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Cover Story

Portrait of the Artist

 

When he was in college and developing his skills as a photographer, Lenny Underwood recalls being told to ‘get a real job.’ He thought he already had one, and eventually built a successful business. A decade or so later, he created another one, Upscale Socks, which is turning heads with its products while also helping to bring attention to everything from breast cancer to mental-health issues. These days, while growing his two ventures, Underwood is also passing on what he’s learned and doing important work to encourage entrepreneurship, especially among young people.

 

MAKING QUICK WORK OF IT.

That was the puzzle Lenny Underwood had to solve when he advanced to the bonus round of an episode of Wheel of Fortune that aired in May 2018 — three years after he first auditioned to be on the popular show.

With the few letters that had been revealed — Underwood doesn’t remember which ones they were (he could choose three consonants and a vowel) — he wasn’t able to come up with the phrase. But he noted that he wasn’t familiar with it and had never used it himself, so he was at a real disadvantage. (He also failed to solve another puzzle — WKRP IN CINCINNATI — claiming he’s too young to recall the late-’70s sitcom.)

But, overall, his appearance — he and a good friend competed together — was a success on many levels. He did win a trip to Guatemala for advancing to the bonus round, along with some press — both before the show and after it — and some fond memories from the experience, which came at a point in his life (the audition part, anyway) when he had much more time and inclination for such escapades.

“We did a lot of things like that — we were interested in adventures,” he told BusinessWest. “Things like skydiving, being audience members for TV shows, meeting celebrities, going to book signings … things that were interesting. We would say, ‘let’s audition for this,’ or ‘maybe The Amazing Race,’ things I could add to the arsenal of things that I enjoy doing.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting.”

“But that was before Upscale Socks,” he went on, referring to what would be described as his latest entrepreneurial venture. It is, as that name indicates, a sock venture, but one with some distinctive artistic and philanthropic flares to it.

Indeed, since launching his line, he has designed sock patterns that do everything from identifying many of Springfield’s many ‘firsts’ — basketball and the monkey wrench are on that list — to drawing attention to breast cancer and mental-health issues. His latest design — he’s planning a press conference to announce it — is what he calls a ‘Massachusetts sock,’ complete with many symbols of the state, including mountains, cranberries, the mayflower, and art connoting higher education.

There is far less time now for things like Wheel of Fortune as Underwood continues to adjust the business plan for both his sock venture and his photography studio, another artistic enterprise he launched 17 years ago, one that suffered greatly during the pandemic, as all such businesses did, but has bounced back in 2021 as the world returns to normal — in most respects.

Meanwhile, there are other matters competing for hours in the day, he noted, listing a growing number of mentoring initiatives with young entrepreneurs, including many aspiring photographers; involvement with Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke (he recently judged a final competition among participants in its latest accelerator cohort), and other agencies working with entrepreneurs; and teaching assignments within the broad spectrum of business and entrepreneurship. He’s also writing a children’s book on entrepreneurship.

He used to get a few requests for such work years ago, but the number grew quickly and profoundly after he got into the sock business.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting,” he said with a laugh and a shrug of his shoulders, adding that his calendar is getting even busier as photo assignments come back and requests to partner on initiatives involving his socks arrive with greater frequency.

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student at a pitch contest he judged, has become a mentor to many aspiring entrepreneurs.

Overall, this is an intriguing success story already — on many levels. Equally intriguing is where all this could go, especially Upscale Socks. At the moment, it is mostly a regional phenomenon, although the socks are sold online and in outlets in other parts of the country. But Underwood is looking to go next level.

“I’m hoping to attend some conventions and trade shows so I can get in more stores throughout other parts of the country,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well organically; a number of stores have reached out to me — they discover me on social media and they reach out because they’re interested — but I know that, if I want to expand into larger markets and places I’ve never heard of, I need to get in more stores and make more connections.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Underwood — about socks, photography, entrepreneurship, mentorship, that full calendar of his, and how it’s all become an adventure unto itself.

 

Dream Weaver

By now, most people know the story; Underwood has told it many, many times.

Upscale Socks is a dream come true. Quite literally.

He said it was probably seven years ago that he had a dream that he started a company making and selling socks. He said he usually doesn’t remember his dreams, and he didn’t recall all of this one. Just the main theme.

“It was really vague,” he recalled. “I just remember being the owner of this business and selling socks; the dream wasn’t to have a store, but just to have them available in stores and online as well. And that was it.”

