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Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee are partnering in a restaurant project at the former Court Square Hotel property.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that his city is certainly well-versed in dealing with natural and man-made disasters — everything from the tornado in June 2011 to the natural-gas explosion a year and a half later.

“Battle-tested” was the phrase he used to describe a community that has been though a lot over the past few decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic … this is a different kind of disaster.

The new façade of the Tower Square Hotel, which expects to be under the Marriott flag next spring.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways,” he said, using that phrase to essentially describe a foe that’s hard to hit and an exercise that amounts to punching air. “With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

But the city is certainly punching back against the pandemic, said the mayor and Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, noting that it has undertaken initiatives aimed at everything from helping small businesses keep the doors open to assisting residents with paying their mortgage, rent, and utility bills.

And while the pandemic has certainly cost the city some vital momentum, the development community, which usually takes a long view, remains bullish on the city, said Sheehan, noting that there has been strong interest in projects ranging from the former School Department headquarters building on State Street to properties in the so-called ‘blast zone’ (damaged by that aforementioned natural-gas explosion), to buildings in the general vicinity of MGM Springfield in the city’s South End.

“One of more positive things we’re seeing is that development interest in Springfield remains strong,” he told BusinessWest. “And for some larger-scale projects, it’s new interest, from outside the area. And that bodes well for the whole effort that’s been made in terms of the downtown renaissance and the casino development; the development community’s message on Springfield is a good one.”

In the meantime, some projects are already moving forward, most notably the conversion of the long-dormant former Court Square Hotel into apartments and retail space, but also the extensive renovations (although that’s not the word being used) at the Tower Square Hotel in anticipation of regaining the Marriott flag that long flew over the facility, the new Wahlburger’s restaurant going up next to MGM Springfield, the new White Lion Brewery in Tower Square, the conversion of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, movement to reinvent the Eastfield Mall, a plan to redevelop Apremont Triangle, and much more.

But despite these projects, and despite the mayor’s confidence that the city will rebound quickly once the pandemic eases, there are certainly concerns about what toll the pandemic will take on existing businesses, especially those in retail, hospitality, and the commercial real-estate sector — specifically, the office towers downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno says he’s confident that the city can make a strong — and quick — rebound from COVID-19.

There is strong speculation that businesses that now have some or most employees working remotely will continue with these arrangements after the pandemic eases, leaving many likely looking for smaller office footprints. Sheehan noted that such potential downsizing might be offset by businesses needing larger spaces for each employee in a world where social distancing might still be the norm, but there is certainly concern that the office buildings that dominate the downtown landscape will need to find new tenants or new uses for that space.

“There’s some conflicting data out there — the average size of a typical commercial office lease was going down prior to COVID, and a big reason was the rise of the communal working space,” he explained. “Well, now, the communal working space isn’t working so well anymore; there are some impacts that are forcing companies to require more space, not less.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways. With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Still, before COVID, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate was somewhat high,” he went on. “We collectively need to be working with the building owners and businesses to make sure those numbers don’t exacerbate as we come out of COVID. But, clearly, there is concern about the commercial real-estate market.”

For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, the focus turns to the unofficial capital of the region, the current battle against COVID-19 and the many forms it takes, and the outlook for the future, both short- and long-term.

View to the Future

As he walked around the former Court Square Hotel while talking with BusinessWest about his involvement with the project to give the landmark a new life, Peter A. Picknelly pointed to the windows in the northwest corner of the sixth floor, and noted that this was where a City Hall employee had just told him she wanted to live as he and business partner Andy Yee were leaving a meeting with the mayor.

But then he quickly corrected himself.

“No, she was referring to that corner,” he noted, pointing toward the windows on the northeast side, the ones with a better overall view of Court Square and Main Street. “That’s the one she said she wanted.”

Talk about actually living in the still-handsome structure that dominates Court Square is now actually real, whereas for the better part of 30 years it had been nothing but a pipe dream. That’s how long people have been talking about renovating this property, and that’s how challenging this initiative has been.

Indeed, like Union Station, another project that took decades to finally move beyond the talk stage, Court Square’s redevelopment became real because of a public-private partnership with a number of players, ranging from Picknelly’s Opal Development and WinnCompanies to MGM Springfield, to the city, the state, and federal government.

“This project was a bear, and that building was an albatross around the neck of a lot of mayors,” Sarno said. “This was all about persistence and not giving up when it would have been easy to do that.”

As for Picknelly, this is a legacy project of a sort, he said, noting that his father, Peter L. Picknelly, had long talked about creating a boutique hotel at the site — which, after its days as a hotel, was home to a number of law offices because of its proximity to the courthouse — as a way to inject some life into a still-struggling downtown.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan says the city’s first priority has been to assist businesses and help ensure they’re still in business when the pandemic eases.

The boutique-hotel concept became less viable as new hotels were built in the city, he went on, but the urgent need to convert the property for a new use — identified as the top priority in the Urban Land Institute study completed more than a decade ago — remained.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant?” asked Picknelly, who again partnered with Yee — the two have resurrected both the Student Prince and the White Hut — to create a restaurant in the northwest corner of the property (more on that in a bit). “This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

The Court Square project is just one example of how things are moving forward in the city, even in the midst of the pandemic, said Sheehan, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, Springfield remains an attractive target for the development community — and for the same reasons that existed before the pandemic, namely an abundance of opportunities, growing momentum in the central business district, the casino, Union Station, the burgeoning cannabis industry, and more.

Still, the the pandemic has certainly been a major disruptive force in that it has imperiled small businesses across many sectors, especially hospitality; brought a relative stillness to the downtown area as many employees continue to work at home; closed the casino for nearly four months and forced it to reopen at one-third capacity; cancelled all shows, sports, and other gatherings at the casino, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere; and even forced the Basketball Hall of Fame to reschedule its induction ceremonies (normally held this month) to the spring and move them to Mohegan Sun.

So the first order of business for the city has been to try to control, or limit, the damage, said Sarno and Sheehan, adding that it has been doing this in a number of ways, including its Prime the Pump initiative.

The Court Square project

The Court Square project, roughly 30 years in the making, was made possible by a comprehensive public-private partnership.

The program, using Community Development Block Grant monies, has provided small grants to city businesses in amounts up to $15,000. The awards have come over several rounds, with the first focused on restaurants, perhaps the hardest-hit individual sector, with subsequent rounds having a broader focus that includes more business sectors and nonprofits. Sheehan said businesses receiving grant funds have also represented a diversity of ownership.

“Prime the Pump numbers in terms of minority representation were huge — more than 72% of the awards were to minority-owned, women-owned, or veterans, and all of the nonprofits we supported had 30% or more minority participation on their board of directors,” he explained, adding that these numbers are significant because many minority-owned businesses had difficulty attaining other forms of support, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In addition to helping businesses weather the storm, the city has also provided financial assistance to residents, said the mayor, noting that this aid has gone toward paying mortgages, utility bills, and rent, assistance that also helps the city’s many landlords.

“In this region, I don’t think any community has done more to help their businesses and their residents,” Sarno noted. “We have put out well over $5 million, and perhaps $6 million. We’ve been very proactive, and we’re going to continue working with businesses, such as our restaurants, to help them stay open.”

Such support is critical, said Sheehan, because in order to rebound sufficiently once the pandemic subsides, consumers will need to find outlets for that pent-up demand the mayor mentioned.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant? This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

“When there is a vaccine, or when our numbers are so low that people feel safe and feel willing to go back out, the responsiveness will be there,” he noted. “My concern is making sure that the businesses we have are still in business when we get there.”

When We Meet Again

While he talked about COVID-19 using mostly the present tense, Sarno also spent a good deal of time talking about the future.

He said the pandemic will — eventually and somehow — relent. And, as he said earlier, he is confident the city will rebound, and quickly, and perhaps return to where it was before ‘COVID’ became part of the lexicon. For a reference point, he chose Red Sox Winter Weekend in January, an event staged by the team but hosted by MGM Springfield. It brought thousands of people to the city, filling hotels and restaurants and creating traffic jams downtown as motorists tried to maneuver around closed streets and various gatherings.

In many ways, Red Sox Winter Weekend is emblematic of all that’s been lost due to the pandemic. It won’t all come back overnight, Sarno and Sheehan noted, but the vibrancy will return.

“COVID-19 has really knocked us for a bit of a loop,” the mayor said, stating the obvious. “But I think there there’s a lot of pent-up … not only frustration, but desire to get back out there, so when we defeat this, I really think we’re going to rebound very nicely, and even quickly, because we continue to move projects forward and put new projects on the board.”

Tower Square Hotel

These renderings show what the front lobby (above) and ballroom will look like in the Tower Square Hotel that is being ‘reimagined’ and ‘redesigned’ and will soon be flying the Marriott flag.

This optimism extends to MGM, which had been struggling to meet projections (made years ago) for gross gambling revenue before the pandemic, and has, as noted, been operating at one-third capacity since early summer, with the hotel and banquet facilities closed.

“When MGM was hustling and bustling, with shows coming in, downtown was thriving,” Sarno said. “I’m hoping that, as we head into the last quarter and eventually the holiday season, if people can regain their confidence in going out to places like this, we see things pick up.”

And there will be some positive changes to greet visitors as they return, starting with a new Marriott.

Indeed, work continues on a massive project that Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, insists is not a renovation, because that word doesn’t do justice to the massive overhaul. He instead said the hotel has been “reimagined” and “redesigned.”

Indeed, slated to open — or reopen, as the case may be — next spring or summer, the 266-room facility is getting a new look from top to bottom, inside and out. The most visible sign of the change is a new, more modern façade that greets visitors coming over the Memorial Bridge. But the entire hotel is being made over to new and stringent standards set by Marriott.

“This is not a reflagging; it’s a new build, and that’s why the work is so extensive,” he explained. “Everything that that a guest could see or touch is being replaced. Beyond that, we’ve moved walls, we’ve moved emergency staircases in the building to accomplish higher ceilings … it’s impressive what has been done.”

The timing of the project — during the middle of a pandemic — has been beneficial in one respect: there was minimal displacement of guests due to the ongoing work and, therefore, not a significant loss of overall business. But the pandemic has also been a hindrance because it’s made getting needed construction materials much more difficult, causing delays in the work and uncertainty about when it can all be completed.

“You might get a shower wall in, but not the shower tub,” Marks explained. “And you can’t do the wall without the tub, so you have to wait, and this happens all the time. If everything goes smoothly from here, it might be April when we reopen, or it could also be summer.”

By then, he thinks the world, and downtown Springfield, will look considerably different, and there will be a considerable amount of pent-up demand.

“Especially for the leisure travelers,” he said. “People are really itching to get out; they’re all waiting to go somewhere, and also go to events, weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. I’m hopeful that we’ll be opening right when the pent-up demand is coming.”

As for the restaurant planned for the Court Square property, Picknelly and Yee project it will be open for business by the fall of 2022, and that, when it does debut, it will be an important addition to a downtown that may look somewhat different, but will likely still be a destination and a place people not only want to visit, but live in.

“Winn has done 100 renovation projects like this around the country,” Picknelly said. “They are 100% convinced that this building will be fully occupied by the time we open — there’s no doubt in their minds, based on the projections. I think that says a lot about people still wanting to live in urban areas, and I think it says a lot about Springfield and what people think of this city.”

Fighting Spirit

Returning to his analogy about shadow boxing, Sarno said COVID-19 has certainly proven to be a difficult sparring partner.

Unlike the tornado, which passed through quickly and left a trail of destruction to be cleaned up, COVID has already lingered far longer than most thought it would, and no one really knows for sure how much longer we’ll be living with it.

Meanwhile, as for the damage it will cause, there is simply no way of knowing that, either, and the toll creeps higher with each passing week.

But, as the mayor noted, the city is already punching back, and it intends to keep on punching with the goal of regaining the momentum it has lost and turning back the clock — even if it’s only six or seven months.

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

Berkshire County Special Coverage

Delivering the Message

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

John Renzi says that, when the pandemic arrived in mid-March, the sign industry, like most all others, was hit hard.

Indeed, as a sector that has always been a good barometer of the economy and one that suffers greatly during downturns, the sign business was impacted by the pandemic in a number of ways, said Renzi, a principal and account executive with Pittsfield-based Graphic Impact Signs (GIS). He listed everything from the prompt shutdown of the events, sports, and entertainment industries and a halt to orders from those solid customers, to disruptions in the supply chain that have hindered many players in this large and diverse field from completing orders they do have.

GIS has certainly not been immune from any of this, said Renzi, but he believes the company acquired by his father 33 years ago has fared better than most because of the two traits that have defined it from the beginning: flexibility and resiliency.

They have been displayed in everything from how the company has pivoted and started making new lines of products, such as the plexiglass barriers now seen in all kinds of businesses, to how it has maneuvered its way through those supply-chain issues by working with suppliers and stockpiling essential materials that are now in very short supply.

Regarding those barriers, or shields, the company tacked in that direction as the business world paused and sign work all but stopped as the pandemic arrived, he noted, and very quickly had product moving out the doors of the Pittsfield plant.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply,” he told BusinessWest. “So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days. That’s the flexibility we have, and it has allowed us to be successful.”

That same flexibility is effectively serving the company as it transitions back to making signage, said Dan Renzi, John’s brother and partner, especially when it comes to supply-chain issues.

“Many of our suppliers just stopped delivering for quite some time, and then, when they started up again, the manufacturers just could not get the product to us,” he explained, referring specifically to the white polycarbonate needed in most sign projects. Working with existing and new suppliers, GIS has been able to stockpile and warehouse this essential product while some competitors are waiting for what could be three or four months to get what they need.

Thus, the company is well-positioned, even in the middle of a pandemic, to broaden an already-impressive portfolio that includes clients such as Big Y, General Dynamics, and a host of banks and credit unions, especially those installing interactive teller machines (ITMs).

GIS has become an industry leader in making the surrounds, or canopies (see photo, page XX), for these devices, and it is now making them for Berkshire Bank, PeoplesBank, Country Bank, bankESB, and several other institutions.

“The ATMS are on their way out, and the ITMs are moving in,” John noted. “More banks are expanding into this because it’s clearly the future, and we’re one of the leaders in making signage and surrounds for these ITMs.”

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

This status, coupled with the company’s flexibility and its ability to work with clients to design, develop, and install signage that is indeed impactful, has it very well-positioned for the future.

“Over the years, we’ve seen people come in with, literally, something scribbled on a piece of paper,” said Dan, explaining how GIS is involved with the client from start to finish. “We’ll take things from that really rough sketch to a complete, finished product all in one building; we can take a dream and turn it into reality.”

For this issue and its focus on Berkshire County, BusinessWest turns its lens on GIS and how it has been able to use its flexibility and resiliency to not only ride out the pandemic, but take new and meaningful steps forward.

More Signs of Progress

It’s not an official indicator of how a sign business, or any other business, for that matter, is faring. But the Renzi brothers consider it one, and they’re quite proud of it.

They were referring to how signs that have the company’s name on it — albeit in small letters that you probably wouldn’t notice (although the brothers do) — have shown up in some recent movies and TV series coming out of Hollywood.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply. So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days.”

“That’s pretty cool when you’re sitting there at a movie, either on Netflix or on the big screen, and you see one of your signs,” said John, noting that some of the company’s installations have become backdrops recently in the movies Knives Out and Behind the Woods, and the true-crime TV series Dirty John.

These recent on-screen appearances are merely the latest … well, signs of continued growth and prosperity for a company that has been part of the landscape in the Berkshires for more than 60 years. Known first as Alfie Sign Co., the business caught the eye of John Renzi Sr., a painter whose portfolio was dominated by commercial clients at a time when Pittsfield was certainly seeing its fortunes wane as its main employer, General Electric, was closing its massive complex.

“GE was moving out, and his painting business was commercial business only,” said John Jr. “So when you had large businesses moving out of Pittsfield, he was trying to set up a future for my brother and me.”

The company had a solid reputation and an impressive client list, he went on, noting that it had created signs for Fayva Shoes, Subway — it was involved in the first-generation logo for that chain — and D’Angelo’s, among others. But it wasn’t exactly well-run.

“He knew that things needed change — it was a dollar-in, dollar-out company, and it had its challenges; it took a while to get the company on its feet,” John went on, adding that his father brought some discipline and direction to the venture and put it on more solid ground, with the intention of eventually passing it on to the next generation. Which he did, but not before that generation was fully prepared to lead.

One of the many ITM canopies

One of the many ITM canopies that GIS is making for a growing list of bank clients

“Dad didn’t just hand over the business — he wanted to make sure we could handle it,” said John, noting that he and Dan officially became owners five years ago, but they’ve been managing it for the past 15. “And he did it right — we learned right from the bottom, cleaning toilets, sweeping floors, counting bolts, and getting dirty.”

In recent years, the company has, perhaps without knowing it, steeled itself against downturns — and, yes, even a pandemic — by broadening and diversifying the portfolio of clients and creating a culture grounded in the flexibility and nimbleness noted earlier.

Which brings us back to March, and the arrival of COVID-19.

“We had some really good things moving in the right direction right at the beginning of the year,” John said. “We had a good winter, things were lining up well, and we were really excited about this year.

“But when COVID hit, it hit with a jolt,” he went on. “We weren’t certain what was going to happen or how we were going about things, but if there’s one thing that my brother and I believe in — pre-COVID, during COVID, or post-COVID — it’s that, the more flexible you are as a business, the more successful you can make yourself. And what we found is that, due to our flexibility with working with our supply chain and working with our clients, we were able to manage this crisis effectively.

One of the best examples of this flexibility was the company’s ability to pivot and begin making the plexiglass shields now seen in restaurants, banks, retail outlets, and countless other businesses.

“We reached out to suppliers and started ordering clear acrylic, clear polycarbonate, and started making these custom guards that could be adapted for bank-teller lanes, tabletops, and other uses,” Dan explained, noting that GIS made this adjustment as a way to bring employees back to work after the pandemic hit and sign work ground to a near-halt. “There was a little bit of a learning curve, but overall, it was an almost seamless transition.”

John agreed, noting that the company didn’t have to make any additional investments or find any new suppliers.

“It was just a matter of quickly training employees to make shields instead of signage,” he said, noting that, while GIS is still making these shields for a few hospitals and office buildings, it is increasingly turning its focus back to making signs.

A Bright Future

While many sectors of the economy have slowed because of the pandemic, there are still growth opportunities for companies positioned to take advantage of them, said John, noting that banks, with the emergence of the ITM, clearly represent one of those opportunities.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

He noted that banks were already moving in this direction, and the pandemic, which closed bank lobbies for months and all but forced customers to use drive-up windows for most all transactions, has only accelerated the process.

“Banks are adding them at their branches, and we’ve also seen an increase in free-standing ITMs that are not at branches,” he explained. “Chase Bank is the first one to do this; they’re looking to close 1,000 locations — downtown locations that don’t have drive-up service — and buy remote sites just outside cities, and put up these free-standing ITMs.

“We’re one of the few companies in the United States building these free-standing ITM canopies,” he went on. “It’s a very interesting development and a great opportunity for us, and we saw it happening pre-COVID; it’s 100% the future.”

As for the future of the sign business … that picture is certainly not as clear, said the brothers Renzi, noting, again, that the pandemic has hit this sector very hard, and there was already a good deal of consolidation before COVID-19 arrived as Baby Boomers retired and sold their ventures to employees or larger players from outside the region.

And since the pandemic, some of the smaller players have closed down, they said, noting they didn’t have the wherewithal to withstand the loss of business and the many other challenges that visited the industry. And many mid-sized companies have struggled with everything from retaining employees to finding the materials they need to complete orders.

GIS, again, is not immune from these challenges, but it certainly seems well-positioned to not only survive but thrive in the post-COVID world.

If you look closely — and you don’t even have to look closely — you can see the signs.

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

Features

This Nonprofit Is Finding New Ways to Provide a ‘Safe Place’

Kelsey Andrews (third from left, with Therese Ross, program director; Bill Scatolini, board president; and Diane Murray, executive director) calls Rick’s Place “a wonderful support system” — and much more.

Diane Murray says that, like most nonprofits, Rick’s Place is responding to the pandemic in a proactive fashion.

In other words, this agency, founded to provide peer support to grieving families, and especially children, has, out of necessity, changed, pivoted, and in some ways reinvented itself, said Murray, its executive director, noting that much of this involves carrying out its mission in a virtual manner.

“As soon as we became aware that it wasn’t safe to have in-person meetings, we moved to a virtual format for all our peer-support groups,” she told BusinessWest. And that was very successful. We were surprised at how well children made that transition; it’s hard enough to be grieving and talk about it in person with your peers, but looking at a screen can be tricky. But we sent them activities, and they would complete them and bring them to the meeting. It’s worked quite well.”

As she noted, grieving and talking about loss among a group of peers is hard, but it has become a proven method for helping children and families cope with the loss of a loved one. And Rick’s Place has been bringing people together in this way and providing what many call a ‘safe place’ since 2007.

Its mission, and its success in carrying it out — which made the agency the latest of several nonprofits to be named Difference Makers by BusinessWest — was summed up succinctly and effectively by Program Director Therese Ross when we spoke with her back in February.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience,” she noted. “To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

Providing such help was the overarching goal for the many friends of Rick Thorpe, the former football star and 1984 graduate at Minnechaug High School who was among the more than 1,100 people who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He left behind his wife, Linda, and newborn daughter, Alexis. Searching for ways to memorialize Rick, friends and family members eventually turned to Alexis for inspiration and created a bereavement center in her honor.

In 2020, the work of this agency goes on, but obviously many things have changed, and in the meantime, new and different needs have emerged, said Murray, noting, as just one example, the restrictions placed on funeral services for the first several months of the pandemic.

“Deaths during the COVID era are so much more complicated for kids,” she explained. “Losing a grandparent or parent — and not being able to have the usual services you would have and seeing a large number of family and friends — has impacted the grief and made it more complicated. Also, in many cases, they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, and that makes the process so much more difficult. We’re focusing on these COVID-era issues with families and giving them information on how to start that grief journey.”

Overall, though, a movement to virtual services has been the biggest change brought about by COVID-19, Murray noted, adding that, in addition to virtual peer sessions, the agency is also conducting virtual training sessions with local school systems on the impact of grief on students. Meanwhile, she and others at the agency are talking with area schools about taking the popular eight-week ‘grief groups’ it had been offering to a virtual format now that school has started up again.

“The schools are where we see our most diverse population and students with the greatest economic need,” she explained. “Finding a way to continue those virtually is very important to us. We’re talking to some school counselors who are very invested in getting our programs into the schools virtually.”

Since 2007, Rick’s Place and its loyal supporters — and there are many of them — have been invested in providing much-needed support to those who are grieving. In the COVID-19 era, the word ‘place’ has taken on new meeting. Now, in many cases, it’s not an actual, physical place, but rather … well, a computer screen where people can still gather. And where they can share, cope, and learn together.

As Murray said, the agency has had to pivot and in some cases reinvent. But its vital mission, one that has made it a Difference Maker, remains unchanged.

—George O’Brien

Features

This Advocate and Cheerleader Remains Active on Many Fronts

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When we first introduced Dianne Fuller Doherty back in February, we used the term ‘semi-retired’ to describe her status — and it’s the appropriate phrase to use.

Indeed, while she has stepped down from her role as director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office, she remains heavily involved in this region, and on a number of fronts — everything from mentoring young people, especially women, to serving on several boards and being part of a few prominent search committees, such as the one that eventually chose Robert Johnson to be the sixth president of Western New England University (see story, page 29).

And most, if not all, of her work has been in some way impacted by COVID-19, including that search at WNEU, and another at Tech Foundry.

“We never met any of the candidates — only the winner after he had been given the position,” she said of the WNEU search, noting that all interviews were conducted remotely, a process she didn’t think would be very effective, but ultimately proved to be. “When we started both these searches, I said, ‘how can we not meet these people?’ It turned out it was incredibly effective — you really got to know these candidates.”

Fuller Doherty’s commitment to remain involved in this region and be, in some respects, a cheerleader for it comes naturally. She’s been doing this she came to Western Mass. in the early ’70s after marrying attorney Paul Doherty, a community leader himself, who passed away several years ago. And she become involved with everything from the creation of the Women’s Fund — she was one of the original founders — to the growth and maturation and the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Over the course of her lengthy career, she was a business owner — she and partner Marsha Tzoumas started a marketing firm that bore their last names — and, as director of the Small Business Development Center, one who helped countless small businesses get off the ground and to that proverbial next level.

She has a great deal of experience in all matters of launching and operating a business, and she’s never been shy about sharing it with others.

As she told us in February, her MO has always been to provide a kind of tough love to entrepreneurs — in other words, be supportive whenever possible, but also honest and realistic, telling people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.

“The best advice I give to people is to ask enough questions so that they can come to the right conclusion on whether this is the right time, or the right place, or the right financial backing to go forward,” she said when we first spoke with her. “You let them come to the decision about whether it’s a ‘no.’ And if it’s a ‘yes,’ then you just try to be as supportive as possible and it them know that there are going to be highs and lows in any business, and the challenges will come. But the rewards will come also.”

For Fuller Doherty, the biggest reward has been to see the region continue to grow, prosper, and meet the enormous potential she has always thought it possessed. Progress has come on a number of fronts, she said, listing everything from the advancement of women, thanks to groups like the Women’s Fund, to that entrepreneurial ecosystem, to the capital of the region, the city of Springfield.

She told BusinessWest she has always been focused on ‘what’s next’ for the region, and especially Springfield, and believes the answer may lie in housing.

“Education requirements dictate housing investment,” she explained. “And I think we can do a lot with housing; Springfield used to be the City of Homes, and I think it can come back to that.”

But there is work still to do on all these fronts, she acknowledged, and she wants to continue playing a meaningful role in all of it.

In other words, she has no intention of slowing down, even in the era of COVID-19, and this attitude, this mindset, certainly explains why she is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

—George O’Brien

Features

COVID Has Brought New Challenges to an Already-intense Cancer Fight

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Sandy Cassanelli has always been a fighter.

Which is good, because these first nine months of 2020, the year of COVID, have tested her in every way imaginable.

Let’s start with her health. As most know, she was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer four years ago, and has been not only fighting that fight, but helping others fight it as well through the Breast Friends Fund, a charity that raises funds that go directly to metastatic breast-cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Having a terminal illness in the middle of a pandemic, though, brings even more challenges to the fore.

“There was the realization that this virus could kill me,” she said, noting that, for obvious reasons, she began working at home back in March. “And my husband, Craig, had to be careful to make sure he wasn’t bringing anything home to me; he would take off his clothes in the garage and run up to the shower every day. He jokes that I would spray Lysol on him before I would let him in the house.”

Meanwhile, as she started a new treatment regimen and underwent tests and biopsies, the protocols were much different.

“At Dana-Farber, my husband always comes with me — he’s never missed an appointment,” she explained. “But once everyone started locking down, only the patients could go, so I had to go from my first scans to see if my new treatment was working by myself. And since March, I’ve had to go to every appointment by myself. It’s been very challenging not to have the support of my husband.”

Let’s move on to her business that she manages with Craig — Greeno Supply. Near the top of the list of the products it supplies to a wide range of customers are a number of items in high demand but short supply during the pandemic — paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies … all those things. Getting them — and meeting the needs of customers — has been daunting, to say the least.

“It was very challenging — it was hard to get these things from our suppliers,” she said of products that ranged from those paper goods to gloves, masks, and other PPE. “We had to reinvent the wheel and go out to different suppliers just to get these items. And we’re still struggling — we’re still reinventing the wheel.”

And then, there’s family, or life at home, a phrase that has certainly taken on new meaning during this pandemic.

Cassanelli, like many parents, and especially many women, has been working at home and helping her children with school at home. In this case, the children were in eighth and 12th grade, respectively — big years, graduation years. Not a year one would want to spend confined at home.

“I’ve been battling for seven years, so my daughters are used to adversity and things not going the way normal life goes,” she explained. “They’ve been dealing with a lot, and they actually did really well because they know how to deal with adversity. But I’d have to say that when the final announcement came that they wouldn’t be going back to school and there was no graduation — that was probably the only time that tears flowed in my house.

“When I was first diagnosed with stage-4 cancer, the doctor set a goal for me and my older daughter Samantha — that I would get to see her graduate and walk across the stage” she went on. “So it was a double whammy — but we moved on.”

Overall, Cassanelli’s ability to meet all these challenges head on helps explain why she’s a Difference Maker in this memorable year.

It’s a mindset summed up perfectly by something she said to BusinessWest back in February while discussing her diagnosis and her approach to life.

“Does it suck? Yeah, it totally sucks. But me crawling up in a ball and putting the sheets up over my head is not going to fix anything, so I might as well just get up and go,” she said. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. I believe that every day is a gift, and I’m going to make the best of that day, and I’m going to be positive, because if I’m positive, then everyone around me is going to be positive.”

COVID-19 — and all that has thrown at her — isn’t small stuff. But she doesn’t seem to be sweating it, either.

—George O’Brien

Features

Former Family Business Center Leader Is Still Delivering Frank Talk

Ira Bryck spent 25 years as the executive director of the Family Business Center of the Pioneer Valley. And over that quarter-century, he left an indelible mark on those he helped through his rather unique style and ability to create impactful learning experiences.

These included plays he authored, dinner meetings with provocative speakers, and, quite often, frank talks about family businesses and whether people should be part of them or not.

