Home Articles posted by George O'Brien
Alumni Achievement Award

President and Owner, Chikmedia

Meghan Rothschild today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2011.

Meghan Rothschild today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2011.

Meghan Rothschild started speaking in public when she was just 20 years old.

She had become a survivor of melanoma, a common and deadly form of skin cancer, and she began speaking out about her diagnosis as an advocate for sun safety and cancer prevention, turning a negative into a positive.

Over the ensuing two decades or so, she would become a natural behind the microphone, addressing subjects ranging from skin cancer to social media to leadership skills and how to build them. She would also become a sought-after presenter and media host, including red-carpet coverage on behalf of Explore Western Mass. (the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau) for Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement, as a panelist for the RISE Women’s Leadership Conference, and regular media-outlet contributions including The Rhode Show, Mass Appeal on WWLP, iHeart Radio, and more.

It wasn’t until recently, though, that she delivered what she called her first ‘keynote address.’ It came at the Pioneer Valley Women’s Conference staged last month at the Marriott in downtown Springfield. The conference’s theme was Unleashed, and the unofficial title of her address was “Living Authentically Unleashed.”

“These were my tips for how to live an authentically unleashed life,” she told BusinessWest. “Being authentic, unleashing your emotions, unleashing your power, bringing empathy back into the workplace and acknowledging that people are human beings and not machine — things like that.”

When asked if she lived her own life authentically unleashed, she said, “I would certainly say that, yes. It means being free of of concern over how others view you, finding your true authentic mission and purpose, not being afraid to speak your mind, using your voice to set boundaries, knowing your own self-worth, all of those things,” she added.

Building an impressive portfolio of public speaking engagements and living her own life authentically unleashed — in all those ways she described — are just two of the many ways Rothschild has grown and evolved, personally and professionally, since she became a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2011 while serving as Development and Marketing manager for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

The most obvious is the creation and continued growth of the marketing and public-relations business she founded called Chikmedia, a full-service, boutique firm that provides clients nationwide with graphic design, social-media management, public relations, expert positioning, event management, and more.

But there is more to this story, including involvement within the community that takes many forms, from a Girls & Racism town hall created in collaboration with Girls Inc. to a Campaign for Healthy Kids PSA designed to help raise funds for the children and families that rely on Square One and were severely impacted by COVID, to her creation of the Chik of the Future Scholarship, designated for a young woman of color pursuing a degree in a marketing-related field.

The sum of these accomplishments has made Rothschild a repeat finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award. In fact, this is the fourth time that panels of judges have made her one of the top scorers.

It’s easy to see why, starting with her success in business.

She told BusinessWest that, while she considers herself an entrepreneur at heart, she never anticipated growing an agency to where it would have several team members and more than 40 clients at any given point.

“I started this to really take a calmer approach to my career, and it’s been the exact opposite,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, but the business has just blossomed.”

Indeed, it now boasts clients ranging from TIZO, a national skin-care line, to local businesses and nonprofits ranging from the Log Cabin to Girls Inc. to the recently opened event venue 52 Sumner.

But she is perhaps more proud of the work that she and the agency are doing in the community. She is involved with the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts as a board member, for example; runs in several 5Ks, like the one staged recently to support Dakin Humane Society; and brings added value to the many nonprofits within the client portfolio as another way to give back.

“I do influencer marketing myself, so on social media, I’m constantly talking up my clients and sharing their events and throwing myself in the hat as a marketing tool for them — because I find that’s sort of a seamless way for me to give back,” she said.

And then, there are initiatives like the Chik of the Future Scholarship, which has grown in scope and monetary value over its five-year history thanks to the support of several local businesses, as well as the She Votes campaign spearheaded by the team at Chikmedia in collaboration with Girls Inc. The goal of the campaign was to pre-register as many teen girls to vote as possible and to raise $21,000 for the She Votes curriculum. Voting pre-registrations were outstanding, Rothschild said, and the fundraising campaign concluded 3% above goal.

“I started this to really take a calmer approach to my career, and it’s been the exact opposite. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, but the business has just blossomed.”

Maybe the best indication of how far she has come, and how her impact has grown, is her increasingly crowded schedule, filled with various speaking engagements that reflect her many areas of expertise.

Last year, for example, she was in Dallas to appear at a major beauty conference to share her personal experience with skin cancer and talk about TIZO. She also addressed the Bradley Chamber of Commerce this month and hosts a series of workshops for Head Start programs across New England.

Overall, she’s speaking four to six times a month on average, with the subject matter ranging from skin-cancer prevention to entreprenership; from social-media training to talks that would be considered motivational in nature.

She said it’s taken her the better part of a decade to “get into a really good groove,” as she called it, developing a style that makes heavy use of humor and that engages the audience in whatever it is she’s talking about.

“When the topic is something outside my comfort zone, like a motivational speech, that fuels me,” she said. “It makes me take a moment and really think about what I’m going to say. I can stand up and talk about social media for six hours and not even bat an eye, but motivational-style speaking is completely different.”

There are many things that fuel Rothschild today, everything from working with her team to grow Chikmedia to providing scholarships to girls of color looking to enter the marketing field, to … well, living life unleashed.

All that explains why she is an Alumni Achievement Award finalist. Again.

—George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Shakespeare & Company’s 33-acre campus in Lenox is open to the public for picnics and exploration of its grounds.

Shakespeare & Company’s 33-acre campus in Lenox is open to the public for picnics and exploration of its grounds.

Becky Piccolo says the Olde Heritage Tavern is the ‘Cheers’ of Lenox.

It’s a place where … well, most everyone knows your name. Indeed, while it’s a popular hangout for locals, those in town for a concert at Tanglewood, a play at Shakespeare & Company, or a massage at one of the spas might well stop in for a burger and a brew as well.

“It’s a gathering place for all the locals,” she said of the tavern, which has been called both a second home for area residents and a home away from home. “It’s really a big family and a big part of the community; it’s way more than just a bar.”

Piccolo and her sister, Rachel, have been managing the tavern for more than 20 years now, but through a series of transactions and changes in ownership, including a time when the U.S. government took possession (we’ll get into all that later), they can now call the establishment theirs.

“The Airbnb phenomenon has certainly impacted us, as it has almost every community in the States and overseas as well. A lot of the modest homes have been purchased by owner/investors that have crowded out the younger families and empty-nest households perhaps looking to downsize to more modest homes.”

And when asked what might change with this latest change in ownership, Piccolo was proud to say, “nothing, really — we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done.”

This is certainly good news for the town and its business community, and this change of ownership at the tavern is just one of many developing stories in this community of 5,000 people that is perhaps the tourist mecca in a region built largely on tourism.

Other stories include, on the municipal side, movement toward a new public-safety facility and new wastewater treatment plant, and, perhaps most importantly, steps forward in the development of two new housing projects, which will, according to Select Board member Marybeth Mitts, make a meaningful dent in what has become a serious shortage of affordable housing.

That’s a problem common to communities of all sizes and across Western Mass., said Mitts, adding that it is perhaps even more acute in Lenox because of its wealth of tourism and wellness facilities and an accompanying trend that has seen many properties in — or close to — the ‘affordable’ category converted to Airbnbs.

“The Airbnb phenomenon has certainly impacted us, as it has almost every community in the States and overseas as well,” she noted. “A lot of the modest homes have been purchased by owner/investors that have crowded out the younger families and empty-nest households perhaps looking to downsize to more modest homes.”

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,095
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.85
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

This development, and the overall lack of affordable housing, has many side effects and has made it even more difficult for the town’s rich stock of restaurants and tourist attractions to find enough help, said Mitts, adding that many restaurants are able to open maybe five days a week instead or six or seven because of staffing issues.

“It has impacted the ability of our village shops and eateries to have the summer staffs that they’ve enjoyed the past several decades,” Mitts explained. “Kids grow up, and they start busing in the restaurants and working in the local retail establishments in the summertime to help with seasonal employment needs. And now, those kids are becoming fewer and far between, and it’s harder for those restaurants to be open seven days a week in the summer because they just don’t have the staff.”

The two new housing projects — a 65-unit, mixed-income development that should break ground in the next 90 days, and a 68-unit project in the earlier stages of development — should bring some relief, but more new housing is needed.

Meanwhile, on the business side, Lenox continues the process of making a full recovery from COVID. The pandemic obviously hit this community hard, and in the years immediately after the height of COVID, when people could go back out and do things, many took their time getting back into that rhythm.

But Piccolo said the town is primed for a big year in 2024.

“Lenox has been hopping; last year was a great year, and Tanglewood’s lineup for this year looks even better,” she said. “I think this summer is going to be a record-breaking summer.”

Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing & Communications for Shakespeare & Company, was similarly optimistic.

A member of the Lenox Cultural District, she said the community’s many attractions are working together — perhaps more than ever before — to promote the sum of all that’s going on (the busy season started Memorial Day weekend, builds through the summer, and peaks in August) and generate some intrigue.

“The cultural organizations in Lenox, including some of the retail spaces, have been working together more than they have in previous years,” she said, citing as reasons everything from the pandemic to turnover, both in Town Hall and in those retail spaces. “That spirit of collaboration is starting to come back.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Lenox, a community that continues to build on its long legacy of being a true destination community.

 

At Home with the Idea

Mitts isn’t from Lenox — she was born in Hartford, Conn. and subsequently lived in many different places, from Washington, D.C. to Detroit to Manchester, Conn., and then back to West Hartford — but came to this picturesque community just south of Pittsfield in 2001 and has raised a family here.

While doing so, she’s made a point of getting involved. Indeed, in addition to serving on the Select Board, she’s been involved with the Cultural Council and was, until recently, chair of the Affordable Housing Trust, and is currently running for state representative as an independent.

Marybeth Mitts

Marybeth Mitts

“We have a pretty robust rooms and meals tax here in town that keeps us very well-situated so that we can maintain a consistently conservative tax rate.”

She said the town’s business community is top-heavy with tourism and wellness institutions, including anchors such as Canyon Ranch; the Miraval Berkshires Resort & Spa (formerly Cranwell Resort); the Mount (Edith Wharton’s home); Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the Mass Audubon Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary; Shakespeare & Company; and many others.

“We have a pretty robust rooms and meals tax here in town that keeps us very well-situated so that we can maintain a consistently conservative tax rate,” Mitts noted. “We’re able to stick to the Proposition 2½ restrictions, and we’ve never had to go for an override; we’re not anywhere near our tax limit.”

This strong fiscal balance sheet will be a real asset as the town faces some needed infrastructure projects, she said, starting with a new, $25 million public-safety facility she described as “hugely necessary.”

“That’s because our Police Department is located in the basement of our town hall, and our fire trucks constantly have to be modified to fit our inadequate and tiny fire station,” she said, adding that a new facility that will bring both departments together will be built at the corner of Housatonic Street and Route 7, a somewhat central location outside the village center.

Also planned is a new wastewater-treatment plant, she said, adding that this project, with a projected $40 million price tag, is due to commence over the next 12 to 18 months.

Another huge issue for the community is housing, Mitts said, adding that there was already a shortage before the Airbnb crush made things considerably worse.

Indeed, she said many modestly priced smaller homes and also several multi-family homes have been converted into Airbnbs.

“Some of the two- and four-unit homes that had either smaller families in them or people who want to stay in town but don’t have large families anymore have been converted to Airbnbs,” she said. “I know specifically of the case of a fourplex that was purchased; there were two small families and two individuals who were living in apartments in this fourplex, and they were essentially evicted so that this person could rehab it and turn it four Airbnbs and charge $3,000 a month for those units.

“One of those individuals was someone who worked in the arts in town and was able to affordably live in town and maintain their livelihood,” she went on. “But now, the need to pay an additional amount of rent and try to find an affordable rental unit … it’s become difficult to impossible, and other people who were essentially evicted and had children in the school district were now looking for places to live so their children could stay in the school district, and I believe one of them wound up living with their mother in another town because they couldn’t find a place to live.”

There are many similar stories, Mitts said, adding that the planned new housing developments — that 65-unit project, to be called Brushwood Farms, and the 68-unit complex currently working its way through the funding and approval processes — may enable more young families to come to Lenox and more empty nesters to stay.

“If that project gets approved, we’ll be adding 133 units to our affordable rental housing stock,” she said, adding that eight of the Brushwood Farms units will be for families, with three bedrooms, in addition to 28 two-bedroom units and the rest with one bedroom.

 

Bar None

Tracing her long history at the Olde Heritage Tavern, Becky Piccolo said she has managed it for several different owners.

That includes John McNinch, who acquired it in 2000 and later sold it to FTX digital bitcoin magnate Ryan Salame, who would eventually enter guilty pleas on two criminal counts — making an estimated $24 million in unlawful political contributions and conspiring to operate an unlicensed money-transmitting business.

As fallout from those charges, the U.S. Marshals Service took possession of the 12 Housatonic St. property, as well as some other properties Salame owned in Lenox, and Piccolo essentially managed the tavern for the federal government while it arranged an auction.

“We’re operating normally; it’s business as usual, the staff is happy, so it’s ‘keep on trucking’ here,” she told the Berkshire Eagle the day after the U.S. Marshals Service took possession.

And those same sentiments apply today, after Annie Selke, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Annie Selke Companies, prevailed at that aforementioned auction in April and in turn sold the tavern to the Piccolo sisters.

Indeed, when asked what it felt like to own the landmark instead of managing it for someone else, including the government, Piccolo said, “I run it the same. It’s just kind of like who I am; I’ve been here for so long.

“It’s a huge part of my life, and it continues,” she went on. “It’s like nothing changes; it’s like I never skipped a beat.”

Elaborating on what she said earlier, Piccolo said she is planning just a few small changes, but is largely invoking the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy, and in most all respects, the tavern isn’t broken.

Instead, it has grown from being purely a place for locals — a dive bar, by many accounts — to a destination for those coming to Lenox to take in its many attractions.

That list includes Shakespeare & Company, which has an intriguing season planned for 2024. It includes a few traditional Shakespeare plays — The Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale (in this case, an ‘enhanced reading.’ But it also features other offerings, including a world premiere of The Islanders, starting July 25; a regional premiere of Flight of the Monarch, described as a “darkly comic play that explores how siblings’ lives are intertwined”; the world premiere of Three Tall Persian Women, a “comedic and touching play about generational differences, grief, control, and learning to let go, but more than anything it’s a love story to immigrant mothers”; and Shake It Up: A Shakespeare Cabaret.

That eclectic lineup is part of what should be another summer and early fall of building more momentum in Lenox, said Stevenson, who returned to that notion of collaboration among the tourism institutions at this pivotal time for the community.

“We do a lot of art walks, art weeks, and music; Lenox loves music. These are things that happen year-round and are held at different locations, different venues, year to year,” she said, adding that Shakespeare & Company recently staged a Community Day (an open house of sorts with events that also showcased area nonprofits), and other venues have staged similar gatherings.

Collectively, they build not only awareness, but a sense of community, hence the name, said Stevenson, adding that the cultural district works to call attention to all different kinds of artists, promote diversity in the arts, and, in general, celebrate and promote the community’s rich inventory of restaurants and things to do.

Healthcare News Special Coverage

Progress Report

Jason Pacheco doesn’t like using that phrase ‘new normal’ any more than anyone else these days.

It’s more than a little tired, and in most settings, it’s been retired.

But when it comes to the workforce issues facing healthcare providers these days, it ultimately works. Four full years after the height of the pandemic and maybe a decade after some not-so-subtle shifts in the workforce landscape, especially the retirement of Baby Boomers, there is what appears to a new normal, and one that will continue for the foreseeable future.

It’s no longer a crisis, in the true sense of that word, although there are certainly many challenges, said Pacheco, director of Workforce Planning, Analytics, and Compensation for Baystate Health.

He noted that Baystate and other providers are no longer using large numbers of very expensive travel nurses, and there is no longer a sense of desperation over if and how vacancies will be filled. But in this new normal, there are still many open positions at any given time — more than before the pendulum started to swing.

“Baystate has implemented several key training programs … for example, we’ll go out and recruit a cohort of medical assistants. Instead of people having to go to school to become a medical assistant, we’ll hire them, and we’ll pay them to train to become a medical assistant.”

There is also a greater need to be competitive with compensation, benefits, and other perks; added emphasis on retention and the many elements of that equation; many more pay-to-train programs, education-assistance efforts, and other inititiatives to get individuals into healthcare and then provide them with the skills to succeed at one job and then advance to others; greater collaboration with area colleges to train existing employees and help them advance; and an ever-growing need to listen to employees and create an environment they want to be part of.

Dr. Robert Roose says a focus on culture has helped to “reset” the workforce crisis.

Dr. Robert Roose says a focus on culture has helped to “reset” the workforce crisis.

“Baystate has implemented several key training programs … for example, we’ll go out and recruit a cohort of medical assistants. Instead of people having to go to school to become a medical assistant, we’ll hire them, and we’ll pay them to train to become a medical assistant,” said Pacheco, adding that the system is partnering with Holyoke Community College to deliver a medical assistant training course, just one of myriad examples of how providers and systems are being proactive, and getting creative, when it comes to recruiting talent and retaining it.

Dr. Robert Roose, chief administrative officer for the Springfield market of Trinity Health Of New England, overseeing Mercy Medical Center, Johnson Memorial Hospital, and the affiliates of both, said both elements of the equation are equally important.

And as he acknowledged that the workforce crisis in healthcare has eased — or “reset,” he said — there are many reasons for this, including, at Mercy and elsewhere, a healthy emphasis on culture.

“Our colleagues have found that culture is what has ultimately compelled people to come to a system and stay within a system and continue to engage in the wellness professions,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re looking at how we better redesign work to attend to the ways that healthcare delivery has changed and will continue to be changing, and looking at ways to reinforce what matters to people to retain them in our hospitals and healthcare systems, while recruiting more individuals.”

Emily Davis, senior director of Human Resources at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, concurred.

“From a retention standpoint, it comes down to … how do we provide an environment where employees feel not only appreciated, but where, in every position, they can understand and feel the impact they’re having on patient care?

Emily Davis says it’s important for employees to feel they are appreciated — and to feel the impact they have on patient care.

Emily Davis says it’s important for employees to feel they are appreciated — and to feel the impact they have on patient care.

“Also, how does the environment they work in every day contribute positively to not just their livelihood, but their lives?” she went on, adding that providers’ ability to answer those questions in a positive fashion will go a long way toward determining their ability to retain the employees they have worked so hard to attract and invested so much in terms of onboarding and continued training and professional development.

For this issue and its forcus on the healthcare workforce, we’ll get back to those questions, how systems and individual providers are answering them, and how they are looking to make additional progress in living with this new normal.

 

Hire Power

As he talked about the workforce issues still confronting healthcare providers — but also about the progress made on some levels — Pacheco used numbers to help get his points across.

He said the system has been averaging 1,600 to 1,650 job vacancies at any given time, a number that is more than double what the system was averaging (maybe 700 to 800 vacancies) before the pandemic, but a significant improvement over the more than 2,000 vacancies at the height of COVID.

Meanwhile, more than 600 individuals are currently in the onboarding process at Baystate, including more than 200 nurses, many of them recent graduates of area colleges, he said, adding that these numbers are one indication of the system’s ability to bring more individuals into postitions, an improvement over a few years ago.

“We’re looking at how we better redesign work to attend to the ways that healthcare delivery has changed and will continue to be changing, and looking at ways to reinforce what matters to people to retain them in our hospitals and healthcare systems, while recruiting more individuals.”

“We are making significant progress in terms of bringing people in,” he said. “For example, we’ve implemented a number of new training programs — we’re training medical assistants, patient care technicians, and our newest one is a sterile process technician; we’re teaching folks how to clean and work with surgical instrumentation. However, all of that requires a significant investment in orienting people.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to retention, while there has been some progress in bringing those vacancy numbers down, “we have not yet returned to a normal place, like what we experiencing pre-pandemic, for turnover levels,” said Pacheco, adding that the system is averaging roughly 19% turnover, with much of it coming in the first year of employment.

Michele Anstett

Michele Anstett says competition for workers in the home-care arena is fierce, and there is little loyalty to employers.

“So, are we making headway in terms of bringing people into healthcare? Absolutely,” he went on. “Do we still have a long way to go? You bet.”

Roose agreed, adding that, at both Mercy and Johnson Memorial, there has been recorded progress in both hiring and retention, with a roughly 40% reduction in turnover the past two years — 50% at Johnson Memorial and 35% at Mercy.

“Reducing those that are leaving the organization to levels that are under 20% has been very stabilizing,” he said. “And while reducing turnover, we’ve also, over the past several months, seen that the number of people coming into Mercy and Johnson Memorial has outpaced the number of those leaving, so the balance has shifted.”

This is true across many professions, especially nursing, where there has been reduced turnover and improved recruitment, he said, adding that other realms, such as transport, food and nutrition, and others, have recorded less progress.

Indeed, while things have stabilized somewhat, building and maintaining a workforce remains quite challenging for most healthcare providers.

Michele Anstett, president of the West Springfield-based home-care provider Visiting Angels, said conditions have improved somewhat since the height of COVID, when people were afraid to enter others’ homes. But competition for workers is intense, and the biggest problem is retention.

Indeed, there is comparatively little loyalty to employers, she said, adding that workers will often chase an additional dollar an hour in wages or some other benefit. She stays ahead of the game, if can be called that, first by “hiring, hiring, hiring,” as she put it, and then taking steps to try to hang on to some of those she brings in.

“People tend to fly more; because of the economy, because of society and everything being on the move, and people being really strapped, they go where they can best provide for their family,” she said. “So I’m going to hire faster than they go; I’m hiring about five a week. How many go a week? Maybe two. That’s how we’re adjusting to this new reality.”

“For a mom in the workforce, the most important thing is her family and making sure she can get them to doctors’ appointments, she can get to school functions, she can make sure that if they’re sick, they’re taken care of without repurcussions from the employer. And those are things that we find are intangible and so important to our workforce, so we do our best to make sure that their family needs are met.”

When it comes to retention, Anstett says she has what she calls a magic formula — a focus on the work-culture factor.

“It’s about how they’re treated, how we respect them, how all those different qualities that they find in an employer make them want to say,” she said, adding that working in such an environment often weighs more heavily with employees than an additional dollar an hour.

“About 95% of our employees are women, and I would say 80% of those women are moms with dependent children,” she went on. “For a mom in the workforce, the most important thing is her family and making sure she can get them to doctors’ appointments, she can get to school functions, she can make sure that if they’re sick, they’re taken care of without repurcussions from the employer. And those are things that we find are intangible and so important to our workforce, so we do our best to make sure that their family needs are met.”

 

Staying Power

Addressing the broad subject of retention, those we spoke with said there is strong need for being creative and showing employees at all levels that they are valued and part of something larger than their own job.

And it all starts with listening, Davis said. “A lot of it is really paying attention to our workforce — what they’re telling us, but also what we’re learning from paying attention to them, not only in their words, but what we see them struggle with and what we see them strive in doing.”

Another key to retention is effective recruitment, she said, attracting people who understand — and value — the environment they’ll be working in and the team they will be joining, and want to be part of all that.

“The key to successful recruiting is agility,” Davis said. “It’s changing our strategies as we see what’s happening outside our walls, what’s happening in our area from the standpoint of where we have people that we can attract, and how we attract them.

“What we’ve been doing recently is getting back into what I call the ‘milk and cookies’ of in-person recruitment,” she went on. “We’ll have a team of talent-acquisition partners, along with leaders, and have a day when people can come in for a given position. They can fill out the application, they can interview with the talent-acquisition partner, interview with the manager, and have a decision about their hiring right on the spot. And then they can meet with the onboarding coordinator. So before they even leave the building, they have an answer, and they’ve started on their journey.”

Elaborating, she said this strategy was recently deployed for the successful hiring of several environmental-services personnel, but it can be used — and has been — for other positions as well, including nurses.

Another key element in the equation is compensation, said all those we spoke with, adding that systems and individual providers must continue making the investments needed to remain competitive — to the extent they can, given the hard reality that reimbursement rates for care provided by those facilities continue to lag far behind the cost of providing that care.