He ran the concept by the friend who auditioned with him for Wheel of Fortune, and they agreed it was an idea with merit and potential. But there was a lot of learning to do and hurdles to clear.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them.”

“I knew nothing about retail,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t do anything for maybe a year but toy with the idea and do some light searching on social media. Nothing really materialized.”

Eventually, he connected with Paul Silva, then-director of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who steered him to SPARK (now EforAll) in Holyoke. Mentors at that agency helped take the concept from the fuzzy dream stage to reality, he told BusinessWest, by compelling him to ask the hard questions, conduct customer discovery, and work to determine if there was a real market for the product.

“They held me accountable to look for manufacturing, so I researched probably 30 around the world,” he recalled. “They gave me more insight on numbers and data to work with; it was very helpful.”

The venture started slowly, but it has taken off. The socks, now seen on the feet of a number of area business and civic leaders, have become a fashion statement — but, as noted earlier, perhaps the real key to success has been that these socks often have a purpose well beyond comfort and fashion.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them,” he noted, adding that many of his socks are attached to causes.

As an example, Underwood held up a pink sock designed to bring attention to breast cancer and Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October). He’s also working on one focused on AIDS awareness. Another initiative, undertaken in conjunction with the Mental Health Assoc., was the creation of socks designed to bring awareness to mental-health issues during Mental Health Awareness Month in May and help remove the stigmas attached to seeking help for mental illness.

“They’re very purposeful,” he said of his socks, adding that his relationships with area nonprofits and organizations, elected officials, and visitors’ bureaus bring many benefits. They create awareness for his products, but they also put a face — or a sock, to be more precise — on many of the issues of the day.

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Overall, he has more than 75 current styles, and the number continues to grow, as with that Massachusetts sock. There are seasonal socks, for Halloween and Christmas, for example, and products for children — with matching styles for their parents.

“I hope to grow that collection in the future,” he told BusinessWest. “When I first started the children’s collection in 2016, I didn’t do as much field work to really discover what children like and dislike, so they’re not as colorful and fun as the adult socks; that’s a line I really want to grow, and I think there’s a lot of potential there.”

At present, he said he’s selling perhaps as many as 15,000 pairs a year through his website, the stores he’s in, and the many partnership efforts he’s made with nonprofits and other agencies.

When asked what that number could be someday, Underwood said the sky’s the limit — “as long as I remain authentic to what I’m offering,” he added, noting that the business plan is being continuously revised, and he’s working to create new partnerships and new avenues for visibility and growth.

 

Getting His Foot in the Door

While his businesses keep him busy — too busy to fly out to California on a moment’s notice to tape an episode of Wheel of Fortune, for example — Underwood says he tries to make time to do the occasional book signing and meet those who have forged successful careers in everything from entertainment to fashion design to literature.

“I still try to break away on a weekday if I can,” he said. “I like art, and I gain inspiration from hearing their stories — their life and how they were able to attain success and grow their business.”

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One, has long made philanthropy and working with area nonprofits to help advance their causes part of his business plan.

As an example, he mentioned meeting Ruth Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer who grew up in Springfield. “I gave her a pair of my socks, and we talked about business and designs,” he recalled. “Those are really good networking opportunities — and learning experiences.”

While listening to and learning from others, Underwood is passing on what he’s learned to others as a mentor, teacher, and advisor.

He told BusinessWest he’s been doing much more of this work in recent years, especially within the minority community and with groups like VVM and EforAll. He said it’s been a mission of sorts to not only talk about entrepreneurship and all that comes with choosing that route, but encouraging it as a career option as well.

“It’s a cool experience to share my experience and offer some advice on how to obtain success with whatever they’re looking to do,” he said, adding that, over this past summer, he was one of several invited to teach business to middle- and high-school students in Springfield. He’s also been part of programs at the college level, at Springfield College, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, and other schools.

He finds it rewarding on many levels to pass on what he knows and to try and inspire others to get started with their own ventures or get over the hump and to the proverbial next level, just as he is doing in many ways.

And then, there’s the children’s book. He’s still finalizing a title, but the work is essentially done.

“It’s about teaching children how to become entrepreneurs at a young age,” he explained. “There will be key words throughout the book and definitions, so when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘branding’ or ‘prototype,’ they’ll be familiar with that language, and they’ll have the confidence, hopefully, to embark on something.”

