Daily News

HARTFORD, Conn. — Whittlesey continued its long‐standing tradition of community service through a range of projects across Western Mass. and Connecticut during its annual Community Day.

For more than a decade, Whittlesey volunteers have stepped away from their desks to participate in various projects that directly affect the communities where they live and work. This year, more than 100 Whittlesey team members collaborated with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke, the Bushnell Park Foundation, and the Diaper Bank of Connecticut in a day dedicated to creating positive and tangible impacts within local communities.

At the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke, teams engaged in general park clean‐up efforts, including spreading mulch, planting new flower beds, and repairing and painting fences.

“Our commitment to service extends far beyond our professional obligations,” said Drew Andrews, CEO and managing partner at Whittlesey. “We believe in giving back to the communities we are part of, and our annual Community Day is a testament to this belief. We are honored to partner with these remarkable organizations this year and look forward to the impact we can make together.”

Whittlesey’s Community Day is part of a series of initiatives the firm undertakes throughout the year, emphasizing its core belief in the power of community engagement. The firm takes pride in its enduring partnerships with diverse nonprofit organizations and the real‐world impacts they create together.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Market Mentors, LLC, the region’s largest marketing, advertising, and public-relations agency, is celebrating its 20-year anniversary with refreshed branding, a streamlined website (marketmentors.com), and a second location in Jupiter, Fla.

A woman-owned business, the agency was established in 2003 by Longmeadow resident Michelle Abdow, who initially focused on media buying for clients throughout New England. After two decades of growth and expansion, Market Mentors is now a fully integrated marketing agency serving clients with global reach.

“This is a major milestone for us, and we wanted to recognize it in an impactful way,” said Abdow, the agency’s president and CEO. “We’ve been busy helping our clients with their branding, marketing, advertising, and websites, and ours took a backseat for too long. We’re excited about the launch of our new look and site, which better represents the work we do and the creative and strategy we are known for.”

With regard to the agency’s second location, Abdow noted, “as our client geography has expanded, it made sense for us to have a second East Coast location. I see great potential in Florida, which boasts the fourth-largest economy in the country. I look forward to continuing to grow our client base here.”

Market Mentors represents regional, national, and international brands and offers all the services its clients need in-house, thanks to a team of generalists and specialists who possess a depth and breadth of experience across the marketing spectrum.

“We connect brands to customers — with unmatched market experience — and have fun doing it,” Abdow said. “Our experts provide valuable communications solutions via strategic marketing and public-relations plans, integrated advertising campaigns, exceptional content creation, data-based media buys, superior creative execution, and skilled website design and development.”

Daily News

NORTH ADAMS — On Friday, June 23, North Adams Pride will host its third annual free celebration for the LGBTQIA+ community and friends at MASS MoCA’s Courtyard A, from 5 to 9:30 p.m., rain or shine.

This year’s event has been built on the momentum of various projects over the last three years while honoring the LGBTQIA+ rights movement: two summer Pride celebrations, an award-winning float at the Fall Foliage Parade, and the first annual 2023 North Lights Ball (sold out).

North Adams Pride has taken additional steps to make the third annual Pride Night celebration diverse, special, and effective. Whereas more than 600 attendees participated in the previous year’s festivities, Pride organizers are ready for more and have planned a night of activities for all ages, including music, dancing, beverages, food to eat, and food for thought.

“I think it’s essential that our North Adams Pride Night celebration is celebratory but also educational and innovative,” said Andrew Fitch, North Adams Pride organizer. “Many hundreds of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills have been enacted or are under consideration in the United States right now. Queer-themed books are being banned, and life-saving healthcare is being denied to trans people. Our Pride celebration will present a wonderful opportunity to party, but also to learn a little more about how our community can come together to fight for good, and how our community can make changes to build a more inclusive and vibrant North Adams.”

John Tibbetts, North Adams Pride organizer, noted that “North Adams Pride participated at Berkshire Pride in Pittsfield on June 3, and there was excitement from attendees to see we are continuing the festivities in Northern Berkshire county on June 23 at MASS MoCA.”

Alexandra Foradas, curator at MASS MoCA and North Adams Pride co-organizer, added that “we’re thrilled to welcome back the North Adams Pride Night celebration to MASS MoCA for another year. It’s a beautiful celebration of the vibrant LGBTQIA+ community here in North Adams and throughout our region.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Families with young children throughout Massachusetts have taken part in the first-ever community approach to early screening for developmental delays and disabilities.

In April 2023, the Massachusetts Act Early Campaign held the inaugural Massachusetts Developmental Monitoring and Screening Week at more than 30 sites across the Commonwealth, including six in Springfield.

The campaign was designed to generate conversations about child development and increase awareness of the importance of developmental monitoring and screening. The response rate to follow-up surveys indicates approximately 500 children were either screened or completed a developmental-monitoring checklist during the week-long event.

Campaign co-sponsors included United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, Boston’s Children’s Hospital, the state’s Head Start Assoc., and Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition programs. Children who did not pass the screen or developmental-monitoring checklist were referred to their pediatrician and/or Family TIES of Massachusetts. Participating families were also provided with “Learn the Signs. Act Early” informational pamphlets.

The screening week was co-led by American International College Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy Kate Barlow and Carla Therriault from United Way of Massachusetts Bay. Barlow has been serving as the Act Early ambassador for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2019.

Massachusetts Act Early aims to educate parents and professionals about healthy childhood development, early warning signs of autism and other developmental disorders, the importance of routine developmental monitoring and screening, and timely early intervention whenever there is a concern. To identify children with delays, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends developmental screenings be conducted at pediatric wellness visits for infants and toddlers.

However, Barlow said, “more than half of the children who need early-intervention services are not receiving them, which is why developmental monitoring and screening in the community are so important. Early-intervention services are free to families in Massachusetts, yet families do not have access.”

Barlow calls the screening events especially timely given the release of the Massachusetts Early Childhood Agenda in January, listing developmental monitoring and screening as a top initiative. She represents the Massachusetts Act Early Campaign as the lead advocate for that initiative as well. “The statewide initiative to raise awareness was a great success, but we need a champion in the State House to make effective change in Massachusetts,” she said.

Barlow is offering to share the structure of the campaign with her counterparts in other states so the effort to monitor and screen children early can be replicated in other parts of the country. Those who would like more information may email her at [email protected].

Cover Story Franklin County

Northern Exposure

Brolin Winning, general manager of the Shelburne Springs

Brolin Winning, general manager of the Shelburne Springs luxury hotel, sees many signs of new life along the Mohawk Trail.

Brolin Winning and his wife used to run a barbecue stand on the Mohawk Trail, and he’d occasionally look up at the abandoned building next door, a mansion built in 1914 that later operated for decades as the Anchorage Nursing Home before closing in 2011.

“We’d look up the hill at this place — which had been abandoned for a decade — and just think, ‘man, that’s a sweet spot.’ But it was just melting into the ground.”

But then a friend came into some money and was looking for an investment project. “I said, ‘you should buy the nursing home,’” Winning recalled. So they did — and begin fixing it up.

