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All the Right Moves

Fran Arnold and his wife, Rosemary, have guided the family business through consistent growth and evolution over the past four decades.

Conklin Office recently completed the consolidation of its various operations into the former Ampad factory on Appleton Street in Holyoke. The new space tells a story about how this company has evolved over the years — and also about the modern office and what it should look like.

The back wall of the massive showroom at Conklin Office Furniture’s complex on Appleton Street in Holyoke is decorated in a somewhat unorthodox but quite meaningful way.

There, Fran Arnold, owner and president of this multi-faceted, family-run operation, has arranged some of the signs that have hung on the company’s facilities over the years, including one from when he bought the venture in 1981; it says ‘Conklin Office & School Supply Company.’

“I kept them — and I thought this would be good place for them,” said Arnold as he offered a tour of the sprawling facility. “They tell a story, really — they tell how far we’ve come over all these years.”

Indeed, they do.

The ‘Office & School Supplies’ part of the operation was scrapped a long time ago as Staples and businesses like it took over that part of the world. And the ‘office’ part of the equation has evolved tremendously into a company with a host of moving parts — from sales of new and mostly used furniture (including lines the company has developed itself) to recycling and reconditioning of furniture of all kinds, to an office-design component.

It’s all under one roof now — one very large roof — after the company moved its showroom and offices from a facility on Canal Street (sold to one of the many entities now looking to cultivate cannabis in Holyoke’s vast portfolio of old paper and textile mills) last fall. It was quite a move, as one can imagine, and the company is in many ways still catching its breath after that lengthy and logistically complex undertaking.

“We decided to do it like a Band-Aid; we just pulled it off quickly,” he said, noting that the move came in one large stage that ended in October rather than several, and the moving-in process is still ongoing in some respects.

But the new space seems to be well worth all the cost and trouble. And it gives the company an opportunity to not only display all that it sells, but also put the modern office — or the emerging interpretation of the modern office — on full display.

“I don’t think the ink on the contract was dry when Staples opened up. That put such pressure on all the old, local office-supply dealers that many of them went of business. I took a turn toward used office furniture.”

Indeed, the office/welcome area at Conklin employs many of the current trends, said Arnold, from the glass walls that surround his own office to the wide-open spaces, distinct lack of cubicle walls, modern lighting, and sit-stand desks being used by employees.

Meanwhile, the items on the floor, especially new benching models and smaller workstations, speak to how businesses are maximizing the square footage they’re willing to pay for.

The signs on the back wall of the new showroom help tell how far this business has come over the years.

“Everything is moving toward efficiency and budget,” he explained. “The individual workspace is getting smaller, but that’s necessary — office space in New York and these other major cities costs a fortune today, so companies are reducing the size of the footprint the person sits in, but the spaces are open and more conducive to collaboration.”

Conklin’s product lines, and its own offices, speak to these trends, said Arnold, adding that, while the company responds to these movements, it is also living up to the motto seen on many of those aforementioned signs: “What Goes Around Comes Around.”

That’s a nod (and a play on words) to the recycling and re-manufacturing aspects of the business — huge components of the operation — but also to its very ‘green’ mindset (right down to the 2,600 solar panels on the roof) and the way the company does business with a wide range of businesses in sectors ranging from education to financial services to manufacturing.

For this issue, BusinessWest visited the Conklin complex in Holyoke and talked with Arnold about office furniture, the modern office and how it continues to evolve, that motto and all that it reflects, and those signs along the wall in the showroom and how they really do tell a compelling story.

News Desks

While office design and office furniture are obviously serious businesses, Arnold said it’s quite OK — and actually quite necessary, in his mind — to have a little fun with it all.

Hence the names on many of the chairs he showed BusinessWest in one of the showrooms.

There’s the ‘Nellie,’ named after one of his granddaughters; the ‘Roxie,’ named after Conklin’s office manager; the ‘Brode,’ named after one of his grandsons; and the ‘Vito,’ named after … him; that’s what his grandkids call him. There’s also the ‘Junior Vito,’ a slightly smaller version of the original.

Conklin’s new facilities were designed to reflect the changes that have come to the modern office.

These chairs, all on the cutting edge of ergonomic trends, are part of the Gateway line of furniture the Conklin company has developed itself. The products — everything from chairs to benching to laminate furniture — are made in China, said Arnold, and they’re selling well as companies large and small look for value, quality, and chairs that are ergonomically friendly.

‘Fun’ isn’t a word that word that would be used to describe Conklin’s recent move — Arnold shook his head as he thought back on all that was involved — but it was necessary in some ways, and now that it’s over, the company is in a better place than it was — figuratively but also quite literally.

Arnold was able to take advantage of the soaring interest in Holyoke real estate, and the company, as noted, is now able to put everything together under one roof.

And as the tour clearly showed, it is a huge roof, and there is a lot under it.

The many components have come together over the past 39 and a half years, and there has been constant evolution, said Arnold, noting that, as that sign said, the Conklin company he bought in 1980 sold office supplies.

“I don’t think the ink on the contract was dry when Staples opened up,” he recalled. “That put such pressure on all the old, local office-supply dealers that many of them went of business. I took a turn toward used office furniture.”

And that has been the company’s main focus for most of its existence — buying and reselling used furniture, often refinishing, refurbishing, or ‘remanufacturing’ it (the term the company prefers to use) before it lands in the showroom or the warehouse. This mindset is captured succinctly in another one of those old signs hanging on the back wall: Beside the company name and logo, it reads ‘Don’t Monkey Around with the High Cost of New Office Furniture.’

Companies of all shapes and sizes have heeded that advice, and Conklin has taken full advantage, growing into one of the largest operations of its kind, with other offices in Red Bank, N.J., Philadelphia, and Chicago.

The company’s showrooms are filled with furniture bought across the country from a variety of sources. Very often, it arrives via liquidations — large companies either closing or moving from one space to another and selling the furniture it leaves behind.

“You can’t move more than 100 people over a weekend and move the furniture at the same time,” Arnold explained. “They need to move into furniture that was already set up.”

The Conklin company spent the ’80s and a good part of the ’90s building up the vast amounts of capital needed to properly run a business like this one and expanding operations. The company was located on Lyman Street in Springfield for a number of years, and also operated out of property on Warwick Street.

“You used to be able to put 100 8-by-8 cubicles on a floor; today, you can put 250 people on that floor. And what the employees are getting back by having so little space are big open areas.”

In 2005, Conklin moved its headquarters to the massive facility on Canal Street that was formerly home to American Thread and one of the first factory buildings built in Holyoke, and later moved the showroom (still on Lyman Street) there as well.

“We never thought we’d fill up Canal Street, but we did,” he Arnold went on, adding that the company eventually needed additional space and found it, ironically enough at the former Ampad facility on Appleton Street (Ampad made the legal pads and other office products the Conklin company once sold), which it purchased in 2008.

And in that 233,000-square-foot facility, the company greatly expanded its reconditioning and remanufacturing operations, adding a powder-coating operation, reupholstering, and more. Eventually, it was decided that operations needed to be moved there as well.

“I thought that the building on Canal Street was not really conducive to what we do,” he said. “We need higher ceilings and big areas to move in, and I started thinking about selling Canal Steet.”

Those thoughts coincided with the start of the cannabis era in Massachusetts and broad interest in Holyoke’s old mills for a number of possible reuses — cannabis in particular, but also condominiums and apartments.

“There were two or three serious possibilities in play working with condominiums or apartments,” he recalled. “But, lo and behold, cannabis was legalized, and they came after the building.”

‘They’ is True Leaf, a Florida-based medical-marijuana dispensary, he went on, adding that things moved quickly after that, with Conklin having to move out 150,000 square feet of space cram-packed with furniture.

Space Exploration

And eventually move it into space Arnold described as “totally raw” and, like much of the used furniture that comes his way, in need of some refurbishing. His staff now occupies the former administration area of the Ampad operation, space that looked like offices used to look, with enclosed private offices against the windows and tall cubicle walls outside — “people really couldn’t see much further than eight or 10 feet away from where they were.”

That has all been replaced with what most are saying the modern office should look like, said Arnold, who, as he talked about trends in modern office furniture and design, abruptly stopped talking and started walking toward a showroom area at the front of the store where the ‘Roxie’ and ‘Nellie’ are on display.

Talking again as he walked, he said offices everywhere, but especially those in large cities where real-estate prices are soaring, are getting smaller, and every square foot is being put to efficient, meaningful use.

Many people are doing some work at home, he went on, and companies are encouraging more people to join those ranks. For those who do come to the office, their employers are seemingly in a mood to trade more of those aforementioned wide-open spaces for smaller actual workspaces.

“You used to be able to put 100 8-by-8 cubicles on a floor; today, you can put 250 people on that floor,” he said. “And what the employees are getting back by having so little space are big open areas to continue their productivity — areas for collaboration, coffee bars, and just communal areas where they can be themselves. And windows are being left open, so they can see what’s going on outside.”

To get this point across, he referenced a product the company is selling a lot of these days — benching. These are small workstations — a desk with a drawer or two underneath — arranged in rows, or benches, with fabric screens separating the workers on either side of these benches.

While some of these workspaces measure 30” by 72”, said Arnold, many companies have moved to 60” and others to 54” or even 48”. The goal, as he said, is to put more people into a smaller amount of space, knowing they only spend some of their time at these spaces, with the rest in those collaborative areas mentioned earlier.

The Conklin website now lists a number of benching options, many part of what it calls its Stretch line, as well as what would be considered today’s ‘private’ office — a desk (often one that can be raised or lowered), credenza, and pedestal, all of them small in comparison to what was popular years ago.

And while staying at the forefront of these trends, with its Gateway line and items on the showroom floor, Conklin is working hard to respect that motto and be ‘green’ in every way it can — from the solar panels, which produce enough power for roughly 125 homes, to every aspect of the recycling operations.

“When we take a [cubicle] panel apart, all the fabric gets sent down south; it gets ground up and recycled,” Arnold said. “The shrink wrap gets baled and sent to a local company that makes oil from it. All the cardboard is baled … very, very little goes to the landfill.

“We’ve been ‘green’ from the very beginning,” he went on. “It’s a big part of who we are.”

Chair Man

As he walked around the office area at the new headquarters building, Arnold noted that all it might be missing, that’s might, is a large aquarium — a touch he might look to add in the near future.

Other than that, it represents all that the modern office is — or should be — in terms of space, light, glass, work areas, amenities for employees, and space-saving strategies for employers.

It also represents change and evolution for this company, which has come a long way since it sold office and school supplies on Lyman Street.

Like Arnold said, those signs on the showroom wall tell a story — one of ongoing growth, evolution, being ‘green,’ being proactive, and introducing products like the ‘Vito’ and the ‘Junior Vito.’

A story with a number of intriguing chapters still to be written.

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

Banking and Financial Services

Forward Progress

President and CEO Mike Ostrowski

Arrha President and CEO Mike Ostrowski says credit unions have in many ways filled the void left by many of the smaller community banks that have disappeared from the landscape. To take full advantage of opportunities that are presenting themselves, an institution must have a blend of size and nimbleness — and a name that resonates. He believes Arrha has all three.

Mike Ostrowski calls it his ‘jungle home.’

Because … that’s what it is. The Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica is quite remote, and that’s what Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, likes about it.

“I have a little hut there — there’s no electricity, there’s no anything,” he explained while grabbing his phone to show photos of the area. “I typically go down there for two weeks; I alternate between living in the jungle and this tiny fishing village where I’ll stay for a few days. That’s my release.”

The upcoming trip, one coinciding with his 60th birthday later this month, will be a shorter stint, only six days, he said, adding that this is a good time of year to go because the fishing is good — he’ll be looking to land blue marlin and black tuna — and it is not rainy season.