Davis agreed, but said providers who want to retain talent have to go beyond compensation. And this brings her back to that notion of making employees at all levels feel valued.

“Compensation matters,” she said. “But what matters when you get your foot in the door is … how do I feel about the place that I work at? Am I valued? Am I making a difference? Am I treated well? Do I feel like I belong?”

There are many factors that go into how employees will answer those questions, she went on, listing everything from wages and benefits to flexibility in schedules to the willingness of leadership to listen to employees and repond to what they are hearing.

At Cooley Dickinson, there are surveys, said Davis, but the more important strategy is the rounding conducted by members of the leadership team and the visbility of those leaders.

“The staff needs to understand that there is someone there that they can check in with, someone that will get back to me, whether it’s an answer I want or an answer that I wish was different,” she said, adding that rounding, an ever-evolving practice that takes place on many different levels, is key to all-important visbility as well as the listening process.

Roose agreed, noting that Mercy and Johnson Memorial have placed additional emphasis on listening and responding to what is heard through initiatives such as a ‘new-colleague culture experience,’ to start later this month.

“We’ll provide every new colleague that enters our organization with an opportunity to really focus on what about the culture they do identify with and how we can best attend to that during the early period of their orientation and work with us,” he explained. “We find that most people who are going to leave the organization leave within the first year, and a lot of that has to do with expectations around work and whether they’re able to connect with what brought them there.”

 

Bottom Line

But there are other strategies as well, including educational assistance that will help existing employees seize other career opportunities.

At Baystate, the system has essentially doubled the amount allowable per year for tuition assistance, said Pacheco, adding that the new ceilings went into effect in January, and the investment (probably an additional $300,000 to $400,000) is already showing signs of paying off.

“We have people studying to become nurses, we have folks working on various lab occupations … it varies,” he said. “As long as there is a connection to the healthcare system, we’ll support them with educational assistance.”

Returning to the subject of pay-to-train initiatives, Pacheco said that, in addition to the program for medical assistants, there are others for patient-care technicians (another partnership with Holyoke Community College) and other positions, as well as apprenticeship programs, including one that trains individuals to read heart monitors.

All these initiatives are part of a broad response to a new reality — yes, a new normal — one that should prevail, and test healthcare providers across the board, for the foreseeable future.

Alumni Achievement Award

Senior Vice President, Audacy Springfield

Craig Swimm today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2007.

Craig Swimm today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2007.

Craig Swimm was in the very first class of 40 Under Forty honorees.

That’s was 2007, for those who don’t know the history. And for Swimm, who would turn 40 just a few months later, he acknowledged that this would be his only shot at attaining that honor.

As he reflected on all that has changed since he received his plaque on the stage at the Log Cabin that spring, Craig paused a second, said “wow,” and then paused again as if deciding where and how to start.

Indeed, there have been momentous changes, in his own life and career obviously, and in radio and with his broadcast group, which now includes 94.7 WMAS, sports station 105.5 WEEI, and a new Spanish station, Nueva 98.1 WHLL. And in general, with the Great Recession, other economic ups and downs, a pandemic and its aftermath, the emergence of social media, and so much more.

As for radio and the changes that have come to the industry and his group in particular, Swimm had to do some counting.

“Let’s see — there’s been one, two, three mergers, two bankruptcies, and a lot of other changes,” he said while giving the Readers Digest version of the progression from Citadel Broadcasting, which he served as sales manager when named a Forty Under 40 honoree, to the entity known as Audacy, a huge group with a presence in more than 100 markets, including Greater Springfied.

But what he chose to focus on more is what hasn’t changed over all that time — the team at Audacy Springfield, which has remained largely intact over those years, even through mergers and downturns in the economy; the fact that station WMAS remains live and local, at a time when far fewer stations can make those claims; and especially the stations’ commitment to the community.

That commitment, through Swimm’s direction, now includes everything from book drives to job fairs to the hugely successful radiothon to benefit Baystate Children’s Hospital, which, in many ways, eptoimizes the station’s commitment to the community and Swimm’s own desire to use its impresssive reach to make an impact.

“Success to Craig is watching his team become better versions of themselves.”

“We’ve raised more than $4 million since we started this,” he said, adding quickly that the station’s efforts have also yielded books, winter coats, bike helmets, and much more.

Those who nominated Swimm for the Alumni Achievement Award — and there were several from Audacy Springfield that did so — described him as a caring and effective manager, but also a mentor.

Craig Swimm (center) with Dina McMahon and Chris Kellogg from the WMAS Kellogg Krew.

Craig Swimm (center) with Dina McMahon and Chris Kellogg from the WMAS Kellogg Krew.

“Success to Craig is watching his team become better versions of themselves,” wrote Chris Duggan, an account executive. “That can be said for current employees, but also past employees who have gone on to new careers. They all will say that they owe their success to Craig for the type of manager and mentor he was.”

Dina McMahon, an on-air personality and member of the Kellogg Krew, agreed, and talked about something she called Swimm’s ‘1% philosophy.’

“Craig has strongly supported many local organizations, but he is always looking to make something bigger, better, stronger,” she wrote. “His philosophy is always do 1% better today than the day before, and he lives by that motto.

“One of our biggest community efforts is the 94.7 WMAS Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Radiothon for Baystate Children’s Hospital,” McMahon added. “Each year, Craig spearheads the station’s effort, encouraging more sponsors to support the cause, coming up with new and innovative ideas to encourage donations and volunteers. And he is the first to say after the event, ‘OK, let’s meet and come up with new ideas for next year.’”

Lucie Rubba, sales planner and administrator at Audacy Springfield, had this to say: “Craig possesses an exceptional resourcefulness, consistently navigating through challenges with adeptness and resilience. His ability to improvise effectively when faced with obstacles underscores his leadership prowess, demonstrating fairness and astuteness in all his endeavors. He embraces every challenge with open arms, whether it’s a 3K run/walk, a food drive, or particularly an event for children. He is invariably present, ready to lend his support in any capacity needed.”

For his part, Swimm said his job comes down to leading Audacy Springfield through the myriad challenges now facing all radio stations and groups — and all media outlets, for that matter — and also making sure that Greater Springfield, one of the smaller markets in the huge Audacy portfolio, is heard loud and clear. And while doing that, he’s always looking for new ways to make an impact within the community.

“Every day is a little different,” he acknowledged. “But I’m always focused on our two clients — the listeners and our advertisers. Every one of my decisions involves making sure we’re putting out a good product and that we’re connecting to the community.”

He points to numerous success stories, but especially the CMN radiothon and the job fairs, conducted in conjunction with MassHire Springfield, that are staged at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The job fairs have changed and evolved as the economy has, he told BusinessWest, noting that, most recently, they’ve become a way for employers struggling to fill openings to become visible and tell their stories to those looking to enter the job market or take their next career step.

“We started during the Great Recession, and I think we’ve found jobs for 10,000 people since we started this,” he explained. “Back then, we had three companies and 5,000 people show up; now we have 40 companies and 300 people show up. I’m super proud of it because we’ve found so many people jobs; people have walked out of these expos who were hired on the spot. They’re walking through the Hall of Fame, and they’re saying, ‘I got hired.’ They’re happy, there’s tears, and … you’re part of that.”

He’s been part of a great many things since he joined the 40 Under Forty club 17 years ago, and he’s continously looking for ways to add to that list, while continuing to be an effective manager and mentor. This is the very definition of the Alumni Achievement Award and the reason why Swimm is now a finalist for that honor.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Founder and CEO, 6 Brick’s LLC

Payton Shubrick today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2019.

Payton Shubrick today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2019.

Payton Shubrick joined the region’s 40 Under Forty club in 2019, when she was serving as ‘Innovation and Design Thinking manager’ for MassMutual.

That was one of the years when the honoree profiles consisted of answers to questions designed to provide some real insight into whom these individuals were and, well … what made them tick.

In Shubrick’s case, they certainly did.

Indeed, when asked how she defines success, she said, “living a life of intentionality — one that allows you to smile unwittingly with excitement because of what you do, understand that hard times are a necessary evil to get to good times, and live a life that the ones you love are proud of.”

When asked what three words best describe her, she replied, “innovative, tenacious, visionary.”

And when asked what she’s passionate about, she wrote, “I am passionate about challenging the status quo. It is not easy, nor it is ever comfortable, but one fearless choice at a time, one brave decison at a time, one courageous action at a time … you can change the world. In the end, some of life’s best moments are on the other side of fear.”

These answers explain the motivations for Shubrick’s subsequent career move — a bold entrepreneurial venture, a cannabis dispensary she would call Six Brick’s, a nod to the six people in her immediate family, many of whom are involved in this operation. And the words and phrases she used in those answers almost eerily portend what an extreme challenge this venture would become. Indeed, the cannabis industry has changed profoundly over the past few years as prices have fallen and the herd of players has been subsequently thinned; nearly 40 dispensaries in the Commonwealth have gone out of business over the past few years.

“The days of ‘if you build it, they will come’ are long gone,” Shubrick said simply when asked to describe the current state of the industry, casting new light and reflection on the answers to those questions five years ago and references to being innovative and visionary, and also hard times, brave decisions, courageous actions, and, yes, challenging the status quo.

“The business is definitely competitive, and prices continue to compress, but I’m extremely grateful for the team that I lead and the customer base we’ve been able to grow, and hopefully will continue to grow.”

In many ways, that’s what she was doing when she desired to take a leap, leave the relative comfort of corporate America and Mother Mutual, and not just start a business, but a cannabis dispensary — becoming a “legal drug dealer,” as she put it — at a time when many large multi-state operators, or MSOs, as they’re called, were eyeing Springfield, in a way that Shubrick, who had seen them come to the City Council first-hand while she was interning for that body, found more than a little disturbing.

“Hearing these multi-state operators talk about Springfield more as a profit center rather than as a place with people really became a catalyst for me wanting to get involved in this industry, especially acknowledging that I was a political science major and African studies major, so I understood and knew first-hand the horror that cannabis had done prior to its legalization in communities like Springfield,” she told BusinessWest. “And I really didn’t like the idea of having dispensaries owned and controlled only by wealthy white men who had no real community ties to Springfield or any real desire to see Springfield be able to leverage this industry and do better and provide not just jobs, but career paths for people.”

Inspired by this desire to challenge what could be considered the status quo, and further inspired by entrepreneurial family members — and especially her grandfather, Hercules Shubrick, who got into the recycling business long before that became meanstream and also owned two convenience stores — she launched Six Brick’s in some of the underused space in the Springfield Republican building nearly two years ago.

“Perhaps it was through complaints and the support of my family or a combination of the two, but I found myself in the process of starting up an adult-use dispensary,” she went on, “wanting to set the tone that those in the community could participate in the legal cannabis community and have authentic representation from the community, as opposed to some performative notion of hiring someone who is a person of color, but isn’t actually an owner/operator.”

Since opening, there has been success and recognition, for both Shubrick and her venture. She has been named to another 40 Under Forty list, this one compiled by Marijuana Venture, and was also named Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the New England Cannabis Assoc. Six Brick’s, meanwhile, was named Best Adult Use Dispensary in the state by that same agency.

But there have been challenges as well as the industry has retreated from its strong start of a few years ago.

“Ignorance is definitely bliss; I did not know nor fully understand all that I was getting myself into,” she said. “The business is definitely competitive, and prices continue to compress, but I’m extremely grateful for the team that I lead and the customer base we’ve been able to grow, and hopefully will continue to grow.”

In other words, and to recall those answers from her questionnaire five years ago, nothing is easy, nor is life in this industry anything approaching comfortable. But she is determined and, yes, tenacious, in her quest for both continued success in this business and opportunities to help people victimized by old cannabis laws and non-violent convictions — crimes that are no longer crimes under current state law. Indeed, she has helped many get professional legal guidance to expunge their records and clean their CORI records so they can move on in life.

To sum up her accomplishments to date and her outlook on the future, we return to that questionnaire one more time, and Shubrick’s answer to the question ‘what goal do you set for yourself at the start of each day?’

“I remind myself of the words of Maya Angelou,” she replied. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

She has certainly done all that, and this helps explain why she is not only a success in an extremely challenging business, but why she is a finalist for another honor — the Alumni Achievement Award.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Founder, Latino Economic Development Corp.

Andrew Melendez

Andrew Melendez today (above) and as a 40 Under Forty winner in 2015 .

“How has the candidate been able to inspire others through his or her work?”

That’s a question that was added to the nomination form for the Alumni Achievement Award a few years back, with the goal of gaining some additional insight into why a certain candidate is worthy of the prestigious award — beyond the positions and titles on a résumé or a list of contributions when it comes to community involvement.

And in many cases, that question has provided some keen insight into not just what someone does for a living, but the impact of what they do.

Such is the case with Andrew Melendez, founder of the Latino Economic Development Corp. and a driving force in helping aspiring business owners get a venture off the ground or to the next level.

“He serves as an inspiration by demonstrating that, with access to the right resources and support, individuals from any background can achieve prosperity and success,” wrote Edna Rodriguez, director of Behavioral Health for Trinity Health Of New England. “His work highlights the transformative power of empowerment, education, and community support in overcoming barriers and realizing one’s full potential.”

And she had more to say on that subject.

“By championing inclusivity and providing opportunities for all, Andrew exemplifies the belief that everyone deserves a chance to thrive and contribute meaningfully to society,” Rodriguez went on. “His story serves as a beacon of hope and encouragement for those striving to build a brighter future for themselves and their communities, regardless of their starting point.”

Melendez’s story is, indeed, an intriguing and inspiring one, with several interesting chapters. These include everything from a short stint as coordinator of an early-literacy initiative led by the mayor of Holyoke to work managing and supervising about 500 substitute teachers for Springfield Public Schools; from a stint as executive director of the short-lived Agawam YMCA Family Center (he was in that role when he joined the 40 Under Forty class of 2015) to a turn in the private sector as operations director for CVS Health, where he was responsible for the efficient operation of multiple locations. There was also a stint as Western Mass. director for Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

“He serves as an inspiration by demonstrating that, with access to the right resources and support, individuals from any background can achieve prosperity and success.”

During that time with AIM, the pandemic hit, providing Melendez with some real insight into the reach and power of business assocations.

“They had an HR hotline; you could call and ask questions of a lawyer,” he recalled. “I said to myself, ‘this is amazing — all these multi-million-dollar companies are getting all this support.’ And I was thinking that, if all these large companies are getting support, we need to be giving support to our minority micro-businesses.”

This led to brainstorming, conducted with other leaders from the Latino community, such as state Sen. Adam Gomez, Springfield City Councilor Orlando Ramos (himself a past AAA finalist), and others to create the Latino Economic Development Corp.

The agency is unique in that it is not a chamber of commerce, nor a business incubator, although it serves as both in many ways. The LEDC provides support to entrepreneurs for all demographic groups (despite its name) in many ways and on many levels. That list includes everything from direct financial support through grants to a pool of coaches — experts who can assist entrepreneurs with everything from writing a business plan to marketing and public relations to support with coping with the huge amounts of stress that come with having one’s name on the business.

And over the past 30 months or so, the agency has made some real strides.

“We’ve brought close to 15 new businesses to downtown Springfield, we’ve given out $200,000 in mini-grants, and we’ve started a new cohort called the Latino Economic Development Institute, and we’ve just graduated 40 people in that cohort, and we have another 15 graduating this week … I could go on and on,” he said. “We have 12 different coaches doing one-on-one coaching; we’re leading the charge in micro-business support.”

Melendez, who was has been instrumental in getting the LEDC off the ground, shaping its unique mission, and running its operation, told BusinessWest that the work is impactful — and inspirational on many levels — although nothing about entrepreneurship is easy, so some of the conversations are difficult.

“Almost every day, I’m talking with someone who has this great idea that they want to bring to the table; they want to talk about creating a business plan, and I walk them through the process,” he said. “But small businesses and micro-businesses do fail; just this morning, I was talking with someone … they’re having a hard time, they’re not sure what to do, and don’t know whether to close their doors or not.

Whether it’s those first conversations — the ones about taking a bright idea to market and developing a business plan — or the harder ones, about whether to keep the doors open, the goal is the same, he said: to provide the business owner with support and a plan for moving forward.

“There are exciting conversations, and there are hard conversations,” he went on. “And I love the environment we’ve created, which is in many ways the first of its kind in the Bay State.”

For Melendez, this latest work is the culmination of everything that came before it career-wise, steps where he developed a passion for others and cultivated myriad skills, especially when it comes to organization, building teams, developing relationships, making connections, and getting things done.

All of this has come together at the LEDC, where not all dreams come true, but all dreams are given their best chance to come true.

And Melendez, through his work and the example he has set, is a huge part of the agency’s success.

As Rodriguez noted, he serves as an inspiration “by demonstrating that, with access to the right resources and support, individuals from any background can achieve prosperity and success.”

This has made Melendez a leader, a 40 Under Forty honoree, and now, an Alumni Achievement Award finalist.

—George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Molly Keegan

Molly Keegan says the Route 9 project is just one of many ongoing issues in Hadley.

 

There is no official countdown clock on the massive project to widen and reconstruct roughly 2.5 miles of Route 9 in Hadley.

But there might as well be.

Indeed, many business owners and residents alike are counting down the months, weeks, and days until this important undertaking, launched in 2021, is in the books; April 2026 is the projected date. Everyone agrees that, when finished, the project will be well worth the trouble and inconvenience it is creating. But getting there … well, that is an ongoing challenge and topic of frustration for many.

“Yes, it’s a disruption, especially for some of the businesses along Route 9 that have had more disruption to date than others,” said Molly Keegan, a principal with Curran & Keegan Financial, a Select Board member in town and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Hadley Business Council. “But, ultimately, I think it’s really going to serve the business community well once it’s completed.”

The Route 9 project is one of many ongoing issues in this community of just over 5,000 people, said Keegan and Town Administrator Carolyn Brennan. Others include a growing need for a full-time planner, the advancement of plans for a new Department of Public Works facility, and ongoing work to maintain the town’s dikes, a costly but necessary initiative.

But it’s a housing problem — which mirrors what’s happening in many other communities but is perhaps more acute because of the surging cost of real estate in Hadley — that has perhaps taken center stage, Brennan said.

“Ultimately, I think it’s really going to serve the business community well once it’s completed.”

As in many other communities, she noted, a shortage of affordable housing is certainly impacting seniors and young families. The former want to stay in town but don’t have any place to go except the large homes they no longer want or need, and the latter are finding it increasingly difficult to come to Hadley because there is very little that they can afford.

“If you do any search on housing in Hadley, at any given time, there’s maybe five or six houses, and they’re extremely expensive,” Brennan said. “There are a lot of parents who have raised their kids here — and those kids can’t afford to raise their own children here.”

Keegan agreed. “It’s very difficult for people on either end of the spectrum to buy in,” she said. “If you look right now and see what’s for sale in Hadley, you’ll find houses for $900,000 to $1 million. Young people looking to start a family are not going to be able to afford that.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hadley, a community known for its asparagus, but also a lively, diverse business community that continues to take advantage of the town’s unique spot on the map.

 

Location, Location, Location

As she relayed the story of how Curran & Keegan relocated from Northampton to Middle Street in Hadley, in the center of town, in 2021, Keegan explained, rather succinctly and effectively, why this community has become such a popular mailing address for businesses of all kinds.

In short, it’s that oldest and most absolute of commercial real-estate values: location, location, location, in this case between two college towns and two of the most popular destinations in the region — Amherst and Northampton — a spot that has made Hadley a destination itself.

Carolyn Brennan

“If you do any search on housing in Hadley, at any given time, there’s maybe five or six houses, and they’re extremely expensive. There are a lot of parents who have raised their kids here — and those kids can’t afford to raise their own children here.”

“We had been renting and were looking for a property to purchase,” she explained. “This particular property we’re in had been a residential property, but given its proximity to Route 9, it happened to be zoned commercial. We fell in love with it; it’s a wonderful location for our clients on both sides of the river, and also those coming down from Franklin County. We’re in the perfect spot at the crossroads of Route 47 and Route 9.”

Business owners in virtually every sector can say essentially the same thing, which is why Hadley, and especially that Route 9 corridor, is home to everything from hotels and restaurants to big-box retail stores; from car dealerships to cannabis dispensaries; from tech companies to the world headquarters for V-One Vodka.

All or most of them are taking full advantage of the 100,000 or so cars that pass along Route 9 every day, although there are certainly fewer these days as the construction project continues and many bypass the thoroughfare — if they can. And those that are on it are moving more slowly because of that work.

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,325
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $11.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.39
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

But, by and large, businesses along the road are getting by, said Keegan, adding that project was one of the motivations for creation of the Hadley Business Council, and it has certainly become a priority for the agency, which meets on the last Friday of each month.

The council has helped generate ongoing communication among the business community, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and Baltazar Contractors, the general contractor handling the Route 9 project, which has in some ways eased the disruption.

“They recognize the negative impact on businesses, and they’ve been doing everything they can to make sure that there’s signage to indicate that businesses are still open and that they’re not blocking people from entering those businesses,” Keegan said. “So we’ve established a good working relationship.

“That said, there has been an impact on certain businesses,” she said, listing ventures ranging from Hillside Pizza to Wanczyk Nurseries to Exotic Auto, which had to be relocated to another spot on Route 9 because of the project.

As noted, the road work is one of the main focal points at present for the business council, which was formed, she explained, to improve communication between the town and its business community — “in both directions.”

One of the council’s priorities is educational opportunities, she said, adding that the town’s building inspector has appeared before the group to talk about the permitting process. Meanwhile, the council serves as a voice for the business community if it wants to bring something to the attention of town leaders, such as the need for specific bylaws and zoning on food trucks.

“I think we’ve done remarkably well for a long time, but there is so much out there in terms of grant opportunities, especially around housing — the state is really promoting housing construction — and it’s difficult to take advantage of those opportunities when you don’t have someone focused on it on a full-time basis.”

One of the issues moving forward is a heavy reliance on volunteer board members, said Keegan, adding that, for some time, the town has looked at hiring a full-time planner but hasn’t been able to fit such a position into the budget. Money remains tight, but the need for a planner continues to grow, she told BusinessWest.

“I think we’ve done remarkably well for a long time, but there is so much out there in terms of grant opportunities, especially around housing — the state is really promoting housing construction — and it’s difficult to take advantage of those opportunities when you don’t have someone focused on it on a full-time basis,” she explained. “So that’s something we will continue to take a look at; ultimately, a position that like that will pay for itself over time.”

 

Housing, Housing, Housing

As she talked about Hadley’s housing challenges, Brennan referenced a recent project undertaken by students in the architecture and landscape architecture programs at UMass Amherst.

As part of a studio course, the students were asked to develop potential plans for re-envisioning the Hampshire Mall, a 33-acre property on Route 9 that, like many malls, has suffered from the growing popularity of online shopping and other sea changes in retail and has lost of many businesses.

The course, “Reimagining the Hampshire Mall: Exploring Opportunities for Intergenerational Housing and Community Development,” yielded a proposal to convert the space into 40 rowhouses and 150 apartments with recreational areas.

“It was really fascinating; we sat and listened to the students, who showed us the design and engineering of what the mall could look like by bringing housing and commercial together, and that was very interesting,” said Brennan, noting that the audience included many from the business community and Hadley’s Economic Development Committee, as well as representatives of the mall. “There is definitely some potential for something like this in Hadley.”

While she acknowledged that this was a course project and such an initiative is a long way from reality, Brennan said it will require some real imagination and, most likely, creative reuse of properties like the mall to ease the town’s housing shortage.

“It was a good visual for people on those committees to see what the opportunities are in Hadley,” she said, adding that, like other cities and towns in the region, Hadley is finding it challenging to interest the development community in affordable-housing initiatives, which is the type of project most needed at the moment.

Indeed, Keegan noted that the town’s senior population continues to grow each year, and there is a huge shortage of housing for that constituency.

She offered hope that town officials might be able to take advantage of state Chapter 40R, which encourages the creation of dense residential or mixed-use smart-growth zoning districts, including a high percentage of affordable-housing units, to ease the crunch.

“40R could go a long way toward helping us increase the housing stock,” she said. “But like anything, whatever changes are made are done thoughtfully and over some period of time.”