That was early 2020, when COVID hit, but the ensuing shutdown of the hospitality economy gave the team — owner Hilltown Lodge LLC, Thomas Douglas Architects of Northampton, and Tristan Evans Construction of Greenfield — time to redesign the space, gut the building down to its studs, and restore it with seven spacious suites; a kitchen, bar, and upscale but cozy lounge areas; and outdoor relaxation and recreation space across 38 acres. Among the next plans is a big stage up the hill for weddings and other events.

“I couldn’t wait to come back, just to be in the woods again and on the river again. It’s just, like, the best place to live.”

But while Winning is gratified that the hotel, called Shelburne Springs, has had a successful first few months, he doesn’t view the property in a vacuum, but as part of a renaissance along the Mohawk Trail that includes renovations and reopenings at the Sweetheart Restaurant in Shelburne Falls, the Duck Pond antique shop in Shelburne, the Blue Vista Motor Lodge just over the Berkshire County line in Florida, and more.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on, whereas I feel like it was … I wouldn’t say run-down, but quiet for a while,” Winning said. “COVID obviously affected everybody in this area, but a lot of people were coming out here even more because we’re like in the country and away from the crowd, and there’s a lot of outdoorsy stuff.

Jeff Sauser (left) and Jeremy Goldsher

Jeff Sauser (left) and Jeremy Goldsher have expanded Greenspace CoWork to a second location on Main Street in Greenfield.

“I’ve lived all over the country; I’ve lived a long time in California, Boston, Chicago, and different cities,” he went on. “But I’ve always loved it here. I grew up in Amherst and Northampton, but I used to come up here to fish when I was a kid. That’s how I got into the Mohawk Trail. To me, there’s nowhere like it. I was in San Francisco for a long time, and I would come back here twice a year. And I couldn’t wait to come back, just to be in the woods again and on the river again. It’s just, like, the best place to live.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way about this county of 71,000 residents — fewer than half the total of Springfield — spread across 26 communities.

“It’s stunningly beautiful. That can’t be overlooked,” said Hannah Rechtschaffen, recently appointed coordinator of the Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA). “And I think there is a wonderful, long history up here of people being very engaged in their communities. When you travel from town to town, you find a lot of residents and business owners who feel very passionate about that, about the town that they’re in.”

“I feel like if you wanted to kill as many birds as possible with one stone, a robust housing strategy would be the way to do it.”

Rechtschaffen cited draws like the county’s outdoor recreation experiences and attractions like Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls and Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield, but said tourists find much more.

“People come for these beautiful experiences, and they’re also finding other cool stuff, from whitewater rafting to restaurants. So the challenge is to reach out to people up and down the Valley and let them know there are really lovely experiences close to them,” she said. “All these towns have something special to offer, but together, we can offer something really beautiful.”

For residents and business owners, she added, “because it’s a small county, it has a bit of history of people needing to go to neighboring communities for different things. When you have that history of people stepping to the community next door to find something, you have this nice connectivity, which has gotten more robust over time. You have an opportunity for towns in Franklin County to work together in a unique way.”

Hannah Rechtschaffen, Franklin County CDC Executive Director John Waite, and Lisa Davol

Some of the players invested in a more robust Franklin County are (from left) Greenfield Business Assoc. Coordinator Hannah Rechtschaffen, Franklin County CDC Executive Director John Waite, and Lisa Davol, marketing manager of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, agreed.

“I think one of the major strengths of Franklin County is that we have a comprehensive set of supportive services around business development,” she said, citing robust connections between the chamber, local businesses, workforce-development and entrepreneurship-focused agencies, and legislators.

“Collaboration is really the only way forward for us. I think Franklin County has always used partnership and collaboration as a special sauce, and I think that served us well during the pandemic. And part of the chamber’s job is to continue to fuel those collaborations and help make those connections.”

Clearly, it takes a village — well, 26 of them — to create a culture in the northernmost county of Western Mass., one that faces challenges, but also has more to offer than many outsiders realize.


Challenge and Opportunity

Deane said many of Franklin County’s challenges are no different than those seen across Western Mass.

“Of course, housing is a challenge. And transportation is particularly troublesome in more rural communities because that’s a barrier to a lot of our entry-level employment. And childcare is huge; there is a lack of high-quality childcare in this area.”

“One of the things I appreciate about Franklin County is that we can keep our identity — we have the nature, the beauty, the rural luster of it — but there’s increasing opportunity.”

Hiring also continues to be a challenge across industries, she added — another issue being felt across the state.

“I think we have a unique twist on that because we are a rural community, so it’s a little more exacerbated on this side of the state. One of the challenges I’m particularly concerned about is the population-decline projections. So we’re working overtime in collaboration with our legislators to make sure the Commonwealth is more equitably funding projects and initiatives across the state and, as a chamber, making sure that we’re doing our best to shine a light on why Franklin County is such a great area to live and work, and hopefully attracting new families to the area.”

She said the Regional Tourism Council’s task is to attract more tourism to a county that already brings more than $79 million in tourism dollars every year to destinations ranging from Berkshire East in Charlemont to Northfield Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain; from Yankee Candle and Tree House Brewing Co. — and its slate of summer concerts — in Deerfield to Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield and Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield.

Ashley Evans

Ashley Evans says reopening the Farm Table in Bernardston was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“Tourism is really about OPM: other people’s money. And we want to make sure that we are helping them spend that here. And there is so much to do,” said Deane, who calls Franklin “the fun county,” and wants more people to know about that.

“There are endless opportunities for fun in Franklin County. And in terms of our work in the Regional Tourism Council, we’ve made some significant strides. In the past year, we branded our tourism side. We worked with a local company to give Franklin County a really great visual presence, with the tagline ‘more to Franklin County,’ because one of the things that we found when we did that investigative work is that folks said there’s always more to do: ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much. We’ve got to come back.’”

The council is also in the process of launching a standalone tourism website, Deane added.

“We want to make it easy as possible for people to plan their trip, and we’re working with our hospitality vendors to do itinerary planning based on any given interest. So if you’re really into craft beverages, this is what you can do for a weekend. If you’re really into outdoor recreation, this is what we recommend you can do for a weekend.”

A member of the Greenfield Business Assoc. who is about to join the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and whose family owns Hawks & Reed, Jeremy Goldsher also co-owns Greenspace CoWork with Jeff Sauser, so he has a broad perspective on business life in Greenfield and its environs.

“We’ve seen already that Hawks & Reed started a bit of a new music and cultural renaissance in downtown, to the point that now you can’t walk around in any given weekend without seeing kids running up and down the streets of different local venues,” Goldsher noted.

As the owners of Greenspace CoWork, which now has two facilities on opposite sides of Main Street in downtown Greenfield, Goldsher and Sauser have cultivated key business connections through programs like the monthly Business Breakdown networking events.

“It’s developed quite a bit, from ‘I need some emotional support from my business peers’ to a really fun, informal gathering of a lot of our favorite business leaders, business owners, and a group of young, entrepreneurship-minded folks that we’ve never met,” Goldsher said. “We always get new folks at each meeting. We’re now in our 14th or 15th run of it, and I think the Business Breakdown has been a gateway for us to really get onto the map of Franklin County in a bigger way than our co-work business was permitting us.”