“That comes in June,” he said. “And when it rains, it rains. It’s unbelievable how much water comes down. It’s like standing in a shower.”

He’ll return from this trip to a jungle of a different sort — a rapidly changing landscape in banking and financial services. It’s not exactly a hostile environment, but there are plenty of challenges — from razor-thin margins resulting from historically low interest rates to ever-escalating regulation — and competition that comes in all shapes and sizes and from all directions.

To survive and thrive in this environment, he told BusinessWest, an institution needs a solid blend of size and nimbleness and he believes Arrha — that’s the new brand that the former Springfield Teachers Credit Union assumed roughly five years ago — is strategically aligning itself to achieve both.

“We’ve been building that [commercial real-estate] business slowly and methodically for several years now. But it’s accelerating because of that vacuum created when banks like United leave; there’s no question that we’re taking advantage of opportunities like that.”

While size has become increasingly important in this age, that nimble quality is critical as well, he said, especially with all that competition, including the ever-growing roster of fintech companies offering everything from platforms with which the pay bills to risk-management services to payment-protection solutions.

“They’re all nipping at our heels for the dollars that a typical credit union or bank might get,” Ostrowski explained. “We’re fighting the battle on that front, and, fortunately, we have some of the best technology available; we can do anything they can do, and we can probably do it better because we’re local.”

But amid these many challenges there are also opportunities, he said, especially as a pattern of mergers and consolidations within the banking industry continues, such as with the recent acquisition of United Bank by Peoples United Bank.

As banks get larger and more of them become publicly held, he noted, credit unions have in many ways taken the spot once occupied by many of the smaller community banks that have disappeared from the landscape.

“And that’s a healthy thing,” said Ostrowski, who has spent the past 37 years in the financial-services sector and worked for a number of those community banks, including United, where he got his start, and Ludlow Savings. “That’s a normal progression of the industries; we’re looking to fill a void, a vacuum; people want to deal locally. The solid credit unions are taking the place of those local banking institutions that were around.”

To take full advantage of these opportunities and effectively and efficiently fill this void — something many other players are trying to do as well — Ostrowski said Arrha needs to be nimble, take full advantage of technology, stress its personable brand of service, and do what’s needed to attract the younger generations.

All of this, in a nutshell, is the strategic plan moving forward, he said, adding that the bank is looking to introduce ITMs (interactive teller machines) in its two locations, possibly by the middle of the year, and create what he calls the ‘branch of the future,’ something that will become a model for possible future expansion into smaller physical spaces.

This model involves the interactive technology, the ITMs, but also the human touch in the form of banking professionals making sure customers are comfortable using that technology and that all their needs are met.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said, noting that the technology is already in place in several area institutions. “We just want to be on the cutting edge; this concept will be taking off soon, and I want to be on the forefront of it.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with Ostrowski about Arrha’s strategic plan moving forward, one that calls for smart growth, taking advantage of the opportunities presenting themselves, and positioning itself for life in this jungle.

Points of Interest

Ostrowski has a small collection of bobbleheads residing atop a bookshelf in his office at Arrha’s Springfield’s facility on Industrial Drive.

When asked about it, he quickly deferred to a different collection, one that has more meaning.

This is an assemblage of coffee cups bearing names of financial institutions he once worked for. A few have been turned upside down, Ostrowski’s way of indicating that the bank in question made some key strategic mistakes, which in some cases led to that brand disappearing from the landscape.

Mike Ostrowski says Arrha will soon be introducing ITMs and creating what he called the ‘branch of the future.’

Opting not to go into specific details about any of these institutions, he hinted strongly that many of these mistakes involved trying to grow too quickly, taking unwarranted risks, and becoming something the bank wasn’t.

And he’s committed to not making these mistakes with Arrha, a credit union that first operated out of a classroom at Commerce High School in Springfield at the dawn of the Great Depression. His plan is for slow, steady growth — in memberships, assets, deposits, commercial loans, and perhaps locations, although he has no immediate plans to broaden the portfolio beyond the current two.

In short, he intends to continue living up to the credit union’s still somewhat new and unusual name — Arrha, an old English word that translates into ‘money in exchange for a contract, a pledge in earnest.’

Ostrowski said the name change was needed because the former name, Springfield Teachers Credit Union, and even the shortened version, STCU, didn’t adequately convey that membership was open to anyone who lives or works in the three counties of the Pioneer Valley.

The new name does — sort of — but often needs to be explained. Ostrowski doesn’t mind; in fact, he looks forward to doing it.

“That’s exactly why we picked the name — it gives us a chance to tell the story,” he told BusinessWest. “So, from a marketing perspective, I think it’s brilliant.”

The story, at present, is of a still relatively small credit union — it’s in the middle of the pack among area institutions of this type with roughly $140 million in assets — working to grow and position itself for success in the long term.

As for growth, Arrha has seen a steady rise in membership, said Ostrowski, noting that, over the past 18 months or so, it has gained more than 1,500 and now boasts more than 11,500.

“If we were Boston, where there’s a lot of inflow of people, I would not be too happy with those numbers, but given where we are and what the statistics show, I’m quite pleased,” he said, noting, as all other bank and credit-union leaders do, that this is, by and large, a no-growth area. Meanwhile, even though Arrha’s expanded criteria for membership — Hampden, Hampden, and Franklin counties in addition to some of Northern Conn. — appears broad, it is still somewhat restrictive, at least when compared to most banks in the region.

In this no-growth environment, the institution must look to do more with existing customers and offer more services, such as commercial lending and commercial checking accounts. Arrha expanded into this realm several years ago, and has built a solid portfolio, most of it involving commercial real estate.

“We’ve been building that business slowly and methodically for several years now,” he explained. “But it’s accelerating because of that vacuum created when banks like United leave; there’s no question that we’re taking advantage of opportunities like that.”

As with all other aspects of the credit union’s operation, the commercial side of the ledger is driven by relationship-building efforts, he said, adding that these relationships are developed far more through trust than interest rates.

By All Accounts

While working to build the membership base and commercial portfolio, Arrha is also taking a number of steps to attract younger audiences, said Ostrowski, noting that these initiatives involve everything from financial-literacy programs involving area high-school students to digital marketing programs, to making sure the credit union remains on the cutting edge of technology — something that’s quite necessary to get and keep the attention of Millennials and those behind them.

“It’s a tough generation to reach,” he acknowledged, adding that digital marketing is fast becoming the most reliable method. “And some of them have never been inside a bank or credit union.”

Still, all members of this generation will eventually need what he called a “warm hug” — the personalized service they’ll need when filling out their first mortgage application or looking to buy a business.

“And we’re here for them when they need that warm hug,” he went on, adding that Arrha is enjoying some success with attracting the younger generations, as evidenced by the fact that the average age of its members has gone down — by two years — while that number has been going up industry-wide.

“That tells me that we’re achieving what we’re intending to do when it comes to reaching out to that generation,” he said, adding that, specifically, this is the 25-to-35 age group.

And if all goes according to plan, when these individuals — and all other customers — enter one of the Arrha locations later this year, they’ll be stepping into that ‘bank of the future’ Ostrowski mentioned.

The credit union is currently in the exploratory stage on the new technology, with plans to implement the changes perhaps six months from now, he noted, adding that the institution will do its homework and due diligence and make sure this important work is undertaken properly.

He expects that the blend of technology and human touch will resonate with not only Millennials, but all generations. And he believes it could also serve as an effective model for smaller, highly efficient branches in the future, facilities that could enable Arrha to expand its physical presence to other communities.

“This will give us the ability to do additional branching at a lower cost structure,” he explained, adding that a facility with a few ITMs and perhaps two or three staff members would need only 1,000 square feet, and perhaps half that, as opposed to a traditional branch several times that size.

Ostrowski said he was inspired by what he saw at an institution in the Washington, D.C. area, which had ITMs and three roving employees qualified to handle everything from car and mortgage loans to wire transfers, and is looking to do something similar here.

“They had the ability to handle every banking need — but they weren’t wasting their time doing transitional deposits or withdrawals,” he said. “It’s a far more efficient way to do things, and it’s still very member-friendly.”

Bottom Line

That branch of the future seems a long way from that hut on the Osa Penninsula — in every way imaginable.

But they’re both in a jungle in some respects.

This jungle in the 413 is a highly competitive environment where, as noted earlier when mentioning banks not around anymore, survival is not assured. It can be secured by being forward-thinking, on the leading edge of technology, and customer-friendly.

In short, it happens by avoiding the kinds of mistakes that would prompt Ostrowski to turn a coffee cup upside down.

And that, in plain, basic terms, is the business plan for Arrha.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project is ahead of schedule, and with a new acceleration agreement in place, it is due to be completed by late summer next year.

Mayor William Sapelli said he received the text late on a Friday afternoon earlier this month, and it was somewhat unexpected; he was anticipating word coming later.

But it was very, very welcome.

It came from state Lt. Gov. Karen Polito, and it said, in essence, that the state had approved what’s known as an acceleration agreement for the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project. What that means is that money has been apportioned that will allow the general contractor, Palmer-based Northern Construction, to pay crews overtime to work on nights and weekends to accelerate (hence the name) the timeline for completing what amounts to a full replacement and widening of the 74-year-old bridge over the Westfield River.

As a result, the anticipated completion date, originally May 21, 2022, is now August 9, 2021.

And what this means is that the 2020 edition of the Big E will be the last that will have to contend with this all-important span, which links Agawam with West Springfield, being under construction.

That’s why that text was so welcome. Even though the two communities, the Big E, tens of thousands of people who visited it, and those who live, work, and do business near the bridge somehow made it through the 2019 exposition without major incident, doing so presented a serious challenge.

It’s not something they’d want to do again, but they’re quite grateful to only do it once more, to be sure.

“This is great news regarding the bridge,” said the mayor. “With this acceleration plan, we’re going to cut almost a year off the completion time.”

The bridge project has been the dominant topic of conversation in this city (remember, it has a mayor) that is still officially called the Town of Agawam since well before construction began. And Sapelli has been part of many of those conversations as he continues a daily ritual of eating breakfast — and often holding court — at different eateries in the community.

“We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”

As was noted in this space last year, this rotation includes Partners, Giovanni’s, and a somewhat new addition, the Pride station on North Westfield Street in the center of Feeding Hills.

“There, it’s a bunch of old-timers — a great bunch of guys; I’m the youngest one there,” Sapelli, the retired school superintendent who just started his second two-year term as mayor, noted. “We used to meet at the McDonald’s, but with the renovation at Pride, they moved over there. That’s on Mondays; I’m there at 7 and then in City Hall by 7:30. We sometimes take up as many five tables, and there’s always a lot to talk about … beyond the bridge.”

Indeed, while that project has complicated things at and for the Big E and also caused some initiatives to hit the ‘pause’ button, including redevelopment of the Games & Lanes building on Walnut Street Extension and the site of a former motel on Suffield Street, there are still things happening.

Indeed, the shopping plaza on Springfield Street once dominated by a FoodMart that saw its roof collapse and has struggled with vacancies in recent years is now essentially full. The latest additions include Still Bar & Grill — now occupying space that was briefly home to a satellite location of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — and a small but intriguing market called Kielbasa and Dairy. It sells more than those items, but they are the headliners. Which explains why they’re on the sign.

Agawam at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, a new tenant — TW Metals, a subsidiary of O’Neal Industries — has taken over roughly half the sprawling space once occupied by Simmons Mattress in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, a Westmass property located on the site of the former Bowles Airport.

Also, another new business, Vanguard Renewables, an organic recycler, has broken ground on Main Street, said Sapelli, adding that a new over-55 housing development is being planned for a large parcel on South Westfield Street, and a number of vacancies in the myriad strip malls and small shopping centers that populate the city are being filled.