Imparting such lessons is important, he said, noting that he didn’t have that kind of encouragement when he was younger.

“When I was a child, I tried a lemonade stand and tried to sell things like Blow Pops and water balloons in the summer months, but I didn’t think that was a business, and it wasn’t instilled in me to start a business,” he recalled. “Even in college, when I was doing photography, I was told, ‘get a real job — that’s just something you do for fun; that’s not something you can do as a career.’”

 

Developing Story

If Underwood had solved that puzzle in the bonus round of Wheel of Fortune, he would have won a pair of Mini Coopers. Looking back, he can say with hindsight that he’s not sure what he would have done with them — probably sell them.

It’s a moot point because, as he said at the top, he wasn’t familiar with the phrase in question and certainly couldn’t nail it with the few letters at his disposal.

As for the ongoing puzzle of entrepreneurship that he’s currently trying to solve … it’s equally difficult in some respects, but he has a better handle on the answer. And it has nothing to do with making quick work of anything. Instead, it’s about handling myriad challenges, pivoting when necessary, and, in the case of socks, having designs on success — in every respect. u

 

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

Manufacturing Special Coverage

The Shot Heard ’Round the Region

Smith & Wesson’s recently announced plan to move its Springfield operations to Tennessee came as a shock to many — the 165-year-old company has been part of the city’s fabric, and the region’s rich manufacturing history, for generations. Amid questions about the gunmaker’s reasons for moving — the company cites proposed state legislation targeting its products, while some elected officials say it’s more a case of corporate welfare and a better deal down south — the most immediate concerns involve about 550 jobs to be lost. The silver lining is that, with some concerted effort, most of those individuals should be able to find other work locally in a manufacturing landscape that sorely needs the help.

 

In the wake of the announcement that Smith & Wesson will be moving its corporate headquarters from Springfield to Maryville, Tenn., questions and discussions have arisen on many levels.

These concern everything from how and when this decision came about to how aggressive Tennessee was in courting this major employer, to whether there were any major deciding factors in that decision beyond what has been stated repeatedly by the company — specifically, proposed state legislation that would ban the manufacture of most of the automatic weapons now made by Smith & Wesson.

But as the dust settles from that bombshell announcement, the lingering questions concern just what the region and the state have lost from the relocation of this company, one that can trace its roots back to 1856.

And the answers to that question don’t exactly come easily.

Western Mass. will lose roughly 550 jobs, according to the information released by the company — a significant number, to be sure, but economic-development leaders are quick to point out that just about every manufacturer has a ‘help wanted’ sign on the door, either figuratively or quite literally, and that any one of those Smith & Wesson employees who doesn’t want to relocate to Tennessee can find employment in the 413 quickly and easily (much more on that later).

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce. And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

Meanwhile, the region will also lose a number of C-suite-level employees from the company that were involved in the community, sat on area boards and commissions, and engaged in philanthropic activity.

“They’re tied to the community,” said Richard Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC). “And I think that, sometimes, those aspects of what it means to have a headquarters, the CEOs, and the team at any company get lost; it’s the tieback to the community, because they’re truly vested in the community and want to see it be the best it can be.”

Meanwhile, even though Smith & Wesson handguns and other products will still be made here, and we’re told they will be stamped ‘made in Springfield, Mass.,’ or words to that effect, the region will lose a certain amount of civic pride, if that’s the right term, that comes from having a large employer — and one of the most recognizable brands in the world — headquartered in the City of Homes. Indeed, many would say this company is part of not only the history, but the very fabric of the city.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser says Smith & Wesson’s decision to relocate its headquarters and some operations may actually be a blessing in disguise on some levels.

However, those we spoke with said the region and city are unlikely to lose momentum when it comes to attracting employers and jobs, or its reputation as a manufacturing hub.

Indeed, Sullivan used the phrase “one-off” to describe Smith & Wesson’s decision, drawing a distinction between this pending departure and a much larger exodus, headlined by General Electric, that befell Connecticut several years ago.

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce,” he explained. “And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

State Sen. Eric Lesser, who represents Springfield and several neighboring communities and serves as chair of the state’s Manufacturing Caucus, agreed, and then went further, noting that, amid some obvious losses, there are also some possible benefits to Smith & Wesson’s decision. He even used the phrase “potential blessing in disguise,” mostly to reference opportunities that other area manufacturers may have to stabilize and grow their ventures by hiring displaced S&W workers.