With programs like Business Breakdown and a six-month accelerator program, Goldsher is starting to see a “domino effect” of key connections. “We’re starting to see the Franklin County CDC, which has been a great partner of ours, become a lot more visible in their entrepreneurial work and various programs starting to revolve around specific topics, which is great.”


Planting Roots

Emerging from the pandemic, those connections are more crucial than ever, Sauser said.

“We’ve had our ups and downs with the economy. We got through COVID. I think we’ve been an important part of the downtown revitalization, especially with the move to remote work and more flexibility. That’s important to the economic-development story of Franklin County in general, along with getting broadband access out there and just making this a place people can do a job that’s based anywhere, so they can live where they want to live.”

After all, while tourism is critical to the economy, Sauser said, tourism can’t be all Franklin County offers; it has to be a place people want to live and work, and where they find it affordable and rich enough in amenities to do both.

As an urban planner who has done a lot of policy and analysis work in housing, he said housing is the biggest issue.

“I feel like if you wanted to kill as many birds as possible with one stone, a robust housing strategy would be the way to do it. People are moving here in part because they can’t find the housing they’re looking for; nationwide, there’s a huge shortage.”

So there are real opportunities for growth, he said, adding that municipalities need to be smart with not only strategies for housing development — the residential units coming online in the former Wilson’s Department Store building in downtown Greenfield is a “game changer” for the city, he said — but with property taxes as well. The other big draw for families is school systems, and Sauser said many communities still have room for improvement there.

“That can hold places back. There are other options out there, private schools and charter schools, but the core of the public school system isn’t as successful as it could be.”

For every challenge, though, there are business success stories, Deane said.

“One that comes to mind is Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston,” she said. “Lucy moved back into the area from Seattle. She crowdfunded to start her business. She’s now expanding. And that’s in partnership with support from the chamber, from the great folks at CISA, from the CDC. She’s really taken this bake shop and made it famous across the county. And she’s now expanding to include a community center so that she can help teach cooking courses or baking classes.”

A stone’s throw from Lucy’s is the Farm Table, the iconic Bernardston eatery on the Kringle Candle property that closed in 2020 but is reopening this month under the management of serial restaurateur Ashley Evans, who grew up in Turners Falls and was intrigued by the possibility of reopening the Farm Table while on a visit from her home in the state of Florida.

“When I came to this property, how could I pass it up? It’s just absolutely breathtaking, everything about it,” Evans said, adding that the goal is to offer an elevated culinary experience, with many ingredients locally sourced, but at a less elevated price than before.

“We plan on having a similar menu, but redone and more adapted to the market in this community. Instead of a fine-dining establishment, we want to make it an everyday establishment. You can stop by and get something, and the bill’s not $300.”

Evans also plans to host events, from outdoor movies to Hawaiian nights; from outdoor clambakes to a haunted house in the event center.

“We have a lot of ideas to bring the community together,” she said, adding that, despite the workforce pains plaguing the hospitality industry, she was able to staff up quickly, which says something about the establishment’s reputation.

“That speaks to what this property is. It almost speaks for itself,” she noted. “I didn’t have to do a ton of marketing; we said we’re hiring, and people were anxious to work here, which is a beautiful thing.

“I’m so pumped. I’m excited,” Evans added. “I just walk in and feel grateful every day.”


Grit and Gratitude

So does Rechtschaffen, who spent almost two decades away from Western Mass. before returning in 2018 and immediately immersing herself in Franklin County life, chairing the Sustainable Greenfield Implementation Committee, which supports the use and implementation of the city’s master plan, and serving on the Downtown Greenfield Alliance and the Local Cultural Council.

She was director of Placemaking for W.D. Cowls in North Amherst before taking on her current leadership position with the GBA, where she’s focused on how businesses in this largely rural county can thrive in the post-pandemic years.

“We’re looking at how people are locating themselves, especially with remote work, with proximity to Boston. We are seeing people come into this area with a different sense of how they’d like their lives to be,” Rechtschaffen said. “We welcome people in who are looking to move out of city-centered life without sacrificing the feeling of community and connectedness and available amenities.”

Deane said the past few years have taught resilience to residents and businesses here, but also new ways forward.

“Economic development is really a long game. So we’re having these conversations now that hopefully will impact the next 15 or 20 years,” she explained. “And we’re doing that with a fresh understanding that, at any point, those plans can go completely rogue and be blown up by whatever comes next. So we’re being cautiously optimistic as we plan and prioritize on a regional level.”

To Sauser, the county’s value is evident in its people, its businesses, its quality of life, and the places that bring those people — and visitors — together.

“I feel like it’s a place to watch,” he said. “I’ve been told, when I moved here, that Greenfield is the kind of place that always feels like it’s about to turn the corner, but it never actually does. I’m getting a lot of signals now that it’s looking pretty good.”

Rechtschaffen agreed.

“One of the things I appreciate about Franklin County is that we can keep our identity — we have the nature, the beauty, the rural luster of it — but there’s increasing opportunity,” she said. “It’s becoming easier to say, ‘this is what Greenfield is all about, this is what Franklin County is all about, and you’re welcome to be here.”

Construction Special Coverage

Past Meets Future

Stephen Greenwald

Stephen Greenwald has built a strong reputation in a variety of construction niches over the past 47 years.


For Stephen Greenwald, growing his construction company was tied closely to how he saw his role in it.

“I started as a one-person company — just me, doing whatever I could do,” he said of the origin of Renaissance Builders in 1976. “The very small remodeling jobs … those were the only kinds of jobs I could get back then.”

A little over a decade later, he had nine employees, but he felt he was spending too much time building and renovating, and not enough time managing and planning.

“I still put on a tool belt and went to work most days, pounding nails,” he recalled. “And if you’re out there working, pounding nails every day in the field, the biggest issue is time commitment. You just don’t have enough time to run a company. You’re not answering the phone, doing estimates, meeting with clients, working on designs, and bidding other projects.”

As a result, “there’s a certain limit to your income,” he added. “So in the very late ’80s or very early ’90s, I came to the conclusion that, if I ever wanted this company to be more than a company where I worked in the field every day, we needed to grow in size and systems and management. So I made a conscious decision that we’re going to start looking at bigger jobs.”

“I came to the conclusion that, if I ever wanted this company to be more than a company where I worked in the field every day, we needed to grow in size and systems and management.”

Today, Renaissance, based in Gill, boasts 27 employees and a broad range of work, from residential to commercial to historical preservation, up and down the Pioneer Valley, from Springfield to Brattleboro.

By the early ’90s, “we were doing almost entirely residential work,” Greenwald recalled. “And two events happened that sort of pushed us in different directions.”

The first was an opportunity to build a water-treatment plant in Greenfield for groundwater pollution remediation, which exposed Renaissance to a new line of work. Then, in the late ’90s, Greenwald had an opportunity to tackle the interior fit-out of a food-processing facility in Turners Falls. “Now we have multiple clients in the food industry,” he said.

wrestling arena at Northfield Mount Hermon School

This award-winning wrestling arena at Northfield Mount Hermon School was designed by Jones Whitsett Architects and built by Renaissance Builders.