And perhaps the best news for the business community is that the business tax rate has come down slightly, a step that Sapelli believes speaks loudly about this community’s commitment to being business-friendly.

For this, the latest edition of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Sapelli about all these matters and what they mean moving forward for a community that is very much looking forward to life after this bridge project has been completed.

Food for Thought

Getting back to those gatherings over breakfast, Sapelli said the tone has been generally positive lately — and it hasn’t always been so, especially in the ramp-up, if you’ll pardon the expression, to the start of the bridge project.

The improved mood can be attributed in part to the bridge work already being ahead of schedule — thanks to a considerable amount of work on nights and weekends — and the fact that, while there have been inconveniences, they haven’t been as bad as many anticipated.

“What I’m hearing — and believe me, they wouldn’t be afraid to tell me otherwise — is how smoothly they think things are going,” said the mayor. “It’s not as congested as they thought it would be, and things are moving pretty well and they’re on schedule, which never happens with projects like this.”

That held true, generally speaking, for the 17 days of the Big E last September, he went on, adding that a great deal of collaboration and early planning efforts paid off handsomely.

“It wasn’t as bad as many people thought it would be, and I heard that not only from residents but police officers working details,” said Sapelli. “And we attribute this to the fact that we met — with ‘we’ meaning the police, the administration, West Springfield police, and the Big E — and came up with a plan of action.”

Elaborating, he said the Big E printed materials instructing motorists how to get to the fairgrounds without using Routes 75 (Suffield Street) and 159. And visitors — most of them, anyway — heeded that advice. The Big E also used park-ride facilities in Agawam that helped ease traffic on and around the bridge, despite record attendance at the fair.

And for the 2020 edition … well, things will go a little more smoothly because the three lanes to the south of the bridge (now under construction) will be open, as opposed to the two lanes on the north side currently being used.

But enough about the bridge. There are other things happening in the community, starting with that important vote on the commercial tax rate, said Sapelli.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is making progress on many economic-development fronts, from filling vacant storefronts to zoning reform to workforce-development initiatives in its schools.

The town’s split rate now looks like this: $16.83 residential and $31.61 commercial. Last year, the numbers were $16.65 and $31.92. Commercial rates don’t generally go down at the expense of the residential side, Sapelli acknowledged, and the decrease was only 31 cents.

But that’s an important 31 cents, perhaps on the tax bill and certainly from the standpoint of sending a message, said the mayor, adding that some historical perspective is in order.

“Years ago, when the split in the tax rates originally started, the rates were fairly close; now, the commercial rate is almost double,” he explained, adding that he and other city officials decided it was time to move them closer together.

“At my presentation to the City Council, I talked about how we, as public officials, talk about being business-friendly,” he recalled. “It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to do it.”

He believes the unanimous vote in the council is a solid example of ‘doing it,’ and he believes it might help bring more new businesses to consider Agawam moving forward.

In addition to that lower rate, the community boasts good schools, available land, plenty of parks and recreation (three golf courses, for example), and, as noted, ample opportunities for retail operations.

There have already been some intriguing additions, he said, noting that the Still and Kielbasa and Dairy are solid additions to the plaza on Springfield Street, and they’re helping bring more people to that section of Agawam.

Meanwhile, TW Metals helps fill a troubling vacancy in the industrial park, he noted. The company signed a 10-year lease for 65,000 square feet, half the nearly 130,000-square-foot building, now owned by Agawam 320 TGCI LLC, an affiliate of the Grossman Companies.

“I think we’re doing well because of our location and because we’re business-friendly,” said Sapelli. “We’ve expedited our permitting process to try to make it easier; we certainly don’t look the other way or cut corners, but there are things we can do to expedite the permitting process and make it less complicated for people to come to town.”

Bridging the Gap

As noted earlier, the bridge project has put some initiatives on hold in this community, including efforts to revitalize and modernize the Walnut Street Extension area, which includes the Games & Lanes parcel, and also redevelopment of the parcel off Suffield Street.

But in most other respects, things are moving forward, and the talk over breakfast at the Pride store, Partners, and Giovanni’s has been generally positive. And with that text from the lieutenant governor, there was certainly more good news to discuss around those tables.

In short, this community isn’t waiting until the ribbon is cut on the new bridge to create momentum, more jobs, and new opportunities.

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

Banking and Financial Services

A ‘Natural Partnership’

Chris Milne, left, and Mike Matty both say the union of St. Germain and Gage-Wiley is a natural partnership.

Mike Matty says the talks with Chris Milne began roughly two years ago.

And as they often do in such cases, these discussions were somewhat intermittent in nature and came in varying degrees of intensity.

“With those first preliminary talks, you talk, then you stop talking about it for a little while, you revisit it … it’s been percolating for a while,” said Matty. “Half the time, it’s just … you grab dinner or you grab a beer and chat about business more than anything else, primarily because the companies are so similar and dealing with the same issues and you want to see how they’re dealing with these issues. And then, the talk would turn to ‘are we still thinking about this, or are we not thinking about this?’”

‘This’ was a proposed acquisition of Northampton-based Gage-Wiley & Co., which Milne served as president and CEO, by Springfield-based St. Germain Investment Management, which Matty has led for a number of years now. And eventually, the talk led to a deep dive and a decision to go forward.

The combined company has close to $2.4 billion in assets (Gage-Wiley had nearly $800 million), and four offices overall — St. Germain has a second office in Lee, and Gage-Wiley has a second office in Plymouth. This means it has much-needed size at a time of increased — and more complex — regulation, but also a small-enough size to remain nimble. Just as important, it now has nearly two centuries of time in the investment-management business.

Indeed, Matty joked that Gage-Wiley was a little on the young side in comparison to St. Germain, with the former being only 87 years old and the latter 96.

“I realize they’re a fairly new upstart, since they only started in 1933,” said Matty, who then turned serious and called this a “natural partnership.”

Natural because the companies are so similar — they both were started in Springfield, they’ve both remained locally owned and privately held, and they have similar operating philosophies.

Milne agreed. He actually initiated those talks two years ago, not thinking they might eventually lead to this union. Like Matty, he said the early discussion was focused on simply how to do business in a changing environment.

Eventually, though, it became clear that coming together made far more sense than staying apart and competing with each other.

“It’s a case where one plus one equals three,” said Milne. “It seemed like the right thing to do at the right time and for the right reasons; the similarities and compatibility were just too good not to get married.”

The name ‘Gage-Wiley’ will remain over the door of the facility in Northampton, and Milne will serve as managing director, because that brand is well-established, and it made no sense to change it, said Matty.

“I realize they’re a fairly new upstart, since they only started in 1933.”

“There’s a lot of good will built into that name and client relationships built up over time,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s very strong name, and we have no intention of disrupting things and taking all that away from them.”

Thus, in many ways, that office will operate much like October Mountain, St. German’s subsidiary in the Berkshires — a firm with its own name and its own staff, but with a bigger organization behind it.

“Very little, if anything, will change,” said Matty. “From the Gage-Wiley client standpoint, their statements look almost identical to the way they looked before — there just happens to be a new line that says ‘securities offered through St. Germain Securities’ on it. The phone number is the same, they’re talking to the same people … from the client standpoint, it will be almost invisible.”

Beyond the size and wealth of experience the combined firm now boasts, however, it also has what Matty described as a deeper pool of talent and expertise that it can bring to the table to better serve investment clients.

Elaborating, he said the teams at the respective companies bring experience in different areas that will complement each other effectively.

“We bring to the table for them a fixed-income expertise that they didn’t have, and we also bring more resources on compliance, legal matters, and human resources,” he explained. “And that comes with being a bigger company and having to tread these waters for a longer time with more people — we’ve had more experience at it.”

Meanwhile, Gage-Wiley brings different elements to the table, starting with some operational processes and ways of doing things that are in some ways better than those at St. Germain, Matty noted.

Gage-Wiley also brings an expertise in what is known as ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing, a mindset that is growing in popularity, especially among the younger generations.

“Many people are looking to invest according to their ethics,” said Matty, noting that years ago the acronym for this philosophy was SRI — socially responsible investing.

But there is a difference, he went on, adding that SRI was mostly an exclusionary approach — ‘here’s what we’re not going to buy’ — while ESG is more of an inclusionary approach.

“People will say, ‘here’s a company I want to see a change at — I’m going to buy some of its stock, see if I can be a shareholder activist, and see if we can make some changes from within,’” he explained. “It’s a more comprehensive approach than the old SRI.”

And the team at Gage-Wiley, based in Northampton, has developed an expertise in this realm that St. Germain did not possess.

It does now, though, because of this ‘natural partnership’ that Matty described, one that brings nearly two centuries of local ownership together under the same umbrella — if not the same name and same roof.

As noted, this union gives the combined company more size and the important element of flexibility. But it also provides something else — stability and staying power during an ongoing time of consolidation within this industry.

“We’re going to stay independent,” Milne said. “And we’re now the perfect size — we’re not too big, and we’re not too small, and we’re not going anywhere.”

—George O’Brien

Cover Story

History indicates a recession, but most just aren’t seeing evidence of one

‘Optimistic skepticism.’ That’s the phrase one area bank president summoned as he talked about the year ahead and, more specifically, talk of a recession. While history — especially as it relates to the inverted yield curve — tells us one is very likely, most all other indicators, from unemployment and inflation rates to the stock market to the steady pipeline of work on the books at area construction-related firms we spoke with, say something else.

It was the Monday before Christmas. John Raymaakers II wasn’t planning on being in that day, but an important bid was due, and he had to wrap up the paperwork.

There were a lot of bids to vie for in 2019, Raymaakers, a principal with Westfield-based general contractor J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc., told BusinessWest, noting that the company prevailed in several of these competitions, success that translated into one of the company’s better years recently.

And it’s a trend he expects will continue into 2020.

“We’re still busy at this time of year, and that’s a good thing for us,” he said, noting that the firm specializes in heavy civil construction work such as water, sewer, and drainage systems. “And we’ve got jobs we’re bidding on — one today and another next week. We have a good amount of work in front of us, so we’re feeling pretty good.”

Raymaakers is not alone when it comes to a generally positive outlook for the year ahead. Indeed, BusinessWest talked with several business owners, including many in the construction sector — usually a highly accurate barometer of the overall economy — to get a feel for what might be in store as a new decade dawns.

Slicing through the various comments, it appears there is some uncertainty about the year ahead, which is natural given the considerable talk about a recession, the fact that is a presidential election year, and the ongoing workforce issues facing virtually every sector of the economy.

But there was also something approaching consensus that the generally good times that prevailed in 2019 — and for the past several years, for that matter — will continue in the year ahead.

Tom Senecal, president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, told BusinessWest that, while some indicators may give pause for concern, such as an inverted yield curve (more on that later), most would indicate there is little trouble on the immediate horizon.

“The economy is doing really well,” he said. “We see that in our numbers — from our loan perspective, with delinquency rates … everything is humming along.”

Curtis Edgin, a principal with the Chicopee-based architecture firm Caolo & Bieniek, sounded a similar tone when asked what he’s seeing and hearing.

Tom Senecal says he believes in history and the power of the inverted yield curve to forecast recessions. But his eyes prompt him to be ‘optimistically skeptical’ about a downturn.

“No one’s seen any signs of it letting up,” he said of an expansion that has lasted a full decade now, adding quickly that he’s seen enough economic cycles to know that things can change quickly. He just hasn’t seen any evidence that they will.

Meanwhile, Scott Keiter, a principal with Northampton-based Keiter Builders, said his firm had a record year in 2019. He quickly qualified that by saying the business, only 11 years old, has grown every year since its inception and 2019 was merely the latest in a succession of ‘record years.’

