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Class of 2021

She Has in Many Ways Become the Face of Manufacturing Locally

Leah Martin Photography

Kristin Carlson calls it the ‘Boston Marathon bomber story.’

Because … it’s about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who perpetrated those heinous crimes almost eight years ago now. More to the point, though, it’s about the role her company played in eventually apprehending him.

Indeed, Tsarnaev was found hiding in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, and he was discovered through the use of a thermal-imaging camera in a police helicopter flying over the area. Carlson’s company, Westfield-based Peerless Precision, makes several components for that camera, including one for the cryogenic cooling system that ensures that the camera doesn’t overheat during use.

As she held one up for BusinessWest to see, she said just showing people the part isn’t nearly as impactful as trying to explain what it’s used for — or, in this case, how it can play a significant role in writing history.

That’s why she tells the Boston Marathon bomber story often, although she admits that its days might soon be numbered. That’s because she usually tells it to young people in the hopes that they might be intrigued enough by it to perhaps pursue a career in precision manufacturing. And by young, she means high-school age, and preferably middle-school age. And those in that latter category are now, or soon will be, too young to really remember the 2013 bombing and its aftermath.

“I want to make sure that kids, and adults who are looking for another career option, are aware of what we do in Western Mass., and they know about the viability of a career in manufacturing and what it has to offer.”

But Carlson has other stories — perhaps not as dramatic or crystalizing. All of them are designed to show what precision manufacturing is all about, and also how companies in this area provide parts for helicopters, fighter jets and bombers, the Space Shuttle, medical devices, automobiles, submarines, and so much more. She often borrows the line used often by Rick Sullivan, now the president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council but formerly mayor of Westfield, who would say that, if you saw a plane flying over the city, there’s a good chance that tens of thousands of dollars worth of its parts were made in the city.

Other stories talk about how someone manufacturing these parts can make a very good living and have a job with real security — yes, even in the wake of a global pandemic. And she tells them often, too.

Kristin Carlson holds up one of the parts her company

Kristin Carlson holds up one of the parts her company, Peerless Precision, makes for thermal-imaging cameras, like the one used to locate one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

And then there’s her story — a 38-year-old woman now managing this precision manufacturer. We’ll get to that one in a minute. These stories help explain why Carlson has been named a Difference Maker for 2021. Indeed, while she has helped grow the company since she took over for her father, Larry Maier, as he battled and eventually succumbed to cancer, she has made an even bigger mark — on a regional and now national stage — in the ongoing effort to educate people about what gets made here and also about careers in manufacturing, thus addressing ongoing issues involving workforce and a skills gap.

“I want to make sure that kids, and adults who are looking for another career option, are aware of what we do in Western Mass.,” she said, “and they know about the viability of a career in manufacturing and what it has to offer.”

In a field where complaints about these issues have been going on for decades involving generations of shop owners and managers, she has distinguished herself by going beyond complaining. Well beyond. In fact, in many ways, she has become the face of manufacturing in Western Mass. — a much different face than has ever been associated with this sector locally.

“Instead of sitting idly by and talking and complaining, I wanted to do something about it,” said Carlson, who was recently appointed to the state’s Workforce Training Advisory Board and also sits on the National Tooling and Machining Association’s AMPED (Advanced Manufacturing Practices and Educational Development) Board.

And while there’s still much work to be done, she has, indeed, done something about it, and that’s why she’s a Difference Maker for 2021.

 

Making Her Mark

Despite everything you’ve read already in this piece about manufacturing, what a good career it is, and how Carlson has thrived in it, she readily admits she had to be talked into coming back to this this region and Peerless Precision after her father got sick.

And it took a lot of talk.

She was living in San Diego at the time, working for a fire-alarm contractor, handling everything from inside sales to building websites to being the runner to go to City Hall and get the fire-alarm building permits for new construction.

In 2009, her father was diagnosed with colon cancer. “At the time, he asked me … if something ever happened, would I come home from California and help my mom either decide to keep the company or sell it,” she recalled. “My dad always wanted me to be doing what I’m doing now, and I was pretty much in a place at that point in my life where I needed to decide what my path was going to be on my own; I didn’t want someone else to define that for me.

“Because he was stubborn and I’m just as stubborn as he was, I fought what he wanted tooth and nail until it came time for me to make that decision,” she went on. “So when he asked me if I would come home if something happened, I said ‘yes.’”

Kristin Carlson, seen here with Peerless Precision machinist Kaitlyn Fricke

Kristin Carlson, seen here with Peerless Precision machinist Kaitlyn Fricke, says progress has been made to inspire women to enter the manufacturing field, but more work must be done.

Something did happen. After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy and eventually earning a clean bill of health, her father’s cancer not only returned but spread to other parts of his body. And Carlson kept her promise to her dad, even if he didn’t remember her making that promise.

That was in 2012. Since that time, Carlson has verified the faith her father had her, establishing herself not only at the company — transitions such as these are rarely seamless — but also in the industry, and especially in the broad realm of helping to educate people (and especially young people) about precision manufacturing as a career path.

Such efforts have been going on for decades, and Carlson notes that, in many respects, she is simply carrying on the work of her father, who was extremely active with workforce initiatives in this sector. Indeed, the two of them share what could only be called a passion for such work.

Much of her work involves debunking myths, or at least long-standing beliefs. There are many of them, and they range from those concerning the death of manufacturing in this region (it’s not what it was 30 or 40 years ago, to be sure, but it’s not dead) to the presumption that women can’t or shouldn’t get into this field, to the opinion that one has to go to college to succeed in life.

“I was pretty much in a place at that point in my life where I needed to decide what my path was going to be on my own; I didn’t want someone else to define that for me.”

Carlson, who went to college because she was told she needed to, is working on all these fronts simultaneously. She confronts the problem with statistics, with stories — like the one about the Boston Marathon bomber — and sometimes just by showing up in a room.

Indeed, as a woman not just in this industry, but one leading a company and sitting on regional and national boards, she has become an effective role model, or ‘exhibit A,’ if you will, when it comes to everything she talks about. As in everything.

“For a kid whose father had bought a machine shop and was pushed to go to college when I’m better at hands-on things … I wish I had been given different options,” she told BusinessWest. “My parents told me that I couldn’t make anything of myself if I didn’t have a college degree; that’s not a good message, but it’s also the message that was being pushed across the board back then — and still, today.”

Like her father, Larry Maier, before her, Kristin Carlson has made workforce development a passion and a big part of her life and work.

While the pandemic is keeping people from touring the facilities at Peerless Precision in person, there are still virtual visits, where young people can meet not only Carlson, but her pit bull, Bruno. They can also see six women on the manufacturing floor (years ago, they would only have seen them in the front office or shipping and receiving). And they can see parts like the one that goes into the thermal-imaging camera that captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in that boat.

“My parents told me that I couldn’t make anything of myself if I didn’t have a college degree; that’s not a good message, but it’s also the message that was being pushed across the board back then — and still, today.”

And they can hear Carlson talk about other things made in this region — from toys at LEGO and Cartamundi to ketchup bottles at Meredith Springfield to coolers at Pelican Products. Overall, it’s a powerful message, she said, but one that needs to be reinforced and told to new audiences every year, several times a year, if possible. That’s because those old myths, those old perceptions, die hard.

 

Parts of the Whole

Before ever telling the Boston Marathon bomber story, Carlson wanted to make sure she had her facts straight.

“When I saw our customer’s logo on that camera shot, I called him right away and said, ‘do you think there’s a possibility that that part in the camera that found the bomber is from our shop?’ — and he said ‘absolutely,’” she recalled, adding that additional research verified what she suspected.

She’s told the story many times since, because it conveys what many people don’t know, but should — that the precision-machining sector in this region is making a difference in the lives of people across the country.

Likewise, Carlson is making a difference as well, carrying on the work of her father in so many ways, and, as noted, becoming the face — or at least one important, perhaps unexpected face — in a sector with a rich history and, thanks to her efforts, perhaps an equally rich future.

 

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

Class of 2021

This Nonprofit Ensures That Entrepreneurs Won’t Have to Go It Alone

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll Holyoke.  (Leah Martin Photography)

“If your dreams don’t scare you … they are not big enough.”

That’s the quote, attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian president, economist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, that is stenciled onto one of the walls at EforAll Holyoke’s headquarters on High Street, in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of this nonprofit since its inception, chose it for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with her and also because it accurately sums up entrepreneurship in general, as well as the work that goes on in that facility.

In short, she said, dreams of running a business should scare someone, because there is nothing — as in nothing — easy about getting a venture off the ground … and keeping it airborne.

“Entrepreneurship is so terrifying,” she said. “And when our entrepreneurs come to us, they often don’t have the support of friends or families or big networks telling them to go for these dreams. That’s why we’re here — to tell them that they’re not alone … and that you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur.”

Helping turn dreams into reality is essentially what EforAll is all about. This is a statewide nonprofit with offices in a number of cities with large minority populations and high unemployment rates — like Holyoke. Its MO is to blend education in the many facets of business with mentorship to help entrepreneurs navigate the whitewater they will encounter while getting a venture off the ground, to the next level, or even through a global pandemic (more on that last one later).

It will be many years, perhaps, before a city or a region can accurately gauge the impact of an agency focused on inspiring entrepreneurship and guiding entrepreneurs, but Murphy-Romboletti believes EforAll is already making a difference, especially with the minority population.

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to.”

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to,” she told BusinessWest. “The model that we use, providing really close mentorship, makes such a difference — you don’t have to go through the process alone.”

Her sentiments are backed up by some of those who have found their way to EforAll and been part of one of its many accelerator cohorts. People like Sandra Rubio.

Years ago, she started baking cakes for family members because she wasn’t happy with the quality and price of what she found in area stores. Soon, she was making cakes and other items for friends, neighbors, and even total strangers who had been exposed to her work. And her success promoted her to launch Totally Baked 413, which will soon open a location in the Holyoke Transit Center on Maple Street.

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, with helping her get her venture, Totally Baked 413, off the ground.

She credits EforAll with helping her make the leap from part-time activity to full-time enterprise — but not leap until she was ready and not make too big a leap too soon. She also credits her mentors and Murphy-Romboletti with getting her through those times when she was tempted to let the dream die.

“There were times when I just wanted to give up, say ‘forget it,’ and go back to work,” she recalled. “But then, I would meet with my mentors, meet with my class, and it got me right back on track — it gave me the push I needed to press on.”

And people like Jailyne Torres, who launched Shyguns, a creative clothing brand and seller of vintage clothing. She said she took part in the Spanish-speaking accelerator, called EsparaTodos, and credited EforAll with helping her gain consistency and take a concept she conceived when she was only 16 years old and make it into a business.

“I always had the idea, the concept, but I never really knew how to make it actually make it a brand,” she said. “But EsparaTodos helped me with all that.”

Such comments explain why EforAll, while still small and emerging, if you will, like the businesses it mentors, is already a Difference Maker in the community it serves.

 

Dream Weavers

As she talked with BusinessWest at EforAll’s facility, Murphy Romboletti said being there elicited a number of different emotions.

Indeed, while she said it always feels good to be in that space, COVID-19 has made the visits far more infrequent, and it has brought what is often an eerie quiet to a place that was always full of people and energy. The co-working space is now unused for safety reasons, and there are far fewer meetings and activities taking place there, with most programs carried out virtually. All this is made more frustrating by the fact that it took more than a year of hard work to secure the space and get it ready for its opening in the fall of 2019, only to have the world change and the space go mostly dark just a few months later.

“For those first couple of weeks when I would come back, it was like, ‘oh, man, this is tortuous — this is a hard pill to swallow,’” she noted before quickly taking the conversation in a different, more poignant direction. “The irony is that’s exactly what so many of my entrepreneurs were feeling; a lot of them, especially those in the cohort that we graduated that March, were just coming into the world as new entrepreneurs, and the world said, ‘hold on … we’ve got some other plans.’

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there,” she went on. “But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

COVID has changed some things, certainly, but when you get right down to it, EforAll Holyoke has always been about providing a community and helping entrepreneurs not only survive, but thrive.

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental in helping her take Shyguns to the next level.

Launched five years ago as SPARK, the agency quickly became an important part of the region’s growing entrepreneurship ecosystem. In 2018, it affiliated with EforAll, short for Entrepreneurship for All, a network that now boasts eight offices across the state, including the most recent, in the Berkshires.

Like many of the other offices, the one in Holyoke now conducts accelerator programs in both English and Spanish (EsparaTodos), and graduates four cohorts of entrepreneurs each year, two in the spring and two in the fall.

Like most accelerators, these XX-week programs are designed to educate participants on the many aspects of starting and operating a business — everything from writing and updating a business plan to working with the media — while also connecting them with mentors who can impart their wisdom and first-hand experiences.

When asked what it’s like, Rubio said simply, “intense.” By that, she was referring to everything from the classwork to the back and forth with her mentors. And that intensity helped her persevere through the challenges of getting a plan in place, finding and readying the site for her bakery and café, and getting the doors open.

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there. But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

“Every time I was close to saying, ‘I’m done,’ they would say, ‘you’re on the right track; keep going,’” she recalled. “And we would keep going.”

Likewise, Carlos Rosario kept going with his venture, Rosario Asphalt, which specializes in residential driveways and repairs.

Rosario, speaking in English that is, like his bottom line, improving consistently from year to year, said EforAll has helped him make the big leap from working for someone else to working for himself.

He told BusinessWest that those at EforAll helped connect him with sources of capital, including banks and Common Capital, to secure loans that have enabled him to buy the equipment needed to handle more — and larger — jobs, including a trailer and a truck. And he’s hired his first employee, a truck driver.

“If it wasn’t for EforAll, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said, adding that the agency and the mentors assigned to him have helped with all facets of running a business, but especially with making those all-important connections to professionals, capital, and potential clients.

Torres agreed. She said EforAll has helped her with aspects of her business that people don’t think about when they’re focused on an idea and maybe a brand. Things like data entry, pricing, marketing, and “allowing transformation to happen.”

“When I started the project, it was based on the creative clothing part,” she explained. “And then, I was able to add second-hand clothing, and not limit what the future might bring.”

That’s certainly another colorful and poignant way of summing up what EforAll does for those who participate in its programs.

 

Scare Tactics

Here’s the full quote attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”

Most people have the capacity to dream as big as Johnson Sirleaf believes they should. But not everyone has what it takes to make those dreams become reality. Those who have entrepreneurial ambitions and spirit are among those who can.

But even such driven individuals can’t go it alone. EforAll exists to make sure they don’t have to. And that’s why it’s a true Difference Maker in Holyoke — and beyond.

 

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

Class of 2021

This Journalist, Educator, and Mentor Inspires Others with Her Unstoppable Energy

Leah Martin Photography

Karen Fisk, director of Marketing and Communication for the Springfield Museums, calls Janine Fondon a “connector.”

And that’s just one of many words that can be used to describe the founder of UnityFirst.com, a national distributor of diversity-related e-news to corporations and diverse communities. Indeed, she is also an educator — she’s currently chair of the Undergraduate Communications Department at Bay Path University and has been an adjunct professor at many area colleges and universities — as well as a journalist, public speaker, colleague, and mentor.

But ‘connector’ probably works best, and it most effectively sums up what she does in the Western Mass. community — and beyond.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change,” Fisk, who worked with Fondon to help bring the exhibit Voices of Resilience (more on that later) to the Museums, wrote in her nomination of Fondon as a Difference Maker. “As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

Through all this work connecting people, Fondon, who relishes this role, told BusinessWest that she strives to make the region a better place through the sharing of knowledge, ideas, goals, and dreams for the future.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change. As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

During her time at Colgate University, a liberal-arts college in Upstate New York, Fondon recalled that she was encouraged to “raise your voice, be part of the world, and make a difference.” She did so there — she became part of a gospel choir, for example — and has done so throughout her life.

Part of her MO, if you will, is to inspire others by telling the stories of those who came before, those who blazed a trail, and those who, well, made of difference in the community and the world. This is especially true when it comes to women, and women of color. Many of these stories haven’t been told, or told as much as they need to be, she said, adding that telling them was the broad goal behind Voices of Resilience, which is still on display at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Quadrangle.

It features more than 70 stories of women — activists and businesswomen, mostly — ranging from Gwen Ifill, the longtime host of Washington Week (and Springfield native) who passed away a few years ago, to Lejuana Hood, who founded Springfield’s Pan African Museum, to Miriam Kirkaldy, Fondon’s grandmother, who came to Ellis Island in 1917 and forged a new life for herself.

“I decided to pull together some stories — some rooted in Springfield, others rooted around Springfield — and these are stories that needed to be told because we can learn from them,” Fondon explained, using her grandmother as an example.

“She came via Ellis Island from Jamaica, and she came the year before the 1918 pandemic,” she explained. “You think about the fortitude she displayed and her experience; I grew up with her experience, and I said, ‘we can learn from that experience.”

The exhibit also formed the backdrop for the fourth annual On the Move event in 2020. Organized by Fondon, this gathering, which will be staged virtually this year due to the pandemic, encourages conversation and networking among women, and it has become a well-attended tradition.

It’s also another example of how Fondon has devoted her time, energy, and imagination to finding new and different ways to bring people together, share ideas, and work individually and collectively to move the needle when it comes to diversity, inclusion, women breaking down barriers, and so much more.

In short, it’s just another case of how she connects and serves this region as a true Difference Maker.

 

Loud and Clear

If you look closely, as in very closely, you might be able to pick out Fondon in one of the pictures of real students from New York’s fabled High School of Music & Art at the end of the 1980 movie Fame.

She was in the choir, and the shot of that group was among many of the last class of that school before it merged with the School of Performing Arts and moved to Lincoln Center.

“I wouldn’t even call it a cameo,” said Fondon, who noted that she had some talent, but not enough to join the likes of famous alums such as Billy Dee Williams, Christopher Guest, Susan Strasberg, Hal Linden, or Steven Bochco and make it as a performer or producer.

But she left the school with an even deeper appreciation for the arts than what she already had, and it has remained with her throughout her life. And you might say she’s achieved a different kind of fame after first graduating from Colgate University, where she majored in sociology and anthropology and studied in London, Paris, and Barbados, among other places.

The exhibit Voices of Resilience

The exhibit Voices of Resilience is just one of many ways Janine Fondon has helped educate others and inspire them to find their own voices.

After leaving Colgate, she pursued work in the media, working first at CBS as a news intern and handling research for 60 Minutes, among other shows, then ABC in the Public Relations department, where she was encouraged to continue her education, and did so, earning her master’s degree at New York University.

Fondon worked in New York for some time before moving to an ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. and eventually relocating to Massachusetts, where she has worked in a number of fields. She worked at Digital Equipment Corp., for example, and later at Bank of Boston, in its Corporate Communications department.

After starting a family, she desired more flexibility in her schedule and started freelance writing and then teaching on an adjunct level, with the former becoming the basis for UnityFirst.com, an information portal that shares topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion with more than 4,000 members of the national press, including top mainstream business publications, television, radio, and internet sources.

Recent pieces on the site include headlines like these:

• “Barbara Bush Foundation Celebrates Black History Month with the Release of New Anti-racist and Anti-bias Teaching Resources”;

• “Barefoot Celebrates and Supports Black Female Business Owners with the Return of #WeStandforHer Campaign”; and

• “Canada’s Black Loyalists Honored on Royal Canadian Mint’s New Silver Coin Celebrating Black History.”

“We go to thousands of people in a variety of formats, from our direct e-mails, the website, and collaborations that we have with others across the country,” she explained. “We’re just here engaging and sharing information.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest,” she went on. “People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day. And I’m really proud that we have a really young base that’s coming in and engaging. That, to me, is the hallmark — sharing information, having people engage, learning, and using that information.”

This past year was certainly an important one for UnityFirst, she said, given all the racial turmoil in the country and new dialogue about equity and inclusion.

“I started to do some writing and speaking beyond our own circle,” she told BusinessWest. “And that engaged a lot of people as well. And I want to do more of that because engaging with others and beginning new dialogues … that brings about change.”

While she continues to byline new stories each week and teach at Baypath, she continues to look for new and different ways to use her voice, inspire others to use theirs, and further inspire an entire region by recalling some voices of the past.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest. People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day.”

Such is the case with On the Move, which will again be staged on March 8, this time virtually. Fondon doesn’t like the word ‘conference’ to describe it, though, preferring ‘forum’ instead.

“We have a conversation, and sometimes there are breakouts that we do,” she said, adding that the setting has changed through the years — it has been staged at Bay Path, CityStage, and the Springfield Museums, for example — but the mission remains the same: to engage, educate, and inspire. “This year, we’re going to look at where we are and where we’re going.”

Looking ahead, and anticipating what might come next in a career that has taken her to different parts of the country and a host of different career opportunities, Fondon said she intends to keep doing what’s she always done — and maybe find even more ways to do it.

“There’s so much work yet be done,” she explained. “As long as we can keep sharing information that helps us make better decisions and get to a better place, there is room for all that I have to do.”

 

Hear and Now

Returning to that nomination of Fondon, Fisk wrote that “she listens, she encourages, she shares ideas, she shares remarkable, unstoppable energy. Most important, she cares, deeply cares, and she hopes, and then she takes action.”

And, above all, she connects. Indeed, all her life, Fondon has been doing what she was encouraged to do while in high school and college — find her voice. And not only find it, but use it.

She’s used it to educate and empower people. And with this knowledge and power, others can hopefully do what she has long been doing acting as a Difference Maker in the community and, in truth, everywhere one’s voice can be heard.

 

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

Class of 2021

When It Comes to Land Preservation, He’s Been a Trailblazer

Leah Martin Photography

Pete Westover says his appreciation of, and passion for, outdoor spaces traces back to a family vacation trip to, among other places, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or Rocky, as it’s called, when he was 12.

The park, which spans the Continental Divide, is famous for its grand vistas, high alpine meadows, and dramatic walking trails, some of them at elevations of 10,000 feet or more. And, suffice to say, the park made quite an impression on the young middle-school student.

“There’s bighorn sheep and mountain goats and all kinds of great wildlife and flora,” he noted, adding that he’s been back several times since. “The road goes well over 11,000 feet, so you’re up there among the peaks.”

It was this trip that pretty much convinced Westover he wanted to spend his working life outdoors. And if he needed any more convincing, he got it while working in a hospital just after high school, at a time when he was still thinking about going to medical school and following in the footsteps of his father, who became a doctor.

“I realized, there’s no way I want to spend my time in time in a hospital or a clinic,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he instead pursued a master’s degree in forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection.”

Thus, as they might say in what has become his line of work, he took a different trail than the one he originally envisioned. Actually, those who know him would say he’s blazed his own trail — in every aspect of that phrase.

It has led to an intriguing and highly rewarding career that has included everything from work on a helicopter forest-fire crew in Northern California when he was in college to a 30-year stint as conservation director for the town of Amherst, to his current role as founder and partner of Conservation Works, a conservation firm involved with open space and agricultural land protection; ecological and land-stewardship assistance to land trusts, towns, colleges, and other entities; and other services.

Described as a “legend” by one of those who nominated him for the Difference Maker award, Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office (and a Difference Maker herself in 2020), Westover has earned a number of accolades over the years.

These include the Valley Eco Award for Distinguished Service to Our Environment, in his case for ‘lifetime dedication and achievement’; the Governor’s Award for Open Space Protection; the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Regional Service Award; the Massachusetts Assoc. of Conservation Commissions’ Environmental Service Award; and even the Millicent A. Kaufman Distinguished Service Award as Amherst Area Citizen of the Year.

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka in Springfield’s Forest Park, where the company is currently working on several projects.

And now, he can add Difference Maker to that list, a title that certainly befits an individual who has preserved thousands of acres of land, created hundreds of miles of trails, and even helped innumerable parks and other open spaces identify and hopefully eradicate invasive species.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection,” wrote Kristin DeBoer, executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust, a partner and client of Conservation Works on many of its projects, in her nomination of Westover. “The number of conservation areas and protected farms that Pete has been involved with are too many to name.”

While justifiably proud of what’s been accomplished in these realms over the past several decades, Westover stressed repeatedly that this work has never been a one-man show. Instead, it’s always been accomplished through partnerships and teamwork, especially when it comes to Conservation Works.

“This is such a great valley to work in,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many dedicated people in our field; we’re just lucky to be in a place where there are so many forward-looking people.”

Westover is certainly one of them, and his work (that’s a broad term, to be sure) to not only protect and preserve land, but educate others and serve as a role model, has earned him a place among the Difference Makers class of 2021.

 

Changing the Landscape — Or Not

It’s called the Robert Frost Trail, and it’s actually one of several trails in the Northeast named after the poet, who lived and taught in this region for many years.

This one stretches 47 miles through the eastern Connecticut River Valley, from the Connecticut River in South Hadley to Ruggles Pond in Wendell State Forest. Blazed with orange triangles, the trail winds through both Hampshire and Franklin counties, and includes a number of scenic features, including the Holyoke Range, Mount Orient, Puffer’s Pond, and Mount Toby.

And while there are literally thousands of projects in Westover’s portfolio from five decades of work in this realm, this one would have to be considered his signature work, first undertaken while he was conservation director in Amherst, but a lifelong project in many respects.

Indeed, those at Conservation Works are working with Kestrel on an ongoing project to improve the trail. But the Robert Frost Trail is just one of countless initiatives to which Westover has contributed his time, energy, and considerable talents over the years. You might say he’s changed the landscape in Western Mass., but it would be even more accurate to say his work has been focused on not changing the landscape, and preserving farmland and other spaces as they are.

And even that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Indeed, Westover said, through his decades of work, he hasn’t been focused on halting or even controlling development, but instead on creating a balance.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it,’” he explained, adding that this mindset persists to this day. “For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.

“When you see real-estate ads that say ‘near conservation area,’ or ‘next to the Robert Frost Trail’ … that’s important to the well-being of a town or the region to have that balance,” he went on, adding that it has essentially been his life’s work to create it.

Top, Conversation Works partner Dick O’Brien supervises volunteers at Lathrop Community in Northampton in bridge building on the Lathrop Trail off Cooke Avenue. Above, several of the company’s partners: from left, Fred Morrison, Dick O’Brien, Molly Hale, Chris Curtis, and Laurie Sanders.

Tracing his career working outdoors, Westover said he started at an environmental-education center in Kentucky, where he worked for three years. Later, after returning to Yale for a few more classes, he came to Amherst as its conservation director, a role he kept from 1974 to 2004. In 2005, he would partner with Peter Blunt, former executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (now the Connecticut River Conservancy) to create Conservation Works. Blunt passed away in 2010, but a team of professionals carries on his work and his legacy, and has broadened the company’s mission and taken its work to the four corners of New England and well beyond.

But over the years, Westover has worn many other hats as well. He’s been an adjunct professor of Natural Science, principally at Hampshire College, where he has taught, among other courses, “Conservation Land Protection and Management,” “The Ecology and Politics of New England Natural Areas,” “Ecology and Culture of Costa Rica,” “Geography, Ecology, and Indigenous Americans in the Pacific Northwest, 1800 to Present,” and, most recently, “Land Conservation, Indigenous Land Rights, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.”

He’s also penned books, including Managing Conservation Land: The Stewardship of Conservation Areas, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Other Open Spaces in Massachusetts, and served on boards ranging from the Conservation Law Foundation of New England to the Whately Open Space Committee.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it. For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.”

But while he spends some time behind the keyboard, in the lecture hall, or in the boardroom, mostly he’s where he always wants to be — outdoors — especially as he works with his partners at Conservation Works on projects across New England and beyond.

The group, which now includes seven partners, handles everything from conservation of open space and farmland to the development and maintenance of trails; from invasive-plant-management plans to what are known as municipal vulnerability-preparedness plans that address climate change and the dangers it presents to communities.

And, as Westover noted, teamwork is the watchword for this company.

“One of the things that attracted me to Conservation Works is that all of the professionals have very unique skills, and we all complement one another,” said Elizabeth Wroblicka, a lawyer and former director of Wildlife Lands for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Land conservation is multi-faceted, from the acquisition to the long-term ownership to the stewardship, and with the wildlife biologists we have, the trail constructors, boundary markings … I do the contracts, but we all have a piece that we excel in.”

Chris Curtis, who came to Conservation Works after a lengthy career with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission as chief planner and now focuses extensively on climate-change issues, agreed. He noted that, in addition to land preservation, trail-building and improvement, and other initiatives, the group is doing more work in the emerging realm of climate resiliency — out of necessity.

“We’ve been working with the town of Deerfield for four years,” he said, citing just one example of this work. “We’ve helped it win grants for more than $1.2 million worth of work that includes a municipal vulnerability-preparedness plan, flood-evacuation plans, a land-conservation plan for the Deerfield River floodplain area, and education programs, including a townwide climate forum that was attended by 200 to 300 people.”

Such efforts to address climate change are an example of how the group’s mission continues to expand and evolve, and how Westover’s broad impact on this region, its open spaces, and its endangered spaces grows ever deeper.

 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Reflecting back on that trip to Rocky, Westover said that, in many ways, it changed not only his perspective, but his life.

It helped convince him that he not only wanted to work outdoors, but wanted to protect the outdoors and create spaces that could be enjoyed by this generation and those to come. As noted, he’s both changed the landscape and helped ensure that it won’t be changed.

He’s not comfortable with being called a legend, but Difference Maker works, and it certainly fits someone whose footprints can be seen all across the region — literally and figuratively.

 

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

Education Special Coverage

Portrait of a Graduate

 

The program is called ‘Portrait of a Graduate,’ and that name pretty much says it all.

But maybe an adjective is in order to get the complete picture, pun intended.

Indeed, what the Springfield Public Schools are focused on now is creating a portrait of a successful high-school graduate, through an initiative designed to gain feedback from a host of constituencies regarding the skills — as in all the skills — that young people will need to not only earn a high-school diploma, but thrive in an ever-changing, technology-driven economy.

And this portrait will become a valuable blueprint of sorts as school administrators go about creating a new strategic plan for the city’s public schools, said Superintendent Dan Warwick, who stressed repeatedly that Portrait of a Graduate is very much a community-driven process that will define success for Springfield students, including the values, knowledge, skills, and work habits they will need to thrive as learners, workers, and leaders.

Among those providing input are members of the business community, said Trisha Canavan, president of United Personnel and current president of Springfield Business Leaders for Education, adding that their commentary will be critical to creating that portrait and then inspiring needed changes to programming and curriculum.

Made possible by a grant from the Barr Foundation, this Portrait of a Graduate initiative is part of a broad movement across the country to involve the community in shaping a school system’s strategic plan and specific programming and curriculum for helping to ensure student success.

The list of communities that have embarked on such programs grows each year, and now includes Lowell, Shrewsbury, and other cities and towns in Massachusetts, as well as Hartford, Conn., Fairfax County, Va., and many others, said Warwick.

In most of those communities, Portrait of a Graduate is used as part of a strategic plan for a specific school system, said Paul Foster, chief information officer for Springfield Public Schools. Here, though, it will help guide development of a new strategic plan, which is an important distinction.

Dan Warwick

Dan Warwick

“Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.”

“Most communities make it one of the activities as part of creating a plan,” he explained. “It’s not as common to create that vision first and then build the plan based on the vision. I think it’s important that we not make decisions on how to change schools until we have that clarity of vision that a portrait provides.”

Warwick agreed. “Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.

“Other iterations of our strategic plans were mostly academic-focused, which is what you would expect for a school system to put forward in a strategic plan,” he went on. “But this piece is designed to take a wider look and really get the community to rally around what they want our graduates to look like and what attributes they’ll need, and then we’ll build the actual strategic plan from that profile.”

By most accounts, he noted, it has succeeded in its goal of garnering community interest in helping to create this portrait.

“I think it excited people,” Warwick told BusinessWest. “The community involvement has been tremendous — the breadth of the input from every sector of the community has been significant, and this new concept has helped us with that.”

The acknowledgment that needed skills for success in the 21st-century workplace extends well beyond academics is made clear in the six ‘pillars’ of the portrait — learn, work, thrive, lead, persist, and communicate, said Azell Cavaan, chief Communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, adding that the school system has received more than 1,400 responses to a survey regarding a draft portrait that reflects how these pillars will be addressed moving forward.

All those we spoke with noted that there are few real surprises in the feedback that has been received, and the skills and attributes identified as needed are included in most school systems’ strategic plans. However, it is important to have these sentiments reinforced, and equally important to gain input from a broad, diverse audience, one that reflects the community in question.

“We’ve had hundreds of meetings in every segment of the community, and folks have really stayed with this,” Warwick said, adding that the city has been able to maintain momentum for the initiative even in the middle of pandemic, a clear indicator of its importance to the future of the city and the region.

Paul Foster

Paul Foster

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Portrait of a Graduate initiative, its goals, and why Springfield school officials believe it will pay dividends in their ongoing efforts to ensure that students not only graduate, but can succeed after they do.

 

Course of Action

Foster told BusinessWest that Portrait of a Graduate, or POG for short, is becoming an increasingly popular response to what has a national issue, or concern — helping students succeed beyond the classroom.

He said the movement, if it can be called that, started several years ago in the private-school arena, and was quickly embraced by public schools as well. The basic concept is to ask a question — what skills and attributes will students need to succeed years and decades down the road? — and ask a lot of different of people that question. It sounds logical, but it in many ways represents a new way of thinking about this issue, Warwick said.

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community,” he explained. “We’re getting a lot of input on the skills and attributes that people are looking for that, for traditional educators like myself, wouldn’t have been the first things we would be thinking about.”

What are these attributes and skills? The list includes financial literacy, problem solving, and perseverance — being able to stick with something until the problem is solved, said Foster, adding that what has been most important in this process has been not only hearing such comments, but hearing them over and over, and from different constituencies.

“What I thought was surprising, and important, was how aligned what we heard was,” he told BusinessWest. “We went from conversation to conversation and heard the same things over and over again. For example, we heard ‘financial literacy’ at every conversation. There wasn’t a group that we spoke with that didn’t say that was important.

“It was the same with things like problem solving,” he went on. “It wasn’t surprising that we heard those things; I think it was surprising that we were hearing the same things from every group; we were talking to business leaders, we were talking to parents, and we were talking to teachers, and they were identifying the same things, which is good.”

Canavan agreed, and said one of the broad goals of the initiative is to create a sense of ownership within the community when it comes to the city’s schools, or a stronger sense of ownership, as the case may be.

“Getting the collective wisdom of the community is important,” she said, “because I’m hopeful that one of the things that will come out of this is our community embracing that notion that this is our responsibility — that it’s not just the responsibility of the schools or just the responsibility of the parents — it’s our responsibility.”

The process of gathering feedback from these constituencies began in the fall of 2019, and the seeds were planted for the initiative maybe six months before that, said Foster, adding that the school department has been hosting what it calls ‘community conversations,’ a phrase chosen over ‘focus groups,’ which comes with some preconceived notions, not all of them good.

These conversations, organized by various stakeholders, have been going on continuously, he went on, adding that they have involved the business community, the refugee community, parents, educators, students, alumni, the faith community, and other constituencies. One was comprised of area business owners who are also alumni of Springfield Public Schools.

Traditionally, these groups, when involved in such conversations, focus on what needs to be done differently in the schools. For this exercise, they didn’t start there, but rather with two questions: ‘what are your hopes and dreams for children growing up in Springfield?’ and ‘what are the knowledge and skills that young people growing up in Springfield will need to realize those dreams?’

The feedback was intriguing, and in some cases powerful, said those we spoke with, especially when it came to students, what their dreams are, and what they need to make them reality.

This is reflected in those six aforementioned pillars and how the assembled feedback has shaped the working portrait with regard to how the school system must address each one.

Under ‘persist,’ for example, it notes that the Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield community will prepare students to:

• Remain focused on goals, using coping strategies and flexibility to overcome obstacles;

• Speak up for themselves and the issues that are important to them;

• Engage in self-reflection to build on strengths and weaknesses;

• Evaluate choices and outcomes when making decisions; and

• Give, receive, and respond to constructive feedback.

Under ‘communicate,’ the bullet points include ‘write and speak with clarity, evidence, and purpose’; and ‘know how to listen to others, ask questions, and seek to understand.’ And under ‘lead’ are these points, among others: ‘be curious, creative, open-minded, and flexible in new situations’; ‘advocate for themselves and for others’; and ‘seek opportunities to understand and serve the community.’

Now that the portrait is essentially complete, said Foster, those leading this initiative are pivoting from writing that document to writing a strategic plan, one that will attempt to prioritize what has been learned over the past year or so and create a blueprint for action and change moving forward. The aggressive timeline has the plan being completed in August, in time to implement changes for the next school year.

“We ended this with a recognition that there are some small ways and some big ways that we need to think differently and change schools,” he explained. “Schooling in the United States has been done in a relatively similar way for a very long time, and some pretty significant things need to change; some of those are going to be one-year changes, and others are going to be five-year changes.”