The bulk of the firm’s work is negotiated, though it also bids on public jobs. Since it started growing in earnest, Renaissance has dramatically broadened its scope, from restaurants and commercial kitchens — its area projects have included complete renovations for Blue Heron and Goten in Sunderland, and Hope & Olive in Greenfield — to retail establishments and service industries, including a new Greenfield Savings Bank branch in Turners Falls, which was built with energy-saving goals in mind (more on that aspect of the business later).

One intriguing renovation project was Ode Boutique in Northampton. A suspended ceiling hid the original plaster medallions on the ceiling of the downtown location, and the retail space was split in half by a wall. A new steel beam allowed the dividing wall to be removed, and the entire interior and storefront were redone in a fresh, rustic style.

Meanwhile, a three-building renovation project along Bank Row in the center of Greenfield included a complete interior and partial exterior renovation of the Allen and Pond buildings, with ground-floor and exterior renovations to the Siano building. The roof was raised to create a full third floor in the Pond building, and the basement was excavated to create usable retail space in the Allen Block. The project also included significant energy upgrades and facade renovations to historic specifications.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people were sort of investing in their homes, and they had some expensive projects to do.”

On the education front, Renaissance has done multiple public-school projects, and is starting work on Athol High School this summer. “That work ebbs and flows,” Greenwald said. “It’s driven by the purse strings of local governments and the state.”


Comforts of Home

Most of the company’s work is located in the Valley, but Renaissance has taken projects as far south as East Hartford. The balance between residential and commercial work tends to shift with the economy, but most residential projects have been high-end renovation work.

“There’s not a whole lot of new housing because new housing is particularly expensive these days, especially in Massachusetts,” Greenwald said. “And during the pandemic, a lot of people were sort of investing in their homes, and they had some expensive projects to do.”

Kitchens and bathrooms have been the biggest request, he added. “We have two crews that have done nothing but kitchens and baths for two years — just one right after the other.”

Renaissance Builders

Renaissance Builders has long had a strong presence in residential work, including this home in Northampton.

While design styles have understandably changed over the decades, one striking change in recent years has been why people are renovating.

“Fifteen years ago, it was, ‘I’m in this house until I can afford to move to the next house — a bigger house or a better spot.’ I’m not sure what’s driving it, but now, they’re much more focused on making big improvements even beyond what the value of their house is,” he explained. “So, clearly, they want to live there. They want to be comfortable, and they realize that, by putting $150,000 into their home, they probably couldn’t turn around and sell it tomorrow for that. But they want what they want.”

One factor, of course, may be that buying a new home is historically expensive right now, due mainly to supply-and-demand issues in the Western Mass. market, as well as still-high costs of building materials. Renaissance has navigated the inflation issue in its own business along with all other area builders.

“Some basic materials have come back down — the cost of plywood is an example. And the cost of two-by-fours has returned to where it was,” Greenwald noted. “But what hasn’t come back down is, for example, the cost of a window. I can’t speak for what a manufacturer is going to do, but my guess is that manufacturers are now getting this price, so they see no reason to not keep charging it. It’s similar to what happened the first time fuel surcharges showed up on our deliveries. Well, fuel went back down, but the fuel surcharges never went away.”

Supply-chain issues continue to nag at the industry as well, he said. “It’s gotten better, but it hasn’t gone away. There are still issues every week with items not showing up, or items showing up damaged. The supply chain is still a big issue.”

That said, “we’re very busy,” Greenwald said, noting that Renaissance has a strong reputation with clients, especially when it comes to what he called “some unique problem-solving skills, which have earned us the loyalty of customers.”

For example, “we had a client that said, ‘we have this 11-foot-diameter, 40-foot-tall cylinder which we have to put inside our building. It’s in our parking lot. And you have to come up with a plan to cut a hole in the roof, and you can only have the roof open for 12 hours.’ So that was kind of a neat challenge.

“With those jobs, the clients aren’t too interested in the cost; they’re interested that you meet their 12-hour deadline,” he went on. “We have a reputation among a lot of these manufacturers, that we’re excellent at solving these problems.”

Renaissance has a reputation for historical-renovation work as well, including elements of that Bank Row project in Greenfield, which earned the owner, Icarus, Wheaten & Finch, statewide preservation awards, and other projects, like a window restoration of Forbes Library in Northampton.

Historic-preservation work is a clear area of opportunity, Greenwald said. “It’s one of those areas where there’s not a lot of competition. And on municipally funded jobs, a lot of times, you have to be DCAM-certified in historical renovation. There are very few contractors in this part of the state that have that designation; we’re one of them.”


Green Thoughts

Renaissance is also well-known for green building projects. Contractors have to be these days, of course, but Greenwald got involved in energy-efficient building in the late ’80s, when such work was far from the norm.

“Western Mass. Electric, which morphed into Eversource, had a program called Energy Crafted Homes back in the early ’90s, and we built the first model for it,” he said. “For those days, it was airtight and super-insulated. It was very progressive. So, in the ’90s, we started doing that.

“The whole industry has progressed, of course,” he went on. “Building science has grown exponentially in the last 30 years, and has really made some huge leaps forward. But that’s still important to us. Even the additions we do, there’s a component that falls into green building. It’s kind of expected, almost — I mean, the building code is demanding.”

Early on in the green movement, the industry recognized the value of insulation and air sealing, he explained. “Building science has discovered over the years that, if you control the amount of air that leaks into your house, not only can you improve the health and comfort of the occupants, but you can also reliably predict how much it’s going to cost to heat the house or cool the house and design accordingly. So that’s a big element.”

Building materials comprise another element. “And there’s a lot of discussion, with all sorts of points of view, about what constitutes green building. You will get lots of varying opinions, like, should you use foam for insulation because it’s made with petroleum products? But it has a long lifespan, and, from a insulation point of view, it’s doing its job, and may be the most effective of all the insulations available, versus using Rockwool or cellulose, which are both made with some form of recycled products.”

Whatever the specific debate, it’s clear that the bar is always rising on what constitutes quality green design.

“I built my house in 1995, and it was state-of-the-art in 1995,” Greenwald said. “It’s an antique by today’s building standards, but it’s still a very efficient house.”

At the end of the day, what he appreciates most about his job is the problem-solving aspect, and how gratifying it is when a client’s plan matches reality, whether it’s historical preservation or the cutting edge of green design — or both.

“I love being able to help people achieve their goals, and coming up with unique, out-of-the-box solutions to problems,” he said. “That’s what keeps me interested in this.”

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Firm Resolve

Julie Quink (left) and Deborah Penzias

Julie Quink (left) and Deborah Penzias, partners at Burkhart Pizzanelli.


Julie Quink says she’s often asked about the name of the company she now leads with her partner, Deborah Penzias.

And that’s understandable, given that neither one is named Burkhart or Pizzanelli.