Housing is one option being considered for the iconic, 129-year-old Russell School, said Brennan, noting that the landmark has been vacant since 2015. A reuse study has identified several alternatives, including keeping the property as a municipal building and renovating it and creating a public-private partnership, she noted.

“The study is going to determine what the market might be for various uses and what it would cost to renovate the Russell School,” she said, adding that housing is certainly a consideration. “We’re hoping that we’re going to get some options to put in front of the voters to see how they would like to proceed with the school.”

Education Special Coverage

A Bold Step Forward

Bay Path University President Sandy Doran

Bay Path University President Sandy Doran

 

As she talked about how Bay Path University’s acquisition of Cambridge College came about — and, more importantly, why — Sandy Doran, Bay Path’s president, turned the clock back almost a year to when the university undertook a ‘strengths and opportunities’ analysis to understand where its growth opportunities might lie.

This led to creation of a cross-disciplinary leadership task force to conduct an analysis of strategic growth opportunities, building on the things the school does well while also focusing on ways to amplify those traits.

This task force eventually identified five opportunities for growth — everything from graduate programs to business-to-business corporate sponsorships; from expansion of its online American Women’s College to growth in enrollment among Latino populations.

As it considered these opportunities and how to seize them, Doran said Bay Path, its leadership, and its board could “do some things around the edges” with all or several of them, as she put it, or “do something bold and think about our future in a transformational way.”

Given Bay Path’s recent history — one that has seen it achieve dramatic growth and rise from a two-year college to a four-year university with a growing slate of degree options and national recognition in fields like cybersecurity — the latter course was essentially a given, said Doran, now in her fifth year as president of the college, adding quickly that the question became what this bold move would be.

“Outside of Puerto Rico and New York City, Western Massachusetts has the largest Hispanic population in the United States. We knew that, in order to meet the needs of that population, we needed to grow our student services, we knew we needed additional support, and we identified it as a potential growth opportunity.”

As different opportunities were considered, the answer became an acquisition of Cambridge College, a Boston-based, private, nonprofit institution established in 1971, a move that should enable Bay Path to double its overall enrollment; gain a presence in other markets, including Boston and Puerto Rico, which Cambridge as a campus; and, overall, achieve growth in all those areas identified by the task force.

This includes enrollment among Hispanic populations, she said, noting that this is one of the fastest-growing constituencies in this region.

“Outside of Puerto Rico and New York City, Western Massachusetts has the largest Hispanic population in the United States,” Doran told BusinessWest. “We knew that, in order to meet the needs of that population, we needed to grow our student services, we knew we needed additional support, and we identified it as a potential growth opportunity.

“We wanted a partner that had experience serving this Hispanic market,” she went on, adding that Cambridge College, which is a designated Hispanic-serving institution, has this experience, among many other qualities.

Indeed, overall, Bay Path and Cambridge share a number of other strengths — everything from online programs (locally, Cambridge, which had a location in Springfield’s Tower Square, now offers programs only online) to meeting the needs of first-generation college students, said Doran, adding that the schools also share missions and values.

Longmeadow campus

Much of Bay Path’s growth is taking place beyond the borders of its Longmeadow campus.

“Those cultural aspects — of serving the same student populations, of thinking about our values and joining together with another organization and making sure that their values were compatible and strengthened ours — are key; we just knew that, without that shared mission, those shared values, we wouldn’t be able to move forward,” she said, adding that this merger represents the latest in a series of bold moves for Bay Path.

The ones to come before have taken it to levels that might not have been imagined 25 years ago. This latest one will build on those efforts and take the university to different places — quite literally, in the case of Puerto Rico and the Boston market — and figuratively when it comes to needed size and higher status among the region’s and country’s higher-ed institutions.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this intriguing merger — how it came about and what it means for Bay Path as it continues its recent history of taking bold steps.

 

Course of Action

Sounding much like area bank presidents, which have been harping on the need for size in a changing financial-services environment for years now, Doran said growth is perhaps more important than ever for institutions of higher education.

Given the spiraling costs of doing business and the many challenges facing colleges and universities, including demographics in the form of smaller high-school graduating classes, growth in overall enrollment is critical.

“To be a financially sustainable institution, it’s important to have 5,000 students or more,” she said, adding that Bay Path now surpasses that number. “Five thousand students gives you the resources, it gives you the financial strength, the revenue streams — all those things that are essential to a sustainable institution.”

And, as in the banking industry, there are different ways to achieve growth in higher education. One method is organic growth, through everything from more aggressive marketing to creation of new degree programs, especially at the graduate level, a course taken by many schools locally, including Bay Path.

But there are also opportunities to partner with other schools and, increasingly, to acquire them, especially as more struggle with enrollment, face uncertain futures, and, in some cases, even close their doors.

Doran said Bay Path has been looking at many growth strategies, including acquisition, and had looked at several different institutions.

“We talked to some colleges in the Southeast, we talked to some in the Southwest, we talked to some in the middle of the country, and ultimately, we were very fortunate to find a partner here in Massachusetts,” she said, adding that Cambridge College emerged as the option that made the most sense, for many reasons, especially those shared traits and values, as well as areas of focus — particularly online programs and service to Hispanic students — that would provide Bay Path with avenues for growth. “They had so much of what we were looking for in a partnership. What they have to offer lines up beautifully with what we were looking for.”

Doran said she didn’t know if Cambridge was looking to be acquired, but did know that it was looking to partner, as many schools are in these challenging times. Elaborating, she said Cambridge certainly suffered during the pandemic — again, as many schools did — but coming out of COVID, its enrollment has been increasing over the past few years, with much of that growth coming in online programs.

“It’s not a just a checklist of how you communicate with students and families whose first language is Spanish. Are we offering all the right supports? Do we understand the cultural nuances of how to serve the Hispanic market, which is very much growing in Western Mass.?”

And while talks with other potential acquisition candidates progressed to different degrees, Bay Path eventually crossed the finish line with Cambridge College because the ‘fit’ — the word you hear so often in these transactions — was right for both sides, and especially Bay Path.

“It’s one thing to read about mission and culture and values on a website and talk about it with people inside an organization,” Doran said. “But it’s really when the boards sit down, the leaders sit down, and you have a chance to meet with students that you get a true picture. I had the chance to meet with students at Cambridge College, and that is really what convinced me, the board, and others that this is really the right fit.

“And that’s because their students are our students,” she went on. “Half are students of color, half are first-generation students, 60% of their students are in graduate programs, and 60% are online.”

 

Class Acts

Getting back to the growth-strategy exercises of a year ago and the establishment of a matrix to determine whether a potential partner might be right for Bay Path, Doran said several necessary common threads were identified, with shared mission and values being just one.

Others include everything from a strong culture of innovation to an opportunity to “expand our reach,” as she put it; from a commitment to workforce development to strong business-to-business partnerships.

When it comes to expanding reach, this is a broad term that covers considerable ground, said Doran, encompassing everything from expansion into new geographic regions to reaching new populations to expansion of online and graduate programs.

Merging with Cambridge College allows the university to do all of that, she said, adding that the acquisition brings with it a number of huge growth opportunities.

As one example, she returned to the Hispanic population and Bay Path’s desire to better serve — and, yes, capture more of — that market, explaining why this acquisition makes sense for the institution.

“We have here a limited experience in terms of fully serving the Hispanic market,” she explained. “We’ve developed some student supports; we’ve given them some academic supports. If you peruse our website, you’ll see that many of our web pages are now in Spanish, so we can speak directly to students whose native language is Spanish and to their parents.

“But we knew that we didn’t know enough because there’s a huge cultural component,” she went on. “It’s not a just a checklist of how you communicate with students and families whose first language is Spanish. Are we offering all the right supports? Do we understand the cultural nuances of how to serve the Hispanic market, which is very much growing in Western Mass.?

“We really wanted to reach into that marketplace because we knew how important it was for Western Mass., and for the nation, for that matter,” she continued. “This is the fastest-growing population in the country, and as an institution, our job, our mission, is to serve those students with equally robust and dedicated resources.

There are other benefits to be gained from this acquisition, obviously, said Doran, who listed Cambridge College’s portfolio of graduate programs as another of them.

Elaborating, she explained that developing new graduate programs and bringing them to market is a costly, very involved process that can take years, when time is a luxury few institutions have.

“To bring a new program to market can take two to five years,” she explained. “So the opportunity to grow graduate programs by acquiring another college was absolutely essential to what we were thinking about, and with Cambridge, we’re acquiring about 30 new graduate programs.

“So if you think about it, even taking two years to bring a program to market, it would have taken 60 years,” she went on. “That’s a long time, even for me.”

 

Grade Expectations

Doran said full integration of Cambridge College into Bay Path will take 18 to 24 months, and over that time, several issues will be settled, including whether — and in what ways — the Cambridge College name will live on.

That name has some value in various markets, she said, adding that she hopes the brand lives on in some form.

Meanwhile, she’s more certain about other aspects of this acquisition, especially the part about it being a bold, decisive step at a time when such actions are required of higher-ed institutions looking to fully emerge from the challenging pandemic and post-pandemic periods in a position to not merely survive, but grow and thrive.

“I will credit our board with being such strong partners,” he said. “They’ve always been bold, they’ve always been strategic — we were the first in the region to have online education — and that kind of support is very critical.”

And it’s yet another example of how a school with a rich past is focused, as Doran put it, on thinking about the future in a transformational way.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

The Next Chapter

Brendan Greeley, president of the R.G. Greeley Co.

Brendan Greeley, president of the R.G. Greeley Co.

Growing up, Brendan Greeley never thought much about going to work for his father at the commercial real-estate firm he started the same year Brendan was born — the R.J. Greeley Co.

But as his undergraduate work was wrapping up at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, his father, Robert Greeley, asked him to start thinking about it.

And there was a lot to think about. Brendan didn’t really know much about this business, or business in general, and his college work didn’t exactly prepare him for that industry.

“I was a sociology and anthropology major with a minor in religion,” he said. “I was a singer in a band … and I never really thought much about my career.”

After telling his father he’d think about his invitation, Brendan sought the advice of one of his uncles, who told him, among other things, that commercial real estate was a good business for meeting … well, all kinds of people in many different businesses, exposure that could lead to different types of career opportunities.

“He said, ‘at the very least, you can go work for your dad for a little while, get a snapshot into different kinds of businesses, and see what you like,’” he recalled, adding that he went to work for his father for more than a little while, and eventually determined that commercial real estate was something he liked.

Fast-forwarding a little (we’ll go back and fill in some details later), Brendan learned a lot from his father, gradually assumed more responsibilities for running the business, and eventually became its president in 2017. After what he described as a somewhat difficult transition process, he bought his father out in 2019 and steered the company through the difficult COVID years and their aftermath.

Now, just over a year after his father passed away at age 73, the younger Greeley is writing new chapters in the history of the 43-year-old company. The firm is smaller now, with a staff of just two, but “doing more with less,” as he put it.

He is continuing to build on the portfolio of properties the firm handles, which is anchored by the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College in a collection of buildings that were once part of the Springfield Armory and later home to a massive Digital Equipment Corp. operation.

“My father always impressed upon me, from the beginning, that you have to go out and establish your network, the people you’re going to be doing business with — the people, as my father used to say, that you’re going to be in the trenches with.”

The Tech Park, as it’s called, has been around about as long as Brendan Greeley has been with the family business (which calls the park home itself), and it has been a career-long focal point and passion, he said, adding that the company has successfully filled most of the space vacated by a Liberty Mutual call center and continues to work to fill remaining vacancies in the sprawling complex.

“We had a great year last year — we brought on the Department of Developmental Services with a lease for just under 30,000 square feet for 10 years,” he said, adding that the state agency and other signed tenants now fill most of the 55,000 square feet once occupied by Liberty Mutual.

Meanwhile, the R.J Greeley Co. continues to respond to changes and trends within the market — everything from growing inventories on the office side of the ledger (a byproduct of remote work and hybrid schedules at businesses in virtually every sector) to an extreme tightening of the industrial and distribution markets, a byproduct of rising interest rates that have produced an environment in which it is far more advantageous to buy or lease than build new.

Technology Park at STCC

Brendan Greeley continues to build on his firm’s portfolio of properties, which is anchored by the Technology Park at STCC.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Greeley about the market and what the future might bring, and about what might come next for the company that was started by his father and still bears his initials, but is now being steered by his youngest child.

 

Right Place and Time

As he talked about his time with the company, and especially about life in a family business, Greeley spoke for everyone who has ever had that experience when he said, “it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, that’s for sure.”

Elaborating, he described his father as a great real-estate broker, teacher, and mentor — “I wish I had his ability to mentor people and bring them along” — but not the easiest person to work with or for, and someone who didn’t think much about succession planning, didn’t really want to think about it, and did so only when the matter was pressed.

Indeed, when asked when his father first started talking to him about succession planning, Greeley laughed and said, “never.”

“That was a painful process,” he recalled. “Succession planning was really hard for him. He never really thought about wanting to retire, it seems, and he was pretty reluctant to think about it.”

So much so that Greeley admitted to thinking about perhaps doing something else because of that reluctance.

“I had to impose some timelines to move things along,” he went on. Eventually, a successful transition was achieved, made easier by some very strong years leading to that changing of hands, punctuated by the brokered sale of the former Westinghouse property to one of the players trying to bring a casino to Springfield.

Flashing back further, Greeley recalled that, as he entered the business, he certainly learned a lot from his father, especially when it came to the all-important work of getting in front of people building and maintaining relationships — duties that he referred to collectively as the “grunt work.”

“Those first few years, I was going out and getting to know people,” he told BusinessWest. “My father always impressed upon me, from the beginning, that you have to go out and establish your network, the people you’re going to be doing business with — the people, as my father used to say, that you’re going to be in the trenches with.

“So the first few years were filled with inserting myself into circles of attorneys, accountants, bankers, insurance people — those we work with often — and just making friends with them and creating a network,” he went on.

“There was a lot of driving around, pulling up to businesses, knocking on doors and saying, ‘I’m Brendan Greeley with the R.J. Greeley Co. — I just want to let you know that we’re out there and that, if there’s anything you need with commercial real estate, give us a call.’ There was a lot of going to lunches, playing in golf tournaments, and just … being out there.”

This grunt work has certainly paid off over the years, as the Greeley company has continued its run of success, even during times of stress and duress for the commercial real-estate industry, which is still coping with many lingering effects from the pandemic.

“When I came into the business, a manufacturing building was $50 a square foot, and now, it’s commonly $100 a square foot or more. To build new would be $200 a square foot.”

Foremost among those is the sea change in the office market, which has definitely slowed since the pandemic and has seen vacancies increase as remote work impacts whether companies will renew leases, as well as how much space they take if they do renew.

“Firms are creating opportunities for people to work at home, and that has certainly created some shifts in the office market,” he said. “We have some big chunks of office space that are available or coming available; as leases expire, people are renewing for less space, and that adds up to more inventory.”

This shift is certainly countered by a tightening on the industrial and distribution side of the ledger, where fewer properties are coming on the market and those frequented by ‘for sale’ or ‘for lease’ signs are not on the market for long, and for obvious reasons.

“There are far fewer construction projects taking place in this market because of higher interest rates, and this obviously helps with the value of existing inventory,” Greeley said, citing the laws of supply and demand. “The alternative is to build new, and building new is going to be very expensive.

“When I came into the business, a manufacturing building was $50 a square foot, and now, it’s commonly $100 a square foot or more,” he went on. “To build new would be $200 a square foot.”

As for the value of commercial properties — a huge issue in most major markets and communities of all sizes in the wake of COVID — Greeley said that, by and large, most properties in the region are holding their value, but this ability is being sternly tested by rising interest rates.

“Someone can afford to pay less for an investment property if they’re financing some portion of the transaction,” he explained. “So I would say that investment real estate has deflated some, although the quality inventory seems to be holding value better than the lesser-quality inventory.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Greeley said his company will continue to do more with less in terms of office staff, but continue to look for growth opportunities.

This could include hiring an additional broker or perhaps more, he said, adding that he is always looking for good fits. Meanwhile, the firm is looking at opportunities on the property-management side of the ledger and on the development side as well.

“I have an open mind for opportunities that may present themselves in the future,” he said. “I’m always looking at ways to grow.”

Not bad for someone who never gave much thought to working at the family business growing up — and is now the owner of the family business.

Law Special Coverage

Firm Resolve

Sean Buxton was talking about why he chose to join the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson, and what he’s found since he came on board not quite a year ago.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” said Buxton, who handles general commercial litigation and is currently doing a lot of work in the firm’s new office in Greenfield, referring specifically to being around — and being mentored by — seasoned attorneys with decades of experience.

“Just in the Litigation department alone, we have Sandy Dibble — I can’t even tell you how long he’s been practicing — and Mike Burke, too; they’re such valuable asssets,” he said. “In the legal field, you get this feeling sometimes that the problem you’re coming on is something you’re seeing for the first time and that no one’s ever dealt with this before. To have someone to go to and have them say, ‘that same exact circumstance hasn’t happened to me, but here’s what my instincts say’ and ‘here’s what I’ve experienced,’ that is so valuable.

“You can bounce ideas off so many people here and make sure that your decisions are informed not only by you and what you’ve learned, but by the instincts and experience of everyone around you,” Buxton went on. “And they’re just fascinating people; we have Judge [John] Greaney here, who sat on the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court, and Sandy as well; the stories they tell and the experiences they can relate … they’re great mentors.”

While the names of the older lawyers and mentors may have changed, and the exact words used to describe their impact may have changed as well, generations of lawyers who have worked at the firm have been saying pretty much the same things as Buxton.

“You can bounce ideas off so many people here and make sure that your decisions are informed not only by you and what you’ve learned, but by the instincts and experience of everyone around you.”

And that’s just one of many things the firm is celebrating as it marks its centennial this year in what could be described as quiet, poignant fashion (we’ll get back to that in a bit).

It’s taking place at a time of change in the business landscape, such as the rise of the cannabis industry, and at a time when many firms are smaller or have been merged into larger entities. Meanwhile, the firm’s ongoing commitment to the community has become a focal point of the centennial, said Managing Partner Dan Finnegan, who came on board in 1992.

“We wanted to celebrate all of the amazing work that has gone into supporting, celebrating, and engaging in the communities in which we live, work, and play through initiatives such as helping to feed the hungry and addressing food insecurity, supporting arts and culture, contributing funds to lifesaving healthcare and research organizations, and providing pro bono legal services to those in need, among many, many others,” he explained. “Members of the firm have contributed time, resources, and finances to help so many worthy causes over the past century, and we plan to continue that legacy.”

Dan Finnegan

Dan Finnegan says the firm’s commitment to the community has become a focal point of its centennial celebration.

Elaborating, he said the firm has launched a new campaign called ‘Be the Change.’ It will connect lawyers and staff with opportunities to engage with organizations in Western Mass. and beyond so they can act together to bring positive change.

The campaign was launched last fall, with a team of 50 from the firm taking part in the annual Rays of Hope breast-cancer walk. Other specific initiatives include a YMCA clean-up day on May 3, when attorneys and staff rolled up their sleeves and helped prepare Stony Brook Acres, a YMCA camp in Wilbraham, for a June opening; partnering with Greater Springfield YMCA to assist area boys and girls attend summer camp (the firm will send 16 youth campers to a YMCA-run camp this summer for one week); and a $10,000 donation to Baystate Health to purchase infusion chairs.

“Giving back to the community is one of the core values that differentiates us,” said Peter Barry, who joined the firm in 1982 and preceded Finnegan as managing partner, adding that this is one of many qualities and traditions that essentially go back to 1924.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest takes a look at 100 years of tradition, expansion, innovation, entrepreneurship, and giving back — and at how these traits will continue to define the firm moving forward.

 

Making Their Case

When asked how Bulkley Richardson intends to celebrate its centennial — beyond ‘Be the Change’ — Finnegan suggested that the annual holiday party “might be a little more robust this year.”

In most respects, though, it will be business as usual.

And it has been this way since 1924, when R. DeWitt Mallary became associated with the law firm of Frederick Wooden and Harold Small, located in an office at 387 Main St. in Springfield, several blocks south of where the firm is headquartered now, in Tower Square. Eventually, the firm would become Wooden, Small & Mallary.

Peter Barry

Peter Barry says the firm has had a noticeable impact on Springfield and surrounding communities over the years.

Mallary would later partner with Morgan Gilbert to form Mallary & Gilbert, and in 1934, J. Bushnell Richardson, a graduate of Springfield’s Central High School, Amherst College, and Harvard Law School, would join them, and in 1947, the firm became Mallary, Gilbert & Richardson.

In 1950, the firm was reorganized, with the law practice conducted in collaboration by two separate partnerships — Mallary & Gilbert, and Richardson Dibble & Atkinson, adding Norris Dibble and Robert Atkinson as partners. The firms practiced together in shared office space.

Fast-forwarding through the middle of the 20th century, Richardson Dibble & Atkinson merged with the firm of Gordon, Bulkley, Godfrey and Burbank in 1956, and the firm was renamed Bulkley, Richardson, Godfrey and Burbank. A year later, Robert Gelinas joined the firm, and in 1964, Godfrey left to form a partnership with Edwin Lyman. Matthew Ryan Jr., elected as district attorney, a part-time office in those days, joined Bulkley, Richardson, Godfrey & Burbank soon thereafter. And with Burbank’s departure in 1972, the firm was renamed Bulkley, Richardson, Ryan, and Gelinas.

In 1978, the district attorney’s role became full-time, and Ryan left the firm, whch was renamed Bulkley, Richardson, and Gelinas. By 1983, the firm consisted of 27 attorneys and was occupying a suite of offices at Baystate West, which later became Tower Square.

It is still there and recently renewed its lease, said Finnegan, so it will be there for a long while to come. Meanwhile, the firm recently opened a Greenfield location (it also has one in Hadley), and now consists of 40 attorneys and more than 30 staff.

“We work hard, and we provide quality service, but we’re pretty good at work-life balance and understanding that folks have to have lives outside of the office.”

That brings us to today, when the firm is marking what have remained constants through all those changes to the letterhead over the past 100 years — especially quality service to a wide array of clients across dozens of different specialities, and an environment where generations of lawyers have, as Buxton noted, worked together and mentored those new to the profession.

It is also marking change, including the contunuing expansion of its practice areas — there are now 32 of them, Finnegan noted.

“We’ve always been a full-service law firm, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the area,” he said. “And we’ve always been able to provide a wide array of services to clients.”

Within those 32 practice areas there have long been specific strengths, such as health law, said Barry, noting that the firm has long represented many of the region’s larger providers, as well as education, representing several colleges and universities.

Bulkley Richardson’s leaders say the firm was built on excellence and has maintained it through the decades.

But there have been important additions to the portfolio over the years as well, he went on, citing the broad realm of cyber law and service to the growing, changing cannabis industry as just two examples.

 

Continuing a Legacy

Barry, who has been with the firm for 42 of its 100 years, joined it just before it relocated from State Street to Tower Square, a big move and a rather large risk for the partners at the time, he said, adding that downtown Springfield was a much different place at the time.

And the firm has been involved in many of the changes that have taken place since, representing entities ranging from the Basketball Hall of Fame, which built its new home just over 20 years ago, to the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, which presided over the renovations that brought Union Station back to productive life after nearly 40 years of dormancy, to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which operates the MassMutual Center.

“It’s nice to be able to drive around and say, ‘we were involved with that,’” Barry said, adding that the firm has also represented the Westover Metropolitan Development Corp. in its many endeavors in Chicopee and Ludlow and countless other clients as well.

Like Finnegan, Barry said many changes have come to the field of law and the firm over the past few decades, let alone the past century — everything from the demise of law libraries, with all that material now online, to the advent of depositons and other legal functions via Zoom.

What’s probably more important is what hasn’t changed — and won’t change, they said, especially the firm’s commitment to excellence as well as the environment that Buxton described earlier, one where lawyers and staff with wide ranges of experience and knowhow work together to generate positive results for clients while learning from each other.

In fact, both Barry and Finnegan used similar words and phrases to describe those who mentored them when they arrived four and three decades ago, respectively.