That said, the company, like others we spoke with, has a solid flow of work that will keep it busy well into the new year, with more projects on the horizon.

“Most of our work is institutional and commercial, but we also saw a significant increase in larger residential projects, and I think that’s a good sign — people are willing to invest significant amounts of money in their properties” he said. “And we have a good, secured pipeline for the spring and early summer, and that’s not always the case.”

But, while general optimism prevails, there are challenges facing business owners and managers, especially when it comes to workforce issues, specifically finding and retaining talent.

Indeed, what was once considered a good problem to have — and some still use that phrase because it generally means business is good — is now considered to be just a problem. A nagging problem.

“My membership would say, to a company, that the biggest barrier they have to increased growth is finding more people and finding the right people to expand the workforce and take on additional work that’s out there,” said Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass. “The biggest problem we’re facing is workforce — finding talent, developing talent, and retaining talent — and that’s across all levels, from entry level to middle and upper management.”

For this issue and its focus on the 2020 Economic Outlook, BusinessWest talked with several business and economic-development leaders about what to expect in the year ahead. While no one has a crystal ball, most say their eyes tell them the decade-long expansion could certainly continue into the next decade.

Work in the Pipeline

Senecal told BusinessWest he was giving a speech a few months back, and while talking about the economy in general, he referenced the inverted yield curve and its historical significance.

“Every time a yield curve has gone inverted or flat in the past 50 years, and there have been seven times, in every single case it has indicated a recession, usually about nine months after the yield curve gets inverted,” he said, summarizing his remarks. “Which would indicate a recession around May or June of 2020; that’s what history tells us.

“But when you look at our economic numbers — extremely low unemployment, inflation in check, economic growth being wonderful, the stock market doing wonderful … I’m not a predictor, but indications don’t feel the same as they have over the past 50 years,” he went on. “If you’re a believer in historical data as a predictor of future performance, then the numbers say a recession should come in May or June. But I just don’t see it. I am a believer in history, and I am a believer in data, but let’s just say that I’m optimistically skeptical when it comes to a recession.”

There are a many reasons to be optimistically skeptical when it comes to a recession, especially when talking with those in construction-related businesses, which, as noted, provide an historically accurate barometer of what’s happening with the economy.

That’s especially true of architects, who usually feel the effects of a downturn before almost anyone else. Edgin, who, as noted, has been through a number of ups and downs in the economic cycle in his 35-year career, said he hasn’t seen anything to indicate the economy is slowing to any great degree.

His firm handles both public- and private-sector work, and especially the former. Edgin said this diversity has helped it ride out the slow times. The firm has completed much of its work involving an $85 million elementary-school project in Easthampton and doesn’t have anything approaching that scale in the pipeline. But there is work in the pipeline.

Scott Keiter says his construction business has a solid pipeline of work heading into 2020, a sign of a generally sound economy.

“We’re busy,” said Edgin, using a word that most in the construction field would certainly like to hear him use. “We’re seeing a significant number of studies for projects like senior centers, town halls, libraries, or police stations — people recognize the need; they just need to get their ducks aligned to keep things moving.”

Meanwhile, his firm is handling a handful of smaller projects, including work at the Boys & Girls Club in West Springfield, Westfield State University, and other institutions, as well as some private-sector projects.

Summing things up, he said the company is “catching our breath” after a solid 2019 punctuated by the Easthampton project and waiting for some of those projects in the study phase — and there are quite a few of them — to come to fruition.

“Maybe that’s the adjustment,” he told BusinessWest. “And if that’s all the adjustment we need, I’m happy with that; we were oversubscribed, let me put it that way, in 2018 and 2019.”

This past year was also a busy one for Keiter Builders, which, as noted, had a number of projects on both the residential and commercial sides of the ledger. The latter category included a good deal of work at both Smith College and Amherst College, while the former featured several new homes and a number of large-scale renovation projects.

Summing up what he’s heard from clients in both realms concerning the economy and the year ahead, he said it’s mostly upbeat.

“The people sending the money our way … it’s generally positive,” he noted. “We’re not hearing anything from them that’s concerning — it’s just your normal chatter. People are steaming forward; they’re investing in infrastructure and capital projects. And that’s good news for us.”

Raymaakers concurred. He said 2019 was a busy year — he said it was a ‘9,’ maybe a ‘9½’ on a scale of 1 to 10 — that featured several large-scale projects, including runway-grading work at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield and dam repair at Forest Park. Work was so steady, the company added employees, bringing the total to 39.

John Raymaakers, seen here with his wife and business partner, Laurie, says the company is feeling “pretty good” about 2020 and the economy in general.

Looking ahead, he told BusinessWest the firm remains optimistic.

“We’ll see how the election goes, and after that … who knows?” he said. “Right now, we feel pretty good about things.”

Work in Progress

Those comments sum up how most people feel about almost everything except the workforce challenges facing them.

Raymaakers said his company did bring on more people, but finding them wasn’t easy. Keiter said his firm also struggled to find people to handle its growing workload.

And Senecal confirmed that the problem extends to positions at all rungs of the hiring ladder. To put the matter in perspective, he talked about a position the bank has been trying to fill — unsuccessfully — for half a year now.

“We’ve been looking for someone for more than six months in our Accounting department, someone with five to 10 years of experience in the banking industry,” he noted. “And what’s more surprising is that, with all the consolidation going on in this industry, we’re still not able to find someone for that position.

“Overall, it is very difficult to find people right now for many of the jobs where we’re looking for specific skills — it’s virtually impossible in some areas,” he went on. “It’s been such a challenge, and that’s a clear indication of what’s happening in many sectors.”

Indeed, the problem is prevalent in pretty much every sector of the economy, said Sullivan, noting that it is manifesting itself in a number of ways.

One is some upward movement on wages and benefits, which is yet another sign of a healthy economy, he said, adding that, while this isn’t happening across the board, there is movement in many sectors where there is steep competition for talent, especially precision manufacturing and financial services.

“People have choices when it comes to where they can work,” he told BusinessWest. “People are looking around, so in order to keep a workforce, people are having to pay a little more and provide some other benefits or incentives.”

In addition to movement on wages, there is a greater focus on trying to bring more people into the workforce, said Sullivan, noting that, through a grant from the Boston Federal Reserve and the Working Cities Initiative, the region has launched efforts to bring some of those who have been on the outside looking in when it comes to the workforce into the fold.

These endeavors involve mostly entry-level positions, and they’re a relatively new point of emphasis for the EDC, he said, adding that they are generating some results, putting those who have been unemployed or underemployed not just into jobs but onto career paths.

Meanwhile, the EDC is looking at taking steps to bolster the workforce, including what could be called recruiting efforts — steps to market Western Mass. and its many benefits in the hope that some may seek to relocate.

“This might involve some regional advertising initiative — an effort to raise awareness about Western Mass. and how it’s a great place to live, there are opportunities here, the cost of living is lower than many other areas of the state and the country,” he explained. “And while it’s a great place to live, it’s also a great place to work.”

Such efforts would be focused on other areas in the Northeast, especially older manufacturing cities that may not be doing as well as the Greater Springfield area, Sullivan noted, adding that he’s not expecting to lure people from Arizona or Florida.

“Sometimes, it’s a little tough to sell those winter months,” he said with a laugh, adding that the region does have many saleable assets, and its businesses need workers to grow.

Such a campaign would not have a large budget, and it would be waged mostly with social media, he said, adding that there is an opportunity to attract people for certain sectors, especially precision manufacturing.

“It will not a be a large media campaign — you won’t be seeing us on the Patriots game,” he said, adding that targeted messages promoting opportunities in specific sectors may help grow the workforce.

Forward Progress

Traditionally, the phrase one hears when it comes to the economy and the year ahead is ‘cautious optimism.’

There’s some of that this year — quite a bit, in fact. But overall, there’s more of that optimistic skepticism that Senecal spoke of and that others referenced, even if they didn’t use those exact words.

History, and some of the economic indicators, tell us that a downturn is likely, if not imminent.

But most business owners and managers just aren’t seeing it — and that’s certainly a good sign as a new year and a new decade begin.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Communty and Economic Development

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. And it certainly is bad news.

Wilson’s department store, an anchor and destination in downtown Greenfield for a century or so, will be closing its doors as its owner moves into retirement, leaving a very large hole to fill in the middle of Main Street.

The store was practically synonymous with the city and its downtown, drawing visitors of all ages who wanted to shop in one of the last old-time department stores in this region and maybe in the state.

“It’s devastating and it’s heartbreaking because it’s part of the fabric of the community,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, headquartered on Main Street in Greenfield. “This will be a serious loss for Greenfield, but…”

That ‘but’ constitutes what amounts to the good news.

Indeed, while unquestionably a loss, the closing of Wilson’s — which was certainly not unexpected by most — isn’t producing anything approaching the hand-wringing such news would have generated a decade or even five years ago.

Redevelopment of this large and highly visible site will certainly pose challenges. But instead of focusing on that aspect of the equation, most are consumed by the other side — the opportunity side, which Szynal referenced as she finished her sentence.

“We are looking at this as an opportunity,” she said. “We know something good will go there, something that reflects a changing landscape in retail.”

Meanwhile, there are enough good things happening and enough positive energy in this city that most are thinking this is something Greenfield can deal with and perhaps even benefit from in the long run as the retail world changes.

Jeremy Goldsher, left, and Jeff Sauser, co-founders of Greenspace co-working space.

As for those good things and positive energy … it’s a fairly long and impressive list that includes:

• New businesses such as the Rise Above coffee shop, and established businesses under new ownership, such as the Greenfield Garden Cinema, another downtown anchor;

• A refocused Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA), now under the leadership of coordinator Rachel Roberts;

• A burgeoning cultural economy headlined by the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in the heart of downtown, but also a growing number of arts-related ventures;

• Co-working spaces — such as Greenspace, located above Hawks and Reed, as well as Another Castle, a facility that has attracted a number of video-game-related businesses — that are attracting young professionals and bringing more vibrancy to the downtown;

GCET, the municipal provider of reliable high-speed internet, a service that that has made those co-work spaces possible;

The Hive, a makers space now under development on Main Street, just a block or so down from Wilson’s;

• Rail service, specifically in the form of the Yankee Flyer, which brings two trains a day to the city, and enables one to travel to New York and back the same day;

• A new town library, which is expected to bring more vibrancy — and another co-working space — to downtown; and

• A noticeable tightening of the housing market, a tell-tale sign of progress.

“I have some employees who are trying to buy homes in Greenfield, and the inventory is moving so fast, they’re having a hard time getting something,” said Paul Hake, president of HitPoint, a video-game maker and anchor tenant in the Another Castle co-working space. “We have someone who’s trying to buy here from Los Angeles; he’s very excited, but he says, ‘every house I look at is gone by the time I can make an offer.’ The market’s hot, and that’s always good.”

The landscape in downtown Greenfield is changing. Long-time anchor Wilson’s is closing, while new businesses, such as the coffee shop Rise Above, have opened their doors.

These pieces to a large puzzle are coming together and complementing one another, thus creating an attractive picture and intriguing landing spot for entrepreneurs looking for quality of life and an affordable alternative to Boston or Northampton. And they’re also creating momentum that, as noted, will hopefully make the closing of Wilson’s a manageable loss.

“We’re sad to see Wilson’s go,” said William Baker, president of Baker Office Supply, another Main Street staple (pun intended) since the 1930s, and also president of the Greenfield Business Assoc. “But we’re all excited to see what comes next.”

Roberts agreed.

“Downtown is at a crossroads, and we’re working together to see what fits and put the pieces together,” she noted, adding that there is a great deal of collaboration going on as the community hits this fork in the road, an important ingredient in its resurgence. “We support each other, and that’s huge. I’ve lived in plenty of other places where you see isolation and people hitting walls. We don’t hit walls here — we just make a new window and figure out how you’re going to reach across that window to your neighbor and say, ‘how are we going to make this work?’”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest opens a window onto Greenfield, or what could be called a new Greenfield.