“Sometimes, when one door closes, another one opens, and this may be one of those times,” he told BusinessWest. “We have a very real economic challenge in terms of making sure that those 550 families are taken of. But this is a long-term horizon — they’re not doing this until 2023. Luckily for those families, the manufacturing sector is very hot, and really, almost every company in that sector, including companies right in that immediate neighborhood where Smith & Wesson is located, are looking for people.”

Lesser is one of many elected leaders who are not buying into Smith & Wesson’s contention that it’s moving its headquarters because of the pending legislation. He echoed comments from Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who told the local press that “prudent business people don’t make major decisions, especially a decision that puts hundreds of people out of a job, based on one of the thousands of bills filed each session.”

“The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

Lesser, noting the very attractive deal offered to Smith & Wesson by Tennessee, said the company’s motivation for relocating probably has little to do with Bay State politics. “This is more of a classic corporate-welfare story than it is anything else.”

Which is why it shouldn’t impact Springfield’s reputation as a manufacturing hub or its long-term potential to become more of one, noted Tim Sheehan, the city’s director of Planning & Economic Development.

“In this type of industry, Springfield has had a long history, and the skill levels in this area of manufacturing have been noted throughout the Connecticut River Valley,” he said. “I don’t think this sends a message about the city of Springfield — it’s a broader message.”

 

Targeted Response

The press release arrived in the inboxes of media outlets in this region — and well beyond — at 9:05 a.m. on Sept. 30. The headline over the top read “Smith & Wesson to Relocate Headquarters to Tennessee,” followed by the subhead, “Move includes headquarters and significant portion of operations due to changing business climate for firearms manufacturing in Massachusetts.”

The release went on to quote Mark Smith, president and CEO of the company, saying, “this has been an extremely difficult and emotional decision for us, but after an exhaustive and thorough analysis, for the continued health and strength of our iconic company, we feel that we have been left with no other alternative.”

He specifically cited legislation recently proposed in Massachusetts that, if enacted, would prohibit the company from manufacturing certain firearms in the state. “These bills would prevent Smith & Wesson from manufacturing firearms that are legal in almost every state in America and that are safely used by tens of millions of law-abiding citizens every day exercising their constitutional Second Amendment rights, protecting themselves and their families, and enjoying the shooting sports. While we are hopeful that this arbitrary and damaging legislation will be defeated in this session, these products made up over 60% of our revenue last year, and the unfortunate likelihood that such restrictions would be raised again led to a review of the best path forward for Smith & Wesson.”

The path taken — to Tennessee’s Blount County, which proudly describes itself as a “Second Amendment sanctuary” — is similar to the one taken by Troy Industries, the West Springfield-based maker of a wide array of guns and related products, which announced a move to Tennessee back in May.

So while there is precedent and the relocation sounds like part of a movement, many elected officials, including Lesser, were not exactly buying the company’s stated reason for leaving.

In fact, he referred back to that same press release for some evidence. In it, the company said it was also relocating its distribution operations in Columbia, Mo. to the new, $120 million facility in Maryville.

“I don’t believe their rationale why they’re leaving,” he went on. “The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

The bill calling for a ban on the manufacture of certain assault weapons, Lesser noted, “has been filed for years and years. And 6,000 bills are filed every year on every conceivable topic; as the speaker said, for a company to make a decision of this magnitude off of one filed piece of legislation doesn’t make any sense.”

Sullivan said there’s no doubt that Tennessee, and probably other, more gun-friendly states and regions, aggressively pursued Smith & Wesson because … this is what they do.

“The states are actively working every day to get companies to move to their state,” he said. “They offer big incentives, and I have no idea what their package was or wasn’t, but they can show a business-friendly attitude, and in this case, they can show an atmosphere that is more comfortable around Second Amendment issues.”

 

Another Shot at Employment

While the company’s reasons for leaving have come into question, the loss of 550 jobs locally is real, and that has become the focus of attention for many elected officials and area agencies, who have pledged to help secure new employment opportunities should these individuals decide not to relocate to Tennessee.

“Our first issue of concern is for the employees, enduring that they have a landing spot, in either a job performing the same task or something that’s similar,” Sheehan told BusinessWest. “A number of manufacturing businesses have reached out already, to MassHire and the mayor’s office, about recruitment of those folks.”