“I’ve had a lot of great mentors here,” said Barry, noting that he and others now serve as mentors to the younger atttorneys.

Finnegan said the firm has created a strong culture, one that has promoted many lawyers (he’s one of them), and staff members as well, who then spend their entire careers at Bulkley Richardson.

“That’s a testament to the culture of the firm,” he said. “We work hard, and we provide quality service, but we’re pretty good at work-life balance and understanding that folks have to have lives outside of the office.”

Looking ahead, Barry and Finnegan said the business plan is rather simple. It calls for continued growth and building upon the solid foundation laid in 1924.

“We’ve made a commitment to growth. Within the past few years, we’ve hired quite a few young lateral attorneys, as well as several attorneys right out of law school,” said Finnegan, adding that the firm has what he calls a rather robust summer associate program (he was one himself) that has served to help keep talent flowing through the pipeline. “We have a lot of young lawyers that we’ve hired over the past few years.”

“Overall, the firm has long managed to maintain an important mix of older attorneys, those in the middle of their careers, and those just joining the profession,” said Barry, adding that such a mix is critical to the ongoing success of any law firm.

Finnegan agreed, noting that this quality is one of many that have defined the firm since Warren Harding was in the White House, and will continue to do so moving forward.

“When I got here, the word I always heard was ‘excellence’ — this firm was built on excellence,” he said. “The firm has always been a collection of exceptional lawyers providing top-quality legal services to our clients. I don’t think that’s ever changed over the 100 years the firm has been in existence, nor is it going to change moving forward.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Pendulum Has Shifted — Maybe for Good

Allison Ebner recalls that, when she first entered the workplace just over 30 years ago, the overriding question still concerned what the employee could do for the employer.

Over the years, and especially over the past decade, the pendulum has certainly shifted to where it’s now more about what the employer can do for the employee.

Indeed, while there have been cycles with the economy and the job market — and, thus, times when the employer and employee have alternated when it comes to having the proverbial upper hand, if you will — the employee has been in control for a while, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead,” Ebner said. “As employers, we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to retain top talent, and I think that is something we’ll see continuing into the future.”

This is just one of many changes that have come to the workplace over the past four decades, and especially the past four years, as the pandemic created a new paradigm. Others involve everything from how people work and where to dress codes; from technology and the emergence of AI to how to maintain a company culture when people are all together maybe, as in maybe, a day or two a week.

Drew Andrews, managing partner and CEO of the accounting firm Whittlesey, touched on many of these trends and issues as he flashed back almost exactly 40 years to when he started with the firm in June 1984.

“There was one computer in the corner of the office; it was a desktop that no one knew how to use. I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3,” he recalled. “I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it. It was so slow and so ineffective that I can remember partners saying, ‘we’ll never be using this … I can do in 10 minutes what you just did in an hour.’”

Meanwhile, he was doing this work in a three-piece suit. “My first day, it was about 85 degrees out, and I’ve got this suit and tie on, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘why am I doing this?’” he recalled. “I was thinking that I should have taken the summer off and worked at the beach.”

Flash ahead to late last month, and he was doing this interview with BusinessWest via Zoom, from his home, wearing an unbuttoned collared shirt, and marveling at just how much things have changed — not just since he was that kid fresh out of school, but since the start of this decade.

And he’s certainly not alone.

Indeed, one of the common threads running through the stories in this 40th-anniversary issue is the dramatic changes that have come to the workplace in recent years, what they mean, and what might come next.

Allison Ebner

Allison Ebner

“It’s been flipped on its head, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to flip back that much moving ahead.”

Many of those we spoke with have been working for three or four decades and referred to themselves as ‘old timers’ or even, in one case, a ‘dinosaur.’

And while some admit to being a bit stubborn when it came to those changes that have come in realms from relaxed dress codes to remote work, in almost every case, reason — driven by many factors, but especially the need to attract and retain talent — has won out over stubbornness.

“I’m a suit kind of guy,” said Tom Senecal, chairman of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. “And it’s taken me a while, but the pandemic changed things. People wanted to go to casual; I said ‘no,’ but finally acquiesced. Then they wanted jeans on Friday, and I acquiesced. And then they wanted jeans every day, and I acquiesced, and it hasn’t really changed.

“I acquiesced on all of them,” he went on, “because who wants to go work at a stodgy, old-perceived institution versus one that’s flexible? I’m competing against tech companies and insurance companies and financial-services companies. You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

Moving forward, Ebner and others are seeing some slight movement toward returning to the office, or at least strong efforts in that direction. What they don’t see is the pendulum (meaning that upper hand) swinging back to the employer any time soon.

 

Is This Work in Progress?

As he talked about all the changes that have come to the workplace, Andrews put things in poignant perspective when he said he would prefer to visit his firm’s three offices, scattered across Northern Conn. and Western Mass., on Monday or Friday, because there are noticeably fewer people on the road those days courtesy of hybrid work schedules and a desire to be home those days.

His own employees are among those who fall into these categories. “So, if I went on Monday or Friday, I’d be visiting myself,” he said with a laugh.

Drew Andrews

Drew Andrews

“I was the bright, young kid who came out of college and somehow took a course my senior year on how to use that software, Lotus 1-2-3. I was the only one who knew how to use it, so they had me start to train people on how to do spreadsheets on it.”

So he winds up visiting toward the middle of the week, when people are around — at Whittlesey and most other larger places of business across sectors and jobs in which hybrid schedules are feasible.

And that’s a large list, said Ebner, noting that, while profound changes have come to the workplace since the pandemic arrived in 2020, there were already shifts in those directions years before COVID. The pandemic simply accelerated the process, and on many levels.

Also, the period just after the height of COVID became one of the most competitive in recent memory when it came to talent, the shortage thereof, and the lengths that employers would go to attract talent and then retain it.

“Employers pulled out all the stops to keep their people and attract talent, in terms of raising wages, enhancing benefits, and working on ways to keep their people happy,” she said. “It’s settling down just a little bit; we’re seeing a little bit of a cooling on wages — increases for 2024 were not predicted to be as high as they were in 2023 — and benefits are scaling back, especially in terms of employers sharing the increased cost of healthcare. And some of the other benefits around wellness have gone away.

“We’re trying to find that next normal,” she went on, acknowledging a dislike of the phrase ‘new normal.’ “And we’re still settling into that; we’re trying to find the right balance of productivity expectations for employees versus what we’re offering — the employee value proposition. What does that look like?”

Meanwhile, the workplace has changed in other ways, again mimicking society in many respects.

Today, Ebner said, it’s a less tolerant place than it was years ago, with co-workers becoming seemingly less willing to accept points of view — on a wide of topics — other than their own.

“There’s a lack of respect in our workplaces today for ideas, thoughts, basically anything that someone has that differs from yours,” she explained. “There’s a very confrontational undertone in our workplaces today.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“You want to wear jeans? You want to work at home? I have to compete, so I have to acquiesce to what the market is doing.”

“The congenial tone of our workplaces where we were more accepting of people who don’t think and do things like us has really diminished, and it’s causing a lot of chaos for employers trying to manage a respectful workplace,” she went on, adding that this chaos has manifested in everything from microaggressions — stealing coworkers’ lunches and messing with their workstations — to sharp rises in requests at EANE for conflict-resolution training and coaching for people who can’t get along.

 

Remote Possibilities

Certainly, the biggest change to come to the workplace involves fewer people being in the workplace day in and day out.

We all know what happened. COVID forced most people to work remotely, and over the course of weeks that eventually turned into months, people found they liked it, and they were, by and large, just as productive. And when it came time to go back to the office, many weren’t ready to do so. At least not every day.

Over the past few years, remote work and hybrid schedules have ceased being a perk, if that’s even the right word. They became a demand, or an expectation.

As noted earlier, this was not the first preference for the old timers, who came into a world where everyone worked 9 to 5, or something close, and couldn’t work remotely even if they wanted to, because the technology wasn’t there.

It’s certainly there now, and in recent months, two camps have seemed to develop, at opposite extremes.

“There’s a camp on one side that says everyone has to be in the office, and there’s no remote work, and they don’t want to offer any flexibility. And then, you have the other group that says everyone should be virtual, and if you’re not virtual, you’re not a modern employer,” said Ebner, adding that there is room in the middle and one size (or two) does not fit all.

Meanwhile, many of those who recognize this middle ground still believe something important is missing when people are not in the office, even a few days a week.

Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Middletown, Conn.-based Liberty Bank, said his institution has largely solved the issues involving productivity when it comes to remote work. But he worries about culture and the overall development of younger team members.

“When I came up, I don’t know how many times I sat in the conference room and listened to grizzled veterans talk about problem commercial credits and about how you go to market,” he recalled. “That learning was invaluable to me as I came up, and there are now fewer opportunities for young people coming up to experience that.”

As a result, the bank puts great emphasis on ways to maintain culture when people are not in the office every day, because of its importance to the institution’s overall well-being. Initiatives include everything from professional-development programs to outings where teammates can come together, such as a recent ‘bring your kid to work day’; from food trucks and ice-cream trucks to an all-employee gathering at Mohegan Sun.

“I’ve always said that if a company has no culture, it has no soul, and it takes years to build a good culture,” Glidden told BusinessWest. “But you can lose a culture in minutes or 30 days, you really can.”

Andrews agreed.

“Going back to 1984, my seat was outside the boss’s office; just listening to how he talked to clients … I learned so much,” he recalled. “I was a 21-year-old kid; all I knew how to talk to was other 21-year-old kids. Listening to how that person was interacting with clients and handling situations … I just learned from that.

“I’ve been saying this for a while … we as leaders need to get people back into the office more, and for the right reasons — not just to sit there and talk with people who are remote,” Andrews went on. “We have more fulfilling days when we’re together.”

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

In Law and Accounting, It’s a Different World

When Rudy D’Agostino entered the accounting profession back in 1985, there was what they called the ‘Big 8.’

These were the very large firms that dominated the industry at the time — Arthur Anderson, Arthur Young, Coopers & Lybrand, Deloitte Haskins and Sells, Ernst & Whinney, Peat Marwick Mitchell, Price Waterhouse, and Touche Ross.

“Everyone wanted to work for the Big 8 firms, and there was enormous competition for those jobs,” said D’Agostino, a partner with Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, who got his start at Coopers & Lybrand.

After a series of acquisitions, the Big 8 is now the Big 4 (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler, and PricewaterhouseCoopers), fewer accounting graduates want to work for those giants, and … well, there are fewer accounting graduates in general, a challenge for firms of all sizes.

These are just some of the many changes that have come to the sector, and professional services in general, said D’Agostino and many others we spoke with, who highlighted everything from the way people work to the way people dress to the way firms market themselves — something they couldn’t do in the legal profession, other than the phone book, until 1977. And in accounting, getting Fridays off during the summer, or at least Friday afternoons, has become the norm as firms’ staffs look to recover after a long, seemingly never-ending tax season.

Overall, the biggest change is in how people communicate and a resulting faster pace to the work, said Amy Royal, founder and principal with the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm. She noted that, when she broke into the field in 2000, most correspondence was still by mail. Now, the postage machine sees less use seemingly every month, and very little is actually done by mail.

Instead, much more is being done by email and phone, specifically the cellphone.

Indeed, Royal remembers walking into the office once maybe 15 years ago, and noting, with alarm, how infrequently the office phone had been ringing of late.

“I said to my office manager, ‘do we have a problem? — our office phone isn’t ringing as much,’” she recalled, noting that, after some perspective, she was simply recognizing a trend — people were finding other ways to reach out. And they were doing so at seemingly all hours of the day and night.

Indeed, modern communications technology allows people to reach their accountant or lawyer at any hour, said Jeff Fialky, managing partner of the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson, and, increasingly, they’re doing just that.

Meanwhile, there have been other changes in these fields, including consolidation, especially in accounting, said Patrick Leary, a principal with the Springfield-based firm MP CPAs, noting that many of the smaller firms doing business in the ’80s, ’90s, and earlier this century have been merged into larger firms, a reflection of a broader trend in business.

Jeff Fialky

Jeff Fialky

“We’ve seen substantial consolidation in the banking environments. We have larger and larger and fewer and fewer banks, and the same consolidation across the service industries.”

There are several reasons for this, including the rising costs of technology and retiring Baby Boomers, he noted, but one of the biggest is something that probably couldn’t have been imagined in 1984 — the deepening challenge of finding and retaining talent.

Accounting was never a ‘sexy’ profession, and modern technology has only made it slightly more so, said Leary, adding that this reality, coupled with the fact that a fifth year of college is now required to become a CPA, is leaving fewer people interested in entering the field, at the same when most Baby Boomers are on the doorstep of retirement, if not there already. This has led to firms boosting salaries and sending more work overseas.

Efforts to recruit more students into the field have become a topic of conversation and concern among CPAs and industry groups, said D’Agostino, and greater reliance on internship programs as feeder initiatives.

It’s the same with clerking programs in the legal profession, said Fialky, adding that, overall, law-school enrollment is down, and many firms face challenges with keeping talent in the pipeline.

 

Case in Point

It’s not exactly what you would call a pressing matter — not like some of those other challenges mentioned above — but one of the challenges facing law firms today is deciding what to with their libraries.

Once an important part of any firm’s operation, they are now all but obsolete, used by only the occasional old-timer now that every piece of information available in those books and journals can be found online, said Royal, adding that, at most firms, law books are decoration — and an enduring background for photos.

Fialky agreed, noting that the demise of libraries is just one of many changes to the profession. Others include the now-24/7 nature of the work, the desire among clients for information immediately — not the next day or even in a few hours, as was once the case — and even the work that lawyers are doing, work that reflects shifts in the market and also movement toward lawyers being more generalists than they are specialists.

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

“For a long time, I resisted putting my cell phone on my business card. Post-COVID, that became a necessity, and now people will just call me on my cell or text because they know they can get me.”

“I’m a transactional attorney; 25 years ago, transactional attorneys were not handling M&A transactions and purchases and sales and private equity,” he said. “That’s something we’ve seen become more prominent, especially in our market, over the past 15 years or so, as we’ve seen these maturing, multi-generational companies that have contemplated their outcome being that it’s a matured asset, and their contemplating sale to, in many circumstances, a private-equity-funded purchaser.

“And this has certainly changed the marketplace,” Fialky went on. “We’ve seen substantial consolidation in the banking environments. We have larger and larger and fewer and fewer banks, and the same consolidation across the service industries — not only in law, but in accounting, architecture, landscape architecture, and other sectors.”

But perhaps the biggest change to come to this sector involves technology and how it has changed the pace of work.

Royal noted that lawyers have never exactly been 9-to-5 professionals, and now, they are far less so, with calls, texts, and emails coming at all hours of the day, and with those on the other end expecting an immediate reply.

“For a long time, I resisted putting my cell phone on my business card,” she said. “Post-COVID, that became a necessity, and now people will just call me on my cell or text because they know they can get me.”

Fialky agreed. “The pace has increased precipitously; the volume of correspondence has increased exponentially. In the course of a day, it’s not uncommon, at least in my experience and in my practice, to receive hundreds of correspondences, and those are texts, calls to my cell phone, calls to my hard line, and more, and a lot of that is transferred direct to attorney.”

 

Adding Things Up

As he talked about his profession, Leary said it was never just about adding up numbers and being a proverbial ‘bean counter.’

There was always a consulting component to the work, he said, adding that now, there is much more of this kind of work, as software has taken over some of the tasks handled with the old calculator that still sits on his desk but is rarely used.

Patrick Leary

“It’s fascinating what you can get involved with in public accounting today, whether it’s forensic accounting or foreign taxation issues and so forth.”

“Today, most businesses, regardless of size, have some accounting software, so you’re getting information from them that’s already compiled and put together, so they’re relying on us for more strategic analysis of those numbers,” he explained. “You’re not questioning whether two plus two equals four; now it’s ‘let’s see what four means.’

“It’s a higher level of skill than what you needed before,” he went on, adding that this shift is one of many to come to the industry.

Another is how the work is done. Indeed, years ago, said D’Agostino, much more time was spent with the client, in person. Today, there is still some face-to-face interaction, obviously, but much more is done by Zoom or over the phone. And those face-to-face meetings are much different.

Leary agreed.

“If we were going to audit ABC Company, we’d back up last year’s paper files and head over there,” he said. “You would spend a couple of weeks with a client, meeting with them, going through their records, pulling invoices, and doing reports. You’d spend a few weeks there — which I really liked, being out of the office, meeting with clients — and building that relationship. And you got a workout because you’d be hauling loads of paper. Today, you’re going out with your laptop, and you’re not necessarily going out to see clients.”

Still another change to come to this field, as noted earlier, is the fact that fewer people are choosing to enter it.

“The accounting field has been experiencing a decline nationally because people who are driven by numbers are leaning more toward the software industry,” Leary said. “And the profession is certainly looking to change that; you can have an excellent career in accounting, because it goes well beyond simple bookkeeping. It’s fascinating what you can get involved with in public accounting today, whether it’s forensic accounting or foreign taxation issues and so forth.”

Rudy D’Agostino

Rudy D’Agostino

“It really hit home during COVID, and it has only continued since — there are just not enough professionals coming into the workforce.”

D’Agostino agreed. He noted that the required fifth year of college, compensation that is less competitive than some other fields, and a general interest among young people for something sexier than what they perceive accounting to be has led to what is becoming a critical problem for the industry.

“It really hit home during COVID, and it has only continued since — there are just not enough professionals coming into the workforce,” he told BusinessWest. “So accounting firms have to think outside the box to get things done — and also to keep professionals here, which has necessitated being creative, compensation increases, and, with some firms, outsourcing work to other countries.”

One initiative that has helped put young professionals in the pipeline at MBK is an internship program, D’Agostino went on, adding that the firm has four or five interns that come on board annually, and maybe one or two of these will join the firm when they graduate.

“That’s a way to introduce students to the work they will be doing and get them into our firm,” he said. “And we have a pretty good success rate.”

Despite this success, workforce issues will continue into the future, said those we spoke with, creating a greater reliance on technology, automation, and, increasingly, AI to get the work done, leaving accountants with more time to do analysis and consulting.

“There are routine tasks that will get taken over by AI, such as data entry, which can be automated to some extent,” Leary said. “And that provides the time and the tools to analyze data for clients much better. Rather than spending your time keying in data, you’re taking a hard look at it and understanding what those numbers are telling you.”

 

Bottom Line

When asked to look ahead and project what might happen next within the legal sector, Royal started by saying that, if she was asked that question 25 years ago, she could not possibly have predicted what her world would like today.

That’s a world where most meetings are conducted by Zoom, where lawyers and accountants work remotely in some cases and wear jeans to work when they’re not in court or visiting clients, where the office phone doesn’t ring nearly as much, and where clients’ names come up on cellphones at 10 p.m. — and even 3 a.m.

This is the new reality for those in professional services, she said, joking that maybe what will come next is a shift back to the way things were.

That is certainly not likely. What is likely is that law libraries and those old-fashioned adding machines will become more obsolete and more office decoration than anything else.

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

Companies Still Find Ways to Make It Here

Rick Sullivan calls manufacturing the “invisible backbone” of the Western Mass. economy.

That’s not an adjective he would likely have used 40 years ago, not when the region and many of its communities were dominated by large individual manufacturers or clusters — like GE’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, American Bosch and other major players in Springfield, and a still-sizable paper-making sector in Holyoke.

But it works today.

Indeed, while there are still some large manufacturers employing hundreds of people (as opposed to thousands 40, 50, or 100 years ago), this sector is now dominated by smaller players employing maybe a few dozen people each.

And what they’re making has changed as well. While local manufacturing was dominated by firms making tires, matches, paper, and, before that, arms for the U.S. military (at the Springfield Armory) and even monkey wrenches and ice skates, today, they’re making parts for stealth fighters, infrared goggles, medical devices, and other sophisticated products. And soon, in Holyoke, one will be making what is billed as ‘green’ concrete.

“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains of the larger companies,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and formerly the long-time mayor of Westfield, one of the region’s manufacturing hubs. “And many of those companies are not situated in Western Mass. or Massachusetts, for that matter; they’re in Connecticut or worldwide.

“And they make important parts for the industry,” he went on. “Back when I was mayor of Westfield, there was $100,000 worth of parts of on every single commercial airplane that went through the city of Westfield, and that has only increased.”

These are some of the shifts that have come to this important sector over the past four decades. Others include a seismic shift in how such jobs are perceived, one that has contributed to a lingering workforce problem, and one that has led to a sea change in how hard companies must work to attract and retain talent — and some initiatives that probably couldn’t have been imagined 40 years ago.

Like ‘Barbecue Friday’ at Boulevard Machine in Westfield.

Susan Kasa, president of that company, which makes parts for the military, aerospace, and outer space, among other sectors, said Boulevard feeds its workers breakfast and lunch each day, and, as that name suggests, it devotes Fridays to barbecuing.

“People will take turns being the chef,” she explained. “We’ll do a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers, but sometimes we’ll go all out and do chicken and other meats; our people really enjoy it. You know it’s Friday because you can smell the barbecue.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains of the larger companies.”

This new tradition is one of many efforts that fall in the broad category of attracting and retaining talent, she said, with others including everything from advertising open positions in church bulletins to programs to introduce young students to manufacturing and the opportunities in this field — starting with middle school.

“We’re not your grandfather’s shop,” Kasa said, adding that the machinery is both more complex and cleaner, and one ongoing challenge is educating not only young people but their parents about this new reality.

Mark Borsari agreed.

He’s president of Sanderson MacLeod, a Palmer-based maker of twisted wire brushes. That’s not as sophisticated a product as infrared goggles or parts for artificial knees, but is an example of how traditional manufacturing is still making it in Western Mass., although it’s challenging — when it comes to everything from competition for orders to competition for people.

“It’s a different world, a different environment than it was 40 years ago and even 20 years ago,” Borsari said. “It gets down to the perception people have and the pride people have in making things and the importance of community; it’s just different.”

Susan Kasa

Susan Kasa

“Young people have such a bright future in manufacturing, and without incurring all that college debt.”

Like others we spoke with, he said technology, automation, and lights-out manufacturing, where machines run unattended at night, will play ever-larger roles in this sector. But it will always need people, and finding them will continue to be a challenge, especially as the Baby Boomers continue to retire in large numbers.

 

Tradition of Innovation

As he talked about this important sector, Sullivan stressed what hasn’t changed in 40 years or 250 years, and hopefully won’t change moving forward — that manufacturing is a source of what economic-development leaders have long called ‘good jobs at good wages.’

That is, the kind of jobs every region and every community wants and compete tooth and nail to get — and retain.

This region has always had a strong tradition of manufacturing and innovation — Sullivan said those words are essentially interchangeable — that goes back to the Springfield Armory and even before that. And it continued with the production of everything from firearms to toys; from automobiles and trolley cars to textiles; from home appliances to buggy whips, products that even gave some area communities their nicknames.

Many of these items are no longer made here (although trolley cars are again with the arrival of CRRC). In their place, manufacturers are making parts for jet liners, lunar landers, and the SpaceX rocket. But they also making timing chains for automobiles in the case of U.S. Tsubaki in Holyoke and Chicopee, and fasteners for the roofing industry in the case of OMG in Agawam.

“The manufacturing base in the region still runs the gamut,” said Sullivan, adding that this diversity is certainly a positive, with communities no longer dependent on one company or one sector (Westfield, for example, once home to several buggy-whip manufacturers, suffered greatly with the invention of the automobile).

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari

“You can’t have culture when you have people transitioning every two or three years to chase the latest and greatest thing.”

Overall, the sector is smaller and much more invisible, a trait that emerged as many jobs in manufacturing went south or overseas — Bosch closed in 1986, for example — movements that prompted many to question the sector’s viability, contributing to today’s workforce challenges.

Those we spoke with said there has been some progress from efforts to introduce young people to the field, from initiatives like Barbecue Fridays to the rising cost of higher education and a willingness to look at fields that don’t require advanced degrees.

“Young people have such a bright future in manufacturing, and without incurring all that college debt,” Kasa said. “That debt is getting way out of hand, and rising interest rates aren’t helping. These kids going to vocational schools, and they can be an entrepreneur; they can make six figures and be an integral part of the community. So we’re really working to educate parents about this.