Those were the names of the founders, Quink explained, adding that the firm’s name has become a respected brand over the past 37 years, so she and Penzias saw, and continue to see, value in maintaining it, just as many other accounting and law firms have kept the names of their founders over the door.

“It’s such a brand, one that people across the region know,” she told BusinessWest, adding that modern technology has added an intriguing and sometimes fun twist to the equation.

Indeed, when those from the firm call, what shows up on many of today’s phone systems and their caller-ID programs is ‘Burkhart Pizza.’

“There isn’t enough room for the full name — it cuts off the ‘nelli’ part,” said Quink with a laugh, adding that some surprised call recipients will respond with, “but I didn’t order a pizza.”

“We had decades worth of tax legislation in just a few years.”

While pepperoni with extra cheese isn’t on the menu, a full menu of accounting, auditing, and business-consulting services are, said Quink, noting that, in recent years, those consulting services have become an ever-more important part of what an accounting firm, and especially this one, can provide to its clients, whether it involves strategic planning, succession planning, or maybe just a survival strategy (more on that later).

Speaking of the past few years … they have been a long and very difficult time for all those in business, but especially those in accounting, said both partners, noting both a raft of changes to tax codes and a mountain of work that falls in the category of non-traditional — everything from help with PPP loans to assistance with applying for the Employee Tax Credit.

The phrase ‘never-ending tax season’ came into vogue to describe the past three years, and both partners put it, and similar phrases that say essentially the same thing, to use.

“We had decades worth of tax legislation in just a few years,” Penzias said. “The only constant is change; the need has been pretty heavy from the client side, and rightfully so.”

Quink agreed, noting that, starting early in the pandemic and then continuing for the next few years, those in the accounting realm, and this firm especially, have been “running on adrenaline,” as she put it.

“That’s what we’ve been doing these past few years to help clients get though, help clients with various crises and whatever needs they had during that timeframe,” she said. “Clients continue to have needs, but it seems like we’re coming off that adrenaline rush now. I’m tired, and other practitioners I talk to are tired, and our team is tired, and I think this is a result of the emotional and physical toll of what’s happened over the past few years.”

Elaborating, she mentioned challenges ranging from the additional work, constantly moving deadlines, and pressures facing clients to workforce issues and simply “finding people willing to do the work.”

Actually, the adrenaline rush wore off some time ago, she said, adding quickly that the additional work and responsibilities haven’t stopped coming.

“We’re tired,” said Quink, adding that this is one of the reasons the Burkhart Pizzanelli office will be closed on Fridays for the summer, continuing a tradition started several years ago.

Some will come to the office and take advantage of the quiet to get caught up, but many will take a three-day weekend every week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a benefit that is much appreciated, especially after tax season and all the additional work of the past several years.

“Many of us take the time and recharge,” she said, adding quickly that, while the adrenaline rush has worn off, the firm is pushing ahead on many different fronts out of necessity — everything from strategic and succession planning to coping with a challenging workforce front.

The team at Burkhart Pizzanelli

The team at Burkhart Pizzanelli has been “running on adrenaline” over the past few unusual years, Julie Quink says.

For this issue and its focus on accounting and tax planning, BusinessWest talked at length with Quink and Penzias about everything from the past few years and what they’ve meant for the firm to what’s in the business plan for ‘Burkhart Pizza.’


A Bigger Piece of the Pie

Tracing the history of the firm, Quink said it was founded in 1986 by Richard Burkhart and Salvatore Pizzanelli. In 1987, Tom Pratt joined the firm, and for the next several years, the three operated the firm under various names before settling on Burkhart Pizzanelli, a name that has stuck for all the reasons noted above.

“They developed a nice practice in the area working with many different types of industries and types of clients,” she said, adding that firm has continued to grow and evolve over the years, building on that solid foundation laid by the partners.

“It’s a really exciting time for us; we’re growing by leaps and bounds,” said Penzias. “We would love to expand our team — providing quality services for our clientele and managing the client load is one of our biggest challenges. It’s a growth time; it’s an exciting period. The younger folks are learning rapidly, and there’s a really positive atmosphere here.”

Today, the firm serves clients of all sizes and sectors, including nonprofits, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, construction, distribution, real estate, and others.

Penzias joined the firm in 1998, and Quink came aboard in 2011. The two became principals in 2013, negotiating a buyout with their first partner in 2014 and the second one in 2015. Quink became managing principal in 2015, and the last partner was bought out in 2019.

“I’m tired, and other practitioners I talk to are tired, and our team is tired, and I think this is a result of the emotional and physical toll of what’s happened over the past few years.”

Along the way, the firm bought out the Palmer practice of Steve Chiacchia, giving it two locations, including one in the eastern part of the region, Quink said, adding that most of the retired partners are still active with the firm to one degree or another.

As noted earlier, Quink, Penzias, and other members of the leadership are working on a number of fronts simultaneously.

One is strategic planning, Quink said, adding that the firm’s broad goal is to remain independent and grow, mostly in an organic fashion, although she said will explore mergers and acquisitions, to acquire talent as much as anything else.

“There are certain ways to get people to join you team, and one of them is to acquire a firm that has good, talented staff and that’s attractive,” she explained, adding that this was part of the mindset with the Chiacchia firm, which also offered a base in the Quaboag area, one she said provides ample growth opportunities.

“There’s a lot of great businesses and opportunities for us in that market,” she noted. “That office and that practice has been growing nicely since we acquired it.”

Another priority moving forward is to maintain and build upon what the partners describe as a fairly unique corporate culture, one that probably wouldn’t fit smoothly with a larger, regional firm, she said, adding that this is one reason why the founders, and now Quink and Penzias, have entertained offers to be acquired, but ultimately rejected them.

“We want to preserve this for the team,” Quink said. “We want to keep the Burkhart legacy going as long as it makes sense to do so.”

When asked to describe that culture, she said the firm is structured in many ways like a family. To emphasize the closeness of the team and how well it works together, she went back in time to the early days of the pandemic, when working remotely became the norm, even at essential businesses like banks and, yes, accounting firms.

“We’ve had the ability to work remotely for 15 years because of the software we use and how it’s cloud-based, but during the pandemic, most of our people chose to work here, and I think that’s telling,” she said, adding that firm took the necessary precautions to make sure people were safe. “I think it’s a place where people feel comfortable and where they feel they’re not just a number.

“We’re very in tune with what’s going on with our team members, with their vision, what they want, where they want to go with their careers,” Quink went on. “We’re businesslike, but we’re very much a team, and we like to be with each other.”


Topping It All

The team has been together quite a bit over the past three years and three months, said Penzias, noting that the pandemic and its aftermath have produced not only longer tax seasons, or one never-ending season, but many additional types of work that clients want and need.

Increasingly, she noted, clients are looking to their accounting firm for assistance not only with taxes and auditing, but with strategic planning and navigating the many challenges facing businesses of all sizes today, from supply-chain issues to how to navigate the recession that many prognosticators say is coming.

Quink agreed, noting that the pandemic has been a long and trying time on many levels, professionally but also emotionally. Indeed, she said the firm saw several of its clients die from COVID, including one of the patients in the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

Meanwhile, this trying period generated additional work on many different levels, she said, listing everything from individuals inheriting large sums of money due to deaths from COVID to small-business owners deciding that it was time to sell their venture or perhaps merge with another.