And he continues to make a mark, even though he’s retired from the FBC, as it was called, and the center itself has gone out of business. He does it through a radio show with WHMP called The Western Mass. Business Show a variety of consulting work, and even his work in the COVID-19 era to help keep the residents of Amherst, where he has lived for some time, safe as college students return to campuses.

In all these settings and circumstances, Bryck speaks his mind, creates dialogue, and helps to generate progress in many forms. And that, in a nutshell — and he wrote a play called A Tough Nut to Crack — is why he is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

He has decided not to join his fellow classmates for the ceremony on Sept. 24 due to a strong desire to help keep his family safe during this pandemic — two adult children and their families with New York addresses have moved in with him as they seek what amounts to higher ground during the pandemic — but he has definitely earned his place on the podium, even if he’ll be addressing his audience remotely.

That’s because, since being named director of the fledgling FBC in 1994, he has done things his way — and in an ultimately effective way. And he has helped educate and inspire an important, if often unrecognized, segment of the local economy — its family businesses.

They come in various shapes and sizes and cross a variety of sectors, but they share common issues and challenges. When we talked with Bryck in February, he compared small businesses to snowflakes in that no two are alike, and summoned that famous opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Bryck has addressed these issues and challenges in a manner that had members of the FBC describe him, alternately, as ‘communicator,’ ‘connector,’ ‘facilitator,’ and even ‘entertainer.’

One long-time member described his style and his approach this way: “He can take things that are very theoretical and make them realistic. It’s one thing to read a paper from a professor who deals in theory, but it that reality? Can that be applied to the everyday businessperson? Ira was able to translate those kinds of things.”

And he’s still doing all that, just in different settings and with different audiences. With his radio show, he just passed a milestone — his 300th interview.

“It’s a nice exercise to meet and interview someone every week,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.”

Meanwhile, he’s also working with Giombetti Associates as a senior advisor working on personality assessments, coaching, and organizational development. He’s involved in several projects, including one with a private school in Springfield that is undergoing a change in leadership.

“We’re restructuring and creating much more of an idea system within their leadership team,” he explained, adding that he’s working on another project involving a Connecticut grower of plants and trees that is seeking to make structural changes and increase self-awareness and self-management.

He’s also coordinating a roundtable for area business owners. “We meet monthly and just explore people’s challenges and help each other think things through, and that also involves coaching,” he said, adding that he’s also involved with the family business center at Cornell University, participating in what he called a “speed-dating event involving mentors and mentees.”

“All this keeps me busy, but I’m only working about half as much as I used to,” he explained. “Which leaves me plenty of time of walk five to 10 miles a day, so I’ve lost 45 pounds.”

Overall, he’s still finding ways to educate — and also entertain, in some cases — while also making a mark on those he’s working with.

In short, he’s still very much making a difference in this region — and well beyond it.

—George O’Brien

Features

His March Will Go On … but with Fewer Marchers

Monte Belmonte says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some changes in what he does on the radio each day.

Like helping his listeners know what day it is — a simple assignment that has become a good deal more difficult as the days blend together and the things that make them different are increasingly removed from the equation.

“I would come in and do my show the same way I’d been doing it, except I introduced what I call ‘quaran-themes’ — a different musical theme for each day of the week,” explained Belmonte, a DJ with WRSI the River Radio in Northampton. “Wednesday, for example, is wanderlust Wednesday, where I take people musically to places they couldn’t otherwise go — like the ukulele version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to make them feel like they could go on that trip to Hawaii they were supposed to go on but couldn’t.”

Like everyone else, Belmonte is making needed adjustments because of the pandemic — at home, at work, on the air — and especially with the fundraiser to combat food insecurity that now bears his name: Monte’s March.

Indeed, the march, which takes place in November and has grown exponentially — in every way — since he started it back in 2010, has, in recent years, attracted hundreds of marchers who have joined Belmonte on his two-day trek from Springfield to Greenfield. This year, in the name of social distancing, those marchers will be encouraged to stay home and support the effort virtually, something many supporters have already been doing.

“It’s such a long walk that people have participated virtually over the years — where they create a fundraising team and set up a fundraising page — so at least there some institutional knowledge,” he explained, noting that specific details of this year’s march are coming together and will be announced soon. “But now, with everyone doing almost everything virtually, I think people will want to participate.”

And they certainly need to participate, he went on, because need has never been greater. That’s because the pandemic is leaving many in this area unemployed and in need of help — bringing the broad issue of food insecurity to the forefront as perhaps never before.

Nightly newscasts show long lines of cars at designated locations to pick up donations of food. Many of those being interviewed say this is the first time they’ve ever needed such help and that they never imagined they would be in such a situation. It’s a scenario playing itself out in California, Florida, Texas — and the Pioneer Valley.

“Because of the pandemic, hunger has been in the forefront of people’s minds in a different way,” Belmonte told BusinessWest. “I’ve talked with some of the survival centers, and the need has definitely grown.”

Getting back to his day … Belmonte said the pandemic has certainly impacted that as well — in ways beyond his song to signal what day it is.

Indeed, he noted that, in many ways, radio, and his work on the air, have more become more important and more appreciated in the era of COVID-19 as people look for some normalcy and comfort in their lives.

“Especially in the beginning, the pandemic reinforced how important radio is to people at a time like this,” he noted. “It’s a medium that feels more personal and intimate than some others; maybe the commuting times have changed, but people are still going places in their car, so most of the time it’s just you and your radio in your car together. When people needed a listening ear and a voice and some kind of sense of normalcy that might have been lost, they turned to radio in a different way.”

Meanwhile, he has used his show, his platform, to provide needed information and also try to help the businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic, especially restaurants.

“We offered to the restaurant community what amounted to public-service announcements,” he explained. “We said, ‘let us know what you’re doing, whether it’s takeout or whatever,’ and we called it the ‘takeout menu.’ It let people know what different restaurants were doing at different times.”

Overall, Belmonte said some things are starting to feel a least a little more like normal. But the pandemic is still impacting lives in all kinds of ways — which is why he’s still helping people understand what day it is.

And also why he’s hoping his next march will be among his most successful — even if supporters are not actually on the road with him.

—George O’Brien

Features

He Has Plans to Retire, but No Plans to Scale Back His Involvement

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When we talked with Steve Lowell back in January, he related just how familiar he became with the commute from Cape Cod to Upton in the middle of the state, where he lived, earlier in his career.

That’s because, while he was working for a bank on the Cape, he also became heavily involved in the community there — as part of his work, but mostly because giving back is his MO. He recalled that he was on the Cape so much, many people thought he lived there.

When we reconnected several days ago, Lowell was again talking about this commute, but from a different perspective.

Indeed, only days after he was introduced as a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020 in February, Lowell announced he would be retiring as president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, effective early next year, and stepping into a role new for this institution — chairman of the board. He and his wife, Anne, are in the process of relocating to the Cape, but he now keeps a small apartment in Brookfield and is there three or four nights a week, because he’s not only neck-deep in the transition of leadership at the bank (Dan Moriarty, the long-time CFO at the bank, has been named his successor), he’s still active in this region. Make that very active.

And he intends to remain involved with a number of organizations in this region, which means he’ll doing that commuting thing again.

“I’ll be around,” he said with conviction, he said, noting that’s not certain how long he will continue those living arrangements in Brookfield. “One way or another, I’ll be around.”

And while his work and that of his team at MSB has been somewhat different because of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as handling PPP loan applications, the basic formula hasn’t changed, he said, meaning Monson continues to fill the many roles of a community bank — and continues to search for new growth opportunities in a heavily banked region.

“In spite of COVID, we’ve moving forward, and we’re looking to the future,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the institution recently opened a new branch in East Longmeadow. “We’re trying to build an organization that is resilient enough to withstand not only this but anything else that might happen.”

While working to build this organization, Lowell is transitioning into his new role as chairman, one that will translate into a good deal of mentoring and also helping to guide the bank through a period that will likely be much more difficult than the one it just went through.

“I think 2021 is going to be an extremely challenging year, so I’m happy to stay involved and lend whatever expertise I can to them to make sure we keep things going in a really positive way,” he said. “I’m excited about that; I’m honored that they thought that this would be helpful, and I’m looking forward to it; I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, he will continue a career-long pattern of being heavily involved in the community, work that has involved nonprofits and institutions ranging from the United Way of Pioneer Valley to Link to Libraries; Baystate Health’s Eastern Region (Wing Memorial and Mary Lane hospitals) to the Western Mass. Economic Development Council (EDC).

“They’ve asked me to stay on for another year as chairman of the board of the Baystate Health Eastern Region,” he said. “And I just got asked by Rick Sullivan [president and CEO of the EDC] to continue on as treasurer — he said, ‘even though you’re going to be down on the Cape, can you stay on as treasurer?’ And I said, ‘as long as you’ll have me.’”

That request, and his answer in the affirmative, both speak to why Lowell is a member of this Difference Makers class of 2020. He’s almost always said ‘yes’ when asked to serve, and, more importantly, he usually didn’t wait to be asked.

He noted that, as he was arriving in this region in the late spring of 2011, the region — and Main Street in Monson — were hit, and hit hard, by a tornado. And as he’s retiring — at least from his role as president and CEO — the world, and Main Street in Monson, are being hit, and hit hard, by a pandemic.

“People might be happy to see me go,” he joked.

That’s certainly not the case. Even more to the point, he won’t be going anywhere soon, except for that commute he knows all too well.

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

On the Right Track

Jeremy Levine

Jeremy Levine says Pioneer Valley Railroad and Railroad Distribution Services have a unique business model that has led to decades of success and steady growth.

When it comes to moving freight, Jeremy Levine says, many business owners believe it comes down to a choice between rail — if it’s available — or trucks.

But in many cases, he believes, the best answer might be rail and trucks.

And this is the answer that has enabled Westfield-based sister businesses Pioneer Valley Railroad (PVRR) and its wholly owned subsidiary Railroad Distribution Services (RDS) — both Pinsly Railroad companies — to thrive for the past 35 years and remain on a steady growth trajectory.

“Railroads and trucking … they have their lobbyists in D.C. on opposite sides of the aisle trying to argue against one another,” said Levine, who is awaiting new business cards that will identify him as the company’s business-development coordinator. “But the truth is, for a short-line railroad like us, we use trucking all the time — we’re sending out hundreds of trucks a year to do the last-mile transit for our customers, either here in Westfield or all across the Northeast.”

As a short-line railroad, PVRR, as it’s known to many in this area, moves on 17 miles of operable track running north from Westfield, said Levine, the fourth-generation administrator of the company started by his great-grandfather, Samuel Pinsly. There is a branch running roughly four miles in Westfield and another branch running 13 miles into Holyoke.

The company interchanges with two class-1 railroads — Norfolk Southern and CSX — and takes freight that last mile, as Levine put it, referring to the last leg of a journey that might begin several states away or even on the other end of the country.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car. So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

“If you want to get lumber from Louisiana, a large class-1 railroad such as CSX will bring that up, interchange with us at our yard in Westfield, and we’ll take it the last mile or miles to our customers, if they’re located directly on our line,” he explained, adding that, for customers not on the line — those without a rail siding — RDS will take it the last leg by truck via two warehouses it operates in Westfield.

And in some cases, that last leg might be dozens or even hundreds of miles, he noted, adding that rail is a less expensive, more effective way to move material, and RDS enables customers to take advantage of it, at least for part of the journey.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car’s worth of capacity,” he explained. “So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

This has been a successful business model since 1982, and the company continues to look for growth opportunities in this region, he noted, adding that such growth can come organically, from more existing companies using this unique model, or from new companies moving into the region to take advantage of its many amenities — including infrastructure. And Pinsley Railroad owns several tracts of land along its tracks that are suitable for development, he noted.

For this issue and its focus on transportation, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at PVRR and RDS, and how those letters can add up to growth potential — for the company and the region itself.

Train of Thought

Levine told BusinessWest that, while he didn’t work at what he called the “family business” in his youth, he was around it at times, well aware of it, and always intrigued by it.

“When my grandmother was running the business, that’s when they moved the headquarters from Boston to Westfield,” said Levine, who grew up in nearby Granby. “You grow up going to the rail yard, and you’re around these people; you’re definitely going to be inclined to the business.”

But he didn’t take a direct route, as they might say in this industry, to PVRR’s headquarters on Lockhouse Road. Indeed, after graduating from George Washington University in 2015, he stayed in D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill, specifically on transportation policy. He later moved to the private sector and worked at a firm advocating for railroads.

Eventually, he decided he wanted to be a part of the family’s business and relocated to Western Mass. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said while borrowing more language from the industry, noting that he started at PVRR and RDS roughly a year ago.

He came to a company that had a small, steady, and diverse group of rail customers, some that receive thousands of rail cars of material a year and others merely a handful of cars, and more than three dozen RDS customers.

He said his new job description is essentially to generate new business, and he believes there is enormous potential to do just that — again, because of the unique business model these companies have developed and the benefits that rail (or a combination of rail and trucks known as ‘transloading’) brings to potential customers.

As Levine talked about the sister companies and how they operate together, one could hear the drone of forklifts operating in the warehouse outside his office, which led to an explanation of how it all works.

“We have some rail cars here this morning,” he explained. “They got dropped off by CSX late last night; early morning, or 3 a.m. crew [at PVRR] dropped them off here. The crews have been unloading them, staging them, and placing them outbound on trucks to head off to our various customers.”

There are other operations like this, or somewhat like this, in the Northeast, he explained, but what sets this operation apart, beyond the interchange with the two class-1 railroads, is the fact that the company owns both its railroad and distribution services.

“There are companies like our Railroad Distribution Services that are directly on CSX’s line,” he noted. “But the difference there is they don’t control the trains; I can pick up the phone and call the train operator and ask him when he’s going to be here with my rail cars, and with that comes a lot of security that your stuff is not going to backlogged or jammed up and that your deliveries are going to come on time.”

It is this security — and these benefits — that Levine is selling to potential customers. And as he goes about that task, he has the Pinsly team, if you will, focused solely on the Westfield operation and its future. Indeed, the company, which operated short-line railroads in Florida and Arkansas, has divested itself of those operations, with PVRR and RDS being the only holdings in the portfolio.

“What that has allowed us to do is reinvest and recalibrate,” he explained. “We had a very large team throughout the years and a lot of focus on Florida, where we had 250 miles of track; we can now take that talent and focus on our operations here.

“My go-to line is that ‘even you don’t have rail siding, that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from railroading,’” he continued, adding that he can back up those words with numbers, and he intends to use them to build the company’s portfolio of customers.

PVRR owns a 1930s-era passenger rail car that it calls the ‘dinner train.’ As that name suggests, it’s used for fundraising events, a customer-appreciation gathering, and even as a means to transport Santa Claus to Holyoke Heritage State Park for annual festivities there.

It hasn’t been out of the yard much in the era of COVID-19, but U.S. Rep. Richard Neal recently used it as a backdrop for an event, said Levine, adding that the dinner train has become a highly visible part of this company for decades now.

But the bottom line — in virtually every respect — is that PVRR and RDS are about getting freight, not people, from one place to another.

It’s a moving story, and one that could well add a number of new chapters in the years to come as the company tries to get customers on the right track when it comes to freight — literally and figuratively.

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

Alumni Achievement Award

President, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s Driven to Succeed — in Business and in the Community

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi has become a solid role model for her children, Niko and Talia, when it comes to getting involved in the community.

Carla Cosenzi moved into her new office at Northampton Volkswagen some time ago.

But she’s never quite found the time to fully decorate.

Indeed, there are a number of drawings created by her children that haven’t found their way on to the walls yet, and, likewise, there are several plaques, photos, BusinessWest awards (in the plural), and assorted pieces of memorabilia still waiting to be hung.

Among them is a popular framed poster featuring an image of legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi above the words ‘What it takes to be Number One,’ and a quote that has become one of her favorites:

“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit.”

The poster once belonged to her father, Tom, and she more or less inherited it from him — along with a number of other things. She said her father lived by the words in that quote — especially the part about doing things right all the time — and, not surprisingly, she does as well.

“I try to instill in my children — and especially my daughter, because she’s older — the importance of community and giving back to the community. And she will often attend events with me; it’s important for her to be there with me to see that it’s not just about giving money — it’s about getting involved.”

She’s inherited his entrepreneurial spirit — she and her brother, Tom Jr., have greatly expanded the business, adding several dealerships in recent years — as well as his commitment to serve the community, especially with the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, staged each year to raise funds to battle brain cancer, which claimed her father when he was just 52 years old. Since it was launched in 2009, the tournament has raised more than $1 million to support brain-tumor research at the Dana Farber Center for Neuro-Oncology.

But also through the Carla Cares Program, which could be called the philanthropic arm of TommyCar Auto Group. The program assists charitable and nonprofit organizations across Western Mass., Southern Vermont, Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Connecticut. Just a partial list of organizations it has supported through donations and other forms of support includes Baystate Children’s Hospital, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Unify Against Bullying, NoHo Pride, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, and many others.

This desire to serve the community — and to do things right all the time — is an operating mindset, if you will, that has earned Cosenzi not only her 40 Under Forty plaque (class of 2012), but another BusinessWest honor as well — the Difference Makers award in 2019. And it was on display the day BusinessWest visited Cosenzi. The golf tournament was just a few days away, and, as always, she was involved with every detail, right down to the gift baskets for the silent auction and raffle.

“I like to get involved in every aspect of this — it’s who I am,” she said. “It’s been that way from the beginning.”

But the fact there was a tournament at all is testimony to Cosenzi’s competitive spirit and desire to continue the fight against brain cancer.

Indeed, in the year of COVID-19, a number of fundraising events such as this one have been canceled or gone virtual — not that you can play a virtual golf tournament. But Cosenzi, after a number of discussions with tournament committee members — and talks with Twin Hills Country Club, where it took place — decided to press ahead and make something happen.

And they did. It wasn’t as large as in recent years — one course instead of two and, therefore, perhaps half the number of golfers — but it was a memorable start to the drive to get to the second million dollars in donations.

And while Cosenzi was busy helping with last-minute details of the tournament, so too were her children, especially her daughter, Talia, who has become a fixture at the event in recent years. Indeed, she has her own tent, Talia’s Tent, from which she sells lemonade for the cause. Because of the pandemic, she won’t be able to do that this year, so she’s making bracelets and sugar scrubs to sell online the day of the tournament.

“I’m proud to say that they know what they’re raising money for, and they’re very excited to help,” she said. “They feel like they’re part of making the difference, which is really exciting for me to see in my children.

“I try to instill in my children — and especially my daughter, because she’s older — the importance of community and giving back to the community,” she went on. “And she will often attend events with me; it’s important for her to be there with me to see that it’s not just about giving money — it’s about getting involved.”

Thus, the words on that Vince Lombardi poster have been passed down to a third generation of the Cosenzi family. They all live by the notion that you don’t do things right only once in a while.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health

This Pioneer Remains on the Leading Edge in the Field of Bioethics

Peter DePergola

Peter DePergola, wearing his mask outside Baystate Medical Center, a new requirement, has become a national leader in the emerging field of bioethics.

Peter DePergola described it as a “haunting experience.”

He then amended that statement slightly — but poignantly.

“It was incredibly haunting,” he told BusinessWest while retelling his experiences writing a white paper eventually to be titled “Ethical Guidelines for the Treatment of Patients with Suspected or Confirmed Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19),” published in the Online Journal of Health Ethics.

As that title suggests, this is a guide to help medical professionals and healthcare facilities decide who would be treated for the virus and how; specifically, it addresses how limited resources are to be expended and in what circumstances. It was a guide that kept him up nights while he was writing it, and one he truly hoped no one would ever have to use.

But when he wrote it — at the height of the surge that hit the eastern part of the state in April — it seemed likely, if not almost certain, that his own employer, Baystate Health, would be putting it to use.

“I really thought — I truly believed — that we would be using this policy within weeks,” he said, adding that he was working with administrators at Baystate who were preparing to become overwhelmed and would need guidance on, among other things, how to proceed when the number of patients who needed a ventilator exceeded the number of machines available.

It never came to that, and DePergola hopes it never does, but his white paper is there for use if the circumstances arise.

As for why it was so haunting, he said he was writing guidelines, or thresholds, for receiving care that he knew his own loved ones would not meet.

“As I wrote it, I realized that people that I cared about, even my own mother, may not qualify, or meet the criteria, that I have developed in collaboration with my colleagues, to receive a life-sustaining resource,” he said. “It was incredibly difficult to separate my own personal feelings and moral responsibilities to my family from the greater good of the public.”

DePergola’s white paper goes a long way toward explaining why he has become a leading voice in the emerging field of bioethics, not only in this region, but across the state and the nation. And also why he has, for the first time, become a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, five years after receiving his 40 Under Forty plaque, and two years after receiving another of BusinessWest’s honors — its coveted Healthcare Heroes award in the category of Emerging Leader.

But there are many other examples, including his steady, if not meteoric, rise within the ranks of experts in the bioethics field.

When he joined the other members of the 40 Under Forty class of 2015 at the Log Cabin, he was a staff ethicist at Baystate and the only person to hold that title in Western Mass. Now a professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Elms College, he’s still the only ethicist in the 413, but his influence now extends well beyond this region.

This was evidenced by his appointment to the Commonwealth’s Crisis Standards of Care (CSC) Advisory Committee in the spring.

The 17-member panel, which in April produced a document titled “Crisis Standards of Care Planning for the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was comprised mostly of noted experts from institutions in the eastern part of the state, including Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston’s Children’s Hospital. And DePergola was, by his estimate, 20 years younger than any other member.

He remembers a number of heated discussions among the members of the panel, including one that involved whether healthcare providers should receive primary access to scarce resources.

“For a while, I was the minority on that subject, saying that I did think that healthcare providers should get priority because they are the means by which we can care for many more people,” he told BusinessWest. “So even on just utilitarian grounds, which is not the best way to make moral decisions, it just made sense that, if we didn’t take care of the individuals who are, in essence, the tools by which we could heal the general public, then there would be no one else. If we didn’t prioritize them, what incentive would they have to come to work?”

A revised version of the committee’s “Crisis Standards of Care Planning” eventually did stipulate that healthcare workers would get priority, and it included a number of other measures contained in DePergola’s white paper.

The fact that the two documents are now very similar speaks to just how quickly and profoundly DePergola his risen to the status of national, and even global, leader in the field of bioethics.

And also why he is one of the five finalists for the Alumni Achievement Award.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Attorney, Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin; Springfield City Councilor

He Has a Passion for the Law, and for Serving His Constituents

Mike Fenton

Mike Fenton has now spent more than a decade representing Springfield’s Ward 2.

When he was running for the Ward 2 Springfield City Council seat in 2009 while attending law school at Western New England University, Mike Fenton, who was competing in a deep, well-credentialed field, didn’t think he’d win.

“And when I did win … I didn’t think I’d stay,” he told BusinessWest, figuring that, in time, maybe a few years, he would be immersed in his law career and essentially done with his service to the city.

Suffice it to say Fenton was wrong with both of his projections. Indeed, 11 years later, he is still representing Ward 2 while still building that law practice — he’s a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz, and Fentin, specializing in commercial real estate, business planning, commercial finance, and estate planning.

“A few years into it, I just fell in love with it,” he said of his multi-faceted work with the City Council. “I fell in love with all of it — with helping constituents, the city budget, and some of the more complicated aspects of city government; it’s very rewarding work.”

These sentiments explain why Fenton is now a multiple-year finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, previously known as the Continued Excellence Award. He hopes that 2020 will be the year he’ll break through, but he admits to having other things on his mind right now.

“I fell in love with all of it — with helping constituents, the city budget, and some of the more complicated aspects of city government; it’s very rewarding work.”

That list includes the now nationwide focus on police-community relations — “we’re taking steps to increase accountability and transparency within the department” — and especially COVID-19. The pandemic is impacting both his law practice — there’s been a general slowing of the commercial real-estate market, but an understandable surge in estate-planning work — and the city of Springfield, which is impacted in many ways, especially within its business community.

As Fenton talked about the changing landscape, one can hear the concern in his voice and the passion he has for serving the city he grew up in.

“The biggest casualty to this pandemic, after you take in the public-health and human cost, which is obviously first and foremost, is commercial real estate and the economy,” he noted. “The commercial real-estate market was doing much better than it had in the decades leading up to 2020, and then the pandemic hit, and like every other place, not only this country but around the globe, it’s a completely different environment now.

“There’s no doubting that Springfield was hitting its stride, and the pandemic has thrown us a curveball,” he went on. “Everything from stalled progress at MGM to questions now about development in the area around the casino, to Worthington Street and what’s going to happen there, to losing Big Mamou’s … there’s a lot of losses that will have to be made up when we get to the other end of this pandemic.”

Fenton said he’s looking forward to serving the city as it works to recover from those losses. To explain this passion, he flashed back to 2009 and his decision to seek public office. Actually, he started the discussion with a different decision — the one to attend law school at Western New England, which offered him a full scholarship, instead of Boston College, where he thought he was headed.

That decision, which he now counts among the most important (and best) of his life, brought him back home. And as he was making that decision, his cousin sent him a news article detailing how Springfield was going through a change in its charter, moving from nine at-large city councilors to a 13-member board, with eight of them representing wards. And this started talk of a possible run for one of those seats.

“I was a political science major, but I never thought about a career in politics — I didn’t want a career in politics,” he explained, adding that a City Council seat wasn’t a career, but it was “a great opportunity to meet people and serve the city I love.”

So he ran, launching his career just a few weeks after graduating from Providence College. And again, to his surprise, he prevailed against a number of opponents with better name recognition and better credentials.

He now represents Ward 2, which includes Hungry Hill, East Springfield, and Atwater Park, balancing a long list of city responsibilities with an equally hectic schedule within his law practice. “I’ve been successful at balancing the two because I’m extremely passionate about both of them,” he told BusinessWest. “Politics, and elected office, is not my career, and it will never be my career — but I really enjoy serving my city in this capacity.”

With that, he explained not just why he’s a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, but why he’s now been a finalist several times.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Founder, V-One Vodka

This Entrepreneur — and His Label — Have Come a Long Way in 15 Years

Paul Kozub, left

Paul Kozub, left, seen here with business partner and former Patriots star Ty Law, is growing V-One into a national brand.

When BusinessWest caught up with Paul Kozub recently, he had just wrapped up some promotional video work with Ty Law, former New England Patriots standout cornerback and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2019.

Law is now a partner with Kozub in his venture, V-One Vodka, and the videos being shot were at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. That’s because V-One has been named the official vodka of the Hall for this year — when most all activities, including the induction ceremony, have been postponed because of the pandemic — and next.

The juxtaposition of all this — official vodka of the Hall of Fame, Ty Law as spokesperson — help show just how far Kozub and his label have come since he became part of the very first 40 Under Forty class in 2007. Back then, he was struggling to get his brand off the ground and into bars, restaurants, and package stores in the 413. It wasn’t exactly a one-man show, but it was very close, with Kozub making most of the deliveries himself.

Today, he’s in four states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire — and he’s poised to enter four more, including Ohio. He had plans to be in roughly 30 by this fall, and signed on with a distributor to make that happen, but COVID-19 has put many of the plans … well, on ice.

“In Florida, Texas, and some of these other states, there are so many problems that it’s not a good time to launch a new brand,” he noted. “Are the bars and restaurants open? Are the bars closed? That’s typically half our business.”

But Kozub, who was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur in 2016 and thus has a few pieces of hardware from the magazine on display somewhere, has certainly come a long way in the 15 years since he started this journey in his basement, using a few thousand dollars left to him by his uncle to create his own vodka.

“You have to have that perseverance; there are so many hurdles when you’re running a business — and in today’s present moment, there are even more. You have to love what you do and have the passion for it. If there’s a roadblock or wall, you have to figure out a way around it or through it.”

Indeed, he now has his own distillery in Poland; work continues to expand his footprint geographically; he’s spent $500,000 to create a new bottle — an important part of the puzzle in this industry; and he continues to defy the odds when it comes to making a vodka label stand out and be successful in an immensely crowded field.

“About 97% of new vodkas fail within the first three years,” said Kozub, who used that statistic to segue his way back to the pro football Hall of Fame and a discussion he had recently with its president, Dave Baker.

“We talked about the 33 million people who have played football, the 27,000 who have played in the NFL, and the 300 who are in the Hall of Fame. What did it take for those people? What qualities did they have to have to be one of those 300?” he asked rhetorically, drawing a parallel to those who get to the top of their field in any business, and especially his.

“You have to have that perseverance; there are so many hurdles when you’re running a business — and in today’s present moment, there are even more,” he said while answering his own question. “You have to love what you do and have the passion for it. If there’s a roadblock or wall, you have to figure out a way around it or through it. When it comes to vodka … yes, you have to have a great product, but you have to be willing to work very hard.”

Kozub’s been doing that since he first launched V-One in 2006, trading in life as a loan officer at a local bank for the life he’s always dreamed of — one as an entrepreneur.

It’s not an easy life, certainly, but it’s the one he certainly prefers.

“When you run a small business, it has to be your life,” he said in conclusion. “I don’t know many small-business owners who are playing a lot of golf or have a lot of time on their hands. For me, it’s all about my family and about my business.