“Not every student is cut out for a college degree, and meanwhile, four years is getting them nowhere in this day and age,” she went on. “Having the vocational education does so much more for these kids, and there’s such a future in it.”

She said showing young people where the parts made at Boulevard are going — into the SpaceX rocket, for example — generates enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, valuing employees and cultivating a strong sense of team are also important, she said, not just with breakfast and barbecues, but by creating a culture, building camaraderie, and even grooming the next generation of leadership for the company.

Borsari agreed, noting that building a team and creating a winning culture are some of the things that haven’t changed over the years.

“Years ago, a good business realized they had to have talented people who could add value to their business feel well-compensated to stay with them,” he explained. “It’s the same today, but the difference is that, a lot of times, the high compensation and all those things need to be there before people can demonstrate that they have value.

“And you see that everywhere,” he went on. “You see that in companies with very little longevity; there’s no culture left. You can’t have culture when you have people transitioning every two or three years to chase the latest and greatest thing.”

Overall, Borsari said the culture he and his team have created — one where people enjoy working well together — is perhaps the company’s greatest competitive advantage because such a culture is less common than it was years ago.

“It’s pretty simple stuff, really,” he said. “It’s a refusal to take the cheap way out and at the end of the day, and it’s doing right by the people who count on us to treat them like we would want them to treat us.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Sullivan repeated his oft-stated view that this region needs a growth strategy, one that will emphasize both the lower cost of living here and the strength and diversity of the local economy in an effort to convince more young people to stay — and more people from outside the region to find the 413.

And manufacturing is a big part of that story, he said, adding that the innovation that has defined the region for hundreds of years lives on in this sector.

You can’t look up a passing jet fighter out of Barnes and see the parts made here, said Sullivan, but they’re there. Just like this all-important component of the region’s economy.

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

Technology, Immediacy Have Changed the Game

When she first started working for Merrill Lynch in 1985, Pat Grenier had a desk, a phone, a phone book, and a street directory. And there was a lot of cold calling.

“I picked a street, and I would call everyone on that street; you can’t do that anymore,” she said, adding that it goes without saying that there’s no phone book anymore. And there’s nowhere near as much cold calling — in this sector and most others. And the desk and desk phone are not used nearly as much as they were even five years ago.

These are just some of the changes that have come to the broad financial-services sector, said Grenier, president of Grenier Financial Advisors, noting that, back when she started, and until maybe a few decades ago, this was what she called a ‘transactional’ business. Now, it’s far less about making transactions — especially the buying and selling of stocks — and more about partnering with the client to secure lifelong financial security.

“Now, our business is far more planning-oriented, and advisors are working more as a part of a team,” she said, adding that, instead of buying and selling stocks for clients, professionals like her will advise clients on everything from retirement planning to the specifics of a senior-living facility contract, to helping family members find bookkeepers or companions for their parents. “All that is not transaction work.”

Barbara Trombley, president of Trombley Associates, agreed, noting that the word advisor has come into popular use only over the past two decades or so.

Years ago, she said, individuals would have called someone who did what she does a stockbroker or even ‘my guy’ — a nod to how few women ventured into this field.

“It’s not just us putting together a portfolio — it’s how do you spend your money? How do you make it last? How do you leave money to your kids? And it’s a lot more personal,” she told BusinessWest. “I don’t get upset about the market going up and down on a day-to-day basis because I’m not trading stocks.”

Much has changed, and the same is true in another branch of the broad financial sector — insurance.

Indeed, when Sam Hanmer, president of Rush Insurance and a nearly 40-year veteran in this field, first started, he used “manuals, microfiche, the fax machine, and a dot-matrix printer,” he recalled. And customers were OK with getting answers to their questions in a few days.

Now, everything is stored in the cloud, and those same customers want this information instantaneously.

“The expectation is that they call, and they want the answer,” he said. “It’s on-time delivery in just about any setting, including insurance.”

Lisa Johnson, chief operating officer of Amherst-based Encharter Insurance, agreed, and said this business has changed in many other ways as well. Maybe the biggest has been consolidation brought on many different factors, ranging from the higher cost of doing business in a far more technology-driven field to retiring Baby Boomers looking for an exit strategy.

Pat Grenier

Pat Grenier

“Now, our business is far more planning-oriented, and advisors are working more as a part of a team.”

“It just became too difficult for small, independent businesses to survive given the amount of technology needs required to run an agency these days,” she said. “Human resources has changed so dramatically; you almost can’t run a business without having a human-resources expert to turn to. A lot of this has driven many of these smaller agencies to decide that this is the time to sell.

“What used to be your neighborhood agency is now likely owned by a much larger entity,” Johnson added, referring to a trend that covers not only insurance but many any business groups as well, from banks to accounting firms to law firms.

Meanwhile, another trend impacting almost every sector — challenges with finding and retaining talent — is also prevalent in this field, she said, using understatement when saying, “young people are not turned on by insurance.”

This has led to ever-greater amounts of automation and use of AI, she said, adding that these trends will only accelerate in the years and decades to come.

 

Money Never Sleeps

Flashing back to when he started in financial services nearly 40 years ago, Mike Matty, president of St. Germain Investment Management (which is celebrating its own milestone: 100 years), started by talking about technology and how it has profoundly changed this business and financial services in general.

“I always say that people have more information available to them today, on the internet and on their phone, than I had available to me as a mutual-fund manager back in the ’80s,” he told BusinessWest.

Barbara Trombley

Barbara Trombley

“It’s not just us putting together a portfolio — it’s how do you spend your money? How do you make it last? How do you leave money to your kids? And it’s a lot more personal. I don’t get upset about the market going up and down on a day-to-day basis because I’m not trading stocks.”

“There wasn’t even CNBC back then,” he added. “If you wanted to know what happened with the stock market back in those days, you turned on the 6 o’clock news and waited for the business segment. The world is so different right now.”

That goes for everything from the Dow, which was at or around 2,000 in the late ’80s (except for that fateful day in October 1987, when it lost 25% of its value) and is now at 38,000, to the way information is available instantly.

Too much information in some respects, said Matty, noting that the 24/7 nature of CNBC and other outlets creates higher levels of anxiety among those watching their wealth.

“Everything becomes an immediacy that they need to do something about,” he explained. “They’ll say, ‘the opening bell in seven minutes’ or ‘the most important hour of the day, the closing bell.’ They try to create anxiety and news out of a clock.”

This anxiety, and need to do something, certainly contributes to the wild fluctuations that have defined the markets in recent years, he said, joking that people might be better off if they waited for the 6 o’clock news.

They are certainly better off with today’s financial professionals, who do far more advising than their predecessors did 40 years ago.

“In 1984, most folks on this side of the table were more asset managers than financial planners,” Matty explained. “Now, the term we use is ‘wealth managers,’ because with that term comes the financial planning and the estate side of things; it’s a holistic approach as opposed to just managing a slice of your assets, which is more the way the business was years ago.”

Grenier agreed and described a typical day, and typical customer interaction, 40 years ago this way: “We focused on … ‘well, we have A, B, and C for you to buy because we think it’s going to do this, that, or the other thing.’ We didn’t look at the entire person, whereas now we are looking at the entire person, as well as their family.

Sam Hanmer

Sam Hanmer

“The expectation is that they call, and they want the answer. It’s on-time delivery in just about any setting, including insurance.”

“And we’re talking with them about transitioning wealth and protecting wealth,” she went on, adding that financial-services professionals are coaches, counselors, caretakers, and mediators — even if these words aren’t necessarily printed on business cards. “‘If you have a trust, is it titled properly? Are your beneficiaries up to date?’ I talk to them about all of that, whereas, when I first started, it was, ‘OK, I have this municipal bond,’ or ‘I have this stock.’”

This represents a dramatic change in this field that is still ongoing, said Matty, adding that today’s financial advisors serve in the same way Google Maps does.

“We guide people,” he said. “We need to know where you are, so let’s find out where we’re starting from. Let’s then figure out where you want to go and look at the options for getting there.”

Meanwhile, some important things haven’t changed.

“Oftentimes, you’ll have these conversations with people, and they’ll say, if I die…’ And I say, ‘let’s back up a minute. There is no if, there’s only going to be a when, unless you know something that I don’t, so let’s talk about what you want to do with your money between now and then to help you accomplish your goals.’”

In other words, death and taxes are still the only certainties in this business.

 

Policy Makers

Turning back the clock to to 1985, when he got his start in the insurance business, Hanmer, who has been with several agencies over the decades and unretired a few years ago, said there are certainly more players in this sector, primarily because the business was in many ways easier and less costly.

Mike Matty

Mike Matty

“People have more information available to them today, on the internet and on their phone, than I had available to me as a mutual-fund manager back in the ’80s.”

“When I started in the agency, your personal lines and your automobile insurance, specifically, had what they called ‘fixed and established rates,’ and that was all set by the state; the insurance companies didn’t set the rates,” he explained. “And that allowed you to have a mom-and-pop agency on just about every corner because it was more of a convenience buy then ‘I need to go shop my insurance to see if I can get the best deal,’ because every agency would provide you with the same number when it came to auto.

“All this allowed for what I call a lifestyle business,” he went on. “You could make a pretty good living with two, three, or four people in your office, and there would be one right down the street and another right down the street from that.”

It’s much different now, Hanmer said, adding that, when the state changed to competitive rating a quarter-century ago, that changed the dynamic in the industry. Prior to that time, and because the state set the rates, most direct writers didn’t have a presence in the state.

Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson

“Businesses look to cut down on the vulnerabilities they have. And a big vulnerability for all of us in insurance over the past decade, and I’ve really seen it accelerate, is personnel — trying to get people who are well-trained and understand that the insurance business is just really difficult.”

“They didn’t want to play that game,” he said, adding that the Progressives, State Farms, and Liberty Mutuals of this world now have a huge presence in the state, and its residents are subject to their endless TV commercials.

“With that competition, agencies had to work a whole lot harder because they had to shop everything,” he went on. “A lot of them said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and that started the consolidated process.”

And it has continued unabated, said Johnson, noting that private-equity funds have discovered the insurance industry, and now, many of the mergers are driven by aggregators backed by private-equity funds.

All this consolidation is in some ways good for consumers because larger agencies provide them with more choice, she said, adding that this is countered by perhaps not knowing the person behind the counter — or on the other end of the phone — as well.

Meanwhile, the players left in the industry now find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain talent (yes, you’ll read these same words in just about every story in this 40th-anniversary issue), which is prompting many to outsource tasks and turn to virtual assistants based in other states or, increasingly, other countries.

“A lot of quoting of business is now automated, as are some aspects of claim handling, billing, invoicing, those types of things,” Johnson said. “Anything repetitious is now likely to be automated, and that’s not unique to the insurance industry.

“Businesses look to cut down on the vulnerabilities they have,” she went on. “And a big vulnerability for all of us in insurance over the past decade, and I’ve really seen it accelerate, is personnel — trying to get people who are well-trained and understand that the insurance business is just really difficult.”

 

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Landscape Has Changed — in Many Ways

When Jack Dill, president of Colebrook Realty Services, arrived in downtown Springfield in the mid-’70s, it was a different world and a much different city.

The still-new mixed-use complex on Main Street, then called Baystate West, complete with a 28-story office tower, was crammed with retail on two floors (much of it migrating from storefronts elsewhere in the downtown), everything from a Friendly’s to a sporting-goods store to a men’s clothing shop.

It was connected via airwalks to two major department stores, Forbes & Wallace and Steiger’s, the latter of which was also connected via airwalk to an even more recent addition to the landscape, the new home of Springfield Institution for Savings, which Dill helped conceptualize and build as an employee of the bank. It, too, had retail and restaurants on two floors.

By 1984, the scene had started to change, with retail experiencing a sharp decline in Baystate West with the opening of the Holyoke Mall in 1979. Forbes & Wallace was soon demolished to make way for what is still known as Monarch Place, even though the namesake tenant and partner in the project, Monarch Capital Corp., filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and the property was subsequently sold at auction to Peter Picknelly.

By the mid-’90s, Steiger’s was demolished as well. In its place was built a park dubbed “a little park for a little while.” It’s still there. Meanwhile, at what is now Tower Square, there is very little retail (although Big Y is now a tenant), but two colleges (UMass Amherst and Cambridge College) and the YMCA of Greater Springfield call it home. And at what is now the TD Building, which Dill now co-owns, there is just a single restaurant, but the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, United Way of Pioneer Valley, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and its many affiliates are based there.

This quick history lesson helps show the many ways the landscape has changed over 40 years and continues to change, said Dill, adding that downtown Springfield is not unlike many other downtowns that suffered losses in retail to the malls and, later, internet shopping, and other properties — from the offices of banks that no longer exist to long-closed mills, to most of the Springfield Republican building — given over to new uses ranging from housing to breweries; from cannabis dispensaries to co-working facilities.

And we haven’t even mentioned the new, $1 billion casino complex built a few blocks south on Main Street.

“And now, the internet and that kind of distribution model is creating real problems for the large, enclosed malls,” said Dill, citing the ongoing demolition of the Eastfield Mall, the first such facility in the region, and the start of work to transform it into a mix of retail, housing, and other uses, as an example of how the scene continues to shift and change the landscape in the process.

Jack Dill

Jack Dill

“The internet and that kind of distribution model is creating real problems for the large, enclosed malls.”

Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, agreed. He said the landscape has certainly changed from a commercial real-estate perspective, and it continues to evolve due to powerful forces ranging from malls to consolidation of the financial-services sector to, most recently, the COVID 19 pandemic, which introduced the world to remote work and hybrid schedules that left many to ponder the fate of office facilities in communities of all sizes.

He has seen, and been part of, movements to create dedicated facilities for healthcare practices (something that was novel four decades ago when such businesses would be next to accountants and lawyers) and to rethink downtown office towers, such as the one he owns, 1350 Main St. in Springfield.

Plotkin said the rise of remote work will certainly impact demand for office space, but he sees a partially offsetting force in east-west rail, which has the potential to put some area communities on the map, drive development in areas near the rail stops, and even prompt some businesses to realize they don’t have to be in Boston anymore.

“It could be transformative; in Springfield, for example, it could drive development in the Union Station area and make that area much more attractive,” he said, adding that he’s already seen more interest in properties there. “If east-west rail is successful, and I think it will be, and it becomes a reliable way to get to Worcester or Boston, it changes things dramatically.”

 

Space Exploration

Overall, the real-estate sector has seen a number of ups and downs over the past 40 years, from the boom times of the mid-’80s to the bust that came later that decade; from the surge provided by the arrival of the cannabis industry — which impacted most communities, but especially Holyoke — to the most recent turmoil resulting from the pandemic. And there have been headwinds of different strengths, from the tornado in 2011 to the Great Recession of 2008 to Springfield’s being placed in receivership 20 years ago.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin

“If east-west rail is successful, and I think it will be, and it becomes a reliable way to get to Worcester or Boston, it changes things dramatically.”

Overall, compared to other regions, the scene in Springfield and surrounding communities has remained relatively flat, said those we spoke with. There has been some new building and notable renovation projects — Springfield’s Union Station tops that list — but, overall, little movement of new businesses into the region (MGM Springfield being a major exception) and large amounts of what Plotkin called “musical chairs,” tenants moving from one location in the region to another.

“I’m seeing a lot of businesses move from property to property, but not really much new growth,” he explained. “We really need to look at how we can bring new businesses here.”

Meanwhile, the landscape has certainly changed on the retail side — everything from the departure of Johnson’s Bookstore, a watershed moment in the history of downtown Springfield, to the ongoing redevelopment of the site of the massive GE transformer complex in Pittsfield; from the successful conclusion of decades-long efforts to convert the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into a mix of retail and market-rate housing (the first tenants have started moving in) to the massive, ongoing effort to redevelop the massive Ludlow Mills property. That undertaking, a mix of brownfield and greenfield development led by Westmass Area Development Corp., is already more than a decade along, and will likely take another decade.

At present, with interest rates high and questions about the economy (let alone who will occupy the White House) moving forward, new building has been mostly stagnant, said those we spoke with, creating a white-hot market for manufacturing and distribution facilities. Meanwhile, cannabis is starting to retreat, with some of the properties turned over to that use (or intended for that use) now back on the market, especially in Holyoke.

But the biggest area of concern moving forward is the office market. Remote work and its impact on how much space companies will need is a huge factor, but there are other considerations as well, said Plotkin and Dill, noting that the continued consolidation of many sectors (a thread running through these 40th-anniversary stories) is an issue as well.

And it has been for decades now.

“Coopers & Lybrand had a large presence here, and they consolidated and moved to Hartford,” said Dill, citing just one example of this movement from years ago. “There are fewer banks, fewer head offices … fewer players in many sectors, and it has certainly impacted the market.”

“Having access to Boston that’s walkable from your downtown … that will have a big impact. You can live in downtown Springfield and, in an hour and a half, be in Boston. It takes longer than that to drive to Boston from Sudbury.”

As for remote work, Dill preferred to remain somewhat optimistic about its future and, thus, its overall impact on the real-estate market, despite growing concern, if not outright panic, in larger cities such as Boston and San Francisco.

“It’s taken some time, but we’re starting to see a return to the office,” he said, noting that several major corporations are ordering workers back, or trying to. “Work is kind of a social activity — there’s a reason we were all together in the first place as opposed to being out tending our own field.

“The joys of working at home, working in your pajamas, gets old after a while, I think,” he went on, leaving room for a measure of compromise in the form of a four-day workweek.

Plotkin is not quite as optimistic. He sees more permanence to remote work and hybrid schedules, and noted that Zoom has greatly reduced the need for people to be in their offices and for consumers to visit these offices.

This leaves questions about existing office towers and other facilities and their futures, he said, adding that conversion to residential use is an option that should be explored.

There is a huge need for housing in the region, he went on, and the need may grow if east-west rail becomes a reality, which he believes it will.

“Having access to Boston that’s walkable from your downtown … that will have a big impact,” Plotkin said. “You can live in downtown Springfield and, in an hour and a half, be in Boston. It takes longer than that to drive to Boston from Sudbury.”

 

Bottom Line

Flashing back 40 years, Dill said that, in many respects, downtown Springfield still looks a lot like it did then, at least from the street.

But a closer look — one inside the buildings on either side of Main Street — reveals large amounts of change, especially in Tower Square and the TD Bank building.

It’s very difficult to project what might come next given all that has happened over the past four decades, from the rise of malls to the demise of many of them, said Dill, adding quickly, and forcefully, that the only constant is change.

BusinessWest Anniversary

The Environment Has Shifted Profoundly

Tom Senecal used some hard numbers to detail what is perhaps the biggest change in the banking industry over the past four decades.

“In 1985, there were 18,400 banks in this country,” said Senecal, chairman of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. “We are now down to 4,600; we’ve lost 13,000 banks in those 40 years. Credit unions … there were around 12,000; now they’re down to 4,200, so they’ve lost more than 7,000. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, there were 230 banks in 1985; I think we’re down to 130, and we expect to be down to 80 by 2030.”

That consolidation, brought on by many factors, but especially the higher cost of doing business and shrinking margins, has changed the local landscape in all kinds of ways, including commercial real estate, with dozens of former bank buildings and offices given over to new uses, from jewelry stores to cannabis dispensaries.

Indeed, it would take quite a bit of space in this story to list all the banks that were here 40, 30, or 20 years ago that aren’t here anymore. Just a partial list would include, on the larger-institution side, Bank of New England, Springfield Institution for Savings, and BayBank (names and letters that were once on office towers in downtown Springfield), and also Shawmut, Fleet, and BankBoston. On the smaller, community-bank side, Hampden, Heritage, Chicopee Savings, United, Woronoco, and Westbank are just some of the names that have disappeared from the landscape.

All of this is reflected in the large collections of business cards amassed by some bankers in this area, sometimes without actually leaving their office — it was only the name and logo on the card that changed.

But consolidation of the industry (and we’ll get back to it later) is obviously just one of many changes in this sector since Ronald Reagan was running for a second term in the White House. There have been huge changes in technology and how people bank, in how many non-bank entities are now vying for market share in this industry, and also in how people work, where, and even what they wear to the office.

Indeed, Lauren Duffy, executive vice president and COO of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, is one of many officers at the institution that do not have their own office anymore. She works remotely a few days a week, and for the days she’s in, she reserves a desk online.

“I try to make sure I get one with a good window,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she usually does. And this sea change is only one of many in the world of credit unions, which four decades ago might have served the employees of one company or institution (like UMass Amherst or Mercy Hospital) and now have memberships that are much larger and more diverse.

There have been other changes as well, said Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, who has almost exactly 40 years of experience in the industry and is one of those who saw his business card change repeatedly, but not the location of his desk. He said the business is, well, less formal now, reflecting trends across business.

“When I started out back in the ’80s, you had to wear a suit and tie every day,” he recalled. “If you left the floor you were working on, you had to put your suit jacket back on; you couldn’t walk through the lobby without being very formal.”

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty

“Over my career, people have always been talking about how branches were dying or how we wouldn’t need anymore. But for small community banks or community banks in general, a physical presence will always be a necessity.”

Getting back to technology, it is a thread that runs through each and every story in our 40th-anniversary edition, and for good reason. In banking, the changes have been profound, with paper and old-fashioned bankbooks giving way to automated tellers and mobile banking, greatly reducing the need to visit the local branch and generating discussion and debate about whether banks will need such facilities moving forward — and, if so, how many.

Senecal said PeoplesBank plans to add three branches just this year as the institution plots an organic growth strategy while also looking hard at mergers and acquisitions. Meanwhile, Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Middletown, Conn.-based Liberty Bank, can see a day, not far ahead, when the bank will make net reductions in the number of branches in its portfolio. And Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, like others we spoke with, noted that, while the branch is visited less often today than before, and this trend will likely accelerate in the future, there will always be a need for face-to-face, in-person service.

“Over my career, people have always been talking about how branches were dying or how we wouldn’t need anymore,” Moriarty said. “But for small community banks or community banks in general, a physical presence will always be a necessity.”

 

By All Accounts

As he talked about the changes that have come to this sector since he entered the business more than 30 years ago, Senecal reflected on the building, and the office, he was sitting in.

This is the inverted-triangle-shaped office tower off I-91, across the street from the Holyoke Mall. It was once the headquarters to Heritage Bank, which famously failed amid excess and scandal in 1992, a time when many institutions were failing and the banking industry was in a state of turmoil.

Lauren Duffy

Lauren Duffy

“When I started working in credit unions almost 20 years ago, our financial services were fairly simple. It was a savings account, a checking account, and, most commonly, a car loan, a mortgage, or a personal loan. We’ve evolved with the economy and with the region, and it’s so complex now, the many things that we can offer.”

“The top floor here, the eighth floor, is much larger than the second floor, because of the shape of the building,” he explained. “Heritage had four offices on the eighth floor; we have maybe 30 on the second floor now. The eighth floor was extremely opulent. Joe Lobello, our president at the time, was pretty adamant that he did want the negative association of a failed bank; we were looking to move our headquarters, but he did not want to buy this building because of that negative association.

“Joe realized how inexpensive it would be to buy this building as opposed to building something new, so he finally acquiesced,” Senecal went on. “But my office is on the second floor because Joe did not want to be associated with the opulence of the eighth floor. Twenty-five or so years ago, Joe’s office was on the second floor, and today, my office is still here.”

Perhaps, but very little else about this sector is the same as it was a few decades ago. As noted earlier, institutions have disappeared, and many others have changed their name, in many cases dropping the word ‘Savings’ from the sign over the door because that word did not accurately reflect all that an institution could provide for its clients.

“When I started working in credit unions almost 20 years ago, our financial services were fairly simple,” said Duffy, speaking for other credit unions and banks as well. “It was a savings account, a checking account, and, most commonly, a car loan, a mortgage, or a personal loan. We’ve evolved with the economy and with the region, and it’s so complex now, the many things that we can offer — all the many things that we can do with cards and mobile apps, and all the ways we’re trying to be more accessible to people and really innovating around the idea of financial wellness.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

“There’s not necessarily that loyalty now, especially when people can go online and see what others are paying on accounts or charging for fees or charging for loan rates. So you have to be more competitive.”