Banding Together

Jeremy Goldsher was born in Greenfield and grew up in nearby Conway. Like many other young people, he moved on from Franklin County to find opportunity, but unlike most, he returned to his roots — and found it there, in a number of different ways.

Indeed, he’s now at the forefront of a number of the initiatives creating momentum in Greenfield. He and Jeff Sauser co-founded Greenspace, which bills itself as “flexible, on-demand co-working space in the heart of downtown,” and is part of the ownership team at Hawks and Reed, which is drawing people from across the region, and well beyond, with a diverse lineup of shows, ranging from open-mic night on Jan. 7 to Bombtrack, a Rage Against the Machine tribute, on Jan. 10.

He’s also on a host of committees, including the Downtown Greenfield Neighborhood Assoc. and the GBA, and was active in the push for a new library.

He told BusinessWest there is considerable positive energy in the city, generated by a host of factors, but especially a burgeoning cultural economy, a growing number of young entrepreneurs finding their way to the city (thanks to fast, reliable internet service), and a downtown that is becoming ever more attractive to the younger generations.

What’s made it all possible, he noted, is a spirit of collaboration and a number of groups working together.

“It really does a take a village,” he said. “It’s such a blessed time to be a part of this community; there’s a wave of construction and development happening, and it’s just exciting to be part of it.”

MJ Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for Greenfield, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as a new year and a new mayoral administration — Roxann Wedegartner was elected last November — begins, a number of initiatives launched over the past several years are starting to generate progress and vibrancy.

These include everything from the new courthouse, transportation center, and parking garage in the downtown to GCET’s expanding footprint; from Greenfield Community College’s growing presence downtown — and across the city, for that matter — to redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property into a healthcare campus.

“The city conducted a master-planning process about five years ago that really engaged the community in a robust conversation of what we saw as our future,” Adams explained. “As we come up on the five-year anniversary of that initiative, the community is talking about focusing more specifically on the downtown and downtown revitalization.

“We’ve seen a major shift in how our downtown plays itself out,” she went on. “And I think we’re trying to figure out what role the city should be playing and what’s the role of the various partners in the community as we try to continue moving forward and seeing Greenfield become the robust, vibrant arts and cultural hub of Franklin County.”

There are a number of these partners, starting with GCC, the only college in Franklin County. The school has long had a presence in the downtown, and is working to become more impactful in areas ranging from workforce development to entrepreneurship, said Mary Ellen Fydenkevez, chief Academic and Student Affairs officer.

As examples, she said the college, which is in the midst of its own strategic-planning process, has launched a creative-economy initiative in collaboration with retired Congressman John Olver; put together a ‘Take the Floor’ event, a pitch contest with a $10,000 first prize; and blueprinted a new ideation center to be created in the East Building within the school’s main campus.

“There, we hope to bring together all different kinds of entrepreneurs to work together in a working space,” she explained, adding that the college plans to stage workshops on various aspects of entrepreneurship to help fledgling businesses develop.

Meanwhile, it plans to start a new business of its own, a coffee shop to be managed by student interns.

“One of our focal points is experiential learning,” she told BusinessWest. “And this business will provide that — it will give students opportunities to learn while doing; they’ll be running their own business.”

Meanwhile, on the academic side, the college is looking at new programs to support workforce-building initiatives in healthcare precision manufacturing and other sectors, and it is also blazing a trail, if you will, with a new program in adventure education.

Indeed, the school recently received approval from the state Department of Higher Education for an associate-degree program to focus on preparing individuals to lead businesses in the outdoor-adventure sector, which includes ziplining, rafting, and more.

“We feel that Western Mass. is a great place for such a program,” Fydenkevez said. “And we’re optimistic that we’ll get some good response; this is an important part of the economy here.”

Art of the Matter

The same can be said of the broad arts and entertainment sector that has emerged over the past several years, said Rachel Katz, owner of the Greenfield Gallery, billed as the city’s premier (and also its only) art gallery, and president of the Crossroads Cultural District.

“I’m a big believer in the creative economy driving growth, especially after an industrial exodus, as we’ve seen in so many small New England towns — it’s a model we’ve seen repeated all through the country,” said Katz, who converted the former Rooney’s department store in 2015 with the intention of creating a gallery and leading the way in a creative-economy revival.

“I saw when I came here that there were already a lot of creative people here doing some amazing things,” Katz went on. “There just wasn’t a home for them; I created a home.”

Since then, the arts and music sector, if you will, has continued to grow, said Katz, who believes it is leading the revival now taking place. And another major piece to the puzzle with be added with the Hive makers space.

Like other facilities of this type taking shape in other communities, The Hive will be a membership-based community workshop with tools and equipment — from computer-controlled precision machining equipment to 3D printers to traditional sewing machines — made available to these members.

“This space is critical,” Katz said, “because it provides a bridge between the creative economy and the more traditional technological economy. And the one resource we still have — it’s never gone away despite the closing of all the tap-and-die shops — is the people that are here.

Jeremy Goldsher at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, the anchor of a growing cultural economy in Greenfield.

“Those people still have skills and ideas; they just don’t have a place to actualize them,” she went on. “The Hive will give these people an outlet, and when you put tools in the hands of people with ideas, only good things can happen.”

Good things also happen when you can give people with ideas reliable, high-speed internet and attractive spaces in which to work, said Sauser, Goldsher’s partner at Greenspace and an urban-planning consultant by trade.

He told BusinessWest that the Greenspace model is to take obsolete or underutilized space and “make it cool again.” He and Goldsher have done this above Hawks and Reed and across the street at 278 Main Street, and they’re currently scouting other locations in which to expand.

Rachel Roberts, coordinator of a revitalized Greenfield Business Assoc.

Their spaces have become home to a diverse membership base, he said, one that includes an anchor tenant, smaller businesses, and individuals. Above Hawks and Reed, the anchor tenant is Australis Aquaculture, a producer and marketer of farm-raised barramundi — with the farm in Vietnam.

“They wanted to move their executive and sales teams from Montague to downtown Greenfield, in part to retain staff, keep people happy, and have people enjoy coming to work — many of their employees now walk to work,” Sauser explained, adding that the other anchor, Common Media, a digital-marketing company, was based on Route 9 in a building people didn’t enjoy coming to.

Both moves speak volumes about Greenfield’s revitalization, he went on, adding that both companies have lower overhead then they had before, and their employees are happier, both strong selling points.

“My observation, and my personal experience, is that Greenfield is great at attracting people who are looking for a certain quality of life and sense of community — and can work wherever they want,” he noted. “And there’s more and more people like that in this world.”

Creating a Buzz

All those we spoke with said that easily the best thing Greenfield has going for it at present is a spirit of collaboration, a number of parties, public and private, working together to forge a new, stronger, and more diverse economy.

This collaborative spirit is being celebrated — sort of — in another intriguing initiative certain to bring more color to the downtown. It’s the latest in a region-wide series of public art-installation projects, initiatives that brought dozens of painted sneakers to Springfield, bears to Easthampton, terriers to West Springfield, and C5As to Chicopee.

Greenfield will soon be populated with giant bees, said Sarah Kanaby, board president of Progress Partnership Inc.

“These bees are a symbol of the collective energy and the buzz — there have been 5 million bee puns to come out of this project — that we’re seeing in Greenfield,” she explained, noting that artists are painting and decorating the bees now, and they are scheduled to be installed in May or June. “We strongly believe, because of Greenfield’s connection to the modern beehive and all that the beehive represents in terms of collectivism and cooperation, that this is the right image.”

Roberts agreed, noting that a revitalized GBA is one of those groups working with other public and private entities to bring more vibrancy to the downtown and the city as a whole.

“We’re trying to work more collaboratively with the town government to create more things to benefit businesses here in Greenfield as well as the greater community,” she said, adding that one example of this is the addition of new holiday lights on the town common and other holiday-season touches throughout the downtown.

“We’re focusing on taking what we’ve already done and making those programs better, and also finding new ways to support the businesses as well as the community,” she said, adding that, while much attention is directed toward new businesses and attracting still more ventures, her agency doesn’t want to look past long-standing anchors, both small and large, that are still a big part of the picture.

Efforts toward securing not only a new library but also a new fire station are part of this work, she said, adding both facilities are desperately needed, and both with contribute toward quality of life and a greater sense of pride in the community.

Baker, the third-generation owner of the family business, one that has been on Main Street since 1936, agreed, and noted that the GBA has given a voice to a business community that historically hasn’t had one, and at a time when its voice is needed.

“The downtown is re-inventing itself right now; we’re in the midst of trying to figure out what a downtown should be in this new day and age,” he told BusinessWest. “And in talking to people, I think we’re on the right track; there are a lot of great new ideas. We just have to continue with the creative economy, the co-work space, the fantastic internet service that we have, and draw people downtown as we try to figure out the next chapter and what a downtown should look like.”

What’s in Store?

This brings us back to the elephant in the room — the closing of Wilson’s and the huge void it will leave downtown — and where we started this discussion.

Yes, this development is a blow to the city and the end of the area in a number of ways. But this is a new era Greenfield and a different time.

Specifically, it’s a time of collaboration and working together to create new and different kinds of opportunities and new uses for existing spaces.

“Wilson’s was an anchor for this downtown for the longest time, for 137 years,” Adams said. “But it’s exciting to think about what’s next; we’re about to turn the page and see what’s next.”

As Roberts said, those working within this collaborative don’t hit walls, they create new windows. And the view from those windows is very promising.

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

Economic Outlook

Little Change in the Forecast

‘More of the same.’

For the past several years now, that’s essentially what most economists have been saying when asked about what to expect next year.

Bob Nakosteen

And by ‘more of the same,’ they generally meant steady but decidedly unremarkable growth, which is what the nation, this state, and this region have been enjoying — and that’s the right word for it, because it certainly beats the alternative — for the past half-decade or so.

But over the past 18 to 24 months, ‘more of the same’ has come to mean some other things. These include speculation about a recession and even hard predictions that one is right around the proverbial corner; turmoil, especially in the form of a trade war with varying degrees of escalation; and a historically low unemployment rate that is a positive economic sign, obviously, but also a serious challenge to employers in every sector.

And as a new year and a new decade begins, we’re probably looking at … more of the same, as in all of the above, from the slow growth to the recession speculation to the employment challenges.

“Nationally, gross domestic product grows through a combination of an increase in the labor force and increased productivity, and both of those are really in a slump right now,” said Bob Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, while summing things up. “Productivity is in a long-running slump, and our labor force is growing much less quickly. So although there isn’t any obvious risk of a recession, there is an obvious risk of a real stagnation.”

Of course, 2020 is also a presidential election year, which adds yet another intriguing element to the equation, said Nakosteen, adding that, traditionally, election years, especially those featuring presidents seeking re-election, feature policies designed to provide an additional economic jolt or stimulus.

But this year, there’s really not much that can be done, he went on, adding that another tax cut is unlikely, and interest rates are already at near-historic lows, so they really can’t be lowered any further.

“Generally, those in power during election years try to pass legislation or encourage monetary policy that will trigger more growth,” he explained. “I don’t know how much room there is for that currently, especially with these big tax cuts that have ballooned the deficit, and especially with a split Legislature. They’ve completely hamstrung themselves in terms of fiscal policy — spending and taxes, and what can they do with monetary policy; interest rates are edging slowly back down, but there’s not much room to back down. And it’s completely obvious that interest rates just don’t have the effect that they used to on the economy.”