“To be successful, you have to love it,” he went on. “Like I told Dave Baker … my worst day at V-One was better than my best day of being a banker. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The challenges that come up — the financial challenges, the HR challenges, the legal challenges … all those things don’t end. And we’re still a very small brand; if we do get bigger and become a national brand, the challenge then becomes how do you stay successful — how do you stay on top?”

As Kozub said, the challenges — the roadblocks and the walls — keep coming. And he rather enjoys finding ways to get through them or around them.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Assistant Director of Business Development and Promotion Sales, Massachusetts State Lottery; Holyoke City Councilor

This City Leader Has Always Been an Ambassador — and a Connector

James Leahy

James Leahy, seen outside City Hall, has become involved a wide array of Holyoke institutions.

James Leahy joked that being an at-large city councilor is not a reference to his size.

The six-foot, four-inch Leahy has had a lot of experience retelling that one-liner — more than 20 years worth, actually. Indeed, he was first elected to that body in 1999, when he was only 26, after a run very much inspired by his father (more on that later).

He admits to not expecting to spend two decades in that post, but he has, and in the meantime, he has become involved in, well … all things Holyoke, or almost all things. Indeed, he has devoted considerable time, energy, and expertise to the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and also been involved with everything from the Holyoke YMCA to the Volleyball Hall of Fame; from the Holyoke Children’s Museum to the Westfield State University board of trustees (he’s an alum), as well as Holyoke’s famous merry-go-round.

And recently, he started and still maintains the Hello Holyoke Community Forum.

He does all this while keeping a day job as assistant director of Business Development and Promotion Sales for the Massachusetts State Lottery, a position that requires him to rotate between offices in Springfield and Worcester.

When asked how he finds time for all this, Leahy, who is often described as an ambassador for the city and a ‘connector’ for people looking for help with a problem or issue, gave an answer that speaks volumes about why, a decade after earning his 40 Under Forty plaque, he is a finalist for the coveted Alumni Achievement Award.

“I find the time,” he said. “But more importantly, I find the right amount of time. One of my strong suits is organizational skills, and I try to teach my children that. I think some of them have it, and some of them don’t. I tell them that they have to put the right amount of quality time into whatever they’re doing. If I can’t give 100%, then I’m not doing it.”

Suffice it to say he’s given 100% to Holyoke, and to ascertain how and why that is, we return the subject of Leahy’s father, Thomas, who emigrated to this country from Ireland, arrived with a strong work ethic, and passed on to his children some strong advice about service to the community.

“When my father arrived here, he worked in Boston, and he heard stories about [former Mayor] James Michael Curley and other politicians,” Leahy explained. “He was always talking about politics, and he loved politics. I was named James Michael Leahy, and I’m pretty sure that has something to do with James Michael Curley.

“My dad always talked about giving back and how America gave him what he has,” Leahy went on. “He was always stressing two things — one, that you had to give back, and two, if you’re going to live somewhere and raise your family there, you should be a cog in the wheel; you should be part of the community.”

That mindset was reinforced by his mother, Mary Ellen, a prolific volunteer, he continued, adding that it was only a few years after graduating from Westfield State that he first decided to seek one of Holyoke’s at-large council seats. He remembers the time well; he was not only running for office that November, but getting married that same month. And his birthday and his his fiancée’s birthday were the same day, Nov. 19.

“I was thinking, ‘this could be the best month of my life,’” he recalled. “And then I thought, ‘if I lose the election, that will put a damper on things.’”

But he didn’t lose, and he’s gone on to win every two years since. But, as noted, his work within the city goes far beyond City Council chambers and City Hall — and to institutions like the merry-go-round, the children’s museum, the YMCA, and especially the parade, which he became involved at the behest, if one can call it that, of his father-in-law, attorney Peter Brady.

“He was very active on the parade committee,” Leahy recalled. “I was still in college when I started dating his daughter; I can remember him handing me an application and saying, ‘fill this out — if you’re going to be part of this family, you’re going to be part of the parade committee.’”

And he has been, serving in a number of capacities, from board president to his current assignment, co-marketing director. He is one of many working hard to help the parade bounce back from a year when it had to be canceled — for the first time anyone can remember — because of the pandemic.

No, ‘at-large’ has nothing to do with Leahy’s size. But you could say it has everything to do with his involvement in — and impact on — this historic city, which continues to be very large indeed.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Do

Kristin Carlson

Kristin Carlson says the pandemic has actually helped business at Peerless Precision, especially when it comes to making parts for defense and law-enforcement-related products.

Mark Borsari says he hasn’t been on a plane since a vacation in early March.

By his reckoning, that’s by far the longest stretch he can remember when he hasn’t been flying somewhere, especially in his role as president of Palmer-based Sanderson MacLeod, a maker of fine wire brushes for everything from makeup kits to gun cleaning.

The six months on the ground has been a time of reflection — and even humor.

“I’m sure my wife’s probably thinking I should be on a plane more,” said Borsari with a laugh, adding that he’s not at all sure when he actually will.

But being effectively grounded from air travel is just one of the many ways COVID-19 has shaken things up for manufacturers, and, in the larger scheme of things, perhaps one of the least consequential given the way Zoom has become the preferred method for communicating with clients and employees alike.

Indeed, the pandemic has prompted everything from weeks-long shutdowns to scrambling for needed parts; from strategies for keeping employees safe to the need to manufacture different products — often PPE — to keep workers busy because demand for the products that were being produced has slowed or stopped.

Much has hinged on the word ‘essential’ — a status bestowed on many manufacturers in the 413, an area with a large number of shops making parts for aerospace, defense, or the broad healthcare sector.

Sanderson MacLeod makes products for all those fields, said Borsari, noting that, after a short but still tension-filled time of uncertainty regarding the company’s status, it was declared essential. The same with Westfield-based Peerless Precision, a company that makes, among other things, products used in the cryogenic cooling systems for thermal imaging, night vision, and infrared cameras — items that are actually in greater demand because of all the tension in the world at the moment.

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari says being deemed ‘essential’ certainly helps, but there is too much uncertainty with this pandemic for any company to feel secure about the future.

“Any time there’s any trouble going on in the world and more money is being put into the defense budget, we benefit from that,” said Kristin Carlson, the company’s president. “We’re getting new engine parts, new fuel-injection parts … things we’ve never made before. Any time there’s unrest in our country or anywhere in the world, the Defense Department spends more money.”

But not all area manufacturers have been so fortunate. Indeed, while golf balls are important to many, they are not ‘essential’ in the eyes of the state’s governor, so the Callaway plant in Chicopee was shut down as it was heading into its busiest time of the year — the start of the golf season in the Northeast and other colder climes. And shutting down a plant that size, which was running three shifts six days a week, is a complicated undertaking, said Vince Simonds, the company’s director of Global Golf Ball Operations.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again,” he said, noting that the massive plant was shut down from March 25 until May 18, when the first phase of the state’s reopening plan went into effect. “But overall, we’ve done very well.”

Fortunately, the company has been helped by something that could not have been foreseen in those dark days of March — a surge in popularity in the game of golf resulting from the fact that it is one of the few sports people can play while also socially distancing themselves from others.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again. But overall, we’ve done very well.”

This surge now has the company running three shifts seven days a week, said Simonds, adding that Callaway is now struggling to meet global demand, especially for its lower-priced, entry-level products (more on that later).

But even for those companies that were not shut down, have not seen shrinking demand for the products they make, or been helped by the rush to take up golf, the pandemic has led to a time of challenge, uncertainty, and questions about what will, and won’t, come next. And this is a difficult climate to operate in, said Borsari, who tried to put things in perspective for BusinessWest.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no playbook for what we’re dealing with,” he explained. “This thing has come through and almost indiscriminately picked out specific companies and industries and devastated them and left others somewhat unscathed. It depends on who their market is, where they are on the supply chain, who their vendors are, who their customers are … there are so many variables.

“Normally, when you run into these challenges in business, you can at least do some research or talk to some people who have been through it before to get a gauge for what was successful,” he went on. “With this, there is none of that.”

Parts of the Whole

Flashing back to early March, Carlson noted that, at least in one respect, the company was ready for what was coming.

“We had just put in a very large order for toilet paper and other supplies from Staples,” she recalled, adding that, soon thereafter, such essentials were certainly hard to come by. “I was telling everyone that I had something like 180 single rolls of toilet paper … so if you guys can’t find any, we’ll sell it to you for cost.”

But beyond that, there was little way to anticipate, let alone prepare for, the pandemic and the many ways it was going to change the landscape for all businesses, and especially manufacturers. And for many, there was uncertainty about whether the doors would remain open as the state began to shut down businesses to help slow the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, for many, this uncertainty was short-lived.

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds says a pandemic-related surge in the game of golf has helped take the sting out of being shut down for two months this past spring, Callaway’s busiest time for making golf balls.

“We’re the largest medical and surgical manufacturer in the country, and we also do a lot of work for government agencies and the military with gun-cleaning products,” said Borsari, adding that Sanderson MacLeod was able to get the green light from the state and the town of Palmer to remain open for business.

“Getting deemed essential was important for us,” he recalled. “One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them, and that was the biggest concern they had from the beginning — whether we would be allowed to stay open.”

The company has been fortunate in other ways as well, he said, noting it had undertaken catastrophic planning and redundant sourcing before the pandemic, so there were few if any supply-chain issues once COVID struck. And its supply needs are relatively simple.

“Some of these companies are putting together computers with 4,000 parts,” he explained. “We’re really working with wire fiber and attachment components; it’s not nearly a deep a supply issue as other companies had.”

Meanwhile, demand for many of the products made by the company, especially those in the gun-cleaning realm, has actually grown, again because of the growing levels of turmoil in the world.

“One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them.”

Carlson sounded similar tones, noting that, in many respects, the pandemic hasn’t impacted the overall bottom line; in fact, it has helped generate more business with some clients.

It didn’t look that way back in the spring, when the state’s shutdown, which most thought would last a few weeks, instead stretched to nearly two months. “At that point,” she said, “I was pretty confident that 2020 was going to be a bust.”

Instead, it’s shaping up to be better than last year — which was quite solid.

“We’re not just steady, we’re busy, and we’re getting busier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the company had a record July, usually one of its slower months. “A lot of that’s on the defense, not aerospace, side, but also our defense aerospace has picked up a lot as well.”

But in addition to creating more work, the pandemic has also changed how work is carried out, creating a number of challenges for those managing plants, especially early on in the pandemic, when there was little guidance on how to keep workers safe — and also little hand sanitizer to be found.

“We had to get people to understand that they can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with one another — you have to maintain that six feet,” Carlson said. “I had put limits on the number of people who could be in rooms with closed doors; we’d take turns disinfecting the entire shop. In the morning, one guy does the shop floor, at lunchtime, another one does it, and at the end of the day, they do it again.”

Simonds agreed, and noted that, by strictly enforcing the rules and following the protocols, the plant has seen no cases, and no interruptions, since reopening.

“We’re sticking to the CDC protocols, and it’s worked for us,” he said. “Everyone is temperature-screened; everyone wears a mask at all times; we’re restricting meeting rooms based on square footage and number of people in the rooms; no employee gatherings beyond the number cited by the state; anyone who goes on vacation and travels outside of Massachusetts to a restricted area has to follow protocols coming back in.

“One of the challenges was just getting used to things,” he went on. “Wearing a mask, especially in the summertime, is difficult, but people have been great, and we’re all used to it now; it’s just a matter of practice.”

Round Numbers

For Simonds and his team, the state-ordered shutdown came, as noted earlier, during the busiest time of the year for the facility, which has enjoyed a resurgence over the past few years as Callaway has made huge strides in gaining market share within the golf-ball industry.

And turning everything off is, as he said, a somewhat complicated undertaking.

“For any machines that have materials in them, they have to be purged properly,” he explained. “We need to take all the raw materials that are sensitive to environmental conditions and put them in environmentally controlled areas. We need to take care of WIP — work in process — and try to process as much as possible so we don’t have time-sensitive WIP sitting on the production floor.

“It’s a matter of systematically shutting down operations so we don’t have inventory sitting in the wrong places,” he went on, adding that the process was made more complicated by the fact that no one really knew for how long the plant would be dark.

Meanwhile, on the personnel side, most all employees were furloughed — and nearly all of them came back, he went on, adding that the operation slowly wound back up, but since then, activity has sped up dramatically, with many of those employees securing large amounts of overtime.

“We’ve gone from zero to 100 as quickly as we could. Once the golf courses started opening up, the demand for product was almost unprecedented — there was so much golf being played,” Simonds said, adding that courses in most all states were open several weeks before the plant was reopened — if they had closed at all. “And the golf business has remained pretty strong; we’re chasing demand.”

The same is true at Peerless and Sanderson MacLeod, where, in addition to meeting orders, the plants are coping with new ways of communicating, meeting as teams, and planning, as much as possible, for what might come next.

And also learning and growing from the shared experience of not only coping with a pandemic and all the challenges it has brought, but in some cases thriving.

Indeed, Carlson said the past several months have brought a close workforce even closer together as they contend with the protocols, the surge in business, and a shared desire to be prepared for the worst-case scenario while hoping for something much better.

Borsari agreed, and said some of the real ‘opportunities,’ a word he’s hesitant to use in this climate, come in the broad area of relationship building when it comes to both clients and the team at Sanderson-MacLeod.

“It’s been a unique opportunity to connect with our client base in a way we haven’t done before,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all about collaboratively figuring out the best way to keep both companies open; we’re really had a lot of good relationships become even better because we realize how dependent we are on one another.

“And as an organization, finding our way through this together has made us stronger,” he went on. “We’ve done everything we can as a company to make this a place of normalcy. Everything else around them was going crazy, and one of the key points we made in March was to do everything we can to follow the mandates and make sure our people are safe, but we also want to make sure to maintain normalcy as much as we can.”

Up Off the Floor

Looking ahead, Carlson said her company has taken what steps it can to be prepared for what might come next.

Yes, that means stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other pandemic-related needs that were in such short supply when the first wave hit six months ago.

“I’m ready for us to keep moving the way we’re moving,” she explained. “Even if we did walk back any of the phases of the reopening or went back into a shutdown, we’d still be open and still going at the pace we’re going, and perhaps be even busier; we’re prepared.”

But, as Borsari noted, even for manufacturers in the coveted ‘essential’ category, there is too much uncertainty to ever be comfortable, or fully prepared.

“Nothing is stable,” he said. “Just because we’re essential doesn’t mean anything’s safe or easy; so much is dependent on the attitude of the state, or the people who decide to come to work or not come into work, tariff measures, travel bans … all of these could have an impact.”

Such is life in a sector that, like most others, has seen COVID-19 change almost everything and create conditions that are anything but business as usual.

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

Law Special Coverage

Red Ink

Steve Weiss

Steve Weiss says he’s getting a steady volume of calls from business owners with questions about bankruptcy or liquidation.

Steve Weiss says the wave of bankruptcies that he and others in his line of work are expecting certainly hasn’t reached shore yet, to use a phrase appropriate for this time of year.

“But you can definitely see it building out there — it’s coming; you can see it rolling in,” said Weiss, who specializes in bankruptcies and workouts for the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

This wave is comprised of both corporate and consumer (personal) bankruptcies, and it will be large and hit with considerable force, he went on, adding that a number of factors are colliding that will make it so.

On the corporate side, while many companies have been able to hang on and survive the pandemic to date, they have done so thanks largely to government stimulus initiatives that are due to be exhausted soon, leaving business owners and managers wondering how they will pay people and all their bills. And on the consumer side … it’s a very similar story.

Indeed, unemployment benefits and stimulus checks have helped many make ends meet, but those checks are projected to end soon for large numbers of people, if they haven’t ended already.

“My phone is starting to ring more with business owners who are either unsure how they’re going to make it, or are sure they can’t — the virus has just clobbered their business,” said Weiss, who said his next phone call after the one with BusinessWest was with a business owner looking to talk about bankruptcy or perhaps liquidation.

“My phone is starting to ring more with business owners who are either unsure how they’re going to make it, or are sure they can’t.”

Such calls are starting to come in with increasing frequency, said Mike Katz, a partner with the Springfield-based firm Bacon Wilson and one of the region’s pre-eminent bankruptcy specialists. He used a different, though similar, metaphor to describe what’s coming.

“I think the dam is about to break — we’re on the cusp of a tsunami of bankruptcies,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.”

There have already been many, especially on the corporate side, he went on, noting that many large and famous names, many from the retail sector, have filed for Chapter 11 protection. That list, which continues to grow, includes Lord & Taylor, J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, Gold’s Gym, Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, Hertz, 24-Hour Fitness, Chuck E. Cheese, California Pizza Kitchen, and Men’s Wearhouse.

Those names reveal the types of businesses that are most in jeopardy, Katz continued, adding that, locally, many small businesses in the hospitality, retail, and fitness realms — but many other sectors as well — face severe challenges as they try to survive the pandemic.

For some in this category, an emerging option is what’s being called the ‘fast-pass’ small-business bankruptcy process, otherwise known as Subchapter V of Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. This new subsection, which became effective in February, is not a response to COVID-19, but certainly seems to be tailor-made for the economic crisis the pandemic has created.

Mike Katz

Mike Katz is expecting a “tsunami” of bankruptcy filings. What he doesn’t know is when this wave will hit.

That’s because, as the name suggests, it is a faster, less expensive Chapter 11 reorganization path, designed specifically for much smaller businesses than those that seek the Chapter 11 route. To be eligible for Subchapter V, an entity or an individual must be engaged in commercial activity, and its total debts — secured and unsecured — must be less than $7.5 million, a new number (the old one was $2.725 million) resulting from provisions of the COVID-inspired CARES Act. At least half of those debts must come from business activity.

Katz and others we spoke with said the fast-pass option holds potential for some businesses, but there are challenges within its many provisions, including the need to come up with a reorganization plan within 90 days of the filing. Such plans may be difficult to develop given how difficult it is to see even a few weeks down the road, let alone several months, because of the pandemic.

“The one downside is you file your bankruptcy papers, and you’re required, within 90 days, to put a plan in place,” said Mark Cress, a bankruptcy specialist with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson. “That’s a short window, and a lot of small businesses are barely holding their own.”

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with these bankruptcy lawyers about what they can already see coming. They can’t predict when this particular surge will begin, but they say it’s almost unavoidable.

Chapter and Verse

While Katz and Weiss were crafting analogies to waves and tsunamis, Cress wanted to draw parallels to the Great Depression.

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the current conditions rival, and in some cases (such as the quarterly decline in GPD) actually exceed those of the Great Depression that started roughly 90 years ago.

“This is worse than the Great Depression in a lot of ways,” he said. “The dip in the economy — it dropped by a third — was something we’ve never seen before. And but for the way the Fed has handled this, it would be devastating; those multi-trillion-dollar programs … they’re the only thing that’s sustaining us. Without that, the whole house of cards would collapse.”

To further state his case — that’s an industry term — Cress pointed to numbers contained in an analysis authored by Morning Consult economist John Leer, who noted that, without additional funding, millions of unemployed Americans are at risk of financial insolvency by the end of this month.

“The personal finances of workers who have been laid off or placed on temporary leave since the onset of the pandemic deteriorated in July,” Leer wrote. “The July survey found that 29% of unemployed and furloughed workers lacked adequate savings to pay for their basic living expenses for the month, up 16% in June. This monthly change contrasts with June, when the finances of laid-off and furloughed workers improved. At that point in time, many renters and homeowners took advantage of the rent-deferral and mortgage-forbearance options included in the CARES Act, thereby driving down their monthly expenses.”

Mark Cress

Mark Cress says the new ‘fast-pass’ bankruptcy process may be a viable option for some, but the process doesn’t leave business owners much time to create a reorganization plan.

Cress backed up that commentary with some other, very sobering numbers regarding renters.

“One-third of all renters weren’t able to make their July rent,” he noted. “And more than 60% were concerned they won’t make August. So you can imagine the ripple effects this will have … many small-time landlords, with one or two tenants, may not be able to pay their mortgage.

“And you if get enough defaulted mortgages … then banks start to pull in their horns, and all of a sudden the credit markets freeze up, and you have a real disaster,” he went on, drawing analogies, again, to what happened nine decades ago.

Looking at these statistics and possible scenarios, it’s easy to see why bankruptcy lawyers are expecting a wave, or tsunami, of personal bankruptcies to hit this area — and the nation as a whole — soon, with ‘soon’ being a relative term.

“Some people are getting unemployment benefits, but it looks like that’s ending,” said Weiss. “There’s a foreclosure and eviction moratorium that’s ending in October, and there are already people living on credit cards and exhausting their savings just trying to get through this — and it’s going to be a while before jobs come back.

“So it’s a matter of sooner than later,” he went on. “And bankruptcy is something of a trailing indicator; it takes people a while to get the point where they need to file for bankruptcy — the credit-card bills don’t become unmanageable until several months go by.”

By the Numbers

But the wave will almost certainly involve corporate bankruptcies as well, said those we spoke with, noting that many businesses have struggled to merely survive the past five months. And with the state already pumping the brakes on its reopening plan as reported cases increase, and ever more uncertainty about the future, survival is becoming more of a question mark for many businesses.

That’s especially true within the restaurant sector, said those we spoke with, noting that, while many have been able to reopen, their revenues are still a fraction of what they were pre-COVID. And with fall and then winter coming — meaning far fewer opportunities to serve outdoors — some in this sector are wondering if, and for how long, they can hang on.

“I think the dam is about to break — we’re on the cusp of a tsunami of bankruptcies. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.”

“I’ve been contacted by a number of restaurants, in particular, over the past few months,” said Katz, adding that there have been inquiries from those in other sectors as well. “Some of these have managed to hold on, some have closed some locations while keeping others open … but the number of people I’ve talked to just today tells me that the dam is just teetering, and I think there’s going to be unprecedented times in the bankruptcy field.”

This speculation leads him back to the new fast-pass small-business bankruptcy process, and questions about just how many businesses may try to take advantage of this emerging option, and whether they can be successful with such bids.

“I think a lot of businesses will try doing this because you have a 90-day maximum to get in and get out — that’s how fast this Chapter 11 is going to go,” he explained. “And the whole thing is predicated upon the fact that you only have to propose a plan that provides more to the creditors than they would receive in a liquidation, with no voting.

“Under the current Chapter 11 process, there’s a whole voting process, where you have to get two-thirds of the dollar amount and a majority of the number of creditors to vote in favor of it,” he went on. “But with this process, there’s no voting — it’s a much more streamlined process, and it’s far less expensive.”

With the new ceiling of $7.5 million, many more businesses are now eligible to take this route. But that same 90-day in-and-out period, while attractive in one respect, is daunting when it comes to actually putting a reorganization plan in place.

“I’ve talked with a number of people about it because people are still trying to figure how it works — there isn’t a lot of legal guidance or precedence,” said Cress. “But having to put a plan together in 90 days is going to be very difficult for many small businesses. If you don’t have any profits or any cash and you’re living hand to mouth, it really places an undue burden on you to figure it all out and get creditor sign-off in 90 days.”

Katz agreed. “Most traditional Chapter 11 cases are multi-year, and reorganization is based in projections,” he told BusinessWest. “How do you project when this COVID situation is going to change? If you’re a restaurant, how can you project when people are going to come back to your restaurant and you can go back to something approaching capacity?”

The Bottom Line Is the Bottom Line

Those lawyers we spoke with all expressed a desire not to sound like an alarmist.

But as they talked about what they’re seeing, reading, and hearing on the phone calls they’ve already taken, they admit it’s difficult not to take that tone.

“For many businesses, it’s a matter of survival at this point,” said Cress, noting that survival is becoming more difficult in some sectors with each passing month. “It’s becoming apparent that the recovery is not going to happen as quickly as some had originally hoped, and the effect is going to be much deeper and longer-lasting than people are even letting on.”

And one seemingly unavoidable consequence of all this is bankruptcies, on both the corporate and consumer sides of the ledger.

As Weiss said, the wave hasn’t crashed ashore yet, but if you look — and you don’t have to look hard — you can see it building.

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

Coronavirus Manufacturing

Current Events

Tony Contrino

Tony Contrino says his utility’s extensive practice with preparing for weather events has certainly helped in its efforts to cope with the pandemic.

 

Tony Contrino says Westfield Gas & Electric, like all utilities, has considerable practice watching storms develop, getting ready for possible damage, and, as the old saying goes, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like that — sort of, said Contrino, general manager of Westfield G&E. It could be seen coming, and there were certainly efforts to prepare for it. But the pandemic is, in most all ways, not like weather events like Tropical Storm Isaias, which barreled through Western Mass. earlier this month, leaving sometimes days-long power outages up and down the Valley and creating huge headaches for utilities — and the customers they serve.

Indeed, those storms come and go, the damage is repaired, and life goes — until the next storm. This crisis is different, not only in its duration, but in its far-reaching effects — everything from a significant drop in electricity use (7% to 10% are the most often-given estimates), and its impact on the bottom line, to an equally sharp rise in delinquent payments, which also affects the bottom line, to changes in how work is carried out — right down to putting one person in each truck, rather than two.

But as with those weather events, area energy providers are working their way through this crisis, adapting and pivoting, as businesses in all sectors have, and encountering challenges and opportunities — again, like most all other businesses have. But, unlike many businesses, they’re providing a vital service, and thus they’re being diligent about working with, and communicating with, those they serve.

“It’s certainly a different, and very challenging, time — for us, but also for all our customers,” said Contrino. “We’ve made a real effort to communicate through all this, not only with employees but customers as well. We’re trying to keep people aware of what’s going on and what our plans are, and try to give them some assurance that we want to work with them.”

Craig Hallstrom, Eversource’s president of Regional Electric Operations for Massachusetts and Connecticut, agreed. He said the investor-owned utility has been working to keep the power on — yes, Isaias has certainly impacted those efforts — while keeping employees and customers safe.

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities,” he told BusinessWest. “We have half our workforce working at home, and people have been very creative and able to adapt to their work at home. We’ve been able to work differently to do the things we need to get done. Everyone’s working differently — we’ve learned how to use videoconferencing very well — and, for the most part, we’re getting our work done.”

Craig Hallstrom

Craig Hallstrom

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities.”

While making adjustments within their own operations, the utilities we spoke with said they’re working with clients, both commercial and residential, to help during this time of crisis.

Jim Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric, observed that, while his utility is facing declines in revenue and sharp rises in delinquent payments — further impacting cash flow — these problems often pale in comparison to what customers are facing.

“If we were looking at our losses in isolation, we would be very alarmed, and we are concerned about the numbers,” he noted. “But when we look at the impact to the overall economy and what many of our customers are going through … we’ll figure out a way to manage and get through this.”

For this issue and our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, BusinessWest shines a light, pun intended, on how the pandemic has impacted those in the energy business — and how they are responding.

Hitting the Switch

As he talked with BusinessWest, Contrino was just returning from a vacation — only he didn’t get as much relaxation time as he planned, or hoped. Isaias saw to that.

“I was very involved in the storm activity — I just took care of it all remotely,” he said nearly a week after the storm came through, leaving tens of thousands across the region without power for long stretches and “hitting Westfield hard,” as he put it.

That phrase is appropriate for the pandemic as well, obviously, and it applies to every community across the region. Indeed, large numbers of businesses, including some large users of electricity, such as colleges and universities and some manufacturing facilities, but mostly smaller ventures in the hospitality and service sectors, have been shut down for long stretches. And some, like the colleges, are, for the most part, still closed.

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some facilities, but COVID-19 and a need to socially distance has prompted a re-evaluation of those plans.

Meanwhile, many businesses that are open are struggling and finding it difficult to pay all the bills, including the one from the utility company. And many individuals working for these businesses — or not, as the case may be — are in the same boat, with matters likely to get worse before they get any better (see related story on page 53).

All this has presented a number of challenges for utilities, who are responding, as all businesses are, with use of reserves, belt tightening, and sometimes delaying planned expenditures when possible.

While estimates on the decline in power usage vary — Lavelle also put it at roughly 10% — and the overall drop in demand has been mitigated to some degree by a very hot summer that has commanded more use of air conditioners, said Hallstrom, the bite is significant.

“Over the course of a year, a 10% reduction would mean an impact to us in the vicinity of $4 million to $5 million — and that’s a big number,” Contrino noted. “We’re cutting back, we’re not doing some of the work we would typically be doing, and we’re trying to control expenses as best we can and work our way through this.

“We anticipate that we’re going to be hit on the receivables side, and we’re planning for that,” he went on. “We’ve got funds in place to help us with that, and we’re thinking long-term — I don’t think this is going to end that quickly; I’m sure it’s going to extend into next year to some degree.”

Lavelle agreed, noting that, while Holyoke G&E is looking at a similar hit, it has been helped by some new businesses coming online, including a few involved in cannabis cultivation, which are typically large users of power.

“We’re seeing a few of those businesses start to ramp up, and that will offset some of the COVID impact,” he explained. “But the COVID impact is about 10% overall.”

And while that is, as Contrino said, a big number, it pales in comparison to what businesses across a number of sectors are facing, said Lavelle, adding that it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“We can’t compare to what some of the businesses and some of our residential customers are dealing with,” he went on. “Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

To help these businesses — and residential customers as well — Holyoke G&E, like other utilities, has been working with customers to help them through the crisis.

“Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

There is a moratorium on shutoffs for late payments — the governor put one in place for investor-owned utilities, and municipally owned operations have followed suit — and Holyoke G&E is working with individual customers to create payment plans, said Lavelle, adding that, overall, the utility has seen a 25% rise, roughly $1 million to date, in delinquent payments.