“That’s what credit unions were founded to address all those years ago,” she went on. “But we were addressing it in a more simple way 40 years ago than we are today.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts/Connecticut border, which wasn’t crossed by institutions based on either side years ago, is now readily crossed, with PeoplesBank advancing south, for example, and Liberty marching north.

The biggest change, though, has come in how people bank and the technology they use. It brings convenience, obviously, with people able to do almost everything by phone now.

This convenience brings expectations, on the part of consumers and commercial clients alike, Glidden said. “Everyone is trying to deliver that Amazon experience, and it’s of great importance today for a bank to stay up with what the consumer’s expectations are — and that’s higher, probably, than what banks have historically delivered.”

But this convenience also brings the ability to change banks quite easily, said Welch, which is forcing institutions of all sizes to pay even more attention to what the competition is doing and adjust to remain competitive.

“At the touch of a button, people can move their money anywhere, within seconds or minutes,” he said. “It used to be that you would have to go into the bank and have them draw up a cashier’s check, go down the street, sit down with someone to open a deposit account, and then move money over. Now, it can be done in an instant.

Dave Glidden

Dave Glidden

“Everyone is trying to deliver that Amazon experience, and it’s of great importance today for a bank to stay up with what the consumer’s expectations are — and that’s higher, probably, than what banks have historically delivered.”

“So there’s not necessarily that loyalty now, especially when people can go online and see what others are paying on accounts or charging for fees or charging for loan rates,” Welch went on. “So you have to be more competitive.”

Senecal agreed, noting that this is just one of the many pressures facing financial institutions today.

“Banks used to have 4% margins; getting out of bed, they had 4% margins — they didn’t have to do anything,” he explained. “Margins are down to 2.5% now and struggling to get to 3%. No banks in this country are enjoying those 4% margins we used to enjoy because information is so readily available that consumer behavior can change in an instant. You can move your money so fast, and that sort of competition drives attractive prices — it drives mortgage rates down, and it drives savings rates up, which squeezes margins.”

 

Points of Interest

This simple math explains why size is more important than ever before in this industry, and thus why the current pattern of mergers and acquisitions will continue into the future, with both banks and credit unions.

“It’s a consolidating industry, and we’ll continue to consolidate,” said Glidden, adding that, for a number of reasons, ranging from rising interest rates to the current administration in the White House, the pace of such transactions has slowed somewhat in recent years.

But consolidation will continue, he said, and especially on the community-bank level.

And while the number of banks continues to shrink, it is likely that there will be fewer of the traditional branches that have come to symbolize the industry, said Glidden, who worked for many of those institutions no longer here — Shawmut and then Bank of Western Massachusetts., for example — before arriving at SIS (which was later acquired by Banknorth, which was subsequently acquired by TD Bank), before moving on to Liberty.

He made it clear that branches are still critical to any institution’s success, and they provide great visibility. But there is no denying that use of these facilities continues to decline.

“Many of our younger generations have never been in a branch and probably never will be in a branch and are fine with a totally digital banking experience,” he said. “And this has really changed the dynamic of how we as bankers and financial advisers have to respond and engage our customers.

“Years ago, you might have gone to the branch once a week, or, if you were a small-business owner, you might go five times a week,” Glidden went on. “The reality now is that you might go the branch every two or three weeks, or you might go to it when you really have a question or problem you want resolved and you don’t want to do it through the call center or any of the other channels.”

As a result of these trends, banks are looking to maximize the visits that do happen, he said, while also thinking hard about consolidating their branches. He can see a day a bank with maybe 20 branches in an area like Greater Springfield might want to get down to 10.

Moriarty agreed that fewer people are visiting branches and those that do visit them less often, but he stressed that there will always be a need for such facilities.

“I feel that customers still want to come in and talk to someone, either to better understand a product or get advice or just get that face-to-face interaction because trust is a big part of the equation,” he told BusinessWest. “Down the road, we’ll still see that kind of interaction because people want and need it.”

Whether they will still need cash is another story, he went on, adding that, given the pace of change and the emergence of debit cards, he wonders how long consumers will still need coins and currency.

That might be the next chapter in the ongoing evolution of banks, credit unions, and the entire financial-services industry.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jacob Robinson

Jacob Robinson took the helm at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce earlier this month.

After relocating to Belchertown a few years ago, Jacob Robinson found himself a frequent visitor to nearby Amherst and admits to falling in love with its downtown — as many do.

He confided to BusinessWest that, on more than one occasion, while walking along South Pleasant Street and passing the building that houses the town’s chamber of commerce, business improvement district, and visitors’ center, he thought to himself, “how cool would it be to work in a place like that?”

And now … he gets to answer that question.

Indeed, late last month, Robinson was named executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and he took the helm on April 1.

“No joke,” he said in reference to his start date, adding that what he likes about the job, and what prompted him to seek it, besides its mailing address, is that it involves high levels of collaboration and the fostering of partnerships, which he believes are personal and professional strengths gained from more than 15 years of work with various nonprofits, most recently the West Roxbury Main Streets program, which he served as director.

“There’s a special energy to this town,” he said when asked what attracted him to the position. “And I wanted to be part of it.”

Robinson’s arrival is one of the many converging storylines in this community, known for its liberal leanings; college-town character; rich mix of museums, restaurants, and other tourism and hospitality businesses; its reputation as a great community to retire to; and a bustling, ever-changing downtown.

“There’s a special energy to this town.”

Others include a nearly $50 million expansion and renovation of the Jones Library; a $2 million renovation of the North Common adjacent to Town Hall; new businesses, such as the Aster & Pine Market, a specialty store, which cut the ceremonial ribbon on April 20; and a number of ongoing residential and mixed-use projects that will address a perpetual need for more housing while also, in many cases, bringing more vibrancy to the downtown.

These include several being developed by the Roberts Group, including a much-anticipated re-imagining of the property (just a few doors down from the chamber) known as the Hastings Building, because it was home to the legandary office-supply store for more than a century, and new construction on adjacent property.

Hastings Building

An architect’s rendering of the planned mixed-use development at the Hastings Building and adjoining property on South Pleasant Street.

Barry Roberts, president of the Roberts Group, said plans call for six units of market-rate housing on the upper floors of the Hastings Building and the Amherst College bookstore on the ground floor, with work on the latter already underway, with the goal of that facility being open for commencement. The adjacent 55 South Pleasant St. will be torn down, as well as property that served as cold storage for Hastings, with a five-story property to be built on that site that will feature 16 units of market-rate housing.

Meanwhile, another, much larger project is being planned for the former Rafters sports bar property at the corner of University Drive and Amity Street, most recently home to Pleasantrees, a cannabis dispensary that closed after operating for only a year. The site will be transformed into 85 units of housing in two five-story buildings, as well as retail and office space (more on this later).

There are also some ongoing stories, such as the Drake, the live-event space that brings hundreds of people to the downtown for shows each week; White Lion Brewing Co., located in the same building as the Drake, which is still acclimating to doing business in Amherst six months after opening (more on that later as well); and the largest of these ongoing stories — continued recovery from the pandemic, which devasted a business community that is largely dependent on the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents from the surrounding colleges.

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Amherst, a community that is in a seemingly constant state of motion — and change.

 

What’s on Tap?

Ray Berry has been in business with White Lion, launched in Springfield, for several years now, but he told BusinessWest that his location in Amherst amounts to a learning experience on several levels, with new lessons every day.

Indeed, he said the intriguing nature of this community — it’s not just a college town, but a three-college town with two more just a few miles away — presents challenges and opportunities that are unique and require some … well, getting used to.

“As a business, we continue to learn from the ebb and flow of the Greater Amherst community; every day is a learning process.”

“As a business, we continue to learn from the ebb and flow of the Greater Amherst community; every day is a learning process,” he said. “Whether it’s the population coming and going or special events in the town, we continue to learn and appreciate; it’s all new to us.

“In Springfield, we have pretty much 24/7, 365-days-a-year activity — there’s plenty of activity, and we don’t have to incorporate the university population that’s close by,” he went on. “But in Amherst, we have to be very mindful of how the university and private-college student activity, and faculty activity, impact the day-to-day business community.”

Elaborating, he said White Lion, now proudly serving Marcus Camby New England IPA, which is especially popular in Amherst, has operated through winter break, spring break, St. Patrick’s Day, March Madness, and other annual happenings, but the learning process will continue when the colleges shut down, or mostly shut down, for the summer and then reopen in September.

Learning these ebbs and flows is part and parcel to doing business in Amherst, noted Robinson, who is on a learning curve himself. Indeed, while already quite familiar with the town, he will now take his knowledge to a much deeper dive, while also getting further acquainted with the other six towns represented by this chamber, all with their own distinct personalities: Belchertown, Hadley, Leverett, Pelham, Shutesbury, and Sunderland.

Since arriving, Robinson has been busy with everything from staging one of the chamber’s signature networking and fundraising events, Margarita Madness, to planning the next events, including After-5s, workshops, and a new-member reception coming up in May, as well as early-stage work to hire a new marketing and events coordinator for the chamber.

“I’ve had to hit the ground running,” he said, adding that the chamber position presented a unique opportunity for him to continue what he calls “community work,” as both a volunteer and a nonprofit leader, most recently with Main Streets program in West Roxbury.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,263
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.51
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.51
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Select Board, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

He was commuting to that job from Belchertown — though also working remotely, to a large degree — when his brother-in-law brought the posting for the executive-director position at the Amherst Area Chamber to his attention. He applied with the intention of enthusiastically taking part in building on what he saw, heard, and experienced during all those visits to downtown Amherst — its restaurants, coffee shops, and theater.

“There is so much charm here; there’s the connection to the universities, the energy that comes from all those students, and the vibrancy of a town that’s connected to the college communities,” he said. “There’s a healthy mix of businesses and services, and that’s very telling of a dynamic and strong community here in downtown Amherst.”

 

Building Momentum

Long-term, the obvious goals are to continue building partnerships and creating collaborative efforts to promote the community, attract new businesses, and continue the ongoing recovery from the pandemic, which, as noted, hit this community perhaps harder than any other in the region because it shut down the Five Colleges and removed from the business equation tens of thousands of people and countless gatherings, from sporting events to commencements.

“It was very tough on everyone — it was shocking. Who would ever have imagined that the universities and the colleges would be closed for that length of time?” recalled Lisa Johnson, president of Encharter Insurance, the latest name on an Amherst institution that has been around since the late 1800s. “It was shocking to be on the streets and have them be so quiet.

“But the bounceback has been strong even though it took a while before people started coming out again, even the students,” she went on, adding that, perhaps because of the hard lessons learned during the pandemic and its aftermath, she believes the town and its business community are devoting more time and energy to attracting visitors while being slighly less dependent on the colleges.

Which is why she is encouraged by projects like the ones planned for Amity Street and the Hastings Building, initiatives that will bring more residents, but also opportunities for new businesses to settle in the community.

Roberts agreed, telling BusinessWest that, by and large, his ongoing projects are simply taking the names of their street addresses. Like ‘422 Amity.’

This is the the mixed-used project at the old Rafters property, and one that has the potential to change the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

The 85 units of housing will help meet an enormous need in that realm, he said, adding that the complex will bring new retail and new office tenants — and, therefore, more vibrancy — to that area just a few hundred yards from the UMass campus and a few blocks from downtown.

“It will even provide the town with the opportunity to apply for a Community Development Block Grant to put a roundabout at that crazy intersection there,” said Roberts, whose company has been, in a word, busy over the past few years.

Indeed, it has been involved in a number of initiatives, from the Drake project to bringing new tenants to several properties downtown, to another ambitious housing project, this one called 180 Fearing St., or simply One Eighty, which is in its final stages of construction and is fully rented through 2026.

The complex of duplexes features 22 versatile units ranging from studios to four bedrooms, said Roberts, adding that it has succeeded in attracting a wide range of tenants, from students and young families to professionals to retirees, which was the goal when it was put on the drawing board several years ago.

“This is an exciting project, and it has attracted an intriguing mix of tenants that really reflects the Amherst community — students, professionals, and retirees alike,” he said, adding that the same is expected from the project on the Hastings site, as well as another initiative in its early stages: the razing of a building across South Pleasant Street from the Drake — home to the former McMurphy’s bar and the Knights of Columbus — and construction of high-end condos (with accompanying parking) and commercial businesses on the street level.

“We’re still working on getting the permitting,” said Roberts, adding that this hurdle should soon be cleared, and another endeavor to bring more people, and vibrancy, to the downtown will be underway.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Going by the Book

Development Associates President Ken Vincunas

Development Associates President Ken Vincunas

 

Ken Vincunas says he’s long kicked around the idea of writing a book, one that would call on nearly 40 years of experience in the broad realms of development and commercial real estate.

He even has a working title: What’s the Rent?

That’s a simple question, one that property owners and leasing agents probably get asked every day, and hopefully several times a day, said Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates, which has a broad portfolio of office, retail, and industrial properties across Western Mass. and into Connecticut. But coming up with an answer is usually anything but simple.

“There have to be 20 subjective factors and no objective factors that go into this, and every time one of them comes up, you have to hope that you have the experience to know your market, know your tenant, know your building, know your rates, and try to make a deal that’s fair to everyone and keep the place leased,” he said, adding that COVID and its aftereffects, including the strong movement toward remote work and hybrid schedules, have only further complicated this equation, as we’ll see.

While addressing the rent question, Vincunas said his book — if and when he ever gets around to writing it — would also include some case studies, and there are many he can piece together involving the myriad scenarios he and others in this business face regularly.

“There are things that can’t possibly happen, but they do,” he explained. “Like this … you get no one for a space for six months, and then, you have two people. The one you want is slow and can’t quite figure out, but they’re a better prospect; the one you don’t really want is champing at the bit — ‘let’s go, we’re ready.’ What do you do? That’s probably happened 15 times to me; it’s really something.”

“There have to be 20 subjective factors and no objective factors that go into this, and every time one of them comes up, you have to hope that you have the experience to know your market, know your tenant, know your building, know your rates, and try to make a deal that’s fair to everyone and keep the place leased.”

As he talked about this book waiting to be written, Vincunas said he’s always calling on the years of experience that would go into it, especially at this time of challenge in commercial real estate and development, one he summed up quickly and effectively by saying, “we would look to acquire things if prices were fine or if we had a tenant lined up, but we’re in no hurry, and we’re going to hope for better times in the next seven to eight months.”

Elaborating, he noted that, on the development side, this is mostly a time to hit pause, noting that several colliding factors — from higher interest rates to the still-climbing costs of materials; from supply-chain issues to mandates for electric heat — are making this a difficult time to build.

And on the leasing side of the equation, it’s a time to tough out those aforementioned challenges, try to keep buildings full, and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. He’s doing all that at the Greenfield Corporate Center, where a large (as in 55,000-square-foot) vacancy, left by the Greenfield District Court when it moved back to downtown Greenfield and a new facility there, has been mostly backfilled.

The StubHub Building in East Granby

The StubHub Building in East Granby, acquired by Development Associates in early 2020, is still vacant, but the company is optimistic this will soon change.

“We had counted on them staying — government contracts never come in on time,” he said with a laugh, referring to the construction of a new courthouse, which did come in on time, adding that the vacant space has been largely filled by an allergist, a CPA, the Sheriff’s Department, and other tenants, and the two buildings on the property are mostly occupied.

And Vincunas and his team are doing it at other properties as well, which are seeing those colliding forces from COVID, including businesses eyeing less space, in many cases, with fewer people coming to the office to work, but also different space as it comes on the market and deals can be made.

Meanwhile, DA, as his firm is called, is pushing ahead with some new projects, including a 55,000-square-foot office building in East Granby, Conn., known as the StubHub Building, which it acquired just prior to the pandemic in 2020, and nearby property — a five-acre parcel and a larger 19-acre parcel — that awaits development.

“The industrial market is exceedingly tight — purchase prices have doubled, at least. No one can afford to build with the high interest rates and the high cost of construction. Those who had industrial space in place could rent it for much more than they could have years ago.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Vincunas about everything from the state of the market, and the many factors that go into the current picture, to the manner in which he’s calling on all of his experience in these different — and challenging — times.

 

The Next Chapters

As he talked with BusinessWest about the Development Associates portfolio of existing properties and what might come next, Vincunas got up from his chair and retrieved a piece of paper thumbtacked to a board hanging next to his desk.

It was a timetable of sorts for the project in Northampton that has come to be called the Atwood campus. And he marveled that it has been 13 years since the former Clarion Hotel & Conference Center was demolished to make way for the office complex that sits there now.

The Atwood campus in Northampton

The Atwood campus in Northampton is one of the many success stories scripted by Development Associates.

The Atwood campus is one of many success stories in the DA portfolio. The three buildings on the property are full, with tenants ranging from Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Clinical & Support Options to several professionals. And while the success of the complex would seem to welcome development of another office building on the remaining space within the footprint, current conditions, including ongoing questions about the long-term strength and resiliency of the office market, but also the soaring costs of building, dictate caution, Vincunas said.

“We’d love to do it, but you have to have some pre-leasing,” he told BusinessWest. “And how much is the rent a year and a half from now? When you commit to someone today, you say, ‘you’re going to take 30% to 40% of the building.’ Sure, we’ll start building it, hope we get some others, and carry on with you until we get them. But what’s the rent a year and a half from now? It’s not easy to know.”

These sentiments reflect the high levels of challenge and uncertainty, but also opportunity, that define the commercial real-estate market at present, he said, adding that some segments of this market are doing very well, especially industrial — again, because building new is not an attractive option, and also because the work done at these facilities, be it manufacturing or warehousing, can’t be done remotely.

“So the industrial market is exceedingly tight — purchase prices have doubled, at least,” he said, noting that the same is true of lease rates. “No one can afford to build with the high interest rates and the high cost of construction. Those who had industrial space in place could rent it for much more than they could have years ago.”

Meanwhile, the office market is certainly slower, but there is movement as leases expire and business owners mull options, which bode well for properties like the StubHub Building, which remains vacant but may soon be landing a federal agency, said Vincunas, adding that DA acquired the property knowing it would take some time to lease it out, and COVID only exacerbated that challenge.

Greenfield Corporate Center

Development Associates has been successful in backfilling space at the Greenfield Corporate Center.

“It’s a very solid, very attractive building, and we know it’s going to work based on the price that we paid,” he said, adding that those same sentiments apply to the five-acre parcel just down busy Route 20, where DA is envisioning a a retail complex at that location, as well as the larger, 19-acre parcel. In both cases, the company can afford to be patient.

“I’m bullish on that whole area,” he said. “There are 400-plus apartments being built within three miles, so that whole area, in our estimation, is going to take off.”

 

The Plot Thickens

As he assessed the current office market, Vincunas said that, despite the convictions of many in this business that workers will eventually return to the office because companies function more efficiently if people are all in one place, the reality is that remote work and hybrid schedules are very likely here to stay.

That means most of those same businesses have decisions to make as leases expire, about how much space they need and where they want to be. And for those trying to keep buildings full, or as full as possible, it means working hard with both existing tenants, to keep them in some capacity, while also trying to attract those using their own expiring leases to explore the many other opportunities presenting themselves.

He’s seeing that at several of the DA properties, including Greenfield, where that successful backfilling is ongoing, and also 200 Silver St. in Agawam, where the company is trying to fill a vacancy left by a departing fitness center.

“Overall, you have to know your market and try to strike a balance. People don’t want to move, and people have options. And each situation is different. If you know the people love the location and the building, they might feel more strongly about staying where they are, and you work with them to make that happen.”

“We’re entertaining two companies in the insurance business; one wants to get out of Springfield, and one wants to consolidate its offices,” he said, adding that these are some of the forces impacting the market at present, ones that create uncertainly and volatility, but also opportunities, especially in smaller communities and smaller office facilities.

But there are risks everywhere, he added quickly, noting that, across the broad office market, the trends toward consolidation and putting fewer people in smaller spaces cast long shadows over the market.

To manage these sea changes, real-estate firms must call on their experience and handle each case individually.

“Overall, you have to know your market and try to strike a balance,” Vincunas said. “People don’t want to move, and people have options. And each situation is different. If you know the people love the location and the building, they might feel more strongly about staying where they are, and you work with them to make that happen.”

Returning to that aforementioned book he’s looking to write and its unofficial title, he reiterated that each case is different and each time is different, and companies like Development Associates must adjust to the conditions at that moment in time.

“When it comes to office space, you’re either in a strong position or a weak position, and you have to respond accordingly,” he said. “It’s the same as ever.”

Class of 2024

Tax Collector, City of Holyoke: Age 39

Laura Shaw acknowledged that few people, if any, would list ‘tax collector’ as a career objective.

And she certainly didn’t.

Indeed, growing up, she studied criminology and law and aspired to join the FBI, before working in airline security and later as budget director for the Hampden County Registry of Deeds.

When she saw a posting for tax collector in Holyoke, she thought it would be something she’d be good at, and perhaps even enjoy. And why not? After all, it’s in her blood; her grandfather, William Burns, held this same position through much of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

And from what her parents, her many aunts and uncles, and a colleague hired by her grandfather tell her, Shaw brings many of the same attributes to the job that her grandfather did.

These include patience, diligence, being direct but fair with those who owe the city taxes, and even having a sense of a humor about the job and its responsibilities. Indeed, she described a tax collector as “an accountant who gets yelled at,” and wondered out loud, while marching in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, if she should wear the sash with ‘Tax Collector’ written on it and risk being booed — or worse.

Jokes aside, tax collecting is serious business, she said, adding that property and excise taxes and other assessments are the lifeblood for any community, especially one like Holyoke.

“I like going to work every day, even if a lot of it is dealing with unhappy people,” she said, adding that many of the harder questions she gets are for the assessor, and she is essentially the “bearer of bad news.”

In addition to her work at City Hall, Shaw is very involved in her community, especially with its pride and joy, the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round. She serves on the board for the landmark attraction and chairs its fundraising committee, spearheading, among other initiatives, a golf tournament that raised $20,000.

She also serves as a member of the city’s patriotic events committee, assisting in efforts to honor veterans; she started a push-up challenge at the 2023 Memorial Day celebration and has facilitated art contests for Girls Inc. of the Valley and the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club in which young people depict what Veterans Day and Memorial Day mean to them.

For Shaw, serving the city and its people is a passion, something she takes as seriously as collecting taxes — and serving faithfully as that accountant who gets yelled at.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Marketing Director, TommyCar Auto Group: Age 37

While acknowledging that it sounds somewhat cliché, Kayla Sheridan said the broad scope of her work with TommyCar Auto Group constitutes not a job, but a passion.

“It’s important to me because it allows me to combine my love for marketing with my desire to make a positive impact in the community,” she said of her role in marketing and public relations, which also involves being the driving force behind virtually every aspect of the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament staged by the company each year. “Every campaign, event, or initiative is an opportunity for me to connect with people, inspire change, and drive success.”

A graduate of the University of Connecticut with a degree in communication sciences and business administration, Sheridan said she knew little about the auto industry when she joined TommyCar as social-media coordinator a decade ago. But she quickly immersed herself in it to better understand how to get the TommyCar message across and help position the company for continued growth.

“I’ve grown to love the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the automobile industry,” said Sheridan, who gradually took on more responsibilities and, eventually, the title of marketing director. “And one of the challenges in this industry is the need to adapt to changing trends and technologies; digital marketing, in particular, has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, and my role has been to navigate these changes and incorporate new strategies into our marketing campaigns.”

Today, she handles everything from media buying to managing the websites for the dealerships; from coordinating events and sponsorships to helping set a tone for the auto group’s philanthropic giving.

While doing that, she has become a force in the Driving for the Cure event, which has now raised more than $1.5 million for cancer research, handling everything from the securing of sponsorships to decorations in the hall; from the menu to organizing on-course activities.

“It’s been an honor to play such a pivotal role in an event that supports such a worthy cause,” she said, adding that giving back the community is one of her core values, and she does so in many ways, from participating in the Hot Chocolate Run to benefit Safe Passage to spearheading the Sip and Shop Galentine’s Day event at the TommyCar dealerships to showcase and support women-owned businesses.