“There was a real consensus that there was real risk of a recession coming. But that discussion has abated, you’re not hearing those comments anymore. Now, there’s consensus that there’s nothing on the horizon that’s especially risky.”

As for the proverbial big picture, 2019 was supposed to the year the expansion, one of the longest in the country’s history, ended, at least in the minds of many economists, who have since amended their speculation and instead projected a recession for some time this year. And a good deal of this conjecture is focused on the dreaded yield curve, which has been a deadly accurate predictor of recession for decades now.

An inverted yield curve is the interest-rate environment in which long-term debt instruments have a lower yield than short-term debt instruments, and when such inversion happens, recession almost always follows; in fact, the yield curve has inverted before every U.S. recession since 1955.

This strikingly accurate track record has prompted many economists to say it’s not a question of if there will be slowdown and then recession, but when.

But Nakosteen said that, despite an inverted yield curve, talk of an imminent recession has diminished, largely because most of the other indicators are generally less forbidding.

“There was a real consensus that there was real risk of a recession coming,” he told BusinessWest, emphasizing ‘was.’ “But that discussion has abated; you’re not hearing those comments anymore. Now, there’s consensus that there’s nothing on the horizon that’s especially risky. There are negative things going on, especially the trade war, and there are parts of our economy that are not doing well, such as manufacturing and agriculture. But overall, there’s not much to indicate that we’re destined for a recession.”

That said, the risk of stagnation — defined as a prolonged period of slow economic growth, usually accompanied by high unemployment, as was seen in the early ’90s during the so-called ‘jobless recovery’ — is very real. And the ongoing struggle to find and retain talent will be the main reason why.

“Finally, the labor-force constraint, the fact that the labor force is growing very, very slowly, has become binding,” he explained. “We’ve been talking about this for years now — we knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when it would hit. And there’s a good chance that it finally has hit.

“Employers just can’t find workforce to fill jobs, and you can’t make more if you don’t have people to make more,” he went on, adding that this workforce crunch is impacting the Bay State perhaps even more than the country in general.

Indeed, Nakosteen believes that low unemployment — actually, what amounts to full employment — is likely the primary reason why the Commonwealth has been consistently lagging behind a national economy that is growing at a rate of maybe 2%.

“We have an industry mix of healthcare, high-tech, and education that should make us a fast-growing state, but we’re not; we’re growing more slowly,” he noted. “And I really think that’s because employers just can’t find workers.”

He said evidence of this can be found within statistics on commuting trends, with the Bay State drawing steadily larger numbers of workers from neighboring states, especially Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

“The downside of growth is always on the supply side, and I consider supply to be supply of labor, which is now confronting the state and especially Boston,” he said, adding that there are a number of factors, from the high cost of living to horrendous commutes, that are now limiting the workforce that can help companies in and around Boston grow.

High-speed rail linking east and west might provide some relief, he admitted, but that solution is likely years away if it happens at all.

As for the stock market, when asked to explain why the markets soared nearly 30% this year despite turmoil and talk of inverted yield curves and recession, he said simply, “I can’t.”

He did offer this, though. “I think you have to look at behavioral economics and behavioral finance rather than analytical economics and analytical finance to explain this. It’s a behavioral thing. [Yale economist] Robert Shiller noted that a narrative starts to dominate, and people start to believe it — everyone says the stock market’s great, and that’s kind of self-fulfilling.”

As for 2020, again, Nakosteen is predicting something he’s been forecasting for the better part of a decade now, even though the term hasn’t always meant exactly the same thing: more of the same.

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

Features

Casting Call

Laura Teicher and Adam Rodrigues, seen here at FORGE’s satellite office in the Springfield Technology Park, say the agency is more than living up to its new name.

The agency formerly known as Greentown Learn has been rebranded as FORGE, a name that more effectively speaks to its mission of making connections between entrepreneurs and manufacturers that can create prototypes of their products or actually produce them. Since its inception, FORGE has facilitated such connections for nearly 200 companies, helping improve the survival rate of such ventures while also bringing more work to a number of area manufacturers.

Neil Scanlon equated it to a sales force — a different kind of sales force, to be sure.

He was referring to the agency now known as FORGE and formerly known as Greentown Learn — a rebranding was deemed necessary, and we’ll get into that in some detail later — the nonprofit arm of Greentown Labs in Somerville, which loudly proclaims itself the “largest clean-technology incubator in the United States” and “the best place in the world to build a clean-tech hardware company.”

FORGE was created to help those entrepreneurs developing this hardware to create prototypes and find manufacturers that could build the products they’ve developed and specific components for them — more specifically, manufacturers in Massachusetts and especially Western Mass.

Indeed, one of the primary goals behind FORGE was to build what’s being called an east-west connection — products developed in the eastern part of the state and prototyped and produced in the western region. It’s still a work in progress, but there have been a number of matches made, including several with Scanlon’s company, Worthington Assembly in South Deerfield.

“It’s like a sales force in a way — not a traditional sales force in most respects. It’s giving recognition to a manufacturer that might be able to help a startup — a connection that might not have happened otherwise.”

He’s not sure exactly how many of these matches have been made because many of the orders are placed through a sophisticated online system. But he’s quite sure that a good number of boxes heading out the door are bound for Somerville.

“Worthington ships to Greentown quite often, and I don’t always know how that connection was made,” he said, adding that he does know that his firm, which specializes in circuit-board assembly and has customers in many different sectors, has gained some new customers through FORGE.

“It’s like a sales force in a way — not a traditional sales force in most respects,” he went on. “It’s giving recognition to a manufacturer that might be able to help a startup — a connection that might not have happened otherwise.”

This is exactly what those at Greentown Labs had in mind when they created its sister organization, now known as FORGE, said Laura Teicher, the agency’s executive director.

As she talked with BusinessWest in FORGE’s satellite office in the Springfield Technology Park in Armory Square, she said the nonprofit is succeeding with its basic mission of helping to see that products blueprinted in Massachusetts are prototyped and manufactured here, when possible.

“Through its Western Mass. office, FORGE is able to engage a critical cluster of precision manufacturers in producing prototypes, early runs, and production at scale, deepening the east-west link between Eastern Mass. startups and Pioneer Valley manufacturers that was started with the support of leadership in the House of Representatives,” she said.

Startups like RISE Robotics, which is working to replace energy-intensive hydraulic systems with clean and efficient electronic models, and has engaged area manufacturers such as Peerless Precision and MTG Inc., both in Westfield, to create prototypes.

And like Clean Crop Technologies (CCT), a Haydenville-based startup working to solve the crisis of aflatoxin infection in grain and nut crops, which reportedly causes more than 100,000 deaths and $1.7 billion in lost revenues each year, especially in developing countries.

Led by co-founder and President Dan White, the company has, through FORGE, connected with Newbury, Mass.-based Product Resources to create a prototype of a post-harvest assembly-line-like fumigation process that removes up to 90% of aflatoxin from crops in less than 20 minutes.

But White noted that some components for this system, which he equated to the sandwich-making line at Quiznos, may be produced by manufacturers in the 413.

For area manufacturers, meanwhile, FORGE acts as that sales force that Scanlon mentioned by introducing entrepreneurs to area shops and acquainting them with their capabilities. And most need some help in this critical step in bringing a product to the marketplace, because they don’t know what skills are needed or how to find a firm that possesses those capabilities.

“Greentown Labs is inventing products in Massachusetts, and FORGE’s mission is to make sure they’re made in Massachusetts,” said Kristin Carlson, president of Peerless Precision, adding that she conducts ‘lunch and learns’ in Somerville and takes other steps to educate entrepreneurs not only about the firms in the area and what they can do, but also how to approach manufacturers, what those shops need to submit a quote, and about the higher quality they’ll get if they choose a Baystate firm instead of one overseas.

Scanlon agreed. “It’s not easy to figure out who might be a good match just by doing Google searches,” he said. “Especially when it comes to small, Western Mass. shops that are not strong in marketing themselves — that’s where FORGE comes in.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with manufacturers and entrepreneurs alike to find out how FORGE is living up to its mission — and its name.

Testing Their Metal

Teicher told BusinessWest that, even as she was being interviewed for the job of executive director of Greentown Learn more than a year ago, she was thinking the agency’s name didn’t effectively convey what it was all about, and that it needed to be changed.

And when she won the job, she made it one of her first priorities to orchestrate a rebranding.

This was a months-long process, she noted, adding that the agency wanted a name that reflected its mission, a task made more difficult by the fact that most words associated with manufacturing, making, metalworking, and so on were not usable because they’d been copyrighted or trademarked, or incorporated into a URL.

“It might be six months or 12 months later that you hear from the entrepreneur who has a set of fabrication files, and they need something quoted.”

“Any cool name that you can come up with that signals hardware has been taken,” she said, adding that some that weren’t already taken came with other problems, or baggage.

Like ‘KINECT,’ a brand option that was one of several finalists, if you will. It’s a play on words, and an effective one, blending ‘connect’ with ‘kinetic energy.’ Problem was, said Teicher, that research revealed this same name was attached to a failed Super Nintendo app.

“We were very close; we were attached to it for a while,” she said. “It was great because we’re forging connections, we’re working with physical products, and it’s pretty simple. But we didn’t want to be mixed up with a failed product at all. And there’s something a little childish about it because of the K’Nex toys — so we didn’t want that association, either.”

Kristin Carlson says FORGE helps educate entrepreneurs on the capabilities of Bay State shops and also the advantages to getting work done in the Bay State instead of overseas.

Eventually, those involved with the process settled on FORGE, which is not an acronym for anything (the capital letters are used for emphasis), but a name that drives home that ‘forging relationships’ is a critical part of the equation.

Which is important because, while the companies at Greentown Labs are pushing the envelope when it comes to clean-tech hardware, they often struggle to find partners to take their concepts off the drawing board — or the computer image, as the case may be.

And they are likely unaware of the large and in many ways historic precision-manufacturing sector in the Pioneer Valley, a sector born, in many respects, essentially where that satellite office is located, within what was the Springfield Armory complex.

FORGE makes introductions to companies in a number of ways. It organizes tours — manufacturers we spoke with said they have hosted a number of visits as a result of the initiative — and also helps companies draft requests for proposals for specific projects. And it organizes events such as the first annual Supplier and Innovation Showcase at Greentown Labs.

The gathering was designed to support connection-building efforts between inventors and makers, and it drew more than 200 attendees from the innovation and manufacturing ecosystems, said Teicher, who noted that, since its inception in 2015, FORGE has helped more than 190 startups source their supply chain with what she called “right-fit and ready local connections to manufacturers,” thus helping them over some critical humps that often derail such ventures.

“These startups have an 85% survival rate to date, far exceeding national standards, proving that FORGE has identified and provides a critical intervention for these startups,” she told BusinessWest, adding that programming has led to more than 130 contracts to manufacture innovative physical products and components in the region, infusing a known economic value of roughly $11 million — and counting.

The Western Mass. satellite office plays a key role in these efforts, said Adam Rodrigues, director of Regional Initiatives, adding that it serves as a clearinghouse for connecting startups with area manufacturers, often through those aforementioned tours, which are often eye-opening.

Companies may or may not be ready to seek manufacturing help when they take the tour, he added, but they’ve made a connection and generally go home with a business card. And when they are ready, they use it.

Scanlon agreed.

“Oftentimes, the connection may happen much later — it’s not right after the tour,” he explained. “It might be six months or 12 months later that you hear from the entrepreneur who has a set of fabrication files, and they need something quoted.”

Getting a Lift

The case of RISE Robotics, which has recently ‘graduated’ from Greentown Labs and is now operating in Somerville, exemplifies just how FORGE makes those connections.