Like Contrino, Lavelle said his utility is handling the decline in revenue through reserves and some reductions in expenses, many of which are coming naturally as a result of the pandemic, such as those involving travel, training (some programs cannot be carried out remotely), and other areas.

Lines of Communication

While coping with the pandemic’s impact to their customers, and the bottom line, area utilities have, like other businesses, been forced to adjust and change how they do things.

This means everything from having some employees who can work remotely do just that, to putting one person in each service truck, instead of two; from closing offices, thereby compelling customers to pay online, to taking steps to make sure those in the pivotal control rooms are at minimal risk of exposure to the virus.

Overall, the goal, said those we spoke with, has been to keep people apart as much possible in order to keep operations moving as efficiently as possible. In fact, Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some of its operations prior to the pandemic, and now, it is certainly rethinking that strategy.

“For a fairly small utility, we have several different buildings, and we had been looking at a consolidation plan,” Lavelle said. “But the distance between facilities and the number of facilities has actually helped us comply with social distancing and other recommendations associated with good COVID hygiene. So we’re revising that whole consolidation plan at present.”

Contrino said his utility’s experience in preparing for weather events like Isaias has been beneficial as it continually adjusts to life during the pandemic.

“We’ve had quite a bit of experience working through numerous storms and large-scale electric outages in the past, and have conducted various emergency-response drills over the years,” he explained. “So we were somewhat prepared to take action — although the duration of this pandemic is something we’ve never experienced before.”

Elaborating, he recalled that, as it became clear the pandemic was coming and there would be a significant impact, the Westfield G&E implemented an emergency-management plan, designated a COVID-compliance officer, and formed an incident-response team of key management personnel — a team that continues to meet regularly to discuss what’s happening and what is likely to happen in the weeks and months to come, although looking far down the road is extremely difficult.

“During this pandemic, we’re always concerned about the health and safety of our employees, our customers, and the general public,” Contrino told BusinessWest. “Although we have essential services to provide, we want to keep everyone safe; we have that balancing act going on — while we’re trying to provide our services, we’re also going to keep everyone healthy.”

Hallstrom concurred, also using the phrase ‘balancing act’ to describe how Eversource is working to keep the power flowing while keeping employees and customers safe.

He said roughly half the utility’s 8,000 employees‚ including those in finance, HR, accounting, and other business functions, have been working at home the past 20 weeks or so. Most of ‘his’ 2,800 employees, those who work to directly provide power and maintain service, have been coming to the office — in whatever shape it takes — every day.

Keeping these individuals safe has become a top priority.

“We’ve implanted many safety protocols — we promote face masks and washing hands, and instead of crews going out two per truck, we’ve had them going out one per truck,” he explained. “We’ve actually bought trucks and taken vehicles out of retirement to increase our fleet so that people can go out by themselves in a vehicle.”

Precautions also extend to service in individual homes and businesses — crews will go in only after ensuring there are no COVID-related issues at the address in question — and to the control centers, which are vital to managing the electric system.

“Day to day, we have a sufficient number of people to manage these facilities, but one of the fears from the pandemic is that if someone got sick and they passed it to fellow employees, that might quickly impact our people and make it so we couldn’t operate that system,” Hallstrom explained. “Those people are highly trained, and in the case of transmission, they’re certified, so that was a big concern.”

While some utilities had control-room personnel quarantine and stay in what amounts to a bubble, he noted, Eversource, which has several smaller control rooms, has been able to spread out its people so there are fewer individuals in a given control room, while some of these facilities were set aside as ‘sterile environments’ that employees not infected with the virus could be moved to in order to keep the system running properly.

Meanwhile, like banks, utilities have had to close their doors to their main offices, which have traditionally seen large amounts of traffic involving customers paying their bills or conducting other business. This business has now shifted online in many cases, said Lavelle, and for some customers, it’s been a big change.

“Being shut down has really impacted how we conduct business,” he explained. “We’ve had online services for some time, so a lot of it has been training customers how to pay online or sign up for a new account online; we’ve seen an uptick of more than 200% in online transactions.

“It’s been pretty seamless,” he went on. “There’s been a little bit of hand holding with some customers, but other than that, it’s gone quite well.”

Watt’s Next

Drawing one more analogy to Isaias — and all the other storms his utility has confronted over the years — Contrino said that, when it came to the pandemic, Westfield G&E prepared for the worst.

And this is the mindset that will continue as the crisis plays itself out, with certainly more questions about what’s on the horizon than answers.

“It’s been a difficult time for everybody,” he told BusinessWest. “However, we’ve put a lot of thought and effort into working through this and moving forward in a disciplined and measured manner.”

With that, he spoke for all the utilities that have been working to keep the power on — tropical storms and all — during a crisis that is testing them in every way and on every level.

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

Features Special Coverage

Mission: Accepted

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito admits he’s struggling somewhat with Zoom and conference calls — not the technology, but the nature of those forms of communication.

He’s a people person, and he likes meeting them face to face — and not on screen or over the phone.

“I enjoy going to events and networking — that’s how I meet people,” he said, noting that there haven’t been any opportunities like that since he’s arrived, and he’s looking to the day when they return. “Zoom is OK, and I’m getting good at it, but it’s not the same.”

But it is reality in the summer of 2020, and this is how Belsito, chosen late this spring to fill the rather large shoes of Mary Walachy as executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, has been going about what will remain his primary assignment for the foreseeable future.

And that is to ‘meet’ as many people as possible and come to fully understand the many issues and challenges facing the Western Mass. community.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid,” he explained, adding that, since arriving in early June, he’s been doing a lot of listening, with the intention of acting — and collaborating with others — on what he’s hearing.

It’s an assignment he accepts with considerable enthusiasm, and one to which he brings an intriguing background, blending work in financial services, government (he was district director for state Sen. Edward Augustus), higher education (he was executive assistant to the president at Assumption College in Worcester, his alma mater), and philanthropy; most recently he served as president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation in Worcester and assistant vice president for Community Relations.

And he intends to draw on all that experience in a role that involves everything from community outreach to regional problem solving, but mostly comes down to what Belsito calls “impact philanthropy.”

“A lot of my work has been grounded in community work,” he said, using that phrase to describe many of his career stops. “Getting involved and influencing has always been part of my DNA, and it’s generational in many ways — my family was very involved in the community in Worcester.”

This devotion to community work, as well as an opportunity to continue and build on Davis Foundation initiatives in literacy, early-childhood education, improving the Springfield Public Schools, and other endeavors, drew him to the Davis Foundation, created by George Davis, founder of American Saw & Manufacturing, and his wife Irene, and the opportunity to succeed Walachy, whose work he has admired from Worcester.

“The work that Davis has done in literacy and specifically early education is well-known throughout the Commonwealth,” he noted. “I had known them from that lens of an active member in a peer community trying to work on the same issues; Mary is a household name in the early-education space throughout the Commonwealth, and her name is often brought up as someone to model in her guidance on how to pull these programs together.”

Coming to Springfield from Worcester, Belsito said there are many similarities between the state’s second- and third-largest cities (with Worcester being the former), and common challenges. These include everything from education to economic development and job creation. But they are different and unique communities with their own “personalities,” as he called them.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid.”

“Worcester and Springfield are not the same, although they do have similar traits,” he noted. “It’s my job to listen and maybe take some of my experiences from Worcester and share those with folks in Springfield. Maybe one in 20 will catch and improve the lives of children and families.”

Meanwhile, recent events have brought other priorities to the fore, including the plight of the region’s nonprofits, many of which have been severely impacted by the pandemic from the standpoints of revenue and sustainability, and the broad issue of racial justice, which the foundation has helped address through creation of the Healing Racism Institute, now a separate 501(c)(3), but still very much affiliated with the Davis Foundation.

Educare Springfield

Paul Belsito says his primary goal is to build on the foundation created by the Davis Foundation with initiatives such as Educare Springfield, a unique early-education facility that opened its doors last fall.

And these emerging issues are dominating many of those discussions he’s been having as he goes about listening and building relationships.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Belsito about his new role, but especially about the challenges facing Springfield, the region, and its large core of nonprofits — all of which have looked to the Davis Foundation over the years for not simply financial support, but also direction and leadership.

Moving forward, he said the foundation will be continuing in those roles and constantly looking for new ways in which to make an impact and move the needle.

Background: Check

Tracing the steps that brought him to the Davis Foundation’s suite of offices in Monarch Place, Belsito said his professional career started at Flagship Bank and Trust Co. in Worcester, where he served as a trust administrator, working with families to help manage their assets and trusts.

While in that role, he started doing volunteer work within the community, and before long, his career aspirations changed.

“All of a sudden, everything flipped, and the volunteer work became a career,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in 2005, he started working for Augustus, now the city manager in Worcester. After a stint as a private consultant, he became executive assistant to the president at Assumption, which was, in many ways, a continuation of the work he did at the State House.

“I worked for a state senator who was very driven by policy, not politics,” he explained. “His mindset was, while we were in that building, how could we improve the lives of people not only in that district, but across the Commonwealth? The policy piece was very important to me, and it carried over to the higher-education piece.”

From Assumption, he went to Hanover Insurance, which, like MassMutual in this market, has historically been deeply involved in the community, often serving as a “catalyst for change,” as he put it.

He started in community relations and eventually became president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation.

“As we began to pivot on how to not only make the company a world-class company but also the city in which it was headquartered, I did a lot of work with the Worcester Public Schools, with the Hanover Theater, and various organizations within the community that really helped to round out the experience for children and families so that they would be successful out in the community,” he said, noting that perhaps the most significant initiative launched by the Hanover Foundation is the Advancement Via Individualized Determination (AVID) college-readiness program in the Worcester Public Schools.

“It was an honor to work for a company that was so committed to impact philanthropy,” he went on, “which is trying to move the needle and have outcomes and data that support the investment that you’re making.”

Slicing through his job description at Davis, he said it’s to generate this type of needle-moving philanthropy — or more of it, because the foundation has been involved in a number of potentially game-changing initiatives, including Cherish Every Child, a nationally recognized Reading Success by 4th Grade program, the advocacy group Springfield Business Leaders for Education, and, most recently, the effort to establish the innovative Educare Springfield early-education center, which opened last fall near the campus of Springfield College.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work. They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.”

The desire to continue such initiatives and create more of them brought Belsito to Springfield (via Zoom) to interview for the Davis job, a job posting that came about as he was looking for a new challenge after spending a short stint working for the city of Worcester on its COVID-19 response.

“I had known of Davis for a long time — and we actually used Davis and the work that Springfield was doing as one of the models as we were developing a reading-for-success program what would work best for our community.”

Forward Thinking

Looking ahead, Belsito said that, as the Davis Foundation continues its mission of service to the community, the specific direction of its initiatives will be determined by recognized needs within area cities and towns.

But he’s certain that education and a hard focus on young people will be at the heart of those discussions.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work,” he explained. “They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.

“And if you look at the legacy of the family, that’s been a consistent theme,” he went on. “And as we look to the next phase of where the Davis family’s impact will be, I believe that it will consistently be in education and literacy, but we also have a new generation of family members who are getting more active within the community, so how do we integrate some of their perspectives in making sure that we have a consistent, shared goal of improving the lives of children and families in Hampden County?”

Beyond this shared goal, there are new and emerging needs within the community, he said, noting, as one example, the mounting challenges facing the region’s large core of nonprofit organizations, many of which were struggling with finances before COVID-19.

“Many nonprofits are in a vulnerable state from a financial perspective,” he noted. “And this experience from the past few months has only exacerbated that. So we want to look at how Davis and organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Mass. can come together to help ensure that the mission-driven organizations that are needed for the community to be successful can thrive and be able to provide the services they need.

“Even from the start of my interview process at Davis to today, a lot has changed,” Belsito went on, referring not only to the pandemic and its repercussions, but also George Floyd’s death and the resulting focus on racial justice. “Perspectives have changed, and priorities have changed, and so we need to convene people at the local level and ask, ‘what does this community need to be successful?’”

What hasn’t changed are the many social determinants of health — from housing and transportation to food insecurity and job losses — that are impacting quality of life in the region, he continued, adding that COVID-19 has helped shine a light on inequities in the system and the need to initiate steps to address them.

And when it comes to such efforts and other initiatives, the key is listening to members of the community and creating a dialogue about to address these problems, he said, adding that the Davis Foundation has historically been a leader in such discussions, and it will continue to play that role into the future.

“I’m a believer that, when you pull people together, there’s usually a solution that can be found,” he said, using that phrase to refer to everything from the sustainability of nonprofits to improving public education.

‘Meeting’ the Challenge

Left with what he says is little choice, Belsito has become quite savvy with Zoom and other virtual methods for meeting and getting to know people.

It’s not as he would want it, but it is indeed reality. And so are the many challenges confronting Springfield and the region, many of them amplified or accelerated by a pandemic that has been relentless.

Belsito said his first assignment is to understand what makes Springfield Springfield, and it is ongoing. From there, his job is to pull people together — something the Davis Foundation has always been good at it — and, when possible, move the needle.

He’s made it a career to take on such work, and he’s more than excited about what the next chapter might bring.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says COVID-19 has put a damper on many of his plans for Chicopee, but he remains optimistic about the city and its future.

John Vieau wasn’t exactly planning on running for mayor last summer.

That’s because he was reasonably sure that incumbent and two-time Mayor Richard Kos would be seeking another two-year term — and Kos eventually did take out papers for re-election. And when Kos ultimately decided in February 2019 to return to his law practice instead of the corner office, Vieau, a Willimansett native and long-time alderman from Ward 3, didn’t exactly jump into the race.

Indeed, he had to think long and hard about this decision, especially the prospect of leaving a well-paying job with the Commonwealth — specifically, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) — and take a pay cut to serve as mayor.

“I’m not a gambler,” said Vieau with a laugh, adding that he ultimately decided to run for mayor — and prevail over a crowded field — but take a leave of absence from his job with MassDOT so he can ultimately return when he’s finished with City Hall.

That careful due diligence notwithstanding, being mayor has been a long-time goal, if not a dream job, for Vieau, who said he fully understood everything that came with the territory … except maybe a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of municipal management — from greeting guests at City Hall (elbow bumps instead of handshakes) to making a budget — and made just about every facet of economic development, from maintaining the momentum that was building downtown to beginning the next stage in the life of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park, that much more difficult.

“It’s put a lot of things on pause,” said Vieau, who put the accent on ‘lot,’ noting that the pandemic has impacted municipalities as hard as it has hit specific economic sectors and individual businesses. It has affected how city business is conducted, sharply reduced revenues, and, as noted, put a number of projects on ice.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores. And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

“All the ideas and things that were happening are sitting on the back burner as we combat this time of uncertainty and crisis,” he said while summing things up succinctly, before amending to say ‘most all’ the ideas and projects.

Indeed, there are some things happening, from a new Florence Bank branch at the site of the old Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Avenue to a new restaurant, Jaad, located downtown. But, as he said, the pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress at a time when he thought the downtown, and the city as a whole, were seeing a renaissance of sorts.

But Vieau, while not exactly welcoming the challenge of COVID-19, is embracing it to some extent and looking upon it as a stern test of his management and leadership capabilities — a trial by extreme fire, if you will.

He noted that he took his first full weekend off since March early last month, and said it felt good to get some rest. But he fully understands that the future is a very large question mark, and the pandemic certainly isn’t done making life difficult for the residents and leaders of the region’s second-largest city.

“We have to remain diligent,” he said, echoing the governor when it comes to the pandemic and how the city, the state, and the country, are far from out of the woods. “We have to do everything we can to keep this under control.”

For this, the latest installment if its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with the city’s relatively new mayor about life in the age of COVID-19 and how he’s trying to see his community through to the other side of this crisis.

Numbers Game

At one point in his talk with BusinessWest, Vieau paused and reached for some papers on his desk — the latest reports on the state of the pandemic in his city.

He didn’t have to consult the paperwork to know the numbers — he had already pretty much committed them to memory — but he did so to show just how much data he and others in municipal management have to keep track of, and just how committed he is to understanding everything he can about the spread of the virus on any given day — or moment, for that matter.

“I look at the numbers every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 deaths in the city, people with underlying conditions, ages 58 to 100. We have, today, 41 open cases of COVID-19, 399 people who have recovered, and we have 45 people in the N/A group, meaning they’re probably residents of the city that are now in assisted living, some form of nursing home, or other facility that’s not in Chicopee.”

This attention to detail is just part of managing the pandemic, or managing during the pandemic, to be more precise, he said, adding that he has a 10 a.m. conference call with his ‘COVID team’ every day, and these calls have led to some aggressive and ultimately effective efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Indeed, Chicopee was among the first, and most vigilant, cities when it came to requiring masks in stores and other public places and putting other measures in place to slow the spread of the virus.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores,” he noted. “And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park into apartments is one of many projects in Chicopee now clouded by question marks as a result of the pandemic.

This is not exactly what Vieau signed on for when he took out papers for mayor last winter, soon after Kos opted not to seek re-election. What he did sign up for was a chance to take what has become a career of service to the city to a higher level.

That career started with a stint on the Planning Board — he was appointed by Kos during his first stint as mayor — and went to a different plane when he was talked into running for the open Ward 3 seat on the Board of Aldermen 16 years ago, not long after he took a job at MassDOT handling eminent-domain work.

“I saw this an opportunity to get more involved,” he told BusinessWest. “This was the area where I grew up; to have a chance to represent it as an alderman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Vieau spent the last four of those 16 years as president of the board, and was content to go on representing his ward until Kos decided not to seek another term. Vieau said he received calls from the media within an hour of Kos’s announcement asking if he was going to run, and his quick answer was ‘no,’ for those reasons stated earlier. But after talking with family, friends, constituents, and his employer, and after learning he could take a leave of absence, he ultimately decided to run.

There were many planks to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.

“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keeping people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.

For example, $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.

Holding Patterns

One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress registered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents responded by turning out in large numbers.

The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it. We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylinders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events on Friday nights and had food trucks … all these fun things were happening, and … COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”

The hope is that businesses downtown can weather what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stronger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.

These building blocks include the Mass Development-funded Transformational Development Initiative (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.

One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,298
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.93
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek

* Latest information available

These projects, which the mayor expects to proceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.

“We’re looking at young professionals and empty-nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”

As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were funneled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he continued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, City Hall.

Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, adding that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the structure, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”

Managing the Situation

As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get weekends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.

But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.

This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.

After all, he has made public service a second career.

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

Coronavirus

Driving Forces

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan says inventory has been an issue for many car dealers, but overall, the picture is much brighter than analysts were predicting in the spring.

Back in the earliest and darkest days of the pandemic (at least in this part of the country), analysts within the auto industry were predicting that overall sales for 2020 might be off perhaps as much as 80% from the year prior.

Those projections turned out to be well off the mark, as were some of the later estimates as well, said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales, adding that a number of factors have made this year — and it’s a little more than half over, so a lot can still happen — much better than perhaps anyone could have imagined back in late March and early April.

These factors include stimulus checks that provided some disposable income for many people, as well as some extremely attractive incentives from the manufacturers, including 0% interest for as many as 84 months, job-loss protection, and no payments for six months.

“From an auto-dealer standpoint, I don’t think we were intended to be direct beneficiaries of any stimulus money,” Sullivan said. “But what the consumers are doing with the money has certainly offset what we expected to be a much steeper decline in the auto business than what we have actually experienced.”

But some of these same factors, coupled with pandemic-forced factory shutdowns, have created a slew of challenges for auto dealers as well. These include shortages of inventory for new cars, although there seems to be some improvement on that front, according to those we spoke with, and an even more pronounced shortage of used cars, which is spurring something almost historic when it comes to the prices offered to those willing to trade in vehicles or just sell them outright — something that’s happening with increasing frequency.

“There’s an unbelievable shortage of used cars,” said Sullivan. “There just weren’t as many cars coming into the system, for a variety of reasons, and that made used-car trade-in values go up. And people are recognizing that and saying, ‘if there if was a time to trade in a car, now’s the time’ — and that’s helping the new-car market.”

As for overall inventory, a drive by any dealership in the area would reveal fewer cars in the lot, a clear reflection of what’s happening with both new and used vehicles, said Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes Benz of Springfield, noting that his store is typical in most respects. There’s a smaller supply of used cars (only about 12 days, as opposed to the 30-to 45 days that would be typical) and fewer new cars as well as the factories try to catch up for the time lost when they were closed or making other products, such as respirators, in the case of General Motors.

“There just weren’t as many cars coming into the system, for a variety of reasons, and that made used-car trade-in values go up.”

The situation is improving, though, and by late August, most expect a return to something approaching normalcy.

“We’re starting to see inventories coming back, which is exciting for all of us,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, adding that, while the landscape may change and there remains a good deal of uncertainty, there is currently demand for those cars that will soon be filling the lots.

Which is good because, while sales of used cars (if dealers can get them) have been more than solid, new-car sales have been off — but, again, not as much as the experts thought they would be back when states were shut down and governors were rolling out phased reopenings.

“I’d say, on average, the sales pace for the new-vehicle industry in the Northeast is probably down 10% to maybe 15%,” said Sullivan, adding that these numbers could not have been imagined back in the spring, when it looked like the bottom might fall out of the market.

Looking ahead … well, looking ahead is something that’s difficult in any sector. But those we spoke with said that, overall, dealers are in decent position for quarters three and four. Inventories are improving, there is still some pent-up demand, there are still plenty of incentives, and new models are arriving on many lots.

But as they’ve seen already this year, things can change in a hurry, and projections — as those made way back in March can attest — are difficult to make.

Hitting the Accelerator

As he talked with BusinessWest at the Mercedes dealership on Burnett Road, just off turnpike exit 6, Wirth noted that, in many respects, a touch of normalcy has returned to this store, and the business of car selling in general.

Indeed, he noted there were several people sitting in the service waiting area, more than there would have been back in the spring, when ‘pickup and dropoff’ was the order of the day — and it’s still a popular option. Meanwhile, all employees are back at the dealership — many of those who could were working remotely in the earlier days of the pandemic — although there are now vacant workstations between those with people, and some sport plexiglass dividers between them. Perhaps most importantly, business is … well, perhaps not normal, but it’s certainly in the ballpark.

Peter Wirth

Peter Wirth says business is returning to something approaching normal at Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, and the summer and fall look promising as new models roll in.

In many respects, the dealership is well-positioned for a solid year, despite the pandemic and various negative forces it has created, Wirth said, listing everything from those aforementioned factory incentives — Mercedes has them as well — to lingering, pent-up demand; from new models arriving regularly to the mix of vehicles consumers are demanding.

“This might be the second year that we’re producing more SUVs than cars on the new-car side, and we’re almost at 60-40 now,” he explained. “It took us a couple of years to get there, but that’s what the market wants. So, maybe for the first time in five years, we’re actually in sync with what the market wants, and I think that’s going to help us.”

But while there are some signs of normalcy and even progress when it comes to sales volume, there are reminders everywhere that these are very different times — from the masks on the customers and employees to the deep cleaning that accompanies every car that leaves the service bay, to the cars in the lot, or the lack thereof, to be more precise.

Sullivan told BusinessWest that inventory has been an issue across the broad portfolio of makers within the Balise stable. Closed factories were a big contributor to the problem, he said, but supply-chain issues were, and still are, a factor as well.

“Next to the tsunami that hit Japan, the pandemic and everything it has brought has had perhaps the most impact the auto industry has seen since World War II,” he explained. “The supply chains got interrupted, and this is a global industry; there’s parts from Scandinavia, China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, the list goes on. And it really only takes one part to not be able to have a production line running.

“If you have a plant that goes down, and you’re missing that key component, you can’t build an F-150, or a Silverado, or a Camry,” he went on. “The industry has been absolutely disrupted from an availability standpoint. But the good news is that it’s a pretty resilient industry; they find other suppliers and ways to navigate through. But we are a low point of availability.”

Some makers were hit harder than others, he continued, noting that General Motors never fully recovered from the strike of last year before the pandemic hit, and the arrival of COVID-19 further complicated matters, especially when it comes to the production of trucks, one of the more popular items in recent years.

Unlocking Options

Overall, though, and especially as the summer has progressed, buyers have had a better time of trying to find the make, model, and color they want. Mercedes has a sister store in New York that effectively doubles the dealership’s chances of quickly supplying want the buyer wants, and Balise and TommyCar have similar relationships within the industry.

Some are settling for maybe their second-favorite color or a model with most but not all the options they were looking for, said those we spoke with, while others chooose to wait for exactly what they want. And the wait is getting slightly shorter.

“We’re lucky that we carried a good days’ supply of inventory before this happened, so we were in a good position as far as the number of units we were able to maintain through this, and now, we’re starting to see the manufacturers supplement the inventory back,” Cosenzi said. “But the biggest hurdle was being able to get the exact specifications a customer was looking for when it came to new cars.”

If the new-car market is getting somewhat back to normal, the same can’t really be said for used-car buying, which, as noted earlier, is in what would have to be called uncharted territory — or at least a place visited very infrequently.

Using words and numbers, those we spoke with said demand for used cars is through the roof — even for convertibles — and this is definitely a sellers’ market.

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says getting used cars has been a real issue for most car dealers, and that will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future.

Sullivan knows, because he recently was a seller — if you count trading in as selling.

“I traded my wife’s car in two weeks ago, but it really is the best time you could ever ask for,” he said, adding that prices are up, on average, almost $1,800 per car over the past few months. “With my car, I got $2,000 more than I would have two months previous — or two months from now. It just happens to be that timing in the market — the used-car market has defied every industry analyst’s predictions during COVID.”

Overall, a number of factors are contributing to the bustling used-car market in the 413, Wirth said. For starters, this is more of a used-car market than a new-car market, and from all he can gather — he’s been in it for four years — it always has been. What’s more, with the pandemic creating questions about the future and some economic uncertainty for many, used cars are being seen as an attractive, less risky option than buying new — even with all those incentives from the carmakers.

But supply, as it is with new cars, is perhaps the biggest driving force.

“I think that the used-car market will fall at some point, but you never know; it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen given the circumstances.”

Sullivan told BusinessWest that most all of the auction houses where so many used cars are acquired by the dealers were closed for a long stretch early this year, removing those supplies. Meanwhile, many leases were extended due to the pandemic, taking those cars out of circulation. And some consumers simply decided that, given the conditions, they would hang onto their car for at least another year.

All this forced dealers to look elsewhere and explore options ranging from buying some of the suddenly unneeded rental cars cluttering lots across the country to buying cars off the street, a tactic Balise deployed.

And that imagination has been needed, because demand — fueled by cautiousness in the era of COVID-19 and other factors — has certainly spiked.

Bottom Line

As for what happens next … it’s hard to say with any certainty, because there are so many unknowns when it comes to the virus, the economy, additional stimulus, and other factors.

“There’s so much uncertainty, but especially when it comes to where the customer demand will settle in,” said Cosenzi. “And we’re prepared to adjust our operations accordingly. We’re starting to see a lot of the manufacturing plants open up and trucks pulling into the dealerships with the cars we’ve been waiting for. I think that the used-car market will fall at some point, but you never know; it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen given the circumstances.”

Sullivan agreed.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “And we’re incredibly grateful for being in as good shape as we are. When we looked at what the analysts were saying, that can really put a lump in your stomach. I’d like to say that we’re wildly optimistic, but we can’t be because we know there’s some choppy waters ahead.”

With that, he spoke for everyone in a business that has fared much better than most could have dreamed, but is still staring at some rather large question marks.

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

Coronavirus

Developments of Note

SSO

The SSO hasn’t been able to perform live since the pandemic arrived, but it has found ways to keep the music coming.

Susan Beaudry called it a ‘stop the presses’ moment — quite literally.

Indeed, the program book for an adjusted, and truncated, 2020-21 season for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was at Hadley Printers back in April, and the presses were set to roll. But at the very last moment, the order was canceled.

“The tenor of our industry was … ‘I wouldn’t say anything, I wouldn’t announce a season,’” said Beaudry, adding that, back then, as the number of cases in this state and around the country were soaring, industry groups were advising that it didn’t make sense to put a schedule down in black and white. And it still doesn’t.

“When you’re selling, which is what we’re doing when we announce a season, it’s very difficult in this climate,” she told BusinessWest. “People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be. They’re not going to pre-buy for a concert that may be months away; we just felt it was an awful lot to ask our patrons and the community to make that kind of commitment.”

This episode captures, in poignant fashion, the state of limbo in which the SSO, and most all other institutions of its kind, now resides.

In short, the future is unknown, and when it comes to live performances before real audiences — the absolute lifeblood of these orchestras — it comes down to a waiting game. A wait for a vaccine, most probably, or perhaps an effective treatment for the virus. Something that will prompt the governor of the state to give the green light for phase 4 of his reopening plan.

“We’re listening and waiting,” Beaudry said. “We’re not planning based on our needs or our desires; we’re just listening. And when it’s the right time, we have a season ready to rock and roll. We may have to move some dates around, we may have to move some soloists around … but we know what we’re doing when the time comes.”

“People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be.”

Beaudry stressed that she and others at the SSO are not simply waiting. Far from it.

In fact, she said she’s probably working harder and longer than she would during a typical season, largely because of an even longer to-do list.

It includes providing music to an audience — not the typical audience and not in the typical way; the SSO is now offering the HomeGrown Series, a weekly (Wednesday) webcast featuring a performance, demonstration, or lecture. It also includes fundraising, creating a fund to pay musicians sidelined by the pandemic, planning — as much as that assignment can be carried out in the COVID era — and working ever harder to create ways to broaden the orchestra’s audience.