 

Drawing Conclusions

Moving forward, those we spoke with they expect the POG initiative to help introduce new performance measures and ways of evaluating whether students are ready to not simply receive a diploma, but succeed in what has always been the broader goal — success in the workplace and in life.

“You can have someone has mastered English and mastered math who is not ready for the workforce,” Foster said. “So part of the strategic plan will be introducing new performance measures that are not a replacement of but an addition to the ones we have today; we’re thinking about how you evaluate student performance differently.”

Where this thinking takes the school system is a question still to be answered. But the process begins with a portrait of a graduate, and in Springfield, this is still a work in progress and an important step forward.

 

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

Education

Balance Sheet

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

For Dawn Forbes DiStefano, it was the quintessential all-or-nothing proposition.

As the search for a successor to Joan Kagan, Square One’s long-time president and CEO, commenced last summer, Forbes DiStefano knew what few outside the organization — and probably few inside it, as well — knew: if she did not prevail in the nationwide search, she would no longer be working for the Springfield-based provider of childcare and other services for children and families.

That’s because the position she held at the time — executive vice president — was to be eliminated as the agency continued on a course of restructuring its top management.

But Forbes DiStefano, one of roughly 60 candidates to apply for the post, certainly had a leg up on the others — in large part because she was in that position. But also because she and Kagan had entered into what she described as a ‘shared management’ situation, one that familiarized her with all aspects of this operation and fully prepared her for the role she was seeking.

“I don’t think it was a shock that I was able to answer questions with more detail and probably more insight than other candidates, because I worked here,” she told BusinessWest. “But I worked really hard over the past 30 years to position myself to apply for a position like this.”

By that, she was referring to a lengthy career in the nonprofit realm, most of it at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, but the past five at Square One, where she has displayed what she and others consider perhaps her best strength — an ability to combine a passion for the agency’s mission with a strong business sense and attention to the bottom line needed to make sure a nonprofit can survive and carry out that mission.

It’s a mindset that embodies a quote she attributes to Sr. Mary Caritas, the long-time president of what is now Mercy Medical Center, and uses often: “no margin, no mission.”

Her outlook on nonprofit management, and her take on her own management style and the need for that balance between business and mission, are further summed up as follows:

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

Forbes DiStefano, who took the helm in late December, leads the agency at a time of perhaps unprecedented challenge — most of it brought on by COVID-19, although it was a difficult time for nonprofits even before the pandemic reached Western Mass. While coping with the pandemic and its day-to-day decision making, execution, and ongoing efforts to create an environment “not in crisis,” she is also planning for the long term and life after COVID.

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

She admitting to disliking the word ‘normal,’ at least in the way many are using it now, and told BusinessWest she isn’t sure what ‘normal’ will mean moving forward. She will help create at definition, at Square One, anyway, while also continuing to build on the legacy and broad portfolio of programs she’s inherited.

“When Joan arrived, we were the expert in early education and care, and we remain the expert in early education and care,” she explained. “She knew that she wanted to focus on families and a holistic, family approach; she knew that children would thrive and families would stabilize and become self-sufficient if we were serving whole families. We have the foundation, and we want to keep building on it.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Forbes DiStefano about her new role, her long career in nonprofit management, and how she intends to apply all she has learned to effectively write the next chapter in this agency’s long history.

 

School of Thought

In many ways, Forbes DiStefano said, her career has come full circle. Well, sort of.

Indeed, she went to Boston College and then UMass Amherst with the goal of becoming an elementary-school teacher, although she never really made it into the classroom as an instructor, as we’ll see in a minute.

But she is now leading an agency specializing in early-childhood education, but not devoted to that exclusively, as it was decades ago.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano wants to build on Square One’s foundation of serving whole families, not just children.

Flashing back to her college years, or just after she graduated in 1993, to be more precise, Forbes DiStefano said she encountered a challenging job market and had trouble breaking into the profession locally. She recalled a conversation she had with the superintendent in Southwick, who happened to be her high-school principal in West Springfield, about her struggles.

“He told me that it might have been worthwhile for me to do my student teaching here in Western Mass. instead of in Boston — we hire local.”

After spending some time at home thinking about what to do with her life and career, she decided to take what she could find, and this was a job at the YWCA of Greater Springfield as a receptionist. She didn’t take it expecting to stay more than 23 years, but that’s what happened, because, well, “I found my home … I found my calling,” she explained. “I was just smitten by being surrounded by women and girls whose mission — and passion — was to make life better for women and girls.”

Despite this enthusiasm, boredom quickly settled in. However, she would soon take on a new and rewarding role, somewhat by accident.

“We would get piles of mail every day with grant applications, RFPs, and proposals, and told the executive director at the time, Mary Reardon Johnson, ‘we should be applying for some of these grants; we’re doing amazing work here,’” Forbes DiStefano recalled. “She sort of flippantly said, ‘I don’t care what you do, just don’t lie too much; practice, do whatever you want to do, stay busy.’”

She did all of that and started responding to grant applications, and in short order, she started to get some approvals. And this eventually led to a role as grants manager, and then as director of Resource Development, playing a lead role in a capital campaign and raising funds for a number of building projects and new-program creation.

“It was an exciting time to be a part of the YWCA,” she said, adding that, while her teaching degree came in handy in many ways, she never did enter the classroom.

In late 2015, with a change of leadership at that agency, she decided it was time to seek a new challenge, and to get some advice on what the next chapter could and should be, she invited Kagan out for coffee.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life.”

In that conservation, she told Kagan she liked grant writing and knew there were opportunities for people with that unique and coveted skill. But she said she couldn’t write grants for just anyone or anything.

“I told her that the magic of grant writing comes because it’s something I care deeply about,” she recalled. “I told her I wanted her help because I had been offered a few opportunities, but wasn’t sure I could make it with those agencies.”

She wasn’t expecting to be given a job offer, especially because the agency had recently hired Kris Allard as vice president of Development and Communications, and wasn’t — at least initially. But she credits Kagan with sensing, and then seizing, an opportunity to strengthen Square One by bringing her on as a full-time grants officer.

But her role would soon involve much more than that.

Indeed, she would take a deep dive into the agency’s financial status, which at that time was “very unique and somewhat worrisome,” as she put it, and would eventually take on a broader role as chief Finance and Grants officer.

Over the next several years, she and Kagan would guide the agency through some difficult but necessary steps to stabilize the agency financially. These included closing Square One’s early-childhood education center in Holyoke in early 2017 — the agency still has a presence in that city with other services — and also a consolidation of services focused on infants and toddlers, with a greater emphasis on preschool.

“It was a very methodical and financially driven decision-making process,” she recalled. “And this is where Joan and I started finding a balance between the two of us. Joan is a social worker; she understands people and the strengths people bring to an organization, and she is phenomenal at program development. I think what I brought to her is an equal understanding of people and certainly the same amount of passion for children, but I really came to it with a fiscal mindset that we need to get this business financially viable.”

Through a hard focus on maximizing enrollment, creating efficiencies, and reducing expenses (often, again, as a result of difficult decisions), the agency, which was seeing annual deficits of $1.5 million or more only a few years ago, was at the break-even point for fiscal 2019.

“We have seen a massive improvement in our financial stability,” she said. “And we did that while keeping children and families at the core of what we do.”

 

Successful Succession

Forbes DiStefano told BusinessWest that she credits Kagan with taking a number of steps to successful transition to Square One to new leadership, work she believes will create a seamless passage of the baton.

“Joan reorganized Square One back in the fall of 2019,” she explained. “One of the senior-level administrators was leaving, and she [Kagan] took the opportunity not to announce her retirement, but certainly organize and structure the agency so it would be ready for when she was ready to announce.”

As part of that organizing and structuring, Kagan created an executive vice president’s role for Forbes DiStefano, one she said would enable her to make a desired transition away from the finance side of the operation and into a shared leadership role.

“From the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020, we enjoyed that relationship,” Forbes DiStefano explained. “Joan was very mindful, very practical, and extremely generous in that space; I think some leaders want to be in a shared-leadership position, but then, when it really comes to fruition, they don’t want to be. Joan really lived it.”

As noted, there was a nationwide search for a successor, something the agency’s board, Kagan, and Forbes DiStefano all thought was necessary. In the end, she said her 30 years of experience with nonprofits, her five years in Square One in roles that exposed her to all aspects of its operation, and especially that time in that shared-leadership role, positioned her to excel in that search.

Moving forward, she intends to use all that experience and learning, both on the job and in the classroom — over the years she has added a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit management and a master’s degree in nonprofit management and finance — to guide Square One through the next chapter in its long history.

While doing so, she must first contend with the pandemic, which has tested the agency in myriad ways. Overall, she said it has been Square One’s goal to create a calm, safe place in the midst of the pandemic, and in most all ways, it has been successful in that mission.

“We’re making decisions minute by minute about the health and safety of everyone at Square One,” she said. “What we have done very well is read, digest, interpret, and then operationalize all the CDC and DPH guidelines for health and safety. We don’t want you to be in crisis when you’re here at Square One. We understand that there’s a crisis going on our world, but our job, every single day from 7:30 to 5:30, is to create a stable, warm, non-crisis, non-traumatic environment for children to be able to learn and thrive.”

Meanwhile, Forbes DiStefano said she, Allard, and other members of the leadership team are focused on “expanding what we do well.”

That broad phrase includes early-childhood education, obviously, but also other services, including those focused on the mental health of children, needs that have only grown during the pandemic.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life,” she explained, noting that Square One has, in recent years, expanded what would be considered traditional mental-health services — referrals to therapists — with an early-childhood mental-services center called Cornerstone.

Launched as a pilot program, the center has grown in size, scope, and services.

“It’s designed to be both a physical and a social/emotional space — you can’t help but feel calm when you walk in,” she explained. “And I think it’s the most outstanding achievement we’ve made at Square One in the last five years.

“What we’ve created is a space where children can come with their peers,” she went on, adding that, instead of one-on-one therapy, there are group activities, such as games and book reading. “Everyone is experiencing some level of healing; it’s children helping each other learn how to cope, have healthy reactions, and reduce the triggers. And teachers are learning as well; they’re watching the therapist engage with the children.”

 

Bottom Line

Moving forward, Forbes DiStefano said it’s her goal — and now her job — to build on the solid foundation that’s been built at the agency and continually look for new ways to carry out the overriding mission: to improve quality of life for children and families. And there are many aspects to that work.

“It’s my job to welcome everyone to the table, make sure that our services are working seamlessly, and then find opportunities to bring new partners, new donors, new investors, and new ways of thinking to build on the good work that exists here,” she said.

That’s all part of managing Square One with that mindset, and with that balance, she described earlier.

As she said, ‘nonprofit’ is a tax status; it’s not a way to do business.

 

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

Cover Story Top Entrepreneur

Golden Opportunities Maintains a Torrid Pace of Growth, Diversification

From left, Golden Years principals Brian Santaniello, Mary Flahive-Dickson, and Cesar Ruiz Jr.

From left, Golden Years principals Brian Santaniello, Mary Flahive-Dickson, and Cesar Ruiz Jr.

Cesar Ruiz Jr. describes the business plan for Golden Years Homecare Services as “a living, breathing document.”

That intriguing phrase was chosen to convey many things all at once — especially movement, flexibility, seemingly constant change, and a certain ambitious tone.

Indeed, while every business plan is fluid and most are written in pencil — figuratively speaking, anyway — this one has been altered countless times since it was first drafted more than eight years ago, and the new lines on the page reflect why Ruiz, the company’s president, and the entire leadership team at this East Longmeadow-based venture have been named Top Entrepreneur for 2020 by BusinessWest.

Indeed, since being launched in 2016, this company, which started with home-care services, has expanded in every way imaginable. That includes its geographic footprint — it has moved well beyond its Greater Springfield roots and into Central Mass. and Northern Conn., with a new satellite office in downtown Boston set to open later this year. It also includes services; sensing opportunities, the company has expanded into behavioral health and will soon open a staffing component as well. And with a planned acquisition that Ruiz said is now “on the 2-yard line” — which means he can’t talk about it in any real detail, as much as he would like to — Golden Years will expand the portfolio to skilled care in the home.

There’s also been seemingly constant expansion of the facilities in East Longmeadow, with a buildout now in progress for the staffing and behavioral-health pieces of this ever-changing puzzle. And, looking ahead, plans are taking shape to franchise some of the services, expand into many more states, and perhaps take the company public to raise the capital to fuel all this expansion.

“The exciting thing is that we’ve only scratched the surface.”

Like an artist’s canvas, Golden Years is taking shape — and changing shape — quickly and dramatically, with those holding the brushes not exactly sure what the picture will look like when they’re done — or what ‘done’ will mean.

“We’re beginning our fifth year of operation, and it’s said that when you hit that fifth year, that’s when you really lay down that foundation,” said Ruiz. “We have grown by leaps and bounds in terms of our census, not only with our clients, but also with our caregivers; overall, we’re an organization that’s now managing more than 1,000 people, including administrative, caregiver staff, and clients.

“And the exciting thing,” he went on, “is that we’ve only scratched the surface.”

Not even a global pandemic has been able to slow this company down.

The sign on the property in East Longmeadow’s center announced the arrival of the Golden Years Behavioral Health Group, one of many indicators of growth at this company.

The sign on the property in East Longmeadow’s center announced the arrival of the Golden Years Behavioral Health Group, one of many indicators of growth at this company.

OK, it did slow it down a little. Last spring, as the virus invaded the region, some of the company’s home-care clients became understandably concerned about bringing people into the home and canceled or suspended services, and some caregivers decided they no longer wanted to be in that line of work, said Mary Flahive-Dickson, the company’s chief operating officer and a 30-year healthcare veteran, adding that the virus also slowed the pace of expansion into the Central Mass. market.

But, ultimately, opinions concerning homecare during this pandemic changed, she said, adding that many came to view that option as being far more attractive than a nursing home or other types of long-term-care facility, places that saw outbreaks of the pandemic and, in some cases, large numbers of deaths.

This change in attitude is reflected in the growing numbers of clients in the Greater Springfield area, she said, adding that the census is now approaching and perhaps over the 500 mark, representing roughly 20% growth over the past year — again, in the middle of a pandemic.

“Having been in home care for more than two decades, and in healthcare for more than three, the home is far less of a risk, with the pandemic protocols that are going on now, than a facility,” she said, adding there is growing sentiment within the healthcare profession that this trend, or movement, if it can be called either, could have a degree of permanence, especially at a time when some are warning that COVID-19 will certainly not be the last deadly virus to threaten the world’s population.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and its impact on the overall mental health of area residents certainly played a role in propelling the company into the behavioral-health realm, said Ruiz.

Cesar Ruiz Jr. projects that Golden Years could again double in size

Cesar Ruiz Jr. projects that Golden Years could again double in size over the next five years as the venture expands into new markets and new service areas.

That division of the company, if you will, was launched roughly a year ago, but the pandemic has certainly elevated the level of need and validated the decision to again rewrite that business plan and move into this field.

“Even though there’s a lot of agencies in the behavioral-health realm, we still felt there was an opportunity for us,” said Ruiz, noting that this division provides an array of services, including alcohol- and drug-addiction services and counseling to frontline workers such as police and firefighters.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the principals of Golden Years about how far this company has come in five short years, and just what Ruiz meant when he said they had barely scratched the surface.

 

Shining Examples

“We don’t look at ourselves as competitors — that’s a word that we don’t use here. We’re creators — we create our niche. And we do that by telling our story and emphasizing our services.”

That’s what Ruiz told BusinessWest when we talked with him roughly 14 months ago. That was his answer to a question concerning the home-care market in the Greater Boston region (and this one, as well), the many players already on that field, if you will, and his thoughts on why he thought there was room for one more.

His reply speaks to the confident operating tone at this venture, and offers, all by itself, some insight into why the company’s principals have been chosen for the prestigious Top Entrepreneur award, launched in 1996, and join an elite group of honorees (see chart, page 19) that includes college and hospital presidents, tech-startup founders, and many others.

“Over dinner, we realized that we had the same thoughts of creating a company that would satisfy a recognized need. We thought we could do better; we knew we could do better.”

Indeed, at Golden Years, they do look for niches, they really enjoy telling their story (we’ll get to it in a minute), and they put the emphasis on services. And, as Ruiz said, they don’t view themselves as merely another competitor in whatever field they happen to be entering, but as creators … of opportunities and, yes, niches.

That was true in homecare and in staffing, and it’s also true in behavioral healthcare, as Tracy Mineo, executive vice president of Golden Years Behavioral Health Services, explained when she was asked essentially the same question Ruiz was asked — about the playing field and why Golden Years saw opportunity within it.

“There are a lot of fine agencies operating in this region,” she said, noting that she worked for many years at one of them — Behavioral Health Network. “But even the bigger agencies … there is only so much that they can handle, especially during this time of COVID, when people are isolating; the agencies can only take on so many clients.

“So I think there’s more than enough room for these services,” she went on, adding, again, in the same fashion that Ruiz and others talk about the home-care side, that it is not merely about which services are being provided, but how.

And this brings us back to the Golden Years story. There are several, but this one is about Ruiz and his grandmother, who became the real inspiration for this venture. She needed home care in Florida more than 15 years ago, and Ruiz recalled for BusinessWest not only how poor that care was (he said family members generally provided the care for her), but also his resolve to create something much better.

That something better would eventually become Golden Years. That’s eventually. The timing and the setting were not exactly right for a new venture back then, he recalled, adding quickly that, after he relocated to this region, and especially after his father died in late 2016, he picked up the dream where he had left off.

Partnering with Lisa and Vincent Santaniello, who had similar experiences with caring for loved ones in the home, he launched Golden Years in early 2017.

“Over dinner, we realized that we had the same thoughts of creating a company that would satisfy a recognized need,” he explained. “We thought we could do better; we knew we could do better.”

Lisa Santaniello, executive vice president of Golden Years Homecare Services, agreed, noting that, from her first-hand knowledge, she understands the importance of home-care services to those suffering from a chronic condition, a devastating injury, a debilitating illness, or even loneliness, and that such individuals would certainly benefit from companion services.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says the pandemic initially forced many to cancel or suspend home-care services.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says the pandemic initially forced many to cancel or suspend home-care services. But as time went on, many came to see the home as a safer alternative to nursing homes and other facilities.

“When chronic care is needed or a medical crisis occurs, I am very aware the entire extended family is affected along with the patient,” she told BusinessWest. “Lives are turned upside-down; schedules are disrupted. Sometimes, needed care is short-term; the patient will recover, and normalcy will be restored. Other times, health conditions are far more long-lasting, and improvement does not occur.

“My own mother suffered from a debilitating and chronic disease. She had the benefit of a large, extended family who could assist in coordinating care and provide the services she needed,” Santaniello went on. “Many people aren’t that fortunate; that’s where Golden Years comes in. We provide necessary home-care services to the patient, while also providing respite for their weary caretakers.”

Business was slow to start — Ruiz recalls that it was weeks after opening before the phone really started ringing — but it picked up quickly.

Flahive-Dickson, a long-time healthcare consultant and educator focusing on healthcare management, joined the company in 2019 to essentially take the home-care component to the next stage — or stages. These include expansion within this market and also into other regions, starting with Central Mass. She said her role has evolved over time and now includes elements of operations, development, and strategic planning.

Her comments about why she joined the venture speak volumes about the ambitious mindset that prevails and the entrepreneurial nature of the company.

“I saw a wonderful vision and a throwback to the way care was provided,” she explained. “My dad was a physician in the Springfield area, and his care was real and positive and forward-thinking care, and I felt that same feeling when I first came here.”

 

Showing Their Metal

While the home-care operation has become a regional success story, to be sure, there have been some growing pains, and the pandemic certainly created a number of challenges.

As for the growing pains, they involve everything from finding adequate numbers of caregivers — a challenge for every player in this business — to breaking into established markets with large numbers of competitors, like Worcester and Boston, and, to a lesser extent, Northern Connecticut.

Finding adequate numbers of caregivers has been a constant challenge, said all those we spoke with, but an array of factors, from what had been historically low unemployment rates to the pandemic-induced anxiety about going into others’ homes, to the company’s torrid pace of growth, has only exacerbated the problem.

And the company has responded in what can only be called an entrepreneurial way, with creation of its own education program and a collaborative initiative with the city of Springfield to help train young, homeless individuals and bring them into this profession.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has created more hurdles, said Ruiz, listing everything from those initial fears about bringing people into the home — he estimates that between 60 and 80 clients suspended service for some period of time last spring — to what to do with caregivers sidelined by those suspensions of services (they kept them on the payroll); from the need to secure PPE for staff and train them in how to use it, to paying what became exorbitantly high prices for that PPE.

Brian Santaniello, chief of staff at Golden Years

Brian Santaniello, chief of staff at Golden Years, says the pandemic, and its broad, negative impact on mental health, validated the company’s expansion into behavioral-health services.

“We were experiencing the same problem everyone else was encountering — where to buy it,” he recalled. “And if we could find it … it was a terrible experience; things that we were paying 30 cents for were now costing us $1.25 or $1.50. The N-95s that were costing us 95 cents or a dollar … we were now paying $4.50 to $6 per mask.”

Flahive-Dickson agreed, and said procuring the needed supplies became a “24-hour mission” that involved all those at the company. But elements of that experience were rewarding, and even uplifting, she went on, citing volunteer efforts to not only make masks for some of the home-care providers, but also donate supplies to other institutions that were having issues, as well as gift bags to seniors and veterans.

But despite the pandemic, and in some ways because of it, the company has been able to maintain its strong pace of growth.

As Flahive-Dickson noted, attitudes about bringing people into the home — at least when viewed through the lens of a nursing home or similar facility being the most logical alternative — have certainly changed.

“We were getting calls all the time — the phone was ringing off the hook,” she said. “People were taking their loved ones out of facilities and saying, ‘now I need help.’

“There are many reasons why the home is now a safer haven than a facility, with the most obvious being that, if you’re having someone being taken care in the home, you have less than a handful of people taking care of that person,” she went on. “It’s the same person or the same team, and they are fully equipped with PPE. And they see only that one person, rather than going from room to room to room.”

These changing perceptions, along with a contract with the Commonwealth Care Alliance, one if its largest providers, and a growing relationship with the Veterans Administration, should help the company as it now moves forward with its expansion into Central Mass. — it now has a small number of clients in the Worcester area and a satellite office in Marlboro — and also into Boston, with another satellite office to open soon on Cambridge Street, said Brian Santaniello, the company’s chief of staff and a stakeholder.

“One of our primary goals for 2021 is to expand in those markets,” he said, adding that the company has a toehold in Worcester and Northern Connecticut, and is still in the infancy stages of its push into Boston, but expects the market share to grow steadily in all three regions over the next few years.

 

Forward Thinking

Moving forward, Golden Years is advancing plans to provide home care in multiple states, and that’s just one component of a larger expansion strategy.

Indeed, Ruiz and his team are preparing to unveil a staffing component, and it has already launched its behavioral-health division, one that was, as noted, partly inspired by the pandemic and the dramatically rising need for behavioral- and mental-health services, and likewise driven by recognized need for such services among the home-care clientele.

Indeed, Ruiz estimated that at least 15% to 20% of the company’s 500 clients are receiving some type of counseling service. With their entrepreneurial mindset, the company’s leaders began asking the question, ‘are these services that we can and should provide ourselves?’

The answer that came back was a resounding ‘yes,’ he went on. “We didn’t want to leave anything on the table; this was an opportunity for us to provide these kinds of services to our existing clients.”

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

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

Santaniello agreed. “This pandemic is having a tremendous negative impact on mental health and drug addiction, and we see the need,” he said. “And we’re going to meet that need.”

The company hired Mineo and also Deborah Rodrigues, now the clinical director, and gave them equity stakes in the venture.

Mineo, as noted earlier, said there is clearly unmet need in the region that this new division will meet. And the division is starting with outpatient services, including addiction, mental-health, and behavioral-health services for those 18 and over, with priority populations being seniors, pregnant and postpartum women, IV drug users, and first responders, a constituency that has been traditionally been underserved, in her view.

“We had identified that there are so many services going on in the community, including our local police departments, but no one is really providing services for our first responders,” she explained. “This includes the police officers, the EMTs, the fire departments that are right on the front line.

“With this pandemic, the civil unrest that’s going on, and everything else … all this is traumatizing and retraumatizing people on a daily basis,” she went on. “This is an unmet need in the community.”

As for that acquisition that was on the 2-yard line and that the team couldn’t talk much about, Flahive-Dickson, who likened it to a VNA, said it will broaden the client portfolio by 150 or so, add to the staff, obviously, and broaden the roster of services provided in the home.

“It’s home healthcare, not home care,” she explained, adding that this will be an important addition to the portfolio, one that provides both synergies and growth opportunities.

Looking further out, Ruiz, when asked where he expects this company to be in five years, said he expects to continue the current pace and effectively double in size. He also expects to be in many more states and possibly have franchises of the Golden Years operation — or operations, to be more exact.

That expansion will come in a number of forms, he went on, listing both organic growth and additional acquisitions, with the latter becoming more feasible, and practical, as many smaller ventures, many of them operated by Baby Boomers approaching retirement, face succession issues and other challenges.

“On the home-care front, some of the individuals that have started now want to step back,” he explained. “And because of our vision, we have a larger appetite.”

Meanwhile, Ruiz and other company leaders are in the exploratory phases of perhaps franchising the concept and even going public, to provide the capital for such steps.

“Franchising is part of our thought process; it’s part of our business plan,” he noted. “And there’s also a public initiative. Those conversations have been ongoing, and now, in 2021, they will escalate, because those things take time to structure.”

Elaborating, he said the company has hired a CPA firm and a legal team with those plans in mind and with the goal of being ready when the time and opportunity are right to move quickly and decisively.

And, in many important ways, that has been the MO from the very start.

 

Good as Gold

When asked to sum up what has enabled Golden Years to get off to such a fast and dramatic start, Ruiz said it comes down to two words: culture and teamwork.

The culture rests in an attitude Ruiz has instilled, one where he treats each client as if the individual was his mother or father — a culture that has resonated with Flahive-Dickson, Mineo, and others who have joined the company.

“We’ve communicated that throughout the system — we’ve built it in,” he explained. “And I think that makes a big difference. We’re hands-on, and every caregiver knows, every admin, every director here knows, how passionate I am and how serious I am; this is the collaboration of a team.”

It’s also the byproduct of an ambitious, ever-changing business plan, one that really is a living, breathing document.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

They’re Still Goal-oriented

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Michael Rouette says he keeps a copy of the 36-year-old news story in his office. He’ll take it out and read it on occasion, and will proudly show it others, usually without much prompting.

“Moriarty-Rouette Team Buys Ticket to Finals” is the headline over that item in the Palmer Journal Register from November 1984, which goes on to note how goals by Rouette, then a junior, and Dan Moriarty, a freshman, along with a “tenacious defense,” propelled the Monson High School soccer team to a 2-1 win over Monument Mountain, giving the Mustangs, as that headline noted, a ticket to the regional finals in Chicopee a few days later.

Today, the Moriarty-Rouette team is still focused on goals, but now as president and executive vice president and chief operating officer (a new position), respectively, at Monson Savings Bank. They are the leaders writing the next chapter in the bank’s history after the retirement of long-term president Steve Lowell.

As the two talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, just weeks before Moriarty was to add the title CEO to his business card (Lowell is still acting in that capacity until mid-February), they talked often about their time on various fields together — they were both three-sport stars — and made frequent use of sports terms and phrases.

Indeed, when talking about the transition in leadership at the top and work to make it seamless, Moriarty said he will try to act as a good referee would — “you don’t know he’s on the field during the game.” And the two of them made early and very frequent references to the importance of teamwork at this (and any) institution.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the pandemic and this transition in leadership, both said there is no playbook for a such a challenging passing of the baton, so they will essentially write their own.

“We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance.”

“As far as meeting with customers and being out in the community more, Mike and I haven’t had the opportunity to really do that, for safety reasons,” Moriarty said. “And that makes things more difficult, but we’re adjusting and preparing for that day when this is over.”

As for that article, both men say it conveys more than coincidence that two high-school soccer teammates, now in their 50s, are leading the bank headquartered in the town where they grew up. Much more. They say it conveys other ‘C’ words, including commitment to the community and continuity.

“That article reminds me of who we are and where we’re from, and not to ever forget that,” Rouette said. “But it also speaks to how we’ve grown as individuals, as friends, as co-workers, as partners, and as leaders. That article symbolizes how our lives have changed but really haven’t changed, and how success can be built on people who have the same vision, the same mindset, and the same family values.”

Moriarty concurred. “We’ve known each other for so long, but the values are the same, even though we’re a long way from the soccer field. “We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance; we try to bring that culture to the bank and to our employees, and we try to lead by example. But we also understand that each individual in the bank is a contributor, and we want them to be part of the team and the success of the bank. We did that before we became leaders of the bank, and we’re just going to continue that and build on that culture of teamwork.”

The two take on their new roles at an intriguing time for the bank — and all banks. The pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities — certainly more of the former than the latter, and made some aspects of being a bank leader more difficult. Meanwhile, there is immense competition in a region described by most in the industry as ‘overbanked.’

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, was opened at the height of the pandemic last year, but it is nonetheless off to a solid start.

Both Moriarity and Rouette said that Monson Savings, now with more than $508 million in assets, has been on a steady growth trajectory and they are committed to moving the bank toward further expansion, geographically and otherwise.

 

They’re on the Ball

As noted earlier, Moriarty and Rouette were both three-sport athletes. While most noted for their exploits on their soccer field — both would go to play in college; Moriarty at Providence College and Rouette at Old Dominion — they were also teammates in baseball and basketball.

And as they recalled those days, they often leaned on some self-deprecating humor to make their points.

Indeed, when discussing their time as starting guards (and captains) on the hardwood, they made it clear they were not exactly go-to options when the Mustangs were looking for points.

“I was the point guard, and I couldn’t shoot,” said Moriarty, as he looked at Rouette, who nodded energetically, but said his front-court mate was ultimately the better alternative.

“I was pretty fast … I could steal the ball, but I could only dribble left-handed,” Rouette recalled. “I would have a breakaway, and our coach, Bill Devine, would essentially tell me to stop, hand the ball to Moriarty, and let him shoot it, because it would be like throwing a brick against the backboard when I let it go. I couldn’t put the ball in the ocean.”

Despite those references, the two were much-heralded for their exploits on various fields, and for their work together, even if it was only for two years.

Indeed, while Moriarty continued to make headlines at Monson High in the mid-’80s, Rouette was playing soccer at Old Dominion, majoring in Economics, and, when home from school in the summer and winter, working as a teller at Monson Savings Bank. During those short stints, he impressed those at the bank enough to get a job offer of sorts — specifically an invitation to become part of the lending team when he graduated.

“When I was a junior at Old Dominion, I already knew where I was heading,” he said, adding that he did join the bank and has been there ever since.

Moriarty, who would take a far more circuitous route to his hometown bank, has memories of seeing Rouette heading for a work in a suit while he was toiling for the town’s Highway Department while he was home from college for the summer. “It’s 95 degrees out, Michael’s going to work in a tie, and I’m thinking, ‘I want to work in air conditioning.’”

He would, first at Coopers & Lybrand in Hartford, and later at Aetna, HealthSouth, and then Unicare.

“But the attraction to Monson Savings was always in the back of my mind,” he recalled, adding that, during some conversations with Rouette, he brought up the possibility of joining the bank, and eventually did so in 1998 as an accounting manager.

The two have risen in the ranks over the years, with Rouette rising to senior vice president and chief lending officer, and Moriarty eventually climbing to senior vice president and chief financial officer in 2011.

When Lowell announced his intentions to retire not quite a year ago, both men sought to succeed him as president and CEO. Those titles would eventually go to Moriarty, but the two essentially form a new leadership team, one that brings complementary strengths and shared values.

Moriarty noted that, through his career at the bank, he’s been focused on the finance side of the equation, while Rouette has concentrated on lending and customer relationships, and, in his new role, will add retail to his list of responsibilities.

“Mike is very customer-focused, while I have somewhat different responsibilities — strategy, human resources, finance, marketing, compliance, and technology,” said Moriarty. “I think the bank is positioned to use our strengths in a proper way.”

 

Net Results

All this prompts more flashbacks, and the inevitable analogies, to 1984 and that soccer semifinal against Monument Mountain, where Moriarty notched the first goal of the game, and Rouette, then the all-time scoring leader for the Mustangs, recorded the game clincher.

As for the finals game … that did not go as well — a loss to an undefeated Wahconah team that still stings three and half decades later. (Moriarty wasn’t able to play in that contest due to a broken ankle he suffered in the semifinal.)

But while they do like to look back, Moriarty and Rouette are obviously far more focused on the present and the future.

As for the former, that means everything from coping with the many aspects of COVID-19 to growing the bank’s latest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, which opened last summer, in the middle of the pandemic.

That timing wasn’t perfect — many branch lobbies were still closed — but the new facility is off to a solid start.

“We had a good core group of customers in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow,” Moriarty said. “We transitioned them internally to the East Longmeadow branch, so we had a good start, and we’re looking to have that branch in a good position in a shorter period than you normally would in a new market.”

As for the pandemic itself, it’s been a time for the bank to play to its strengths — yes, that’s still another sports phrase — and use its focus on customer service to not only take care of (and retain) existing customers, but also gain some new ones. This has been the case on all fronts, but especially with the commercial lending portfolio and the bank’s strong track record handling applications for Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans.

“We basically got out in front of it,” said Rouette as he explained the bank’s basic strategy with the PPP program and its commercial customers in general. “We knew that that they [customers] couldn’t be chasing us. We had a great team effort to reach out to all our business customers; we said, ‘we know there’s an issue, we know PPP is coming down the road, and when the spigot opens, we’ll be there for you.’ And we did it.

“People needed to hear your voice,” he went on, adding that every commercial customer was called in an effort to gauge their needs and concerns and update them on the status of their application. “And that calmed people, that they weren’t on voice mail or weren’t able to get through.”

This high level of customer service enabled the bank to handle PPP loans for non-customers, gains that both Moriarty and Rouette chalked up to word-of-mouth referrals that should have some long-term benefits for the institution as a new round of the program begins later this month.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator between their soccer squad from the ‘80s and the staff at Monson Savings — the importance of solid teamwork.

Looking back, and ahead, Moriarty said he was mentored by his two immediate predecessors, Lowell and Roland Desrochers, and he understands what has made the bank successful — especially its employees and community-bank look, feel, and operating values — and has no intention of altering the game plan.

“The vision for the bank is to continue to be the community bank that these communities need,” he told BusinessWest. “From a business side, commercial customers as well as retail customers, we want to stay competitive in our delivery systems — digital, mobile … we can have people bank with us from Monson to the Cape and into Connecticut. We want to be relevant in the communities we serve for not just today, but for years to come.

“The culture will remain the same,” he went on. “And we’re just going to leverage the talent we have inside the bank.”

Meanwhile, both men intend to continue their active involvement in the community, which mirrors the work of Lowell, Desrochers, and others that came before them. This work comes in many forms, with Moriarty devoting time and energy to several groups, including the East of the River Chamber of Commerce (he’s a board member), the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Brightside Golf Classic, and Monson High School, where he’s the assistant varsity soccer coach.

As for Rouette, he is similarly involved, but focuses most of his time on the YMCA of Greater Springfield, with which the bank has long enjoyed close ties. “Everyone has a passion, and that’s mine,” he said, adding that he’s been a long-time board member and supporter on many levels.

 

Bottom Line

Summoning still another sports analogy of sorts, Moriarty said it is customary, at least with good teams, to look ahead, not back, when a season ends.

“Because it’s January, we say, ‘last season’s over … we finished December, we did well, but now it’s 0-0, and we’ve got a new season ahead of us,’” he noted, adding that, given the many variables confronting banks — and all businesses, for that matter — it’s impossible to know how this new season will go.

What these two do know is that Monson Savings Bank will, as noted, continue to play to its strengths, honed over many years and under leaders that these two have learned from.

In short, there’s a winning formula at the bank, and their only real plans for the future are to continue using it.

 

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

 

Features Special Coverage

Marking a Milestone

Over the years, Paul Mina says, the name over the door and on the stationery has changed many times — previous incarnations include Community Chest, Red Feather, and United Fund — but the basic mission of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) certainly hasn’t.

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same,” said Mina, who serves as administrator of both the United Way of Pioneer Valley and the United Way of Tri County in Framingham in an arrangement that speaks to the many fiscal challenges the organization has confronted in recent years and the need to consolidate and achieve economies of scale. “And that is, very simply, to improve the quality of life for people living in the Pioneer Valley area.”

As he talked with BusinessWest about this mission, on the occasion of the agency’s centennial (the actual birthday is Jan. 10), Mina was looking through some old news clippings, brochures, and assorted memorabilia that had been gathered to help with various efforts to mark this milestone. Together, these pieces help tell the story, he said, adding that the United Way has certainly evolved, as its name has, over the years.

