinctive as the various bottles and cheeses on the shelves.

“One of the important traits we’ve shown over the years is being responsive to what we’re facing. Whether it’s having to reshape everything because of the pandemic or with growth, it’s a matter of staying aware and staying flexible, and leaning into opportunities,” said Hyde, adding that this operating mindset has served the partners well to date, and it will continue.

“The focus is going to be less on expanding our footprint in the near term, and more on expanding services and making connections within the community,” he went on. “What’s important to both of us is that we not only have a good business, but our business is part of the community; we support our community, and our community supports us.”

Meanwhile, the partners plan to continue with that theme of providing not just fine wine — they do that as well — but also ‘fun’ wine and products with compelling stories.

And while doing so — and this is perhaps the most rewarding part — they’ve earned the trust of customers.

“That’s been a cool thing — developing those relationships, getting to know people’s palates, and building that trust,” Hyde said. “People will call up and say, ‘I trust you … pick out 12 bottles for me, and I’ll come pick it up.”

That’s an example of that flexibility he described, and being responsive to what a changing audience wants and needs in a bottle of wine and the store that will sell it.

“How people shop for wine has changed, and who is shopping for wine has changed,” he expained. “There are more young people interested in wine these days than when we first opened.”

McAmis agreed. “They’re younger, and they’re interested in learning about the products; it doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but there’s an emphasis on quality, not quantity,” he noted. “We have wines that come from family-owned estates and are natural or biodynamic, organic or sustainably grown — these are all important attributes for a lot of these younger consumers.”

Wine tastings, such as this one at the location in the Mill District in North Amherst

Wine tastings, such as this one at the location in the Mill District in North Amherst, are one way the company focuses on education and engaging its customers.

These attributes and others are explained at the wine classes staged at the Amherst store, said Hyde, adding that education remains a big part of the equation at Provisions.

“There’s usually a theme to these classes,” he explained. “We’ll take people to a region, for example; it’s everything from ‘Wine 101’ to how you taste wines, to deep dives on regions or grades or producers.”

Such classes — and tastings — continued through the pandemic via Zoom, he said, noting that producers brought attendees into their operations virtually. “Having that actual producer in their winery talking about the wine is a cool way to experience it,” Hyde said, adding that the partners are looking to add more of these types of presentations in the future.

“Generally, we want to keep our eyes and our ears open to what people are wanting, what spaces we can fill, and how we can keep ourselves different from the bigger package stores,” he went on. “We do have a big selection, but we’re geared more toward service than having a ton of product; we have well-chosen, curated, thoughtful, fun products.”

Such an attitude explains not only why these two are successful, but why they are BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2022.

Features Special Coverage

Opening the Doors Wider

Community Foundation President and CEO Megan Burke

Community Foundation President and CEO Megan Burke

Megan Burke was taking a walk through downtown Springfield on a Sunday morning not quite a year ago, and found herself on Bridge Street, passing by the offices of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM).

She stopped, looked in, and became immersed in what she was seeing, while also not quite believing her eyes.

“I looked in the conference-room windows, and I saw the papers lining the walls detailing their strategic-planning process and all their priorities for the next year,” she recalled. “And I actually took some photos, sent them to my boss in Hartford, and said, ‘look at how transparent the Community Foundation of Western Mass. is; we need to be more like this.’

“There were no secrets — they just put it right out there,” she went on. “I took pictures, I took notes … I said, ‘hey, they’re moving to the same database system we use, but more importantly, these are things they’re prioritizing for the community.’”

The ‘we,’ in this case, was the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which Burke was serving as director of Community Impact Grantmaking. The amazing transparency she observed that morning was and is just one of the things Burke admired about the Community Foundation of Western Mass., and which she had come to respect from afar — or not really that far at all, depending on your take; she’s a resident of West Springfield.

And that helps explain why, when the agency’s long-time president and CEO, Katie Allan Zobel, announced in the spring of 2022 (just a few weeks after Burke’s walk in downtown Springfield) that she would be stepping down at the end of the year, Burke became interested in the position, at the same time she was being recruited for it.

After several rounds of interviews, during which she would see and hear more things that impressed her, Burke was tapped to fill Zobel’s very large shoes, thus beginning an intriguing new chapter in a career marked by more than two decades of work in nonprofit management, philanthropy, fundraising, and advocacy, with a particular focus on equitable access to economic opportunities and human rights.

Her career has included work on issues ranging from advancing LGBTQ+ rights in a Latin American country, Nicaragua, to continuing efforts to ban landmines globally, to the challenge of leveling the playing field between those in urban and suburban communities in Northern Connecticut.

“I looked in the conference-room windows, and I saw the papers lining the walls detailing their strategic-planning process and all their priorities for the next year. And I actually took some photos, sent them to my boss in Hartford, and said, ‘look at how transparent the Community Foundation of Western Mass. is; we need to be more like this.’”

Summing it all up, Burke said it has been invigorating and rewarding work, which she is anxious to take to the 69 communities served by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

In a wide-ranging interview with BusinessWest just a few days after she began work in those offices on Bridge Street, Burke said her broad goal is to build on all that’s been accomplished over the past several years to take CFWM well past check writing and into a role as convener and catalyst for positive change.