“Our industry is rigorous, as are many others. It’s difficult to find people who want to live this lifestyle, so to speak, and work really, really hard.”

“We had commercial clients that closed because of the world turning on its end; we helped them wind down a legacy business, a family business, or transition it to someone else because they didn’t have the capacity to handle it anymore,” she recalled. “We did see an uptick in merger-and-acquisition work over the past three years, with clients deciding, as a result of the strains being put upon them by the new world, that they were done, and either we helped them find a buyer, or they found their own buyer through a broker, and we helped them negotiate the specifics of the deal.”

Things have slowed somewhat, but the firm is still seeing some activity in that realm, Quink said, adding that, overall, many clients are still struggling to fully recover and get back to where they were pre-pandemic.

Another priority for the firm is succession planning, she told BusinessWest, adding that the firm is committed to ensuring that the next generation of leaders is in place.

“We’re developing our next succession team, so when Debbie and I retire, we have our team in place to continue moving the Burkhart legacy forward,” she said, adding that this is an important assignment for any company, and one she and her term consult with many of their clients on.

Another challenging assignment is finding and retaining talent, and this is another issue to which the firm is advising clients to take a proactive approach — while practicing what it preaches.

“We’re trying to be as creative as we possibly can to recruit,” she said, adding that, while people at this firm like to be in the office, the trend in the industry — and across the workforce, for that matter — is toward remote work and hybrid models.

As a result, the firm is willing to be flexible with work arrangements, with a mix of remote work and at least one day in the office.

“We’re seeing a lot more firms requiring people to go in one or two days a week,” she said. “So what worked for someone living in Western Mass. and working for a Boston-based firm might not fit now with these changes that we’re seeing, so that might benefit us. Overall, we’re all competing for the same talent.”

Quink cited statistics suggesting fewer people are getting into the accounting field, and there are discussions ongoing within the Massachusetts Society of CPAs about how to reverse that trend.

One obvious strategy, she said, is for people like her to get into high schools and even middle schools and talk about accounting and how this business is not just about filing tax returns. Still, it is a difficult business, and its long hours and difficult tax seasons are not easy sells.

“Our industry is rigorous, as are many others,” said Quink as she talked about the workforce challenges facing this firm and all players in this industry. “It’s difficult to find people who want to live this lifestyle, so to speak, and work really, really hard.”


The Crust of the Story

Looking ahead, Quink and Penzias said that, overall, the names on the company’s door are more important than their own.

Those names speak to a long track record of excellence when it comes to serving clients not just by adding up numbers, but by helping them cope with change and challenge and seize opportunities when they are appropriate.

The caller ID on the office phone may identify them as ‘Burkhart Pizza,’ but clients certainly know and appreciate who’s on the other end of the line.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

The Great Outdoors


Nadim Kashouh

Nadim Kashouh has long offered outdoor seating at his downtown Springfield establishment.


The term ‘parklet’ isn’t exactly new.

Larger municipalities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Chicago, and others have been using it, officially or unofficially, for at least a few years now to describe efforts to repurpose and reimagine parking spaces for recreation, dining, retail, and other uses.

It’s starting to be heard more in Springfield, and it will certainly become a part of the lexicon in the future thanks in large part to $2 million worth of grants being awarded to area establishments and properties to take outdoor dining in the city to at least the next level.

Indeed, there will be at least a few parklets created through these grants, including one at Granny’s Baking Table on Bridge Street.

Todd Crossett, co-owner of the bakery, said he’s been researching the concept and, working with a local architect, has come up with a plan to bring the popular eatery, which features pies, pastries, beignets, and sandwiches, out into a large parking space originally meant for a van — 8 feet by 20 feet — and a few feet of the adjoining sidewalk, and thus bring something new and different to the city.

“We’re going to do something a little funky and take over a parking space,” he explained. “I think it will be the first of its kind, and it will be great for the city because it will generate more revenue than a parking space, because the space is free.”

Elaborating, he said Granny’s, drawing inspiration from what has been created in Evanston, Ill. and other communities, will create a tented, three-season dining deck that will include three tables and chairs as well as an awning, which can all be easily removed for the winter.

“We’re going to do something a little funky and take over a parking space.”

Beyond the parklets, though, the outdoor dining grants, funded by ARPA money awarded to the city in the wake of COVID, are expected to change the landscape in many different ways, from reactivating properties, such as the small park across Main Street from Tower Square, to changing the look and feel of other properties, such as the TD Bank building next to that park. It doesn’t have a restaurant at present — a pizzeria closed down during COVID, and a replacement has yet to be secured — but Jack Dill, who purchased the property in 2021 with a few partners, believes it will happen soon, and the option to serve patrons outdoors will likely help in the process of securing one.

Granny’s Baking Table

Granny’s Baking Table plans a tented, three-season dining deck outside.

While the grants have become the subject of some controversy — a few city councilors have essentially accused Mayor Domenic Sarno of using the grant program as a way to reward supporters and perhaps create more of them during an intriguing and potentially challenging election year — most of the focus has been on what they might mean for individual businesses and sections of the city, especially downtown.

Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Economic Development officer, said that, while there weren’t too many positives to come out of the COVID pandemic, especially when it comes to the hospitality industry, the emergence of outdoor dining — not just as a preference for patrons, but also as a catalyst for business growth and economic development — is certainly one of them.

“The restaurant businesses recognized that this is what patrons were looking for all through COVID,” he said, adding that, while the pandemic is officially over in most all respects, there remains a focus on public health and safety within this industry and thus a continued focus on providing outdoor dining opportunities.

Nadim Kashouh, owner of Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill on Main Street, agreed. He has long offered outdoor dining at his establishment, which abuts the office tower 1350 Main St. office tower and now extends to that property with outdoor seating through a lease arrangement, and said it has become an increasingly popular option for his patrons.

“The restaurant businesses recognized that this is what patrons were looking for all through COVID.”

“People feel more comfortable sitting in an open space in the open air,” he said, adding that, with his $100,000 grant from the program, he intends to add more seats, from the current 60 to 100, as well as industrial-strength umbrellas, fire tables, heaters, a tent, and a grill that will allow him to bring what he calls a “a different kind of dining experience to the area.”

“People can come up, select their meat, and we’ll cook it for them right there and then,” he explained, adding that he expects the initiative to bring more people to his eatery and the downtown in general.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Sheehan and several restaurateurs and property owners about the outdoor dining grants and what they might mean for individual businesses, locations, and the proverbial big picture in the City of Homes.



Food for Thought

Crossett told BusinessWest that, as those at Granny’s were preparing their application for the outdoor dining grants, which they were encouraged by city officials to pursue, they did so with a specific mindset.

“We just didn’t want to give the city a reason to say no to us,” he explained, adding that this sentiment is reflected in everything from architect’s drawings and multiple bids on construction that accompanied the application to the very specific dollar amount requested.