But, as he noted, the underlying mission hasn’t.

“I look for a golden thread throughout the narrative,” he said as he thumbed through a large scrapbook and collections of news stories and promotional material. “And through all of that narrative, all of that archival material … the golden thread that links 1921 to 2021 is helping to improve people’s lives; that’s the endgame.

Paul Mina

Paul Mina

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same.”

“And it’s very significant to note that it was never about giving a handout — it was always about giving a helping hand — and to do it with as much dignity and respect as possible,” he continued. “Whether it’s 1921 or 2021, there are still people who need a helping hand so they can move from dependence to independence and self-sufficiency. That has been the goal, it is the goal, and it will always be the goal.”

 

It is somewhat fitting, said Mina, that the agency’s milestone celebration comes in the midst of a crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic — because, while the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been there to serve those in need every month of every year since January 1921, it has always come forward and stepped up at especially challenging times to meet greater and often different needs.

With that, Mina offered some history lessons. During World War II, for example, the agency, historically linked very closely with the Red Cross, worked to provide a number of services to returning veterans, and in the case of the local chapter, there was a specific focus on helping to reunite families broken apart by the war, and then help them assimilate to a very changed landscape.

“There was a lot of upheaval back home,” he said. “The men were off fighting overseas, the women were in factory jobs … there was a very different kind of assimilation. When a lot of these men came home, their wives, who were basically homemakers prior to them leaving, many of them had good jobs and careers in factories. This wasn’t something that any of them were used to seeing.

“When the men came back, there was a great amount of adjustment that had to take place,” he went on. “The women had to go back to their previous domestic role because the men had to get their jobs back to go back to work. There was a lot of assimilating, and that’s when philanthropy really took off because, now that women had been outside the home, they were involved in many, many things they hadn’t been involved in before, charity being one of them.”

 

That’s just one example, he said, noting that the agency has stepped up during other periods of turbulence, change, and need, providing help with everything from administering the polio vaccine in the 1950s to supplying food to the many who needed it during the Great Depression.

Bringing things right up to the present, Mina noted that, in recent years, the agency has added new services and new ways to help those in need, with everything from prescription savings to financial-literacy efforts to a Mass 211 hotline and its companion suicide-prevention ‘call-to-talk’ line.

And during this pandemic, UWPV, which serves Hampden County, Granby, and South Hadley, has continued that pattern of stepping up.

Indeed, it created a COVID-19 relief fund that including the awarding of grants to roughly 40 organizations, bringing a truckload of 5,000 hot meals to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, delivering another truckload of food-relief boxes (20 pounds per box) to the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club for distribution throughout the city, an initiative called Project Toybox that brought 15,000 new toys to affiliated agencies across the region for distribution to young people, and even a drive-up Halloween event at the TD Banknorth building in downtown Springfield, which served to fill a void left by formal and informal bans on trick-or-treating (more on some of these later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Mina about the many things being celebrated as this agency celebrates this milestone, and how the work being carried out during the pandemic is in many ways simply the latest chapter in a century-old story of meeting needs within the community.

 

Past Is Prologue

To emphasize his repeated points about how things have changed over the past century or so — and how they haven’t — Mina pulled a clipping from the pile he had collected, an advertisement of sorts for something called the ‘Charity Chest,’ and pointed to the date, 1918, and then the headline over the piece:

“Charity is not a pocket for the shiftless to dip into,” it read, with the subhead “Far from it. Charity is a long ways from being a lazy man’s paradise.”

Mina noted that this was a reference to how many looked upon those seeking help in those days. He also noted that the language regarding charitable efforts has long since changed, with those involved no longer making any references to the ‘shiftless’ or the ‘lazy,’ for obvious reasons.

But the rest of the ad could almost run today, he said, noting phrases like these with regard to charity: “Its prime function is to relieve distress. Always has been and always will be. Yet, while giving relief in deserving cases, it does far more than that.” And also: “Its main object is to prevent the cause, thereby vitally affecting you and me and everybody. Distress does not always mean poverty. It may mean misfortune, sickness, or the suffering of innocents from wrongdoing of others. All of these charity tries to prevent.”

Again, some of the language has obviously changed over the years, but those sentiments expressed back at the height of World War I are those that still define the United Way today. As Mina noted, it’s not a handout, but a helping hand, and it has been this way through a host of name changes, affiliations, and partnerships.

Tracing the history of all those names the agency has used, Mina said the organization got its start as the Springfield Community Chest. Later, it became the Springfield Community Chest Red Feather Drive (he still has a red feather mounted in a large frame), with the feather being a symbol of charitable giving for more than 150 years. In fact, he noted, the Red Cross and the Red Feather ran an annual appeal together, before the two organizations separated.

Later, the organization was known under the names United Appeal and United Fund, before United Way came into use in the late 1960s.

Regardless of the name on the door, the organization has been carrying out the same essential mission, said Mina, adding that the agency’s programmatic niche, if that’s the proper phrase for it, can be summed up with three simple words: basic human needs.

Elaborating, he said these include food, clothing, shelter, and programs for children and seniors. “These are the things we focus on for a reason, because these are the things that resonate with people. These are the things, whether people are black, white, no matter what ethnicity or color, people in need are in need. Period. That’s the way it’s always been here, and I’m proud to say that it continues to be that way.”

To put the mission and its importance in perspective, Mina rewound the tape on a phone call he received only a half-hour before he talked with BusinessWest from a woman now living in New Mexico after relocating from this region.

“We helped her and her family when they were very much in need about 10 years ago,” he said. “And she called me to say, ‘I don’t know if you remember me or not … but I’m so and so, and I moved from the Pioneer Valley down to New Mexico, and a friend of mine who still lives there needs a helping hand right now — she’s got it very tough, she’s unemployed. I told her that I would call you because I was treated so well by the United Way back then that I wanted her to know that there was someone they could call that would treat them with dignity and respect and do the best they can for you. They’re not going to promise you the moon, but they’ll do the best to help you.’

“That’s a nice compliment she paid us there,” he went on, “because that’s the goal; that’s the whole goal.”

 

Where There’s a Will …

Carrying out these goals has never been anything approaching easy, but in recent years, it has become much more difficult, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the way individuals undertake charitable giving has changed, with many now choosing to give directly to specific groups, rather than to larger umbrella agencies like the United Way that funnel money to other nonprofits, said Mina. Meanwhile, the business landscape has changed dramatically through mergers and consolidations, especially in the financial-services sector, and with many small, family businesses simply disappearing from the landscape.

Also, some major corporations have created their own charitable foundations or giving arms, as was the case with MassMutual in Springfield, which had long been one of the primary supporters of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, he said, noting that all these factors have contributed to making the organization itself much smaller — as well as the level of donations it makes annually. Indeed, while this was a $5 million United Way years ago, in terms of total donations, it is now closer to $2 million.

It was these challenges that prompted the UWPV board to explore a number of options when it came to creating efficiencies and reducing the cost of doing business, for lack of a better phrase, while still carrying out its mission. One of those options was a partnership with the United Way of Tri County whereby that agency would share an administrator and also handle backroom operations — bookkeeping, marketing, and others — for this region’s United Way for a percentage of the funds raised during its annual campaign.

The partnership, which came after several years of unsettledness at the UWPV, one that included two CEOs and two interim CEOs between 2016 and 2018, has brought what the board desired most — stability and continued autonomy.

Those qualities have been needed during a pandemic that has further tested the agency, forcing staff to work remotely for a lengthy stretch because its services were not deemed essential, and further impacting its ability to raise money because of the way it has impacted businesses and families alike.

Indeed, this 100th year for the UWPV has been very different, and also very challenging. Need within the communities has obviously increased, but raising funds to meet those needs has been made much more difficult during the pandemic, especially when it comes to the United Way’s time-honored, preferred method of soliciting donations — via payroll deduction.

“Many of the [annual] campaigns are going to be hurting this year because companies are not going back to work in the time frame we need them to,” Mina said earlier this year. “You can’t ask for people to make contributions through payroll deduction if they’re working, and it’s very hard to ask people for support when they themselves are hurting for the first time maybe in many years.

“We’ve found that a very significant number of people in the hospitality industry, restaurants, and food and beverage operations are only a shadow of what they once were,” he went on. “And some of them are never going to recover; a lot of support isn’t there.”

Yet, amid these challenges, the UWPV has found new and different ways to meet its mission during this difficult year, and new and different ways to remind people of the importance of its basic mission.

Through efforts ranging from the food-distribution efforts to the Halloween gathering, the agency was able to meet growing need within the community and address the many ways in which the pandemic impacted day-to-day living and overall quality of life.

Mina was especially proud of Project Toybox.

“It was a wonderful thing,” he said of that initiative. “A lot of the kids that live in the urban area don’t have a backyard, they couldn’t go to the park, they weren’t allowed to congregate … so we figured this was a great opportunity to give them something they could do indoors.”

All this came on top of the annual Stuff the Bus program, which, as that name suggests, fills a school bus each August with age-appropriate backpacks with all the school supplies kids need.

This year, the agency filled 2,600 such backpacks, but in this era of COVID, the exercise was quite bit a different than it has been in previous years.

“It was difficult to come by this stuff because it’s usually donated by the public,” said Mina. “People come to Six Flags, and they get a free roller-coaster ride when they bring items for the backbacks. There’s also a huge collection point at the Holyoke Mall. All those things were not allowed this year.”

So the agency relied instead on a large donation from the MassMutual Foundation as well as some money from the COVID-19 Relief Fund to purchase the needed items at a discounted price.

Overall, these various efforts have been a continuation of that golden thread Mina mentioned earlier, a concerted effort to enable individual donors to collectively make a huge difference in the lives of countless people.

“It’s about empowering the masses to do things that they can’t do alone,” said Mina in summing it all up. “That’s why payroll deduction, which has been the hallmark of the United Way since its inception, is so important. It allows people who don’t have money in the bank, who aren’t necessarily individuals of high net worth, to be able to take a little money out of their paycheck every week, so, at the end of the year, they might have a $52 donation. That $52 donation, added together with the other folks at their company who do the same thing and give a dollar a week, ends up being an enormous amount of money. But they could never do that on their own if they had to give a lump sum.”

 

Finding a Way

Looking to the future, though, payroll deduction is becoming a less-effective way to raise money, for those reasons mentioned earlier, he said. Meanwhile, instead of channeling funds to other agencies, the United Way will be looking to provide more direct services to the residents of this region.

“We just finished a needs assessment, and 90% of the respondents were donors, and of those 90%, 82% thought that the model we had of funding agencies to do good work, to be a middleman of sorts, was not a model that is modern; it’s not a model that they’re willing to continue to support at the levels that they have in the past.

“They want to know that their contribution is directly impacting things,” he went on. “So we looked at the areas that these donors were identifying as gaps, and we put that together with some intelligence work we did on our own, plus what other agencies were telling us, and we identified three huge gaps that we’re going to fill: food insecurity, continuation and expansion of the call-to-talk and Mass 211 lines, and youth-development programs.

“These are our core areas,” he explained. “The survey only reinforced what we already knew — that our niche is basic human needs and helping people improve their quality of life.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Mina said it will be a milestone year for the United Way, and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways.

But for many of the region’s residents, there won’t be much to celebrate. Indeed, while 2020 was the roughest year in memory for many, the coming months are projected to be in some ways even worse as those basic human needs he mentioned continue to mount, healthcare issues multiply because of the many effects of the pandemic, and resources become more scarce.

“There’s going to be a major shortfall in resources in the next year because COVID is having devastating effects on our economy as well as our health,” he said. “But we’ll figure out a way to deal with it; we’ll figure out a way to continue doing our job. We’ve faced tough times before — we’ve faced World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, the ’60s … we’ve been there through all these things, and we’ll be there through this, too.”

Figuring out a way and doing its job. This is what the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been doing for a century now. And as its second century starts, this track record of success is certainly worth celebrating.

 

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

Economic Outlook

The Big Picture

Bob Nakosteen has an old saying hanging in a frame in his office at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — the one he hasn’t been in but once since last March.

It reads: “You Can See the Future by Looking at the Past.”

Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at Isenberg, said he’s lived by those words, especially at this time of year, when he’s asked to try to forecast what might come over the next 12 months.

Only this time, that saying doesn’t hold. Indeed, while people tend to throw that word ‘unprecedented’ into the mix early, often, and sometimes when it doesn’t actually apply, one could certainly use it with regard to COVID-19, the economy, and any efforts to look into the crystal ball and make some projections.

“In virtually every situation I’ve been in before, you can pick out an historical situation that came close and give some perspective on what might happen next,” he said. “Now, you can’t at all. Even 1919 and the last global pandemic was different; there was lingering demand from World War I, and a lot of global agriculture had been shut down. That really bolstered United States agriculture; we were still predominantly an agricultural country. There were some circumstances that we can’t duplicate now.”

So if people can’t look to the past to project what will happen in 2021, how can they handle that assignment?

“Not very easily,” said Nakosteen, who noted there are always question marks going into a new year. This year, they come by the bushel bag, and cover everything from vaccines — how effective they’ll be and when they’ll be widely available — to overall consumer confidence, always a huge issue in determining which way the arrow will point; from the election of a new president to what’s happening in other countries, especially with regard to the pandemic; from the employment scene (specifically, how many of those millions of lost jobs will actually come back) to whether, and to what degree, Congress keeps printing money and dispensing it to those in distress.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating. But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

Add it all up, and there is simply too much uncertainty to make any real projections, said Nakosteen, adding that, while the country may well avoid another recession, or the dreaded ‘double-dip recession,’ as it’s called, the eventual shape of the recovery — which has been the subject of endless conjecture, with possibilities ranging from a V to a U to something like a Nike swoosh — is still be to determined. Obviously.

“What we could have is a W-shaped recovery,” said Nakosteen, offering another possibility, noting that, in this scenario, the economy would move back down again, hopefully not as bad as it did when it cratered last March, but eventually climb back up.

“With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the bounce-back might also take the more dramatic Nike swoosh shape. “But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

When asked about the factors that will dictate the eventual shape of the recovery, Nakosteen said there are almost too many to count. They include:

• How much more stimulus money will be injected into the economy. Like most, Nakosteen said the recent $900 billion package approved by Congress will help, but it won’t be enough. When asked if the federal government could keep on printing money, in essence, he said he didn’t see why it couldn’t. “One of the things that happens during an economic crisis is that the government will provide temporary support until the economy heals itself. This is not permanent; this is temporary, and it’s a bridge to the future. And right now, we need a bridge.”

• The election of a new president. “That generally seems to perk things up — there’s generally a first-administration bounce — but in these unprecedented times, who knows?”

• To what extent new habits might become permanent. These include everything from not dining out or traveling to doing most shopping online, to working remotely. “I would like to get back to going out more, but my guess is that my life has changed, and we’ll never really go back to the way it was before the pandemic.”

• How many of the jobs that have been lost are regained. Employment is always a key to any recovery, and there is conjecture that many jobs will be lost permanently due in part to those changes in behavior; and

• Whether this region can somehow benefit from these changes in behavior and attitude. Some have suggested that, now that people can successfully work remotely, they may choose to do so in a setting like Western Mass., which provides space and a lower cost of living than Boston or other major cities.

While making hard projections is difficult, Nakosteen said he could offer what he considers to be a best-case scenario:

“By early summer, enough of the country is vaccinated and enough of the state is vaccinated, and, almost as importantly, people have confidence in the vaccine and the percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated, and then you see people start to re-engage. The industries that have been hurt have all been face-to-face industries — accommodations, retail, other services, the arts, and recreation. These face-to-face services start to bounce back quickly because people have a great hunger to get back out. If things go well, you’re going to see them get back out in the summer, and that’s when you’ll start to see the beginning of a serious rebound.”

Again, that’s the best-case scenario.

The worst case? An insufficient percentage of the population receives the vaccine, supply-chain issues “gum things out,” news of new strains of the virus spreads fear, people lose confidence in a recovery, and things drag on into the fall and perhaps longer, he said, adding, again, that myriad factors will determine which scenario — possibly one in between those two — becomes reality.

Summing things up, Nakosteen noted that, in some respects, we know what’s coming next — the administering of vaccines to millions of people over the next several months. What we don’t know is how all that is going to play out.

As he said, normally you can look to the past to see the future. But not in this case.

 

Economic Outlook

Education

Jamie Birge was searching for a piece of wood to knock on.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), which he serves as president, had essentially made it through a very different fall semester with only a handful of positive cases of COVID-19. He considers this a victory for his institution, and a clear indication that the many protocols put in place were effective.

“For the full semester, our positive rate was 10 times lower than the Commonwealth’s positive rate, and each week we outperformed our host city [North Adams], the county, and the Commonwealth,” he explained. “We were actively hunting the virus through our testing protocol, and through our tracing protocol, we made sure there was no spread. I think we had six cases, and in each of those cases, none of them spread on campus, because we were able to identify the virus through testing, we were able to either quarantine or isolate individuals, and we went to remote learning after Thanksgiving, which turned out to the best time to do that because there was an uptick in positive cases in Berkshire County, and our students were already off campus learning remotely. From a numbers perspective, we did extraordinarily well.”

The semester was a success on many levels, he went on, but for the students living on campus in singles or in off-campus housing, it certainly wasn’t the “typical residential college experience,” he noted, adding that those on campus were all in single rooms, and access was limited between residence halls. “You couldn’t go visit other people.”

Jamie Birge

Jamie Birge

“Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Focusing on the future, Birge is obviously looking forward to the day when the school can again offer that full experience. He’s not sure when that will happen — certainly not before next fall and perhaps not even then — but there are signs of encouragement, he said, referring to everything from the introduction of vaccines to the projections for enrollment for next September.

“The latest I’ve seen for the 2021 cycle is that we’re within 3% of the pre-pandemic numbers, so we’re feeling good about that,” he said, noting that, by this time of the year, many students have already committed to where they will be attending school in the fall, although the next four or five weeks are critical. “I think that’s a soft figure, and, overall, we think this is going to be a multi-year emergence to return to where we had been. But I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re only off 3%.”

He said that number seems to be consistent with what the other eight state schools are reporting, although there is some variation. And time will tell if those numbers hold up as the vaccines are rolled out and their effectiveness is gauged.

Meanwhile, beyond the all-important process of rebuilding enrollment, colleges and universities will face other challenges, said Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), especially the need to “adjust, adapt, and evolve,” as she put it, to effectively prepare students for what will be a changed landscape when it comes to the workforce and how work is done.

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID,” she explained. “We know that there are a number of jobs that won’t be returning.”

Elaborating, she said GCC will lean heavily on a panel it created called the Future of Work Advisory Committee, comprised of area business leaders across several sectors, including healthcare, hospitality, financial services, manufacturing, and others.

“They help us keep a pulse on what’s changing, what they anticipate, and what the outlook is, so we can align our new academic programs, and also adjust our existing programs to meet their demands,” she noted. “Also, it will be critically important for us to get a sense of what the workplace will look like and the skills that employers will be looking for.”

In this respect, she said colleges and universities, at least those with an eye on the long term, will be taking lessons from evolved companies that looked at the marketplace and how it was changing and began to adjust accordingly.

“These companies started asking themselves, ‘what are the market needs today that we can adapt to and meet — and what will be the unmet needs in the future, and how can we best position ourselves to meet them?’” she explained, adding that colleges have to do the same.

As for enrollment, the lifeblood of any college or university, area schools have been battling not only the pandemic, but demographics in the form of smaller high-school graduating classes. The two forces collided with considerable force this past September, with enrollment down as much as 20% at some area schools (that was the number at MCLA) and 15% at most of the institutions, with many high-school graduates taking a gap year and many already in college simply taking a break.

The question hanging over the industry involves that matter of pent-up demand and whether there will be good amount of it when the product is a college education.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID.”

Birge believes there will be such demand, although, as he said, it might be the fall of 2022 or 2023 before pre-pandemic levels return.

“From the information we collect from students, the students want to return to campus,” he told BusinessWest. “Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Noting that enrollment at community colleges usually rises during times of recession and high unemployment, Salomon-Fernández noted that this past fall semester was an exception to that rule, both because of large amounts of assistance to those who became jobless and the inability to attend in-person classes. She believes the vaccines, and the eventual end to those stimulus benefits, will change that equation.

“I think enrollment will start picking up in the fall of 2021,” she said. “In the long term, we can’t keep borrowing against ourselves — the national debt is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. This is not sustainable, and we expect that, as the vaccine becomes available, the government subsidies will decline, and people will have ample incentive to get back to work — and they’ll need the skills to enter, continue in, and thrive in the job market.”

Looking ahead to the spring, Birge said MCLA will operate very much as it did in the fall, but with even more testing due to the colder weather at the start. Spring break will be eliminated, and an extra day will be tacked on to President’s Day weekend.

Like he said, the spring will be a lot like last fall. It will be different, though, if the vaccines work as the experts project they will, because the finish line, when it comes to the pandemic, will be much closer.

“Everyone is down right now when it comes to enrollment,” Birge said. “But we’re feeling a little bit of encouragement that it’s better than we thought it was going to be, although it’s certainly not what we want it to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Banking

Donna Boulanger says she doesn’t how the landscape might change in 2021. What she does know is that it changed quite a bit in 2020.

That goes for everything from attitudes regarding online and mobile banking to sentiments on remote working, to thoughts on where people might prefer to live. Overall, she noted, these past 10 months have been a time to rethink how we do things and where we do them. And many of these changes may well be permanent, which will go a long way toward determining what 2021 — and the years that follow — will be like.

“A lot depends on the rollout of the vaccine and the effectiveness of the vaccine,” she said. “There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not,” said Boulanger, president and CEO of North Brookfield Savings Bank, which has eight branches and serves customers in both Western and Central Mass.

Donna Boulanger

“There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not.”

“And how much have consumers’ habits changed?” she went on. “Are they going to go back to retail stores? Are they going to go back to restaurants? Will they go back to traveling? They are so many factors in play, and that makes predicting what will happen in 2021 very difficult. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Looking back on 2020, she said it was a period of adjustment — for the bank and many of its customers. Like all financial institutions, North Brookfield Savings Bank had to pivot, as she termed it, when it came to everything from staffing branches — teams would rotate in for two-week periods — to providing much-needed lessons in online and mobile banking to the bank’s generally older customer base.

Overall, Boulanger said, many businesses and consumers adjusted well to the pandemic, and state and federal support played a large role in this.

“In the Western Mass. and Central Mass. area, the loan portfolios held up very well; delinquencies, and I know this is hard to believe, are at record lows,” she explained. “Whether it is the increased unemployment or stimulus checks, our customers have weathered this storm fairly well. But there are certainly pockets, in Massachusetts and across the country, where people are not faring so well.

“We have a lot of customers who have fully recovered,” she went on, meaning they’ve returned to pre-pandemic revenue patterns. “These are generally manufacturers or specialty businesses; they’re not in hospitality, they’re not in retail. The people still being impacted are those in personal service, whether you’re a nail salon, a barbershop, a gym, or daycare facility.”

The bank took what she called a “proactive approach,” calling each and every business customer to see if help was needed, and in what form. Meanwhile, it was active with the Paycheck Protection Program, handling applications not only for customers, but businesses well outside its general service area.

Looking ahead, like others we spoke with, she noted that winter is a slow time for many business sectors, and the next few months could well be tough sledding for many ventures. And beyond those few months, question marks loom about consumer behavior and just how much pent-up demand there will be for some products and services.

But some shifts are already taking place, she said, adding that there are visible signs that attitudes are changing, about everything from where people want to live to how and where they will work.

“There is an outward movement from cities — we see it in our market,” she told BusinessWest. “When I talk to our local Realtors, we see people moving into Central and Western Mass. They’re coming from New York, they’re coming from New Jersey. Is that going to continue? No one knows, but it’s happening now.

“Palmer, Belchertown, Ware … we’re seeing people move there from outside Massachusetts, and I don’t think you would have seen that before,” she went on. “There’s demand for open space because people are going to continue to be able to work remotely. And because people aren’t going to restaurants as much, they don’t need to be in the big city; you’re not going to walk to the local restaurant or the local business.”

The question moving forward is how much permanence can be attached to these changes in attitude and behavior.

“Are these going to be long-term changes, or will people, when they feel safer, return to the cities because of the amenities?” she said in conclusion. “That’s the struggle for all the big cities.”

And that’s just one of the questions, one of those moving parts, that make predicting the future, even the next few years, so difficult.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Accounting

‘Uneasiness.’

That was the word Julie Quink summoned, after considerable thought, to describe the sentiment of most small-business owners as the calendar turns to 2021.

And it seems like an appropriate choice.

Indeed, regardless of how a business fared in 2020 — and some of her clients actually held up pretty well — Quink, managing partner at the West Springfield-based accounting firm Burkhart Pizzanelli, said most simply don’t know what to expect for the year again. Thus, they are uneasy and likely to be cautious and conservative in the months to come, which will likely play a role in how quickly and profoundly this region bounces back from all the body blows it took over the past 10 months or so.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

“I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

Many of these businesses are also uneasy because they were able to “limp along,” as she put it, thanks to support from the CARES Act, especially in the form of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that provided a much-needed cushion from sometimes dramatic drops in revenue.

Starting this past fall, when many businesses effectively spent down their PPP, they’ve been getting a look at operating without a net underneath them, if it can be called that, and for many, it’s a scary proposition.

“That’s why I think we’re going to see the true impact of this crisis over the next 12 months or so, especially as the pandemic continues,” said Quink, adding quickly that, another round of PPP was included in the recently passed stimulus package, little is known about how much help will be available, when, and to whom. And even for those businesses that get another round of help, 2021 is likely to be a struggle, she went on, again because of all that uneasiness.

Quink, like most of those in the accounting and tax field, has a good read on the economy and the factors driving it because her portfolio of clients is diverse and represents virtually every sector. Slicing through the phone calls, the questions asked, and the answers provided, she said some businesses have actually done well during this pandemic (she has a few commercial cleaners, for example), others are holding their own, and still others are really struggling.

“There is such a mixed bag with our clients,” she said, adding that this diversity of performance reflects what’s happening across the region. “I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

She related the story of a second-generation business, a wholesaler that services the airline industry, among many others. Revenues are down roughly 50% from a year ago, not because there are fewer customers, but because most of the existing customers are ordering far less as their needs have diminished.

“We had a conversation today about how to plan, and I said, ‘you should tighten your belt because I think this is going to be a rough ride this year,’” she recalled, adding that she has given this same advice to many of her clients.

Getting back to that sentiment of uneasiness, Quick said there are many things to be uneasy about, from the ongoing pandemic to a presidential election that, while officially over, has been tumultuous in every way, to the deep uncertainty about the year ahead.

“People are waiting — they’re waiting for things to be final,” she said, using that phrase to describe everything from the stimulus package to the pandemic itself. “And I don’t think the election helped anything; all the events surrounding the election have made people uneasy.”

Still another factor contributing to this state concerns changes that have come to how business is being done, and questions about when, or even if, things will go back to normal.

“I have some clients who are international and can’t fly and can’t participate internationally in person,” she explained. “So they’ve had to refocus on how they do business now, and they don’t really know what the future will bring.”

As for her own profession, 2020 was certainly a different year, one with a tax season that never seemed to end. But it was a good year for most, because clients needed more assistance, or ‘touches,’ as she called them, with PPP and other matters.

And 2021 is certainly shaping up as more of the same, with another round of PPP looming, more questions concerning how to plan for the months and quarters ahead, and more of that uneasiness that will certainly play a large role in determining what kind of year this will be.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Restaurants

Andy Yee was still slogging — his word, and he would use it more than a few times — through the holiday season when he talked with BusinessWest for this Outlook section. But he was already thinking about the next one and what it might be like.

And his thoughts were colored with optimism.

“I think there is going to be a lot of pent-up demand,” he said, referring to that day when the clouds eventually lift and people feel confident returning to restaurants and especially indoor dining. “People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

While he feels confident in that assessment, and even offered a timeline of sorts — projecting some improvement by spring as vaccines are rolled out, much more by summer, and perhaps something approximating normal by Q4, or certainly next holiday season — what he doesn’t know is how many restaurateurs currently doing business in the region be along for that ride, whenever it does come.

Andy Yee

Andy Yee

“People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

Indeed, several have already been forced to shut their doors, he said, and others will be challenged to survive what will likely be another several months of slogging, even with the promise of additional help coming in the form of support from the state.

“January and February are traditionally leaner months — people have that holiday hangover, although I’m not sure what that will be like this year,” he noted. “It’s going to be hard for some people to hang on. There will be some casualties; there will be more closures.”

There have been several already, due directly to COVID-19 or perhaps the pandemic accelerating the timeline for retirement, said Yee, adding quickly that the number of additional losses to the landscape will be determined by a number of factors, from how quickly and effectively vaccines reach the general population to the level of confidence people have with going back out again, even with a vaccine, to the overall experience level and savvy of the restaurateurs in question.

“This really will be survival of the fittest,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his definition of ‘fittest’ is those with the experience and will to maneuver through this whitewater. “There are some people who have been doing this a long time, and this is a tough business; these are the ones who will probably buckle down and adjust to leaner times.”

Summing up 2020 and speaking for everyone in his sector, Yee said it’s been a long, long, long haul.

Indeed it has, a nine-month stretch of restrictions that have varied in their severity, but have been generally punitive to restaurateurs, limiting how, where, and when they can serve diners. Some have fared reasonably well with takeout, outdoor dining, and reduced indoor seating, he noted, but none are doing anything approaching what they were doing a year ago, revenue-wise.

And many have decided they can’t continue to slug it out, he said, noting closures up and down the Pioneer Valley and also in the Berkshires. As bad as it’s been, it’s been far worse in major cities with much higher commercial lease rates, he told BusinessWest, adding that Boston has been devasted, and perhaps 35% of all the restaurants in New York will chose for good due to the pandemic.

Despite the devastation, the pandemic did provide some positive learning experiences, especially when it came to outdoor dining, something few restaurants had tried, but now were all but forced to undertake. It’s something that may become a permanent fixture.

“It has been a good learning experience for us,” he said, citing the Student Prince in Springfield as perhaps the best example from within the Bean Group of an establishment that invested heavily in outdoor dining and saw some success. “We are going to try to emulate that and duplicate that next year.”

Looking ahead, he does have confidence that the vaccines are cause for optimism, and also that, when this pandemic is over, people will go back to their old habits of dining out — a question that many have been asking over the past several months as the discussion turns to how the pandemic may change societal norms for the long term.

“I agree with people who say we can see the finish line with COVID,” he told BusinessWest. “My feeling is that, by March, things will start to loosen up a little; by the summertime we’ll be back to some kind of new normal, whatever that means; and in the fourth quarter we’ll roar back with people going out and celebrating.”

Meanwhile, for the entrepreneurial — and he certainly falls into that category — there will be opportunities within this sector as the pandemic draws on and more establishments grow weary of the fight.

Yee said he’s already received a number of calls from individuals looking to sell, and he expects those calls to keep coming.

In that respect, 2021 might see many more changes to the landscape in this important sector.

 

—George O’Brien

Autos Special Coverage

Driving Forces

 

Rob Pion was walking outside at his family’s Buick/GMC dealership on Memorial Avenue in Chicopee, and used the view to put things in perspective for this industry as a trying, but not altogether terrible, year comes to an end.

“That’s basically the new-car inventory,” he said, pointing to a long single line of cars along the front of the property, noting that he was exaggerating, but only slightly.

Indeed, inventory remains an issue for almost all dealers in this region as manufacturers struggle to catch up after weeks, if not months, of shutdown at the factories. And matters are worse for GM dealers, said Pion, the third-generation principal of this venture, because of the lengthy strike at that corporation in 2019.

But aside from supplies of new cars — and things are getting slightly better on that front as well, as we’ll hear — the picture is brightening somewhat for auto dealers, and a sense of normal is returning, at least in some respects.

Or a new normal, if you will.

Indeed, Pion said the pandemic has effectively served to speed up the pace of change within the auto industry when it comes to doing things remotely and moving away from those traditional visits to the dealership to look at models, kick the tires, and even drop off the car for service.

Rob Pion

Rob Pion says inventory remains an issue at his dealership, and it will likely remain that way into the new year.

“There are experts out there saying that we moved forward 10 years in three months when it comes to internet purchasing, out-of-state deliveries, and people doing 98% of the deal over the phone or the internet,” he told BusinessWest. “And that sounds about right.”

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, which operates four dealerships (Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, and Volvo), agreed. She said the pandemic has certainly made online buying, as well as vehicle pickup and dropoff for needed service, more popular, and these trends will have staying power, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases rises again.

And while it was a somewhat tumultuous year, especially when it came to inventories of both new and used cars (and the prices of the latter), it wasn’t really a bad year for many dealerships — and certainly not as bad as things as things looked in March and April, when some dealerships actually closed and all others were seeing business come to something approaching a standstill.

“We’re actually on track for what our plan was 2020, even with what happened in March, April, and May,” said Peter Wirth, co-owner with his wife, Michelle, of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, quickly noting a few caveats to that assessment. “Some things moved around a little — more used cars and fewer used cars based on supplies — but overall, as I said, we’re on track for where we wanted to be as a dealership.”

Cosenzi concurred. “Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020,” she said. “When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

‘Normal’ also applies, to some extent, to end-of-year, holiday-season sales, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that smaller inventories will certainly limit how many cars, trucks, and SUVs will be sold, including to businesses looking for tax incentives — although demand is certainly there.

But those end-of-year sales, such as Mercedes’ annual Winter Event, are happening, and they are bringing customers to the ‘dealership,’ literally or figuratively.

“It’s like a cherished piece of normalcy,” said Wirth. “People see that the Winter Event is happening, that the deals are out there. I feel like both our customers and our team are enjoying the fact that there’s a normal, busy holiday-selling season — so far, at least.”

He made that statement toward the middle of December, and that tone reflects a degree of uncertainty that still prevails in this industry and most all others as well.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their Mercedes-Benz dealership managed to hit most of the set goals for 2020 despite the pandemic.

Indeed, while it’s easy to reflect on 2020, projecting what will happen in 2021 is much more difficult, said those we spoke with. Generally, there is optimism — or guarded optimism, which is the popular phrase at this time of year, and this time in history especially — but still some concern.

Overall, those we spoke with said trends and sentiments that took hold in 2020 — from less reliance on public transportation and services like Uber and Lyft (fueled by pandemic fears) to people gaining more comfort from (while also putting more resources into) their vehicles — should continue in 2021, and that bodes well for the year ahead.

But, as this year clearly showed, things can change — and in the time it takes for one of these new models to go from 0 to 60.

 

Changing Gears

Looking back on 2020, the dealers we spoke with said it was a trying year in many respects, and, overall, a time of adjustment — for both those selling cars and buying them — because of the pandemic.

Many of those adjustments involved the purchase or leasing process, with much of it, as noted, moving online. But the pandemic also forced most car manufacturers to shut down for weeks or months, eventually leading to those half-full (if that) lots at the dealership that became one of the enduring, and very visible, symbols of the pandemic.

Thus, instead of going to the lot and picking out what they wanted, as they had become accustomed to doing for years, many more customers had to factory-order their vehicle and wait, usually several weeks, for it to arrive. This meant extending leases in some cases, said Wirth, adding that the factory-ordering process took longer, in general. Overall, he noted, customers and his dealership adjusted, and there wasn’t a significant loss of business.

“Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020. When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

That’s because demand was consistently high, for a number of reasons, starting with some pandemic-fueled reliance on the family cars — yes, even as people were driving less, and considerably less in some cases — and a greater desire to take care of that car or trade up, something made more feasible and attractive by everything from incentives from the manufacturers to stimulus checks from the federal government, to the fact that people weren’t spending money on vacations or many other things.

Indeed, Michelle Wirth said 2020 was a year of greater appreciation for the car, and a time when many chose to focus on, and put money in, their homes, their cars, or both.

“There was a point in time during all this when your vehicle was probably the only recommended mode of transportation available to you,” she explained. “And if you chose, for whatever reason, not to have a car for a long time, suddenly, you felt you needed one.

“And if you had one, and it wasn’t as safe or new or nice as you might like, you did something about that,” she went on. “It was the same with home improvement — people were looking around and saying, ‘I didn’t spend much time here before. Now I do; I need to do something.’ The same with their car.”

Cosenzi agreed. “We saw many people reallocating their household budget,” she said. “We saw the majority of the people who shop our brands put their money in their houses and their vehicles, and also feel more like they had to rely on their vehicles, now more than ever.”

Elaborating, she said — and others did as well — that this sentiment applies to both service (taking better care of the car currently in the driveway) and buying or leasing something new or newer, more reliable, and in some cases lighter on the monthly budget.

Indeed, some manufacturers have been offering unprecedented incentives — Cosenzi noted that at least one brand is offering no interest for 84 months — and many of those still employed and with stimulus checks in hand soon eyed new or used cars as rock-solid investments.