Indeed, those at the SSO were well aware, long before anyone had ever heard the term COVID-19, that it needed to expand its base of patrons and supporters, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has perhaps brought a greater sense of urgency to this work.

“What we’re not doing is waiting,” she explained. “We’re fully engaged, and we’re working very, very hard. We still have to raise money, we still have to market our brand, we have to keep our musicians in front of our patrons, we have budgetary issues, a strategic plan to undertake … I’m working harder and longer hours than ever, but it’s exciting, fun, and rewarding work.”

As BusinessWest continues its extensive coverage of the pandemic and its broad impact on the region and its business community, we take an in-depth look at the SSO and how it intends to not just weather the storm but use the time and this extreme challenge to examine how to change and become a stronger institution moving forward.

Working in Concert

As she and others at the SSO packed up their computers and whatever else they might need in mid-March and left the orchestra’s offices in downtown Springfield to work at home, the expectation was that it would be for just a few weeks, said Beaudry, adding that this was roughly the same mindset taken with regard to shelving events on the schedule.

Indeed, even before state and federal shutdown orders were put if effect, orchestras, knowing that their audiences are dominated by seniors, began postponing or canceling events — a few weeks or a month at a time.

“We were halfway through March, and we said, ‘let’s just cancel the rest of March,’” she explained, noting that there were several events impacted, from a show at Symphony Hall to a chamber-music performance at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow. “The board agreed — ‘it’s prudent, it’s the right thing to do … let’s not worry about April yet.’”

Soon, though, those at the SSO had a lot more to worry about than just April. As the full scope of the pandemic became clear, the rest of the season was canceled — and soon it also became apparent that the new season, which traditionally starts in September, was now a huge question mark.

Susan Beaudry

Susan Beaudry says that, while waiting for the green light to start its new season, the SSO is busy with everything from fundraising to building its brand to undertaking a strategic plan.

Which takes us back to that order to stop the presses. The program book that was set to roll detailed a truncated schedule that would start with the popular Holiday Pops performance and include four or five other events, said Beaudry.

Now, as noted, even that shorter, simpler schedule is very much in doubt — but ready to go when and if the word — in whatever form it takes — is given.

In the meantime, there is much more than waiting to do — starting with the HomeGrown series, which started back in April with Maestro Kevin Rhodes performing some Brahms on the piano. Over the ensuing weeks, the program has presented a variety of short programs featuring individual artists and even the entire oboe section.

“It’s been very successful, and we’ve received some very positive feedback,” Beaudry said. “It redirects people to a less stress-filled subject and a little levity, a little beauty. As we’ve always said, the healing power of music is very real, and the longer this pandemic lingers, the more that rings true.”

But to provide that healing power, the orchestra must survive what will almost certainly be its most difficult financial test — although it has weathered many over the years, including recessions and even world wars. This one is different, because there are so many unknowns, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has already forced the orchestra to furlough some staff and reduce hours for those who remain; she personally volunteered to take a 30% pay cut.

“We’ve basically lost a season,” she said, referring to the second half of the 2019-20 season and the first half of the upcoming season — at least. “We have no box-office sales right now, and we still have expenses.”

A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped keep staffers employed for several months, but those funds ran out, she went on, forcing the furloughs that were announced several weeks ago.

Moving forward, and with no program book for the upcoming season and no concerts to sponsor at the moment, the SSO is looking for different ways to provide value for its sponsors, and for those sponsors to provide the continued support needed to propel the orchestra to the proverbial other side of the pandemic.

“What we’re hoping is that we can turn sponsorship into a sustainability partnership,” she explained, “where these sponsors are going to philanthropically help us get over the hump so that we’re solvent on the other side and ready to take our place in the community and on stage when this whole thing is done. And the only way we do that successfully is with the full support of the community around us.”

While sustainability is now the most critical issue, a related need — to change and broaden the audience base — takes on even more importance in this era of COVID-19.

“We need to remind ourselves that not everyone is going to get dressed up on a Saturday night and drive to downtown Springfield from wherever and sit for two or three hours through a concert,” she explained. “It’s a commitment to come, so we need to figure out what people want to come to and how we can morph — not that we’re going to change our mission; we’re a classical music organization, and we intend to remain that.

“There are lots of considerations for us to make what we do a better product,” she went on, adding that, in some ways, the pandemic is amplifying the need for change and perhaps accelerating the process. Meanwhile, it is also helping to move the SSO in directions it knew it needed to move, such as virtual offerings, like HomeGrown.

“What COVID did was prompt us to ask, ‘what can we do virtually — how can we reach bigger audiences with a stronger reach electronically and virtually?’” she told BusinessWest. “That is a new wave of performances. We’re a live-performance organization; that’s really how we’ve focused — how do we get people to Symphony Hall? But if we can figure out how to best use livestreaming, who can we reach? What does that do for our education programs and our performances, or even the snowbirds who are gone for half our season?”

On a Final Note…

“This music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

That’s a quote from Mozart, and it now graces the SSO’s home page in large, bold type.

Not nearly as large and bold as the words “When the Orchestra Returns, Your Seat Will be Waiting.”

That’s a confident pronouncement in itself, with emphasis on the word ‘when.’

“We’ve been around for 76 years, and we’ve been through wars and other disasters, and we’ll get through this, too,” Beaudry said in conclusion. “We’re here to serve; we’re mission-driven. That’s the priority, and we’ll be ready.”

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

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Solid Proof

Mike Quinlan

Mike Quinlan says the pandemic has ratcheted up online orders and curbside pickup, while generating an increase in overall consumption of alcohol.

Some are calling it the ‘drinking at home’ phenomenon — a reference to how people who can’t go to bars, nightclubs, or (until recently) casinos have been doing all or most of their imbibing at their residence instead.

Others are calling it the ‘drinking while working at home’ phenomenon, and that’s another story, one that has a number of employers understandably concerned.

Whatever it’s called, it’s a fact that people are not going out to drink nearly as much as they did BC — before COVID. And they’re drinking more, by most all accounts — according to a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted in the spring, 16% of all adults said they were drinking more during the pandemic, with higher rates among younger adults — and for reasons ranging from coping with all the additional stress from the pandemic to not being in the office for eight or nine hours a day, to being able to stay up later on ‘school nights’ because they don’t have to dress for or commute to work in the morning.

All this has created opportunities for some area business owners, especially liquor-store owners — always deemed essential by the governor — who have seen sales volumes rise (in some cases dramatically) and a number of trends emerge.

That list includes everything from more bulk purchases to buying less-expensive items to keep overall spending down; from ordering online to getting items delivered or picking them up at curbside.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy,” recalled Sean Barry, owner of Four Seasons Package Store in Hadley. “It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

Mike Quinlan, fine wines manager at Table & Vine in West Springfield, agreed. He said overall business volume has increased, as have visits to the store, but what has really ratcheted up has been online ordering and curbside pickup. The company has always featured the former — it’s been especially popular with wine buyers — but not the latter until the pandemic created a huge need for it.

“April, May, and June were just … crazy. It was just constant — the phone ringing off the hook some days, and you never knew when your busy days would be.”

“The impact on our business for online orders went up dramatically — it was a huge increase in the number of orders we were getting,” he said last week, noting that, while it has tapered off lately as restaurants have reopened, recent holidays, such as the Fourth of July, saw huge volume, and orders continue to flow in. “There’s a stack of orders for us to pick today, and then we keep up with it throughout the day.”

For others, this trend, which would appear to have some staying power — because, in this state, bars won’t open until there’s a vaccine, and in others where they’ve opened, they’re closing down again — is simply shifting business from one type of client to another.

Indeed, Paul Kozub, founder of Hadley-based V-One Vodka, said that, while his sales to liquor stores are certainly up — 30% to 40% over last year, by his estimation — sales to restaurants and bars are way down. And the scale is not exactly balanced because the latter has traditionally been the source of more business than the former, especially at certain times of the year, like spring, when COVID-19 shut most everything down.

Paul Kozub

Paul Kozub says that, while the pandemic has certainly increased sales of his vodka in liquor stores, that hasn’t made up for the losses he’s incurred at bars, restaurants, and events.

“In March and April, I lost 50% of my business because I do so much in bars and restaurants during those months, while I do a lot more in liquor stores in November in December, so that was quite a shock,” Kozub said. “The package stores are up, but that certainly doesn’t make up for what we’ve lost in those bars and restaurants.”

Overall, as with most sectors of the economy, the pandemic has created some opportunities for those making and selling spirits, and also eliminated others. For this issue, we take a look at how the numbers provide some hard proof — yes, that’s an industry term — of how buying and consumption habits have changed.

Case in Point

Barry, like many liquor-store owners, reduced his hours early in the spring and closed earlier at night. There were many reasons for this, he said, listing fewer people being on the roads, the fact that almost all surrounding stores were closed, and a desire to limit the risk of exposure to customers and employees alike.

But there was also what he called simply the “fatigue factor.”

“My staff was just overworked, so we needed to cut back,” he explained, noting that, while things have settled down somewhat since then, with restaurants now open, many people are still wary about going to such eateries, and in the meantime, large numbers of people continue to entertain and, yes, work from home.

Which means they’re buying more at the liquor stores. And their buying habits are changing in all kinds of ways, said Barry and Quinlan, noting that in-person visits are still popular, but curbside is flourishing as an option, and delivery, offered by some but not all, has certainly gained significant traction as well.

And while business is up generally, there have been periods of especially heavy volume, including some holidays that have historically been dine-out occasions but are now, like most things, stay-at-home affairs.

“When Mother’s Day came, and Father’s Day … those are occasions where a lot of people go out to a brunch or something like that — but not this year,” Quinlan said. “And so we saw our business jump significantly during those weeks when people would be having meals at home instead.”

Barry noted that, while it’s logical to assume that the closing of the five colleges located near his store in the middle of the spring semester would certainly have impacted his bottom line, he said that’s not really the case.

That’s because the vast majority of students are underage, he noted, and also because his store, unlike some in that area, does not directly market to the college crowd.

But the crowd it does cater to is definitely buying more these days, adding that he’s seen several trends develop. One is that many people — meaning those who can — are buying in bulk, on the theory being that, as with trips to the supermarket, many are trying to make as few as possible.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit. People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles.”

So they’re coming less often, and they’re also buying in larger quantities, which is better for them than it is for the liquor-store owner.

“Sales are up, customer counts are pretty flat, and overall, net profit is slightly down,” Barry said. “That’s because everyone is buying bulk items and taking advantage of case discounts and all that stuff.”

Quinlan concurred, to a point. He noted that, while buying the large, economy sizes, or full cases of products, is less profitable for the store, Table & Vine — and other stores, he presumes — have been able to sell more in fewer hours, thus yielding greater overall productivity and profitability.

But while consumption of alcohol is increasing — statistics nationally confirm that — overall spending in individual households may not be. People are buying in bulk, as noted, but they’re also buying less-expensive items in some cases.

“What’s of note to us is that, in the wine department, the average price of a bottle that we’re selling has gone down a little bit,” Quinlan said. “People who would drink a bottle or two of wine a week were now drinking three or four bottles a week, so they’re spending less on those bottles; the number of bottles we’re moving has increased significantly.”

Mixed Results

As for what people are buying … it’s generally across the board, said Barry, noting that wine and vodka probably represent the biggest increases.

Speaking of vodka, Kozub, while referencing the shifts in consumption and buying and some changes at his company as it expands nationally, said the pandemic has certainly helped his business in some ways — but definitely hurt it in others.

Indeed, while he’s done much better with liquor-store sales — in large part because the company is now working with a distributor, which has opened a number of new doors — he’s suffered greatly from not having bars, restaurants, and other gathering spots — from the Hadley American Legion to the South Deerfield Polish Club; from MGM Springfield to the Big E — open for business.

And there are other missed opportunities as well.

“We were going to be the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Kozub, noting the company’s current push into Ohio, where that shrine is located (in Canton). “And we were going to sell a lot at the induction ceremony and Hall of Fame Game, but that just got called off.”

As for his liquor-store business, he’s been helped by the work-from-home and stay-at-home trends, and also by ‘Zoom mixology’ sessions, as he called them, Zoom happy hours, and other vehicles to educate the public, bring them together (online, at least), and share experiences somewhat like being in their favorite bar.

Meanwhile, as noted, the distributor he’s hired has certainly reduced the profitability of each bottle he sells in his liquor store, but it has greatly increased volume.

“Without the change to a distributor, we would be down 40% overall for the year,” Kozub said, emphasizing, again, just how much he’s lost through restrictions on people gathering in large numbers or confined spaces.

And this ongoing trend — and even taking steps backward in some states, including Florida, Texas, and others — is slowing V-One’s efforts to go national.

“We’re going to do Ohio and Michigan next, but we’re going to wait a little bit for Florida, Texas, and California,” he said, adding that those states, among the current hot spots, are closing many of the bars and restaurants that were open just a few weeks ago. “The timing of us going national is good in some ways, but tough in others.”

Meanwhile, in the current climate, getting into new liquor stores and expanding that footprint, which is among Kozub’s many goals, is somewhat of a challenge.

“The liquor stores are so busy that they’re not necessarily excited about bringing in new products right now,” he explained. “Because they’re selling everything they have, they’re selling a lot of the staples — the brands people know.”

Beer with Us

This is yet another emerging trend at a time when there have been many changes when it comes to what people are buying, when, where, how, and in what quantities.

The pandemic has certainly changed the landscape in so many business sectors and aspects of society — and alcohol is just one of them.

For some businesses, this will be a vintage year — another industry term — while for others, like Kozub, it will be a mix of new opportunities and lost opportunities, with the former hopefully outweighing the latter.

And, as with those other sectors, it’s a matter of waiting and seeing what happens.

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

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Coping with a Lost Year

Gene Cassidy

Gene Cassidy says the Eastern States Exposition is much like the farmers it helps promote; one lost season can spell disaster.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the cancellation of this year’s Big E and how the Eastern States Exposition (ESE) will respond to that huge loss of revenue, Gene Cassidy stopped and pointed to a picture at the opposite end of the company’s large conference room.

“That’s J. Loring Brooks, son of Joshua L. Brooks, founder of the Eastern States Exposition,” said Cassidy, president and CEO of ESE. “He was the Big E’s chief development officer. When the Eastern States had rainy fairs or fairs where, for one reason or another, we didn’t make any money, he would get on the phone and fundraise; when we had difficult times, he would find the funding to make ends meet.”

J. Loring Brooks died in 1984, Cassidy went on, and it’s been a long time since the fair has needed to try to raise money in that fashion — and it would be difficult do it that way now. “That’s not an aircraft carrier you can turn on a dime,” he noted, adding quickly that he did hire a development officer last year, and is looking into various strategies to perhaps do some fundraising.

Action of various kinds — from a development campaign to borrowing to discovering new revenue streams — is needed because 2020 has been the rainiest of years — figuratively, if not literally — in the fair’s 102-year history, and the assignment of making ends meet, as he put, is going to be a very stern challenge.

“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke,” said Cassidy, who quickly went from that analogy to another one. “I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?”

The Big E, he noted — originally known as the Eastern States Industrial and Agricultural Exposition — was created to be that church bazaar, the method for raising money needed to support a mission of promoting agriculture.

Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic has done more than close the fair for the first time since World War II. It has put the Eastern States Exposition on precarious financial ground; put plans for rehabbing and modernizing some of the buildings on the grounds, especially the obsolete Coliseum, on ice; left large questions marks about how the ESE is going to respond to the agricultural community’s ongoing need for a platform; and even raised some doubts about the fate of the fair in 2021.

“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke. I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?’”

But while those at the Big E are certainly moving full steam ahead with planning for next year’s fair, they must also contend with a massive hole in the budget — the Big E accounts for 85% of the yearly revenue, and much of the remaining 15% (all the many types of shows on the books after mid-March) has been wiped off the calendar as well.

Grounds for Change

That makes this year decidedly different, said Cassidy, noting that, in a typical year, his staff would be on what amounts to cruise control as it enters the final six or seven weeks of lead-up to the Big E. This year, these employees are searching imaginatively for ways to generate revenue and close the budget gap.

“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season,” he explained, noting that the fair, despite its wealth of space, buildings, parking, and amenities, is still limited in what it can do. Put another way, it’s limited by what it can’t do, according the governor’s reopening plan — bring large numbers of people together in close proximity to one another.

J. Loring Brooks

When he was the Big E’s chief development officer, J. Loring Brooks would get on the phone and raise money when the fair had bad years, usually as a result of weather.

Options, most of which involve keeping visitors in their cars and taking full advantage of the Big E’s sprawling, 59-acre main parking lot, include everything from a drive-in theater — a cost-benefit analysis is currently underway — to concerts to events like the recent ‘Taste of the Big E,’ a gathering that was eye-opening in a number of ways.
Indeed, the Taste, which involved visitors driving onto the Big E property and then staying in their cars to sample some of the food that would have been offered at this year’s fair, drew far more people than organizers were expecting, said Cassidy, adding that traffic was backed up the full length of Memorial Avenue. “People drove for hours to get here, and then they spent hours waiting in line to get in.”

Ultimately, the Taste helped convince Big E organizers that they simply couldn’t control the turnout for this year’s fair, said Cassidy, adding that the event showed that, if you open for the doors for something people want, they will come.

“When we saw the response to the food show, we knew there was no way to control the number of people on the fairgrounds for the Big E,” he explained. “And knowing that really helped make the decision that staging the fair would not in the best interests of the people who came.”

But the Taste also provided ample evidence that different types of revenue-generating events can possibly be staged at the fairgrounds during the pandemic. These won’t generate anything approaching the income the fair did, but they may help limit the flow of red ink in a year no one could have comprehended just five months ago.

“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season.”

A drive-in theater is among them, said Cassidy, noting that, decades ago, there was one just a half-mile or so down Memorial Avenue, and other one on Riverdale Street. Drive-ins have staged something approaching a comeback during the pandemic, but the startup costs are considerable — $90,000 to buy the camera to project the movies, for example.

“We’ve done a lot of due diligence to discover if there’s a way we could actually turn a profit,” he noted. “That’s one of many things that are on the table.”

Another is the possibility of bringing carnival rides — which are not discussed anywhere in the reopening plan, according to Cassidy — to the fairgrounds. Others include finding new uses for the state buildings (or the grounds outside them), and staging concerts where attendees stay in their cars.

“There are some challenges to putting these on, and some limitations, but they’re a viable option for us,” he noted. “People want to get out to events like this, and a lot of entertainers are dying to work; they’ve lost a lot of opportunities, and they need to work.”

Daunting Challenge

While optimistic that some revenue streams can be created in the midst of the pandemic, Cassidy is also realistic and knows that, collectively, these efforts will generate only a fraction of what a solid Big E would.

“My goal is to get this organization through this very difficult time and run a Big E in 2021 that brings people together again,” said Cassidy, adding, again, that this will be a stern challenge not unlike that faced by a farmer who loses a year’s worth of crops.

Or a small fundraiser that loses its annual bazaar.

Those analogies might not seem appropriate for an organization, and an event, that brings 1.5 million people to the region every year. But for Cassidy, they work, and they illustrate just what he and his staff are up against.

—George O’Brien

Education

‘This Is Our Moment’

Sandra Doran

While the pandemic presents a number of challenges, Sandra Doran says, it might also create opportunities for Bay Path University.

Sandra Doran says her family has long been attracted to careers in education and the law.

One great-grandfather traveled from New York to Colorado and set up the first one-room schoolhouse in that state, she noted, while her grandfather was superintendent of a school district in New York City, and her mother was a music teacher. And her other great-grandfather was a bankruptcy lawyer, kept especially busy during the Great Depression.

So it’s logical she would take one of those career paths. Actually, she took both.

Indeed, after serving as chief legal officer for Shaw’s supermarkets, she later served as vice president, general counsel, and chief of staff at Lesley University in Cambridge. And it was that position that eventually inspired a full shift to higher education — although she always calls on her legal background — and put her on a path to … Bay Path University and its president’s office.

“At Lesley, I came to realize that higher education was my passion, and my calling,” said Doran, who’s been handed the attractive, but perhaps also daunting, assignment of succeeding Carol Leary and building on the strong foundation she built during a 25-year tenure that saw the college become a university and expand in every way imaginable.

She arrives at Bay Path at a critical juncture, when several powerful forces are colliding — stern challenges in higher education that started emerging years ago; the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbating those challenges and creating new ones; a financial crisis; and a nationwide focus on racial justice.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are.”

This collision of crises, as Doran called them, presents a real test — actually, several of them — but also opportunities for the school, and higher education in general.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are,” said Doran, adding that she believes Bay Path is well-positioned to be a leader during this time of crisis, introspection, and profound change, and that she is looking forward to the challenge of helping it play that role.

As she talked with BusinessWest at a small table positioned on the lawn behind the college’s administration building, Deepwood Hall — a nod to social distancing and keeping safe during the pandemic — Doran talked about the college’s plans for reopening this fall. It will embrace what many are calling a hybrid model blending online and in-person classes, with far more of the former. The plan, overall, is to “de-densify the campus,” as she put it, with a limited number of students living on campus, all in single rooms.

But mostly, she talked about this convergence of crises and how, rather than be a roadblock or even a speed bump, it could serve to accelerate the process of Bay Path’s emergence as a leader not simply in remote learning — only she doesn’t call it that; she prefers ‘technology-assisted learning’ — but in guiding students to fulfillment of their goals and ultimate success in the workplace. And also accelerating the process of creating systemic change in how higher education carries out its mission.

For the school, this opportunity to further cement its reputation as a pioneer and frontrunner in remote learning has been confirmed by the large number of colleges and universities calling to seek assistance as they establish or build their own programs (more on that later).

And for higher education, the pandemic presents a unique if not entirely welcome (at some schools) opportunity to rethink and perhaps reinvent many aspects of a college education and put more (and much-needed) emphasis on cost, access, and pathways to success in the workplace, and less on the on-campus experience (more on that later as well).

For all of this, Bay Path is well-positioned, if not uniquely positioned, to grasp these opportunities.

“This is our moment at Bay Path,” she said with noticeable energy in her voice, “because we’ve always been that place where students come to further their career ideals, and we’re going to continue to provide that opportunity.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Doran about what she ultimately called “an exciting moment in time,” and all the reasons that make it so.

School of Thought

When asked what appealed to her about Bay Path and its presidency, Doran said, in essence, that there was little, if anything, that didn’t appeal to her.

Indeed, she said the once-struggling two-year college that was resurrected and then taken to dizzying new heights during Leary’s tenure represents an opportunity that brings together her collective passions and many of the initiatives that have marked the latter stages of her career.

These include women’s education, technology and technology-assisted learning, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student on Feb. 27, the day she was introduced to the campus community, embraces the challenge of building on the foundation built by her predecessor, Carol Leary.

“This opportunity is a perfect fit and really the culmination of all my professional work,” she explained. “I’ve had the opportunity to lead a women’s college, so I understand the value of a women’s education. But another part of my background involves adaptive learning and the power of online education to really bring out the best of everyone in terms of mastering the subject matter and ensuring that everyone has a voice. I’ve also led a software company and been an entrepreneur. This opportunity brings all that together, and that’s why it’s a perfect fit.”

A quick recap of her career to date will explain why she said that.

We start at Shaw’s, where Doran, in addition to her work as general counsel, oversaw the company’s portfolio of mergers and acquisitions, which included the acquisition of Star Market Inc.

Later, at Lesley, which she also served as general counsel, she came to that realization that higher education was a passion, one that led her to pursue and then garner the role of president of American College of Education, an online doctoral institution serving more than 3,500 students.

From there, while serving as an entrepreneur in residence at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., she served as the CEO of Castle Point Learning Systems, a Stevens Institute-supported educational technology startup that had developed an instructional framework for calculus, enabling students and teachers to develop a more robust foundation for higher-level mathematics.

Concurrently, she took a position as National Policy director for the New England Board of Higher Education, where, among other responsibilities, she created and implemented an innovative initiative for multi-state collaboration to increase educational attainment and access for students through online, hybrid, and distance education.

Her career then took another intriguing turn when she was appointed president of Salem Academy and College in North Carolina, the country’s oldest women’s college, founded in 1772. There, she put the school on firm financial footing, developed a strategic plan, and initiated several new programs, including an entrepreneurial makerspace in downtown Winston-Salem where students could work directly with the city’s innovation ecosystem.

As noted earlier, while education has become her career, she calls on her background in law on an almost daily basis, and finds that the two professions coexist effectively.

“One of the great roles of lawyers is to educate,” she explained. “It’s to educate clients, to educate themselves, to mediate, to bring people together, to critically analyze the data and synthesize the data, and communicate. Lawyers are problem solvers, except for the high-profile ones, which are litigators; most lawyers are solving problems.”

When a search firm called last year to gauge her interest in the Bay Path position, she responded enthusiastically, and for the reasons — and passions — mentioned earlier.

“I was familiar with the pioneering aspects of Bay Path — it was one of the first institutions to immerse themselves in the online education experience and understand what that could provide for our students,” she explained, adding, again, that she viewed this opportunity as the culmination of all the career work that had come before it.

Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.”

Since arriving on campus late last month, Doran, while working with staff on the reopening plan, has also been trying to meet with local leaders and the campus community alike — in COVID-mandated ways, especially phone calls and Zoom meetings.

It’s not the same as meeting people in person, but it’s been effective in that she’s getting to know and better understand the community the school serves. And this work continues with an initiative she calls “Let’s Come Together: Virtual Conversations with President Doran.”

“I’m eager to get to know my colleagues, and they’re eager to get to know me,” she said. “So these are conversations we’re conducting virtually, almost one a day — so faculty and staff have an opportunity to sit and talk and learn about each other. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about our staff and faculty and what excites them about Bay Path, and, frankly, to learn about areas of strength and areas we need to improve.”

Course of Action

Doran was introduced to the Bay Path community on Feb. 27, just before the school sent its students home for the semester and essentially closed the campus. By the time of that announcement, it was already becoming clear that the approaching pandemic could alter the calendar and impact lives — but no one could really have predicted just how profoundly the landscape would change or how schools would be challenged by the virus.

As the story on page 17 reveals, schools have been spending the past several weeks carefully putting together reopening plans for the fall that incorporate a host of different strategies.

For Bay Path, the assignment, while not easy by any stretch, was made less complicated by what could be called the school’s head start when it came to online programs. Its first fully online graduate program was the MS in Nonprofit Management & Philanthropy, launched in 2007, followed by other online graduate programs for men and women and the fully online bachelor’s-degree program offered by the American Women’s College.

Bay Path’s plan, blueprinted with the help of a 75-member task force, calls for essentially cutting the number of students living on campus by half — down to roughly 200 — and conducting most courses, except those with some lab component, online. It’s a plan the school feels comfortable with because so many of its students were already learning remotely.

“It’s an environment where we’re making decisions with imperfect information — our environment is changing on a weekly basis, if not on a daily basis,” Doran noted. “So we’re going to be ready to pivot if we need to, but we feel strongly that we’ve got the right plan in place.”

This head start with remote learning has certainly caught the attention of others in academia, she added, noting those phone calls and e-mails seeking Bay Path’s assistance with online programming and inquiring about potential partnership opportunities.

“We’ve had several schools reach out to us to ask if they can enroll their students in our courses or think about ways we can partner,” she told BusinessWest, noting that inquiries are coming from institutions across the country. “Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.

“They want to learn from what we’ve learned,” she went on. “So it’s exciting to be in that position of being able to share what we know, what we’ve learned about how to provide the best opportunities for students.”

And these phone calls represent just one of the opportunities, a strange word to use in this climate, to arise from the pandemic, said Doran, adding that she chooses to look upon them in that light.

“We have an opportunity to rethink how we meet the needs of students whose ideals and thoughts around higher education are changing in the midst of everything that we’re dealing with,” she said. “So, just as the pandemic is impacting every single person in terms of how they think about their own career and their own lives, our students are doing the same thing.”

Elaborating, she noted that fewer than 20% of those attending college today are having what would be called a traditional college experience, meaning a four-year school and living on campus.

“The other 80% attend a very different — and have a very different — college experience,” she went on. “And one’s not better than the other, but I think there’s a new reality that higher education is embracing that’s focusing on the academic part of the experience, the part of the experience that enables students to have productive careers and move forward with their life goals and their life dreams.

“And that’s what Bay Path has always been — our mission is rooted in this idea that we want to provide career paths,” she continued, noting, again, that the school is well-positioned to embrace this new reality, as she called it, and this is reflected in enrollment numbers for the fall, which are quite solid at a time when many schools are struggling.

“We have — and this is another strength of Bay Path — a very diverse set of students,” she said. “We have students who are only online students, so they were never contemplating coming to campus, so we feel secure in those enrollments; we have graduate students, many of whom are online, so we feel secure in those enrollments; and our undergraduate enrollment is up for this fall in terms of deposits and commitments. We’re feeling very confident, and we’ve had a good response to our plan.”

Overall, the school is on solid financial ground, Doran said, and in a good position to withstand the challenges created by the pandemic.

“The finances around higher education are always challenging,” she explained. “The pandemic has certainly raised another level of gauze around all this, because it’s hard to see through and see what the next steps are. But we have a number of task forces looking at the long-term aspects, and, overall, we see some opportunities.”