“I really want to spend at least the next three months getting to know the folks who are involved in the Community Foundation and who’s not involved, and opening our doors even wider,” she explained. “And listening to people — I have a lot to learn. I think I bring a lot to the job, but I have a lot to learn from the community about what they think is important and what they believe we should be doing better.”

She said the Hartford Foundation has been able to mobilize resources and support efforts to more equitable economic and social mobility, and one of her goals is to amass similar forces and create momentum on that same front in Western Mass.

“In both Hartford and Springfield, and in pockets of the regions more generally, success for people is often more closely correlated to the zip code in which they were born than their own talents, creativity, and hard work,” she said. “And I think that’s where the experience I have is relevant to thinking about how we can change that together — not just the Community Foundation, not just our nonprofit partners or our donors, but all residents of the region.”


Questions and Answers

Burke recalls that it “almost felt like I was cheating.”

That’s almost.

In the run-up to the first of her interviews with CFWM for the president’s position last September, she noted that Zobel was the most recent guest on BusinessTalk, the weekly podcast hosted by this writer. She listened to the episode, not once but twice, and heard Zobel talk in vague terms about what might come next for her career-wise — and, in far more specific terms, about the many new programs and initiatives she and her staff introduced during her tenure, everything from Valley Gives to Valley Creates.

the windows of the Community Foundation offices on Bridge Street

Megan Burke was amazed by the transparency she witnessed when looking in the windows of the Community Foundation offices on Bridge Street. It’s a tradition she intends to continue.
Staff Photo

“It was such a helpful interview,” she recalled. “I was able to get a sense of what she felt was important and what she thought were some of the great successes here.”

Whether listening to the podcast had any impact on her performance during that interview is a subject for debate (Burke already knew a great deal about the Community Foundation, as we’ll see), but what isn’t — according to those doing the interviewing — is that Burke is a logical successor to Zobel, and this position is a logical next step for someone who has spent a career working to advance diversity, equity, and the inclusion of diverse perspectives.

It’s a career that has taken her from New York to Nicaragua to Hartford, and to remote-working opportunities long before they became the norm.

Our story starts with Burke — who earned her bachelor’s degree in political science at Wellesley and a master’s degree in international relations at Yale — working for the Ford Foundation in New York, where she served as program officer, U.S. Foreign and Security Policy, Governance & Civil Society.

In 2007, she and her family moved to Nicaragua for what she called “a different pace to her work” than what she found in New York. There, she worked first for the nonprofit Centro de Estudios Internacionales, where her efforts supported the emerging LGBTQ+ movement and the development of a nationwide campaign to advance human rights.

“My role was to support various representatives of the movement to create a platform for them to come together and establish some advocacy priorities and to really be a go-between with the funder to make sure of the direction it was moving in, and to really track the impact of the work,” she explained. “For me … I had not worked on that particular issue before; it was incredibly eye-opening. It was very humbling to be working in a second language and be the least articulate person in the room.”

“During my time there, we announced a new strategic focus on dismantling structural racism and promoting more equitable economic and social mobility. And while that work is by no means easy, it’s incredibly important, and I spent the past few years with a great team trying to figure out how to make that happen.”

Burke worked for the group for roughly three years, eventually transitioning to a new role with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She started working as a researcher in Latin America — Nicaragua was a country impacted by landmines from the war in the 1980s — and eventually became executive director of the campaign.

She was still in that position when she returned to Western Mass. nearly a decade ago, eventually to ease herself out of that role — while also downsizing the organization, as more countries addressed the problem of landmines.

“It’s kind of nice to be involved in something where we could see steady progress and say we were working ourselves out of a job; it’s not often that you get to say that,” she noted. “Every year I worked there, the casualty rate declined.”

In some respects, leading a coalition to ban landmines is a world apart from work with a local foundation, she said, but in Burke’s estimation, the work is very similar.

“Sometimes people say, ‘how did you go from this international work focused on advocacy at the U.N. and traveling around the world to working for a local foundation?’” she noted. “My feeling on that is that every issue is a local issue somewhere, and what we were really trying to do at the international level is raise up local issues that were impacting people in mostly post-conflict countries, and get international attention to redistribute resources — not totally unlike what a foundation does to help those with the greatest need.”


Vision Statement

In 2017, Burke joined the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving as senior Community Impact officer, a position with a broad job description, one that included everything from work creating career pathways to efforts promote civic engagement through grants and training to increase voter engagement and participation in the 2020 Census.

In September 2020, she became director of Community Impact Grantmaking, leading the foundation’s strategic grantmaking — there was an annual budget of $25 million to $30 million — to advance equitable economic mobility and address systemic racism in Greater Hartford.

“During my time there, we announced a new strategic focus on dismantling structural racism and promoting more equitable economic and social mobility,” she explained. “And while that work is by no means easy, it’s incredibly important, and I spent the past few years with a great team trying to figure out how to make that happen.”

Not long after Zobel announced that she would be stepping down from her position, Burke received a call from a search firm to gauge her interest in the position.

It was quite high, she said, and for all the reasons she mentioned earlier — from the agency’s transparency with its goals and plans for the future, as evidenced by the uncovered windows facing Bridge Street, to its rapid and highly effective response to COVID, marked by a deep commitment to helping the region’s struggling nonprofits, along with many other successful programs in realms ranging from the arts to education.