“People were saying, ‘I can upgrade my car and get a lower interest rate; I can have a newer car that’s under warranty; I can pay less in interest in the long run and maybe lower my payment,’” she explained. “There are a lot of people who weren’t working or nervous about not working, that were taking advantage of the stimulus and really took that to make decisions about how to allocate their income.”

The problem is that supplies haven’t been able to keep up with demand — for most of this year and on most lots, anyway.

 

Keep On Truckin’

Which brings us all the way to back to Rob Pion pointing at that single line of new cars at his dealership. He said inventories have been consistently low and are due to remain that way. And when vehicles do arrive on the lot, they’re either already spoken for or not on the lot for long, especially when it comes to trucks, the pride of the GM line.

“We’re preselling vehicles at an unprecedented rate — the vehicles are sold before they hit my lot,” he explained. “Typically, people just want to come in and see them: ‘give me a call when it gets here.’ Now, they’re ‘here’s my deposit, call me when I can pick it up.’

“I don’t have any pickup truck inventory,” he went on. “So any businesses looking to make those year-end purchases for tax writeoffs … that’s just not happening this year because there’s little or no availability for them when it comes to that type of vehicle.”

Still, overall, dealers are reporting that the parking lots are more full than they have been.

Peter Wirth said supplies have been steadily improving at Mercedes-Benz, and in the meantime, between the stock at the Chicopee location and a sister dealership in New York, most customers have been able to find what they’re looking for or factory-order it.

Cosenzi, meanwhile, said inventory levels have “balanced out” at her dealerships, and there are now adequate supplies for what she hopes will be a solid end-of-year run.

As for what has been a crazy year for the used-car market, where at times vehicles were difficult if not impossible to find and prices skyrocketed, some normalcy is returning to that realm as well.

“As quickly as it went up, the market is perhaps just as quickly coming back down,” said Pion, adding that, overall, it’s been ultra-challenging for dealers to not only get used cars but cope with the fluctuations in that market — from when the bottom dropped out back in the spring to when prices soared during the summer, to the state of relative uncertainty that exists now.

Peter Wirth agreed that it’s been a bumpy road when it comes to used cars — for a time, he had one employee who did nothing else but try to find vehicles to buy — but said some stability has returned.

“We have roughly 75 used cars in stock,” he noted. “It took us a while to catch up on inventory, just because sales were really good on pre-owned cars all year, so while we kept buying more cars, we sold them right away. It’s taken us until now to find more cars so we replenish supplies. And it’s not just about buying cars — you want be selective and find the right cars.”

Looking ahead … well, while people can do that, it’s difficult given how many unknowns dominate the conversation, regarding everything from pandemic spikes to vaccines to new- and used-car inventories.

“The vaccine is a positive, people not wanting to depend on public transportation or ride-sharing is a positive, and the incentives and low interest rates are positives,” Cosenzi said. “But we can’t be in denial that there is still a virus out there and people are being more cautious than ever before.”

But while question marks remain for the year ahead, the consensus is that 2020 was, overall, not as bad as it could have been, and that a sense of normal — if perhaps a new normal — has returned.

 

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

Coronavirus

Root Causes

Dr. Ronald Goldsher

Dr. Ronald Goldsher says COVID has brought a host of new challenges for his practice, but also some rewards in the form of being able to help patients in need.

In many ways, Dr. Ronald Goldsher says, dentists and periodontists were better-prepared for COVID-19 than many others in healthcare, and certainly most business owners not in that sector.

“In some respects, dentists are way ahead of the curve because of what happened years ago with the AIDS epidemic,” said Goldsher, owner of Pioneer Valley Periodontics, which operates offices in Northampton and Greenfield. “At that time, there were a lot of mandated changes in infection control, so we’re used to sterilizing everything, using barriers on equipment, wearing masks, and disinfecting surfaces between patients; we may have ramped things up a bit [since COVID], but we were used to doing all that.”

But being better prepared certainly didn’t mean Goldsher and others in this profession were fully prepared for all that COVID-19 would throw at them — from the trepidation of patients to seek needed care to the equipment that would have to be purchased (from PPE to special air filters) to keep staff and patients safe; from confusion regarding what procedures could be carried out (and when) to the sharp reduction in overall business volume.

Add it all up, and it’s been ultra-challenging and even unnerving, said Goldsher, before adding quickly that it has also been rewarding at times. Indeed, to be open and able to provide needed services to those in need, especially those with emergencies, has been gratifying, he told BusinessWest.

“Every day, I have patients thanking me for being open and doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Some people tell me stories about how they have food delivered outside their home, their mail goes into plastic bags and they wait several days until they open it, they don’t exchange any money and they don’t leave their house — but they come to their dental appointment because it’s been eight months, and they used to come every two or three months to get their teeth cleaned, and they haven’t had a cleaning in a year. They’re so happy we’re open and providing this service, and, in their words, we’re taking risks to see patients. That’s brings a lot of lot of joy to my practice and my staff.”

Playing back the tape from a trying 2020, Goldsher said he was skiing in Colorado in late February as the news about the virus started to intensify. By the time he returned in early March, things were still normal, but soon began to change in a profound way — for both his business ventures; he and his sons also operate the entertainment venue Hawks & Reed in downtown Greenfield.

“In some respects, dentists are way ahead of the curve because of what happened years ago with the AIDS epidemic.”

Hawks & Reed had to close down, as all indoor performance venues did, and the periodontal office did as well, starting March 13.

“We shut down for what we thought would be two weeks, and two weeks turned out to be almost three months,” he explained, adding that the green light to reopen came in late May, only to have that date come and then be moved back another week, forcing the practice to reschedule a number of appointments and inconvenience several patients — and staff as well.

“There was a lot of confusing information, even when were ready to reopen Pioneer Valley Periodontics; the timelines that were given us by the governor were convoluted and confusing,” he said, noting that these adjectives also describe the information coming out about which procedures fell into the category of ‘essential’ — those that could be undertaken at that time — and which ones didn’t.

But gaining clarification on such matters was just one of the struggles, he went on.

“We were available on an emergency basis, but that comes with a lot of other issues,” he explained. “Like having staff that can come in in an emergency — they can’t be there all the time — and preparing the office for those emergencies.”

As noted earlier, Goldsher said dental practices in general were in some ways better-prepared for this pandemic because of safety measures that have been in place for some time. And his practice was even better-prepared than that in some respects because of the way he had stockpiled PPE over the years.

“I had thousands of surgical gowns that I collected over the years from doing implants,” he explained. “They come in a pack — there would be four or five in a package; we’d use two, and there would be two or three left over. The staff would always say, ‘let’s just throw these away,’ and I would say, ‘put them in a bag.’ We had garbage bags filled with gowns, so we were able to donate several thousand of them to Baystate Franklin Medical Center.”

Still, the pandemic has tested this practice in myriad ways, he went on, speaking for all those in healthcare when he mentioned everything from maintaining adequate staffing to coping with sharply reduced patient volumes, to simply dealing with all the unknowns, not to mention the emotional trauma of seeing patients in the middle of a pandemic.

“Despite all those precautions we were taking, it was still a little unnerving, and it took a couple of weeks for people to settle down because the psychological impact of the virus was there; you can’t see it, but it’s there,” he noted, adding that the spouse of one patient treated by the staff developed COVID-19 and eventually died.

As the calendar turns to 2021, the practice is coping with patient volumes far below what would be considered normal, said Goldsher, mostly due to a fear factor that has always been prevalent, but has kicked into an even higher gear amid the recent spike in cases.

“Patients will cancel at the very last minute depending on the news of the day,” he told BusinessWest, adding that overall revenues are down probably 35% or more for the year, this on top of all those additional expenses. “And from the top levels on down, there has been a lot of confusing information that’s been disseminated.”

He’s not sure when something approaching normal will return, but he does know that challenges remain and it will be some time before there is significant improvement for those in the field.

As he said, being better-prepared certainly helped, but it didn’t fully prepare anyone for what this unforgettable year has brought.

 

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

Coronavirus

The Latest Word

Chris (left) and Greg Derosiers

Chris (left) and Greg Derosiers say Hadley Printing is back to something approximating normal, and employees have actually logged some overtime.

 

Chris Derosiers was searching for a way to describe what things were like last spring, at the height of what’s now being called the first COVID-19 surge.

And he found an analogy that probably works for just about every small-business owner in this region.

“It’s like being on the highway … you’re going to 65, 70 miles an hour and cruising along nicely, but with three-quarters of your trip still in front of you,” he said, effectively summing up how things were going during Q1 at Hadley Printing, the family-owned venture he serves as president. “And then … it’s like hitting a wall of traffic, and you don’t know how long that wall of traffic is. And six or seven months later, we’re just finally getting to the other side of that traffic jam.”

By that, he meant the company has been experiencing gradual improvement over the past several months, and is approaching something approximating normal: business that is off perhaps 10% from last year. Recently, and for the first time since the pandemic started, the workflow was such that team members were actually able to earn some overtime, a much-celebrated milestone because of what they believe it indicates.

What isn’t known is whether the company will hit another wall of traffic, or when, said Chris’s brother, Greg, the company’s vice president, adding quickly that this puts Hadley Printing in the same position as just about every company during the pandemic — an unsettling place, to be sure.

“What we don’t know is whether this ‘back to normal’ will stay that way, or whether there will be another cycle where people pull back a little bit,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the best this company, or any company, can do is find ways to cope and persevere until times improve.

Flashing back to mid-March, a painful exercise for most every business owner in the region, the brothers Derosiers recounted how their venture hit that proverbial traffic jam.

“When this thing broke back in March, we were doing just great; everything was rocking and rolling, and we had a ton of work in here,” said Greg, adding that things changed abruptly and profoundly. “Every time we picked up the phone or answered an e-mail in the second half of March, it was ‘cancel this,’ or ‘please put this on hold.’ Literally, everything was just getting stopped in its tracks.”

Elaborating, the two said that print jobs of all kinds and sizes were being shelved, and for various reasons. Cost was one of them, obviously, but in the case of the 2020-21 schedule for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, for example, it was a case of need — or lack thereof. Organizers had no idea when they could next stage live concerts, so there was no need for a schedule. And in the case of annual appeals launched by colleges and nonprofits (and there are traditionally many of those throughout the year), those leading area institutions decided the peak of a pandemic was certainly not the time to be waging such a campaign.

“Every time we picked up the phone or answered an e-mail in the second half of March, it was ‘cancel this,’ or ‘please put this on hold.’ Literally, everything was just getting stopped in its tracks.”

Add it all up, and the phone kept ringing, and each time it did, the person at the other end was canceling an order.

“And Chris and I looked at each other and went, ‘whoa.’ We didn’t know whether to look left or right; we didn’t know what was going on,” he went on, adding that, by late April, relief, in the form of PPP and other measures, had been rolled out with the intention of helping companies like Hadley — and the businesses that form their customer base — through what was projected to be eight to 10 weeks of very rough water.

“We all know now that it wasn’t an eight- to 10-week problem,” Greg continued, adding that one of the biggest challenges for this company was not knowing if printing would be deemed essential — status that was eventually earned.

“A lot of the printers rallied together to fight and make the case that printing was essential,” Greg said. “When the governor initially sent out the guidelines on this, the lines were a little blurred; it didn’t say in black and white whether commercial printing was essential.

“The few orders we did get were communication and mailing pieces focused on how to deal with COVID,” including man from hospitals and other healthcare providers, he went on. “Chris actually sent a letter to Governor Baker explaining why printing wasn’t an essential business.”

From the start, the priorities, the two said, were to be conservative with spending and watch every dime, and do everything they could to hang onto to talented, hard-to-replace printing professionals.

“The difficulty that we have in the manufacturing world is that we have some pretty highly trained people who are very good at what they do,” Greg explained. “Finding these people is very difficult, so we don’t want to let our workforce go. And so, for us, the last resort was to lay people off or furlough them; we hung on for as long as we could before we made any decisions like that.”

Fortunately, the company has historically been conservative fiscally, he went on, and had the ability to put money aside and weather a storm of this consequence, although it certainly hasn’t been easy.

“That part has been a blessing, but we need to make that back up,” he went on, adding that the company, which turned some type of corner in September, believes its improved situation is part of a broader pattern within the business community — and society in general — to find ways to cope with the pandemic and not merely cancel or put things off, as was happening in the second and third quarters.

As for 2021, Greg said no one really knows what to expect. He does believe that, because of what businesses went through in 2020, and because they don’t know when ‘normal’ will return, many will remain conservative in their approach — right down to print jobs.

“It’s like walking on a sidewalk on an icy day,” he explained. “You’re going to be careful where you walk and what you do, as opposed to proceeding as usual. I think 2021 will be that way — like walking on ice.”

 

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

Coronavirus

COVID Tails

Chris Pratt, right, and Tracy Faulstick

Chris Pratt, right, and Tracy Faulstick have had to pivot and create new revenue streams, because COVID-19 has left fewer dogs home alone.

“Because no one wants to be left home alone.”

That’s the marketing tagline for a venture called Wagging Tails Pet Resort, and until the middle of last March, it effectively summed up what this company was all about and why it was so successful; dog owners wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment.

That was true for the boarding side of this operation, obviously, but the day-care component as well, said owner Chris Pratt, who told BusinessWest that many professionals had come to understand the value of leaving a dog in a day-care facility — for companionship and also, in the case of larger, athletic breeds, to work off some off their considerable energy before their master gets home at the end of the day.

But starting in March, most dogs didn’t have to be left home alone. Their owners were working remotely for the most part, if they were still working at all. Meanwhile, very few people were traveling anywhere.

Almost overnight, business for the day care, boarding, and other components of the multi-faceted Wagging Tails operation plummeted, said Pratt, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time for her — not that it’s come at a good time for anyone.

“Going into March, we were overbooked in Hadley … by March 15, we had one dog left, who actually went home with me at night. I called the owner and said, ‘your dog is the only one here; do you mind if I take him home?’ They said, ‘no, please do.’”

That’s because business had been so good at her resort on Russell Street in Hadley that she moved aggressively and opened a second location on Florence Road in Easthampton — the Heritage Farm — last February to handle what had become an overflow.

Just a few weeks later, though, there was no overflow. She said she kept operating both locations as long as she could, but when Thanksgiving came and the numbers of boarding and day-care dogs were just a fraction of what they were a year ago — and not able to generate enough revenue to pay the staff — Pratt was forced to shut down the Hadley operation, with the intent of reopening when things get better.

“We’re combining our resources to get through the winter,” she explained. “And we’ve been very fortunate that a number of customers have decided to make the 15-minute journey across the bridge to bring their dogs here to the farm.”

That farm, all 30 acres of it, like the Hadley setting, is described by Pratt as a one-stop shop for dogs and their owners, offering everything from boarding to grooming; from day care to retail sales of food and other pet supplies; from walking to training. But because there’s less of all that, there’s now even more that people could do during one stop — or a few.

Indeed, Pratt is making the most of the indoor and outdoor spaces at the farm, and now offering new services ranging from horse boarding to riding lessons, to animals (such as several goats that arrived recently) that children and families can visit with.

“There’s a lot of things going on here that families can take part in,” said Tracey Faulstick, a business consultant working with Pratt to revise the Wagging Tails business plan. “There’s farm animals … there’s a lot that families can participate in in terms of training, horse lessons, and more. There’s an entire community here that’s dedicated to taking care of animals and people in a very safe environment.”

Creation of this community is a classic case of pivoting, making do, and trying to earn a living and keep people employed until things get better — a business survival plan, if you will. It’s also another case — among a great many in this region — of a company doing very well and expanding its operations … until the word COVID became part of our lives.

Indeed, as dogs barked parked consistently — and loudly — in the boarding area, Pratt recounted how and why she amended her business plan more than a year ago and put some ambitious expansion plans on the table.

“Hadley was full at the time … we had a waiting list,” she noted, adding that, essentially, all aspects of the business were booming, from the grooming to the training to the boarding and day care. But COVID-19 changed things in a hurry.

“Going into March, we were overbooked in Hadley … by March 15, we had one dog left, who actually went home with me at night,” she recalled. “I called the owner and said, ‘your dog is the only one here; do you mind if I take him home?’ They said, ‘no, please do.’”

But that was just the start. Indeed, restrictions imposed by the governor essentially shut down the grooming and training operations, two reliable revenue sources, for two months. Meanwhile, as noted, few people were traveling anywhere, for work or pleasure, putting a deep dent in the boarding side of the venture.

Some aspects of this business have returned to one extent or another — grooming and training, for example — and the day-care side has bounced back somewhat, as some dog owners realize the value of that service, even if they are home working all day. Pratt is hoping more people get that message.

“Dogs still need to socialize,” she explained. “Even if people are home working and with their dogs, they should still bring them to day care occasionally, to keep them socialized and keep them from getting separation anxiety; it’s better for the dogs. We were seeing, with people who hadn’t been here for weeks, that when they brought the dog back to day care, the dog was so happy, so excited, and so energetic that they lost most of their socialization skills — so we had to reteach them.”

This reteaching is just part of the COVID story at Wagging Tails, an intriguing saga that, like many in this region, involves imagination, perseverance, and entrepreneurial spirit, all of which are needed to get to other side of this pandemic.

 

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

Coronavirus

Things Are Heating Up

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand, not retrench, and set new and ambitious goals for the future.

For many small-business owners, 2020 has been a year to hunker down. To focus on survival. To put plans for expansion on hold and devote time and energy to simply getting to next month, or even next week.

Not so for Sheila and Dan Coon, owners of Hot Oven Cookies.

For them, 2020 has been a year to take their brand to places, and a level, it had never been before, and to foster plans to take it further still in the years to come. It’s been a time to establish themselves downtown and uptown, as they like to say (we’ll explain later), and expand not only the footprint, but also the product lines, including cookie dough by the pint — ‘dough to go,’ as they call it.

There has been some good fortune, or serendipity, if you will, along the way, and some strong evidence that cookies have become a comfort food in the midst of this global pandemic — there’s even talk of a possible cookie shortage for the holidays. But mostly, this has been about entrepreneurial spirit and seizing opportunities when they have come about — traits that have defined this venture from the start.

About a year or so ago, none of what has transpired since seemed likely or even possible. In fact, as Sheila recalls, the husband-and-wife team were thinking about packing it in and turning the oven off for good.

Indeed, by late 2019, the company, then located at 1597 Main St. in Springfield, had endured several months of turmoil with its landlord over conditions that had made it increasingly difficult to do business — no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, for example. By mid-November, matters had come to a head, and the company had essentially ceased activity in that location, operating for a time out of its Cookie Cart (a food truck of sorts) until its pipes froze in the winter.

The two partners eventually went back to their storefront at the behest of customers, but when they did, it was late February, just before the pandemic arrived and a wave of restrictions on small businesses like this one went into effect.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad,’” she recalled, adding that, instead of shutting down, they decided to hang in — mostly due to the strong loyalty displayed by long-time customers.

That decision to persevere became just the first of many watershed moments over the past nine months or so. The company has since opened two new locations — one in Sixteen Acres at the Bicentennial Plaza (that’s the ‘uptown’ location) and then another (a replacement for the old site) further south on Main Street in Springfield, in a location formerly, and briefly, occupied by a Delaney’s Market. Both opened just last month.

Sheila knew about the downtown location and had her eye on it — sort of. She had long thought it out of her reach price-wise, but then, there was some of that serendipity.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad.’”

“I remember saying to someone, ‘if I could open up where Delaney’s was, I would do it in a heartbeat,’” she told BusinessWest. “It was wishful thinking, but two days later I got a phone call, and someone said, ‘hey, we have the keys, would you like to go see it?’

“We came to see it a few days after we opened Allen Street, and we thought, ‘this is beyond our reach,’” she continued. “But our brand reputation preceded us, and the landlord was extremely willing to work with us because he wanted us here. And here we are.”

In addition to those two locations, the company still operates the Cookie Cart, which has been parked at a number of area colleges, businesses, and even private residences for birthday parties and anniversaries, and also has a kiosk at Bradley International Airport, which has been idled by the pandemic — the one aspect of the venture to be slowed by COVID-19.

As BusinessWest talked with Sheila at the downtown location on a Thursday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, customers steadily filed into the store. At one point, the line became long enough that she hit pause to go help her employee behind the counter.

It has been like this pretty much since the location opened, she said, adding that the Hot Oven brand — featuring more than 100 flavors, including staples like Dark Chocolate + Seal Salt Chip, Boozy Cake Batter Sugar, and Coquito Snookerdoodle — has always been popular and sought out by those in this market and others residing well outside it.

And the pandemic has made it even more popular, she believes, theorizing that the cookies provide a measure of comfort, a measure of normal, at a time when people are craving both.

Indeed, when asked how the downtown was doing since opening, she started with “wow,” paused for a second, and put it in perspective.

“My husband and I had a logistical meeting before we opened both the shops,” she recalled. “And the conversation went something like this: ‘we’re moving two blocks over to a new location and new customer base, and we’re moving uptown to another location; it’s going to take a while for people to catch on that we’re here.’

“Nope … that hasn’t been the case,” she went on. “Business down here for us has been double or triple what we’re doing two blocks over. And uptown is a beast of a shop — we sell out every day.”

Looking ahead, Sheila said the company is looking forward to the day when the kiosk at Bradley can open and become a strong source of revenue that can finance future expansion — perhaps into Worcester, Boston, and other cities. And there has long been talk of franchising this brand and taking it well beyond its Western Mass. roots.

For the immediate future, though, the two have their hands full with the two new locations and the brisk business they are witnessing.

There have not been too many business-expansion stories during this pandemic, but this is certainly one of them.

Call it a feel-good story if you like, but this is also, and especially, a taste-good story. And a very intriguing one at that.

 

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

Cover Story

Selling the Region

Rick Sullivan was talking about the pandemic … and about how it just might present some opportunities for this region to prompt companies currently located in expensive office buildings in pricey urban centers to at least look this way.

And he paused to reference an article he had just read that morning about how those in the Aloha State were thinking pretty much the same thing.

“Hawaii seeks to be seen as a remote workplace with a view,” he said, referencing the headline he had just read. “They’re making the same pitch we are — it’s a great place to work remotely … with a view. It’s the same concept — we have great outdoor recreational opportunities, we have the mountains, the skiing, the rafting, and the biking.”

Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, quickly acknowledged that Western Mass. is not Hawaii. But to one degree or another, it can, as he noted, offer at least some of the same things — like those nice views. And a sticker price — for commercial real estate and many other things — far, far below not only Boston, Cambridge, and New York, but many other regions of the country as well.

There is a certain quality of life that has always been here but has taken on perhaps greater importance in the midst of a pandemic as people — and some businesses as well — are starting to think about whether they want or need to be in an urban setting.

These factors may be enough to turn some heads, said Sullivan and others we spoke with, all of whom noted that, as the pandemic approaches the 10-month mark, the emphasis is shifting locally — from talk about how there may be an opportunity to seize, to action when it comes to seizing such an opportunity and getting those heads to turn.

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, is taking action in the form of online tools, through which interested businesses, agencies, and individuals can obtain needed information about the region and even explore options within the commercial real-estate market for a new home.

“We’ve invested in a whole suite of tools, one of which has seven or eight tools that basically walk a business through everything from why the Springfield region is a good place to start a business or expand a business, all the way through where your competitors are, where your customers are, and where your workers are,” she said of a product called Localintel. “And then it continues with information about where to find real estate that fits your purpose; it heatmaps everything for you.”

Meanwhile, Sullivan said the EDC, which has received an uptick in the number of incoming calls from businesses and site selectors looking to learn more about the region, has made efforts to promote the area and take advantage of pandemic-related trends and movements as one of its strategic priorities for the coming year.

Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work

Rick Sullivan says that, like Hawaii, Western Mass. can position itself as an effective place to work — with a view.

“Part of our strategic plan is to increase the marketing for such efforts and make that pitch,” he explained. “We’re going to work through what that looks like, but we are certainly not equipped to do a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign. I do think we can raise our profile and make that pitch.”

But while there is opportunity in the midst of this pandemic, challenges exist as well.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and a long-time promoter of Springfield and especially its downtown area, said there are some lingering perceptions about the city and region — regarding everything from workforce to housing stock to public safety — that have to be overcome. Also, there remains considerable work to do when it comes to simply getting the word out about Western Mass. and all that it has to offer.

Meanwhile, as for trying to convince companies and state agencies to move here — something Plotkin has been doing aggressively for some time now — he said there are cost and logistical concerns that remain stumbling blocks.

“When I talk to people about this, I see a lot of heads nod in agreement — they see why this region makes sense on many levels,” he said. “The pushback comes with people not wanting to uproot themselves and make that move. We have to be able to overcome that.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic may change the landscape in some positive ways, and also what has to happen for the region’s fortunes to improve.

 

Moving Sentinents

Plotkin told BusinessWest that, whenever he meets attorneys or other professionals from Boston or New York — and that’s often — he invariably makes a point of asking them where they’re based and how much they’re paying to do business there.

He then offers a pitch for this region, letting the individual across the table know that things are less expensive and — in some ways, at least — better here.

“I’ll say, ‘you know what … you can probably do a lot better here,’” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘if you have a big office, maybe you can keep an office in Boston and move your back-room operations here.’”

Moving forward, the assignment for the region, said those we spoke with, is to take these pitches, these efforts to sell the region, to a higher plane — now more than ever, because of what the pandemic has shown people.

In short, Sullivan noted, it has demonstrated that people can work remotely, and effectively, and that companies don’t necessarily need to lease as much space as they’re leasing now, or lease it in high-traffic (although not at this particular moment in time), high-rent areas.

It has also shown professionals, and especially young people, that they don’t necessarily have to live in one of those urban areas — like Boston, Seattle, or San Francisco — to get the kind of rewarding, high-paying jobs they’re all looking for.

“Because of the pandemic, quality of life has become something that people can really consider when they’re determining their work/life balance — you don’t need to be in the expensive big cities to be able to have the kinds of jobs people are looking for,” he explained. “You can really focus on your work/life balance, and you can really focus on your quality of life, and that’s where Western Massachusetts really shines. You can be working remotely, you can be telecommuting, and you can have that quality of life, that cost of living, that we have in Western Mass. that’s very attractive.”

As that story about Hawaii makes clear, Western Mass. is certainly not alone in this thinking. Indeed, there will be plenty of competition. But in this region, there is, by most all accounts, more recognition of possible opportunities and more of a combined enthusiasm for seizing it.

“I think there’s more of a critical mass,” Creed noted in reference to the collective efforts she’s seeing. “Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.

1350 Main St

Evan Plotkin wants to convert three floors within 1350 Main St. to space where people can both live and work, an example of how the region may be able to benefit from the changes brought about by the pandemic.

“And I’m hearing it from business owners as well,” she went on. “They’re saying, ‘why do I need to have downtown space in the larger markets?’ So I think there is opportunity.”

But there have always been opportunities for this region when it comes to effectively selling its quality of life and lower cost of living. The $64,000 question at the moment is whether COVID will become a type of X-factor and drive interest in an area that has traditionally drawn that kind of head-nodding that Plotkin talked about, but certainly not as much action as most would like.

And the answer to that question is certainly unknown at this point. But it’s clear that there is now growing interest in at least trying to sell the region in a more aggressive way.

Measures like Localintel, a step recommended in the Future Cities study released in 2016, are a part of such efforts, said Creed, noting that the platform is currently being tested and should be on the chamber’s website soon.

The chamber is partnering with the city, which will also be able to put Localintel on its website, she went on, adding that the chamber will be adding another tool specifically for startups, partnering with Valley Venture Mentors in that initiative.

“It walks you through all the steps you need to go through to start your business,” she explained. “And then, you go to the next suite of tools, which will walk you through the customers, the competition, and more.”

 

In Good Company

Beyond simple lessons in geography regarding where companies can be located, the pandemic has provided some other lessons as well, said Sullivan, especially those related to supply chain and what can happen when overseas links in that chain are broken.

Indeed, a number of major manufacturers, as well as local anchor businesses such as hospitals, colleges, Big Y, and others, have expressed interest in making their supply chains more reliable, he told BusinessWest, adding that these sentiments would indicate that there are opportunities for this region to build on its already-strong manufacturing sector.

“We’ve seen, partially because of the pandemic, that supply chain, when it’s overseas and all split up, is much less reliable,” he explained. “That’s an opportunity for us because manufacturing is one of our strengths in this region.

“This is just one of the ways that we can come out of this pandemic in a stronger position than when we went into it,” he went on. “We need to be able to move forward where there are opportunities that we’ve identified.”

And the growing number of phone calls to the EDC, and the nature of those calls, would seem to indicate some potential opportunities, Sullivan went on, adding that there have been calls from companies looking for more of a campus-like setting; from manufacturers looking to move operations onshore; from call centers looking for smaller, more affordable facilities; and even from modular-home builders intrigued by the region’s accessibility and highway infrastructure.

Such calls lead to the inevitable questions about whether the region has the ability to actually move forward in the fashion he suggests. Does it have the housing inventory? Does it have an adequate workforce? Does it have communities that would attract businesses and individuals? Does it have the vibrancy and amenities needed to attract young people?

Plotkin has been answering some of these very questions as he vies to make the property he co-owns, 1350 Main St., home to what’s being called a remote-work hub that would enable people to live and work in the same building, a concept that has become more intriguing as the pandemic has lingered.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin was preparing to meet with those looking to site such facilities — he believes he has made it to the next round in the process — and state his case. He said he’s got a solid one, when considering both his building and the three full floors he’s proposing for a remote-work hub and this region, but as he was preparing his response to the RFP, he realized that, while the region has a lot to sell, it has to work harder at selling it.

“It’s all about salesmanship and about trying to overcome some of the negativity and the obstacles,” he explained. “It’s trying to overcome a perception that doesn’t reflect what we really have here.”

And one of the more critical perceptions, or misperceptions, in his view, at least, involves workforce and fears that this region cannot support certain types of industries or specific businesses.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“I think there’s more of a critical mass. Before, it was this organization or this person; now, everyone is seeing it, and I’m hearing that more real-estate brokers are actively seeking businesses to come here.”

“There’s a fear that workers wouldn’t want to live in Springfield,” he explained, “and also the fear that their chances of finding the talent they need in Springfield and the surrounding region would be harder; that’s the biggest impediment I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped matters, he said, adding that, before it arrived, the city was enjoying some momentum. But many of its major attractions, from its hockey team to its symphony orchestra to its $1 billion casino, are shut down or operating much differently than before the pandemic.

Taking the long view, though, he said these institutions will return, and they will be part of an attractive package the region can market, a package that seems to make more sense with each passing day living and working during a pandemic.

 

Bottom Line

Time will obviously tell whether Western Mass., Hawaii, or anywhere else will benefit greatly from the lessons learned from COVID-19 and the trends emerging from this unique time in history.

What is apparent at the moment is that this region seems committed to at least trying to seize what appears to be a clear opportunity to benefit from attitudes about where companies can and should be located, and how they can and should be conducting business.

“Let’s just say I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Creed said.

So is everyone else.

 

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

 

Education Special Coverage

The Sternest of Tests

By George O’Brien

 

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the region’s community colleges were facing some pretty severe headwinds before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Western Mass. in March.

Indeed, these institutions, like all colleges and universities, have been seriously impacted by demographic trends — specifically, a decade or more of consistently smaller high-school graduating classes, said Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC).

But they’ve also been adversely impacted by what was the nation’s longest economic expansion and historically low unemployment rates, in a continuation of a trend that has become quite familiar to those in the community-college realm — when times are good, enrollment suffers, she noted; when times are bad, like during the Great Recession, people go back to school and enrollment climbs.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the pandemic has in some ways accelerated the pace of change when it comes to jobs and the workforce, and community colleges will need to help individuals thrive in this altered landscape.

But while the pandemic has created some of the worst times this region has seen in the past 90 years or so and put thousands on the unemployment rolls, that development hasn’t benefited the community colleges in the manner it has in the past, said Salomon-Fernández and others we spoke with. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which have to do with the ongoing health crisis itself.

Listing some, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC) and one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2020, said many individuals and families are simply coping with too many issues right now — from balancing life and work to trying to find employment, to simply putting food on the table — to consider adding a college education to the mix.

Beyond that, one of the real strengths of community colleges is their personal style of learning in the classroom, something taken away by the pandemic, and something that is keeping many students on the sidelines, Royal continued.

“We have a lot of students who prefer in-person learning,” she explained, noting that, in what would be normal times, roughly 20% of courses offered by the school are taught remotely; now, that number is closer to 95% or even 98%, and it will be that way at least through next spring. “So some students feel frustrated that the pandemic is continuing; what they thought would be a one-semester impact is now much more than that.”

But maybe the biggest reason this crisis has hit the community colleges harder than other institutions of higher learning is that this has not been an equal-opportunity pandemic, said John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), noting that it has impacted those in urban areas, those in lower-income brackets, and those in the minority community more severely than other constituencies. And these individuals, which were already struggling in many ways before the pandemic, form the base of the student populations at all of the state’s community colleges.

“For us and for the other community colleges, this is a conversation about equity,” he told BusinessWest. “We are a college that has a majority of students of color, and we’re seeing steep enrollment declines. It’s right in line with the way the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the African-American community and the Hispanic community.”

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says enrollment at community colleges has been dropping consistently since 2012, a pattern exacerbated by the pandemic.

Add all this up, and the region’s community colleges have had a very trying time since the spring. There have been cutbacks — STCC has had to cut several programs, for example, everything from automotive technology to landscape architecture (more on that later) — and workforce reductions by attrition at each school. And no one is really sure when the picture might at least start to brighten, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

“I’m encouraged, like the world, by vaccines, but just like everything with this pandemic, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when anything is going to take place,” Cook said. “So it’s really hard to forecast for next fall and beyond.”

But in some ways, this has been a proud moment for the schools, if that’s the right term, as they have focused their attention on the students who are enrolled and their growing needs during the pandemic — for everything from Chromebooks to hotspots so students can have internet access, to food and even desks so students can study remotely.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment. This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

Meanwhile, the schools are doing what they always do — looking to the future and seeing how the pandemic will impact the employment landscape with an eye toward preparing students for what will be a changing job market.

“The economy is changing, and jobs are changing, and we were already beginning to see these shifts before the pandemic,” said Salomon-Fernández. “When you read reports from the World Economic Forum, you see predictions that, over the next several years, many of the jobs that exist now will disappear. We knew there was a change coming in the future of work, and what we’re seeing now is that the pandemic is affecting how we work — and what the work is.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic has impacted the region’s community colleges, and how they’re responding to these even stronger headwinds.

 

Difficult Course

Cook told BusinessWest that the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges meet weekly.

They’ve always done this, he said, but the meetings are different now. For starters, they’re by Zoom, obviously, and the tone is decidedly different as the schools collectively deal with challenges on an unprecedented scale.

Unprecedented, because the schools have never faced a perfect storm like this one.

“There’s a solidarity there, for sure — you’re with a group of peers and colleagues contending with similarly difficult circumstances,” he said with some understatement in his voice. “We do a lot of listening and sharing — of strategic actions; navigation of federal, state, and local regulations; and best practices. We’re all coping with the same challenges.”

And there are many of them, starting with enrollment. As noted earlier, several forces have been pulling the numbers down for the bulk of the past decade, including the smaller high-school graduating classes and the economy — and the impact has been significant.

Indeed, overall enrollment at STCC had fallen by 30% between 2012 (when there were 7,000 students on campus) and the fall of 2019, said Cook, and it took another 15% hit this fall.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment,” he noted. “This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

John Cook

John Cook says the pandemic has disproportionately impacted urban areas and communities of color — constituencies served by community colleges.

The story is similar at most all of the other community colleges. Royal said enrollment has been declining at a rate of roughly 5% a year since 2012, or the peak, if you will, when it comes to enrollment growth in the wake of the Great Recession, and the pandemic has certainly compounded the problem. At HCC, enrollment is down 13.7% (roughly 600 students) from the fall of 2019, while the number of full-time equivalents is down 17%. And they are projected to decline further for the spring (enrollment is traditionally lower in the spring than the fall), she noted, as her school and other community colleges have announced that all learning next semester will be remote.

At GCC, the school hasn’t been hit as hard when it comes to enrollment, perhaps an 8% decline, said Salomon-Fernández, but the numbers are still down, and the long-term projections show they will continue trending downward for perhaps the balance of the decade, something GCC and other schools have been trying to plan for.

These enrollment declines obviously take a toll on these schools financially, said those we spoke with, a toll that has been greatly acerbated by the pandemic; Cook equated the 15% drop in enrollment from last year to $3 million in lost revenues. State and federal assistance from the CARES Act and other relief efforts have helped, he said, but there are restrictions on those monies, and, overall, they certainly don’t offset the steep losses.