Bottom Line

Looking ahead … well, Doran acknowledged it’s difficult to look very far ahead in the era of COVID-19.

Her immediate goals are to continue building on the foundation that Leary has built and develop new growth opportunities for a school that has come a long way in the past quarter-century.

And rather than somehow slow or stifle those efforts, this convergence of crises that greeted her upon her arrival may, as she said, actually serve to accelerate that process.

As she noted, “this is our moment.”

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

Health Care

Improved State

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the state’s slow, cautious reopening has effectively blocked some of the paths COVID-19 might take, thus slowing transmission of the disease.

In many respects, Dr. Andy Artenstein says, the COVID-19 virus acts like water in the home in that, if there are leaks, it can go where you don’t necessarily want it to go and cause major problems.

“Water will always find a path,” Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health, told BusinessWest. “But if you block off all the paths, you have a chance; it’s the same with the virus.”

With that, he worked to explain why it is that Massachusetts, more than most of the other 50 states at this particular moment in time, is seeing the number of hospitalizations and deaths stemming from the virus decline sharply. In short, and in his view, the residents of the Commonwealth are essentially, and somewhat effectively, blocking off the paths the virus might take.

“We live in a society where there’s free mobility — that’s one of the things we love about our society. But it’s also one of the things that puts us at risk when there’s a transmissible agent rooted in this society,” he explained. “And this one is clearly here; it’s clearly transmitted in our community. It has not gone away; it’s just that, if viruses don’t get transmitted from person to person … if the virus has nowhere to go, it puts a wall from that root of transmission. You start to block off transmission paths.”

This was Artenstein’s way of explaining why, as one looks at a map of the country charting cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the pandemic, Massachusetts is colored or tan or pink, while so many other states, especially in the South and Southwest, are dark shades of red, indicating they are hot spots.

Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, gave essentially the same account.

“Massachusetts, along with a few of the other states here in New England, like Connecticut, New Hampshire, and a few others, seem to be solid, if not shining, examples of how a state encompassing multiple different communities can effectively slow down the rate of transmission of the coronavirus,” he said. “More than 40 other states are seeing significant increases in numbers of new infections, while here, over the past several weeks, we have not seen that increase; rather, we’ve seen a plateauing at a very low level.”

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections.”

He punctuated those comments with some statistics from his facility. Indeed, he noted that hospitalizations stemming from COVID-19, which numbered in the 50s daily on average in April, the height of the surge in this region, were down in the 20s in May, then the single digits in June. Starting in early July, there were several days when there were no hospitalizations.

Clearly, the state is doing something right, or several things right, when it comes to blocking paths for the virus, and we’ll get to those. But this begs a number of questions — especially, ‘is this sustainable?’

The quick answer, said Roose and Artenstein, is ‘yes.’ But there are a number of caveats, especially as more segments of the economy reopen in more cities, including Boston, and as the new school year is poised to begin. In their view, the Commonwealth has acted prudently in not opening too much of the economy too quickly. Staying that course is essential, they said, adding that it appears the state is committed to the slow, steady, and safe method.

Meanwhile, travel is another key factor in this equation, both people from this state traveling to others and people from other states coming here — actions that create paths for the virus, rather than block them.

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections,” Roose said. “To me, that is likely to be the most significant factor going forward, because of the rates of infection in other parts of the country; interstate travel represents one of our most significant risks in terms of keeping our rates of transmission is this local community low.”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose says caution regarding travel will be one of many factors that will determine if the Bay State can continue its pattern of falling hospitalizations as a result of the pandemic.

But the biggest factor might be fatigue.

“It’s exhausting — for all of us; I’m not just talking about the healthcare side, I’m talking about life,” said Artenstein. “There are certain things that you just miss having as social human beings. But the longer you can sort of wait this out and stretch this out, the better off we’ll be.”

In other words, people can’t relax or think for a moment that maybe it’s time to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense.

As they talked about the state’s current status as a … let’s call it a cold spot for the virus, both Roose and Artenstein praised the Commonwealth’s approach to reopening, which has been described by both those supporting and criticizing it as slow and careful.

Pain Threshold

Artenstein had another word for it.

“It’s painful, because we all want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” he explained. “It’s exhausting that you can’t do what you like to do the way you used to do it, and eventually we will be able to. But this approach has paid dividends; you get used to a little bit of a new normal, but you also know that you’re moving toward something.”

Roose agreed.

“What I think Gov. Baker and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services have done very well is be cautious, rely very clearly and directly on the key data points, and move slowly but consistently through a phased reopening,” he explained. “In other states, governors had moved much more quickly, and we’re seeing the effects of that now; in many states, they’re seeing such significant increases that they’re moving backward and rolling back some aspects of their reopenings.

“It’s not to say that this same type of thing couldn’t happen here,” he added quickly. “But relying consistently on key data and reinforcing consistently the important public-health and safety strategies that we know are effective in reducing transmission — that has not wavered, and I think that has sent a very consistent and strong message to residents to continue to wear masks, be cautious with increasing your social circle, practice hand hygiene, and quarantine when you’re sick.”

As a result of the slow reopening plan and diligence with things like mask wearing, contact tracing, social distancing, and testing, the Commonwealth has effectively moved past the first wave of the pandemic — while other states have clearly not, said those we spoke with. It is now in what Artenstein called a “window,” where, he said, residents must be diligent about not backsliding when it comes to mask wearing, hand washing, keeping one’s distance, and other preventive measures, while also preparing for the second wave that most say is almost certain to come in the fall or winter.

“That’s just historically what pandemics do,” he explained. “They don’t all do that, but statistics will tell you that there will be at least a second wave if not more waves.”

What will those waves be like? It’s difficult to say at this point, said Roose and Artenstein, adding that a number of factors will dictate the level of infections and how well the healthcare community can respond to the next surge.

But in the meantime, and while still in this window, the state’s residents and business owners alike must continue to stay the course, the experts said.

“We still could do better in terms of how often people wear masks in pubic and follow the public-health recommendations,” said Roose, adding that state leadership must continue to reinforce those messages. “We know that when we give those recommendations and that guidance and it’s clear and connected to science, it helps, and it’s certainly important to be consistent about it, or people will have less inclination to follow them.”

Meanwhile, as the state proceeds with phase 3 of its reopening plan and eyes phase 4, testing will be another critical key to closing off paths the virus might take.

“I believe strongly that adequate capacity and widespread testing are critical for us to continue to move forward into phase 4 and into a state where the community is engaging as fully as it can,” Roose said. “That allows us to ensure that, if we do identify infections, we can mitigate the spread; widespread testing is really critical, and we’re not yet where we need to be, as state and as a country. We still could be doing more, and I think the ways we do testing will continue to get easier and more readily available, and that will help quite a bit.”

Artenstein agreed, but quickly noted that all the steps people have been taking — and hopefully will continue to take — only serve to slow or inhibit the spread of the virus. The virus is still there, and it will remain there until a vaccine is developed.

“You can temporarily shut down or limit transmission,” he said, “and then you have the chance for other things to kick in, such as therapies and better approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Those things take time, but they can get a chance to take root once you’ve already established those public-health principles.

“It’s pretty obvious that limiting public gatherings and staying the course has helped,” he went on, returning to the thought that, however painful and exhausting the last few months have been, the strategy moving forward for the state and all its residents has to be to continue to wait it out and, as he said, “stretch it out.”

Bottom Line

Turning the clock back 100 years, to the so-called Spanish flu, Artenstein said the second wave of that pandemic was more severe than the first in many parts of the country simply because communities eased off on restrictions and returned to what life was like before it struck.

“A lot has changed in 100 years — science, technology, people, etc.,” he told BusinessWest. “But one thing that hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion, is behavior. We may be able to further mitigate any future surge, just as we mitigated this surge, by adhering to public-health guidelines. If we can keep that up, and then get some help with testing, better contract tracing, better therapies, which will happen, and maybe a vaccine…”

He didn’t completely finish the thought and instead stressed that this ‘if’ is a very large one, and there are really no certainties when it comes to this strategy.

But the very best strategy at the moment, he stressed, is to string this out and close off those pathways the virus can take.

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

Sections Special Coverage

Reopen for Business

Cindy Olivio recalls the day in mid-March she and her colleagues left MGM Springfield after the governor announced that the state’s casinos would have to close as part of a general shutdown of non-essential businesses. At the time, she really thought it would be for just two weeks.

“That’s how people were talking — that’s what we all thought,” she recalled, noting that, by April, she was taking things week to week. And when the governor’s phased reopening plan was finally announced in mid-May, she fully understood that it would be early summer at the earliest before she was back at the casino — specifically, its South End Market, which she serves as assistant general manager.

“It was a long time to be out, and it’s good to be back,” she told BusinessWest Monday, as the casino reopened to the general public following a soft opening a few nights earlier.

With that, she spoke for most everyone on the floor that day, guests and employees alike.

It was a long time to be out, and while the casino looks very much the same as it did when it went dark back in March, there have been a number of significant changes, from plexiglass partitions on some of the games to signs on the floors and walls alerting people to stay six feet apart.

And they were on full display Monday as the media was given the opportunity to talk with some employees, and also some guests.

People like Darlene Lajeuneffe of Chicopee, who was there with her husband and other family members celebrating the couple’s 46th wedding anniversary. She was marking the occasion with a glass of champagne and some time on one her favorite slot machines.

“It was hard — we love it here,” she said of the nearly four-month shutdown of MGM Springfield, which she frequents maybe once a month, along with Mohegan Sun; she’s never been fond of Foxwoods. She told BusinessWest she was getting used to some of the new rules and protocols, especially distancing guidelines that generally prohibit people from sitting next to one another, which presented a dilemma.

Indeed, Lajeuneffe learned there was an area where family members could in fact sit together, but it did not include her favorite slot machine. So, faced with a choice, she was leaning strongly toward that machine and keeping family as least close by.

Such adjustments are part of the reopening, said Seth Stratton, MGM Springfield’s vice president and general counsel, who told BusinessWest on Monday that, so far, guests are noting the new rules, and adhering to them.

“We’re pleased with how willing customers are to understand and comply with the new measures,” he said. “There was some concern initially around the enforcement of mandatory facemasks when the discussion first came up several weeks ago. But things have evolved since, and customers are very willing to wear them. We’ve had virtually no enforcement issues with mask wearing.”

Stratton told BusinessWest that the company’s management team put a thoughtful plan in place for the reopening. First, there would be a soft opening, the weekend of July 11 and 12, to help ready staff for the full reopening on the 13th. And by staging that reopening on a Monday, this gave the staff several days to ramp up for the weekend, which has historically been the casino’s busiest time.

“The strategy we followed was to have a staggered opening so that, over the weekend, which might otherwise be a busy period, we had our invited guests so we could ramp up from Friday through Sunday, gradually increasing the capacity, and then open to the public on a Monday,” he explained. “That gave us the ability to stagger the opening and get folks back and employees back and get them comfortable in the new environment so that, by Friday or Saturday, our busiest period, everyone will have a week under their belt of the new policies and procedures.”

The casino reopened at one-third capacity, one of the stipulations set by the Masachusetts Gaming Commission, and while that number is limiting in many respects when it comes to revenue, it will help ensure the safety of guests and employees, which is the top priority at the moment, Stratton explained.

“It’s all about showing we can do this safely and responsibly,” he said. “We don’t want huge crowds right now; as we ramp up and as we get these protocols into place, we feel that, if the customers see it’s not that crowded, they will feel more comfortable and be more willing to return.”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Improved State

By George O’Brien

In many respects, Dr. Andrew Artenstein says, the COVID-19 virus acts like water in the home in that, if there are leaks, it can go where you don’t necessarily want it to go and cause major problems.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

“Water will always find a path,” Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health, told BusinessWest. “But if you block off all the paths, you have a chance; it’s the same with the virus.”

With that, he worked to explain why it is that Massachusetts, more than most of the other 50 states at this particular moment in time, is seeing the number of hospitalizations and deaths stemming from the virus decline sharply. In short, and in his view, the residents of the Commonwealth are essentially, and somewhat effectively, blocking off the paths the virus might take.

“We live in a society where there’s free mobility — that’s one of the things we love about our society. But it’s also one of the things that puts us at risk when there’s a transmissible agent rooted in this society,” he explained. “And this one is clearly here; it’s clearly transmitted in our community. It has not gone away; it’s just that, if viruses don’t get transmitted from person to person … if the virus has nowhere to go, it puts a wall from that root of transmission. You start to block off transmission paths.”

This was Artenstein’s way of explaining why, as one looks at a map of the country charting cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the pandemic, Massachusetts is colored or tan or pink, while so many other states, especially in the South and Southwest, are dark shades of red, indicating they are hot spots.

Dr. Robert Roose

Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, gave essentially the same account.

“Massachusetts, along with a few of the other states here in New England, like Connecticut, New Hampshire, and a few others, seem to be solid, if nt shining, examples of how a state encompassing multiple different communities can effectively slow down the rate of transmission of the coronavirus,” he said. “More than 40 other states are seeing significant increases in numbers of new infections, while here, over the past several weeks, we have not seen that increase; rather, we’ve seen a plateauing at a very low level.”

He punctuated those comments with some statistics from his facility. Indeed, he noted that hospitalizations stemming from COVID-19, which numbered in the 50s daily on average in April, the height of the surge in this region, were down in the 20s in May, then the single digits in June. Starting in early July, there were several days when there were no hospitalizations.

Clearly, the state is doing something right, or several things right, when it comes to blocking paths for the virus, and we’ll get to those. But this begs a number of questions — especially, ‘is this sustainable?’

The quick answer, said Roose and Artenstein, is ‘yes.’ But there are a number of caveats, especially as more segments of the economy reopen in more cities, including Boston, and as the new school year is poised to begin. In their view, the Commonwealth has acted prudently in not opening too much of the economy too quickly. Staying that course is essential, they said, adding that it appears the state is committed to the slow, steady, and safe method.

Meanwhile, travel is another key factor in this equation, both people from this state traveling to others and people from other states coming here — actions that create paths for the virus, rather than block them.

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections,” Roose said. “To me, that is likely to be the most significant factor going forward, because of the rates of infection in other parts of the country; interstate travel represents one of our most significant risks in terms of keeping our rates of transmission is this local community low.”

But the biggest factor might be fatigue.

“It’s exhausting — for all of us; I’m not just talking about the healthcare side, I’m talking about life,” said Artenstein. “There are certain things that you just miss having as social human beings. But the longer you can sort of wait this out and stretch this out, the better off we’ll be.”

In other words, people can’t relax or think for a moment that maybe it’s time to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense.

As they talked about the state’s current status as a … let’s call it a cold spot for the virus, both Roose and Artenstein praised the Commonwealth’s approach to reopening, which has been described by both those supporting and criticizing it as slow and careful.

Pain Threshold

Artenstein had another word for it.

“It’s painful, because we all want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” he explained. “It’s exhausting that you can’t do what you like to do the way you used to do it, and eventually we will be able to. But this approach has paid dividends; you get used to a little bit of a new normal, but you also know that you’re moving toward something.”

Roose agreed.

“What I think Gov. Baker and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services have done very well is be cautious, rely very clearly and directly on the key data points, and move slowly but consistently through a phased reopening,” he explained. “In other states, governors had moved much more quickly, and we’re seeing the effects of that now; in many states, they’re seeing such significant increases that they’re moving backward and rolling back some aspects of their reopenings.

“It’s not to say that this same type of thing couldn’t happen here,” he added quickly. “But relying consistently on key data and reinforcing consistently the important public-health and safety strategies that we know are effective in reducing transmission — that has not wavered, and I think that has sent a very consistent and strong message to residents to continue to wear masks, be cautious with increasing your social circle, practice hand hygiene, and quarantine when you’re sick.”

As a result of the slow reopening plan and diligence with things like mask wearing, contact tracing, social distancing, and testing, the Commonwealth has effectively moved past the first wave of the pandemic — while other states have clearly not, said those we spoke with. It is now in what Artenstein called a “window,” where, he said, residents must be diligent about not backsliding when it comes to mask wearing, hand washing, keeping one’s distance, and other preventive measures, while also preparing for the second wave that most say is almost certain to come in the fall or winter.

“That’s just historically what pandemics do,” he explained. “They don’t all do that, but statistics will tell you that there will be at least a second wave if not more waves.”

What will those waves be like? It’s difficult to say at this point, said Roose and Artenstein, adding that a number of factors will dictate the level of infections and how well the healthcare community can respond to the next surge.

But in the meantime, and while still in this window, the state’s residents and business owners alike must continue to stay the course, the experts said.

“We still could do better in terms of how often people wear masks in pubic and follow the public-health recommendations,” said Roose, adding that state leadership must continue to reinforce those messages. “We know that when we give those recommendations and that guidance and it’s clear and connected to science, it helps, and it’s certainly important to be consistent about it, or people will have less inclination to follow them.”

Meanwhile, as the state proceeds with phase 3 of its reopening plan and eyes phase 4, testing will be another critical key to closing off paths the virus might take.

“I believe strongly that adequate capacity and widespread testing are critical for us to continue to move forward into phase 4 and into a state where the community is engaging as fully as it can,” Roose said. “That allows us to ensure that, if we do identify infections, we can mitigate the spread; widespread testing is really critical, and we’re not yet where we need to be, as state and as a country. We still could be doing more, and I think the ways we do testing will continue to get easier and more readily available, and that will help quite a bit.”

Artenstein agreed, but quickly noted that all the steps people have been taking — and hopefully will continue to take — only serve to slow or inhibit the spread of the virus. The virus is still there, and it will remain there until a vaccine is developed.

“You can temporarily shut down or limit transmission,” he said, “and then you have the chance for other things to kick in, such as therapies and better approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Those things take time, but they can get a chance to take root once you’ve already established those public-health principles.

“It’s pretty obvious that limiting public gatherings and staying the course has helped,” he went on, returning to the thought that, however painful and exhausting the last few months have been, the strategy moving forward for the state and all its residents has to be to continue to wait it out and, as he said, “stretch it out.”

Bottom Line

Turning the clock back 100 years, to the so-called Spanish flu, Artenstein said the second wave of that pandemic was more severe than the first in many parts of the country simply because communities eased off on restrictions and returned to what life was like before it struck.

“A lot has changed in 100 years — science, technology, people, etc.,” he told BusinessWest. “But one thing that hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion, is behavior. We may be able to further mitigate any future surge, just as we mitigated this surge, by adhering to public-health guidelines. If we can keep that up, and then get some help with testing, better contract tracing, better therapies, which will happen, and maybe a vaccine…”

He didn’t completely finish the thought and instead stressed that this ‘if’ is a very large one, and there are really no certainties when it comes to this strategy.

But the very best strategy at the moment, he stressed, is to string this out and close off those pathways the virus can take.

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

Cover Story Women in Businesss

In the Right Mold

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, ‘chief strategy officer’ at Universal Plastics.

Back in mid-March, Pia Kumar recalls, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good deal of absenteeism at the five plants within the Universal Plastics fold — maybe 40% by her estimate, a number that spoke volumes about the high levels of fear and anxiety within the workforce.

So Kumar, who co-owns the Universal family of businesses with her husband, Jay, and has the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’ printed on her business card, did what she says comes naturally to her.

She got on the phone.

“I called every single employee that was not here and talked to them about their concerns,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this was maybe 200 people across the five facilities. “In some cases, I talked to their wives, their husbands, their children; I wanted to understand what we could do together as a business to make sure they could come back in and do the essential work we were doing.

“We make the diagnostic machines used to test for COVID, so we needed to come back in and get working, but we needed to keep people safe,” she went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty, and we needed to establish trust.”

The company earned it by taking painstaking steps to comply with work regulations put in place in four different states — everything from masks and face shields to social-distancing measures and temperature checks, with most ideas coming from employees. And in a matter of a few short weeks, absenteeism all but disappeared.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days. I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

Kumar’s phone calls, and those subsequent actions taken by the company, provide some valuable insight into not only her management style — although it certainly does that — but also into her approach to business and her specific, and very broad, role with the company.

Indeed, while she’s certainly involved with strategy, as that business card would indicate, and she is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, she’s predominantly focused on people and their well-being. And that goes for the community, as well as the Universal ‘family.’

This is evidenced by something she calls ‘office hours.’ These are the twice-monthly Zoom meetings she conducts with employees at each plant to help them feel more connected at a time when traveling to those plants is far more difficult and, well, people need a connection.

And she’s finding that, while Zoom is certainly a different experience than the in-person office hours she had been conducting until the pandemic (more on those later), they’re in some ways more effective.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days,” she noted. “I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

It’s also on display in a number of programs and initiatives she’s helped introduce at the company that are designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment and success in the workplace — and in life itself.

“We have someone in our HR department whose whole job is to make sure that we make people successful outside of work, so that they can be successful at work.” she said of efforts to help employees with everything from attaining a driver’s license to securing day-care services.

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields with ‘skirts,’ one of many new products it has developed in the wake of the pandemic.

As for her own efforts in the realm of work-life balance, she said, simply, “I work at it.”

By that, she meant that she finds time for work, family, and to be alone for a few moments each day, early in the morning — time she spends meditating and planning, for the most part.

“I need to get my planning done to feel prepared for my day,” she explained. “I do a 10-minute meditation, then I spend 30 minutes planning, and then I take my dog for a walk; it works for me.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Kumar about her work with her husband to grow and expand Universal. But mostly, the talk was about people and helping them handle all that work and life can throw at them — even a global pandemic.

Clear Intentions

As she talked with BusinessWest in the company’s recently opened corporate offices, located next door to the Holyoke plant on Whiting Farms Road, Kumar showed off a display of one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio of products.

These are face shields — which the company started making a few months ago to help meet demand for personal protective equipment within the region — that feature what she called ‘skirts.’

Designed specifically for teachers, these customized products allow for open communication without muffling the voice or hiding expressions — things masks can’t do — while providing more protection than a common face shield.

“You can wear it all day — you’re fully covered, you’re fully sealed,” she said while demonstrating the product, noting there are several styles, including models invoking Halloween and Christmas, and another promoting breast-cancer awareness. Response has been good, she noted, and there are ongoing discussions about perhaps making such shields for children.

These PPE products are part of the company’s pivoting efforts during the pandemic, she explained — a way to assist the community and especially the healthcare and education sectors while also keeping employees working at a time when many traditional customers, including those in aerospace and medical-device manufacturing, have scaled back as a result of the pandemic.

And such efforts are among the current focal points for the Kumars, who acquired Universal Plastics roughly eight years ago — she dates the transaction to the birth of their first child — from long-time owner Joe Peters. Flashing back to that purchase, Pia said the couple, who met while they were both working in finance in New York after graduating from college, were looking for a challenge they could undertake together.

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together,” she said. “We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke as part of the company’s Link to Libraries sponsorship, says her discussions with employees have helped her understand the many barriers that people face when it comes to succeeding in the workplace.

And that’s exactly what has happened with Universal, a company launched by Joe Peters’ father in Chicopee and eventually moved to Holyoke.

Indeed, the Kumars have added four other companies over the past several years, with the goal of attracting different types of customers and doing more for them. Expansion efforts started with the acquisition of a competitor, Mayfield Plastics in Sutton (since renamed Universal), an operation similar to the one in Holyoke.

“We offer a product called custom thermoforming,” she said of the Holyoke facility. “It’s good for small volumes, but as some customers ramped up, we would lose those customers. Then we started thinking about how we could keep that customer for a longer life cycle, and we started looking at injection molders.”

This led to the acquisition of Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio in 2018, and the subsequent addition of a blow-molding facility in Pennsylvania that had a strong focus on medical-equipment manufacturing — steps that have greatly diversified the corporation and opened the door to new types of opportunities.

While Pia is certainly involved with all aspects of the company, especially short- and long-term strategy, she told BusinessWest that people are her main focus, and it’s a role she believes she’s well-suited for.

“I try to spend a lot of time with employees; it’s part of what my focus is with the company,” she explained. “I like to really get out there and talk to people and really understand what our people are saying and thinking, and what their fears are.”

She traditionally did this through those aforementioned office hours — the in-person variety, especially in Holyoke, where she would walk the floor every day and talk with people. With the other plants, she would make a point of getting out to each at least once a month.

But COVID-19 changed all that, as it has many other aspects of this business — from the products being made, like those face shields with skirts and plastic dividers for automobiles (similar to those found in cabs), to the precautions being taken to keep employees safe.

Shaping Core Values

What hasn’t changed, especially during these trying times, is the company’s — and especially Pia’s — efforts to help employees overcome those barriers she mentioned.

And there are many of them, she went on, adding that a good percentage of the company’s employees are single mothers, who faced a number of hurdles before the pandemic and now face even more. She came to understand these hurdles over time, she said, and it was a real learning experience.

“Before we came here, we lived in New York City, we worked in finance, we worked in venture capital,” Kumar explained. “We were doing things with a group of people who had a lot of opportunities; they went to certain schools and had the right types of jobs and the right kind of résumés. Coming here and working in manufacturing gave me an understanding of the barriers that people face that I never had.

“I was in many ways taking for granted things like childcare and transportation and having access to affordable education,” she went on. “These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together. We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

This understanding of the issues has translated into policies regarding attendance and other matters that Kumar considers worker-friendly.

Elaborating, she said the company has explored such things as ride-sharing and on-site day care and have encountered significant barriers to success. What has worked, she noted, is talking with people to understand their specific situations, and then making accommodations when and where they are practical.

“Our single mothers are some of our best workers,” she told BusinessWest. “And understanding that and working with that population to make sure that they have the tools they need to be set up for success became personally important to me.”

It was through her work with employees to understand and then help remove barriers that led to her involvement with a number of area nonprofits and institutions.

That list includes Link to Libraries, the nonprofit that fills school library shelves and encourages reading by placing area community leaders in the classroom to read — Universal Plastics sponsors the Morgan School in Holyoke, which many of the company’s employees attended — as well as the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Bay Path University, and Springfield Technical Community College, which she serves as a foundation board member.

She’s become so enamored with STCC manufacturing graduates that she has a standing rule with her operations manager: “if someone comes to us from STCC, you have to give me a reason not to hire them, because they’re all people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just need an opportunity. And that’s the kind of company we are; that’s the kind of company we need to be. We need to be the kind of company that gives people a chance, and we need to do it over and over again.”

As for her own professional development, Kumar said she doesn’t have a coach, per se, although her husband might count as one. But she does read quite a bit on the subject.

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant, says that, while she’s focused on all aspects of the business, connecting with employees and helping them address challenges has become her primary focus.

What she does have are mentors. She listed Susan Jaye Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries, and Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired business owner and director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Springfield office — both winners of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award.

“I’m not afraid to ask for help; I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know something,” she said, adding that she believes good managers share these traits. “Feedback is a gift, and I firmly believe, if you don’t want to know the answer, then don’t ask the question. But if you ask the question, you need to be able to stomach the answer.”

When asked about how she approaches the broad assignment of achieving work-life balance, she said simply, “I work at it.”

“These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“I spend a lot of time planning, I delegate a lot, and I am very comfortable with having a list of things I wanted to get to but didn’t at the end of the day,” she explained. “There are days when the company is the most important thing — when COVID first happened, we needed to make our employees safe. And then, there are other times when it’s more important that we’re there for our children. My mother is having surgery next week, so that will be the focus then.

“I feel very lucky that I have a supportive partner who helps me manage all these things,” she went on. “But we also have a really great team. We’re not the experts — we didn’t come in with a deep background in manufacturing, and that’s why we keep people from our acquired businesses. Our job is to take all the information and provide the right vision.”

Parts of the Whole

Summing up her approach to her broad role at Universal Plastics, Kumar said, “my biggest failure as a leader is when someone can’t tell me what they really think; if they can’t tell me what they really think, we have a problem.

“I encourage people debating and saying ‘no, this is how we should be doing it,’” she went on. “And when there is that open communication, there’s trust, and that allows me to do more, and the more we can grow as a business.”

Open communication. Trust. Helping employees overcome barriers. These are the keys to success at this company — and any company, said Kumar, stressing, again, that four-word phrase she used in connection with all these matters: ‘we work at it.’

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

Coronavirus

Responding to COVID-19 Has Been Hair-raising to Say the Least

Judy Puffer

Judy Puffer, founder and owner of Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa in Westfield

Judy Puffer knows she’s ready for a vacation. What she doesn’t know is whether she’s going to get one any time soon.

With that, she speaks for the vast majority of business owners and managers coping with everything the COVID-19 pandemic is throwing at them. In short, shutting down the economy was anything but a break for most people in business, reopening was exhausting on many levels, and doing business now is … well, anything but business as usual or what life was like before any of us heard of that now infamous name followed by a number.

“I was working hard behind the scenes — probably harder than when we were open,” said Puffer, founder and owner of Puffer’s Salon & Day Spa in Westfield, who told BusinessWest that the past three and a half months have easily been her most trying in business. And while most all aspects of that business are now open again, getting here wasn’t easy, and challenges remain.

Replaying the tape from the past 100 days or so, she recounted challenges ranging from shortages of needed supplies and encounters with price gouging to lack of guidance from the state and federal governments regarding how and when reopening would occur, to clogged phone lines once the ‘open’ sign was back on the door.

Some of this she could see coming, like those busy phone lines, but most of it she couldn’t, and as she retells her story, one can sense the exhaustion, exasperation, and, yes, relief in her voice now that most of the really hard stuff is in the past tense. Or so she hopes.