Summing it all up, Burke said that, while she loved her work with the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the only thing she might like more is a chance to similar work closer to her home, something this opportunity at the Community Foundation provided her.

Still, while those on the other side of the interview table had questions for her, she had some for them, and the answers — especially with regard to a willingness to broaden efforts in the realm of equity — would ultimately determine whether this would be the right fit for her.

“I wasn’t sure where they were in terms of their own strategic vision to promote equity and opportunity,” she explained. “And I know that when you take on work like that, it’s important that everyone has bought in, feels that it’s important, and sees the value in that work.

“You never have a situation where every stakeholder is 100% all in from the very beginning,” she went on. “But from other areas of my work, I’ve seen what happens when there is great resistance, and it makes it really, really hard. I didn’t know if there was resistance, but I also didn’t know how much buy-in there was. So in many of my early conversations, I really tried to get a sense — ‘is there a serious commitment to moving this forward?’ And I got a resounding ‘yes’ from everyone I spoke to.

“It was clear that the commitment runs deep,” she continued. “And that excited me.”

Elaborating, she noted that, while Greater Hartford and Greater Springfield are different in some respects, they are similar in most, especially when it comes to disparities that exist between the urban centers and the more rural and suburban areas, and the manner in which those inequities impact opportunity.

“When everyone has an opportunity to fulfill their own potential, I think everyone wins,” she went on. “When people are held back due to the circumstances of their birth, I think everyone loses.”

Burke started at the Community Foundation on Jan. 18, the day of a scheduled board meeting. She joked that this would be the first and only time she would be at such a meeting with the primary mission of simply watching and listening.

Although she still has a lot of that to do in general, and with a number of different constituencies, she noted that she has already embarked on what she calls a “listening tour.”

Its underlying goal, as she stated earlier, is to enable her to learn about the region and the issues facing those living and working here and to generate some momentum on the broad issue of economic and social mobility and making it more equitable.

“We don’t plan to change our broader strategic vision — I think it’s a great vision,” she said. “And promoting equity and opportunity is not something that’s going to happen overnight; I think there’s a huge commitment to that, and I was brought on to help figure out how to make sure we can operationalize that as effectively as possible.

“I have to listen,” she said in conclusion, “and make sure I’m building on what’s already happening here that’s great.”


Bottom Line

When asked what she likes to do when she’s not working, Burke offered a hearty laugh as she said, “take walks in urban areas.”

She also likes to hike in more rural settings, partake in yoga, be a good ‘dog aunt,’ and keep up with friends scattered across the region and around the world.

What she really likes, though, is to work with others to address what she called “seemingly intractable problems” — meaning everything from inhumane weapons to access to healthcare and education for LGBTQ+ residents of Nicaragua to food insecurity for residents of Greater Hartford.

Throughout her long career, it has been her mission to take doors and open them wider to enable more to pass through. With her latest assignment with CFWM, the setting has changed, but that mission hasn’t.

Education Special Coverage

Looking Back — and Ahead

HCC President Christina Royal

HCC President Christina Royal


Christina Royal wanted to make one thing clear.

Her decision to step down as president of Holyoke Community College (HCC) later this year has nothing whatsoever to do the Great Resignation.

“The Great Resignation, to me, reflected people who were in various stages of unhappiness with their respective roles and looking for a change,” said Royal, the school’s fourth president, who arrived on campus in 2016. “I love this college, and I love my position.”

Elaborating, she said her decision is about finding the space to decide what she wants to do next, and at this point in time, she really doesn’t know what that might be, other than some travel (destinations still to be determined), planning her wedding, and what she calls “voluntary unemployment” until at least the start of 2024.

In a wide-ranging interview during which she looked back as well as ahead, Royal talked at length about the past three years, especially, and what it has been like, personally and professionally, to lead an institution like HCC through the pandemic. She said it was a tremendous, and exhausting, learning experience, one in which she and members of her team had to reach down and find the determination and imagination to see the college and its students, staff, and faculty through an unprecedented crisis, during which the school was mostly closed to the public for more than a year.

Indeed, while talking about the length of her tenure at HCC — which will be close to seven years by the time she steps down this summer — Royal jokingly asked if there is a “multiplier” for the COVID era, a roughly two-and-a-half-year stretch that probably seemed like it was exponentially longer.

She likened that period to another one in the school’s long history, a devastating fire that destroyed its one building in 1968. Royal told BusinessWest that she has read and heard a lot about those days, and she believes they were in many ways similar to what the college and its leadership endured starting that day in March 2020 when the governor shut down the state.

“The Great Resignation, to me, reflected people who were in various stages of unhappiness with their respective roles and looking for a change. I love this college, and I love my position.”

“I never thought that in my lifetime and during my tenure there would be another moment to rival that one, but the global pandemic did,” she said. “And being in a leadership capacity during such uncertain times, you tap all of the skills that you’ve developed over a lifetime to be able to learn and lead in such times.”

While efforts to lead the school through the pandemic have in many ways dominated her tenure, she said there have been many important accomplishments, especially in the broad realms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as addressing student basic needs, ranging from food to housing to childcare.

With the former, she said the school has made significant strides, and on many different levels.