Meanwhile, other headwinds are blowing, he said. At STCC, for example, the school has a number of issues with its buildings, some of which are more than 150 years old, with costs totaling several million dollars.

In response, the institutions have been using every tool in the toolbox to cope with the declines in revenue, including inducements to retire, not filling positions when people do retire or leave, reducing part-time personnel (and then full-time workers) if needed, creating efficiencies when possible, and cutting down on expenses wherever possible, including travel, utilities, and more.

In some cases, schools have had to go further and cut programs, as at STCC, which has eliminated several programs, including automotive, cosmetology, civil engineering, and dental assisting, which together enrolled roughly 120 students. These cuts came down to simple mathematics, said Cook, adding that, while some programs were popular and certainly needed within the community, like automotive, they are losing propositions, budget-wise.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break. And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

“By and large, with every program we offer, the tuition and fees do not cover the costs; no program really breaks even, especially anything that has a lab or a technical or clinical element to it; those are all losing endeavors,” he explained. “Which means there’s even more pressure when enrollment falls.”

 

Steep Grade

And, as noted, enrollment is projected to keep falling for the foreseeable future, and for all of the reasons, many of them pandemic-related, mentioned above — from individuals not able to attend college for financial or other reasons to people not wanting to learn remotely, which is all that community colleges can offer right now, except for some lab programs. And these trends are piling up atop those falling birth rates and smaller high-school classes.

Overall, it’s far more than enough to offset any gains that might come from the economy declining and the jobless rate soaring, said Royal, noting that this downturn is unlike those that came before because of the pandemic and the wave of uncertainty that has accompanied it.

“When we think about the conditions that tend to drive more students to higher education during a recession, in normal times, there is more predictability when it comes to economic cycles,” she explained. “We know that during a recession, jobs are limited, and you use the time to focus on your education; the market is going to turn, and when it does, you’ll have more credentials and certificates to be competitive for a job.

“When you think of the conditions we’re in now, there’s still so much uncertainty that people are feeling nervous about starting a new program when they just don’t have a sense for where the world is going to end up,” she went on. “They’re thinking, ‘what is the world going to look like, and how do we even navigate this?’”

With many schools forced to offer only remote learning, Salomon-Fernández noted, there was some speculation that students, perhaps with some prodding from their parents, might opt to learn remotely at a community college rather than a far more expensive four-year institution of higher learning. But thus far, such a movement has not materialized, she said, adding that some students are opting out altogether and taking at least a semester or year off rather than enroll remotely at any institution.

What is materializing is a situation where those in the minority communities and the lower end of the income scale — frontline workers, in many instances — are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And this is the constituency that fills many of the seats — another term that takes on new meaning during the pandemic — at this region’s community colleges.

“If you look at Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee, and Westfield — those are our top feeder communities,” Royal said. “These are the communities that are getting impacted by the pandemic in a significant way; we know the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income communities.”

She and the others we spoke with said the pandemic is putting many people out of work or reducing their hours, affecting everything from housing to food insecurity. Meanwhile, for others, the pandemic has them in a situation where balancing work and life has become more challenging and complicated, leaving fewer hours in the day and less time and opportunity for things like attaining the associate degree that might open some doors career-wise.

“There are so many uncertainties right now that have many people saying, ‘I don’t know if I can handle another thing right now — so I’m just going to wait and see if we can stabilize some of these other factors, especially some consistency with K-12 education and a better understanding of where the jobs are and who’s hiring,’” Royal said.

Cook concurred. “A lot of what we see in our enrollment decline is students not going anywhere — they’re sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “They’re not seeking another option because, frankly, we’re the most affordable and most accessible option in Springfield. They’re literally staying home — taking care of children who are similarly home, or taking care of family members, or addressing working concerns. That’s what we see, and that’s part of the larger story around racial concerns, equity, and structural racism, and this is how it lands at a place like STCC.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break,” he went on. “And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

 

Learning Curves

While coping with falling enrollment, the community colleges are facing additional challenges when it comes to serving those who are enrolled, said those we spoke with, noting, again, the disproportionate impact on those in lower-income brackets.

One of the biggest challenges many students face is getting internet access, said Salomon-Fernández, noting that this was already a challenge for some in rural Franklin County before the pandemic; now, it’s even more of an issue.

Royal agreed, noting that many students made use of HCC’s wi-fi and computer labs before the pandemic because they didn’t have it at home or had limited, low-band service.

The schools have responded by giving out laptops and Chromebooks on loan, as well as mobile hotspots to help with wi-fi connectivity.

“We’ve had hundreds of students access technology to help them with remote learning,” said Royal, adding that, through the school’s Student Emergency Fund, help has been provided for everything from rent payments to auto insurance to food, with more than $90,000 distributed to more than 230 students.

But the help goes beyond money, she said, adding that, at the school’s Thrive Center, students can get assistance with filling out applications for unemployment, get connected to mental-health services, find digital-literacy programs, and receive support from the school’s food pantry, in addition to those internet hot spots.

Looking ahead, though, the colleges face a much larger and even more important challenge as they try to anticipate changes to the job market, some of them being shaped by and accelerated by the pandemic, and adjust their programs accordingly.

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change. We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.”

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change,” said Salomon-Fernández. “We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.

“We’re already working with our Workforce Investment Board and with our chamber of commerce and other employment partners to help them think through training, both right now and for what’s coming down the pike,” she added. “It’s a matter of being agile in our thinking, of being responsive in terms of what new academic programs and new workforce-development programs might be needed, and making sure they are informed by industry and that we are ready to serve when people are ready to re-engage in this work.”

‘Ready to serve’ is a phrase that defines the purpose and the mission of the region’s community colleges. Carrying out that mission has become more difficult during the pandemic and the many changes it has brought, but the schools are persevering.

This has been the sternest of tests for them, but they are determined to pass it themselves, and enable all those they serve to do the same.

 

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

Women in Businesss

Courting History

Danielle Williams

Danielle Williams, seen outside the courthouse in Northampton, says her time as an assistant clerk magistrate has helped prepare her for service on the bench.

Danielle Williams was asked about the style, or approach, that she would bring to the bench as a District Court judge.

She paused for a minute to think, and then recalled a conversation she had with a colleague recently — one that revealed just how she intends to address each matter that reaches her.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities,” she said. “Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

She told BusinessWest that this human factor, the people represented in the words typed on those pages, was driven home during her years spent as an assistant clerk magistrate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court, a position with a wide job description (more on that later), and one that opened her eyes to not only court procedure, but also the many issues facing those living and working in this region — and her own skill sets and abilities.

Williams said she didn’t take the clerk magistrate’s job with the goal, or intention, of becoming the first African-American woman to be sworn in as a District Court judge in Western Mass., but she was eventually convinced by many of those she was working with that this was the logical next step — and that she was ready.

Williams brings what might be called an eclectic résumé to her latest position, one that includes experience in the Hampden County District Attorney’s office … and experience writing and producing comic books.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities. Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

Indeed, as she told BusinessWest when she was named one of its 40 Under Forty honorees in 2015, Williams, while practicing law with the Northampton-based firm Fierst, Kane, and Bloomberg LLP, specializing in, among other things, intellectual-property law, she was also writing stories about unlikely superheroes known as the Mighty Magical Majestics.

While Williams still has somewhat of a passion for science fiction and graphic novels, she has spent the past several years focused entirely on the law and, more specifically, the courts.

After a short stint working in the Office of the Attorney General in Springfield, she joined the Trial Court as an assistant clerk magistrate in the spring of 2016, a role she’d been drawn to since very early in her career.

“I really admired how they [magistrates] really controlled the courtroom and set the tone for giving people access and making sure they felt comfortable in the courtroom,” she noted. “They dealt with all the components of the courtroom, whether it was probation, members of the public, the lawyers, the other court officers. There was the administrative aspect and also the substantive aspect, where they presided over small claims and criminal show-cause hearings, and I decided that’s really what I wanted to do.

“When I got that job, I was thrilled, and I loved it,” she went on. “I really anticipated staying there.”

But it wasn’t long before people started asking her what was next when it came to her career. The obvious answer was the bench, and while she listened to those who said she was ready to take that step forward, including Judge William Boyle, whom she considers her first mentor, she was at first reluctant, thinking she wasn’t ready to take that step forward.

“I think we’re always our toughest critics,” she said. “We want to be at our very best before we move on to the next level; you want to make sure you’re ready for the responsibility, have the education and knowledge, all that.

“Judge Boyle said, ‘why don’t you think about it?’” she went on. “I said, ‘but I’m not ready, judge; I haven’t even thought about it.’ And he said, ‘well, you should think about it.’ That meant a lot to me that someone who has seen me grow through my legal career thought this was something I should consider.”

Eventually, she gained the confidence to apply, and while her first bid for the bench was not successful, she applied again, and this this time, in a decidedly different interview process in the midst of a pandemic, she succeeded in impressing various interviewers and the Governor’s Council, the body that confirms nominations made by the governor.

She said her four years as assistant clerk magistrate certainly has prepared her for this next stage of her career.

“As an assistant clerk, you come to know who you are, especially if you’re sitting in the Springfield District Court,” she explained. “I know my temperament, I know the different agendas that happen in the courtroom — and having a different agenda is not a bad thing. The district attorney’s office represents the Commonwealth, the defense attorney represents their client, and I am a neutral party in the courtroom. Understanding those things, and having experience in managing all those different agendas in the courtroom, has been invaluable.

“Also,” she went on, “to sit in those sessions with the judges in motion hearings and trials, and listen and try to anticipate how I would respond to those issues, has been a tremendous platform for me, and a way to be prepared for the role of associate justice.”

If the interviewing and selection process was different because of COVID-19, so, too, was the swearing-in ceremony.

Usually a formal affair attended by hundreds of colleagues, friends, and family, this swearing-in was conducted from her dining room with just a few people in attendance.

“I had planned to have it in the atrium on the Springfield District Court, where I could hopefully social distance and have the public, friends, and colleagues in attendance,” she said. “But, given the circumstances, it seemed safer just to have a small swearing-in for now.”

As for where she’ll be next week, or the week after … she doesn’t know yet. While appointed out of Westfield, she could be in one of several other courts across the region, from Chicopee to Palmer to Orange, depending on where there is need.

What she does know is that, whichever court she’s in, she’ll bring in that mindset she mentioned at the top — that court cases are not documents or pieces of paper; they represent people, families, and communities.

It was the ability to communicate this philosophy, if you will, that helped her win this coveted — and historic — appointment, and it’s the one that will guide her for the next 26 years or so.

 

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

Cover Story

A Turnaround Story

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, in the old stockhouse at Ludlow Mills that will remain home to his venture.

Nick Morin says he and his team are looking forward to the day when they can devote all their time and energy to just brewing beer and working on the business plan.

They’re getting closer all the time.

Indeed, after several years of court battles involving their lease at the Ludlow Mills complex and another legal fight Morin is trying to avoid involving Duke University and the name currently over the brewery — Iron Duke — there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

And it is certainly a welcome sight.

“We’re looking forward to being less legal-focused and doing all the fun things for our business here and out in the world that we’ve been wanting to do for years,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

It’s been more than eight years since Morin, a mechanical engineer by trade who made brewing beer his hobby and then decided to make it his vocation, started walking along the banks of the Chicopee River with his wife after relocating to Ludlow and remarking how the mostly vacant Ludlow Mills would be the ideal place to start and then grow his business.

The Iron Duke name

The Iron Duke name will have to change soon in an effort to avoid another legal battle — this one with Duke University — but the bootprint, and the mailing address, won’t.

He’s now there, expansion plans are on the table and on his computer, and the brewery is positioned to be a permanent, and important, part of the landscape. But getting to this point didn’t exactly go according to plan.

Not even close.

Instead, as mentioned, what seemed like a good story on every level turned dark in many ways as Iron Duke and landlord Westmass Area Development Corp. first had a disagreement over terms in the lease, and then fought for 18 months in court over just what the language in the contract meant.

When a judge eventually ruled that Iron Duke could finish out its lease, which expired earlier this month, what that did was eventually buy everyone some time and allow them to write what two years ago would have seemed like a very unlikely story.

Long story shorter, the two sides came to an agreement whereby Iron Duke would not only stay, but be a vital cog in the ongoing efforts by those at Westmass to make the mills not simply a home for small businesses — and residents as well — but a destination of sorts.

How did this stunning turnaround happen? Morin sums it up this way.

“We found that, although the lawyers served their purpose, just having a person-to-person conversation and understanding where each party was coming from was huge; we found some common ground,” he explained. “It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

Jeff Daley, who was named executive director of Westmass roughly a year ago and picked up these negotiations from Bryan Nicholas, who served as interim director after the sudden passing of Eric Nelson in the spring of 2019, agreed.

“There were some bitter feelings, but Nick and I quickly agreed to operate without rear-view mirrors,” Daley explained. “We put the seatbelts on, moved forward rapidly to get them in there long term, and have an understanding that we’re going to work together to get the best for the tenant and the landlord.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Morin grabbed his laptop and clicked his way to an architect’s images of a two-story, permanent structure that will reside where a tented beer garden, erected last summer, now sits. He expects work to start soon and be completed by next spring or summer.

As for Duke University, Morin is in the final stages of changing the company’s name to avoid another expensive court fight, this one with a university with very deep pockets and the willingness to protect its brand — that word ‘Duke’ — from any and all infringement (more on that later).

About the only thing standing in the way of Iron Duke now is COVID-19. And while it poses a series of challenges and has reduced draft sales of the company’s products by roughly 70% because bars and restaurants are not open or have cut hours way back, Morin believes the company can ride out that storm as well.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look back at what has been a rough ride for Iron Duke — and ahead to what promises to be, as they say in this business, a smoother pour.

 

Ale’s Well That’s Ends Well

As he talked with BusinessWest at the bar in Iron Duke’s taproom on a quiet Wednesday, Morin, a safe six feet away, referenced the one place at that end, officially outlined with blue tape, at which one could sit because of social-distancing measures forced by COVID-19.

“That space over there is too close to those tables,” he said, gesturing with his hand to another portion of the bar. “And this space here is too close to people sitting over there; it’s a no-fly zone. This is only place you can sit at. It can be a little lonely, I guess, but people still like it.”

The fact that this conversation was taking place where it was — and that there were lines of blue tape all over the bar — could be considered remarkable. And maybe 18 months ago, it would have been, well, pretty much unthinkable.

Back then, it seemed as if what started as a good marriage was going to end up in a messy, very public divorce, with Iron Duke brewing beer in Wilbraham, and Westmass looking to fill a vacancy and move on from what had become a public-relations problem.

And then … things changed.

As we retell the story of how we got here, and where we go from here, we need to go back a little further, to those walks Morin had with his wife along the river.

“My wife and I started a family about a half-mile from here,” he noted. “We used to walk our dog back here and talk about — as most in Ludlow did at the time — how it was a shame that this whole property was in the shape it was. When we put together our business plan, it just made sense to grow it here, in the town where we lived and close to our house.”

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck and tented beer garden at its Ludlow location, and soon will commence work on a permanent, two-tiered beer garden that will overlook the Chicopee River.

He initiated talks with the previous owner of the sprawling complex in late 2012, and discussions accelerated after Westmass acquired the property, because with that purchase came ambitious talk of redeveloping the mills into a multi-purpose destination that would include residential, business, healthcare, and other uses.

“We wanted to be part of it because we had big plans for our small business,” said Morin, adding that what would eventually become a highly scrutinized and much-debated seven-year lease agreement was inked in late 2013.

What followed was a year and a half of construction in one of the many so-called stockhouses on the property, the century-old, high-ceilinged, 6,000-square-foot facilities in which raw materials — jute plants — were hung and dried for production in the mill complex.

The brewery officially opened on Thanksgiving Eve in 2014.

“We hit the ground running — that first year is a bit of a blur,” he recalled, noting that he quit his job that month as a mechanical engineer and made brewing his vocation — and his passion. The company steadily grew, drawing customers to its taproom in the mill and also putting its various products in cans and bottles, which were available at bars, restaurants, and some package stores.

Things were going pretty much according to the script laid out in the business plan until 2015, when the company started hitting some speed bumps, as Morin called them.

They came in for the form of differences of opinion regarding just what the lease allowed at the premises.

“We found ourselves being backed into a corner regarding our business and a disagreement over what we could do here and what we were doing here at our Ludlow location,” said Morin. “That’s how lawyers got involved — the interpretation of the lease itself.”

Elaborating, he said it all came down to one paragraph and its two sentences regarding the use of the premises and consumption of beer on and off the property. Cutting to the chase, he said Westmass held the view that such consumption would be limited — or at least more limited than what Iron Duke had in mind and needed for its venture to succeed.

“It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

“That escalated from a conversation to litigation once the lawyers got involved,” he went on, adding that the court fight lasted from January 2016 to the summer of 2017. Westmass wanted Iron Duke evicted from the property, a fate that would have effectively scuttled the business, Morin said.

“We had already leveraged everything we had to open here in Ludlow the first time around,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re self-financed; myself and my family, we put everything we had into this. To build a brewery once was everything we had — to build it twice was something we couldn’t afford.

“We were only left with closing or fighting this thing out to save our business, so that’s what we did — we fought for a good chunk of time,” he went on, adding that the protracted and very expensive legal fight pushed Iron Duke to the very brink financially, and it only survived because of the strong and constant support from its customers.

 

Lager Than Life

That fight ended with a judge ruling that Iron Duke could essentially ride out its lease operating as it was, Morin recalled, adding that, not long after that decision, he bought property in Wilbraham with the intention of moving the company there when the lease expired — right around now, actually.

Instead, the company is staying put in Ludlow. After the passing of Nelson in the spring of 2019, discussions ensued with his immediate successor, Nicholas, who was with Westmass when Iron Duke originally signed its lease in 2013 and played a role in those negotiations. And those talks continued with Daley.

They weren’t easy negotiations, Morin said, noting that there was still considerable baggage to contend with. But, as noted above, both sides concluded they had more to gain by coming together on another lease than they did by parting ways and letting the next chapters of this story develop in Wilbraham.

“We came to common ground realizing that we’re better off with each other than we are apart,” Daley said. “It’s a great relationship now, and I think it’s going to be an even better relationship going forward; I’m excited for their future, and I’m glad they stayed at the Ludlow Mills.”

Morin agreed. From the beginning, he noted, the company wanted to be an integral part of the growth and development of the Ludlow Mills complex, and this mission, if it can be called that, had been somehow lost in the midst of the protracted legal battle.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost,” he explained. “And once we had the opportunity to show them the plans that we had — we were going to spend millions of dollars in Wilbraham to build a showcase facility — both sides started asking, ‘why not just stay where we are?’”

So now, the company is just about at the point where it always wanted to be — focused entirely on business and its expansion plans.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost.”

There is still the matter of Duke University and its demands that the brewery change its name. Morin has decided that, even though he has a good amount invested in ‘Iron Duke’ — literally and figuratively — this is not a fight he’s willing to wage at this time.

“It’s a common thing among these universities that they protect their mark,” he said with some resignation in his voice. “So there’s not a lot of negotiation on that front.”

So instead, he will rebrand. He’s working with a firm to come up with new name, and expects to announce it within the next several weeks. While offering no other hints, he did say the word ‘Duke’ could not be part of the equation, but he expects to be able to work the company’s very recognizable bootprint logo into what comes next.

Meanwhile, since the start of this year, the company has essentially doubled its space within its stockhouse by taking down a wall and expanding into square footage that had been unused since the mid-’90s — something it has long desired to do but couldn’t because of the litigation.

Ongoing changes at the site

Ongoing changes at the site will essentially transform it from a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.

It also erected the tented beer garden and added a food truck, said Morin, noting that construction of the permanent, two-tiered beer garden, which will overlook the river, is set to commence this coming winter.

“There will be a nice concrete patio, along with the food truck we purchased in June,” he noted. “All this will enable us to essentially transform from just a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.”

COVID-19 has certainly thrown the brewery some curve balls — the business was closed to on-premise business during the shutdown last March and relied entirely on distribution, delivery, and curbside purchases of its canned products until July — but Morin believes that, after all the hard fights this company has been through, it can handle a pandemic as well.

“We’ve found that, because we’ve been through so much in the past six years, we’re able to handle these larger problems pretty effectively,” he said. “We’ve got a nice, hard callus around us, and we’re pretty flexible about our business.”

 

What’s on Tap?

At the height of the legal battle that ensued between Iron Duke and Westmass, the brewer put out a product called Eviction Notice IPA (India Pale Ale).

It became an immediate hit and one of its best sellers — in part because it was a quality ale with good flavor, but also because drinking it became a way to show support for the company in its quest to stay where it always wanted to be.

“We bring it back every now and then because it is a crowd favorite, but it’s not as bitter of a beer as it once was,” he explained. “It’s a fun beer to tell our story, but we always try to finish off the story on a positive note, rather than a negative one.”

Only 18 months ago, few would have thought this story could possibly sound a positive note, but things changed quickly and profoundly — and both sides seem poised to benefit from this collective change of heart.

 

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

COVID-19 Features

Let There Be Light

Judy Matt says the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) exists for one reason — to entertain residents across the region and create some memories.

It hasn’t been able to do any of that to this point in 2020, obviously, and Matt, the long-time executive director of the nonprofit agency, has been frustrated and disappointed by this reality. Annual events such as the pancake breakfast (long heralded as the world’s largest), the Fourth of July fireworks, and the Big Balloon Parade have been wiped off the calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there remains uncertainty about whether any of those can be staged in 2021.

Meanwhile, at the SOS, with little revenue coming in other than a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the proceeds from the annual golf tournament, the staff — and that includes Matt — have been on unemployment for at least some of this year, although she has continued to come to the office every day.

But there will be one bright spot as a very trying year — for both the region and the SOS — comes to a close, as the necessary approvals (and many of them were required) have been received to stage Bright Nights in Forest Park from Nov. 25 to Jan. 6.

Things won’t be exactly the same — there will be new restrictions on everything from the hours of operation (the front gate will have to be shut at 8:45 p.m.) to how tickets are paid for (no cash, for example) — and the the gift shop in the park will be closed, although a facility will open downtown in the Springfield Visitors Center. And no one will be allowed to get out of their cars under any circumstances.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had.”

But just being able to have Bright Nights will provide a huge boost for the region and the Spirit of Springfield, Matt said. “The region needs Bright Nights, now more than ever. It’s been a long, trying year for everyone.”

Bright Nights will go on in 2020

There will be some new restrictions on hours, method of payment, and other matters, Judy Matt says, but Bright Nights will go on in 2020, a bright spot in an otherwise dark year.

But while the region needs Bright Nights, so too does the Spirit of Springfield, which relies on the income from this signature event to help carry out its mission and present those other annual gatherings listed earlier.

So Matt and others will be keeping their fingers crossed on the weather — past history has shown that a few snowstorms can wreak havoc on the bottom line — while trying to make the most of the opportunity it has been given to stage Bright Nights in the middle of a pandemic.

And early indications are that, despite some restrictions on the hours and other factors, this could be one of the best seasons in the 26-year history of the Bright Nights, given what kind of year it’s been and the need for some kind of relief valve, especially as the holiday season approaches.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while it might well achieve that status, this year’s Bright Nights will be challenged by the restrictions imposed upon it by city and state officials, especially the shortened hours of operation.

“We are theoretically losing 39 hours during which we could have been selling tickets — in the past, we had a lot of nights where we were open ’til 11,” she said, adding that, with vehicles going through at the rate of 300 per hour, those lost hours will hurt.

The city has allowed Bright Nights to stay open an additional three days, she went on, adding that, while this will help, the volume of traffic through the displays decreases markedly after Jan. 1.

“I can keep talking about what we can’t do and what we won’t have,” she said. “But we’re just very grateful to be able to do this; it’s important that this region has Bright Nights this year.”

As for what comes after Bright Nights … Matt said there are certainly question marks about whether the SOS will be able to get back into the entertainment business full-time next year, but she and her staff have to plan as if that is going to be the case.

But if the current conditions continue well into next year, the agency will be facing some hard questions. In addition to the events being wiped off the slate, COVID-19 also prohibited the agency from staging its annual Bright Nights Ball, which traditionally nets the SOS $50,000 to $60,000 for operating expenses.

Without that revenue, the agency needs a very solid year for Bright Nights and probably other forms of help, such as that small PPP loan it received last spring, which enabled a few of the staff members to remain on the payroll.

“We’re trying to figure it all out,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hoping we have a good year for Bright Nights; if we have a good Bright Nights, that will take us into March or April. After that … we’ll have to see what happens.”

While the long-term picture is clouded by question marks, the immediate future is bright — or at least brighter — now that the agency has been given the green light to continue what has become a holiday tradition, not just for those in this region, but for those who travel to it to enjoy what has been recognized among the top holiday lighting displays in the country.

The pandemic has turned out the lights on a great many institutions and activities this year, but not these lights.

It won’t be exactly the same — nothing is in the middle of a pandemic — but this impressive show will go on.

 

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Tightening the Safety Net

 

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

As Andrew Morehouse conducted his tour of the facilities at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the sights and sounds helped tell the story that is emerging at this agency — and within this region — at a critical time.

The first thing to notice was the copious amounts of food of all kinds — from sweet potatoes in huge bins to hundreds of cases of canned tuna — now stored at the complex in Hatfield and in other locations as well, destined for local meal sites and food pantries. Indeed, the Food Bank is “over capacity,” as Morehouse, its executive director, put it, because of the soaring numbers of people who are now facing food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, and the way government agencies, businesses, and individuals have responded to those numbers.

This capacity issue was clearly in evidence, with pallets of food stacked not only on the shelves and the floor space of the warehouse, but in the hallways leading to it as well.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster,” he explained. “We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

As for the sounds … well, the Food Bank was mostly quiet at the hour of this visit — late morning, approaching noon — but the few workers on the floor were talking about what they witnessed in the parking lot of Central High School in Springfield, where a drive-thru food-distribution site, supported in part by the Food Bank, has been established. The staffers were talking about long lines of vehicles, and how this has become a constant, or a new norm, with this initiative.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster. We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

Meanwhile, fewer people are working at the Hatfield facility, with many more working remotely because of the pandemic, and a host of safety protocols in place to keep those who do come in — and the public in general — safe.

In many ways, the Food Bank — and the hundreds of sites it serves — has become one of the enduring symbols of this pandemic locally. Indeed, just as the bread lines of the mid-1930s became an indelible image that came to represent the Great Depression, the long lines of motorists picking up food — it can no longer be distributed indoors — have come to symbolize this pandemic.

And as fall continues and winter approaches, need is only expected to grow, said Morehouse, who cited projections from Feeding America showing that, by year’s end, an estimated one in six residents in Western Mass. (perhaps 127,000 people) will be experiencing food insecurity, as opposed to one in 10 before the pandemic began, and one in four children. That would be a 40% increase in the number of people overall, and a more than 60% increase in the number of children.

In many ways, such numbers help tell this story. During the fiscal year that just ended Sept. 30, the Food Bank distributed 14.8 million pounds, or the equivalent of 12 million meals — a 23% increase over the previous year, compared to an average 6% increase year over year. Meanwhile, over the past seven months, the increase has been roughly 30% (from 7.3 million pounds to 9.5 million), much higher than the annual increase, obviously, because of the direct impact of the pandemic, and the highest seven-month spike in the agency’s 38-year history.

Behind the numbers, though, is the inspiring story of how the region and its business community have responded to the crisis, said Morehouse, adding that this response was quick and profound, and it is ongoing.

Sweet potatoes from local farms

Sweet potatoes from local farms are among the many items jamming the shelves and floor space at the Food Bank, which is over capacity due to spiking need.

The biggest question concerns what comes next, and it’s one that’s hard to answer, he noted, adding that many factors will go into determining where these numbers go in the weeks and months to come.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Morehouse about the mounting problem of food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic and how his agency has responded. Overall, he said this response “is how the safety net is supposed to work.”

Elaborating, he noted that the Food Bank has been able to meet soaring need because federal and state agencies have stepped up and put more food into the system, but also because the region has stepped up as well.

 

Food for Thought

As he talked about what has transpired since March, when the pandemic arrived in Western Mass., Morehouse said it’s been a period of adjustment — for area residents, for his agency, and even for area farms.

For many, the pandemic left them unemployed or in a position where they were earning less — although generous unemployment benefits certainly helped large numbers of people impacted by the downturn in the economy. But those unemployment benefits also had the unintended consequence of leaving individuals ineligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, creating a different kind of problem.

For the Food Bank, the first several weeks of the pandemic were chaotic, he said, as the agency mounted a response to what was happening — but had to do so in the middle of a health crisis.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about how to protect oneself from COVID-19, and suddenly, so many people lost their jobs or were furloughed,” he explained. “There was an outpouring of concern, of wanting to help, from people who don’t know that an emergency food network exists. So we were fielding calls from community groups from all across Western Massachusetts, saying, ‘we want to bring food to the Food Bank,’ or ‘how can we support you?’

“And it took a while for us to connect people to the pantries and meal sites in their communities as a way to support households that were at risk of hunger, because that’s who we work with,” he went on. “We don’t receive individuals who are in need of food assistance at our warehouse, and we don’t deliver food to households; we work through the existing network of about 165 independent pantries and meal sites, plus our own distribution programs to 51 senior centers every month, and on our mobile food bank, which has 26 distribution sites across all four counties on a biweekly or monthly basis.”

When asked how the Food Bank responded to that 30% spike over the past seven months, Morehouse replied with a quick “it wasn’t easy,” before elaborating.

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries spills out into the hallways at the Food Bank, clear evidence of soaring need in the region.

“It took us a while to catch up, I’ll be honest,” he told BusinessWest, noting that there were a number of challenges to overcome, starting with disruption to what he called the “supply chain,” meaning donations of food to the agency from individuals and also, and especially, area supermarkets.

“There was a run on those supermarkets, so it was a significant hit,” he recalled, adding that roughly half the food distributed by the agency comes from the private food industry in the form of dry goods, produce, and close to 1 million pounds of meats frozen on the sell-by date.

Beyond this disruption to the supply chain, the Food Bank was impacted by shortages of staff and a loss of many of its distribution sites; several of them closed, including all brown-bag sites for elders and many mobile locations.

Slowly, over time, those sites reopened, while also changing how food was distributed, he noted, adding that as, the spring progressed, the Food Bank adapted to what became a new normal, both in terms of how it operated and with the numbers of people now facing food insecurity.

Indeed, over the period from March to August, the latest information available, the average number of individuals served each month grew to 107,000, Morehouse said, adding that 20,000 of those, or 19%, are people who have never come to a pantry or meal site.

And that percentage of new visitors was much higher, perhaps 40%, in the early weeks of the pandemic, when the layoffs and furloughs started climbing, and before those generous unemployment benefits kicked in. The numbers then leveled off for a time, but they started climbing again, he went on, adding that, when the new six-month numbers come out, the total people being served should far surpass that 107,000 figure.

 

Numbers to Chew On

Behind the numbers is the story of how this rising demand has been met with the help of a number of contributing sources — that safety net Morehouse described earlier.

These include the federal government, state agencies, area businesses, and philanthropic efforts like Jeff Bezos’ $100 million gift to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

“The federal government has stepped up — we’ve received considerably more federal food,” he explained, referring specifically to CARES Act appropriations that enable such agencies to buy more food. “And there was an outpouring of support from individuals, businesses, and regional and state foundations, as well as from Feeding America, the national network of food banks.”

The agency has also received more than $400,000, with another $123,000 coming, from the Massachusetts COVID Relief Fund, he went on, adding that a number of individual businesses, including Big Y and the Antonocci Family Foundation, have made sizable donations as well.

Part of the federal government’s response has come in the form of Farmers to Families Food Boxes, a new program through which the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is partnering with national, regional, and local distributors, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, and other food-service businesses, to purchase up to $4.5 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from American producers of all sizes.

Mapleline Farm in Hadley is one of several local farms in the region that have adjusted with the pandemic, now supplying the Food Bank with milk in family-sized packaging.

This program supplies boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products, which distributors package into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.

The program has benefited several area farms, said Morehouse, noting that those supplying the boxes are purchasing products from many area farmers who were severely impacted by their inability to sell to restaurants, colleges, and universities closed by the pandemic.

“It took a while for some of these farms to adapt, but many of them have,” he said, citing, as one example, Mapleline Farm in Hadley, a dairy farm whose name and logo were on countless boxes of quart containers of milk in the Food Bank’s warehouse.

As for the future, Morehouse said the contributions that have poured in from individuals and businesses have left the organization in a solid position financially for this current fiscal year, one in which overall need is expected to continue growing, while the economy is projected to continue struggling.

Meanwhile, question marks remain about the ongoing level of support from state and federal governments, as well as from individual contributors, he said, citing the potential for donor fatigue as the pandemic wears on.

“The state is operating on a month-to-month budget, so we’re not even sure if we’re going to be level-funded for a program that we’ve come to rely on for 30% of our food since 1992,” he told BusinessWest. “And the federal government has not passed another stimulus package, so we’re anticipating a decline in federal support.

“We have a jigsaw puzzle of public and private emergency food resources that rely of federal and state funding and private charitable support,” he went on. “We rely on all those sources of support to get the food we need and the resources we need to keep operations afloat.”

One of the important pieces of that puzzle is Monte’s March, the fundraising walk from Springfield to Greenfield that was launched by radio personality Monte Belmonte to benefit the Food Bank. Belmonte has seen the ranks of people joining him on his late-November trek grow steadily over the years, as well as the amount raised for the agency, but that first trend won’t continue this year, as the pandemic is forcing organizers to encourage individuals to support the march remotely — although the top-performing teams when it comes to generating donations will be able to march.

But, given the urgent need for support, they are hoping the second trend will continue. The goal for this year has been raised from the $333,000 mark set last year — each dollar donated buys three meals, so the goal was to fund 1 million meals — to $365,000, or $1,000 a day, or 4,000 meals a day (one dollar now buys four meals, due to greater efficiency).

 

Hard to Digest

Looking at the projections from Feeding America for the next several months, the ones predicting that one in six area residents will be food-insecure, Morehouse had his doubts initially about whether things would really get that bad here.

But now, he’s thinking they may be realistic — painfully realistic, to be more precise — especially when one ponders the unanswerable questions concerning when the pandemic will subside and to what degree the federal government will keep on printing money.

One thing Morehouse does know is that the Food Bank will continue to pivot and respond proactively to the ongoing crisis — right down to finding more warehouse space.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A ‘Family Business’

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

The story sounds like some of the fiction that Tom Hebert now devotes much of his non-working time to writing.

But it’s not.

Flashing back to when he was in high school, Hebert said he and his father, William, were having a talk about what he might do with his life, career-wise. The elder Hebert had just used his last match to light a cigarette, and after doing so, he noticed the ad on the back of the matchbook: ‘Become a CPA.’

“He handed me the matchbook cover, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll look into it,’ said Hebert, who would earn a degree in accounting at American International College. Eventually, he would join what was then one of the ‘Big 8’ accounting firms, Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery, and subsequently work in a number of other settings in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including Cambridge Credit Counseling, which he currently serves as chief financial officer.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines. It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

But while the saga of how he wound up in financial services is intriguing and makes for good reading, Herbert’s story is largely about what else he’s done with his life, starting with his time in the Marine Corps, which included a stint in Vietnam in 1970, as that conflict was beginning to wind down in many ways (much more on that later).

More recently, a second career has emerged: writing fiction, specifically about Marines. His first book, The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, which he authored under the pseudonym Will Remain (with Remain being an anagram of Marine), came out early this year.

Covering the period from 1899 to 1917, several months before the U.S. entered World War I, it tells the story of Kenneth Remain (Will’s grandfather, who was born in Worcester and educated at Harvard), and the love triangle he enters along with Harvard classmate Lawrence Blakeslee and the “beautiful KatyKay Mulcahy.” The reader is also introduced to the 57 enlisted men of the fictional Fourth Platoon of the 87th Company of the true-to-life Third Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment.

“These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen .”

“When Kenneth takes KatyKay away from Lawrence, it creates problems between the two families that last for decades,” Hebert said, describing the plotline for the first book and those that will follow. “There’s this interaction between the two families that will last right up ’til the Vietnam War.”

The book is selling fairly well, but Hebert admits to not yet reaching the ‘break-even’ point that all self-publishers aspire to. Originally in hardcover, there’s now a paperback version of Remains of the Corps, as well as an e-book, and an audiobook will soon follow.

A second book is in progress, one that will take the story into the battlefields of France in World War I, with subsequent volumes covering the 1920s and ’30s. Eventually, his fictional characters will fight in World War II, which his father did, having taken part in the epic battle on Iwo Jima.

His father’s service — and his own — helped inspire the books, said Hebert, who told BusinessWest his writing is a way to give back to the Marine Corps, which he said gave him so much.