It helps, he added that no one is losing their job immediately, with the move not scheduled to be complete until 2023.

“It’s not happening tomorrow, so we have time to plan for this,” he added. “But it’s an unfortunate situation, obviously — they’re good manufacturing jobs that are housed in Springfield, and we would have liked them to stay in Springfield.”

Like others we spoke with, Sheehan said this is a conducive market to find new employment in manufacturing, he doesn’t want the fate of hundreds of workers left to the whims of that market, so a coordinated effort is in order, involving MassHire Hampden County, the EDC, and city officials, to coordinate a response that helps people identify, train for, and succeed in new jobs.

“With any type of upheaval like this, it’s distressing,” he noted. “Our focus is to try to ensure as little economic uncertainty as possible for these employees.”

Dave Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County, said his agency is treating Smith & Wesson’s announcement as a reduction in force, or RIF, and not a plant closing, because the plant isn’t closing — 1,000 jobs will remain here in Springfield.

But it’s an unusual RIF in that the jobs won’t officially be lost for roughly two years, until the company builds and moves into its new facilities in Tennessee. At present, Cruise’s agency is awaiting more information from Smith & Wesson on the specific nature of the jobs to be moved before putting in place a formal plan of action to assist those employees impacted by the decision.

“We have a team of people that we deploy whenever we have this type of situation,” he explained. “Right now, we’re looking to gather a little more information — we don’t much more than what we read in the papers — and whenever they sort that out, I’m sure we’ll be able to work with them and see how we come at this.

“It’s hard for us to move forward because it’s still pretty raw,” he went on. “And I’m sure they’re working hard to determine exactly who is being impacted by this. When we know more, we’ll be able to put in motion what we normally do in these situations.”

 

Loaded and Locked

While elected officials and economic-development leaders have voiced concern about the jobs to be relocated and have made assisting those workers their top priority, S&W’s announcement comes at a time when companies across every sector, and especially manufacturing, are struggling to find qualified workers.

In fact, many are already sending inquiries to Lesser’s desk, Cruise’s office, and other destinations about when and how such workers might be become available long before Smith & Wesson departs for Tennessee.

Indian Orchard-based Eastman Corp., a maker of car windshields and a host of other products, issued a statement through Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office announcing it is ready, willing, and able to hire some of those being displaced.

“We appreciate the opportunity through Mayor Sarno and his administration to begin to discuss the possibility of members of Smith & Wesson’s skilled labor force considering positions at Eastman in the future,” wrote Plant Manager Shawn Pace. “When those workers and Smith & Wesson are ready, we want them to know that we are here and want to be helpful. Eastman continually reviews its business and workforce strategies to remain competitive and to ensure our long-term success. Like many, we are still learning about Smith & Wesson’s announcement. Eastman stands ready to offer any assistance that Mayor Sarno, his administration, and Smith & Wesson deem appropriate.”

Many other companies are similarly positioned to absorb workers whose jobs are being relocated to Tennessee, said Lesser, reiterating his thoughts about this possibly being a blessing in disguise for the region and especially its precision-manufacturing base.

“I got a lot of inquiries from people all over the state who are in the private sector who are eager to expand and eager to hire people, including some very fast-growing industries like life science, biotech, and robotics,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2023 is two years away, many of the companies looking for help are on a strong growth trajectory, and still will be two years from now.

Elaborating, Lesser cited the tone set the state’s recent Manufacturing Mash-Up event in Worcester late last month, a day-long gathering of those in precision manufacturing.

“We had hundreds of companies from across the state, including a lot from Western Mass.,” he noted. “And they were all saying that they’re busier than they ever have been, business has never been better, and they’re all looking to hire people. And a lot of these companies are in really fast-moving, high-growth areas — robotics, life sciences, medical devices, clean energy.

“We have to react swiftly and make sure those 550 families are taken care of,” he went on. “But it’s also important for people to see the big picture.”

Sullivan agreed.

“I understand that not every manufacturing job can be plug-and-play,” he noted. “But right now, any company that does any kind of manufacturing work is looking to hire. I’m optimistic that everyone who chooses not to move with Smith & Wesson will be able to find a job. That won’t mean that their lives aren’t interrupted, but there are opportunities within this region for them.” v

 

George O’Brien can be reached at

[email protected]

Special Coverage Tourism & Hospitality

Taking Its Game to a New Level

Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva

Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva

John Doleva says that, when it comes to bar mitzvahs — and probably bat mitzvahs, for that matter — there has always been an informal type of competition among those young people (and their families).