“We have really prioritized equity at all levels within our organization, including at the board level, with a statement on anti-racism, and also with the great work of our facility and staff. We’ve invested financial resources to grow our wrap-around support services for our under-represented students, and we continue to help all of our students be successful regardless of what their starting point is, who they are, and what their background is.”

With the latter, Royal, named a Woman of Impact by BusinessWest in 2020 for her work at the school and within the community (the two often overlap), said there have been some important and innovative steps forward, and several ‘firsts.’

Christina Royal meets with students

Christina Royal meets with students at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which opened its doors in 2019.

These include the Homestead Market, at which HCC became the first institution of its kind in the Commonwealth to accept SNAP benefits.

“This was pretty significant — we had to get federal approval from the USDA to be able to accept SNAP benefits,” she told BusinessWest. “To be able to do that on a college campus is innovative and an example of how we listen to students and respond to what we’re hearing.

“Our students who found themselves food-insecure and receiving SNAP benefits said, in essence, ‘why can’t I use my benefits on campus?’” she went on. “And we said, ‘good question.’”

As for her own future and what the next chapter might be professionally, Royal said that is … still to be determined. And it may not be determined for a while yet. Indeed, while she has already received some invitations to look at opportunities, she is determined to take her time — and take at least the balance of 2023 off — and find the right fit.

In the meantime, she is focused on the remainder of her tenure at HCC, continuing the work that has been done there and preparing the school for a successful transition in leadership.


Court of Opinion

As she talked about what she and her administration have been able to accomplish over the past several years, Royal made sure she didn’t leave out pickleball.

Indeed, under her direction, and in response to the meteoric rise in popularity of the game — a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping pong — the college created several pickleball courts in the Bartley Athletic Center on campus.

“I was looking for something to burn off stress, and as a former tennis player, I really enjoyed the racket sports, and this is something that’s a little easier on my knees,” she said, adding that a former trustee of HCC turned her on to the sport. “We have seven courts here now, and the response from the community has been tremendous; people are calling and asking if we can expand the hours. I think we’ve really tapped into an outlet that people are looking for.”

Beyond pickleball, Royal can provide a long list of accomplishments and milestones that have happened during her tenure. It includes the college’s 75th-anniversary celebration in 2022— put off for one year because of the pandemic — as well as the 50th anniversary of the HCC Foundation; the opening of a new life-sciences building and the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, located in a renovated mill in the city’s downtown; and extensive renovations to the Campus Center, which reopened just a few weeks before the pandemic forced it to go dark once again.

Beyond infrastructure and new academic programming, Royal said the biggest strides made at HCC have come in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and meeting those basic needs of students that she mentioned earlier.

As for meeting students’ basic needs, Royal said there have been many steps forward, perhaps none as significant, and symbolic, as the Homestead Market and the acceptance of SNAP benefits.

Today, other schools and other institutions are looking to follow suit, she said, and they are looking at HCC as a leader in what Royal called “hunger-free college campuses.”

“We’ve used this as an opportunity to be responsive to students, and also to be able to further our work with basic student needs,” she noted, adding that there was a prime motivating force behind the school’s perseverance in this matter: “it’s hard to educate a hungry student.”

“This has been an incredible journey … I think about how much I’ve grown in this role. I never imagined leading through such uncertain times, with a pandemic that few saw coming and for which there was no playbook.”

As noted earlier, meeting student needs goes well beyond food, said Royal, who has been at the forefront of many such efforts, from housing and internet service to an important recent addition to the portfolio: the President’s Emergency Fund, which is … well, just what it sounds like, a fund to help students in emergency situations.

They can apply quickly and easily, said Royal, and they get a response within 24 hours.

“We cut a check immediately,” she said, noting that funding for the program was set up through the school’s foundation and has grown through the support of alumni and other donors to the college, including faculty and staff. “If you’re experiencing an emergency, that means you don’t have weeks to wait for financial resources to come in. And this fund has made a huge difference.”

Overall, these various programs reflect an operating philosophy at the college that, especially in a community like Holyoke, students need more than the right mix of courses to succeed — however they might define success.

“When we started our strategic plan, we defined our basic needs as encompassing four key priorities — food insecurity, housing insecurity, housing, and childcare,” she explained. “And in the process of addressing those, we had a few others emerge over time, including mental-health support and digital literacy.

“We knew that, in order to really support students, not only through wrap-around services but particularly with other barriers to them successfully completing, we had to address these other basic needs,” she went on. “The public at large tends to think of colleges as needing to focus on academics and the curriculum in order to set up students for success, and that is certainly a key priority — we’re focused on having the academic rigor that can allow for students to transfer successfully to our four-year colleges and universities. And in doing so, we needed to set students up outside of the classroom for success, and that is helping to address the other barriers that sometimes hinder their ability to stay continuously enrolled.”


Forward Thinking

The decision to move on from this work and to the next stage of her career came at a time of great change and reflection in her life, said Royal, who turned 50 last summer, traveled to Bali with her partner for an extended vacation, got engaged, and, amid all that, started to think about what’s next.