The mother of two young children, Sheridan is very active in their lives, especially their many sports, including motorsports, where she can once again use that phrase ‘driving force.’

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Chief Dam Safety Engineer, FirstLight: Age 39

Media SehatzadehMedia Sehatzadeh has worked on four continents and several different countries, from Norway to Malawi. She’s thrived in all those settings, she said, because she speaks a common language she encounters everywhere: engineering.

“The engineers are the same, and they speak the same language,” she told BusinessWest. “The language of the countries may be different, but the mathematical language and the way that you approach a problem and the way you design something and make improvements … it’s heartwarming for me to see how similar it is and how much we have in common.”

Her latest work with this common language is taking place in the Northeast, as chief dam safety engineer for FirstLight, a clean-energy power producer, developer, and energy-storage company serving North America. Sehatzadeh is responsible for overseeing critical infrastructure that serves communities across Western Mass., ensuring their safety and functionality.

Her responsibilities extend to managing the overall safety program for all dams at the company’s hydroelectric facilities across New England, including the Northfield Mountain Pumped Hydro Storage Station, the largest pumped-storage asset in New England, capable of storing 8,700 megawatt-hours of electricity, sufficient to power more than 1 million homes.

Sehatzadeh said she always wanted to be a civil engineer, and after earning a bachelor’s degree in that realm in Iran, she completed a master’s program in environmental geology, hydrology, and geohazards at the University of Oslo in Norway.

“Hydrology is something within the overlap of civil engineering and geosciences,” she explained, adding that dam safety became her specific area of focus.

She started her career in Norway, but would later work on projects in different corners of the globe, including the detailed design and construction of the Kamuzu Barrage on the Shire River in Malawi in East Africa. She came to the U.S. in 2018 and eventually became a U.S. citizen.

Since arriving, she’s been part of several projects locally, including the ‘dewatering’ of the Northfield Mountain reservoir and subsequent inspection and monitoring to ensure the safety of the mountain’s dam and dikes — critical structures that “generally don’t see the light of day,” as she put it.

While proud of her work, Sehatzadeh is equally gratified by her mentorship role through Women in Hydropower and her work to encourage women to enter STEM fields.

And when not working, she enjoys art, hiking, snorkeling, and pretty much anything else that will get her outdoors.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Associate Attorney, Bacon Wilson, P.C.: Age 39

Jennifer SharrowJennifer Sharrow can’t remember the name of the book she read back in middle school. But she does recall it was about a judge, that it made a deep impact on her, and that it inspired her to want to be a judge herself.

She would later adjust that career goal slightly — with a focus on becoming a lawyer — while maintaining a strong desire to enter the legal profession because she saw it as way to help people and positively impact lives.

And she’s essentially proven herself right during a wide-ranging career to date, one that started at the height of the Great Recession — when most law firms stopped hiring — with a job at AmeriCorps, a semi-volunteer position doing organizational development for a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Manchester, N.H.

She then went on to be a civil-rights investigator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, commuting from New Hampshire to Boston on Amtrak, and then something she described as “more holistic that got me more involved in the community” — a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then the Small Business Administration in the broad realm of community development, assisting small businesses with everything from loans to recovery after natural disasters.

Sharrow continues to work with small businesses in her current role as an associate attorney with Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, handling everything from initial business formation to employment agreements; from leasing of commercial properties to sales of business assets.

She is her department’s authority on women-owned businesses, helping clients work with the state Supplier Diversity Office to give marginalized business owners access to additional opportunities. And recently, she spearheaded Bacon Wilson’s response to the new federal requirements for businesses under the Corporate Transparency Act.

“I like working with the business owners,” she said. “It’s the variety of businesses I enjoy, even when they’re starting out. Entrepreneurs amaze me; their spirit and enthusiasm in starting these businesses is inspiring. And it’s the same with the people who have been working in these businesses, building them up and putting in their time and sweat and stress. I’m just so impressed by them.”

Active in the community, Sharrow is chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals in Belchertown and a member of Springfield Women with a Purpose, the Hampden County Bar Assoc., and the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Assoc. An avid runner, she participates in many area 5Ks, especially those supporting shelter animals.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Founder and Principal, BroadLeaf Advisors: Age 36

Shavon ProphetShavon Prophet is a big believer in employee ownership of businesses.

“It’s a way that we can ensure that legacy businesses can continue on into the future and create more wealth for more people,” she said. “In the studies of employee-owned businesses, they have performed better on every outcome — recruitment and retention, employee engagement, and the stark contrast when it comes to how much wealth people have been able to build when they have an ownership stake in where they work.”

Long story short, she has made employee ownership a big part of her life’s work, the latest manifestation of which was the founding of BroadLeaf Advisors to help more businesses become owned by their employees.

Prophet has taken an intriguing path to this place in her life and career.

“I’ve always been really motivated by social impact — doing good for the world — ever since I was a child,” she explained, adding that her undergraduate degree was in environmental studies, and she started her career at green building firms.

But she ultimately felt pigeonholed by such work and eventually earned a social impact MBA and learned about social enterprise and designing businesses that were not only successful for their owners, but lasting in the community. And she would eventually focus on “democratizing the workplace,” as she put it.

As an advocate and educator of employee ownership, Prophet — a proud Filipino-American, hence the flag in her photo — has presented at several national conferences and led educational sessions for business owners and economic-development professionals across the Northeast. She has helped hundreds of business owners explore succession planning and employee-led buyouts, with a special focus on worker cooperatives and democratic business models.

In 2023, she was appointed by Gov. Maura Healey to serve on the MassCEO advisory board for a four-year term following passage of the act that enabled the organization. That same year, she was appointed to the advisory board of the Center for Women & Enterprise for the Western Mass. region. A strong supporter of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Prophet has also mentored entrepreneurs through local business accelerators, such as EforAll Pioneer Valley and Valley Venture Mentors.

And as a social entrepreneur herself, she co-founded All Good Cooperative, a multi-stakeholder cooperative made up of farmers, healers, and artisans in Western Mass. that won first place last year at the EforAll Pioneer Valley pitch contest and sold produce and goods from nine small businesses at local farmers markets.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

CEO, Academic Leadership Assoc.: Age 36

Vilenti TullochIt’s difficult enough to start a new business or nonprofit at any time and under any circumstances. But to do so at the height of a pandemic … well, that’s another story.

But that’s what Vilenti Tulloch did with the Academic Leadership Assoc. (ALA), a program with a mission to empower young people to make positive changes within themselves and in the community through mentoring literacy and self-advocacy while addressing their social and emotional needs. ALA has also developed a professional-development component called Equity in Action.

It was a step Tulloch thought he needed to take at that time in his career and with that much need within the community, and he has never looked back, capitalizing on an ability to relate to young people and, even more importantly, inspire them to set goals and then reach them.

As he explains how he started, Tulloch — who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Westfield State University and then a master’s degree in educational psychology at American International College — flashed back to when he was a teacher at an elementary school in Southbridge. “One of the administrators came to me and said, “the kids really like you; they gravitate toward you. I think it would be great if you started a mentoring program.’

“That wasn’t even on my radar back then — I was just trying to learn how to be a teacher,” he said, adding that his mentoring efforts turned into something called the Young Gentlemen’s Club. The students had to wear ties once a week, and there both check-ins and follow-ups that helped keep young people on the right path.

Tulloch would later become an adjustment counselor and then an administrator at the school before deciding to also launch his own initiative. He credits his wife, Yeselie, with coming up with the name, while he finalized a mission and a strategy for fulfilling it.

In his role, Tulloch trains mentors, leads school-based mentoring, and provides professional-development programs to nearly a dozen schools in four districts across Western Mass., including Springfield, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Holyoke.

“We’re growing, and we’re building systems that are really having an impact on the students and staff in the schools we’re working with,” he said, noting that, in 2021, he decided to devote all his time to the ALA.

Tulloch has earned several awards and accolades over the years, from a Game Changer award from the Springfield Thunderbirds to an NAACP award for community service. And now, he has another one: Forty Under 40.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Chief of Staff and General Counsel, Town of West Springfield: Age 39

Kate O’Brien Scott says she got into the legal profession “on a whim.”

Indeed, she majored in sports management at UMass Amherst, but after getting some experience in that field during an internship with the NHL’s Nashville Predators, she decided, “I don’t want to be doing ticket sales my whole life.”

Not knowing what else to do, she took the Law School Admission Test, applied to Western New England University School of Law, got accepted, and earned a scholarship. The rest is history that’s still being written.

Indeed, after working for five years in the private sector with the Springfield-based firm Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn, O’Brien Scott accepted West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt’s bid to essentially succeed him as head of the city’s Law department. And now, she follows him as a Forty Under 40 honoree.

“After he got elected mayor, we went out to lunch, and he said, ‘do you want to come work for me?’ I said, ‘absolutely,’” she recalled. “I was ready for a change of pace, and having grown up here and lived my whole life here, I thought that working for the town was something where I can make a difference in a different way.”

There are two titles on her business card — general counsel and chief of staff — with the latter emerging as she became increasingly involved in project-based work, everything from personnel issues to collective bargaining; from the town’s fiber project (in conjunction with two other department heads) to developing a downtown revitalization plan.

It’s a broad job description, one she’s enjoying.

“I like that every day is different,” she said. “When I started here in 2016, I never thought I’d be involved in all the things I’ve gotten involved in. Seeing all the behind-the-scenes things, and how they come together, and taking a project that starts as an idea to the end and then seeing the fruits of our labor is very rewarding.”

O’Brien Scott, who recently added ‘mom’ to her personal profile — her son, Callan, was born last November — is also active in the community. She has served on the board of the West Springfield Boys & Girls Club; is a member of the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Assoc.; and currently serves on the West Springfield Police Station Siting Committee, Cannabis Steering Committee, and Sister City Committee, as well as leading the Blight Task Force.

In addition, she volunteers with the West Springfield Lions Club and supports other nonprofits, while also spending time with family and playing golf and softball.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Executive Editor, Reminder Publishing: Age 28

Payton North didn’t remember aspiring to being a reporter and editor when she was growing up. But her mother found proof that this was, indeed, a long-standing career goal.

“She found a paper I wrote when I was a sophomore in high school where I talked about how I wanted to be an editor,” said North, who recalls having some interest in broadcast journalism, but eventually desired to make an impact that “would not be limited to a minute or two of soundbites.”

To say North has made that dream come true would be an understatement. She is now executive editor for Reminder Publications, leading efforts to produce eight weekly newspapers, one daily, two monthly magazines, and several specialty publications. She now oversees 20 employees as well as more than a dozen freelance writers and photographers.

She still does some writing, which she enjoys, but acknowledged that much of her time is now devoted to planning, managing, setting a tone for these publications, and mentoring younger staff members.

She acknowledged these are certainly challenging times for print publications, which have lost both readers and advertisers to the internet, but she said the need for local news remains, and such content is perhaps more important than ever.

This is the message she hammers home to young reporters, who often wonder out loud just how important it is to cover that local planning board or school committee meeting. North will answer for them.

“Accountability in our communities is so important,” she explained. “If we don’t have reporters’ boots on the ground covering our select board meetings, our town council meetings, our school board meetings — the local government that is affecting people’s taxes and their children’s school — something very important is lost. Those are the stories that really hit people in their homes, and I’m glad people come to us for that because they can’t get it anywhere else.”

While busy managing publications — and people — North is also active in the community. She volunteers with Valley Eye Radio, a nonprofit that reads and records newspapers and broadcasts in senior centers and hospitals for those who are visually impaired, and also gives of her time at Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding Center in East Longmeadow.

All of this material could go into a short item for the Reminder’s publications — one announcing that North is a deserving member of the Forty Under 40 class of 2024.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Director of Philanthropy and Community Engagement, MGM Springfield: Age 38

Jennifer McGrathJennifer McGrath is fond of saying there are … well, two sides to Jennifer McGrath.

The first is the professional side. For more than a dozen years, it played out at Six Flags New England, and for the past seven months, it’s been at another regional institution focused on fun — MGM Springfield.

The other side involves a commitment to health and wellness — her own, but especially helping others find it. This commitment involves everything from teaching Zumba and trampoline to her own fitness platform.

To say that she is passionate about both sides would be an understatement, and this passion certainly explains why she is a member of the Forty Under 40 class of 2024, and why — to quote Kristine Allard, vice president of Development & Communication at Square One, who nominated her — “Jennifer McGrath is a force in Western Mass.”

As we explain why, we’ll start with that professional side. At MGM, she handles everything from coordinating community events to supporting nonprofits, such as Square One and the Mayflower Marathon; from developing relationships with government officials and the business community to managing all philanthropic requests and coordinating charitable sponsorships.

“My biggest part of my role is impact,” she said. “How can we volunteer? How can we provide our monetary donations? How can we create impact for the city, its students, its residents, and the region as well?”

She took on similar responsibilities, and others, including the training of more than 30,000 employees, at Six Flags, and said of her career to date, “it’s all about fun, entertainment, and allowing people to escape and celebrate the fun times in life. It’s no secret my entire career’s been built around that.”

As for the other side, McGrath sums it up by saying she’s focused on “health for everybody and every body.”

She’s an instructor at Fitness First and an experienced Zumba and JumpSport instructor. “I’m all about body heath and body positivity,” she told BusinessWest. My mission is all about wellness, and that means mind, body, and spirit.

Elaborating, she said she battled eating disorders earlier in her life, and her struggles and eventual triumph led to a passion to helping others find health and wellness, especially through her fitness platform.

“Almost 300 people come together daily, and we promote body wellness,” she said. “We post body inclusion, we champion positivity, and we talk about ways we can remain healthy through mind, body, and spirit.”

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Founder, Analytics Labs: Age 39

Tiffany Cutting MadruTiffany Cutting Madru says entrepreneurship runs in her family.

Her uncle was a veterinarian, her grandfather an architect, and her parents have long owned and operated C&D Electronics, and electronic component distribution and logistics company serving the defense, aerospace, and commercial markets. And she was working with her parents, in sales and development, when she conceived her own entrepreneurial venture.

As she tells the story, she and her family became part of then-Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s efforts to roll out the welcome mat for players in the cannabis industry, which started to take root following a 2017 referendum vote.

“When some of these companies came into the area to look at where they were going to have their cultivation spaces and production spaces, we were utilized to show people around Holyoke and talk about the city and what it had to offer,” she explained, adding that, in the course of offering these tours, she asked the question, “what other parts of the supply chain are missing?”

The most commonly offered answer was ‘testing labs,’ she went on, adding that she and her husband, Ted, stepped forward to meet that need with Analytics Labs, which currently analyzes cannabis samples from more than 80 operators across the Commonwealth to ensure they meet the state’s safety standards.

The company, launched in 2019, has grown to 40 employees and is expanding into Connecticut as that state develops its own cannabis industry.

For Madru, who earned a bachelor’s degree and then an MBA in entrepreneurial thinking & innovative practices at Bay Path University, this has been a long journey and a deep learning experience in an industry that is growing, evolving, and finding its level.

“Massachusetts is maturing, and we’re starting to see more guidance from the state on the testing side,” she explained. “We do see the struggle of our clients that are coming and going, and we’re hoping that some of the market will become more consistent. There were a lot of licenses that came online for cultivation and manufacturing, and there’s been a bit of fallout; we’ll see who maintains and who survives this.”

A winner of the James McGill ’35 Carpe Diem Award at Bay Path, Madru has remained active with the university. She emceed its Women’s Leadership Conference in 2019, and that same year, she and Ted co-chaired the Bay Path University Gala. She has also been a member of the school’s Business Leadership Council, providing guidance and mentorship to the university and its students.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Owner, Dewey’s Jazz Lounge and All American Bar, Grill & Patio: Age 28

Like most people, Kenny Lumpkin found the pandemic to be a time of reflection and figuring out what’s really important.

And while doing that, he concluded that being a consultant for Big Pharma just wasn’t working for him, and he needed something else. After some research — and soul searching — he determined this something else should be a return to his roots in Springfield accompanied by an entrepreneurial gambit, an effort to replicate the kind of jazz establishment he found, and came to love, while living in the Boston area — Wally’s Café Jazz Club.

And he did, with Dewey’s Jazz Lounge on Worthington Street, an establishment he opened in 2021, when there were still many COVID after-effects and other challenges to overcome.

Three years later, Dewey’s has become a downtown staple, attracting visitors from Springfield, across the 413, and beyond. And in 2023, Lumpkin doubled down on his dream, opening a second venue — All American Bar, Grill & Patio, a sports bar on Dwight Street. The two sites complement each other well and have attracted different audiences.

“My biggest worry about opening two restaurants a block from each other is that they would cannibalize each other,” he said. “But we haven’t seen that; we’ve been able to hit both sides of the market. We have an older, more mature crowd at Dewey’s that will come to see live music, and we get a younger crowd at All-American that will get down with a DJ.”

Lumpkin, who is also active in the community, with a turkey drive at Thanksgiving and a Christmas clothing and toy drive, said being an entrepreneur is essentially what he thought he would be, a roller-coaster ride replete with challenges and rewards.

“Every day is a learning experience, and every day is something new,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s what I love about it.”

His philosophy, about life and business and their myriad challenges, is best summed up with a tattoo he wears proudly, reading ‘Find the Sun.’

“It means to find the bright side of things,” he explained. “I try to remain optimistic and see what good is coming from all the hard work you put in. And it’s amazing when people pull you aside and say, ‘you’re an inspiration to this community,’ or offer a simple ‘thank you’ for bringing this concept to Springfield.”

He’s heard a lot of that since that COVID-inspired reflection of four years ago, which helps explain why he’s a member of the Forty Under 40.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Senior Community Responsibility Consultant, MassMutual: Age 35

Joe LepperAs a freshman at Longmeadow High School, Joe Lepper was not feeling very good about how things were going in his life. There was some bullying and a distinct lack of direction.

And then … he found the school’s Key Club, a program of Kiwanis, a service organization with chapters around the world, designed for young people. And it changed his life. Dramatically.

“I found a community of people that just cared about others,” he explained. “It didn’t matter who you hung out with … if you were passionate and you cared about helping other people, you could be a great Key Club member; you could make a difference.”

The club certainly made a difference in his life, instilling a strong sense of community involvement and helping others that in many ways defines not only his life, but his current work as senior Community Responsibility consultant for MassMutual.

“Kiwanis is the reason I have the career that I have,” Lepper said, adding that, with the help of the Springfield Kiwanis Club, he was able to attend an international Key Club conference, at which he became riveted by a speech from the international president — and inspired to take that same title someday.

“I came home, and I changed my email signature from ‘club treasurer’ to ‘international president’ just to see what it would feel like, he said, adding that he later ran for New England district governor as a sophomore, got elected, then ran for international president as a junior — and, yes, got elected.

He missed 50 days of school his senior year because he was on the road giving speeches and running workshops, but said the learning experience was incredible.

Fast-forwarding, Lepper, a graduate of Western New England University, has kept Kiwanis in his life, joining the Springfield club when he was just 21 and eventually becoming its president. And the sense of community involvement instilled in him remains ever-present in his work at MassMutual, where he leads the community-responsibility strategy for the MassMutual Financial Advisors national sales force, work that includes oversight of community-impact, education, volunteer-engagement, and recognition programs.

In addition to that role, he has designed and led several programs, including the firm’s Community Service Awards recognition program and Community Responsibility Business Partner strategic consultative program.

An avid golfer, Lepper has a Scotty Cameron collection that he’s quite proud of. But he’s much more proud of his work at MassMutual, and of all that he has done with and for Kiwanis — and what Kiwanis has done for him.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Principal Radio Frequency Engineer, Verizon: Age 38

Juan Lattore IIIJuan “Jay” Latorre is not an elected official. Yet.

But he certainly knows his way around City Hall — or city halls, in the plural. And town halls as well.

Indeed, as principal radio frequency engineer for Verizon, Latorre spends a great deal of his time before elected and appointed officials across New England to locate cell towers and antenna installations. He’s worked on more than 300 such assignments during his career, often developing unique solutions for site-specific permitting, working in collaboration with municipal, state, and federal officials to secure what everyone wants and needs in this age — reliable cellular service.

Despite that need, placing these towers isn’t easy. Doing so takes understanding, patience, and, most importantly, a willingness to work collaboratively with officials and other constituencies, he said.

“And that’s great, because this work has exposed me to so many different and interesting professions, like the law, construction, real-estate development, environmental policy — all of those things give me a broader perspective on how to make a community grow.

“I’m a boots-on-the-ground kind of person; I enjoy getting to better understand the pulse of our community by meeting with people,” he went on, adding that he made it a goal to put himself in rooms full of people he doesn’t know, something that has helped him become a better person and better community leader.

While helping to ensure that calls get through, Latorre is also a leader in the community. He’s run for City Council in Springfield twice, only to come up just short. He expects there will be more such bids in the future.

Meanwhile, he currently serves as vice president of the Sixteen Acres Civic Assoc. and has been active with the Boy Scouts. An Eagle Scout himself, he’s a troop leader in Springfield for disadvantaged youths in the Latino community and has been a board member of the Western Massachusetts Council of Boy Scouts of America for many years, and is currently on its executive committee.

Latorre is also involved with the Engineering department at UMass Amherst, helping to recruit students of color to that field. He was a member of the young professionals subcommittee of Springfield City Council when it was active, and during that time, he created Restaurant Week, which has become a fixture in the city.

Add all that up, and it’s easy to see why his schedule is full — and why he doesn’t need GPS to find any city hall.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Chief Philanthropy & Communications Officer, Home City Development: Age 26

Joesiah GonzalezJoesiah Gonzalez was just 23 when he first ran — successfully — for the Springfield School Committee in 2021. He was the youngest member at the time, and he still is, presenting a challenge of sorts.

“I think that sometimes, there’s a prejudice, or hesitance, toward folks who are young in any organization or institution, and that’s something I’ve had to overcome,” said Gonzalez, who has certainly done that, taking a leadership position (he’s now the vice chair) and pushing for meaningful change on many fronts, including a policy on critical-incident drills that focuses on the safety of the city’s students.

This work on the school board is just one example of how Gonzalez has long been committed to community — and also to the nonprofits that serve it. He’s currently the chief Philanthropy and Communications officer for Home City Development, a nonprofit real-estate developer with a special focus on mixed-income housing in Western Mass., but also a provider of resident-engagement programs ranging from after-school teen initiatives to early-childhood literacy programs.

He started working with nonprofits when he was just 20, joining the New North Citizens Council (NNCC) and overseeing the after-school youth programs at Gerena School and effectively expanding them to serve more young people. He would eventually secure more than $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a Youth Build program within the NNCC, and under his leadership, that program became a department, one that would grow to 30 employees and a $2 million budget.

In his current role, he handles fundraising and communications strategies for Home City, with a primary focus, on the philanthropy side, of raising funds to support resident-service programs that assist the more than 400 families housed in Home City’s multiple affordable-housing sites, work he finds very rewarding.

“Being at the table and also at the helm of certain initiatives, especially around resident engagement, allows me to drive impact in a way that’s meaningful, especially being from the city and living in the city,” Gonzalez said, adding that he gets involved at a truly grass-roots level. “There are a lot of folks doing a lot of social-impact programs, but if we don’t check the pulse on what’s happening in our community and our neighborhoods, there can sometimes be a disconnect between well-intended efforts and true impact.”

Because he has the pulse of his community, Gonzalez’s own well-intended efforts are certainly making an impact.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Head of the Office of Health and Racial Equity, City of Springfield: Age 33

Chrismery GonzalezChismery Gonzalez says she’s always been interested in promoting equity, especially in regard to leveling the playing field for traditionally marginalized people.

And in her current role as head of the Office of Health and Racial Equity in Springfield, she’s doing just that. It’s a wide-ranging job she assumed in late 2020, one that continues to evolve and add new responsibilities, while recording progress on some fronts.

“What’s most important to realize about this work is that it’s not just one individual that’s leading this work and making strides,” she said, adding that her work has involved many different realms, from vaccination efforts during COVID to youth substance abuse to overdose prevention.