“From what I understand, each bar mitzvah has to outdo the last one that your kid went to,” said Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “And we think we have the right venue to outdo that last one.”

This phenomenon is just one of many factors working in the favor of the Hall as it tries to up its game when it comes to an always-important part of the business plan but one that has never really lived up to all its promise — events. Others include location, the popularity of basketball, and the lure of being in that sport’s shrine.

The biggest of these factors, though, is the refurbished Hall itself. Indeed, as the leadership team at the shrine blueprinted a massive, far-reaching, $25 million renovation of the facility, they did so with the goal of making it a more attractive venue for everything from those bar and bat mitzvahs to weddings; from corporate meetings to memorial services.

“When we the redid the museum, we designed it first to be a great museum experience, but we also looked at every gallery, every presentation, and every interactive with the opportunity to integrate it with someone coming in and doing a corporate fundraiser, a corporate meeting, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, you name it,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a very important part of our business, and we want to see it grow.”

“You can really be different — it’s a fun environment. We can alter the lighting and do lots of different things. Rather than just the four walls of an institution, you have a special theme here.”

And while COVID-19 is certainly limiting the pace of progress when it comes to this all-important revenue stream in some obvious ways, especially with the emergence of the Delta variant, the early returns on the Hall’s status as an event venue are quite positive, and the outlook for the future — when COVID is far less of a hindrance — is quite bright.

“The facility lends itself to just about any kind of event,” Doleva said. “We’re in a great position to be ‘that place’ when we come out of all this and nonprofits need to have that all-important fundraising dinner or awards ceremony or celebration. I think the Hall of Fame is poised to be a very special place to do that.”

For this issue and its focus on tourism and hospitality, BusinessWest talked with Doleva about the Hall’s efforts to build this side of its business and how it is working to court many different kinds of event planners — literally and figuratively.

 

Points of Interest

Perhaps the best evidence of the Hall’s emergence as an event venue and its promise moving forward, Doleva said, came at the recent induction ceremonies for the class of 2021.

The actual enshrinement festivities took place at the MassMutual Center, but before that, there was a party for roughly 1,000 people at the Hall, one that became a sort of proving ground when it comes to the many steps taken to bring more events to the facilities on West Columbus Avenue.

John Doleva stands in Center Court at the Hall of Fame

John Doleva stands in Center Court at the Hall of Fame, outfitted with a new 14-by-40-foot video screen.

“We consciously forced people up into the museum rather than being in the lobby and on Center Court, where typically people would be,” he explained. “We wanted to show it off, so we expanded our food and drink offerings up into the museum, and it was a smash hit. It was so great to see everyone in the basketball community enjoying the Hall of Fame, enjoying the technology, the exhibits — just having a great time.

“We actually had a tough time getting people out of here and over to the MassMutual Center for the ceremonies — we had a couple of late buses leaving here,” he went on. “That just underscored the opportunity that we have ahead of us.”

Indeed, the game plan — yes, that’s another sports term — moving forward is to use all the facilities at the Hall, including a new Kobe Bryant exhibit and another new exhibit that enables visitors to virtually become part of TNT’s NBA broadcast crew, to attract a broad array of events.

That list of amenities includes a renovated theater, Center Court with its new 14-by-40-foot screen, the exhibits, catering from Max’s Tavern, and the full package that is now available to businesses, nonprofits, and wedding parties alike.

This is what the leadership team at the Hall had in mind as it blueprinted its renovations — a facility that would be a museum, first and foremost, but also a different kind of event venue.

“We saw the business develop with the old Hall of Fame, before our renovations,” Doleva said. “And we knew, with the redesign and the technology we had, that we could expand that business; with this iteration, it’s by design to be a function venue as well as a great sports-history museum.”

Doleva told BusinessWest that bookings have been solid over the past several months, but COVID has forced some event planners to pause and put some gatherings on hold. He mentioned a local healthcare provider that has rescheduled an event planned for this fall as one example.

Center Court at the Hall has hosted many types of events

Center Court at the Hall has hosted many types of events, including weddings, and with the recent renovations, the goal is to draw more of these receptions.

But, overall, the outlook is positive as event planners continue their quest for something new and different, even during COVID.