“I didn’t necessarily want to leave HCC … it was more about creating space for me to expand and engage in some creative projects and simply have some space,” she noted. “This job is an intense job, and I wanted to give it its due respect. And as I turned 50, I thought, ‘here is an opportunity for the next chapter.’ But first, I wanted to have some space to figure out what that might look like. So I didn’t want to rush into something; if I wanted to move into another presidency or another CEO position, I could have easily done that, but I wanted to focus on HCC.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities come my way, but it felt too soon to commit myself to something else because I wanted to take a break,” she went on. “And that’s very important to me; I’ve been running hard for a number of years.”

Indeed, she has, with the pandemic years, especially, testing her in ways she could not have imagined. And they have left her reflecting on how those years have changed education, the world, and, yes, what she wants to do next.

“I’m a very intentional and reflective leader, so I make this shift with a great deal of intention around creating space for reflecting on this extremely unique and significant period in our lifetime — at least in my lifetime,” she said. “This has been an incredible journey … I think about how much I’ve grown in this role. I never imagined leading through such uncertain times, with a pandemic that few saw coming and for which there was no playbook.”

With that, Royal returned to 1968 and that fire that forever changed the college, and drew some direct comparisons to how the two disasters, more than 50 years apart, forced leaders to challenge themselves — and others — to find answers to complex problems.

Indeed, there were large amounts of learning and leading over the past three years or so, she went on, regarding everything from teaching from a distance — and supporting students at a distance — to simply reopening the college when the conditions allowed.

“It made me a better leader, and it certainly took a lot out of me,” she said of that period, adding that such experiences help explain why a large number of college presidents have moved on from their jobs in recent months, and more have announced intentions to do so.

For Royal, the pandemic provided large doses of perspective on what she could do next — and should do next.

“I feel excited for the next chapter, I feel excited about the possibilities, and perhaps something the pandemic did for me was invite me to expand those possibilities in my imagination of what can come next,” she said. “It was one of the most palatable reminders of just how short life is, and that in the blink of an eye, we’re dealing with an international crisis and health threats that were unprecedented in my lifetime.

“All that had a significant impact in shifting my perspective on what I want to do with the second half of my life,” she went on, adding that she won’t get around to figuring that out for a while.

After all, she still has a college to lead.

Employment Special Coverage

Home Sweet Home

Make no mistake, Meredith Wise says — employers miss those bustling offices where all their employees used to come to work.

And after almost three years of remote work — during which the practice evolved from a temporary necessity to a ubiquitous reality — businesses are definitely grappling with what it all means, and whether they can slow the remote train down.

“A lot of businesses would like to have people back in the office,” said Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. “They’re struggling a bit with communication, with employee relations, and with staying in touch with people and knowing what’s going on with them.

“The idea used to be that people would come in, and you’d get a sense of how their night went, how their morning was going,” she added. “With Zoom communications, you just don’t get that same feeling. A lot of companies are feeling like they’re losing that personal connection with employees.”

Even some of the largest employers feel that way, as Walt Disney Co. workers found out in a recent internal memo from CEO Bob Iger, who is calling on all workers to spend at least four days a week in the office, starting March 1.

“In a creative business like ours,” Iger wrote, “nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.”

Still, Wise noted that many local companies seem to be moving in the opposite direction, by continuing to embrace hybrid schedules. “They’ve found productivity can be better when working from home remotely, where people don’t have any of the distractions of being in an office, and I think that hybrid model is going to stay.”

Amy Roberts, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, agreed.

“A lot of businesses would like to have people back in the office. They’re struggling a bit with communication, with employee relations, and with staying in touch with people and knowing what’s going on with them.”

“We implemented a flexible work-arrangement policy in the midst of COVID, and we still have a lot of people working hybrid, with some time in the office and some time working from home,” she told BusinessWest. “It really depends on the area a person works in and what the business needs are. We have a couple fully remote workers; we actually hired a person out of Illinois who works fully remotely.”

Like Wise, Roberts said it’s easy to see why remote work is appealing, from the elimination of commuting time to creating a focused work environment. “I think the flexibility of it is really helpful to people in terms of work-life balance. Or they might say, ‘I really need to get X done, and doing this particular work is best done when I’m home, so I can focus more.’”

Roberts said many companies are starting to pull everyone back into the office — especially businesses that stress a collaborative culture or require plenty of face-to-face work with customers — but not all. “I do think the hybrid model is here to stay, though I don’t think it works for everyone.”

Seth Stratton, managing shareholder with Fitzgerald Law in East Longmeadow, noted that, like many small businesses, his firm never fully left the office during the pandemic, and these days, everyone has been back for some time. But they have continued to use communication tools, like Zoom, that became popular when employees at most companies were at home.

“We were forced to embrace some technology and ways of working that carried over and make work more flexible, even though we’re back in the office.”

Stratton understands the value of remote work in some situations, drawing on examples from his own career.

“During the peak of the workday in the office, there are a lot of interruptions, and a lot of times, when I’m focused on revising a lengthy contract or drafting a legal brief to submit to court, I need time to focus mentally on what I’m doing, so historically, a lot of that will be done early in the morning or later in the evening, after the phone stops ringing,” he said, noting that working from home can create more time and space for such work.

Seth Stratton

Seth Stratton says remote work can reduce distractions, but also hinder communication and collaboration.