Gonzalez started working in Springfield’s Department of Health and Human Services as an intern in 2018, eventually becoming head of its Office of Problem Gambling and Prevention, before stepping into her current role around the time Springfield — and many other cities — declared racism a public-health crisis in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The city was also coping with the pandemic, a time when many public-health and wellness inequities came into the spotlight and were in some ways magnified.

Since assuming that role, Gonzalez has a number of achievements to her credit, including:

• Creating a strategic plan to address systemic racism in the city, prioritizing departments, agencies, and organizations and including key strategies to achieve a healthier Springfield;

• Coordinating with local providers and community-based organizations to develop a cohesive network of health-equity and racial-justice programs and resources in the city;

• Conducting research on current and culturally appropriate, evidenced-based practices to advance health equity and racial justice; and

• Collaborating with the Office of Health Equity at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the chief Diversity, Equity & and Inclusion officer in Springfield to develop health-equity and racial-justice training initiatives for residents.

Gonzalez, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UMass Amherst and is working toward a doctorate in Public Health at SUNY Albany, said her current work is very rewarding, especially in the way she is able work collaboratively with others — in the 413 and across the state — to address deep-rooted problems and concerns.

Active in the community, she currently serves on the Duggan Academy advisory board, the Stop Access Coalition steering committee, the Massachusetts Public Health Assoc. board (chairing its racial equity and health committee), the Massachusetts Municipal DEI Coalition, the Gándara board of directors, and other groups.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Academic Coordinator, Gateway to College at Holyoke Community College: Age 39

“Students trust Shannon. They lean in her doorway to say ‘good morning.’ They often disappear into her office, sometimes talking through some issues and sometimes just resting in a safe spot.

“Gateway students have left the traditional educational system for myriad issues, and each student needs to be seen and nurtured and valued individually. Shannon knows their triggers, their dreams, their classes, their vulnerabilities, their friends, and even their favorite snack.

“She is warm, welcoming, respectful, calm, and wise. You can feel her goodwill and compassion. She has created a culture where students feel seen and respected, where they can regain their confidence and hope and lean into their future.”

These observations, from Vivian Ostrowski, director of the Gateway to College program at Holyoke Community College (HCC), and offered in the form of a Forty Under 40 nomination, explain why Shannon Glenn is extremely good at her job — academic coordinator in the Gateway program.

In short, she has the needed qualities to help these students get where they want to go. And there’s something else: she can relate to everything they are going through.

“In high school, I was one of those students who people thought wouldn’t have graduated were it not for my mentor,” she said. “So I grew up and decided to be that for someone else.”

In her role at HCC, Glenn helps students who are at risk of dropping out, for any of many reasons, stay in school and then graduate, as evidenced by a success rate of nearly 80%. She said success comes, as Ostrowski also noted, from helping students regain both confidence and hope.

It’s an extremely rewarding job, she said.

“This is my life’s work. Taking the students that most think are not going to graduate from high school and having them be extremely successful in high school as well as college … it feels like giving the underdog an opportunity to thrive.”

Glenn has certainly thrived in her role. She came to it after working as an elementary-school teacher; leaving education to raise her son, Kasen, now 10; working in real estate; and then searching for something in higher education that would be rewarding and meet a real need.

She’s found that something at HCC, where she is also a founding member of the Black Leadership Council, an advisor to HCC Black Student Alliance, and a member of the college’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

Founder and Host, She Did That! Podcast: Age 28

They call it the Dream Maker Award.

It’s presented by Girls Inc. of the Valley to individuals who make a commitment to working with young women in the community to help make their dreams become reality.

And it’s just one of many awards and accolades that Nikai Fondon has earned over the past few years. Others include everything from first place in a pitch contest for a podcast that she conceived called “She Did That!” which highlights young professional women of color locally and across the country, to a BEST Award from the National Assoc. of Multi-ethnicity in Communications.

Because of these and many other accomplishments, she’ll soon have another award — a Forty Under 40 plaque. It’s been earned partly for her current work at Berkshire Bank, but mostly for a host of accomplishments and initiatives within and for the community, including, but certainly not limited to:

• Serving Girls Inc. as a board member, clerk, and, now, vice chair;

• Starting the first-ever DEI committee for the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield;

• Creating the region’s first virtual co-working space for young professional women of color during the pandemic;

• Facilitating leadership workshops through the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Maine Community Foundation, Bay Path University, UMass Amherst, and other entities starting at age 16;

• Teaching classes at Westfield State University and the YWCA of Greater Springfield;

• Speaking before more than a dozen youth groups across the region about entrepreneurship, leadership, and personal branding; and

• Facilitating the Springfield partnership between the Young Women’s Initiative and the Women’s Fund.

Until recently, Fondon, a graduate of UMass Amherst with a degree in business and marketing, was Financial Inclusion & Entrepreneurship community liaison at Berkshire Bank, where her work included building programs for financial literacy, workshops, and “opportunities to build trust in the community and provide educational opportunities within the community on financial matters.

“We want to make sure that the underbanked find a home at a bank in general, but, hopefully, our bank because of the work we do in the community,” she added, noting that Berkshire supports many nonprofit groups and initiatives across the region, and she has been involved with many of those efforts.

On the entrepreneurship side, she was also involved with a Berkshire Bank loan program called the Futures Fund, which has lower barriers to entry than typical loans and provides easier access to capital.

All this explains why Forty Under 40 isn’t the first award that she’s earned, and it almost certainly won’t be the last.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2024

General Manager, MassMutual Center: Age 32

Sean Dolan had June 20 circled weeks before the other 39 honorees in the Forty Under 40 class of 2024.

That’s because he won’t just be among those going to the stage to receive their plaques. Dolan will be, well, hosting this annual event. Sort of.

As general manager of the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield, he leads the team that puts on all events at the facility, including, for the first time in 2024, the Forty Under 40 Gala.

He told BusinessWest he’ll be talking that night off from work, which is OK, because he works quite a few nights, weekends, and a few holidays as well.

That’s all part of a position that comes with a broad job description that comes down to making the venue as successful as possible in the many ways success is measured, especially the yardstick Dolan calls ‘economic impact,’ which equated to $56.6 million in fiscal year 2023, and also nearly 600 jobs and more than $4.5 million in state and local tax revenues.

“The main goal every day is developing and implementing the overall strategic plan for the MassMutual Center,” said Dolan, who partners with the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and MGM Springfield to develop a vision for the venue. “Our number-one goal every day and with everything we do is how we can drive that economic impact for the city and Western Mass.”

Managing large event venues runs in the Dolan family; his brother manages an arena in Bridgeport, Conn. Sean majored in sports and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina and cut his teeth with Spectra Venue Management, including as assistant general manager and director of Operations at the Mullins Center at UMass Amherst.

He arrived at the MassMutual Center in 2018, and over the ensuring years, he has helped bring several world-class acts to the venue, from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Bruno Mars; from Disney on Ice to Red Sox Winter Weekend. Recently, he played a lead role in bringing a men’s NCAA Division 1 hockey regional to Springfield.

Dolan balances work with family — his wife Kristie and son Jack — and also involvement in the community; he’s on the board of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and volunteers for the Springfield Boys & Girls Club, the Mayflower Marathon, Habitat for Humanity, and Friends of the Homeless.

There will be many events at the MassMutual Center in 2024, but for Dolan, the one on June 20 will be different. That’s when he’ll be among those taking center stage.

—George O’Brien

 

Class of 2024

Executive Director, Amherst Survival Center: Age 39

The levels of food insecurity in this region rose dramatically during the pandemic, Lev BenEzra notes, and they continue to rise, for several reasons — from inflation, and the enormous toll it takes on families’ budgets, to the curtailment of many COVID-inspired relief initiatives.

BenEzra’s determined and imaginative efforts to tackle this critical issue certainly help to explain why she is not only a Forty Under 40 honoree, but why she tied for the highest score among the class of 2024.

In short, she has provided the leadership and vision needed to not only see the Amherst Survival Center through the upheaval of the pandemic, when it had to meet soaring needs and find new and different ways to do things, but chart a course for the next several years through strategic planning and anticipation of future challenges.

In doing so, she is continuing a two-decade-long track record of working for nonprofits, dating back to when she served as an academic coordinator for Girls Inc. of the Valley and then a curriculum specialist for the Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative in Springfield. Later, she spent more than a decade with Community Action Pioneer Valley in Greenfield, first as program manager of Youth Programs and then as director of Youth and Workforce Development, before coming to the Amherst Survival Center just months before the pandemic arrived, bringing challenge, but also opportunity, with it.

“There is something about a crisis that clarifies what it is that you’re supposed to be doing or what is truly important,” she said. “And I think that was very true, especially in the early days of leadership at the Survival Center; we provide a daily, essential service to people and, thus, did not have the option of closing or limiting access to our programs.”

During her tenure, BenEzra and her team have doubled the agency’s annual revenue; launched a successful grocery-delivery program; improved access for people from all cultures and backgrounds, while also increasing availability of food to meet different dietary needs and cultural styles of cooking; and spearheaded major HR improvements to better support the staff.

Active in the community, she is also a board member of the Community Health Center of Franklin County and has served Franklin County Pride, the Communities that Care Coalition, the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families & Youth, and the Regional Employment Board Youth Career Connections Council, among other nonprofits.

—George O’Brien

Class of 2024

State Representative, 8th Hampden District: Age 34

Shirley ArriagaShirley Arriaga says her life and career have gone pretty much according to plan. Or the plan, to be more precise.

It was one she started conceiving when she was young, one that had her moving into public service and helping to write laws that would positively impact people, something she long aspired to do, and is now doing as state representative for the 8th Hampden District — her hometown of Chicopee.

To get there, though, she knew she needed an education, and she needed to develop skills, especially leadership, and this put her on a path to the military, specifically the U.S. Air Force, serving as a loadmaster in the 337th Airlift Squadron at Westover. She would take part in deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, eventually earning the rank of staff sergeant and becoming part of the Women in Aviation initiative.

Arriaga’s service helped her continue her education — an associate degree in liberal arts from Springfield Technical Community College; a bachelor’s degree in legal studies and a paralegal certificate from Elms College; a master of law degree from Western New England University; and an associate degree in aerospace, aeronautical, and astronomical engineering from the Community College of the Air Force.

After serving in the Air Force for a decade, she worked as veterans director for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, assisting veterans with a wide range of issues, and it was this work that crystalized her desire to run for public office.

After an unsuccessful run for City Council, she set her sights much higher — filling the very large shoes of retiring, long-time state Rep. Joseph Wagner, in what everyone but her saw as a longshot bid.

“I personally knocked on 21,000 doors myself,” she said, often with her daughter, Winter, in tow. “I ended up getting some folks to volunteer, and they knocked on 5,000 more — so that’s 26,000 doors. It was a lot of hard work, sunup to sundown.”

That hard work was rewarded with victory in November 2022, followed by a year of hard learning.

“When they say it’s like drinking from a firehose, that’s exactly what it was like; there’s no manual, and you learn these things as you go,” she said, adding that she has settled in and is focused on priorities ranging from veterans to education; from small business to transportation. “It’s fast-paced, and you’re always learning, but it has been the experience of a lifetime.”

And the fulfillment of a plan she made a long time ago.

—George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

planned redevelopment of the former Wilson’s department store

An architect’s rendering of the planned redevelopment of the former Wilson’s department store into a mix of retail and housing.

Virginia “Ginny” Desorgher is a retired emergency-room nurse, mother of three, and grandmother of nine.

She had no real desire to add ‘mayor of Greenfield’ to that personal profile, but Desorgher, a transplant from the eastern part of the state and, by this time last year, a veteran city councilor and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, decided that change was needed in this city of almost 18,000.

So she ran for mayor. And she won — handily. And now that she’s been in the job for three months, she can see many similarities between being an ER nurse and being the CEO of a city.

In both settings, there is a need for triage, she explained, noting that, in the ER and with this city, there is a steady stream of cases, or issues, to be dealt with, and they must be prioritized.

“You just have to take care of the thing that’s the most important at the time and try to keep everyone happy,” she said while trying to sum up both jobs.

There is also a need for communication.

Indeed, in the ER, Desorgher said she made a habit of visiting the waiting room and talking with the patients here, explaining why their wait was so long and asking them if they needed something to eat or drink or maybe some ice for their broken ankle. As mayor, she sees a similar need to communicate, whether it’s with other city officials, residents, neighbors of the Franklin County Fairgrounds, or business owners — a constituency she heard from at a recent gathering she described as a “listening session,” during which she received input on many subjects, but especially parking.

“You just have to take care of the thing that’s the most important at the time and try to keep everyone happy.”

“I thought I kind of knew how much people cared about parking,” she said. “Now I really know that parking is quite an issue.”

But while that subject remains mostly a sore spot for this community, there is momentum on many different fronts, and what Desorgher and others described as ‘game changers’ — or potential game changers — in various stages of development.

That list includes the much-anticipated adaptive reuse of the former Wilson’s department store into a mix of retail (in the form of an expanded Green Fields Market) and housing, both of which are expected to breathe new life into the downtown.

“The initial impact on foot traffic downtown from 61 new units will be extraordinary,” said Amy Cahillane, the city’s Community and Economic Development director, adding that the project is being designed to bring these new residents into the downtown area.

It also includes the prospects for the city becoming a stop on what’s being called the ‘northern tier’ of proposed east-west rail service — one that will in many ways mirror Route 2 — as well as the pending arrival of both a Starbucks and an Aldi’s grocery story near the rotary off I-91 exit 43 and a massive redesign of Main Street, now likely to start in 2027.

Together, these game changers — coupled with some new businesses downtown; efforts to inspire and support entrepreneurship, including a new pitch contest called Take the Floor; collective efforts to bring more visitors to Greenfield and the surrounding area, especially at its oldest continuously operating fairgrounds in the country; and a greater sense of collaboration among business and economic-development agencies — have created an upbeat tone in this community, with great enthusiasm for what comes next.

Ginny Desorgher

Ginny Desorgher says she wasn’t keen on adding ‘mayor’ to her personal profile, but became convinced it was time for a change in Greenfield.

“What I’m most excited about is that we now have all these people who are thinking collectively about how we can make the most of this momentum,” said Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council.

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the many developing stories in Greenfield.

 

Tale of the Tape

And we start with a somewhat unusual gathering downtown on the Saturday before Easter.

Indeed, Desorgher, Cahillane, Deane, and others spent several hours in the central business district cleaning the bases of streetlights, an undertaking organized by the Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA).

All three had somewhat different takes on what they were expecting from this exercise, but the consensus is that it was more difficult, and time-consuming, to remove the remnants from countless posters for events — and the tape used to affix them to the structures — than they thought.

But while the work was a grind, they all said it was important, worthwhile, and much more than symbolism. And it even inspired a thought to create one or more community bulletin boards so individuals and groups would have a place to promote their events other than light poles.

Deane said the cleanup was an example of a greater sense of collaboration within the community and its many civic and business organizations, from officials in City Hall to the chamber; from the GBA to the Franklin County Community Development Corp. (FCCDC).

“What I’m most excited about is that we now have all these people who are thinking collectively about how we can make the most of this momentum.”

“There’s new energy taking place on a partnership level, and it was nice to see Greenfield leaders like the mayor come down and take action,” said Deane, adding that the cleanup was just one example of this energy. Another was the aforementioned listening session, which she said was likely the first of its kind.

“The business owners and community leaders really appreciated having the opportunity to have that kind of forum with the mayor — an open forum where they could say, ‘here’s what’s going really well, here’s what we think needs work, and how are we all going to work together to bring Greenfield forward?’ That was great.”

The streetlight cleanup project and listening session represent just two of many forms of progress, with some steps larger and more significant than others, said those we spoke with, but all critical to that sense of momentum and building toward something better.

And there are many reasons for optimism, especially what most refer to simply as the ‘Wilson’s project.’

For decades, the store represented something unique — an old-fashioned department store in an age of malls and online shopping. When it closed just prior to the pandemic, it left a huge hole in the downtown — not just real estate to be filled, but the loss of an institution.

There’s no bringing back Wilson’s, but the current plan, a proposal put forward by the Community Builders and Green Fields Market, a popular co-op currently located farther down Main Street, will bring retail and housing, specifically roughly 60 mixed-income units, to Main Street.

The housing units, as noted earlier, are expected to bring foot traffic and more vibrancy to the downtown, said Cahillane, noting that this will be foot traffic that doesn’t leave at 5 o’clock and should comprise a good mix of age groups, thus providing a boost for the growing number of restaurants and venues like the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

“The Community Builders is being thoughtful in the way they’re designing this space to encourage folks not to just exit out a rear door, get in their cars, and leave,” she explained. “Instead, they’re going to make it so it’s very easy to get from the apartments onto Main Street; this encourages them to come out into the community.”

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $20.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.39
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, several other properties downtown are in various stages of bringing upper floors online for housing, Cahillane explained, adding that this movement will help ease a housing crunch — which she considers the most pressing issue in the community — and generate still more foot traffic, which should help bring more businesses to the downtown.

There are already some recent additions in that area, including a computer-repair store on Federal Street, and, on Main Street, Sweet Phoenix, an antiques and crafts store, and Posada’s, a family-owned Mexican restaurant that the mayor said is “always packed.”

Meanwhile, the plans for Aldi’s and Starbucks, both in the early stages, are generating some excitement, the mayor added, noting that the latter, especially, will provide motorists on I-91 with yet another reason to get off in Greenfield and perhaps stay a while.

 

Getting Down to Business

These additions bolster an already large and diverse mix of businesses in the city, which still boasts some manufacturing — though certainly not as much as was present decades ago — as well as a healthy mix of tourism and hospitality-related ventures, service businesses, nonprofits (Greenfield serves as the hub for the larger Franklin County area), and several startups and next-stage businesses in various sectors, from IT to food production.

One of those long-standing businesses is Adams Donuts on Federal Street, now owned by Sabra Billings and her twin sister, Sidra Baranoski.

Originally opened in the ’50s, Adams Donuts is an institution, well-known — and in many cases revered — by several generations of area families. There have been several owners not named Adams, Billings said, adding that the one before her closed the establishment during COVID with the intention of reopening, but never did.

The two sisters stepped forward to keep a tradition alive — and work for themselves instead of someone else.

“It was kind of crazy; we’d never owned a business before, but here we were buying a shuttered business in the middle of a pandemic,” Billings said. “But it’s been really special to be part of the community, and what we call the ‘Adams community’; there are generations from the same families that are customers.”

Thus, they’re part of what could be called a groundswell of entrepreneurship in Greenfield and across Franklin County, one that John Waite, executive director of the FCCDC, has witnessed firsthand over the past 24 years he’s spent in that role.

He said there is a large, and growing, amount of entrepreneurial energy in Greenfield and across the county, largely out of necessity.

Indeed, since the larger businesses, most of them manufacturers, closed or left, the region and its largest city are more dependent on smaller businesses and the people who have the imagination, determination, and ideas with which to start them.

And the FCCDC is supporting these business owners in many different ways. The agency has several divisions, if you will, including direct business assistance — everything from technical assistance to grant funds to support ventures of various sizes — to a venture center that now boasts six tenants, to the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, which boasts 66 active clients processing, canning, and jarring everything from salsa to applesauce to fudge sauce.

Overall, the FCCDC served more than 350 clients in FY 2023, loaned out nearly $3 million to 31 businesses, and carried out work that resulted in the creation of 70 jobs and the preservation of 114 jobs, said Waite, adding that one of its more impactful initiatives is its loan program.

The loans vary in size from a few thousand dollars to $300,000, and the agency can work with area banks if a venture needs more. They are offered to businesses across a wide spectrum, including hospitality, a sector where there is often need, Waite noted, citing the example of 10 Forward, a unique performing-arts venue and cocktail bar on Fiske Avenue in the downtown.

“A lot of musicians need a place to play, and they’ll sign them up, and they’ll do comedy once in a while,” he explained, adding that the venue is part of an evolving downtown, one that now has more things happening at night and more events and programs to attract the young people who provide needed energy.

Meanwhile, Take the Floor, a CDC initiative that involves the entire county, is another avenue of support. The Shark Tank-like pitch contest has attracted dreamers across the broad spectrum of business, and the top three performers at three different contests — the latest was in Orange — will compete for $10,000 in prizes in the finale at Hawks & Reed.

“Developing our entrepreneurial infrastructure is very important to this region,” Waite said. “We want to make sure people know where they can go for resources to help them succeed.”

Where Are They Now?

Where Are They Now?

Will Dávila

Will Dávila says he’s always sought out career opportunities where he can make an impact.

 

Will Dávila says he’s learned from experience — and some not-so-pleasant experiences, to be more precise — that, when a job isn’t working for you, you don’t stay in it.

And in his case, ‘not working’ translates directly to “you don’t feel fulfilled, you don’t feel like you’re having an impact or making a difference, and it just doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening.”

Such was the case with his short tenure serving as campus executive director of the UMass Center at Springfield a decade or so ago. He envisioned the role as one where he could “bring education to this community and really promote higher education as an opportunity for kids like me, who grew up in Springfield, in the projects, and had limited opportunities.”

The reality was different as the facility struggled to ramp up enrollment.

“Instead, I spent almost all my time giving tours,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the facility, created on the mezzanine level at Tower Square, had just opened, and many business and civic leaders, as well as the press, wanted to see it. “I said, ‘I’m a social worker. I’ve been in human services my whole career. This is not a good use of my time.’”

Coincidentally, one of those who eventually came in for a tour was Jim Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development (CHD), and during that visit, the two started talking, a discussion that eventually led to Dávila becoming vice president of Clinical Services for the agency.

He would spend a few years in that role before becoming a nonprofit consultant and executive advisor, then leading two nonprofits, and then returning to CHD last October to assume the role of vice president of Diversion, Shelter & Housing, a role where he believes he’s making a deep impact.

Overall, it’s a been a winding journey with a few of those jobs that weren’t working, but, overall, it’s been a rewarding career in the broad realm of health and human services, one that serves as an appropriate and poignant starting point for a new series we’re launching at BusinessWest called, appropriately enough, ‘Where Are They Now?’

“Part of the unfortunate reality is that they move through a continuum of services. So I consider myself privileged to have worked in many parts of that continuum.”

As the magazine prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary of serving the region, and as some of its recognition programs — which have brought hundreds of individuals and groups into the spotlight — approach two decades of existence, there is a need to update many of the stories we have told over those years.

We begin with Dávila, who started his career with nonprofits focused on health and human services more than 20 years ago, when he became Metro Boston regional manager for Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. Then came his first stint at the agency now known as Helix Human Services, then known as the Children’s Study Home.

But it was a few years later, when he was serving as director of Outpatient Services at the Gándara Center in Springfield, when he was first recognized by BusinessWest, as a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2013.

Soon thereafter came that short stint at the UMass Center at Springfield, his first stint at CHD, work as a consultant, a return to what is now Helix as executive director and CEO (when that agency was being rebranded and also being recognized by BusinessWest as a Difference Maker), and then a very short stint — a cautionary tale, as he calls it — as CEO of the Villa of Hope in Greece, N.Y., another of those jobs that just wasn’t working, this time for different reasons.

“The board was not really forthcoming about the real condition of the organization,” Dávila said, adding that what he found did not match what he was told in interviews, regarding everything from the budget — the $20 million agency was trending toward a $4 million deficit for the fiscal year soon to come to a close — to the workforce, to the vacancies within its programs.

He is now back at the agency he calls home (this is actually his third stint there), in a role where he oversees a staff of roughly 240, an annual budget of $34 million, and a division with dozens of family and individual units, several emergency shelter hotels, and other housing options.

This latest assignment enables him to add another line, another area of focus — in this case housing — to his résumé and, far more importantly, make an impact and a difference in people’s lives.

“It’s an amazing department and an amazing service,” Dávila said. “It’s something different, but, surprisingly, it’s not all that different. A lot of the folks we’re dealing with are the same people we’re assisting in residential, in children’s services, foster-care and outpatient services, and substance-abuse services.

“Part of the unfortunate reality is that they move through a continuum of services,” he went on. “So I consider myself privileged to have worked in many parts of that continuum and actually lead some of them, so this is a nice addition to my portfolio, if you will.”

That’s where Dávila is now — and where he plans to be for some time, because this job definitely does work for him.

 

—George O’Brien