Arron Acosta, co-founder and CEO, told BusinessWest that the company is making strides in its efforts to create a ‘green’ alternative to energy-intensive hydraulic systems used in everything from fork trucks to bulldozers to tractor trailers. Through FORGE, the company was connected with three manufacturers with the requisite capabilities, including Peerless and MTG, to produce prototypes of the RISE cylinder, which, according to the company’s website, “delivers hydraulic-like performance in a simple, maintenance-free and fluid-free package.”

The prototypes developed by the firms in this region have not moved to the production stage for various reasons, he said, but the experience of working with those firms has been very beneficial on the company’s long climb to find the optimal market fit.

CCT is another solid example of how FORGE works, said Teicher, noting that the nonprofit not only connected the company with relevant manufacturers, but also helped it find R&D lab space in Haydenville and at the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst that allowed it to remain in Western Mass.

White said the ag-tech startup combines air with electricity to degrade contaminants in food and is focusing much of its energies on combating alfatoxins on peanuts.

“But as a technology and as a venture, we’re looking much bigger and broader than that over the long term,” he told BusinessWest. “By sterilizing the surface of foods with these ionized gases, we can get up to two to three times shelf-life extension for perishable foods; for example, we’ve been treating blackberries, and we’ve been able to get an additional five days of shelf life in the refrigerator because we’re knocking off that surface mold while otherwise not affecting the quality of the food.”

White said the company, looking to scale up, was drawn to the Bay State and, more specifically, Western Mass. — instead of Virginia, where his partner in the venture was living — because of the extensive innovation ecosystem in the Commonwealth.

And FORGE is a big part of this ecosystem.

“Fairly early on, in April or May, I can’t remember how, but I found out about Greenfield Learn,” he explained. “And they were extremely helpful in connecting me very quickly to a range of product-prototyping and manufacturing partners that I had no idea existed here in Massachusetts.”

Those thoughts sum up why FORGE was created — to give entrepreneurs an idea of the shops that exist and their capabilities, but also some education in why firms in the Bay State are often their best option, said Carlson, who, like Scanlon, sits on the board of advisors for the nonprofit agency.

She told BusinessWest that, oftentimes, entrepreneurs are looking for “cheap and fast” to get a prototype out the door.

“One of the goals at FORGE, and also within the firms in Western Mass., is to educate these entrepreneurs that, in Massachusetts, you get what you pay for,” Carlson went on. “You’re not going to get something you didn’t order.”

Jack Adam, vice president and co-owner of MTG, agreed. He said his firm, which provides a wide range of services, including high-volume laser cutting, welding, machining, precision forming, and more, works with clients — and RISE Robotics is one of them — to look at products and “make them more manufacturable,” as he put it.

“We support the OEMs and new-company startups to some degree, to come up with a product that’s manufacturable — we try to tell them that, ‘if you do it this way, instead of that way, you can eliminate a lot of welding, save some money, be more cost-effective, and be more competitive out there,’” he said, adding that this is the kind of support it provided to RISE Robotics as it helped the company produce close to 20 prototypes of its products.

And while helping startups by providing such services, these manufacturers are also helping themselves become more nimble and more competitive, said Scanlon, adding that it also helps them think more globally.

“It gets them thinking that there’s more out there than defense work, there’s more out there than United Technologies work,” he noted. “Meanwhile, these projects will be a little more challenging, they’ll be a little more cost-sensitive. It’s kind of like working out; it gets you more fit — it gets your business more fit.”

Parts of the Whole

As he talked with BusinessWest about RISE Robotics and the team behind it, Adam said, “they’re trying; they’re young folks, and they’re pretty talented. They’re going to hit some home runs someday, and they’re getting pretty close.”

With that, he described most of the startups at Greentown Labs and those who have graduated as well. Many are getting close, and a good number are potential home-run hitters.

To clear the bases, though, most need help taking a product from the concept stage to the prototype stage to the production line. And the aptly named FORGE is helping companies find that help.

As Scanlon noted, it’s become a different kind of sales force, and a very effective one.

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

Environment and Engineering

Scaling Up

John Carpenter, left, and Neville Orsmond proudly display some of the commemorative 50th-anniversary rods being manufactured at Thomas & Thomas.

Five years ago, South African Neville Orsmond, an avid fly fisherman, purchased the Thomas & Thomas company and went about resuscitating perhaps the iconic brand within that industry, one that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. While putting the company on a solid foundation, he has also made it part of conservation efforts locally and globally that will help ensure this sport’s sustainability and preserve some of the most beautiful places in the world.

As the celebrated fly-rod brand Thomas & Thomas marks a milestone — a half-century of helping anglers land the big ones — there is much to celebrate.

Starting with the fact that the brand is still here to commemorate this occasion. That wasn’t a given when Neville Orsmond purchased the Greenfield-based company in late 2015, at a time when the brand wasn’t living up to its high standards for quality, sales were reflecting this reality, and the future was certainly in doubt.

But Orsmond, the South African and avid fly fisherman who visited the plant in the fall of 2015 and became inspired to purchase the company and mount a salvage operation, now has Thomas & Thomas hitting on all cylinders.

Indeed, the workforce has doubled since he took over, sales have increased by 40% on average since Orsmond bought the company, new equipment has been installed and more efficient processes put in place, and the brand fully lives up to the slogan has been attached to it for decades — “the rod you’ll eventually own.”

“We can’t make enough rods to sell — we’re struggling to keep up with demand,” said Orsmond, stating the problem — if it’s really a problem — in concise, impactful fashion, adding that the brand, which had suffered reputation-wise earlier in the decade, is back on its lofty perch looking down on the rest of the industry.

Which is why there is plenty to celebrate as the company marks 50 years since two brothers-in-law named Thomas — Dorsey and Maxwell — decided they could make a fly rod batter than anyone and went ahead and started making them.

Among the things being celebrated:

• The fact that the company still does almost everything by hand and has strongly resisted any and all thoughts of moving to something approaching mass production, despite those struggles to meet demand;

• The waiting times that this operating philosophy creates — maybe nine months for a coveted bamboo rod and four days to two weeks for a composite-material rod. Customers generally understand the wait and the reason for it, said John Carpenter, the company’s sales and marketing manager, adding that they appreciate their rod even more when it does arrive;

• The 50th-anniversary editions of both the company’s bamboo and composite rods, items that are in high demand for their quality, beauty, and what that number ‘50’ signifies — a half-century of excellence;

• The tours Carpenter gives to those who find their way to this decidedly rural location near the border with Bernardston and the T&T facility on Barton Road. Many do, said Carpenter, adding that, during the fall, the busiest time for such visits, he might average one a day and at least a few a week. They’re given to long-time customers, the curious, and even some celebrities who fall into both categories, such as Aaron Lewis, lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and co-founder of Staind, who recently dropped by to pick up a new rod and take a look around;

• The ways in which the company is working to bring young people into the sport, something necessary to ensure its survival, said Orsmond, adding that the results of efforts that involve a number of organizations are quite encouraging, and he’s proud to note that Millennials, by and large, have embraced fly fishing, and for a number of reasons, as we’ll see;

• And also the ways the company is taking steps to help preserve the environment and improve conditions for fly-fishing enthusiasts, both locally and globally. Such efforts include ongoing work to secure more fish-friendly water release at the Fife Brook Dam on Deerfield River and support of initiatives undertaken by the Yellow Dog Community and Conservation Foundation (YDCCF), which has the stated mission to “protect, preserve, and enhance the places that matter to anglers.”

One of the commemorative rods being made to celebrate a half-century of excellence at Thomas & Thomas.

“For our industry and for our business, all fly fishermen are conservationists — otherwise, we wouldn’t be fly fishermen,” Osmond explained. “It’s our job to teach people, and it’s our job to make a difference at the end of the day.”

As noted at the top, there are plenty to things to celebrate as T&T turns 50. The stability and growth of the brand is a big part of it, but so are the company’s efforts to preserve and enhance fishing spots and spawn a passion for an activity that people can enjoy for a lifetime.

For this issue and its focus on environment and engineering, BusinessWest looks at how the T&T brand is not only enjoying a renaissance, but how the company is giving back — in all kinds of ways.

Cast of Characters

“It’s like the Porsche 911 … when it’s really good, you don’t change it.”

That’s how Orsmond chose to describe the Thomas & Thomas Paradigm series of rods, a name that has been in use at the company for decades now. Only there’s a new Paradigm series, one that has firmly captured the attention of the industry, having won ‘best new dry-fly rod’ honors for 2020 in Fly Fisherman magazine’s annual Gear Guide.

And it’s not the only product in the catalog to earn hardware recently. Indeed, T&T’s new Zone line of rods, a mid-priced model designed specifically to help introduce new people to the sport, garnered ‘best new rod series honors’ in the 2019 Gear Guide, as well as best-of-show honors for saltwater fly rods at the International Fly Tackle Dealers event in Orlando in 2018.

These honors speak to how the company has regained considerable ground since Orsmond started righting the ship in 2015, and also how it’s pushing ahead with new concepts and strategies to properly position itself for the next 50 years.

“It’s a very exciting time,” said Orsmond, with a noticeable trace of understatement in his voice. “It’s been an amazing few years — we’ve been up every year almost 40%, and we’ve greatly increased our staff; we’re employing a lot more people. We have a ways to go, but we’re making steady progress.”

And that comment covers essentially every aspect of the company, from sales and marketing to workforce development and new-product development. And all of it was necessary to not only bring this brand back to where it was decades ago, but also secure a solid future.

More aggressive marketing has been one of the keys, said Carpenter, noting that such efforts were shoved to the back burner earlier in the decade as the company slashed the budget for such initiatives — and paid a price for it. Orsmond has significantly increased the marketing budget, giving the company a much greater presence.

“The company had really pulled back on marketing by the time Neville arrived, but he has greatly expanded the show schedule,” he explained, referring specifically to the Fly Fishing Show, a seven-event circuit in locales ranging from Marlboro, Mass. to Atlanta. The series starts up again on Jan. 3 in Denver, and wraps up at the Lancaster County Convention Center in Pennsylvania in early March.

“We don’t sell product at the shows, we do this to build the brand and help familiarize customers with the product,” he explained, adding that he’ll be getting on a plane to Denver just after the new year. “It gives them a chance to see, feel, touch, and cast.”

Beyond these shows, the company is investing in print advertising and social media — the latter being a concerted effort to capture and maintain the attention of younger generations, Carpenter went on, adding that such efforts are necessary because, while the T&T brand didn’t disappear from the landscape earlier in the decade, it did suffer from what amounted to lack of attention.

Finished rods on the shop floor at Thomas & Thomas. Company President Neville Orsmond says it is struggling to meet soaring demand.

Now refocused, the company has put together a strategic plan of sorts that calls for everything from continuing its long tradition of making its rods in this country and by hand — things few competitors can claim — to bringing more products to the market, such as clothing and accessories, with the Thomas & Thomas name on them, to training a new generation of employees.

“We’re not changing our ways to make more rods,” said Orsmond. “We took the hard way — we manufacture everything in the U.S., and to make everything here, by hand … I believe the consumer sees more value in our product.”

But finding and training new workers to make T&T’s famous rods — and the company has been hiring steadily since Orsmond arrived — has been a considerable challenge.

Indeed, while all manufacturers are struggling to find workers these days, this one has a deeper challenge because of the intricacy of the work and the passion needed to do it right day after day.

Passion can’t be taught, but it can be developed, said Orsmond, adding that many employees who have been with the company for two decades or more have played key roles in training the growing workforce.

“Between everyone here, we have more than 100 years of experience in how to make rods,” he said. “That makes it easier to bring in people and show them the right way to do things, the right way to make a rod that performs.

“Anyone who wants to come work here loves fly fishing and understands how it works,” he went on, hinting strongly at where the passion comes from. “When you’re standing in the river with a rod and you’re casting to a rising fish, your heart stops pumping, and it’s all excitement. And you look around, and you’re in a beautiful area. They get all that.”