On the other hand, someone in a home office can’t just walk into the next room to tap someone else’s expertise.

“You can do that remotely, but it’s harder to get on the cell or set up a Zoom meeting; it’s not as seamless as walking 10 feet away. That affects you from a collaborative standpoint.”

And collaboration happens outside the office, too.

“In Western Mass., probably moreso than other markets, when it comes to business generation, marketing, and client development, this is a parochial business community; a lot of business is conducted through personal relationships, personal connections,” Stratton explained. “I might be having lunch at the Fort or at Nadim’s and see someone I know — ‘oh, I’ve been meaning to call you; let’s schedule a call. Or do you have a minute now?’

“It’s harder to make those connections when you’re fully remote,” he went on. “Being available, I think, is a hallmark of business development in Western Mass., at least in my experience.”


Successful Experiment

While it may have eventually surprised employers how effective their teams could be at home, Wise recalled the challenge of those first few weeks in March 2020.

“When it first started, nobody really had the computer setups or the communication tools to be able to work remotely from home,” she said. “Now, people are more able to work at home and be productive.”

These days, “while we have found some companies saying, ‘we want all employees in the office Monday through Friday,’ those are few and far between. Instead, what a lot of employers are saying is, ‘you know what your job requires; work with your manager on what days you need to be in the office and what days you can work at home.’”

As a Baby Boomer, Wise said, she understands the old-school mentality of employers who have always been able to see their employees at work, and may be hesitant to give that up.

“It can be a hurdle to get over that perspective that ‘I can’t see you, so are you working?’ Part of the communication piece is doing a better job as organizations to define productivity and what needs to happen on the job. And it’s been good for leaders and workers to tighten up some of the parameters — ‘you know what’s expected of you, and you and I need to set that ahead of time, because things can easily get out of hand if you’re not here every day.’”

It makes sense to put those parameters in writing, said John Gannon, a partner with the law firm Skoler Abbott in Springfield. “The accountability policy needs to be clear. I’ve seen policies that say, ‘we need to see proof that your children are in daycare.’ I’m not sure if I’d recommend going that far, but certainly the supervisors need to be paying attention to their employees when they’re home.”

Zoom meetings help, he said, but employees are still unmonitored for the vast majority of the workday. Some companies have even installed technology on home computers that logs keystrokes per hour.

“If they have employees working remotely, even in a hybrid fashion, in another state — which is not uncommon given Springfield’s proximity to Connecticut — they have to be cognizant of which state’s employment laws apply.”

John Gannon

John Gannon

“I don’t like that, personally,” Gannon went on. “But it’s an option for employers if they have concerns that the hybrid model results in less productivity. I wouldn’t recommend it unless an employer is having problems, because it is a privacy issue, and a lot of this comes down to trust; you want to trust your employees, and you don’t want to set up a model that says you don’t trust them.”

Wise has heard of keystroke monitoring as well, and said most employers in this region aren’t looking to go there. But they’re also still in an experimental stage when it comes to remote and hybrid schedules.

“A lot of organizations are still feeling this out — ‘let’s try this for six months; I know we did it during the pandemic, but let’s try it in the new year and see if it works out, or whether we need to make adjustments to it.’ Handbooks and policies are still catching up.”

And if employers have employees working remotely in a different state, Gannon added, they need to update that handbook to make sure employees in those states are getting a handbook with laws applicable to that state, and also make sure the company is registered to do business in that state.

“If they have employees working remotely, even in a hybrid fashion, in another state — which is not uncommon given Springfield’s proximity to Connecticut — they have to be cognizant of which state’s employment laws apply,” he explained. “If they’re working from home three or four days a week and coming in one or two days a week, their primary office is their home, and if that’s in Connecticut, they’re subject to Connecticut employment laws and Connecticut employment taxation.

Those laws touch on everything from paid family medical leave and sick time to injuries on the job.

“It may sound crazy, but you may have to address workers’ compensation,” Gannon said. “If you’re walking down your stairs in the morning to go to your home office, that’s not covered, but in your home office, if you fall out of your chair and hurt yourself, that may be covered.”


Losses and Gains

Roberts agreed that there’s an interesting dynamic at play now, with some employers worried they don’t have eyes on their employees, while others fret about losing office culture and the ability to keep workers engaged.

“How do they know if they’re happy, if they’re productive, if they’re getting what they need from their career development? If you don’t see them all the time, how do you mentor? There’s a lot of questions managers are grappling with when it comes to this new style of work.”

That said, employers who embrace remote and hybrid schedules are able to cast a wider net in recruitment, at a time when talent is difficult to come by.

“We’ve been able to advertise positions as hybrid, which certainly brings more candidates our way,” Roberts said. “People are looking for that flexibility, and if you’re able to offer a fully remote situation, you can hire someone from anywhere; you have the ability to get the best available talent. Unfortunately for us, a lot of our positions are hybrid or in the office or banking center; we don’t have the luxury of large companies that are fully remote — but we’ve increased the candidate pool for sure.”

Stratton said the tools of remote business has helped his firm expand its client base beyond Western Mass.

“It allows us to reach out geographically with clients because clients are used to working by Zoom meeting and don’t feel that same compulsion to meet in person that they used to,” he said. “That’s given us more flexibility to actually grow our footprint a little more.”