Turning the clock back to March 23, Puffer said from the day the shutdown order was given, the focus turned to reopening. And there were challenges everywhere, including this state’s slow, cautious approach — which actually turned out to be a kind of blessing in disguise, although she didn’t use those exact words.

“It was obstacle after obstacle after obstacle just trying to get set up to open. Governor Baker did a great job with all this, but he gave us very little notice; he said, ‘OK, you can open, but you have to have these protocols in place.’ It was like setting up a whole new way to do business, and we weren’t given much time to do it.”

“One of the things that really helped me was being part of the Aveda Corporation,” she said, referring to the Minneapolis-based supplier of high-end health and beauty products that has affiliated with salons across the country. “The company immediately started owner calls, two a week that ran for an hour to an hour and a half; what they would do is get people from a variety of states on these webinars. That was huge because we were getting feedback from people who were opening in Georgia about the challenges they were facing; we were getting people from California who were still closed, talking about what they were doing to get open; we heard from people in Florida, Colorado, Minnesota, New York.

“All this really helped me,” she went on, “because there wasn’t really any guidance from this state from anyone. Getting that help from Aveda was huge because I could then take what these states were doing and put it into my culture and kind of be prepared.”

Elaborating, she referenced everything from shampooing customers — some states allowed it, while others didn’t — to blow-drying hair (again, some allowed it, others didn’t); from taking customers’ temperatures when they walked in the door to learning about a company that came up with plexiglass dividers on wheels to place between stylists’ stations.

The goal was to be as prepared as possible, and all those webinars certainly helped.

What also helped was some advice to think outside the box when it came to needed supplies, which she did after finding that items she ordered in March were simply not going to arrive. She managed to buy some alcohol for cleaning from another business in Westfield, spray bottles from another business owner, and a timely referral from an area dentist on where to procure thermometers in just a few days.

“It was obstacle after obstacle after obstacle just trying to get set up to open,” she recalled. “And we started the minute we closed. Governor Baker did a great job with all this, but he gave us very little notice; he said, ‘OK, you can open, but you have to have these protocols in place.’ It was like setting up a whole new way to do business, and we weren’t given much time to do it.”

The company reopened its salon the day after Memorial Day, with the salon aspects of the businesses opening a few weeks later, under the second stage of phase 2 — again, with very little time to prepare. Now, all but a few of the many services are available, with the rest, like the sauna, to come in phase 4.

Puffer says she’s managed because she was able to learn from others through those webinars and by anticipating what would come next so she could be ready for it.

It’s been a trying — and very tiring — experience. And that’s why she’s more than ready for the vacation she’s not likely to get any time soon. u

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

For This Springfield Business, Better Times Are on Tap

Ray Berry

Ray Berry, seen here at the site of White Lion’s new facility in Tower Square, now under construction, says the pandemic impacted virtually every aspect of his business.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Ray Berry’s White Lion Brewery was deemed an essential business by the state’s governor.

That means it was allowed to remain open when many others had to close amid efforts to flatten the curve and relieve the tension on the region’s healthcare system.

But as any other venture on that large list can attest, ‘essential’ does not mean free of challenges, headaches, anxiety, and uncertainty about what might come next.

Indeed, there’s been plenty of all of those things for this Springfield-based company that was looking toward 2020 as a watershed year, and still is in at least some respects.

Especially with plans for a much-anticipated taproom and accompanying restaurant in Tower Square — specifically the former Spaghetti Freddy’s site — now moving forward again after a halt to most forms of construction during the spring.

“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product,” he told BusinessWest. “And then … the pandemic hit.”

And it hit hard, impacting the company from “front to back,” as Berry put it.

“Pre-COVID, we were really ramping up and starting to fire on all cylinders relative to sales and construction — we were about to onboard another salesperson and were also looking to obtain another vehicle and perhaps another part-time person to deliver our product. And then … the pandemic hit.”

By that he meant virtually every aspect of the business, from the closure of the hundreds of bars and restaurants (as well as MGM Springfield) that sold White Lion to a halting of construction work on the brewery; from the canceling of high-profile events where the brand had a presence, such as the Holyoke Road Race, to the suspension of the beer gardens the company has hosted in downtown Springfield and Westfield during the summer and fall months.

“It was just like a crash — it all happened at once within a 48-hour period when the state and federal governments stepped in and put restrictions in place,” he noted, adding that, as sales plummeted (only liquor stores, also deemed essential, remained as a distribution point), the company had to lay off some of its employees in stages and figure out how to manage with those who remained.

White Lion has been helped by assistance programs on a number of levels, from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to the local Prime the Pump initiative created by the Development Department in Springfield, said Berry, adding that this help, coupled with the remaining business from liquor stores, enabled the company to stay on its feet during those brutal spring months.

And as the state continues to reopen businesses, the outlook for White Lion continues to brighten. Restaurants have reopened across the region, and the state’s casinos have been given the green light to open their doors, although MGM Springfield has not given a specific date when it might do so. And work has resumed on the project in Tower Square, and Berry is projecting that his crew can be in and brewing beer by the end of this month.

“The taproom component is under construction now,” he went on, “and we hope that by mid-August, the taproom piece, as well the kitchen piece, will be complete, and that by the end of August or early September we can start welcoming people into the space.”

Meanwhile, White Lion has recalled most of its seven employees and expects to be “whole” in that regard by late July, he said.

Projecting beyond the next few months is difficult, but Berry believes the company will be able to open its beer gardens in late August or early September, noting that these ventures will be part of phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

Looking back — and ahead — Berry, echoing countless other business owners across every sector of the economy, said the pandemic has provided a stern test, one he believes his team is passing through determination and imagination.

“It’s been a challenge in every way you can imagine,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s just a predicament that we’re in, and we have to pivot and continue to find ways to remain resourceful and efficient for the benefit of the sustainability of the company.

“I always said that we’re all resilient as people,” he went on. “And there’s always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know how long that tunnel may be, but there will be a light, and we’re starting to see some of that that now.”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

At This School, Pandemic Has Been a Real Learning Experience

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy

Brian Easler says Wilbraham Monson Academy was perhaps better prepared for the pandemic than some other institutions, but pivoting to online learning was still a stern challenge.

Brian Easler still recalls the name of the briefing staged by the Centers for Disease Control in Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago: “The Impending Pandemic.”

Actually, what he remembers even more was the subtitle to the program: “It’s Not a Matter of If, It’s a Matter of When.”

He took the content to heart, and because of that, he believes Wilbraham Monson Academy (WMA), which he serves as head of school, was in some ways better able to handle the arrival of COVID-19 in mid-March.

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually,” he told BusinessWest. “That was a three-day workshop I attended in Washington led by some of the country’s leading epidemiologists. I came back to the school with a lot of good information on how to prepare.”

Elaborating, he said that, because of that warning, the school was well-stocked with what everyone knows now as PPE, and there were plans already in writing for several different scenarios depending on when in the school year the pandemic actually hit.

Such preparation certainly didn’t make the closing of the campus to all but a few international students who simply couldn’t get home, or the transition to remote learning, easy. But it probably made it easier, said Easler, comparing what has transpired over the past several months to a military operation — and he should know, having served in the Army Airborne Rangers.

“You’re getting swept up in something bigger than yourself, where there’s risk involved and a degree of planning,” he explained. “And the decision making — the emergency decision-making process — is much different. During normal times, a decision might be very difficult to make; during an emergency, that decision becomes very easy. We wouldn’t normally turn our school meeting space into a second dining hall — that would be a big decision during normal times. But under these conditions, it was an easy decision to make.”

“We had prepared pretty well for something like this, actually.”

Flashing back to March — and then further back to what he heard all those years ago — Easler said the pandemic did not hit quite like those experts projected it would.

“What tripped up us a little bit is that the CDC was anticipating a pandemic that would be fast-moving,” he explained. “We were prepared for three weeks; that was fine when it came to PPE because all the students went home. But it didn’t help us with transition to an online education program; we had to literally make that up on the fly during spring break.

“In the end, it’s a good thing it wasn’t a fast-moving pandemic, because fast-moving also means really deadly,” he went on. “We were planning for a three- or four-week event, as opposed to a 12-month event, which is more like what we’re looking at. But as a school we saw the signs early, and we paid attention to the right things and the right information. When the students were getting ready for spring break, we told them to bring their laptops and books home with them and to be prepared in case we were not able to return for classes.”

Overall, that transition to remote learning went smoothly, he went on, because of the tight, close-knit nature of the WMA community and the hard work and dedication of staff and students. And these elements are also facilitating efforts to plan for the fall semester, which will start at its traditional time in early September and feature a hybrid model that mixes in-class and remote learning.

“We can simultaneously run classes on campus for the faculty and students who can be on campus, while students and faculty and who cannot be on campus can still synchronistically participate in the same program,” he explained. “It’s fluid, it’s very flexible, and, quite honestly, it’s the future of education anyway. We wish it didn’t take an event like this to move us in this direction, but we’re happy to be moving in this direction — it’s good teaching.”

Looking ahead to the fall, Easler said enrollment, which is traditionally roughly 400 students, remains steady, and, overall, the school may see its numbers rise due to uncertainty among parents about just what the public-school environment might look like come late August or September.

“We’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in local interest,” Easler noted. “I’m speculating, but I think the public-school systems are going to face some significant challenges, and they don’t necessarily have the space resources that we do — we’re structured much like a small college campus with multiple buildings, lots of outdoor space, and a number of spaces that, even though they’re not used as classrooms, can be used as socially distanced classrooms; we have a lot of advantages over public schools.”

Whether this interest locally translates into a bump in enrollment remains to be seen. But what is already clear is that early and effective planning has paid off for this venerable institution.

And it was necessary because the planners of that program in Washington all those years ago were right; it was a question of when, not if, a pandemic would arrive.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Growing Need for Tents Is Helping Company Through a Trying Year

Greg Jerome stands by one of the tents

Greg Jerome stands by one of the tents his company supplied to the High Street Clinic in Springfield, an example of how the pandemic has created some opportunities while robbing the company of many others.

Greg Jerome didn’t want to get into any specific revenue numbers, but he made it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has made this a year to forget for his business, Westfield-based Jerome’s Party Plus.

But he also made it clear that, if not for certain aspects of the pandemic, the numbers would be even worse.

Indeed, for this venture, and others like it, tent rentals are a big part of the portfolio. And while the pandemic has wiped all kinds of tent-worthy events off the calendar — from weddings to graduation parties to town gatherings like ‘taste of’ events — it has also driven considerable need for this item, especially over the past several weeks as sectors of the economy and specific types of businesses began to reopen.

That list includes restaurants, summer camps, and even churches, said Jerome, president of this family-run business that has 200 tents in its inventory, noting that his crews have been kept busy putting up tents in recent weeks, and not so much taking them down, because this year, when a tent goes up, it stays up for a while —perhaps the whole summer and beyond.

“We have more than 8,000 chairs, 800 tables, stages, dishware, glassware, flatware, linen, and many other items that have all been collecting dust for three months now.”

“And that’s just one of the things that makes this year very different,” he told BusinessWest, noting that going back to March, when he first installed a tent for Baystate Health for COVID-19 testing, the company has been involved with some unique undertakings.

However, he made it clear that, while he’s renting out tents, there is still a good supply available in the warehouse. Meanwhile, he’s not renting out much of anything else.

“We have more than 8,000 chairs, 800 tables, stages, dishware, glassware, flatware, linen, and many other items that have all been collecting dust for three months now,” said Jerome, adding that, while there is hope that some of these items may soon get back into circulation, the picture was further clouded by the cancelation of the Big E for 2020.

“The Big E cancellation will be our greatest loss of revenue this year,” said Jerome, noting that the Eastern States Exposition is his biggest customer and the fair is by far his biggest single event. “The cancellation of the fair certainly took the wind out of our sails; we always get excited during the push to install 150 tents and 3,500 chairs.”

For now, Jerome said his company is trying to make the most of the sudden, and still-surging, need for tents as businesses and institutions search for ways to carry on during the pandemic — often by moving activities and services outdoors. And his large inventory, especially when it comes to the bigger models, has certainly helped in this regard.

New and certainly non-traditional tent clients include several restaurants, including Shortstop Bar & Grill in Westfield, Tucker’s in Southwick, Captain Jimmy’s in Agawam, and Masse’s in Chicopee, among many others, as well as Blessed Sacrament Church in Westfield, which held services outdoors for several weeks and still uses a tent for those uncomfortable with going inside. The company has already supplied tents for several nonprofits with summer day programs, including the Greater Westfield YMCA and a few Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as the West Springfield Parks & Recreation Department.

It has also provided tents and other items for a number of drive-in COVID-testing sites operated by Baystate Health, including facilities in Westfield, Ware, Greenfield, and three locations in Springfield. This work goes back to mid-March when the company was hired by Baystate Health to create what Jerome called “cubicles” inside the new triage facility erected just outside the emergency room.

Elaborating, he said the company provided the piping, and another vendor supplied corrugated boards that were attached to the framework to create 33 private spaces.

For the drive-in sites, the company created a model that was eventually used at all six locations, facilities that also included a greeters’ tent and a heated tent-within-a-tent with clear sides that served as a type of nurses’ station.

These intriguing projects have certainly helped, but those thousands of items gathering dust and not seeing the light of day are the bigger story.

And they explain why this is certainly a different kind of year, when the pandemic has generated some business, but taken away so much more.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Chicopee-based Company Is Still Trying to Get Out of First Gear

Dennis King

Dennis King says the pandemic brought bus travel to a near standstill, impacting every type of customer in the company’s portfolio.

Dennis King says he’s experienced a number of subtle, but mostly not-so-subtle, cruelties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting with those low gas prices from a few months back and the fact that no one could really take advantage of them.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go,” said King, president of Chicopee-based King Ward Bus Lines, who used that statement in reference to individuals and families — and just about every one of his customers.

Indeed, ‘nowhere to go’ applied — and still applies — to college and high-school sports teams, an important client base in the company’s portfolio. And to people seeking to visit one of the region’s casinos. And to groups heading to Red Sox games. And to people looking to go to a show in the Big Apple. And to classes going on school field trips.

All those sources of revenue dried up, seemingly overnight, for this family-owned business, said King, adding that the last bus left King Ward’s garages on March 14, and the company’s busiest time of the year was essentially wiped off the calendar.

“And our July is kind of on hold, because we don’t have any trips booked, unless something happens with the casinos,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while the Connecticut gaming palaces are open, they are currently not accepting bus groups. The Bay State’s casinos are set to open early this month, but it isn’t known if they will accept bus groups.

As for the future … it is a giant question mark, he said, noting that, while the Red Sox may start playing again, it’s not known if there will be any fans in the stands. Meanwhile, Saratoga Raceway in New York and countless other venues that people travel to by bus are closed for the summer or the rest of the year. Meanwhile, no one really knows if there will be any high-school and college athletics this coming fall, or any school field trips.

“Gas was $1.25 … and you had nowhere to go.”

And then, there’s the Big E, another important source of revenue for the company. It’s been canceled for 2020, leaving another huge hole in the budget that will be difficult to fill .

Faced with idle buses, King said he laid off or furloughed all but a few of his employees back in the spring. He’s looking to bring some office staff and mechanics back on Aug. 1 and hopes things get busier come September.

“We’re banking on college athletics coming back,” he noted. “If there is a light at the end of the tunnel — and that’s if — it would be schools getting back in session.”

As for the casinos, and especially MGM, King Ward was given what was at the time (the summer of 2018) thought to be a game-changing contract to bring people to the casino from various destinations across the region. To say things haven’t worked out as planned would be an understatement, said King, noting that the service — subsidized by MGM at the start — was scaled back only six months after the casino opened in August 2018, and it eventually evolved into a door-to-door service using vans rather than buses, with those choosing this option getting credits for the gaming floor and lunch — what amounted to what King called “a free ride to the casino.”

“But it never really took off,” he said, adding quickly that the service does have the potential to grow, and, like many others, he’s watching and waiting to see if and when the casino will reopen.

There will be a lot of watching and waiting for this company, which, like so many others, is dependent on other businesses and institutions for its livelihood. The pandemic has impacted all of them, and, as noted earlier, the trickle-down, in this specific case, was much more like a torrent.

So much so that King was one of many within the bus industry who ventured to Washington, D.C. several weeks ago to lobby elected leaders for financial assistance for a sector he said is often overlooked within the larger transportation industry.

“I don’t expect to be busy again until Labor Day, unless something happens and the casinos start accepting buses,” he told BusinessWest, adding that ‘busy’ is certainly a relative term in 2020, and there are myriad factors that will determine when, and to what extent, the buses start rolling again.

Still optimistic, despite a gloomy year to date, King said people are calling and asking about service to the casinos.

“People are ready to get out — they’ve been cooped up for a long time,” he said, adding that he hopes there will soon be places to take people.

Gas certainly won’t be as cheap as it was back in March, but all things considered, that’s certainly one of the more subtle cruelties stemming from the pandemic.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

‘The Place Where COVID Goes to Die’ Is Still in Recovery Mode

Rebecca Merigian

Rebecca Merigian says the pandemic, by canceling all kinds of events and shuttering businesses like MGM Springfield, put a huge dent in dry-cleaning volume.

Rebecca Merigian can’t find too many silver linings in this COVID-19 pandemic.

But at least people still need clean shirts for those Zoom meetings. Dress pants? Not so much.

“We’ve seen a lot of shirt business, and we’ve actually picked up quite a few new shirt customers,” said Merigian, owner of Springfield-based Park Cleaners, adding quickly that most of her other steady supplies of business have run dry or mostly dry over the past three and half months.

That includes MGM Springfield, which awarded her a lucrative contract just before it opened nearly two years ago — one that sends uniforms for all its employees her way — that effectively tripled her business volume. The casino closed in mid-March, as did a host of other businesses, and Park Cleaners was just one of many local vendors to take a huge hit when it did.

“We’ve heard from them … they’re starting to bring some employees back, so we’re on call,” she said, adding quickly that she’s not sure how many will be back and just how much work will be coming back in.

But the fallout goes well beyond the casino, said Merigian, second-generation owner of this family business. As large numbers of people continue to work at home she noted, there is far less need to get dress clothes cleaned and pressed. But beyond workplace clothes, the company has been hit by the almost complete stop to many types of events for which people needed clothes cleaned and pressed.

“There’s been no weddings, no funerals, no graduations, no work … no anything to prepare for,” she said, adding that overall, she projects that business if off a whopping 85% to 90% from a year ago, with MGM’s closure being easily the biggest hit.

She has been helped by the stay-at-home trend in a few respects, though; she reports that people are being more diligent about cleaning in general, and especially about cleaning linens, bedding, and other items. Meanwhile, some don’t want to spend their time doing the wash, so they’re sending it in to be cleaned and folded.

“There’s been no weddings, no funerals, no graduations, no work … no anything to prepare for.”

“Cleanliness has definitely been on people’s minds through all of this, and that’s helped keep us going,” she said, adding that she’s also noted an uptick in work cleaning uniforms for first responders, in part because there’s a nice discount forwarded to those frontline workers.

But even healthcare-related business is down, she noted, adding that many practices have only recently reopened and are seeing fewer patients. So if they dropped off items to be cleaned twice a week before the pandemic, now they’re down to once a week.

In the meantime, there are now a host of new protocols and safety precautions to follow at this business that has, informally, marketed itself as “the place where COVID goes to die,” Merigian said.

“It’s like starting over or starting a new business, with a very uncertain future — the risks are very high,” she said when asked to explain what the past several months have been like. “There are new rules, and we have to make sure that anyone who deals with contaminated laundry is fully prepared; we’ve had to change the way we do business, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

Like many business owners we spoke with, Merigian said that, while the focus has been on companies reopening — and that’s important — the issue isn’t whether they’re doing business, it’s whether they can make any money if they are. And for ventures in many sectors, the quick answers are either ‘no’ or ‘yes, but not enough.’

And there are obvious questions about when those answers will change.

Merigian says she’s heard from officials at MGM who tell her that some employees will be coming back ‘soon,’ and that some business will follow. But how much business remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, questions remain about when gatherings like weddings, business functions, and even funerals will return. And working from home may become a long-term proposition for many workers — if not something approaching permanent.

But, like most business we’ve spoken with in recent weeks, Merigian is looking optimistically toward fall and the possible return of something approaching ‘normal.’

“The fall definitely looks good, so long as COVID subsides or they find a vaccine,” she said. “I see a very good fall, but then I tend to be optimistic.

“It’s a waiting game,” she went on, referring specifically to MGM, but also to all those other events — and sources of business — she mentioned at the top. Until weddings and funerals resume and more workers return to the offices they left in early March, generating business will be a challenge.

In the meantime, at least people will need clean shirts for all those Zoom meetings.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Supply Chain of Events

Supply chain.

That’s a two-word phrase that had rarely made its way into the lexicon of most area residents before the COVID-19 pandemic; it was generally assumed that the shelves in the stores would be crammed with product — because they always had been.

But in a year when there have been shortages of cleaning supplies, surgical masks, beef, fish, hair coloring, paper towels, ice cream, rice, frozen pizza, and, yes, toilet paper — a product that has become a metaphor for a crisis — people can no longer take supply chain, and full shelves, for granted.

This has been a learning experience — on a number of levels.

So too for those who work to keep the shelves stocked. For them, it’s a time of relationship building, finding new ways of doing things, and providing ongoing proof that, while the supply chain has been bent — severely and repeatedly — it hasn’t, in their minds, been broken.

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows,” said Michael D’Amour, chief operating officer at Springfield-based Big-Y, the fourth-generation, family-owned grocery chain. “But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Michael D’Amour

Michael D’Amour

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows. But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Doug Baker, vice president of Industry Relations for the Food Marketing Institute, (FMI) agreed.

“Almost weekly we’re getting back numbers, and we’re still seeing double-digit growth across many categories — and you can’t have double-digit growth if inventory is not available,” he said, referring to specific product lines ranging from cleaning supplies to frozen foods. “It’s just a matter of matching inventory with consumer demand, and that’s been the challenge.

“And that’s why we’ve seen shortages — because that inventory output hasn’t been able to rise to the level of consumer demand,” he went on, adding that recent numbers show a slowing of demand that is giving many producers at least a chance to catch up.

In March, on average, the industry was seeing 35% to 40% increases in overall sales volume, Baker said, while in late May, the number was closer to 20% to 25%.

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent,” he explained. “But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

D’Amour agreed, noting that, as May turned to June, a good number of people were still in something approaching lockdown mode. They were eating most meals at home because restaurants were only open for takeout. They were also still working at home and, therefore, eating lunch at home. Meanwhile, children are home from school, and college students are home as well. This all adds up to people buying more at the supermarket.

As phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan takes effect on June 8, restaurants will be opening for curbside dining, and preschools and day camps will be reopening. And as more and more people go back to their offices — the ones they left in March for space on their dining room table — the ratio of food dollars spent out of the home will start to rise higher.

How long it will take to reach pre-COVID levels — when 54 cents of each dollar was spent outside the home — remains to be seen, said Baker. However, what is certain is that the situation is fluid at best and it could change in a hurry if cases start to surge, a second wave arrives, and people start spending more time working — and eating — at home.

Doug Baker

Doug Baker

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent. But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

Meanwhile, this new normal has essentially forced chains like Big Y to forge new alliances with suppliers, said D’Amour, noting that as restaurants, colleges, and schools of all kinds closed earlier this year, this created an enormous surplus of inventory, but put the demand on grocery stores, while also creating an opportunity to redeploy goods and resources to grocery retail to meet demand and reduce waste.

One such alliance, one that typifies how suppliers and grocers are working together to forge solutions, involves Little Leaf Farms in Shirley, a local partner and grower of lettuce that saw demand decline dramatically as schools and restaurants closed a few months back and was looking for new opportunities to sell product and reduce the kind of waste that was seen almost nightly on major news broadcasts.

“They’re one example of so many local partners who have sat down with us and worked to figure out how to maximize business between us and keep their stuff growing and moving through the pipeline when the restaurants were shut down,” D’Amour explained. “We worked with them on supply and hotter deals and pricing to keep it moving through the grocery channels.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several players involved with supply chain about the lessons learned to date and how they will help the broad food industry through the uncertain months to come.

Food for Thought

As noted earlier, the laws of supply and demand generally take care of shortages on store shelves — in normal times.

But these are not normal times, said those we spoke with. Still, those laws have applied to items like surgical masks. Hard to find only six weeks ago, they are now seemingly everywhere, and in large quantities, as a number of companies started making them — and more of them.

“Everyone’s getting into the mask business now,” Baker explained, adding quickly that it’s much easier to convert machines to make those products than it is to supply more canisters of Lysol or make more rolls of toilet paper, as simple as that might sound.

“Paper manufacturers have been putting in additional lines,” he said. “But the challenge the industry is facing now is that there two types of fiber used to make toilet paper — there’s recycled fiber and there’s virgin fiber, and with recycled fiber, the supply is low, and not every machine can be converted to use virgin fiber, so you’re going to have less output if you can’t convert.”

And sometimes, because of the pandemic, producers simply cannot meet demand.

That was the case for several weeks — although matters have improved — when it came to supplies of meat and chicken, said Baker, noting that, early on, plants were shut down temporarily. And when they reopened, to keep workers safe, production lines were altered in ways that actually slowed production.

Such specific cases help explain shortages of particular items, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, many of the empty shelves result from unprecedented demand and panic buying that is starting to wane in many instances. But as the year continues, more lessons will certainly be learned, said D’Amour, adding that there have been plenty of learning experiences already.

Elaborating, he said that, from the beginning, those at Big Y have been watching what’s happening globally, anticipating, and “trying to get on top of things” — a phrase he would use many times — when it comes to everything from employee and customer safety to creating efficient traffic flow in the stores, to keeping items on the shelves.

This has obviously led to new policies and procedures — from the directional arrows on the floors to special hours created for seniors to the plexiglass screens at the check-out counters.

“For us, the biggest component is the people part, and that continues to be stressed by our suppliers, wholesalers, and others,” he said, adding that, while much of that panic buying and hoarding is being talked about in the past tense, the need for diligence remains, and chains like Big Y can’t let their guards down.

Getting back to the supply chain, D’Amour said it has been a struggle in some well-documented areas, but suppliers are responding by trying to increase supply and also reduce the number of overall SKUs to help put some product on the shelves.

“Where people are used to walking down the paper aisle and seeing 150 different choices of bath tissue and paper towels, now they’re seeing far fewer,” he said. “But products are coming back; we’re working with all our partners to get them back in.”

Perhaps the biggest key to providing quality service to customers during the crisis has been efforts to forge new partnerships and stronger relationships with those within the food-service industry, said D’Amour. He mentioned ongoing work with Springfield-based Performance Food Group as one example.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job working with us, working together, to figure out what food they have stuck in the pipeline that we can use,” he explained, adding that, over the past several months, PFG, as it’s called, has even helped with trucking and labor for either Big Y’s warehouse or at wholesale partners. “Most of these partnerships we’ve had have been mutually beneficial, but there are strategies and tactics that we’ve never done before; everyone’s been very open and ready to fight the battle, work together, and think of new ways to partner for the benefit of the consumers.”

Which brings him to Little Leaf Farms. Paul Sellew, owner and founder of that facility, which began operations just four years ago, said it is now part of a larger local-food movement that not only puts fresher produce on the shelves, but in many ways helps ease flow of product through the supply chain.

“People don’t realize that 95% of the leafy greens that you see in the grocery store are grown in California and Arizona,” he explained. “And when you have this global pandemic, an unprecedented situation, that puts stress on the supply chain, so imagine managing a supply chain from Selinas, California to Springfield, as opposed to my supply chain, from Devens, Mass. to Springfield.”

Little Leaf has historically seen much of its business fall into the broad category of food service — restaurants, schools, and other institutions. But with the pandemic and the sharp decline of demand on that side, the company, like many other suppliers, has shifted into retail grocery, which has been a win/win/win, for those growers, the grocers, and, ultimately, consumers.

“When you get these unprecedented events, you really want to make this region stronger and more resilient, and food is such a strong, fundamental component of that,” he went on. “And that’s why we’re so grateful for partnerships like the one we have with Big Y, which has supported us from day one.”

Overall, there is a ‘new normal’ within the grocery/food-service industry, a phrase now being heard in virtually every sector of the economy. It involves a landscape that could change quickly and profoundly depending on the pandemic and its impact.

No one really knows when there will be real light at the end of the tunnel, said D’Amour, adding that Big Y, like all those it is partnering and working with, needs to remain nimble and flexible, and continue to work in partnership with others to not only keep the shelves stocked, but also keep people safe.

Bottom Line

Summing up the past several months, those we spoke with said it’s been a challenging and in many ways difficult time, where, again, many important lessons have been learned that will serve consumers, suppliers, and retailers well in the uncertain months still to come.

“The United States is a country of abundance, and the supply chain is a beneficiary of this abundance,” Baker said. “Yes, the supply chain is strained, and some shortages will be experienced, but it’s not broken — there are not critical disruptions in the supply chain.”

The hope, and the expectation, said D’Amour, is that things will stay that way.

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

Cover Story

Seizing the Moment

Vanessa Otero

Vanessa Otero, interim director of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.

Vanessa Otero said the phone started ringing just a day or two after George Floyd was killed on a street in Minneapolis and the world, and this region, began to react to what it saw — and felt.