When asked what, specifically, he said the Corps gave him discipline, something he’s called on in all facets of his intriguing life, as well as some moments he won’t forget.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines,” he explained. “It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

Thus, Hebert’s saga represents the perfect Veteran’s Day story for this business publication: it’s a tale of military service and a family’s devotion to the Marine Corps, but also one about business — the one Hebert joined with some help from that matchbook cover, as well as the one he’s in now — and the challenging world of publishing.

 

The Write Stuff

“That’s the final straw!” Kenneth Remain said angrily, as he sat down heavily at a table in Jimmy’s Lunch. The melting snow on the brim of his boater and the shoulders of his benny testified to the fact that a sockdologer of a storm had clobbered Boston, an affront to the spring solstice of two days hence; though waning, the storm had not breathed its last.

Those are the first lines of The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, and they provide not only a glimpse of Hebert’s mostly self-taught writing style, but also the immense amount of research that goes into writing a book set more than a century ago.

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written. He plans six volumes in all to tell the story of the Remains.

Indeed, before he could pen a story set in 1917, Hebert said he needed to know the vocabulary of 1917 — specifically the vocabulary used by people attending Harvard, hence words like ‘boater,’ a type of straw hat; ‘benny,’ a greatcoat; and ‘sockdologer,’ a synonym for any word connoting ‘whopper’ or ‘defining.’

“People talked much more formally back then — they used the king’s English,” he explained. “These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen.

“Any time my wife and I were out at bookstores and flea markets, I would pick up books on vocabulary, idioms, and more,” he went on. “And as part of my training, I went through those books and selected words, phrases, thoughts, and philosophies, and I would say, ‘I could use this in one of my books.’”

Several years of research and work learning how to write fiction went into The Remains of the Corps, Volume 1, said Herbert, noting, again, that his decision to dive into what he expects will become a six-book set was inspired by the service of his own family and a firm desire to give something back to the Corps.

With that, we’ll do what fiction writers often do: we’ll flash back — first to 1945, when William Hebert was ending his lengthy tour of duty with the Marines. He enlisted just after Pearl Harbor and served throughout the war — and even after it ended, as part of the peacekeeping force in Japan. Upon returning home, he built a house in Chicopee and went to work as a pressman for Springfield Newspapers, retiring at age 62.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here. But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

Hebert said his father, like many who fought in World War II, didn’t talk much about his service. “But he was always singing the Marine Corps hymn when I was a boy,” Tom recalled, adding that, while his father never pushed him to join the service or that specific branch, he found himself signing up.

That was in May 1968, just a few months after the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnam War was in some ways at its height. Hebert had just earned that accounting degree at AIC, and attended Office Training School for 10 weeks, and then another five months at a specialty school for officers.

His military occupational specialty was to be a tank officer, so he then went to Camp Pendleton in California for two months. Around that same time, he got married and was told he could spend another 18 months in California.

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive in 1968, when the conflict was at its height.

But there was a quick change in plans, as he and several other tank officers were told there was an urgent need for their services in Vietnam.

“When we arrived at First Marine Division and met with the personnel officer, he said, ‘I don’t know why they sent you all here — I have three times as many tank officers as I need,’” he recalled. “That’s typical of the military, and my father had warned me about the bureaucratic aspects of being in the service.”

With his background in accounting, Hebert was eventually sent to the Central Service Agency, essentially a supply position — and wasn’t too happy with that assignment.

“After being there a short time, I went to the personnel officer and said, ‘I can’t do this — my father was in the Marines, he served at Iwo Jima … this is not why I joined,” he recalled. “He kicked me out of his office and said, ‘you’ll go where you’re told.’”

So he spent a year in Da Nang as — in the language of that time — an REMF, which stands for rear echelon mother… well, you can fill in the rest. Or, as they also said, ‘in the rear with the gear.’

Still, that time gave him a deep appreciation of the Corps and some valuable life lessons about leadership and teamwork.

When he came back home, he had a case of what was and still is known as ‘survivor guilt,’ which prompted him to publish a Vietnam War newsletter and also sell books through what was known as the Vietnam Book Store, a mostly mail-order operation.

 

Turning the Page

Longing to do more, Hebert eventually settled on the idea of writing about fictional Marines, but with art imitating life in many ways, especially when it comes to the Marine Corps being a generational phenomenon, or what Hebert calls a “family business.” It was that way for his family, and for the one he’s writing about as well, in stories told by the youngest generation.

That would be Will Remain, whose background is similar to Hebert’s, but with some important differences. Remain graduated from Harvard, not AIC, and upon graduation enlisted in the Marines and attended Officer Candidates School and Basic School in Quantico, Va. Instead of serving in the rear with the gear, he fought at Khe Sanh in 1967 and the Battle of Hue City during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Hebert said he was inspired in many ways by the war novel Once an Eagle, written by Anton Meyer. A New York Times bestseller, it has been a favorite of American military men and women since it was penned in 1968, he noted.

“That book just fascinated me,” he told BusinessWest. “It was about the Army, and it covered several decades of one officer’s time. That book really inspired me to write.” Indeed, Hebert’s first forays into writing were non-fiction works about Meyer and his books.

He then embarked on the first installment of his novel, which wound up taking him a decade or so to write and prepare for publication. It includes dozens of illustrations by Tara Kaz that help bring the individual stories to life.

As for those stories, or the elements of his novels, he said the process of weaving them together is very much like that of putting together a jigsaw puzzle — which happens to be another of his hobbies; he said he’s put together more than 75 of them, with his favorite (unsurprisingly) being an image of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington.

“I have tons and tons of research material, and it’s all in pieces,” he went on, adding that, as he read books on history and vocabulary, for example, he would tear out the pages and keep them for future reference. “I take all those pieces — and we’re talking about an incredible amount of information — and put it together in a book.”

His second book is 95% researched and about 25% written, he said, adding that this segment details the battles in France during World War I. Book three, meanwhile, covers the period between the wars, and book four will likely take place on a fictional island in the Pacific during World War II.

Hebert writes when he’s not working, which means nights and weekends, and at age 73, he intends to keep on working — for several reasons.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here,” he explained. “But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

As noted, his first book is off to a decent start, with about 300 copies sold and a far less expensive paperback now available. He’s optimistic, and excited, about the audiobook version, which will be read by noted narrator Grover Gardner, who, coincidentally (or not), has also read Once an Eagle.

“My hope, with the audiobook being read by someone so well-known, is that this will bring some attention to it and sell more books in print — that’s my goal, anyway,” he said, adding that this is far more an enjoyable hobby than a money-making enterprise. “I work to write.”

 

The Last Word

Hebert’s life has taken a number of twists and turns since his father glanced down at that matchbook cover and eventually handed it to him.

As noted at the top, some of it, including that episode, does sound like fiction, which is appropriate, said Hebert, because life really does imitate art in many ways.

His art certainly does. It’s a collection of tales about people. But it’s also about a business — a family business.

That’s what the Marine Corps became for him — and for those in the Remain family — and it’s a success story on a number of levels.

 

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

Women of Impact 2020

President, Chicopee Industrial Contractors

She Leads by Example and Shows Women How to Use Their Voice

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell says she’s been heavily involved in the community for as long as she’s been a business owner — nearly 30 years now.

And she’s long believed it’s the responsibility of anyone in business to lend their time, energy, and talents to efforts and agencies focused on improving quality of life in a given region or specific community. She has backed up this belief with involvement in groups ranging from Rotary International to WestMass Development Corp. to Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

But Campbell, owner and president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC), a firm that specializes in rigging, millwrighting, machine and plant relocation, and structural steel installation, acknowledged that the nature of her giving back has changed somewhat over the past several years — and specifically since her first grandchild, Julia, was born.

“I held that child up and said, ‘you can be anything you want — a ballerina or the CEO of a rigging company,’” she recalled. “And when the words came out of my mouth, at that exact moment, I thought that I needed to be doing things a little differently — I need to be concentrating on what women and girls can do, today, tomorrow, and in the future.”

So, while Campbell is still active with WestMass, AIM, and other business organizations, over the past several years she has become more involved with groups whose missions involve the growth and development of women and girls — agencies ranging from the Women’s Fund to Dress for Success to Girls Inc.

“I held that child up and said, ‘you can be anything you want — a ballerina or the CEO of a rigging company.’ And when the words came out of my mouth, at that exact moment, I thought that I needed to be doing things a little differently — I need to be concentrating on what women and girls can do, today, tomorrow, and in the future.”

Meanwhile, she has also become a role model and mentor for many women, although she’s far more comfortable with the latter role than the former, as we’ll see. And at her own business — one that was and, in many ways, still is dominated by men — she has made it her mission to change that equation.

In fact, with the recent promotion of Deborah Dart, one of those Campbell has mentored, officially and unofficially, to operations manager, she now has a management team made up entirely of women.

“That was a goal I had, and it’s a goal I’ve achieved,” she said with discernable pride. “This company was all men at the start — we probably had women as file clerks — and now, the entire leadership team is women.”

Speaking of Dart, she nominated Campbell to be a Woman of Impact, and we’ll let her words drive home why she is now a member of the class of 2020.

“Carol’s success at CIC has paved the road and broken down barriers for other women in the industry,” she wrote. “She is now not the only woman in the board room or at the table. Her success at CIC has not come easy, but it has allowed her to pay it forward. Carol is known for sharing her thoughts and opinions, and she has used her voice to help her company, her community, and her friends.”

Indeed she has, and this notion of using one’s voice is something that Campbell stresses often when mentoring others, a sentiment passed down by her mother, and now passed on by her.

It’s just one of reasons why she lives up the name of this BusinessWest recognition program — she continues to have an impact — a deep impact — here in Western Mass.

 

Showing Her Metal

By now, most people know the story of how Campbell came to enter that male-dominated world of rigging and machine relocation. She was working as director of Marketing and Development for the UMass Fine Arts Center in the early ’90s, but looking for an entrepreneurial challenge.

Three area rigging plants had been shut down in the wake of the recession of the early ’90s, and Campbell started CIC as a way to rescue many of those workers, including her now-ex-husband.

Over the past 27 years, she has steered the company through a number of economic ups and downs — the Great Recession hit this company later than most, but very hard — including this latest downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, when things got slow earlier this year, as manufacturing and other sectors were put in a wait-and-see mode by the pandemic, Campbell used a Paycheck Protection Act loan to keep her people employed, and used the time for training and professional development.

“We didn’t have enough projects to keep everyone working, so we decided to do training,” she recalled. “We did in-house and online training — on our hard skills, our soft skills, and technical skills — and we did that through March, April, and May.”

Those training sessions speak to Campbell’s approach to business and management, one that is employee-focused and perhaps best explained with more commentary from Deb Dart:

“Carol’s core values would not allow her to lead without respect and equality for all, and using the principles of W. Edward Demming and Stephen Covey, she worked to create a paradigm shift in the industry, or at least at CIC, to create a work environment that is more linear, but, most important, a workplace without fear.”

Still, her leadership, entrepreneurial daring, and management philosophies are only some of the reasons why Campbell is being honored as a Woman of Impact. As noted earlier, she has, throughout her career, been very active within the community and, more specifically, with groups and agencies ranging from the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce and that’s city’s Rotary Club; from AIM and WestMass to Health New England, which she continues to serve as a board member.

The management team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors is now all women: from left, Anne Golden, director of Finance; Carol Campbell, president and CEO; Liz Sauer, project manager; and Deb Dart, director of Operations.

The management team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors is now all women: from left, Anne Golden, director of Finance; Carol Campbell, president and CEO; Liz Sauer, project manager; and Deb Dart, director of Operations.

More recently, she has devoted much of her time and energy to groups involved with women and children, and also to some women she is mentoring, with the accent on the present tense. It’s a role she has grown into and is now comfortable with because of what she can share.

“I like the fact that’s it’s an exchange — it’s not teaching,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s working to help individuals determine what their goals are, and then helping them find a path to accomplishing those goals. I’m not an executive coach, by any means, but if they’re on a path that’s similar to mine, which is to be a leader within an organization, I’ve dealt with something similar to what they’re going through.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to show them they’re not alone in this and that it’s not smooth sailing,” she went on. “We’ve all had ups and downs in business, and I’ve seen a number of them myself. The goal is to learn from each other.”

And while successes in business are important, one thing she’s learned — and also tells those she mentors — is that people can learn more from their mistakes, and usually do.

“Some of my worst management experiences have been my biggest assets for learning about who I want to be and how I want to lead,” she explained, adding that this is one of the insights she shares with mentees she’s matched with the WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) program and other initiatives.

As for that phrase ‘role model,’ she is, as noted, less comfortable with it.

Carol Campbell has balanced work in her adopted field with mentoring efforts and contributions of time and energy to many area nonprofits.

Carol Campbell has balanced work in her adopted field with mentoring efforts and contributions of time and energy to many area nonprofits.

“I don’t think I would call myself a role model — when a reference is made, even about my leadership, I’m pretty humble about it, because I’ve always just done what I feel is right,” she explained. “I’ve always thought that, if I could help anyone in any way, I would do it — I always want to give someone a hand up.”

 

Doing the Heavy Work

There’s a pillow on a bookshelf in Campbell’s office with an embroidered message that says simply: “Behind Every Successful Women is … Herself.”

She is living proof of that, obviously, and that’s one of the reasons she’s a Woman of Impact. The other, perhaps even bigger reason is the hard work she’s put into convincing others of that. Her management team is a perfect example of this, but she believes it’s just one.

She intends to keep using her voice to create many more of them.

 

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

 

Women of Impact 2020

President, Holyoke Community College

The Pandemic Provides a Lens Through Which to View Her Leadership Skills

Christina Royal

Christina Royal

As she talked about the COVID-19 pandemic and her administration’s multi-leveled response to it, Christina Royal related a story that speaks volumes about both the impact of the crisis on every aspect of the higher-education experience at Holyoke Community College (HCC) and her own efforts to lead this institution through it — and beyond it.

It also helps explain why she’s been named a Woman of Impact for 2020.

This story is about a student, one of the many who needed some help with learning virtually from home — help that went beyond providing a laptop and internet connectivity.

“Through our student emergency fund, this student put in a request and said, ‘I’m so grateful for the college to provide a laptop for me … but I don’t have a desk,’” she recalled, adding that there were several people in this household suddenly faced with the challenge of trying to learn and work from home. “And that’s just one example of how we had to think about support at a deeper level, really dive into the individual needs of each of our students to support them during this time, and address the inequities that exist in the communities we serve.”

The college would go on to fund a desk for this individual, she went on, adding that this piece of furniture is symbolic of how the school has indeed expanded its view of student emergency needs during this pandemic — but also in general.

“One of the questions I bring up to employees of the college is, ‘what do we want to look like on the other side of this pandemic?’ Because I don’t want to be a person who just felt like I was trying to weather the storm. I want us to emerge stronger from this.”

Royal arrived on campus roughly five years ago with a mindset to do what was needed to address the many needs of students and help enable them to not only grasp the opportunity for a two-year college education, but to open many other doors as well. As a first-generation, low-income, biracial college student herself, she understands the challenges many of HCC’s students face — from food insecurity to lack of adequate housing and transportation — and she commits many of her waking hours thinking about how to help students overcome such barriers and achieve success, however that might be defined.

Meanwhile, as an administrator, she he has put the emphasis on long-term planning and leading for today, as well as tomorrow. This is evidenced by her push for a new strategic plan for the school — the first in its existence — but also the manner in which she is addressing this pandemic.

Instead of something to be merely survived, although that is certainly important enough, she views it as a learning experience and, in many respects, an opportunity.

“One of the questions I bring up to employees of the college is, ‘what do we want to look like on the other side of this pandemic?’” she explained. “Because I don’t want to be a person who just felt like I was trying to weather the storm. I want us to emerge stronger from this, and the work we have to do is so absolutely critical to this community, and we have an opportunity to continually strengthen ourselves.

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

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

“Just like education is a journey, so is continuous improvement,” she went on, adding that this process can — and must — continue, even in the middle of a global pandemic.

Her commitment to this process, and her ability to effectively keep one eye on the present and the other on the future, certainly makes her a Women of Impact.

 

Course of Action

Royal calls them ‘town meetings.’

These are Zoom sessions that she conducts with various audiences — students, faculty, members of the community — to keep them abreast of new developments and initiatives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the college in general. She’s staged 19 of them since March, including one just a few weeks ago in which the topic of conversation among faculty and staff was the ongoing accreditation process and the comments offered by the team at the New England Commission of Higher Education.

“I really prioritized this as part of our crisis-management plan — we really had to increase communication at the college,” she told BusinessWest. “When people are feeling isolated in their homes, and they’re uncertain about this thing called COVID, and they’re uncertain about their own health and safety, and they’re concerned about the college, I felt it was really important to come together.

“And while it’s really nice when we can come together in the same room, community is community, and we need to bring people together to feel a sense of community through this,” she said, adding that another initiative she’s implemented is the formation of a volunteer team of students and staff tasked with calling every student enrolled at the school every week “just to check in and see how they’re doing.”

These town meetings and weekly check-ins are just some of the ways Royal is providing both stewardship and forward thinking at a time when every college administrator’s abilities are being sternly tested. And the pandemic provides a lens through which her leadership skills and ability to build partnerships and create collaborative initiatives can be seen.

But first, we need to talk about life before anyone had ever heard the phrase COVID-19.

Royal became just the fourth president in HCC’s history in early 2017 after a stint as provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

In an interview with BusinessWest soon after taking the helm, she provided some clear evidence of both her empathy for students and commitment to creating ever-stronger ties between the school and the communites it serves.

“I have a phrase that I’ve used often during my career — that ‘it takes a village to raise a student,’” she noted at the time. “And I really believe that having partnerships with business and industry and the community is essential for an institution of higher education to thrive. Likewise, for a community with a community college to thrive, it needs to have a strong community college. I look at it as a bi-directional relationship and partnership.”

Since her arrival, there have been a number of significant developments at the school, including a $44 million project to modernize and revitalize an antiquated Campus Center, the so-called ‘heart’ of the college, a new Center for Life Sciences, and the creation of the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute in the Cubit building, which opened its doors to considerable fanfare in early 2019.

Christina Royal leads Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on a tour of HCC

Christina Royal leads Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on a tour of HCC’s new, $44 million Campus Center earlier this year.

Ironically, the new campus center staged its elaborate grand opening just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down college campuses across the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the Culinary Arts Institute, while still operating on some levels, has seen a dramatic decrease in interest among prospective students as the pandemic has devastated the hospitality industry.

But while those new facilities are in many ways quiet, they form some of the building blocks that will support continued growth for decades to come.

No one can say with any degree of certainly when a sense of ‘normal’ will return to college campuses — HCC has already announced that most all classes will be taught remotely next spring — but Royal, as noted, is working to have her school ready for that day.

“I want us to look at this moment in time as an opportunity, and focus not just on the things that are outside of our control, but the things that we do have the ability to control,” she explained, noting that the questions and comments offered by students during those aforementioned check-ins are certainly helping in this process of continuous improvement and readying for life after COVID-19.

“When that day arrives, there will be a much-anticipated return to the classroom,” she noted, adding quickly, however, that the pandemic has proven there is certainly a place for remote learning and that it will be a big part of the equation moving forward.

“Distance learning is here to stay. And even if we have a smaller number of students on one end of the spectrum, wanting to take everything online, we have a lot of opportunity in that middle space of how we blend our in-person courses with hybrid learning.

“What’s so great about this time is that we have faculty members who are experimenting with ways to utilize this technology to more effectively reach their students and enable them to complete the work,” she went on. “And when you think about combining that with the pedagogy of the traditional classroom and their expertise in that setting, I imagine there’s going to be some wonderful opportunities to grow the blended student experience.”

 

Career Milestone

In 2021, HCC will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

At this time, no one, including Royal, can say when and how that milestone will be celebrated. But she does know it will be a time to look back at what’s been achieved, but, more importantly, focus on what will come next and how the school can do more to serve its communities and its students.

That’s what Royal has done since she’s arrived in Holyoke. It’s a mindset that has made her a great leader — at all times, and especially during these times.

And it has also made her one of this year’s Women of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2020

Berkshire County District Attorney

She’s Transforming the Criminal Justice System in This Rural Region

Andrea Harrington

Andrea Harrington

Like most who join the legal profession, Andrea Harrington says there’s a story behind her choice of career path.

In her case, it wasn’t a family member in that line of work who inspired her, or even a role  model from the community — meaning the Pittsfield area. Instead, it was the lawyers she saw on TV shows, especially L.A. Law, which was in its prime when she was in high school, and some real-life lawyers, like Anita Hill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who inspired her to become the first in her family to go college, and eventually earn a law degree.

“Growing up, I didn’t really know many professional people,” she recalled, noting that her parents, like so many others, worked at General Electric’s massive transformer-production complex in Pittsfield. “I would see TV shows with lawyers, and to me, they looked like people who have the power to make change.”

Not all lawyers have used that power, but Harrington certainly has. In two short years after being sworn in as district attorney of Berkshire County, she has introduced a number of important changes to the criminal-justice systems in this rural county — changes that are already having an impact. For example, Harrington has:

• Implemented a no-cash-bail policy for most defendants in county courts;

• Created the county’s first domestic- and sexual-violence task force;

• Assembled a staff of reform-minded individuals that better reflects the makeup of the county’s population;

• Implemented a vertical prosecution model so that crime victims in District Court work with the same assistant district attorney and victim-witness advocate while their cases are resolved; and

• Initiated work to develop a formal Berkshire County DA’s Juvenile Diversion program to reduce juvenile crime and help youths make smart decisions.

Above all, Harrington said she is changing the mindset of criminal justice in the Berkshires, from a system that has focused on punishment to one centered on “problem solving.”

And there are many problems to solve, she told BusinessWest, listing poverty, opioid addiction, domestic violence (Berkshire County has a 33% higher rate of restraining orders than the rest of the state), behavioral-health issues, and many others.

“I saw a criminal-justice system that was stuck in this old model — a punishment model. And given how many resources were being put into it, we were not getting a good return on that investment, and it was just spreading misery throughout our community.”

Harrington’s influence, just two years after triumphing in a hotly contested race, is perhaps best summed up by Noreen Nardi, executive director of the Hampden County Bar Assoc., who nominated her for the Women of Impact award.

“The election of Andrea Harrington to Berkshire district attorney has had a transformational effect on the county, its criminal justice system, and politics,” she wrote. “Andrea has remade operations in the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office with an eye toward modernization, innovation, and integrity. She’s revamping how the staff prosecutes crime and handles court cases, changing its media and communications practices to emphasize complete transparency, and overhauling operations on community outreach, victim-witness advocate, and the Child Abuse Unit so that Berkshire County citizens receive the fair and equitable justice they deserve whenever they come into contact with the Berkshire DA’s Office.”

 

Impact Statement

The race for DA in 2018 wasn’t Harrington’s first bid for public office. Indeed, two years earlier, she ran, unsuccessfully, for a state Senate seat. It was a moment in her life that would in many ways crystalize all that came before — and pave the way for all that has followed.

But before getting to that race, we need to go back further and explain how she got there.

As noted, Harrington, inspired by the characters on L.A. Law and other shows, and those real-life role models as well, graduated from the University of Washington and earned her juris doctor degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2003. One of her early career stops involved work representing convicted death-row inmates in post-conviction appeals in South Florida, which she described as eye-opening.

Andrea Harrington addresses those gathered at a press conference

Andrea Harrington addresses those gathered at a press conference to announce the launch of a juvenile-justice initiative, one of many programs she has introduced.

“That experience drove home for me how much power law enforcement does have over people’s lives,” she noted. “And also, how vital it is that we have prosecutors and police who have a healthy respect for the constitutional rights of defendants, and for civil rights.”

Elaborating, she said her work, which involved both the guilt and penalty phrases of these convictions, often centered on why such heinous and tragic crimes were committed. “And this gave me a different kind of lens — more of a problem-solving lens,” she said. “It’s sad to look back at someone’s life and recognize that, if there had been other kinds of intervention earlier on, then these really terrible crimes could have been prevented.”

After Florida, Harrington amassed more than a dozen years of legal practice, much of it defense work, while also raising a family — and watching her native Berkshire County change, for the worse.

“I was working in the courts, I had two young kids, and I was frustrated by what I was seeing in Berkshire County,” she explained. “In the courts, we see the big societal problems, we see the effects of the economic downturn in high rates of domestic violence, lack of opportunity, and drug use.

“I saw a criminal-justice system that was stuck in this old model — a punishment model,” she went on while explaining her involvement in politics and eventual run for the state Senate. “And given how many resources were being put into it, we were not getting a good return on that investment, and it was just spreading misery throughout our community. I thought that, if anyone was going to address these problems, I was going to be a part of it. I didn’t want to just be a cog in this machine that I didn’t think was working.”

While she lost that race, she was certainly encouraged by those who were telling her she should be running for a different seat — district attorney. And after winning a race ranked the top story of 2018 by the Berkshire Eagle, Harrington immediately went to work, fulfilling campaign promises and, more importantly, changing the criminal-justice system in Berkshire County.

One of her primary initiatives involved essentially eliminating the prosecution’s request for cash bail, which data shows disproportionately penalizes low-income individuals and African-Americans in most District Court cases.

“Who remains incarcerated pre-trial is driven by who can afford to post bail or not,” she explained, adding that this is one of many attempts to bring changes to long-established policies that were — in her estimation, at least — not working.

Another initiative undertaken early on was the formation of the Berkshire County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force and Steering Committee, assembled to address a growing public-health crisis in Berkshire communities and build prevention programs, she explained, adding that the Berkshires, like other rural areas, has high rates of these crimes.

Overall, Harrington said, the nature and volume of crime in Berkshire County has changed since she was growing up there, with more violent crime (there are eight homicides currently being prosecuted, a much higher number than in years past), drug-related crime, gang-related crime, and domestic and sexual violence. And her office is responding accordingly.

Andrea Harrington says she’s adjusted the focus of the criminal-justice system

Andrea Harrington says she’s adjusted the focus of the criminal-justice system in the Berkshires from one focused on punishment to one centered on problem solving.

“One of my proudest accomplishments is how we serve victims in this office,” she explained. “Previously, the practice was, once a case is actually arraigned and being prosecuted in court, the office would provide services to victims of crime. But we’ve expanded that; we want to have contact with victims as soon as there is a complaint of a crime — we think that’s really critical in being able to prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Another important change taking place involves the culture of local law enforcement, she told BusinessWest.

“We’re putting a lot more emphasis on doing high-quality investigations for violent crime,” she noted. “And we’ve out a lot of work into that, building our relationships with small-town police departments and also the State Police.”

 

Making Her Case

Harrington is currently prosecuting her first murder case, a matter that involves the shooting death of a woman in August 2019. COVID-19 has slowed the pace of progress in the courts, she noted, adding that she can’t say when the case will be coming to trial.

She can say that she’s looking forward to the challenge. “I love the law, I love being a lawyer, I love being in court.”

What she loves more, though, is having a bigger impact — an impact that goes beyond a single case, as significant as it might be, and translates into real change, real reform, and lasting significance.

This is what she thought lawyers had the power to do when she was watching those TV shows more than a quarter-century ago. Now, she’s proving they can, and while doing so, she has become a true Woman of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2020

CEO, Girls Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts

She’s a Role Model and a Strong Advocate for Women and Girls

Pattie Hallberg

Pattie Hallberg

Pattie Hallberg has a large collection of keepsakes scattered about her office on Kelly Street in Holyoke. Together, they effectively tell a story of who she is, what she does, what she believes, and what’s important to her.

There’s the Ruth Bader Ginsburg bobblehead, for example, an indication of whom she draws inspiration from. There’s also the sign siting on her window sill that reads “No Solicitors, Unless You Sell Thin Mints,” a nod to her role as CEO of the Girls Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts (GSCWM) and one of the programs for which the organization is most noted — cookie sales.

There are also a few framed quotes. One, attributed to Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, reads: “The Work of Today is the History of Tomorrow, and We Are Its Makers.” There’s another that’s unattributed and says simply “Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You.”

Hallberg must have been at least a little scared the day she made the decision to leave her job as chief executive of Invent Now Kids Inc., a subsidiary of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and find a new challenge. Actually, she and her husband took the same plunge, if you will.

“I had four girls, and we were all kind of in transition,” she said while relaying the story. “My oldest was graduating from college, my two youngest were graduating from high school, and Jessica was at Lehigh University. I decided it was time for a transition for me; my husband and I decided that we were going to leave Northeast Ohio, and whoever found a job first — that’s where we were going to go.”

Long story short, she found employment first. Only it wasn’t a job she found, but a passion — or, to be more, precise, a new outlet for an existing passion.

“This is a business about relationships. I spend a lot of time talking to people who were Girl Scouts about what Girl Scouts meant to them. And then I talk to a lot of girls about what they’re doing, what they want to do, and where they want to go.”

This bold career move itself, fueled by ambition, confidence, and some adventurousness as well, makes a Hallberg a fine role model for the thousands of Girl Scouts under her charge. But there are plenty of other reasons why she’s worthy of that descriptive phrase. That list includes her accomplishments with this Girl Scout body, which resulted from a merger, which she managed, of three councils; her advocacy for young women; her work to inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM; her involvement in the community (she’s involved with groups ranging from the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts to the Investing in Girls Alliance in Worcester); and even how she has handled the responsibilities of being a mother and grandmother.

“It’s so important to teach children in general — for me, my job is girls — to learn about the community and to give back to their community,” she said. “That’s the ultimate community service in Girl Scouting, and I try be a role model for that; I try to give back to my community as best I can.”

Mostly, though, she is a role model, and a Woman of Impact, for the way in which she has devoted most of her career to understanding the issues and challenges facing women and girls — and there are many of them — and being proactive in finding ways to address them.

When asked about what her work entails, Hallberg said there is a lengthy job description, as might be expected when managing a $4 million agency. But overall, she said it boils down to two main duties — listening and relationship building.

“This is a business about relationships,” she explained. “I spend a lot of time talking to people who were Girl Scouts about what Girl Scouts meant to them. And then I talk to a lot of girls about what they’re doing, what they want to do, and where they want to go.”

Suffice it to say, during her career advocating for women and girls, she has gone well beyond talk. And that’s why she was nominated for, and is a recipient of, this BusinessWest honor.

 

Moving Stories

Among her many goals and aspirations, Hallberg wants to someday hear someone say, ‘Eagle Scout? Is that the equivalent of being a Gold Scout in the Girl Scouts?’ or words to that effect.

Pattie Hallberg says she enjoys spending time with Girl Scouts, and those who have been Scouts and can talk about what that organization has done for them.

Pattie Hallberg says she enjoys spending time with Girl Scouts, and those who have been Scouts and can talk about what that organization has done for them.

She’s heard the reverse of this question more times than she would care to say or count, because while most everyone has heard references to Eagle Scouts, the highest rank in Boy Scouts and a proud line on any résumé, only those in the know understand its counterpart. Hallberg wants more people to know and thus put an end to those frustrating questions.

But she has more pressing concerns at the moment, especially the many challenges facing girls of all ages today. When asked to give a list, Hallberg put stress at the very top of it.

“Girls are under an incredible amount of stress today,” she explained. “There’s the stress to do well in school, and all those things that we’ve all had, but there’s this added layer to it now that’s really overwhelming.”

Much of this stress is connected to bullying, she went on, adding that, while it has always been an issue, today it is an even deeper concern, for obvious reasons.

“The stories are overwhelming … what can happen to a girl in just a moment, mostly around the internet,” she said. “It’s frightening, and it really takes its toll on these girls.”

For these reasons, the Girls Scouts and especially the GSCWM have always been focused on creating what Hallberg called a “safe space,” one in which they could be different and unique. But beyond that, the agency is devoted to giving them opportunities — and the confidence to realize them.

Pattie Hallberg has devoted much of her life to being an advocate for women and girls, especially in her current role with the Girl Scouts.

Pattie Hallberg has devoted much of her life to being an advocate for women and girls, especially in her current role with the Girl Scouts.

Which brings her back to STEM, and the numbers involving girls in those fields, statistics that in large part fueled her desire to seek a new career challenge.

“I developed a sincere concern about girls and women in the STEM field,” she recalled, flashing back to her days at the Inventors Hall of Fame. “The youth STEM programs we ran … at the elementary-school level, in kindergarten, first, and second grade, half of those kids were girls, and half were boys. Around third or fourth grade, the girl numbers started to drop, and there were more and more programs where there was a disproportionate number of boys.”

Years later, the problem persists to a large degree, she said, adding that changing this equation has been one of her many goals with the GSCWM.

Indeed, since arriving in Western Mass. in 2008, Hallberg has done much more than merge three Girl Scout councils, covering 186 communities, into one, although that was a significant feat in itself. She has shaped the organization into a leader in this region in advocacy for young women and also put in place an aggressive strategic planning process that has sharpened the council’s focus and championed leadership development of young women.

As part of these efforts, the council has instituted a Girl Leadership Board made up of two dozen girls who meet regularly with Hallberg to share ideas, concerns, challenges, hopes, and aspirations. An important aspect of this board is the manner in which she has created space and practice for young women to speak out and experience being heard and empowered to bring their ideas to life through scouting.

“We have 18 middle- and high-school girls, and I meet with them once a month on a Saturday morning,” she told BusinessWest. “They are fantastic at talking about what it’s like to be a girl right now, what they need from programs like the Girls Scouts, and what they want, which is different from what they need. So I get a lot of perspective.”

And this perspective often helps shape programming and the overall direction of this 108-year-old institution, said Hallberg, noting that her job essentially involves a balance of honoring the history and traditions of the Girls Scouts, but also looking to the future as well.

“There’s so much to learn from the past and so much to learn about the future from these girls,” she went on. “What I try to do beyond the job of running this business and organization is to really try to understand the issues for both women and girls in our area and to advocate for them.”

 

Bottom Line

Managing the GSCWM, an agency that covers territory ranging Worcester to the New York border, requires Hallberg to travel extensively. She rolled her eyes when asked how many miles she puts on her car each year.

She spends the time on the road listening to books on tape — and thinking.

Thinking about the many challenges facing young women today — from bullying to financial literacy to having the skills needed to succeed in today’s technology-driven economy.

She’s managed to convert many of these thoughts into effective action, and this helps explain why she is a member of the Women of Impact class of 2020.

 

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

Coronavirus Cover Story

Battle Fatigue

Meyers Brothers Kalicka

Employees at Meyers Brothers Kalicka crowd around a food truck offering gourmet grilled cheese, one of many initiatives on the part of the company to help boost morale during the pandemic — and a long, difficult tax season.

The food truck from the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House pulled into the north parking lot of the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke around 2 p.m. on Oct. 15.

By 2:30, a large number of employees from the accounting and tax-planning firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka had gathered to enjoy gourmet grilled cheese, tomato soup, hard cider, and some pumpkin beers, and to play a little cornhole.

The occasion? The last day of filing for those who sought extensions on their tax returns, and thus another milestone during what has been labeled by those in the accounting realm as the ‘never-ending tax season of 2020.’

But in many ways, the grilled cheese, trimmings, and camaraderie were part of what has become a multi-pronged effort at MBK to help employees cope with all the stress and strain — the battle fatigue, if you will — of what has been the most trying year anyone can remember.

And the company is certainly not alone in this mindset.

Indeed, businesses and nonprofits large and small have been addressing this matter of fatigue and helping employees cope with stress in ways that range from loosened dress codes to those food trucks; from pumpkin-decorating competitions to the ‘concert T-shirt day’ — no explanation needed — staged by MBK.

“There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

Overall, business owners and managers are recognizing that their valued employees — the ones who remain after many others have been furloughed or laid off — are tired, worried about the future, ‘Zoomed out’ (another phrase you hear a lot these days), unable or unwilling to take paid time off, and unable or unwilling to leave work behind when they leave work — whether they’re at the office or at home, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

And they’re responding, as she is responding herself (EANE has 22 people on its payroll), with policies, formal and informal, and action plans focused on providing some stress relief and perhaps a sense of normalcy in a year when some companies and agencies are offering ‘mental-health days’ in the office instead of at home.

“Our team is feeling it,” said Wise, using ‘it’ to refer to the sum of the stress incurred at work and at home. “We’re having a difficult year here, and everyone is pushing for the numbers and pushing for the registrations and pushing to connect with our members and provide the best service. And then, at home, it’s not like they’re going home and then relaxing and getting away from the pressures and having time to rest and refuel. They’re going home, whether they’re working remotely or working at the office, and they’ve got all the stuff in their personal life.”

Elaborating, she said this collective ‘stuff’ constitutes everything from fear of contracting the virus to negativity on the nightly news, to the inability to do the things they want to do and go to places they want to go.

Add it all up, and it’s exhausting and often overwhelming, she said, adding that, as an employer, she considers it her responsibility to help valued employees cope with all this.

Amy Roberts, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the focus for businesses over the past few months has shifted from dealing with an emergency — getting everyone home and making sure they’re safe — and setting up people to work from home if needed, to coping with this fatigue that has settled in.