And grow it into regions where legal services cost more than they do in the 413, he added. “We always had a pricing advantage over areas like Eastern Mass. and Southern Connecticut, and we can more easily use that pricing advantage to our benefit by expanding our footprint and working farther outside Western Mass.”

Though hybrid work may be here to stay, Stratton said, most of his firm’s clients are small to medium-sized businesses, and the majority of them have emphasized getting workers fully back in the office, though some are embracing hybrid work schedules and remote-work tools.

“A lot of large, national corporations, you see fully remote, where a lot of their workers are in different offices anyway, so it’s less impactful to be spread out,” he added. “But small to medium-sized businesses in this area, in my experience, are generally pushing toward being back and find it more effective, which is consistent with our experience as a small business.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all model, however, and Roberts said everyone is still grappling with the new work styles and how to make them effective.

“We need to figure out how to mourn the loss of the old way and transcend to a new way of working. It’s not the same as it was 15 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago, where you were identified by the office you worked in, and you had celebrations and events, things happening there. It’s different now; people are looking for a different way of working, and employers have to think differently.”

Cannabis Special Coverage

After the Green Rush

The numbers are impressive, to be sure.

Adult-use cannabis shops in Massachusetts posted close to $1.5 billion in sales in 2022, up from $1.33 billion in 2021. Since recreational sales began in late 2018, the total figure is closing in on $4 billion.

That’s a big pie.

The problem, for the hundreds of dispensaries already open and many more at various stages of planning and development, is that each slice of that pie is getting smaller. As a result, prices are crashing, with some products selling for half of what they did a year or two ago.

That’s great for cannabis consumers. For businesses? Not so much.

But it’s not an unexpected development, not is it any sort of crisis, said Michael Kusek, publisher of Different Leaf magazine and one of the nation’s leading experts on the cannabis industry. But it’s certainly a challenge, one that promises to weed out some of the current players.

“You can’t solve the overabundance of product in the marketplace by transferring it to another market,” Kusek told BusinessWest. “You can’t make the product go away, so the price bottoms out. This has happened in every other market, so it’s not a shock.”

It will, however, require business owners to think smarter, focusing on quality, the customer experience, and other ways of differentiating themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace. And the situation already has municipalities revisiting old concerns about a saturated market.

Northampton, where one of the city’s 12 dispensaries, the Source on Pleasant Street, recently closed, is the most notable case, as its City Council voted 6-3 last month to cap the number of retail cannabis shops at 12 going forward.

At press time, Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said she would not sign off on the cap, but with a two-thirds vote of the City Council needed to overcome any veto, the measure will likely still become law.

“We are not anti-business,” Councilor Marianne LaBarge said before the vote, as reported by the Shoestring. “We have a job, and we have heard from so many people to place a cap.”

Some residents at a hearing days before the vote expressed concerns about the impact of so many cannabis shops on the city’s youth, while councilors like LaBarge said they want to protect existing businesses from being crowded out.

Council President Jim Nash, one of the dissenters, said he favored a cap when recreational cannabis first became legal, but now believes the maturing marketplace is providing a natural cap, as evidenced by the Source’s closing and declining sales at other shops. He argues as much in a recent column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, co-written with former City Councilor Dennis Bidwell.

“Since when does local government step in to protect the bottom line of existing businesses by excluding the entry of competition?” they wrote. “We don’t do that for beauty salons or pharmacies or anything else. It’s one thing to put a cap in place in the early stages of an industry’s development, before anyone has opened their doors. It’s another thing entirely to enact a cap that would freeze the market where it is, prohibiting further competition.”

What isn’t up for debate is that it’s getting tougher to turn a profit in an industry that’s already taxed about 70% and can’t claim many normal deductions. That reality, plus an ever-more-competitive marketplace, both inside Massachusetts and from surrounding states, is creating an environment that’s not unexpected for those who have followed the industry’s maturation in other states.

“So many people think, ‘if I get a license, I’m going to be a kajillionaire.’ Sorry, that’s not the case. If you’re in it because of the money, it’s going to be a tough road for you.”

People like Meg Sanders, CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee, who was in Colorado when that state, one of two, along with Washington, to pioneer legal adult-use cannabis in 2012, experienced its own ‘green rush,’ with a quickly saturated market causing prices to plummet. What Massachusetts cannabis businesses need to do, she said, is to focus on differentiating themselves in the right ways (see story on page 35).

“I think it’s going to be a painful year, but a necessary year. Honestly, it’s important,” she said. “So many people think, ‘if I get a license, I’m going to be a kajillionaire.’ Sorry, that’s not the case. If you’re in it because of the money, it’s going to be a tough road for you. We believe money is a byproduct, not a goal. We believe in running a good business, a responsible business, serving customers thoughtfully and respectfully and providing an amazing experience with lots of options on the menu. A cannabis purchase should be fun.”

Certainly more fun than selling the product at a time when economic realities in the industry are dramatically shifting.


Growth Potential

There’s no doubt that legal cannabis has been a boon to not only sellers, growers, and manufacturers, but to state and local coffers. Massachusetts imposes a 10.75% excise tax on purchases, while recreational cannabis purchases are also subject to the state’s 6.25% sales tax, and most municipalities levy 3% more.