Indeed, while most applicants rounded up, Granny’s requested $46,160. And that’s how much the city awarded the business.

Overall, 21 establishments applied for the grants, and 17 were awarded funds. Some of the awards matched or came close to what was requested, while others were a fraction of what was sought. And it was a diverse list of recipients, to be sure, with awardees ranging from the Student Prince Restaurant and the Fort to the John Boyle O’Reilly Club; from Two Guys Pizza on Page Boulevard to Uno Chicago Grill near the Basketball Hall of Fame.

park area outside 1441 Main St

Activating the park area outside 1441 Main St. could be a key element in bringing more dining options to the building.

Dollar amounts awarded ranged from $250,000 (City Line Café, the John Boyle O’Reilly Club, and White Lion Brewing) to $35,000 for the Springfield Business Improvement District to build on its improvements on Duryea Way.

There were scoring criteria, said Sheehan, listing everything from an initiative’s ability to encourage foot traffic and improve walkability in a neighborhood business district to whether an applicant had previously received ARPA money. And there were some broad goals behind the awards, but mostly an effort to promote outdoor dining and create more and better opportunities for the concept to spur growth and bring more diners to establishments.

The grant program, which was conceived just a few months ago and undertaken in aggressive fashion, recognizes that the landscape has certainly changed in this realm. In 2019, he explained, the city initiated a one-year pilot program for outdoor dining that did not garner much interest within the industry, with just a handful of applicants. In 2020, the City Council approved that pilot becoming permanent, he went on, adding that the broad objective was to activate commercial districts in specific neighborhoods.

But it wasn’t until the pandemic that the industry fully recognized the need to move to outdoor dining, he continued, adding that the grant program was initiated to help individual businesses and properties move into that realm, or move more aggressively, through initiatives ranging from parklets to White Lion’s reactivation of the Steiger’s park.

Speaking in broad terms, Sheehan said outdoor dining does more than provide an attractive alternative to the traditional experience.

“It heightens people’s engagement with the public realm that’s around them,” he explained. “And it begins to elicit the conversation of ‘how do we make the public realm better for everyone, not just diners, but also pedestrians? And how do we make the streets more accessible to all of the needs that we have relative to public rights of way?’ Because there’s growing competition for that space, whether it be bicyclists or pedestrians or outdoor diners.”

As he talked about his grant and what will happen with it, Crossett first went back in time, to the start of COVID, when many cities were gearing up for outdoor dining and providing assistance to establishments looking to enter that realm. He said he encouraged city leaders to do the same, but recalls that the response was somewhat lukewarm — ‘pusillanimous’ was the word he used.

Eventually, some money was made available, and Granny’s used it to put a few tables and chairs on the sidewalk, which was not a good fix, he said, because there simply isn’t much room on the sidewalk. The outdoor-dining grants come three years after most cities moved aggressively in this realm, he said, but they are at least a step in the right direction.

And while Crossett would prefer a cutout — similar to what the city has done on Worthington Street in front of Theodore’s and Jackalope because of the way they have slowed traffic down on those streets and enhanced outdoor dining opportunities — Granny’s will start with a parklet that he hopes to have ready for the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, slated for next month.


Designs on Growth

Meanwhile, other grants that were awarded will be used in different ways to introduce outdoor dining or enhance and expand already-existing outdoor facilities, Sheehan said.

At Nadim’s, for example, the grant will enable the restaurant to almost double the capacity of the outdoor dining that exists now, generating what Nadim believes will be more business overall, amid a growing preference for that dining option.

He acknowledged that outdoor dining has its limits — there’s essentially a five- to six-month window, from May to October — but it has become an important component of most restaurants’ business plans. And with more and better outdoor options, the city, and, especially its downtown, become more of a destination.

At 1441 Main St., the TD Bank building, Dill said he’s looking to essentially turn back the clock at that office tower, which once had a much larger retail and restaurant component (what he called a ‘mall’) on its first and second floors — the latter was actually connected to both the Steiger’s department store (now that aforementioned park) and Tower Square via airwalks — while also taking full advantage of the growing popularity of outdoor dining.

“People feel more comfortable sitting in an open space in the open air.”

He said the new ownership will be re-envisioning the former mall portion of the property and applied for a grant through the outdoor-dining initiative to lay the groundwork for such a facility at the property.

“We’re in early design now, but what we’re trying to do is position those underutilized parts of the building in ways that will more effectively address some non-traditional uses,” he said, adding that the plan is to find “the right operator” and then the right location within (and outside) the property for a dining operation.

“We have some flexibility,” he said, adding that there is space on more than one side of the building for an outdoor facility, including the area by the park. “We’ll want to work with the operator on what they want to accomplish from a design and operational standpoint.”

Dill said a restaurant would serve tenants in the property and neighboring office towers, obviously, but also be another key addition in a downtown that, by most accounts, needs more options for the people who come to the area for hockey games, concerts, gymnastics and dance competitions, and other gatherings.

“This is a logical place for part of that expansion to take place,” he said, adding that, while the number of office workers downtown has declined since the start of the pandemic, people are returning to offices, and he expects that trend to continue in the months and years to come.

Dill praised the entrepreneurs taking risks and opening new venues downtown, such as Jackalope and Osteria, two ventures on Worthington Street that are bringing more vitality, and people, to the area. And he said he hopes to add to the growing inventory of restaurants with an addition at 1441 Main St.

Such additions are part of the motivation behind the outdoor-dining grants, which, while small in size and scale in most respects, have the potential to have a big impact in terms of changing the landscape — figuratively and perhaps literally — and adding new words to the lexicon, like ‘parklet.’

Insurance Special Coverage

Beyond the Paycheck

Vinnie Daboul (right, with Bob Borawski)

Vinnie Daboul (right, with Bob Borawski) says employee leverage has made things “really, really different” when crafting a benefits package.

Allison Ebner called it “a little bit of a wavy ocean at the moment.”

She was referring to the shifting calculus within companies of what benefits to offer employees and how to structure them, but the description is equally apt for the workforce challenges that are making those discussions just a little more important these days.

“We have employees that were coming out of the pandemic last year looking to add benefits in the wellness space, with financial wellness, health and wellness, and then non-traditional things like tuition reimbursement and pet insurance, which have been in play for a number of years. Those were really amped up and on the table,” said Ebner, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

With employers starting to worry about a recession, however, “some of that has been pulled back a little bit,” she continued. “Certain core benefits — health care, dental, vision … the practical pillars of benefits — no one’s touching those, even though some employers are seeing double-digit increases in health. But a lot of employers are saying, ‘hey, wait a minute, we want to do X, Y, and Z, but maybe let’s hold off on that a little bit.’”

The problem, of course, is that — even at a time when employers worry about economic tides — workers still have leverage due to a staffing crunch that has enveloped most sectors. And in many cases, benefits are a huge part of job seekers’ decision-making process.

Vinnie Daboul, benefits consultant with Borawski Insurance in Northampton, told BusinessWest he recently spoke with someone who had just turned down a job offer.