MP CPAs in Springfield

The dress code has been thrown away at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many steps taken to help employees feel more comfortable in the office during these uncertain times.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do through the whole situation is be flexible and creative in working with each person as their own needs evolve,” she explained. “You have parents who have kids in school or at home, or a combination of both, and then you have employees with significant others who are exposed or working in situations that put them in potential harm. There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

“We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.”

As companies continue to find ways to assist employees, they acknowledge that, as the pandemic continues, fall turns to winter, the holidays and all the additional stress they bring on approach, and the days get shorter and darker, these efforts will have to continue and probably expand.

 

Forever in Blue Jeans

Doug Theobald says MP CPAs, the Springfield-based accounting firm, has long had a casual-Friday policy, and it has become quite popular.

These days, though, every day is casual as the company tries to make employees feel happier and more comfortable during this stressful time. And allow them to dress like their colleagues, who are working at home.

“We’ve thrown our dress code out — people have been in shorts and sweats since we came back in May,” Theobald, a principal and president of the company, explained. “We’ve always been business casual, and one of my biggest concerns was that people would be nervous coming back to the office; we wanted to make it as comfortable an environment as possible. We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.

“That’s probably been the most beneficial thing we’ve done,” he went on. “If we get back to a new normal at some point, that might be my biggest hurdle — putting business casual back in place once client meetings start again.”

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y’s West Springfield store, says the company has taken an individualized approach to helping its thousands of employees cope with the stress and strain of the pandemic.

In some ways, this new dress code, or lack of one, is merely an extension of strategies put in place before the pandemic, aimed at creating a more appealing workplace at a time when attracting and retaining employees, especially in this sector, was becoming increasingly difficult as the job market tightened.

But it’s also part of a broad effort to help employees cope with all that 2020 is throwing at them, including that never-ending tax season, which will soon give way to the next tax season.

“My team is wiped,” Theobald said on Oct. 15 — again, the last day for those who sought extensions, and there were many in that category this year. “They work hard, and we are the one firm in this area that has a really, really busy fall season; it’s almost busier than April.”

He was planning to close the office down for a few days and give his team a break, another attempt to help them get rest and recreation in a year when there has been much less of both.

“There’s so much stress going on in this world right now, we’re just trying to make it as stress-free in the office as we can,” Theobold went on, noting that efforts ranging from the new dress code to flexible hours; from bringing food into the office more often (even if people can’t eat together) to delivering care packages (mostly snacks) to those working remotely, are efforts that will have to continue as the pandemic wears on.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that. I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Wise agreed, noting that, between work and home, many employees simply don’t seem to be able to get a break from the pressure and stress.

This leads to lack of sleep and even more mental and physical fatigue, she said, adding that matters are compounded by the fact that traditional vacations have become far more difficult to undertake. Indeed, trips to Disney World, cruises to Europe, weeks on the Cape, and even visits to relatives in other states have become daunting, if not impossible, because of the pandemic.

As a result, people are vacationing at home, which is good for the region and its tourism venues — the ones that are open, anyway; Six Flags, the Big E, and many others have not been — but the time off is, in many cases, not as relaxing and therapeutic. Meanwhile, with technology and the pandemic both being what they are, time off is usually not time off from many work stresses.

As a result, Wise and others in positions of leadership are strongly encouraging employees to completely unplug when they are taking a day or a week off.

“We try to encourage people to take their time off and to completely disconnect from the office,” she said. “We’re requiring people, when they’re taking a day off or a half-day off or a week off, to put an ‘out-of-office’ message on all of their devices. And that message should say that they will not be responding to e-mails. I don’t necessarily want to cut off people’s access, but we’re saying, ‘put that out-of-office message on, and don’t respond to anything.’ I can’t stop you from checking, but don’t respond.”

Roberts agreed, and said PeoplesBank has been pushing its workers to use their paid time off.

“When there’s nowhere to go, people are inclined to say, ‘I’ll just work,’” she said. “But over the summer, we were encouraging, and in some ways pushing, people to just take a staycation and unplug from work.”

 

Stressing Some Points

Roberts told BusinessWest it was only a few months into the pandemic when upper management at PeoplesBank recognized that fatigue was becoming an issue and needed to be addressed.

“We’ve had some pretty deliberate management conversations where our president, Tom Senecal, has said to team managers, ‘make sure you’re paying attention to the fatigue factor and that you’re communicating with people in a way that they know you understand that this is a very unique and evolving situation.’

“While we want obviously to meet the needs of the customers and do everything we need to do as a business, we recognize that there’s another side to this,” she went on. “Just acknowledging this and having that conversation with managers gives them that awareness and pushes them in a direction where they’re taking a more flexible approach with their people.”

Meagan Tetreault, senior Employee Services field manager for Big Y Foods, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as an essential retail business, the company has obviously been open for customers and focused on their safety. But it has been focused on employees and their various needs as well — everything from steps taken to keep them safe to flexibility with schedules to enable them to successfully balance work and life.

“Our first priority was making sure we’re putting in place different protocols to make sure that the environment is as safe and secure as possible — from sanitizing and cleaning to plastic barriers to maintaining that social distance,” she explained. “And at certain points, we limited our staff to maintain that social distancing; in retail, it’s natural that you have to have that interaction with the public, and that can be scary. How do you support them through that? It starts with safety and wellness, and promoting that wellness.”

But, as noted, support has come in many different forms, she noted, including efforts to help the company’s 12,000 employees manage the pandemic. And as she talked about it, Tetreault stressed the need to address each employee individually and, when possible, customize a response.

“We found that it comes down to each individual employee’s needs and wants, and our store teams are a big part of that,” she said. “Our employee-services representatives are in each store to assist with employee needs, identifying opportunities and having some of those individual conversations to find out what works for that particular individual.”

Elaborating, she said the company amended its attendance policies; established something called ‘COVID leave,’ which enabled employees to take time off without losing their status; and created more flexibility for workers.

“Our store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but we have people who come in and work overnight shifts as well,” she explained. “And we’re able to work with employees to find a schedule and position them to support their individual needs, be it childcare or even wishing to limit contact with customers.”

 

COVID Coping

Overall, while morale is an issue some companies address at least some of the time, it has become more of a front-burner topic during the pandemic, out of necessity, said those we spoke with.

“We’re seeing morale dip a bit; people are trying to put a good face on it, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do that,” Wise told BusinessWest. “So we’re trying to find things we can be doing to raise morale.”

Such efforts include e-mails on Wednesday reminding people that they can almost see Friday, and other e-mails on Friday telling people to turn their computers off at 4:30, go home, and not think about work over the weekend, or even watch the news.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

Region-wide, morale-building efforts run the gamut from food and games to team-building exercises, either in person or the remote variety.

At PeoplesBank, the week-long event known as Employee Fest was staged as always, but it did look and feel different, said Roberts, noting that many activities were carried out remotely, with gifts delivered to all employees, whether they were working at the office, in one of the branches, or remotely.

At MBK, morale-building has been a year-long priority, said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting manager, adding that it comes in several forms, from so-called social-media holidays, where people post pictures of pets, children, or travel destinations; to the concert T-shirt day, flip-flops day, and alma-mater day; to food trucks, which have come on several occasions.

The company has traditionally done such things, and it has long had what’s been called the ‘Fun Committee,’ which arranged an axe-throwing competition and visit to a brewery last year, for example. This year, the activities are different, but there are more of them, with good reason.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that,” she noted. “I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Many of the initiatives at MBK and elsewhere fall into the broad category of connectivity, an important ingredient for success at any business, and something that’s been lacking due to the pandemic.

Monica Borgatti, chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, said the small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees has mostly been working remotely since March. That means no water-cooler talk — literally, anyway, she said, adding that the nonprofit has tried to incorporate those types of discussions into the regular Zoom meetings in an effort to help people connect in ways beyond what they’re doing for work every day.

“We always, always make sure to start those weekly meetings with a virtual water cooler,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone takes turns sharing something, whether it’s an article they’ve come across over the past week or something personal — they got a new dog and they want to show off the pictures, or some household project that they’ve finally completed.

“We make sure to create time for that at all those staff meetings, so we’re connecting with each other as people and not just as co-workers,” she went on, adding that the agency also allows for very flexible schedules and encourages employees to stop and step away from their work when they need to, and not stare at a computer screen for hours on end.

At MBK, one of the partners, Jim Krupienski, stages a monthly check-in social, Stack said, during which the company has a cocktail hour of sorts where those working from home can join in remotely. “It’s just really to check in and talk about anything other than work,” she noted. “It’s a mental-health check-in with adult beverages.”

Scanning the landscape, Wise believes many companies are struggling in their efforts to maintain morale among their employees. It’s easier for a smaller business to undertake initiatives in this regard than those with several hundred employees, she noted, but most are trying to do something.

It might be a food truck or two coming to the parking lot — even sharing a large pizza box can be risky during a pandemic — or more communication from the C-suite, she said, adding that there is more ‘management by walking around’ in this environment, or at least there should be.

Meanwhile, employers are pushing people to take time off and providing more one-on-one employee counseling, duties now falling in many cases to human-resources professionals, especially at smaller companies that do not have employee-assistance programs.

“They’ve had to put on their social work, psychologist’s hat,” she noted. “And it’s not something that they’re used to. But some employees just need to vent; they’re saying, ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go.’”

 

Bottom Line

While no one really knows when the pandemic will subside and something approaching normal returns to the workplaces of Western Mass., what most business owners and managers do know is that their valued employees will need some help getting to that point.

At a time when most e-mail messages end with the message ‘stay safe and stay sane,’ or words to that effect, achieving those goals has been anything but easy.

Addressing this battle fatigue has become an important, and ongoing, assignment for many businesses, and the smart ones understand that the fight is far from over, and they need to keep finding ways to be attentive and creative — and even fun.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A Season on Ice

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

The wall opposite Nate Costa’s desk is covered in a wrap depicting action from the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Classic, played at the MassMutual Center in January 2019 — probably the high point of the five-year re-emergence, and renaissance, of professional hockey in Springfield.

Costa pointed toward that wall several times as he tried to explain just how the Springfield Thunderbirds, which he serves as president, might place spectators so they are at least six feet apart — if, and it’s mighty big if, the governor, the city, and whoever else might need to sign off on such a plan gives the proverbial green light. And he also pointed while talking about the many subtleties and challenges that go into such an exercise.

“It’s almost like a puzzle,” he explained. “We have 6,700 seats, and our season-ticket holders are typically jammed into the best seats. All our center-ice seats are completely taken … so what do you do in a six-foot distancing model? — everyone can’t get the seat they would normally want to have, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

As he talked with BusinessWest on Oct. 15, five days after the 2020-21 season was supposed to start, Costa acknowledged that trying to put together this puzzle is just one of the myriad questions and challenges he and a now considerably smaller staff are working to address.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere. It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

Indeed, Costa admitted he has no real idea if or when he might be able to put such a plan into action. In reality, he has no idea when or under what circumstances hockey might again be played on Main Street. He was told in July by the National Hockey League, parent to the AHL, that games might be able to commence by early December, but he’s very doubtful about that date.

He believes January or even February is a far more likely start time. But beyond that, he cannot say with any degree of certainty how — and how many — games might be played, and how late into 2021 the season might go. Instead, there are only question marks — many of them, involving everything from if and how many fans can sit in the stands to if and how this team can travel to away games in other states, let alone Canada.

All these questions, most of them difficult if not impossible to answer at this juncture, make this a difficult, very frustrating time for Costa and all those involved with a franchise that had become one of the feel-good stories in Springfield over the past several years.

games might be played in early December

While the AHL is expressing hope that games might be played in early December, Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds, believes January or early February is a more likely target for a return to action at the MassMutual Center.

Under Costa’s stewardship and the backing of a large, committed ownership group, Springfield had gone from a city without hockey after the Falcons departed for Arizona more than five years ago, to one with a franchise that was not only filling the MassMutual Center with increasing regularity, but also becoming part of the fabric of the region.

Turning the clock back just seven months or so, although it seems like an eternity, to be sure, Costa said the team was clicking on all or most cylinders, meaning everything from ticket and merchandise sales to creating strong partnerships with a number of area businesses.


Listen to BusinessTalk with Nate Costa Podcast HERE


“We were, fortunately, in a really good position when the season ended last year,” he noted. “We were ahead of budget, we were on track to make a profit, which was three years in the making. We were in great shape — we had nine sellouts through March last year, which was our previous record, and we had three weekends left and were expecting three more sellouts. The business was in great shape.”

In the proverbial blink of an eye, though, everything changed. The season, and the MassMutual Center, were shut down. Initially, the Thunderbirds, like most businesses closed down by the pandemic, thought it might be a matter of several weeks before things went back to something approaching normal. As it became clear this wouldn’t be the case, the team — again, like many other businesses — had to make some hard decisions and eventually furlough several employees; once a staff of 19, it is now down to seven.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point. You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

Those who remain are trying to carry on as they did seven and half months ago — selling season tickets, planning events, working within the community, and building the team’s foundation. But it’s all different. For the most part, the staff is trying to prepare for contingencies, plan what can be planned, and, perhaps above all, work tirelessly to remain relevant while waiting for games to commence and the pandemic to run its course.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere,” Costa said. “It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

 

Setting Goals

When asked about how he’s apportioning his time these days, Costa said he spends much of it on the phone.

Many of those calls are to and from other team executives in the AHL — he knows most of them going back to the days when he worked for the league — who are looking to compare notes and share thoughts on how to deal with a situation unlike anything they’ve encountered.

“I’m seeing what other teams are doing, what they’re hearing from their states, and what the temperature is for us to play in the upcoming year,” he explained. “There’s a lot of conversation going on about how we can pull this off and how we can do it the right way. It’s a challenge that none of us have faced in our careers, and there’s no way to really plan for it.”

In addition to other AHL officials, Costa and others within the league are also talking with leaders from other sports, including the National Football League. From these conversations, they’re learning it’s been difficult to sell even those comparatively few tickets that states like Florida, Texas, and Missouri are allowing teams to sell.

Indeed, while the popular notion might be that there is considerable demand for those few seats, and that teams would struggle to figure out who might be awarded them, that is certainly not the case.

“They’re having a hard time selling the limited inventory that they have because people are just not mentally ready for it yet,” Costa said. “Even the Cowboys are facing challenges; they’ve had to comp a lot of tickets. The Dolphins, the same thing. That’s what we’re seeing.”

2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule

Signage outside the MassMutual Center still displays the 2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule because the slate for this year remains clouded by question marks.

This harsh reality brings yet another layer of intrigue, and questions, to the discussion concerning just when, if, and under what circumstances the AHL might be permitted to carry out its 2020-21 season. Indeed, while the league wants to commence action and get fans back in the arenas, if they start too early, fans will not be eager to come back.

And the harshest reality of all is that this league — and the NHL as well — simply cannot operate for any length of time without fans in the stands.

The AHL is a league with no national television contracts and only some smaller, regional deals. The vast majority of revenues come from sponsorships and sales of tickets, concessions, and merchandise. And without fans in the stands … well, it’s easy to do the math.

Meanwhile, the inability to play in front of fans is also presenting a major challenge to the parent league, the NHL, whose franchises own the bulk of the teams in the AHL, with a dozen or so, including the Thunderbirds, being independently owned.

“Even though the perception is that the NHL is this huge entity that can just sustain losses, with them not having the ability to put fans in the stands, that impacts everything,” he explained. “That’s the trunk to the revenue tree. If you don’t have fans, it’s hard to sell sponsorships, and you can’t sell merchandise and concessions. And at our level, that’s what really drives our business — it’s butts in seats.

“In this league, it’s crucially important to have fans in the arena,” he went on. “And that’s what we spent four years doing — rebuilding the fan base and packing this arena so that our business would be much more financially solvent.”

But playing games without fans in the stands remains one of the options moving forward, said Costa, calling it a last resort, but still a possibility, especially if he can negotiate with one of the local TV stations to televise some of the games. And talks along those lines are ongoing, he told BusinessWest.

The hope, though, is that, by January or February, the state will allow fans in the arenas with a six-foot-distancing model, he said, referring again to that image on his wall.

“It’s not going to be a ton of people, maybe 1,200 to 1,500 people from what we’re doing with our modeling,” Costa continued. “But at least it would get us started, and then the hope would be that, as the spring would move along, we’d be able to bring more bodies into the building.”

That’s the hope. But Costa and his team, as noted, are preparing, as best they can, for a number of contingencies.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point,” he said. “You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

 

Knowing the Score

Next spring will mark the 50th anniversary of the Calder Cup championship run authored by the team known then as the Springfield Kings, the minor-league affiliate of the then-fledgling Los Angeles Kings.

Costa said the team has been making plans to honor that squad and its accomplishment with a throwback game featuring the Kings’ colors and logos, an on-ice ceremony featuring surviving members of that team, and other events.

Now, most of those plans, as well as those to mark the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds themselves, are in limbo, like just about everything else concerning the 2020-21 season.

Indeed, even as Costa and his team try to prepare for the new season, there are still so many things beyond their control, especially the virus itself. By most accounts, a second wave has commenced, with cases on the rise in a number of states. Some of those states, and individual communities, have already put a number of restrictions in place as part of efforts to control the spread of the virus, and there may be even more in the weeks and months to come.

The ones already in place create a number of logistical concerns.

“Rhode Island has a 14-day mandatory quarantine, so if we play Providence, how does that work?” he asked rhetorically. “Meanwhile, the Canadian border is closed; we have Canadian teams, including one in our conference, Toronto. And then, there’s the challenge of air travel — Charlotte is in our division, and we would normally go there once or twice a year. How do you do that, and how do you do it safely?

“There’s a lot of things that we as a league have to work through,” he went on, and while coping with these day-to-day questions and challenges, he stressed the need to think and plan for the long term. He said the pandemic will eventually be something to talk about with the past tense, and he wants to properly position the franchise for that day, even while coping with the present challenges.

This mindset has dominated the team’s actions with regard to everything from refunding tickets sold but not used last season to managing the partnerships that have been developed over the years with corporate sponsors.

“We reached out to every season-ticket holder and gave them a number of options,” he said in reference to the seven games they missed at the end of last season. “They could roll the credit over to the following year, they could donate to our foundation, or, if they didn’t want to do any of those, we would be happy to give them a refund because, at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.

“None of us planned for this, so from a business perspective, we thought that any sort of pushback or anything like that is not the way to be,” he went on. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the people who have supported us from the start, and we’ve been proactive and honest because, at the end of the day, it’s so important for us to be authentic through this process because we’re not the only ones dealing with this — everyone has their own challenges.”

This approach, coupled with the team’s strong track record over the past several years, has helped the organization maintain its strong base of support, said Costa, adding that the Thunderbirds have been able to retain roughly 85% of their season-ticket sales from last year, despite the question marks hovering over the upcoming season.

“It’s been incredible to see the level of support we’ve been given,” he said. “I think people were really seeing what we are able to do in the community and how much of an impact we were having. We’ve been given commitments by people that they’re going to be here when we’re back.”

Looking ahead to the day when the pandemic is over and he can once again focus on selling out the MassMutual Center, Costa is optimistic about his prospects for doing just that.

“I think it’s going to take some time — it might take until the summer for those people who aren’t diehards to come back to our arena, but I think that, by next fall, we’ll be able to pack this place again,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand, and I think we’re positioned well. I think that, when people are ready to get back in the arena again, they’re going to think twice about driving to Boston and paying $300 to $400 for a ticket when they can get the same experience and see really good hockey right here in our area for a fraction of that price.”

 

Taking Their Best Shot

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest while showing off some of the many other wraps adorning the team’s offices on Bruce Landon Way, Costa stopped and reflected on the fact that last year’s schedule is still posted on the wall outside those facilities.

That schedule has become symbolic of how the NHL and the Thunderbirds have become frozen in time in some respects. No one can say when there will be new games on the slate, how the games will be played, or where.

What Costa does know is that, sometime soon — just when, he doesn’t know — there will be a new schedule in that space. Things will be different for some time to come, and the team is certainly not going to pick right up where it left off when the music stopped last March.

But he firmly believes that the solid foundation laid before the pandemic entered everyone’s lives has the team in a good place for when we’re all on the other side of this crisis.

 

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

Special Coverage

The Clock Is Ticking

Jim Hunt

Jim Hunt, Eversource’s vice president of Regulatory Affairs and chief Communications officer.

Jim Hunt has one of those countdown clocks on his computer.

But unlike most of these mechanisms — which will tick down the minutes until a presidential debate starts or the months and days until the next summer Olympics will commence — this one has a very long end date. Or not so long, depending on who you’re talking with.

That would be 2030, the date by which Eversource Energy, which Hunt serves as senior vice president of Regulatory Affairs and chief Communications officer, intends to be carbon-neutral.

It’s an ambitious target, and therefore the next 10 years will certainly go by quickly as a result, said Hunt, noting that, while other utilities, especially those that are still vertically integrated and generate power as well as distribute it, have also set goals for carbon neutrality, most have set their clocks to 2050, 2040, or perhaps 2035.

“This is the most ambitious strategy for any utility in the country,” he told BusinessWest. “But we also have one of the strongest clean-energy and carbon-reduction policies from our state as well. So we think we can demonstrate to other utilities and to the world that, while these may be aggressive, they are attainable, and we’re going to meet them.”

Hunt met with BusinessWest late last month as part of a packed day of stops in the City of Homes. The schedule also included visits with other media outlets, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and Rick Sullivan, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council.

There was plenty to talk about, including Eversource’s pending acquisition of Columbia Gas operations in Massachusetts — an important deal that was due to receive final approval from the Department of Public Utilities as this issue was going to press — as well as COVID-19 and its impact on the region and the business community, and even a few power outages resulting from a storm that week.

“That last mile is always the roughest. It’s going to be a challenge to squeeze as much as we can out of facilities and out of our vehicles, but we’re committed to doing so because we need to lead by example.”

But the main topic of conversation — in part because Hunt couldn’t talk much about the Columbia Gas purchase until it was final — involved the company’s ongoing efforts to promote clean-energy use and reduce carbon emissions — including its own drive to become carbon-neutral.

It is an ambitious goal, said Hunt, and much will have to go right for it to be attained. Actually, the utility is already roughly 90% of the way there, he noted, but the last 10% will be the most challenging.

“That last mile is always the roughest,” he noted. “It’s going to be a challenge to squeeze as much as we can out of facilities and out of our vehicles, but we’re committed to doing so because we need to lead by example.

“If we’re going to help our region achieve its goals of 80% cardon reduction by 2050, if we’re going to be that clean-energy partner in energy efficiency, renewables, and other solutions for our customers and our state policy makers,” he went on, “then we think we can do more to go above and beyond and lead by example.”

increased reliance on solar and wind power

Jim Hunt says increased reliance on solar and wind power is just one of the ways Eversource has become a catalyst for clean energy.

 

To get there, the company, which serves 4 million customers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, will deploy a multi-faceted strategy that includes improving the efficiency of its facilities, reducing fleet emissions, replacing natural-gas mains to eliminate methane leaks, reducing line losses in the electric system, investing in renewable resources, and offsetting any remaining emissions with other earth-friendly emissions.

“We have a plan to do this,” he explained. “It’s about 2 million tons of CO2 that we need to reduce or offset, and we have people throughout our company working on that implementation strategy.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Eversource’s ambitious carbon-neutrality goals and what it will take to reach them before the countdown clock on Hunt’s computer reads all zeroes, but also the many initiatives to help homeowners, businesses, municipalities, and the Commonwealth as a whole reduce their own carbon footprints.

Hour Town

‘Range anxiety.’

That’s a phrase Hunt summoned as he discussed why electric vehicles have not become as prevalent as some experts thought they might by this time — and in this place.

Range anxiety is just what it sounds like, he said, adding that some have a persistent fear that they could be on a long drive with no place to charge up. And this helps explain why, while the state has made significant progress in reducing carbon emissions and growing the ‘green economy’ in such realms as energy efficiency, cleaning up power plants, and bringing more solar and wind power onto the grid, the broad transportation sector is lagging behind in terms of overall impact.

“Roughly 43% of greenhouse-gas emissions in Massachusetts come from the transportation sector — the cars that are on our roads, the long-haul vehicles that are bringing commerce … that’s a real challenge,” said Hunt. “Great strides have been made to improve fuel economy, and we’re seeing more and more electrification of vehicles as a valuable solution.

“But while you can go buy an electric vehicle right off the lot, the challenge has been ensuring that there’s enough charging infrastructure throughout our roadway network,” he went on. “Not just in the urban core like Springfield and Boston and Worcester, but to get people to the more remote places, like those in Western Mass.”

“If you’re commuting to work, if you’re going to visit family, if you’re traveling to the Berkshires, you want to have that confidence that you’ll have a charge to get back home or to your destination.”

To this end, Eversource has created what it calls the Make Ready program, through which Eversource will pay the wiring infrastructure costs for thousands of new charging stations across the Commonwealth.

“We work with our customers who are interested in putting in charging stations but can’t pay the cost of that infrastructure,” he explained. “We’ll put in that infrastructure if they’ll agree to put in the charger and make it publicly accessible. This has been a great solution to deal with range anxiety — if you’re commuting to work, if you’re going to visit family, if you’re traveling to the Berkshires, you want to have that confidence that you’ll have a charge to get back home or to your destination.”

The Make Ready program, which has helped add thousands of charge points across the Commonwealth, including ones at the parking garages at Union Station and MGM Springfield, is just one of the ways Eversource has become a catalyst for clean energy, said Hunt, adding that perhaps the biggest component of this broad strategy is perhaps the simplest — helping both residential and commercial customers use less energy through higher efficiency.

solar panel and charging station

The Eversource solar panel and charging station in Westwood, Mass.

“We’ve been consistently ranked the number-one energy-efficiency provider in the nation,” he noted, due in large part to an effective partnership with the Bay State, which, along with California, traditionally has the strongest energy-efficiency policies in the nation, and Connecticut and New Hampshire as well. “We try to reach out to all our customers — residential, industrial, commercial, and communities as well — to espouse the values of energy efficiency; it really is the first fuel. If you can reduce your energy consumption, you’re cutting down on your own bill, but that also provides great benefits for the environment and clean-energy strategy.

“That’s the foundation of our clean-energy strategy,” he went on, adding that, for every dollar invested in energy-efficiency initiatives, the customer receives $3 return on that investment. And this is true across the board, whether it’s a residential customer that undertakes an energy audit and tunes up a furnace for the winter, or a commercial customer that installs more energy-efficient lighting.

Overall, Eversource invests $500 million in energy-efficiency initiatives, which yield $1.5 billion in benefits for those 4 million customers, while also contributing to sharp reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, from more than 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014 to roughly 800,000 tons in 2018.

Also contributing to those numbers are initiatives that help customers connect solar and other distributed-generation resources to the grid.

“We’ve made those investments to modernize the electric grid and make it ready for taking distributed energy, whether it’s solar or other distributed-energy resources,” Hunt explained, adding that the company also owns and operates some utility-scale solar operations, such as the one constructed on the brownfield site at the former Chapman Valve complex in Indian Orchard, a facility that he described as a model for the state when it comes to showcasing larger-scale solar energy and forging partnerships with communities to make such projects happen.

Elaborating, he said Eversource is currently working with the Massachusetts legislature to expand the cap on the solar capacity the utility can develop. Currently, that cap is 70 megawatts, and Eversource is at that number through the creation of several sites across the state.

 

Fueling Optimism

There are other components to this clean-energy strategy, said Hunt, listing windpower initiatives — the company is partnering with Orsted, the largest and most successful operator of offshore wind in the world, to develop up to 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, reducing carbon emissions by millions of tons each year — as well as energy-storage steps that will reduce the need for fossil-fuel-powered generation, while improving power quality and reliability.

These are, of course, part of the company’s own efforts to become carbon-neutral. As noted, this strategy has a number of components, from divesting fossil-fuel plants to offshore wind and solar; from improving efficiency at its many facilities to making its own fleet of vehicles greener, although much work remains in that realm, as we’ll see.

“We’ve made those investments to modernize the electric grid and make it ready for taking distributed energy, whether it’s solar or other distributed-energy resources.”

These efforts, as noted, have put the company more than 90%, and perhaps even 95%, of the way toward its goal of carbon neutrality. But, as Hunt said, the last mile is traditionally the most difficult, although he believes the goal is attainable.

“We’re a leading energy-efficiency provider. We can reduce our consumption in the 150 facilities we own and operate in New England be more efficient with lighting and energy use, procure more clean-energy resources to power those buildings … we’re developing that plan; we’re building smarter buildings to get to net-zero-energy for the buildings we operate.”

As for the fleet, there are electric vehicles in that fleet, mostly lighter models, and there are charging facilities at all of Eversource’s facilities, he noted. But the heavier trucks, including those used to restore power when there are outages, are more difficult to convert to electric.

“But we’re looking at innovations, like hybrid vehicles that might be powered by diesel today, but might be powered down while they’re doing work, with the buckets running on electric only,” Hunt said. “When you think about how these vehicles have operated, they’ve had to be on and idling so you can run the power on that arm. Today, we’re investing in hybrid types of vehicles that we can power down.

“We’re not far off,” he continued. “There’s a lot of research and a lot of investment going into electrification of more heavy-duty vehicles; there will be a day when 18-wheel vehicles are powered electrically and run autonomously.”

Meanwhile, on the gas-business side, the company is working to tighten up its infrastructure, some of it built 100 or more years ago and now prone to leaks. And these efforts will grow in scope with the acquisition of Columbia Gas, which operates in Brockton, Lawrence, and Springfield and boasts some 330,000 customers.

“We’ll be making the same kind of investments in upgrading older infrastructure and reducing leaks in the Columbia Gas system,” he noted. “In making the decision to purchase those assets, we assessed all that, and we’re committed to achieving it. It will make our goal of carbon neutrality even more challenging, but we’re up to the challenge.”

Beyond infrastructure, Eversource is also looking into cleaner, more efficient natural-gas options.

“Natural gas is an important bridge to a clean-energy future,” he explained. “Our customers depend on it, and it’s a cleaner, more cost-effective fuel for home heating and thermal needs than oil or electric. But we’re exploring ways to inject cleaner natural gas — and that might be biogas from agriculture or, further down the road, injecting hydrogen gas into our natural-gas system to further offset methane use; we’re exploring those opportunities.”

 

Powerful Arguments

Returning to the matter of that countdown clock, Hunt said Eversource has set benchmarks for different points over the next decade, and will be developing a scorecard, as well as an offset strategy, for its quest for carbon neutrality.

“We’ve got nine years to get there, but in many respects, that’s right around the corner — that’s not far away,” he noted, adding, again, that the goal is ambitious, but reachable.

In short, a utility that has in many ways set the standard when it comes to energy efficiency and clean-energy use is looking to continue that tradition.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Amid the Crisis at the Soldiers’ Home, This Small Army Answered the Call

The Staff of Holyoke Medical Center

The Staff of Holyoke Medical Center

It was coming up to noon on Friday, April 4, and the staff at Holyoke Medical Center was frantically working to ready facilities there for the arrival of residents of the nearby Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, who needed to be relocated in the midst of a tragic COVID-19 disaster that would make headlines across the country.

Carl Cameron, HMC’s chief operating officer, who was overseeing that work, was on the phone with his boss, hospital President and CEO Spiros Hatiras, who was telling him that some promised National Guard personnel would likely soon be arriving from the Soldiers’ Home to help with the massive and complex undertaking.

Cameron’s response more than sets the tone for a truly inspiring story that most still haven’t heard, but certainly should.

“I told him that at that point not to bother,” he recalled. “Because we had our own army of people. And it was absolutely outstanding and amazing how that team came together and got this done.”

“We had our own army of people. And it was absolutely outstanding and amazing how that team came together and got this done.”

Indeed, HMC’s small army, which would grow in numbers in the coming days and weeks, as we’ll see, came together in every way imaginable to bring 39 residents of the home into a hospital that was in the early stages of the COVID-19 fight itself. An acute-care hospital, HMC was not in the business of providing long-term care. But, to borrow a phrase from hockey, it shifted on the fly, and essentially got into that business.

There was a learning curve — staff members were certainly not used to people in HMC’s beds making requests (better make that demands) for their favorite brand of beer — but they did learn, and they made the veterans/patients/residents feel at home at an extremely difficult time.

They decorated the hastily created living spaces with flags and red, white, and blue ornaments. They found the soldiers television sets. They provided much-needed information and comfort to those soldiers’ family members, many of whom had no idea where they were. They’ve helped a few of their guests celebrate 100th birthdays since their arrival. Outpatient physical therapists were taken off furlough to become veterans’ liaisons, helping the Soldiers’ Home residents with daily functions as well as helping them maintain connections with loved ones. Office assistants stepped in to assist with patient care.

Summing it all up, Hatiras said his staff came together, as perhaps never before, amid a crisis that tested the medical center on every level imaginvable — and earned the designation of Healthcare Hero for 2020 not only from BusinessWest, but from the Huron Studer Group, one of only four such awards that organization issued across the entire U.S.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“Everyone put their roles aside and said, ‘all hands on deck.”

“Everyone put their roles aside and said, ‘all hands on deck,’” Hatiras noted, summoning still more military language as he praised every department in the hospital, from Plant Operations to Communications to Environmental Services, for the specific roles they played. “And what we’ve learned, aside from all the bonding and being more comfortable in different roles, is that we’ve technically become much more astute. We’ve learned things from a technical standpoint that would allow us to respond to a second wave or other kind of pandemic, because now we’ve got it right; we know how to convert rooms under pressure, we know how to isolate people, we know how to shift things around, we know how to use alternative ways. We’ve learned so much by going through this.”

As several of those involved with this herculean effort talked with BusinessWest about it, much of the discussion focused on that first day and night — and for a reason.

The hard work of setting up spaces for the soldiers — an outpatient cardiac-services unit and a maternity unit that has seen declining volume for several years — had been completed by mid-afternoon — as noted, without the help of the National Guard.

As he talked about the mad dash to get the rooms ready, Angelo Martinez, a member of the Plant Operations team, spoke for everyone in the room when he spoke of those who be staying in those rooms.

“At end of the day, I was tired, but it was a good feeling,” he said. “Because these veterans did a lot for us, and we owe them for all they’ve done.”

Those units were ready by 3 p.m., the end of a shift for many of those involved. But just about everyone stayed until those soldiers finally started arriving by van in the early evening. And they stayed on until the last of them arrived around midnight. And still they stayed on until the soldiers were settled into their new quarters.

Kaitlyn Nadeau, a surgical technologist, was one of them. She told BusinessWest she was unaware that the hospital was taking on the veterans because it had been a busy day in the operating rooms. When she learned, around 3 in the afternoon, she and others went about setting out a welcome mat.

Korean War Veteran Richard Madura, seen here with recreational therapist Mary Argenio, is one of 39 veterans who found a new home at Holyoke Medical Center.

“We made hearts to put on the walls because … it’s a basement, and it’s white walls, and it’s kind of scary when you walk in,” she explained. “So we decorated it like we were going to stay there. Because if it were my grandparents coming in … most of these people are confused as is, and they’re coming to this facility they’ve never been to.

“So we decided we were going to stay there,” she went on. “Hours went by, and they still hadn’t arrived because it’s quite the process to get them here. Finally, I said, ‘let’s get more people down here.’ My boss just started grabbing people from everywhere; people from the command center showed up, and managers from other departments, and CNAs … everyone just came together, including people I’d never met before in my life, to welcome them here and get them settled in.”

This coming together as a team during that first 24 hours or so set the tone, but it was really only the first chapter in a story that, seven months later, is still being written.

Indeed, soon after the veterans arrived, some began showing signs of the virus, meaning more space would have to be readied for these guests, and single rooms would be needed to slow and hopefully stifle any spread.

Also, the hospital, and especially its nursing staff, had to pivot to providing long-term-care services.

“Being an acute-care hospital, we’re not normally planning things out for long-term-care residents,” Nurse Manager Christina Straney said. “But many of our nurses have worked in long-term care, so they stepped up and said, ‘let me take this, let me run with this, let me show you what we do in nursing homes and how we care for patients.’”

Meanwhile, some of the certified nursing assistants had worked at the Soldiers’ Home and recognized some of the patients, she went on, adding that this helped create a fluid, almost seamless transition for the veterans.

Likewise, the furloughed physical therapists stepped into their new roles as veterans’ liaisons, a role that came about out of necessity, Hatiras explained.

“We had the matter of individual preferences,” he said. “I would get on a Zoom call, and I would have family members say, ‘remember, Ed doesn’t eat eggs, and he doesn’t like mayo, and he takes his tuna fish this way, and he likes his newspaper every morning’ … and I’m like, ‘whoa, how am I going to remember all this stuff?’”

The solution was to assign liaisons to each of the veterans. Jeff Ferriss is one of them. He was furloughed on a Friday and called back to work the following Monday to serve in this unique role.