David O’Brien, the president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Assoc., recently told the Boston Globe that the industry will remain strong despite its current challenges.

“Legalization has brought about change people can see. You can see it in the tax revenue, in the jobs that have been filled, in the dispensary storefronts that used to be empty, in the old warehouses that now host manufacturing companies — it’s all growth, it’s all progress, and the sky did not fall.”

Michael Kusek

Michael Kusek says the cannabis industry’s tightening profits are a natural evolution that has occurred in other states.

As for those jobs, about 22,000 workers were authorized by the state to work at licensed cannabis facilities as of December, making it an attractive field to enter, Kusek said. “Once they get a little experience under their belt, they’re infinitely more marketable. Head growers are making $100,000 to $120,000 a year.”

The problem, he noted, is that players coming into the market now are dealing with product prices that are much different than when they established their first business plans. And the regulatory hoops remain challenging in many cases, as is the decision of where to locate: in a community with limited licenses that are difficult to secure, or a community with a more laissez-faire approach, but also, as a result, much higher competition?

“I just talked to a couple of lawyers, and they’re not working as many licenses as they were two years ago,” Kusek said, and there could be several reasons for this, foremost being access to capital, which is still limited because most banks won’t lend for cannabis enterprises.

“If they can’t access capital, they’re forced to shoulder the ups and downs of the industry by daily revenues,” he added. “If you open a successful restaurant and want to open a second location, you can go back and get a loan to do that. If you want to open a second cannabis location to sell all this product you have, you can’t easily do it.”

“Regular businesses still get normal deductions, but we can’t deduct anything except the cost of goods. That creates a real challenge for overall profitability and cash flow.”

Meanwhile, cannabis investors in the Northeast are increasingly looking to what Kusek calls “the shiny new object” — New York, where shops started selling legal recreational cannabis just a few weeks ago. “That’s where the capital is going, which starves out the businesses we have here.”

And when capital dries up, it’s the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs that suffer, as well as social-equity candidates.

“The companies that operate in multiple states have more of a cushion; they can continue to roll forward,” Kusek said. “Who’s going to get hurt by this [competition]? People who have been trying to get a license for a long time. This just makes it harder for them if they didn’t get more of a leg up in the beginning.”

Sanders said the businesses that survive, both those currently operating and those just setting up shop, will be those that “hunker down a little bit and are super thoughtful with every dollar.”

“This is a business that has zero deductibility, except the cost of goods,” she added. “We have to be way more careful than any other business going through this recession. Those regular businesses still get normal deductions, but we can’t deduct anything except the cost of goods. That creates a real challenge for overall profitability and cash flow.”

Without examples from other states to consult, Sanders recalled, Colorado was immediately saturated, prices cratered, and the market became what she called “a race to the bottom,” with price trumping everything. “But as things got more sophisticated in Colorado, a lot of good operators started telling compelling stories about why you should spend money with this dispensary rather than that dispensary.”

That’s why she focuses on the stories behind Canna’s products and also on giving back to the communities in which she operates.

“Businesses need to be as lean as possible and as thoughtful as possible, and make sure you’re telling a compelling story about why people should buy your brand.”


Legitimate Concerns

In their recent column, Nash and Bidwell argued that public-safety and public-health concerns that motivated discussion about a cap on dispensaries in Northampton five years ago have not come to pass.

“There is, and always will be, an underground market for unregulated, uninspected marijuana. This black market is fraught with crime and suspect product,” they wrote. “The availability of legal marijuana puts a dent in this market, tilting the share of sales toward legal purchase rather than black-market ones. To the extent the market allows, additional regulated cannabis retail outlets will further reduce the use of unregulated, dangerous cannabis.”

And falling prices in legal shops may entice many long-time black-market customers to try different types of strains and products, Kusek said. “As prices come down, people will try and buy more. This is great for consumers; in some circumstances, it costs half of what it did. For consumers, that’s great.”

That’s even more true for medical users, he added, as they tend to be more price-sensitive than recreational users, since they often have to maintain regular usage with finite resources, since insurance won’t cover the product.

“This is still a young market, and consumers are still developing their preferences. It’s only been a couple of years, and people will develop brand loyalty and particular consumption methods, and they will spend their money to get those particular brands or products.”

Kusek agreed with Sanders that product quality is important, especially as consumers are still discovering what they like.

“This is still a young market, and consumers are still developing their preferences,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s only been a couple of years, and people will develop brand loyalty and particular consumption methods, and they will spend their money to get those particular brands or products. That will come over time.”

Kusek also believes the consumer base has room to broaden.

“People become cannabis consumers for a wide variety of reasons. We have a medical market and people for whom cannabis is a significant part of their medical treatment, and you have more people coming into the market and exploring cannabis for treating pain and sleeplessness. Those people are always going to be coming into the market, as well as people who are curious about it.

“I think one of the challenges in cannabis is connecting and finding consumers; with each new market that comes online, you get the people who are curious, or who are coming back to cannabis after not using it for a long time, people whose life circumstances have changed. There will always be new consumers.”

In other words, it may be a tougher business to navigate than when there were only a few dozen shops open in Massachusetts, but it’s still a dynamic field.

As Kusek put it, “it’s never dull, that’s for sure.”