On the other end of the line were those in leadership positions at area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits who wanted to know what the Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley (HRIPV), the 501(c)(3) Otero now serves as interim director, could do to help not only educate those at these companies and agencies about racism — something it’s been doing for several years now — but take the conversation to a different, much higher plane.

And then convert the talk into far-reaching action.

“Every day, we have two or three organizations reaching out, people who have been through our two-day session, saying, ‘can we talk about what more we can do — the what now?’” she said. “And we’ve initiated a process to add that ‘what now?’”

Elaborating, she noted that, in response to these inquiries, HRIPV — which has seen more than 800 area residents and business leaders attend its signature two-day sessions, where participants learn, grow, and process the effects of racism within individuals and the community as a whole — is committed to formalizing and institutionalizing an expanded roster of services that includes everything from onboarding training for new hires at area companies and agencies to full- and half-day training sessions for staffs and boards (more on all this later).

These phone calls — and HRIPV’s commitment — provide just some of the many forms of evidence that George Floyd’s death, more than any similar incident before it or since, has created a real opportunity — as much as all those we spoke with regretted the use of that term in this circumstance — to bring about real and lasting change when it comes to systemic racism and equal access to opportunity.

“We’ve just reached a tipping point,” said Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, who is being honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2020. “We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

Frank Robinson, vice president of Public Health at Baystate Health, who has been actively involved with the Healing Racism Institute since it was blueprinted by John Davis, a director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and others after they were inspired by a similar initiative in Grand Rapids, Mich., agreed.

Ronn Johnson

Ronn Johnson stands near a mural depicting the names of dozens of victims of police brutality. The art has become an inspiration to many visitors.

He told BusinessWest that the George Floyd killing, coupled with the way in which the pandemic has further exposed racial inequalities, has created a compelling opportunity to create a dialogue about not just racism, but the systemic racism that exists in many corporations and institutions.

“I call COVID the great magnifier,” he noted. “The pandemic has created an opportunity, if you look at the glass as half-full, to visit problems that have been magnified by its presence. Someone talked about COVID as a magnifier, and then they talked about the ongoing structural problems it has revealed as the virus of 1619, the beginning of slavery.

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it,” he went on, referring to the HRIPV specifically. “Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

But while there is general optimism that the confluence of events in this unforgettable spring of 2020 will indeed change the landscape in profound ways, those we spoke with acknowledged there is much work to be done, and none of it is particularly easy. So much work, in fact, that some are feeling overwhelmed by the assignment confronting them.

The place to start, said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), is with each business, each institution, and each individual asking what they can do to address this issue in their own way.

“And if they’re already taking some actions, they need to ask what more they can do,” she said, adding that this is exactly what HCC is doing. It already has a number of programs and initiatives in place to help level what has historically been an unlevel playing field when it comes to access to opportunities for individuals of color, but Royal acknowledged that more needs to be done.

Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, expressed similar sentiments.

“Just in the past few months, it’s become clear that it’s not enough to travel the personal journey yourself and get your head and your heart in the right place,” he said. “You also need to be aware of the fact that all around us is this system that tends to favor white people. And then the question is — what are you going to do about it? And it’s not straightforward; there’s a lot of thinking and learning, and trying this and trying that.”

“We’ve just reached a tipping point. We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the events of the past several weeks have indeed created an important opportunity to address the large and complicated issue of racism in this country — and how to maximize that opportunity.

Changing the Conversation

Tracing the history of the HRIPV, Davis turned back the clock almost a decade, to a trip to Grand Rapids that was part of the City2City program that also took leaders of this region to Greensboro, N.C., Bethlehem, Pa., and Chattanooga, Tenn. During that visit to Michigan, while hearing about efforts to drive economic development, revitalize the central business district, and improve schools, participants also heard about a program within the local chamber of commerce called the Institute for Healing Racism.

A small group of those participants returned to Grand Rapids to experience the two-day Facing Racism program firsthand, and upon returning, they established the regional anti-racism workgroup to gauge interest in pursuing the development of a similar initiative in Western Mass., said Davis, noting that, with the Grand Rapids program as a model, the Healing Racism two-day program and curriculum was established.

“The minute I saw it, I said, ‘we’ve got to get this going in Springfield,” said Davis, noting that this wasn’t the first effort to create such a program in Greater Springfield — others had been attempted in the ’90s — but it was the first that gained enough traction to get off the ground. And it was clearly needed, he noted.

“It was something I could see in the community — there was a clear lack of understanding about racism; no one wanted to talk about it,” he told BusinessWest. “Everybody talked about it in their own little worlds, but the conversations I witnessed were not the conversations that were needed. If you did a survey of the white population and asked them how many were racist, 99% would say they weren’t racists. But if you did a survey of people of color and asked them if they lived in a racist society, they’d all say ‘yes.’ So there was a huge disconnect that I could see.”

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson says the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified issues of racism and inequality and helped provide a real opportunity to take the conversation to a higher plane.

In an effort to address this disconnect, two-day sessions, again modeled on those in Grand Rapids, were created where participants did a good amount of listening to those of other races. And by listening, participants, which included police, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, a district attorney, members of the media, and other constituencies, learned that issues of racism and inequality were real in the Pioneer Valley.

The challenge, and the assignment, moving forward is to continue the dialogue, but also take this initiative to a higher plane, Otero said.

“We’d like to get to the point where, as in Grand Rapids, we’re embedded in organizations so that we can leave them with capacity to train and have these conversations in institutions so that they become anti-racist institutions,” said Otero, who took the helm of this agency just a few weeks ago and is still awaiting her business cards. “Because the antidote to out-and-out racism is ‘I’m anti-racist,’ which means you’re taking action to address this issue and you realize your privilege within that system and are taking action against it.”

Elaborating, she circled back to those phone calls and e-mails and inquiries about ‘what now’ when it comes to educating people about racism, broadening the conversation, and institutionalizing new policies and ways of doing things.

“Building on what’s already there, we’ve created a menu of services that we could work with organizations to implement,” Otero explained, “to ensure that anti-racism conversations continue to happen and grow, to the point where the organization itself can make the decision to be anti-racist, because that’s the key to institutionalizing this kind of work and this kind of thinking.”

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it. Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

This ‘what now’ has been in place for some time, she went on, but it hasn’t been effectively “activated.” To provide this deeper roster of services, the HRIPV will need an infrastructure, she said, as well as a large cadre of trainers and facilities. And this will likely require funding in the form of a capital campaign.

But the need is real, and the agency is committed to having these programs in place later this year, she told BusinessWest.

Moving Beyond Words

Johnson acknowledged that, in the wake of the Floyd killing, statements condemning police violence and systemic racism have come from all corners of society — CEOs of major corporations, athletes, political figures, prominent actors and musicians, nonprofit leaders, and ordinary citizens.

These statements are appreciated, and do have value, he told BusinessWest, but the emphasis now must be on moving beyond words and into the realm of action to recognize, understand, and address actions and policies that contribute to systemic racism and inequality.

And this is starting to happen on a number of levels, he and others noted, citing everything from NASCAR’s decision to ban the confederate flag at its events to the NFL acknowledging it was wrong to discourage its players from kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, to new bills aimed at banning police use of chokeholds.

But if the region and the nation are to fully seize this moment in time, they say, every business, institution, and municipality has to take a truly deep dive on this matter and make a commitment to effect real change.

And those we talked with expressed optimism there is now the requisite amount of momentum to do just that. And it has been created by what many described as a perfect storm of conditions — the incidents involving George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and many others over the years; the racial inequalities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic; and the fact that so many were home watching these events unfold. Despite incidents of violence and looting, those we spoke with believe the protests and marches, such as those in Springfield and other area communities, have created mostly positive energy and, in many respects, resolve not to let this opportunity be lost.

“I give credit to the young people for doing this — they’re carrying the passion,” Johnson said. “I was talking to a vice president at one of the local colleges; he’s talking about meeting with students who are not even on campus and may not return to campus, but are intent on finding out what this particular college is going to have to do to change in terms of some of the social conditions they’ve experienced.”

John Davis

John Davis, one of the founders of the Healing Racism Institute, says the agency was created to start a much-needed dialogue about race and racism.

Others we spoke with agreed, but acknowledged that progress can only come if the words in those statements and advertisements that so many businesses and institutions have generated in recent weeks are backed up with action and a lasting commitment to change.

“I would to say to my colleagues at other nonprofits … ‘look at your organizational structures — you’re serving largely Latino and African-American families, but your boards are almost all white,’” said Johnson, adding that, at many of these agencies, diversity exists at the lower levels of the employment spectrum, but not at the top. “They need to take a look at the leadership and make sure it reflects the composition of the folks they are servicing; that’s important for us to do.”

Even before the events of these past few weeks, many area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits were already looking inward — at policies, practices, and procedures — with an eye toward making them more anti-racist, to borrow Otero’s phrase.

And now, this confluence of circumstances is compelling some to look harder and deeper at what they’re doing (or not doing) and how.

At Baystate Health, Keroack said, the events of past several weeks have brought greater urgency to the discussion about the many forms of systemic racism, especially when it comes to public health.

“Here, as in so many communities across the country, communities of color are disadvantaged in some very fundamental ways when it comes to chronic disease burden — more asthma, more diabetes, more obesity, more hospitalizations for mental health, more maternal mortality, more infant mortality,” he explained. “And a shorter life span at birth; in some neighborhoods in Springfield, the average life span is 70, versus other neighborhoods where it’s 80, and suburban communities where it’s over 80. Your zip code really affects your health status in a very fundamental way.”

In response to this, Baystate is working with accountable-care organizations to address the health concerns of an assigned group of people — in this case, 40,000 people who receive care at inner-city health centers.

“But practicing medical care is not going to get where you need to be,” he went on. “You need to address the social determinants of health — housing, nutrition, transportation, legal aid, and public safety … and there’s a ton of work to be done.”

Meanwhile, the company is looking internally, at its practices and systems, with an eye toward creating greater diversity at all levels.

“We need to look at the systems that are in place, both in society and for me in this large organization, around hiring, advancement, and representation around the table of diverse voices,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve worked very hard to build diversity on our board of trustees, but we still have a long way to go in terms of our leadership ranks.”

At the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), there has been action in the form of new policies and procedures when it comes to hiring and posting positions, said the agency’s executive director, Kim Robinson.

These included the formation of something called the Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Committee, which was formed by employees at the agency last year to address such issues within the organization. It was spawned in part by a housing study undertaken by the PVPC that revealed a number of disparities and what she called a “segregated community” across the region.

Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says racism is “structural and systemic,” so Band-Aid solutions are not going to fix root-cause issues.

“From that time on, we’ve been talking more and more within our organization about the need to do a race and equity plan for a region,” she said. “We think this is work that would be very interesting to undertake with other groups committed to this kind of work and seeing equity, social justice, and economic opportunity.”

While exploring when and how such a study might be undertaken, the PVPC has looked inward and seen a need to change language in its handbook and adopt several new policies when it comes to hiring.

“We’re going to require race, equity, and diversity training for every single one of our employees,” Robinson said. “And we’ve been evaluating where we post jobs to see if there was any inherent bias in that. We’ve added some additional avenues because we want to make sure we’re getting the word out to lots and lots of people.”

Looking Ahead — with Hope

At Holyoke Community College, Royal said the school continues to address issues of race and equality through initiatives designed to remove barriers and help see students through to completion of what they’re working to achieve. And it does so with the understanding that the problems are real and require lasting solutions.

“Racism is structural, and it’s systemic, so a Band-Aid solution is not going to fix the root-cause issues,” she explained. “It does start with having a commitment and an obligation to speak out against hatred, intolerance, and prejudice so we can really work toward building a truly equitable society.

“I feel a lot of pain with what’s happening in the world, but I also feel there’s a purpose to it,” said Royal, who is biracial and acknowledged that, five years before she was born, it would have been illegal for her parents to marry. “I do feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to contribute toward making our world better and our Pioneer Valley region better.”

She said equity remains a huge issue at her school and within society in general, and thus HCC has made it a priority to level the playing field when possible.

“We know that there are achievement gaps between our white students and our students of color,” she noted. “And we have a responsibility and a commitment to do better in this regard.”

She started with a town-hall meeting on June 3 to create dialogue about what was playing out on the news, but acknowledged that the school’s commitment goes beyond conversation.

“It starts with speaking out, but it doesn’t end there,” she said. “Authenticity of commitment to these issues is very important because, as I said, a Band-Aid approach isn’t going to work.”

Surveying the landscape around him, including a new mural at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services that memorializes victims of police aggression and the people who have come to see it and take a selfie in front of it, Ronn Johnson reiterated his belief — and his hope — that real change is possible and perhaps even imminent, and that he feels privileged to be part of all that’s happening.

“I’m proud to be alive at this particular point in time,” he told BusinessWest. “I just feel that we’re at a place where we’ve really turned a corner; we’ve hit that tipping point where we’ll be able to look back two or three years from now and say, ‘that moment was worth it.’”

He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment — or the knowledge that much has to happen for people to be able to utter those words.

A seminal moment has arrived, and an opportunity has presented itself. It’s now incumbent on the businesses, institutions, and residents of this region to seize this moment.

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

Modern Office Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

Mark Proshan says predicting what’s coming next in his business — office furniture and design — has always been a difficult assignment.

But now … it’s even more of a complicated guessing game.

Indeed, in a sector where the landscape can change quickly and profoundly, and for a number of reasons — from a declining economy to changing tastes — the pandemic has produced an even greater sense of uncertainty about what lies around the bend, said Proshan, president of West Springfield-based Lexington Group.

“For the first time ever, I don’t even pretend to be smart enough to see what’s coming down the road,” he told BusinessWest, noting that this applies to both the short and long term. “We don’t know when bigger places of business will open back up, what their attitude is going to be toward spending money, and what things will look like down the road.”

Tyler Arnold, a principal with Holyoke-based Conklin Office, who spoke with BusinessWest from the company’s office in Northern New Jersey, agreed. He noted there are many variables that will affect decision making at individual companies when it comes to if and when employees return to work, how many return, and how much space they’ll take up when they do return.

“The number-one priority for people right now is to bring back fewer people, spread things out … and then see what happens,” he explained. “They might look at their footprint and say ‘we’ve got 1,000 employees, and we’re occupying 100,000 square feet.’ They may decide to only bring back 500 employees — but does that mean they need 50,000 square feet or 75,000 square feet? I think there will be a lot of that going on.”

But there are some things that are known. It seems certain that the collaborative, open spaces that companies have developed over the past several years will change — perhaps significantly.

Arnold said the old 10-by-10 private offices that dominated the business landscape years ago and are still favored by some banks and law firms won’t make an immediate comeback — they’re very expensive and still somewhat impractical. But there will certainly be a move to create more privacy and shield employees from one another and the public.

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider

Mark Proshan sits at benching sporting a higher divider than models popular just a few months ago. He says these units are among the items now in demand as businesses work to increase privacy in the workplace.

This has been made apparent by the number of calls both companies are taking from business owners and managers looking to adjust their spaces for a pandemic.

That’s especially true in New York City, said Arnold, where many financial-services companies and corporate headquarters had moved to benching to place as many people in as small an area as possible. Now, many of those benches are being outfitted with dividers, or higher dividers, as the case may be.

“Right now, the immediate demand is for adding privacy screens, be that acrylic material or fabric,” Arnold told BusinessWest. “So much that has been built out over the past 10 years has an open plan, open feel to it. What’s the easiest, quickest, least costly way to give people a sense of detachment from the person sitting next to them? It’s some kind of privacy screen.”

“A lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case.”

Proshan agreed. “We do have inquiries from people as to how to modify their spaces to make them more private, making walls higher, making plexiglass partitions and glass partitions, where possible,” he noted. “Meanwhile, a lot of people are continuing to stay home, and I’m not sure if that will continue to be the case. If it is the case, the need for higher-end furniture will likely not go hand in hand with staying at home; it may well be the Staples of the world and the Costcos of the world that will be selling those items because people might be paying for it out of their own pocket.”

As for companies bringing people back, the plan of action for many companies is not to put anyone immediately next to or across from someone else, even if there is a screen, said Arnold, adding that many businesses are ramping up slowly and in waves. How big the waves will get remains to seen.

Actually, that’s just one of many things that remain to be seen, as we’ll see as BusinessWest talks with these experts about how the pandemic might reshape the modern office as we know it.

Space Exploration

As he talked with BusinessWest about the physical changes that will come to the modern office in the wake of COVID-19, Proshan said it would probably be easier to do a little show and tell.

With that, he walked to the front lobby of the company’s spacious headquarters on Union Street. There, two workstations are outfitted with what would have to be called pandemic-era features.

Before discussing them, though, Proshan reached for his phone and scrolled to images of what used to be there, because this is where the discussion had to start (see photos, page 24). Before, there were fairly low structures that were wide open. They’ve been replaced by units of similar height topped by plexiglass panels on two sides, with narrow openings in front to keep those behind them safe.

“This is the kind of thing we’ll be seeing — this is the direction we’re going in,” said Proshan, adding that, for the foreseeable future, the focus will be on privacy and keeping people safe. Collaboration? Well, not so much.

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

“People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

At least not as much face-to-face collaboration, he went on, as he took BusinessWest on a walk to the showroom, where he sat down at benching that sports those higher walls that can’t be seen over and are designed with privacy and protection in mind.

While orders for such products come in, the larger questions looming over the industry concern the longer term. But while contemplating the future, those we spoke with are also coping with the present, which is challenging on many levels.

Indeed, Proshan said a number of projects that were in the pipeline have been paused as companies and institutions try to absorb what has happened and what it all means moving forward. He mentioned a $1.2 million library project at one of the area colleges and several other initiatives that have been put on hold because the plans that were blueprinted months ago may no longer be viable in the COVID-19 world.

“When you think about what may change when people go into a public space like that, you can certainly understand how and why these institutions might want to pause,” he said. “We have lots of repurchased and paid-for inventory that, because the colleges and universities are shut down, we can’t even get in to deliver this product.

“And the policy for a lot of these places is that they can’t pay for product until it’s delivered and installed,” he went on. “But, unfortunately, my manufacturers insist on getting paid once the product is received by me — so you can see the dilemma when you’re talking about a large volume of merchandise.”

There are other challenges to contend with as well, such as reopening their own offices, which were ‘essential’ in some cases — Lexington earned that designation in West Springfield because it delivers to healthcare providers — and also dealing with various employment issues, and trying to serve customers in remote fashion, a somewhat difficult task when many consumers like to see, touch, and kick the tires on the products they’re contemplating.

Arnold, like Proshan, said the phones essentially stopped ringing during the month of March. Then commenced a period of speculation and webinars about when offices would reopen and how. And then, things got busy again as companies started gathering information and proposals for those protective shields and dividers for benches, with a decent percentage of those proposals turning into orders.

The new workstations

The new workstations in the lobby at Lexington Group contrast sharply with what existed before, and speak volumes about current efforts to keep workers and visitors safe and increase privacy.

What concerns Arnold at this point is what happens when this ‘bubble,’ as he called it, is over and companies, now getting comfortable as employees slowly return to the office, contemplate their future needs, and their footprint.

Indeed, his company is currently working on projects involving leases that were signed months ago. The question is, will new leases be signed?

“I think that, when we get to the middle of the summer, there will be a pretty good slowdown at that point,” he said. “People will see where the economy goes; they’ll want to see how it comes back before they make any big decisions.”

There are already strong signs that some companies will not go back to their former offices, and if they do, they’ll probably do it gradually, with many seeking smaller footprints for fewer employees, which means less office furniture to be sold, said those we spoke with.

Arnold said he’s seeing a lot of this in New York, which is still very much in lockdown mode.

“Initially, people couldn’t wait to get back to work,” he noted. “But at this point, many corporations are taking their time and making decisions. The mentality is that, ‘we’re turning a profit, everyone’s working remotely, everybody’s safe; until we’re really comfortable that we can put them in an environment where we can minimize risk and people can focus on what they do, we’re in no rush to return to the office.’”

Mass transit certainly plays a big role in what’s happening — or not — with people returning to the workplace, he went on, adding quickly that, in many markets, and with businesses across many sectors, the question concerning such returns is increasingly ‘if,’ not ‘when,’ and also ‘how many will return?’

Whether this changes or not in the short or long term is yet another of those questions that are difficult to answer at this juncture.

Again, about the only thing that’s relatively certain is that the past will become prologue when it comes to privacy and how the office might look and feel moving forward.

“Ten years ago, everyone had tall walls, lots of privacy — people had their own space,” said Proshan. “‘Collaboration’ became the buzzword the last few years, and the walls came down, and shared space became the big thing. And while I think people will still have the need to collaborate, I think they’re going to be doing it in a much more enclosed environment.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the place where they started this discussion, Proshan and Arnold said that, while some things are known at this juncture, many more are not. And speculation might not be a fruitful exercise at this point.

“I don’t think there are whole lot of crystal-ball gazers who really know what’s going to shake out from all this,” Proshan said. “No one really knows.”

Arnold concurred. While the focus for now is on privacy and spreading people out, he noted, the landscape may be altered again. “All this can change on a dime if there’s good news about a vaccine or something like that. For now, everyone’s planning like this a year or so off.”

A year seems a long way off in a business where predicting the future is difficult — and has now become much more so.

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

Coronavirus

Event Company Works to Pivot, Position Itself for the Long Term

Mike Zaskey says his ‘spreadsheet of doom’ includes more than $1.2 million in lost events for this year, but he’s pivoting with virtual events and other initiatives.

Mike Zaskey calls it his “spreadsheet of doom.”

And for good reason.

It chronicles what he estimates to be $1.2 million in lost business since early March, when the phone started ringing … and kept on ringing. On the other end were representatives of corporations, colleges and universities, and nonprofits calling Zaskey to let him know they were canceling or postponing — in most all cases, the former — the large events his company, Chicopee-based Zasco Productions, has come to specialize in.

“After a while, I was afraid to answer the phone, because every time I did there was a cancellation,” said Zaskey, noting that more than 40 major events, including 20 college commencements, have been erased from the calendar. In fact, when he talked with BusinessWest just after the Memorial Day weekend, he was lamenting how what was normally a very busy week for him — clients Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, and the Rhode Island School of Design traditionally schedule their commencements for the final days in May — was now anything but.

Indeed, a business leader who rarely has time on his hands, especially at this time of year, now has way too much of that commodity. And he’s devoting it to everything from finding ways to somehow pivot — some more successful than others, as we’ll see in a minute — to advocating for an industry that is large and impactful, but often flies under the radar.

“The Live Events Coalition has put together some interesting statistics, and by their estimates, the live-events industry employs 12 million people and contributes more than $1 trillion into the U.S. economy,” he said, adding that few understand the size or importance of a sector that includes everything from venues to caterers to companies like Zasco. “If live events were a state, we’d rank seventh in population.”

Turning the clock back to early March, Zaskey said that’s when he first started getting calls from “six-figure clients,” as he called them, inquiring about cancellation terms in their contracts.

“It was around Friday the 6th,” he recalled, noting that some dates stick in his mind, for obvious reasons. “I got a few e-mails before that, but things really started to get scary on March 6. We had a team meeting at the end of that day, and I said, ‘something’s going on here, and we all need to be aware of this.’ And it just ballooned from there.”

The calls kept on coming, he went on, adding that the events, as noted earlier, have been canceled, not postponed.

“Most of these events are not being postponed — it’s revenue lost; it’s not coming back,” he told BusinessWest. “If there’s an annual event, a 2020 gala or conference, the 2020 event is not taking place, and they are going to have one in 2021. But the event in 2021 is the 2021 event.”

Despite these losses, one of the first decisions Zaskey made was to work with clients when it came to deposits and existing balances.

“A number of clients have multi-year contracts with us, so their deposits were paid two or three years ago, depending on the terms of the deal,” he explained. “Technically speaking, our contract says that, when an event is canceled, the deposits are non-refundable, and, in some cases, the client would still be liable for the cost of the event. But, in looking at the situation going on in the world, we decided that the right thing to do would be to apply those deposits to future events for clients, and that’s exactly what we did across the board.

“Most of these events are not being postponed — it’s revenue lost; it’s not coming back. If there’s an annual event, a 2020 gala or conference, the 2020 event is not taking place, and they are going to have one in 2021. But the event in 2021 is the 2021 event.”

“While it’s not the greatest for our financial position,” he went on, “it’s the best for our customers, and we’re looking to build long-term relationships with those customers and keep those customers.”

And a few customers have returned the favor by essentially paying balances due for next year’s event now, to help the company with cash flow.

Faced with its spreadsheet of doom, Zaskey said his company, which eventually had to lay off most of its 12 employees, looked to pivot in an effort to create some revenue streams. And upon taking a hard look around, he said one early option that presented itself was to put Zasco’s large fleet of trucks to work as couriers.

“But it doesn’t generate as much revenue, and we would probably actually lose money if we tried to turn into a delivery company — we’re not set for that,” he told BusinessWest. “We did actually try it — a friend of my owns a courier service, so we did a day of deliveries. But the revenue we generated versus the hassle of trying to pivot into an industry we weren’t suited for just didn’t work out.”

The company has had more success pivoting toward the staging of virtual events.

“A virtual event is more than just a video webstream or livestream,” he explained, adding that he’s now working with several clients on such initiatives. “We’re trying to capture the elements of a live event that can be held across multiple sites and make them feel like they’re at the actual event.”

Summing up what’s happened and what might happen moving forward, Zaskey summoned a phrase put to use by just about every business owner in Western Mass.: “we’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Indeed, and while the short term (and that spreadsheet) looms ominously, this company, which put itself on the map by pulling off big events, continues to position itself for the long term — and, more specifically, a time when Zaskey won’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

In a Sign of the Times, This Company Has Pivoted into New Products

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably because major clients like MGM Springfield have shut down, but he’s managed to pivot and get work like these social-distancing signs.

Jim White says it took him 15 years to go from zero to 60 with his business. And 15 days to go from 60 to zero.

That’s how the co-founder of East Longmeadow-based Go Graphix, a maker of signs, vehicle wraps, and a host of other marketing products, described that two-week period back in March when business came to a near standstill.

That’s because most all of the company’s major clients — MGM Springfield, the MassMutual Center, sports teams like the Thunderbirds — came to a complete halt.

It seems like years ago now,” White said of those days in March. “It was tough — probably the toughest times I’ve experienced in business.”

With many of those businesses still shut down, Go Graphix has pivoted into other niche products that could be described as ‘COVID-related,’ said White, adding that it now has what could be called a line of ‘back-to-work’ products, including social-distancing graphics — those ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs now appearing across the region — as well as the protective barriers that are also appearing almost everywhere.

Still, revenues for April and May of this year are down roughly 80% from their levels of a year ago. The company, which had to lay off a few workers and cut most employees back to four days a week, has been helped by federal assistance, specifically the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — and White’s ‘save for a rainy day’ philosophy, passed down by his parents.

“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep,” he said. “We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”

Flashing back to early March, White said that’s when a number of major clients had to shut down operations, which brought operations at the Benton Road facility to something approaching a standstill.

Those clients include MGM Springfield, for which the company makes a wide variety of promotional items, from signage for upcoming events to the dasher-board advertisements for the skating rink.

“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep. We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”

“They’ve been one of our best customers,” said White, noting that his company was one of many fortunate local businesses to become vendors for the casino operator. “Throughout the casino, you see a lot of promotional graphics, and we were doing things on a weekly basis — work that came to screeching halt.”

But even clients that weren’t shut down and were actually doing well had put work given to Go Graphics on hold, said White, citing the example of beer distributors, for which the company provides vehicle wraps.

“They were so busy, they couldn’t leave the trucks with us for a day to be wrapped — they needed them on the road,” he explained. “They were hitting all the package stores, which were doing really well during all this. That was tough one for us; we’re thinking, ‘even the guys who are doing great can’t do any business with us.’”

Beyond the PPP loan, what has helped the company through the crisis has been its ability to adapt and create new product lines. White calls this the “great pivot.”

It involves making plexiglass shields for a number of clients, including Baystate Health, Monson Savings, J. Polep, Hartford Hospital, and others, as well as social-distancing signage now seen in virtually every sector of the economy.

As he talked with BusinessWest at the plant, he stopped to display the round ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs bound for Staples’ corporate headquarters, a contract that has provided a good amount of work for the company.

As for the plexiglass partitions, most of them are custom orders, and the work is intricate, which is why a number of businesses across several sectors have decided on Go Graphix for the work.

“We’re not just providing an off-the-shelf solution,” he said, while pointing to some models bound for Baystate Health. “And the orders keep coming in — we’ve pivoted, and we’re going for it.”

And White has to hope that the orders keep coming in, because plexiglass is now a commodity; amid fears that short supplies would become even shorter, he ordered a lot of it.

“It’s kind of toilet paper in the early days of this pandemic,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone’s looking to get it, and it’s becoming harder to find. But we have some good suppliers, and I’ve made the investment in a good amount, even though it scares me to the core. I figured, ‘I’d better be the guy who has it on hand,’ and just pray that we sell it.”

All indications are that he probably will as companies scramble to take the necessary steps to reopen, a process likely to play itself out over the next several months.

As White said repeatedly, this isn’t work he could have imagined doing just four months ago, but he’s very grateful to have it — an attitude that’s understandable after watching a company go from zero to 60 to 15 years, and 60 to zero in just a few painful weeks.

—George O’Brien