It Comes Naturally

But to secure the next 50 years for this company, those at T&T know their work has go beyond marketing, new products, and training a workforce.

Indeed, the industry has to attract more people to the sport, said both Orsmond and Carpenter, and especially young people. And it also has to make sure this pastime is sustainable, a challenge that grows in size and scope as more land comes under development and climate change continues to alter the landscape.

“If there are no fish … there’s no fishing,” said Carpenter, summing things up succinctly, adding that this mindset explains the company’s efforts both globally and locally to protect the environment for the generations to come. “Anyone who becomes passionate about fly fishing almost automatically has an appreciation of the environment they’re doing it in — that’s part of the sport, really.”

As for the current generations, it wasn’t very long ago when people within the sport-fishing industry were worried about the future of the pastime and the business, said Carpenter, adding that, in recent years, such fears, while not entirely put to rest, have eased considerably.

And the reason is the manner in which Millennials have been drawn to the sport, he said, adding that they have played a big part in the 16% growth rate the industry has seen over the past few years.

“I think we’re seeing a resurgence in young people getting involved in fly fishing and being interested in the sport,” he told BusinessWest. “And part of the reason is the role that social media plays in enabling people to share their adventure. When people share their adventures online, it gets people excited; they see what someone is doing in India, Thailand, the Seychelles, South America, or the South Pacific — all the places people are going to fly fish.

“It’s part of a surge in adventure travel and sports like skiing and snowboarding, and the GoPro craze,” he went on. “That’s part of what’s driving the industry forward and getting young people involved, as opposed to the traditional view of two older men standing on a riverbank smoking cigars and waiting for the trout to rise.”

While working to attract more people into the sport, the company is also trying to engage them in efforts to respect the environment, protect it, and preserve it for future generations. And the two missions certainly go hand in hand, said Orsmond, adding that the company’s efforts are both local and global in scope.

Locally, on the Deerfield River, which runs for 76 miles through Southern Vermont and Western Mass., the company is actively engaged with Trout Unlimited and other groups and individuals to help create what Orsmond called a “healthier river.”

Elaborating, he said the releases of water at the Fife Brook Dam are creating an unhealthy situation for fish and other wildlife that results when there is too much or too little water in the river on a regular basis, meaning something that doesn’t happen naturally.

“There’s not enough water being released during some months to cover the whole bottom of the river,” he explained. “They’ll release a lot of water, and these fish, brown trout, will spawn. But when they drop the water level, these eggs will be uncovered, and those fish won’t make it.”

Working with the Mass. Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and energy companies that own the dam and use it to generate hydro power, T&T, Trout Unlimited, and other parties are trying to get more water released, thus utilizing more of the riverbank.

“The whole aquatic ecosystem, the bugs and everything else, will be more abundant; there will be more food for the fish and, ultimately, a much healthier river,” he went on, adding that these efforts are a work in progress with no timeline on when or if steps might be taken.

“Our end goal isn’t to point fingers,” he said in conclusion. “Our end goal is to create better natural resources and preserve the environment.”

On a more global basis, the company is supporting efforts undertaken by the YDCCF to support the fishing industry and protect areas where people fish. Examples include work in the Bahamas to support the devasted fly-fishing industry on Abaco and Grand Bahama in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

Another example has been the company’s work to support YDCCF’s efforts in Belize to curb the use of gillnets, which are a suspected culprit in declining fish stocks there.

“Gillnets are horrible … a lot of species that are not even used for eating or selling are being killed,” Orsmond explained. “There are ways to eradicate gillnets and also help these fishermen to become fly-fishing guides rather than fish with gillnets.”

Ties That Bind

These are all examples of how Thomas & Thomas, as it continues to rebuild brand and grow sales, is working actively to preserve the environment and an industry that can’t be separated from it.

“We’re making fly rods, and we’re helping on conservation issues, both inside this country and around the world,” Orsmond said. “That should be the mindset of any responsible manufacturer, and it’s a very big part of who we are as a company and what we’ve stood for 50 years.”

And it’s one of the many things being celebrated as T&T marks this important milestone.”

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

Business of Aging

And the Road to Recovery Program Needs More of Them

Ray Bishop, left, with cancer patient Norman Clarke, says volunteers helped him overcome illiteracy, and this inspired him to be part of the Road to Recovery program.

When asked how he came to participate in the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, which recruits volunteers to drive cancer patients to medical appointments, Ray Bishop was more than ready to answer that question.

He grabbed a book he had with him and quickly pointed to a passage within it while explaining that, 20 years ago, he couldn’t have read it — because he was essentially illiterate.

With help from literacy volunteers, he was able to put that embarrassing problem — one that he somehow managed to hide from others — behind him. Those volunteers gave him a precious gift, he said, but also something more, the firm desire to pay that kindness forward.

“If volunteers can help me, then I can volunteer to help others — that was my thinking,” said Bishop, as he talked with BusinessWest in the waiting room at the Sister Caritas Cancer Center at Mercy Medical Center. He was there with Norman Clarke, a West Springfield resident he has driven to that facility several times over the past year or so.

Now battling stage-4 cancer that has spread from his gallbladder to his liver, Clarke says he will go on fighting the disease, through aggressive chemotherapy treatments “that won’t stop until I tell them I can’t take it anymore.”

To fight this fight, he relies heavily on the Road to Recovery program and people like Bishop, many of whom have what amount to backstories when it come to their volunteerism and, specifically, this particular program. Indeed, many have loved ones who have battled the disease, and some have fought it themselves.

But others, like Becky Mason, simply have some flexibility in their schedules and found an intriguing and quite rewarding way to take full advantage of it.

“I was looking for a volunteer opportunity,” said Mason, who has been driving for just a few months now. “They had a table for the Road to Recovery program at a breast-cancer event I attended recently with a friend. I knew there was a large need because I’ve had a few friends who have had different types of cancer, and in talking to them, one of their biggest concerns, beyond getting well, was all their appointments and how they had to go here and there. And they can’t drive, obviously.

“I never really thought about it, because I never had to go through it myself,” she went on. “But it is definitely a stressor in their lives to make sure they have the rides to and from.”

Kelly Woods says there is a strong need for new drivers for the Road to Recovery program to meet demand for the service.

There are more than 75 volunteers (50 who would be considered active) working to help relieve this stress by donating time and energy to the Road to Recovery program for the American Cancer Society’s Northwest Region, headquartered in Holyoke, said Kelly Woods, senior manager for Mission Delivery at that office, adding that each one has a different story, a different motivation for getting involved.

“Sometimes they’re cancer survivors or they have someone in their life who’s a survivor and they want to give back, or there’s someone they lost and that they want to honor,” she said, adding that, through November, volunteers provided roughly 1,000 rides in the four western counties. “But there are also individuals who are just looking for something meaningful to do; each story is different.”

Behind all their stories, though, is an even bigger one, said Woods, who told BusinessWest there is now a critical need for more drivers to meet the number of requests for assistance pouring into the agency. Among all the statistics she has regarding this program — and there are many — perhaps the most eye-opening, and easily the most concerning, involves how many requests the agency is not able to honor.

“Last year, in Hampden County alone, there were a little more than 300 rides that we could not meet,” she said, adding that, over the past few years, the program has lost some drivers due to what she called “natural attrition,” a situation that has actually led to fewer requests for rides.

This has left the local chapter in what she termed a rebuilding mode, meaning it is actively recruiting new drivers, with the goal of being able to meet more requests, thus generating more referrals down the road, as they say.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Road to Recovery program, the drivers who are its life blood, and the critical need for more volunteers to step forward.

Driving Force

Mason works as a project manager for a company called Test America, which tests water and soil. Her duties fall largely within the realm of customer service, she explained, adding that she’s often on the phone with clients discussing scheduling or test results.

While there’s always plenty to do, there is room for flexibility with her schedule, she went on, adding that she had this flexibility firmly in mind when she learned about the Road to Recovery program and started considering whether she could become a part of it.

The more she learned, the more intrigued she became. She learned, for instance, that drivers can essentially choose their assignments and how many they take on — at least a few times a month is requested. She was intrigued by the mission, impressed by the level of training that drivers must undertake (more on that later), and motivated by the obvious need for more volunteers.

Becky Mason has been driving just a few months, but she already finds her participation in the Road to Recovery program very rewarding.

And just a few months in, she can say it’s been an extremely rewarding experience.

“It gives me warm fuzzies when I do it,” she explained. “I like to help people, and I feel that when I do this I’m making a good impact on the world, I’m doing a good deed that is making a bright spot in someone’s life. I can’t change the world, but I can at least help one person with one small thing that they couldn’t get done.”

With that, she pretty much spoke for everyone who has been part of this program, said Woods, adding that Road to Recovery has been a big part of the landscape at the cancer society for decades now.

At the heart of the program lies a very basic need. Indeed, cancer care has improved exponentially over the past several decades, but it is a simple fact that, in most cases, people need to travel to receive treatments — often several times a week and even daily, as with radiation treatments.

And a good many of them, even those with family and a strong core of friends, need help getting ‘to and from,’ as Mason put it.

“These treatments can last several months, and then there’s follow-up appointments,” she explained. “Even for people with a good family network and friends, that gets tapped after a while. It may be that at the beginning they don’t need any help, but as time goes on, they do.

“And sometimes, we just serve as that ‘in-between,’” she went on. “Radiation treatment is six weeks — that’s 30 rides. They may be able to parcel 20 together, but they may need us for 10. And sometimes, we do all 30 because people don’t have a support network.”

To become a volunteer, one must obviously have a vehicle, a valid driver’s license, and a good driving record, said Woods. But they must also undergo a screening process and some training, the former involving a criminal background check and the latter including everything from using something called a service match portal computer to pick and schedule assignments to understanding the many rigid privacy laws now on the books.

“It’s great for the drivers, because there’s flexibility,” Woods said of the match portal. “They can log in as often as they want, and the system communicates with them and sends them e-mails if there are requested rides in their area.”

But there are some things that cannot really be taught, she told BusinessWest, noting that drivers essentially have to learn how to share time — and a front seat — with someone going through perhaps the most difficult time of their life.

Elaborating, she said they have to get a feel for what to talk about and when, knowing that cancer patients have both good and bad days.

Bishop, who drives two or three times a week, a schedule he’s maintained since he retired five years ago, said he learned this early on. He also learned that many patients do like to open up about their condition, their treatments, and life in general.
“They talk to me more about their stuff than I think they do with their own families,” he said. “I’m kind of like a second doctor sometimes; they’re not afraid to talk about it.”

Clarke said that individuals like Bishop are more than drivers; they’re companions and good listeners who help take some of the stress out of an already very stressful and difficult time.

“A lot of the people who drive me have been through cancer or have seen a family member affected by it, and that’s why they’re doing it,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough — they take a lot of stress off my wife; I do this to break it up so that she can have a life without running me back and forth all the time.”

The Ride Stuff

Moving forward, the biggest challenge is to recruit more drivers and thus reduce the number of requests that could not be met, said Woods, adding that, while there are many retirees within the current roster of drivers, one doesn’t have to wait until they’re done working to be a part of this program.

Indeed, she said a number of college students drive, as well as those who work second or third shift, like police officers and firefighters, and those like Mason — and Woods herself — who have some flexibility in their schedules.

The only real requirement is to be able to drive between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., when most all appointments are scheduled, she said, adding that those interested in volunteering can call (800) 227-2345 or log onto cancer.org for more information.

If they do call that number and become part of this special volunteer force, they will find a way to give back that is rewarding on a number of levels, said all those we spoke with.

They’ll discover, as Mason did, that while they can’t change the world, they can help one person in a very meaningful way.

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