“They’re with a company right now with unlimited PTO and 16 weeks of maternity paid at 100%. They have a job offer from another company with unlimited PTO, but six weeks of maternity. And they’re like, ‘nah, it’s a game changer. I can’t do it. I’m not taking that job.’ Today, things are really, really different.

“Some people really want pet insurance. Some people say, ‘I need help repaying my student loans.’ You’ve got to offer personalization of benefits to employees. That’s the most effective way to attract new staff.”

“Think about this,” he went on, gesturing at Bob Borawski, the agency’s president. “Five years ago, if Bob walked in here and said to all of us, ‘hey, I just want you in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and you can stay home on Monday and Friday,’ he’d be a hero. Today, post-COVID, you say to your employees, ‘hey, we want you in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and you can stay home Monday and Friday,’ they’re like, ‘no way — we have to do what?’ It has drastically changed.”

Ebner said employers can no longer neglect the overall employee experience and employee value proposition, or, as she put it, “what are you going to give employees in exchange for what they do?

“That has become much more personalized,” she noted. “Some people really want pet insurance. Some people say, ‘I need help repaying my student loans.’ You’ve got to offer personalization of benefits to employees. That’s the most effective way to attract new staff.”

Allison Ebner

Allison Ebner says employers can no longer neglect the employee value proposition.

That said, Ebner went on, employers must consider several factors: the state of their industry, what fiscal shape they’re in, and how aggressive they want to be competing for talent. Those are reasonable, bottom-line considerations. But they become more complicated at a time when employees increasingly understand their value — and want to be compensated for it, in ways that go beyond the paycheck.


Wants and Needs

Daboul said it’s not a one-size-fits-all equation when it comes to crafting a benefits package that works for a company’s bottom line but still satisfies — and, just as important, attracts — employees.

“A lot depends on the client size,” he said. “If we’re engaging with a 10-employee client, it’s quicker. I don’t want to say it’s more transactional for them, but if I have 10 employees, I just need to get something in place. I want medical, dental, vision, and a life policy. I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s a different engagement.

“A lot of our clients are larger clients,” he went on, and with those employers, it’s important to sit down and build a comprehensive benefits strategy — and not just talk about it once or twice a year, but regularly discuss changing situations.

“We look at the population and do risk analysis on that population, based on the changing demographics, aging, so many different things. And we take the financial condition of the company into consideration too. How are they doing? Times have been tough for some companies; they’re laying off. Is the benefit package OK? Is it secure? We look at funding.

“Employers are looking at every avenue to accomplish three key things: make sure their expenses stay down, make sure they create a benefit package that helps them recruit and retain, and make sure the benefits are incredibly competitive.”

“So, with anything to do with the benefit program,” he went on, “it’s not just the product, but, strategically, where do you want to be this year? Where do you want to be five years from now? Those are the conversations we try to have with our clients.”

That said, Daboul agreed with Ebner that clients’ strategies around “core benefits,” as he called them — medical, dental, group life, and disability — haven’t changed much, though fewer companies are pushing to add life and disability these days. As for health insurance, the big change for employers is rising costs, particularly in this region, where a few large insurers dominate, and the lack of competition drives prices up.

As a result, employers have to decide how much to pay into a health plan and how much their employees will pay, in addition to options like higher deductibles, health savings accounts, and self-insurance.

“There are things we wouldn’t have seen five, 10, 20 years ago,” he said. “I mean, they were in the market, but when I started at MassMutual as an underwriter in 1987, I would have been fired if I self-insured a client under 500 bucks. You just wouldn’t do that.”

At the end of the day, he explained, “employers are looking at every avenue to accomplish three key things: make sure their expenses stay down, make sure they create a benefit package that helps them recruit and retain, and make sure the benefits are incredibly competitive.”

It can be a tough balance, but creativity and flexibility can help. Remote and hybrid work options, as well as generous paid time off, can appeal to a sense of work-life balance. Meanwhile, Ebner said, many employers have turned to spending accounts targeted to specific benefits — say, $1,000 per year for wellness expenses such as gym memberships and fitness equipment, or $1,000 for learning and development, such as classes or training events that the organizaion pays for.

“Lifestyle accounts have gained in popularity because they allow employees to choose what they want to spend it on, and that delivers a personalization of benefits,” she noted. “Again, we’re seeing employers re-evaluate and continuously revamp based on the value proposition and the fiscal state of the organization, which is affected heavily by things going on in the market. If they’re taking a conservative approach to the recession conversation, they’re going to maximize the benefits they do have.”

Kim Adams, a Vermont-based senior account manager at OneDigital, a national insurance, financial services, and HR platform, wrote recently that personalization and malleability have become more important in the world of benefits.

“The American workforce is currently home to five distinct generations working shoulder-to-shoulder,” she noted, and a generous 401(k) match may not be as valuable to recent college graduates bogged down with student loans, while a Gen-X employee may choose to decline healthcare coverage because their spouse has a richer plan, resulting in the company spending much less on their benefits than for most other employees.

“To combat this uneven distribution of benefits resources (and perhaps unintentionally ageist outcomes), employers may find it helpful to reconceptualize benefits as a malleable pool of resources that individual employees may allocate according to their specific needs,” Adams continued, noting options ranging from pet insurance to paying to attend a conference. “This personalized approach to benefits can effectively foster more equitable outcomes, boost employee morale, and broadcast a positive corporate culture.”

Daboul also noted the shift toward non-traditional benefits like pet insurance, tuition reimbursement, and identity-theft protection, and added that traditional products like 401(k) accounts and long-term-care insurance may be on the rise due to projections about the life expectancy of younger generations.

“I was listening to a podcast the other day,” he said, “and they’re projecting that kids being born today will have a life expectancy of 105.”


Give and Take

Even pre-COVID, Daboul said, the benefits calculus was changing at many companies. Now, the conversation can’t be avoided.

“As an employer today, thinking about my benefit strategy, what’s going to be my platform? How am I going to deliver the benefits to everybody? Who do I include? Because now I have contractors, I have part-time employees, I have seasonal employees. It’s drastically different, and the demographic you’re now delivering it to is a very different demographic. It’s a younger demographic, and they’re not as connected or committed to the employer.”

Ebner said the impact of the Great Resignation has eased up a little — EANE members are saying it’s not a crisis to the degree it was last year, toward the end of the pandemic, when businesses were trying to fully ramp up — but that trend could be temporary.

“And it could continue to be a problem for us, particularly in the Northeast, where we’re seeing the demographic numbers drop on a consistent basis. We don’t have as many workers available; the younger workers are leaving for greener pastures west and south. Employers are feeling that the relief is a temporary situation. So they have to focus on workplace planning — they have to have a plan in place for where to find help.”

The key, Ebner said — at least on the benefits side — is flexibility, as well as communication.

“Know your organization, and, if in doubt, ask the employers what they’re looking for in benefits. Make sure you’re working with a benefits broker that you trust, that’s bringing ideas to you and asking your employees about benefits. Take a survey; maybe they’re looking for things that you don’t anticipate. It’s always good to ask and consider any ideas they want to contribute.”

After all, a happy employee is a retained employee. These days, that’s a valuable commodity well worth the investment in the right package of benefits.