“My father was a veteran — he spent 20 years in the Air Force. My brother spent four. And I’m also a veteran — I was in the National Guard and the Air Force Reserves,” he said. “So this was the perfect transition for me; I was happy to come back and help out. Our job was to keep the family members informed, but being therapists, we tried to goad them into therapy too. Some of them may not have wanted to do that, but over time, they needed to — they were stuck in their rooms, and we were trying to keep their minds going and keep them going physically. It’s been an honor to serve these people.”

Veterans like Richard Madura. A Korean War vet, he will tell you (without much prodding, by the way) that, through his 85 years, he’s been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time — on most occasions.

Indeed, the long-time Chicopee resident arrived in Korea just as the truce between the warring factions was being signed. And when it looked like he was ticketed for taking up a gun and maintaining the peace along the DMZ, an officer who noticed on his résumé that he had musical experience and had been part of some polka bands, let him take up a clarinet in an Army band instead. To make a long story shorter, his band entered a string of talent contests, ultimately won first prize, and wound up on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Madura told BusinessWest that this habit of being in the right place extends to his current, but certainly not permanent, mailing address at Holyoke Medical Center.

“They take really good care of you here,” he said, not wanting to compare the facilities to those he left just up the hill at the Soldiers’ Home, although he did hint that the desserts are better — and larger — at HMC. “I’m fortunate to be here; we all are.”

Indeed they are. A small army answered the call last April, and it is still answering the call, making the staff at HMC a true Healthcare Hero in a year when there are many to celebrate.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

They Moved to the Front Lines at the Height of the Pandemic

Lydia Brisson was out for a hike with her young son on the mountain behind their home late last March. The objective was to get some exercise, but for Brisson, there was another purpose to this trek.

Indeed, while walking, she was also talking … and trying to prepare her son for the very real possibility that she might soon have to go on the road, if you will, and move from behind-the-scenes work as a clinical liaison for Berkshire Healthcare Systems (BHCS) to the front lines of an emerging pandemic.

And within minutes after returning to the house, her cell phone rang.

On the other end was Lisa Gaudet, vice president of Business Development & Marketing for BHCS, who was asking if she would be willing to pack up, travel across the state, and serve for an indeterminate amount of time as a floor nurse at BHCS’s long-term-care facility in Danvers, on the North Shore.

Lydia Brisson

Lydia Brisson

“Then, families are calling constantly because they want to know if their loved ones are OK; things were changing day to day and even moment to moment.”

Brisson didn’t hesitate in responding with a solid ‘of course,’ and that same response was also given by Christopher Savino and Emeline Bean, Western-Mass.-based BHCS clinical liaisons who got similar calls from Gaudet.

Soon, the three would be together in Danvers — out of their territory, away from their families, and smack in the middle of a crisis; there were nine active cases at the facility on the Saturday when those calls were made, several staff members had become ill, and many others had stepped away from their roles or refused to come to work.

As executive leaders at BHCS worked every possible lead and angle to find more nursing staff, Gaudet put out calls to these three members of her team who were nurses. They all said ‘yes,’ but admitted to having no real idea what they were getting themselves into.

So began a truly inspiring story, one that would bring these three closer together — or even closer, in the case of Savino and Bean, who went to high school together and worked side by side. Over the course of a dozen or so days in Danvers, they would get well-acquainted with Bagel World, become very tired of pizza, recall crying in the shower after watching one of their patients — a phrase that takes on special meaning, to be sure — die from COVID-19; vividly remember taking phone calls from family members desperate for information about a loved one, and come to really appreciate some rest at the Residence Inn in Peabody after 15- or even 18-hour shifts.

Christopher Savino

Christopher Savino

“Berkshire’s mission and values state that we’re here to serve the population that needs us, and that was a population that needed us. We’re clinical liaisons, but we’re also nurses; we went to nursing school for a reason.”

As the three talked about their experiences with BusinessWest at BHCS’s facilities in the Cubit Building in Holyoke, they all stressed that, for them, volunteering for this assignment was a no-brainer; saying ‘no’ wasn’t something that really entered their mind — although, as clinical liaisons, a role in which they focus on evaluating patients for placement at one of BHCS’s facilities, they are a long way from the front lines.

“I didn’t really give my husband much of an option,” said Bean, who has a young child herself, as she recalled that phone call from Gaudet. “The need was there, and this is why you take that oath.”

Savino agreed. “Berkshire’s mission and values state that we’re here to serve the population that needs us, and that was a population that needed us. We’re clinical liaisons, but we’re also nurses; we went to nursing school for a reason.”

Those nearly two weeks on the road were learning and growing experiences on every level imaginable, they said, adding that they will never forget any of this, but especially what they encountered upon arriving.

“There were nurses who wanted to hug us — but couldn’t — because they were desperate for help,” Bean recalled. “And there were scared people; everyone was like, ‘what do we do?’ The state was changing guidelines every day.”

Emeline Bean“This was completely different from what we did every day. And it’s given me a new and different perspective on my job. Since we were on the outside in our day-to-day work, this experience reminded me of what those on the inside are challenged with on a day-to-day basis, when all the cards are stacked against you.”

Savino noted that he and Bean, who followed each other to Danvers, arrived a day ahead of Brisson. Their first assignment was the dementia unit.

“You take a dementia patient — they don’t really know already what’s going on,” he told BusinessWest. “Now you tack on a mask, goggles, and essentially you look like a Ghostbuster that’s coming at them with medications, oxygen … they were terrified. They had no idea what was happening, they couldn’t leave their rooms — it was a very difficult situation.”

And while tending to patients, the three were also trying to assist families, who were often desperate for information about their loved ones.

“We were going into an extremely sad situation — there were a lot of unknowns,” Brisson said. “And then, families are calling constantly because they want to know if their loved ones are OK; things were changing day to day and even moment to moment.”

Savino agreed. “Our first day on the dementia floor, I remember getting a call; a patient’s daughter called and said, ‘how’s mom?’ I said, ‘she’s still negative … I haven’t gone to see her yet, but I’ll get there.’ She ended up testing positive 24 hours later and dying a day after that. I remember just breaking down in the shower.”

The three went over as a team, and they recall supporting each other, and others they were working with, throughout their assignment away from home.

“Every night, the three of us would have dinner together,” Savino said. “Every single night, we would decompress. If one of us had an overnight shift, one of the others would get food and leave it outside that person’s door. We had each other, thankfully.”

When asked to put the experience in perspective and talk about how it impacted them and perhaps changed them, the answers were provocative.

“This experience fueled my fire,” said Brisson. “My real passion is direct-care nursing, and although my boss may not want to hear this, it did make me realize that that’s where I will make the greatest difference and help the most people.”

Added Savino, “we all became nurses for a reason — putting everyone else’s life before our own. This experience just reinforced why I became a nurse and why, no matter what, even if I’m in administration, I will always keep my nursing license.”

For Bean, the experience was somewhat different in that she had been at the bedside before. But those 12 days still had an impact on her, professionally and personally.

“It brought me back and made me miss that aspect of nursing,” she told BusinessWest. “This was completely different from what we did every day. And it’s given me a new and different perspective on my job. Since we were on the outside in our day-to-day work, this experience reminded me of what those on the inside are challenged with on a day-to-day basis, when all the cards are stacked against you.”

Returning to that day last March when she got that phone call, Brisson recalled a conversation afterward with her husband, who was naturally concerned and tried to convince her this was not her job and she didn’t have to go.

She recalled that she agreed — to the extent this wasn’t exactly within her job description at that specific moment in time. But as for not having to go … she respectfully disagreed. This was a big part of her job, a big reason why she chose this profession.

Her argument didn’t exactly persuade her husband, but it clearly explains why she, Bean, and Savino are all Healthcare Heroes.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

This Administrator Has Become a Calming Voice in the Midst of the Pandemic

Maggie Eboso

Maggie Eboso was in the grocery store when the first text message came in on the evening of March 26.

Soon, there were three more, and as her phone kept pinging, it became increasingly clear that her job as Infection Control coordinator at Mercy Medical Center was about to change substantially, and that she and the hospital were entering uncharted waters.

Indeed, the first suspected COVID-19 patients — two young women who had recently returned to the area from China — had arrived at Mercy, and there were questions that needed to be answered. Lots of them.

So began an ultra-intense period that has tested Eboso in all kinds of ways, but also taken her career to a new and different plane, one in which she has emerged as a Healthcare Hero.

Those frantic first days would set the tone for the weeks and months to come, during which Eboso would take on a number of responsibilities, many of them new — from coaching staff on the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to helping all those at the hospital navigate a rough sea of changing guidelines and constantly changing information; from advocating for adequate supplies of PPE and working with colleagues to be good stewards of that precious equipment to providing a much-needed sense of calm amid a crisis unlike anything Mercy had seen before.

Her work during the early stages of the pandemic took her to every corner of the hospital, and also far outside its walls. Indeed, she taught PPE donning and doffing, hand hygiene, and infection-control practices to staff at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow.

Summing it all up, she said this has been a learning experience — one that is very much ongoing, and one that has helped her personally and professionally in innumerable ways.

“I’m a better nurse, and I’ve grown my knowledge base,” she explained. “And I now have a closer working relationship with many of the people here. Initially, I was joking that, when COVID is done, I’m going to change my cell-phone number and disable Halo [a messaging system used in healthcare] on my phone, because of all those calls I was getting. But through all those conversations and close meetings, we’ve become closer and have stronger relationships.”

Turning back the clock several years, Eboso said she took a somewhat winding route to her role as Infection Control and Prevention coordinator.

She came to this country from Kenya with the intention of studying business, but quickly segued into healthcare at Springfield Technical Community College and soon landed a summer internship at Mercy. When it was over, she was asked if she wanted to stay on as a nurse’s aide, and replied with a strong ‘absolutely.’ In many ways, she’s never left.

She went from nurse’s aide to nurse to clinical nurse supervisor to administrative nursing supervisor on weekend nights, a position that was eventually eliminated in 2015, prompting her to leave the Mercy system for close to a year.

She was offered a chance to return, and remembers the vice president of Nursing offering her her pick of positions.

Eboso chose Infection Control, something she had never done before, but intrigued her. She recalls her husband noting she was a quick study and saying, “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say ‘yes’ —then learn how to do it later.” He also sent her an inspirational quote from Richard Branson to the same effect.

But no words, from her husband or Branson, could likely have prepared her for what her role became starting early this year, and especially after she started receiving those texts in the supermarket.

“The biggest thing that we saw with this whole thing was the fear. We were all thinking, ‘yes, we’ll take care of you, and we’ll treat you,’ but at the end of the day, we all had families and children that we were going home to. So while, yes, we all signed up for this, and this is what we do, people were still afraid — they wanted assurances that they could do their jobs and still go home and not bring this back to their families.”

They came from the Emergency Department director, the ED charge nurse, and the nurse tending to the patient directly. She put the shopping aside, was at the hospital in 10 minutes, and began addressing a situation that would become a microcosm of all that would come over the ensuing weeks and months.

“We had to call the Department of Public Health and get approval for testing because hospitals couldn’t do the testing themselves,” she explained. “So it was now calling the epidemiologist, waiting for a call back, talking to the physicians and nurse, looking at the patient, and waiting for DPH to call you back.”

Maggie Eboso’s work during the pandemic

Maggie Eboso’s work during the pandemic took her to every corner of Mercy Medical Center — and far beyond its walls.

“Information was changing almost every day,” she went on, while discussing what those first few weeks and months were like. “So as you’re building systems into your computer, you’re writing policies and going out in front of your staff to educate them on the new and updated information — and that was happening sometimes several times a week.”

One of her primary roles focused on educating staff on how to use PPE and become good stewards of that equipment, but also to help them separate fact from conjecture or assumption on what equipment was needed and, above all, how to keep themselves and their families safe from infection.

“The biggest thing that we saw with this whole thing was the fear,” she explained. “We were all thinking, ‘yes, we’ll take care of you, and we’ll treat you,’ but at the end of the day, we all had families and children that we were going home to. So while, yes, we all signed up for this, and this is what we do, people were still afraid — they wanted assurances that they could do their jobs and still go home and not bring this back to their families.”

And the onslaught of information coming from the media certainly didn’t help, she went on, because this information was often contradicting what she and others were telling staff members.

“When we told them, ‘all you need is a regular mask,’ they’d see people on TV wearing haz-mat suits, and they would ask, ‘why are they wearing haz-mat suits, and all you’re giving us is a mask?’ she recalled, adding that was this was just one of many “clashes and contradictions,” as she called them, that had to be dealt with.

“We had to call the Department of Public Health and get approval for testing because hospitals couldn’t do the testing themselves. So it was now calling the epidemiologist, waiting for a call back, talking to the physicians and nurse, looking at the patient, and waiting for DPH to call you back.”

While taking on this role of educator within the medical center, she also carried it out within the community as well, including several visits to the correctional facility in Ludlow, where she provided lessons in everything from how gloves provide a false sense of security — that’s why hand washing is still very important — to how to don and doff PPE.

Today, one of her concerns involves battling complacency and what she and many others are now calling “battle fatigue” — both inside the medical center and within the larger community.

She used the nurses’ lounges at Mercy as an example. “People are tired … people want to celebrate a birthday with a cake or share a pizza; they want to eat lunch with their friends,” she explained, adding that it’s part of her job to keep these employees diligent — and safe — by keeping the numbers down in those lounges and making sure there is adequate social distancing.

She joked that people are wary of even thinking about letting their guard down because, if and when they do, “Maggie will be walking in the door at just that moment.”

That mindset, real or not, is just one of many ways of explaining why she has become a Healthcare Hero during this very challenging year.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

She Became a Guiding Light at a Time of Pain and Darkness

Rabbi Devorah Jackson

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson came to JGS Lifecare as its director of Spiritual Life in 2001. And, for the first 19 years or so, she came to work each day knowing exactly what her job was and how it would be carried out.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic reached this facility last March … well, she still knew what her role was, but she had to continually revisit that question about how to carry it out, because the answer had the potential to change seemingly every day.

“Every day, I would ask, ‘what does it mean to be a chaplain in a long-term facility during this time?” she told BusinessWest. “In the midst of the pandemic, when many of our residents are sick, many are going to the hospital, and many are dying, and staff are being called upon to work long hours and do things they weren’t necessarily doing before, like post-mortems, and where they’re risking their own health and lives every day they walked into the building … I’m observing all this and asking myself, ‘what is my role as the spiritual leader of this institution?’”

To say she would find new — and impactful — ways to answer that question would be an understatement.

Indeed, over the course of the past seven months, Jacobson has been a source of comfort to a number of constituencies, including staff members, residents, and their families. And she has done this through a number of means, everything from donning PPE and visiting sick and dying residents with COVID to rallying community organizations to send staff members meals of gratitude; from enlisting crisis therapists and mental-health counselors to offer staff free confidential counseling to creating prayer and inspiration cards for spiritual support; from helping raise awareness and funds for JGS’s Employee Assistance Fund to moving furniture, on at least one occasion.

“I’m part of the team,” she explained. “And I made a pretty quick decision — to be truly part of the team, 365 days a year, we do what we’re called upon to do.”

It is sentiments like this that prompted Susan Halpern, vice president of Development and Communications for JGS, who nominated Jacobson, to write that “our heroes are people we look up to and admire for their extraordinary actions and achievements. They are people we wish to emulate. Devorah’s countless acts of caring and loving-kindness, her concern for others, her efforts seeking justice for all, make her a standout candidate for the prestigious Healthcare Heroes award.”

“I’m part of the team. And I made a pretty quick decision — to be truly part of the team, 365 days a year, we do what we’re called upon to do.”

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest at a small table outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home — a nod to the precautions being taken to keep all those inside the facility safe — Jacobson repeatedly pointed toward the building and said, “the real heroes are in there.”

She was referring to the frontline workers who confronted a ferocious outbreak of COVID-19 in the early spring that would ultimately claim 66 lives and leave staff members fearful of what might happen to them, but still committed to carrying out their jobs.

In many ways, she pivoted within her role, from spending the bulk of her time with residents and families — handling everything from Jewish programming to pastoral care, including one-on-one visits — to now devoting most of it to those staff members fighting the COVID battle but also confronting the many other issues of the day.

A plaque has been placed outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home

A plaque has been placed outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home to honor those residents of the facility who lost their lives to COVID-19.

“Yes, I was continuing to meet with residents, although they were very frail and very sick, and yes, I was continuing to be in touch with family members, because they were unable to come into the building — I was able to give them a sense of how their loved ones were doing,” she recalled. “But much of the focus shifted to the staff.”

And it has remained there, months after the height of the tragedy, because the need remains — and is significant.

“I was just involved in a conversation with a nurse,” she said while speaking with BusinessWest. “She took me aside and said, ‘now that COVID has passed, many of us are dealing with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I’m not sure what kind of help we need, but we need some help.’”

She has been providing such help, and in several ways, one of them being help in securing counseling for the many staff members impacted by the crisis.

“It was quite clear, as I was visiting the units and talking to staff, that there was a lot of trauma,” she recalled. “So what I wound up doing, with the help of a lot of great friends in the therapy world, was put together a therapy initiative for our staff. I had a list of about 30 mental-health counselors, trained in trauma and crisis counseling, who made themselves available for phone, Zoom, or otherwise, to be available for up to six hours, for free.

“I started making matches,” she went on, adding that maybe 20-25 staff members took advantage of the program. “Some of these people got sick, so for some of them, it was when they got back and had gone through all they had gone through with their own illness.”

Each day, she would arrive at the facility and ask herself how she could carry out her role, how she could help. And seemingly each day, there was a different answer.

It might be creating a new prayer and inspiration card — one of them says simply, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In response to George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement, she held an all-campus moment of silence and urged individuals and the organization as a whole to seek ways to defeat bigotry and racism. In response to an on-campus arson attempt, she spoke up against hate crimes and anti-Semitism. On more than a few occasions, she helped box up the belongings of residents who had died as a result of COVID-19.

While Jacobson’s recollections of the past seven months and thoughts about her work certainly resonate, comments from others about the comfort and support she provided speak volumes about her impact during this time of crisis.

“My only regret was that I could not hold my mother’s hand. Devorah held her hand for me. She let me say goodbye to my mother … she was there to bridge the gap. It is because of Devorah that my journey was so peaceful.”

Halpern forwarded this comment from a family member: “Devorah went in to see my parents every day and she called me every day to give me updates. My only regret was that I could not hold my mother’s hand. Devorah held her hand for me. She let me say goodbye to my mother … she was there to bridge the gap. It is because of Devorah that my journey was so peaceful.”

Halpern also shared an e-mail from Lola White, an LPN and unit manager at the Leavitt Nursing Home, which was sent to her unsolicited. “Throughout this pandemic,” it read, “Devorah has always been there and ready to help in any way she could.

“One day, I was attending to a resident who lost the COVID battle,” it continued. “She immediately asked me, as she always did, if I was OK. Next thing I know, she was suited and booted, by my side, helping me. Before she helped me, I felt defeated. Her acts of compassion for me and every other staff member in the facility made it easier to cope … She set up meals, counselors, and even called and texted staff that were out sick or had a sick family member … I am looking for a way to thank her for everything.”

Needless to say, many people share that sentiment.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

This College Student Stepped Up and Passed an Important Test

Jennifer Graham

Jennifer Graham

Jennifer Graham enrolled in the pre-medical sciences program — with a minor in psychology — at Bay Path University with the long-range goal of becoming a doctor.

But the events of the past seven months have changed her outlook — and her career pursuit — in a very meaningful way.

“I now want to go into nursing school,” she told BusinessWest. “Dealing with COVID as a whole and seeing what we’re going through as a country, I just want to pursue nursing and help people more. Doctors don’t get that one-on-one all the time, that patient contact, as much as a nurse does. After working with COVID and seeing what people really go through with sickness and even death, I want to be there — I want to be there to support these patients, help them out, and make them feel better as an individual with what they’re going through.”

What prompted this change? Some time on the front lines of the pandemic as a home health aide working for O’Connell Care at Home, a part-time job that became far more than that when she returned from a cruise — yes, a cruise — during spring break in mid-March.

Upon coming back to Western Mass. from that voyage to the Mediterranean, her job with O’Connell changed in a number of ways — everything from how care was provided in the home during a pandemic to where.

Indeed, in addition to going into the homes of the clients assigned to her, she was one of the first (and one of the few) to volunteer to provide care to the homeless at an outdoor COVID-19 triage facility established to care for potential positive cases among the homeless.

When asked why she signed on for this risky, month-long assignment in the middle of a pandemic, she replied simply, “there was an obvious need, and I just thought I could help — I thought I could do my part.”

“After working with COVID and seeing what people really go through with sickness and even death, I want to be there — I want to be there to support these patients, help them out, and make them feel better as an individual with what they’re going through.”

These comments from Michael Hynek, an HR generalist at O’Connell who nominated her to be a Healthcare Hero, echo that sentiment and put her work during the pandemic in its proper perspective.

“Having an aide like her, who is willing to accept any challenge, is vital when servicing our at-risk members in the community,” he wrote. “She makes everyone feel welcome and safe when administering care. Jennifer also enjoys the opportunity to learn about healthcare in many unique settings. Working outside of a hospital or facility can be very challenging, but she has embraced every challenge that has come her way.”

Jennifer Graham says her experiences during the pandemic

Jennifer Graham says her experiences during the pandemic, especially her work with the homeless, has prompted her to change her career goals; her new ambition is to become a nurse.

COVID-19 has provided her the opportunity to learn on many levels, and about many things. And it has also given her a new perspective on everything from the homeless population to her own career aspirations.

To tell this story properly, we need to go back to end of that spring-break cruise, which started and ended in Gotham. Suffice it to say the world, and Graham’s world, were much different places.

“While we were in the Bahamas, my phone was going off like crazy, and I was thinking, ‘look what we’re going home to,’” she recalled. “When we docked, New York was a complete ghost town; they took our temperatures and asked us a series of questions; if you had a fever, you had to stay on the cruise ship for two weeks. But no one had a fever.”

As for Bay Path, the campus was now closed, and it would not reopen for the balance of the spring semester. “There were no labs, no nothing; everything was remote.”

Then there was her day job, as she called it.

Looking for something that would provide both a paycheck and some rewarding work in what was becoming her chosen field, she became intrigued by the comments of some friends who worked at O’Connell’s who told her it was a great place to work. She applied late last fall, and started in December.

By the following March, she had settled in; she had a few clients assigned to her and also filled in when a colleague was out.

When she came back from vacation, that world changed as well. She was still seeing many of the same clients she did before COVID struck, but now, the work was different. It now entailed social distancing, mask wearing, and being extra diligent when it came to keeping the client and family members — and herself — safe.

“It was quite challenging at first — having to wear a mask all day was … different, and it was a new environment,” she recalled. “But after a little bit, you got used to it. And for the clients, it was difficult for them, because it was hard for them to understand what you were saying. I was thinking, ‘now we have to think differently and respond to them differently. I have to be much louder and slow my words; clients don’t like the mask.’

“Having an aide like her, who is willing to accept any challenge, is vital when servicing our at-risk members in the community.”

“I’ve been double-gloving,” she went on, referring to the practice of wearing two sets of gloves in the homes of those clients she has to help physically. “In some cases, they tell you not to double-glove, because it’s easier for your gloves to rip, but double-gloving for me has been a life saver.”

The bigger, even more significant change came with her decision to volunteer for work at the triage center created to care for the homeless population, work that became almost full-time as the spring semester ended and her schedule opened up.

“Anyone who had the virus or felt they had the virus came into these two large tents — they were essentially living there,” she explained, adding that individuals were tested on site and placed in two categories: PUI (patients under investigation), and the “COVID side,” where residents were housed in designated quarters based on whether they tested positive or negative.

Elaborating, she said there was an intake process, testing, and then the aides would bring them into a tent, make up a bed for them, get them something to eat, and help in any way they could. “If they needed anything, we were there for them.”

While a few people volunteered for work at the triage center, Hynek told BusinessWest, Graham’s commitment stood out.

“She really stepped up the plate when it came to transitioning away from the elderly care and into the homeless care and serving that vulnerable population,” he noted. “She took on a brand-new challenge, and I don’t think a lot of people would step up to the plate in that situation.”

As noted earlier, this work was a learning experience on many levels, and it also changed her perspective on the homeless population.

“This experience changed my mind on how I look at them,” she explained. “Being younger, I would look at a homeless person and say, ‘why don’t you just get a job?’ Working with them completely changed how I felt; I got to understand what it’s like for them — how much of a struggle it is for them on a daily basis.

Graham is back in school now, taking classes remotely while returning to the Bay Path campus for labs. She still works at O’Connell at a part-time basis, taking care of a few clients and double-gloving as always. The COVID-19 fight is far from over, but she has already absorbed a number of lessons that have helped her grow personally and professionally and given her that new perspective on what she wants to do with her life.

If this was a test — and she would say it has been, on a number of levels — then she has certainly aced it, becoming, in the process, one of the many Healthcare Heroes of 2020.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Dedicated Team Rose to the Occasion and Took Care of Those in Need

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

Several areas at the Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc. facility on Industry Avenue in Springfield are still sporting St. Patrick’s Day decorations.

They were put up early last March, and they remain there … well, because those who put them up haven’t been back to take them down.

Indeed, as the pandemic closed in and the state-ordered shutdown went into effect just before that holiday, the vast majority of GSSSI’s 250 employees began working remotely — and they have remained off site. But for some, working at home simply wasn’t an option. That’s because it’s their job to essentially provide nutritious home-delivered meals, or HDMs, as they call them, each day.

This small team of 10 essential employees stayed on and weathered the storm, if you will, and devised and executed a comprehensive plan to ensure those who need these meals get them, even though the senior-dining sites that were in operation had to shut down due to restrictions on large gatherings, and all meals have to be delivered to the home or picked up at designated ‘grab-and-go’ sites.

The creation of that new grab-and-go program underscores just how quickly — and effectively — the Nutrition Department at GSSSI was able to respond to this crisis situation.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind. There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Indeed, the initiative involved everything from securing new caterers, including one that could prepare medically tailored meals, to establishing the sites; from partnering with the PVTA to deliver the meals to putting in place the protocols needed to ensure that meals were picked up safely.

Doing all that might normally take four to six weeks, said Heather Jolicoeur, community coordinator for GSSSI and a member of that team. Instead, they did it all in under two weeks.

All that sounds difficult enough, but remember, this was carried out in the middle of a pandemic, so there additional challenges and assignments on top of those one might expect:

• One of the food resources was shut down due to COVID-19, forcing those at GSSSI to track down a reliable and appropriate food source for Kosher meal recipients;

• A corps of volunteers had to be assembled, with CORI checks run on each individual due to the nature of the work;

• Temporary Meals on Wheels drivers had to be hired to fill in for regular drivers who had pre-existing conditions and couldn’t safely deliver meals every day;

• New policies for delivering meals with the least amount of contact from the drivers were put in place, further complicating the process; and

• As the crisis continued, new needs emerged, and HDM recipients were soon also receiving toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items, supplied by those in ‘chase cars’ following those delivering meals.

Jill Keough

Jill Keough

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another. So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

“Every day, there are emergencies; every day, the conditions change; every day, new policies and procedures are developed, implemented, and changed,” said Jolicoeur, putting the accent on the present tense. “Every day, all 10 of us work together calmly and focused on serving as many seniors as possible.”

As they talked about their experiences and what it meant to be part of this effort, those who are involved gave some unique perspective on all that has transpired over the past seven months, and underscored why this group is part of the Healthcare Heroes class of 2020.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind,” said Jill Keough, executive director of GSSSI, as she summed up the situation that unfolded in mid-March and the Nutrition Department’s detailed, and imaginative, response to the problem — or problems, to be precise. “There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Before getting to this plan, though, Mary Jenewin Caplin, the now-retired Area Agency on Aging director, set the stage. Before COVID-19, she explained, GSSSI served more than 900 clients who rely on HMDs each day. Prepared by caterers each day, the meals were delivered to some homes, but also to 14 senior-dining sites across the region, where clients could not only dine, but enjoy one another’s company and camaraderie.

When the pandemic struck, those dining sites had to close, for obvious reasons, but the need remained, and now, meals had to be delivered to the home, requiring the hiring of more volunteer drivers and new ways to get meals into the hands of those who needed them.

The plan that emerged came together very quickly, out of necessity, said Mike Young, an HMD supervisor, and it would have to incorporate a number of changes to how things had been done, but could no longer be done in the age of COVID.

“The biggest concern was that clients didn’t even want to open their doors anymore,” he explained. “We had to worry about how we would see them, how we would get them the meals, how would we keep the clients safe, how would we keep the drivers safe. Our drivers were used to going into someone’s house, putting the meal in the refrigerator, giving it to them on the couch, or putting it on the kitchen table. Now, we’re trying to get a driver to give them a meal, stay six feet apart, and maybe not even have the door open; there were a number of challenges to overcome.”

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car. We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space”

Tracy Landry, another HMD supervisor, agreed, noting that, to keep both drivers and clients safe, a series of new protocols were put in place, including single-use plastic bags for deliveries, masks, hand sanitizer, and other steps.

“We had more meetings than you can imagine when we first this started,” she recalled. “Every day was different, and each day it seemed that there was a new challenge.”

Indeed, and as new challenges emerged, this small but dedicated team found ways to meet them. At the top of the list of challenges was keeping everyone safe, and for this team of 10, that meant taking extraordinary measures themselves.

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another,” said Keough. “So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

As noted, one of the real concerns for the Nutrition Department team was keeping the drivers — most all of them older and in the high-risk category — out of harm’s way.

“My concern the whole time was the drivers — they’re all in that danger zone,” Young said. “Every day, they were asking, ‘what’s going on?’ You could tell they were concerned, and I was concerned for them. The last thing I wanted to see was someone catch something. To me, they’re the real heroes in this; they were out there every day doing it.”

At the height of the crisis, additional volunteer drivers had to be hired to handle what became larger deliveries, said Landry, noting that those at GSSSI were determined to help seniors stock up on frozen meals to make sure they had enough food in the home.

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car,” she explained, adding quickly that these efforts to help clients stock up were more than successful. “We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space.’”

And, as noted, the help being provided soon extended beyond food. Indeed, as calls came in from the public asking how they could volunteer and help serve the seniors, some were pressed into service following the food-delivery vehicles in so-called chase cars stockpiled with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items the client might need.

But food was the primary focus, said Kate Senn, Nutrition program director, adding that the creation of a grab-and-go program certainly helped GSSSI effectively meet that growing need. To put the matter in perspective, she noted that, in January, prior to COVID-19, GSSSI was providing 3,352 meals for congregate dining sites. In August, it was providing 4,581 meals via the grab-and-go program.

Those numbers help tell the story, but only a little. The tireless work and dedication to serving clients — while also keeping everyone safe at a time when similar programs in other states and other parts of this state had to shut down because of positive cases — are what really make this story happen.

The 10 that stayed behind have left the St. Patrick’s Day decorations up, perhaps thinking they will be appropriate in a few months again anyway. But more to the point, they just haven’t had any time.

They’ve been too busy getting HDMs to all those who need them. They’ve been too busy doing the work of true Healthcare Heroes.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

This Administrator Provided a Steady Hand in Rough Seas

Helen Gobeil

Helen Gobeil

Helen Gobeil had recently relocated to Western Mass. from the other side of the state, and was looking for work.

She remembers seeing the small, as in small — maybe two lines — ad in the paper for an administrative assistant at Visiting Angels in West Springfield, a home-care provider, and becoming intrigued enough to apply — and prevail in that search.

She would eventually grow into the position and became adept at handling the many responsibilities within the job description, said her boss, Michele Anstett, president and CEO of the company, adding quickly that this was a good thing because all those talents would be needed when COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

Indeed, every aspect of this job, from recruiting caregivers to consulting with new clients; from matching caregivers with these clients to scheduling regular care and coordinating care in emergency situations, would become more difficult. Much more difficult.

And there would be new responsibilities added to that already-long list, including the daunting task of providing PPE for those caregivers and providing a compassionate ear to family members coping with something they would struggle to get both hands around.

Anstett summed up Gobeil’s work during this ultra-challenging time by describing her as a “hidden hero of COVID-19.”

By that, she meant she worked mostly, but not exclusively, behind the scenes and not on the front lines. But her contributions to what is an ongoing fight to carry on business in the middle of a pandemic, while keeping both employees and clients as safe as possible, are worthy of that adjective ‘heroic.’

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience,” Anstett wrote in her nomination, “she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience, she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.”

“COVID-19 has not only presented physical challenges, but also mental ones, including severe anxiety and depression and exacerbating loneliness, isolation, and sleep problems, particularly in the senior population,” she went on. “To this end, Helen has not only served to protect the health of seniors across Western Massachusetts, but she has also given peace of mind to the families, seniors, and caregivers.”

To put these phrases ‘positive force’ and ‘peace of mind’ in their proper perspective, we turn back the clock to last March 23, when Gov. Charlie Baker imposed his lockdown. At Visiting Angels, staff members packed up and prepared to work remotely for what would be three months. But as they did that, Gobeil, in particular, had to develop detailed plans for providing care in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when people, and especially seniors, were wary about letting people into their homes.

For many, though, home care is an essential need, so they had to let people in. But before anyone went in, Gobeil and Anstett would conduct a risk assessment for both clients and caregivers within a given match.

“We would go down the list, and give each client a number — ‘1’ being the least at risk, and ‘3’ the highest,” Anstett noted, adding that there are more than 60 clients on average at any given time. “We would talk about each caregiver and each client and discuss how to keep them safe; if there was a facility that had COVID, we wouldn’t go into that facility.

“Helen stayed on top of all this,” she went on. “She would talk to every single caregiver and find out where they were going, where they had been, whether they had another job … and she would just cut it right down, every day.”

Helen Gobeil with Michele Anstett, president and CEO of Visiting Angels West Springfield.

Helen Gobeil with Michele Anstett, president and CEO of Visiting Angels West Springfield.

Meanwhile, there would be new protocols concerning cleaning within those homes and other steps to control the spread of the virus.

“These were things we did all the time,” Gobeil explained. “Caregivers just had to be extra, extra cautious about what they did.”

And she had to be extra cautious and extra diligent about who else was going into these homes. With that, she relayed a story that brings this element of her assignment into perspective.

“The daughter of one of our clients showed up from Florida — and that was an event,” she recalled. “She didn’t tell anyone she was coming, and went into the home to a bedbound client with our caregivers in the house. She didn’t quarantine — she went from the plane to this home.

“This was a 24/7 case, and we pulled out of that house immediately,” Gobeil went on. “I said, ‘it’s her or us; until she’s gone, we’re out!’ She went to a hotel that night and left the next morning. Another daughter went in and cleaned top to bottom.”

Beyond delivering some tough love in situations like that, she has also been providing some compassionate outreach to family members of clients, including one who had to cope with the death of a loved one at a time when the grieving process, like everything else, was made different by COVID-19.

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment,” she explained. “In this woman’s case, her mother was dying, and she was very anxious about the whole thing. I said to Michele one night, ‘I’m going to see the client, and I’m going to take some time with the daughter,’ and I did. And after her mom passed, she came here, stood in the doorway, said said, ‘please tell me I can come in — I just owe you a big hug.’”

There have been myriad other tasks and challenges as well, including the matter of simply securing needed PPE for her caregivers. It was very difficult to procure items such as masks and gowns in the beginning, and it’s still a challenge, she said, adding that Visiting Angels and other providers have certainly been helped by Gowns 4 Good, the national effort to collect graduation gowns.

“As we started to get them in, the stories that accompanied them … they were incredible,” said Gobeil. “Notes from high-school graduates, class of 2020, including some from West Springfield, who couldn’t have their own ceremonies — they were heartwarming. We were crying.”

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment.”

Meanwhile, another stern test, especially after the federal stimulus package was passed, was hiring caregivers. Indeed, many solid candidates for such jobs were in a position where they were making far more in employment than they could as a caregiver — so they stayed unemployed.

“In the beginning, we couldn’t get anyone to answer our ads,” she recalled. “But we made it through that rough patch, and now, a lot of people are eager to get back to work.”

One of her priorities now is to keep both her caregivers and their clients diligent as the pandemic enters its eighth month of impacting virtually all aspects of life as we know it.

Summing up what it was like — and is still like — she said, “it just multiplied the concern and the vigilance, and the stress was unbelievable, every day. And it is still like that. Every day.”

Coping with all this was certainly not in whatever job description was part of that tiny ad she saw more than a dozen years ago now. And it is certainly not what she signed up for.

But as this job changed with COVID, Gobeil rose to the occasion, accepting each new challenge with diligence and ample respect for her ultimate responsibility — the health and well-being of both her caregivers and clients.

Call her a ‘hidden’ hero if you like, but her hard work and dedication are certainly not lost on anyone she has been involved with during this pandemic.

 

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