“I see smaller organizations wanting to bring people together, and do it in a different kind of venue that’s uplifting and exciting,” he said. “The Hall of Fame, being all brand-new, is very entertaining for people.”

That goes for wedding parties, he noted, adding that, while the Hall has hosted such receptions for years now — his niece was married there well before the renovations — there is now potential to handle more of them.

“You can really be different — it’s a fun environment,” he noted, adding that wedding parties can be, and often are, introduced in the same manner that NBA players are. “We can alter the lighting and do lots of different things. Rather than just the four walls of an institution, you have a special theme here.”

 

Net Results

It’s a theme that resonates with sports fans of all ages and especially young people, he went on, circling back to those bar mitzvahs, which the Hall is booking in ever-growing numbers.

“It’s a wonderful place to have a bar mitzvah because it’s sports-oriented, it’s very friendly for the kids, and there’s lots to do,” Doleva noted. “There’s lots of energy.”

That energy is projected to translate into more bookings, more business, and an overall improved game for what has always been part of the business plan at the Hall, but can now be a much bigger player.

 

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

Health Care

‘A Wonderful, Wonderful Fit’

 

Dr. Lynnette Watkins says she is most definitely her father’s daughter.

By that, she meant she is a second-generation ophthalmologist, following the lead set by her father, L.C. Watkins, who is one of the first African-Americans practicing in that specialty in St. Louis.

“When I say that I stand on the shoulders of giants, I don’t take that lightly, and first and foremost is my dad,” she noted. “He’s been my biggest supporter, mentor, and point of light.”

But there were other influences as well, including her mother, an educator, and, more specifically, an early-childhood-development administrator, who was one of many who taught her the importance of giving back.

“It was always expected that, with the privileges and opportunities that were afforded to me, there was an expectation to serve and to give back,” she said. “Which is why, with each position and opportunity that I’ve pursued, I’ve always had that mindset first and foremost in my mind; it’s why I wanted to have a career in healthcare.”

This is the philosophy Watkins brings to her latest assignment, as president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. 

She takes the helm at CDH after a lengthy stint as chief medical officer for the Baptist Health System/Tenet Healthcare – Texas Group, and arrives at an obviously stressful, tenuous, and uncertain time for all healthcare providers, one still dominated in every way by the COVID-19 pandemic and its latest surge.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people.”

Watkins, who arrived at the hospital on Sept. 27, brings to this challenge, and CDH, a wealth of experience. Like a growing number of those leading hospitals and healthcare systems, she has made the transition from direct patient care to managing those who provide that care. For her, it was a seismic but, in many ways, natural change.

“Many people have asked if the transition was difficult, and I’ve said that it was not,” she explained. “That’s because I found myself at peace moving from a clinical role to one that still has clinical elements, but instead of being the one-on-one patient-physician relationship, which is incredibly treasured, it’s one where I have the ability to impact multiple patients and improve the working lives of staff, medical staff, and other providers. I can make a bigger impact on a broader scale.”

She said there were many factors that went into her decision to come to CDH, summing them up with that often-used phrase “it was a perfect fit.” Elaborating, she said the area served by Cooley Dickinson, mostly Hampshire and Franklin counties, is one with a great deal of need, and she has experience working with such populations, as we’ll see.

Beyond that, she said this opportunity allows her an opportunity to take what she has learned at many different stops during her career and apply them to what will be a different — and obviously significant — challenge.

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies — as well as frontline caregivers and hospital staff — as possible.

Watkins said the learning process has continued through COVID, which she believes has brought out the very best in those working in healthcare, while also putting an even greater focus on teamwork, collaboration, and innovation.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people, resilience of systems, the importance of self-care and downtime, and the importance of working with others and understanding that it’s OK to say, ‘I need help,’” she explained. “What this has also done is challenged us to innovate, whether it’s in processes, such as supply-chain initiatives with PPE or the distribution of vaccinations and other pharmaceuticals such as monoclonal antibody infusions, or working together in groups to really take care of our community.

“That resilience, that collaboration, that innovation, that devotion to self and others have really been positive,” she went on. “The patience and working with a team have really helped me grow — as an individual, as a physician, and as a healthcare leader.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Watkins about her latest assignment, why she came to CDH, and … how being her father’s daughter will help her as she takes on this latest career challenge.

 

Background — Check

In some ways, Watkins said, coming to CDH is like coming home — or at least coming back to that part of the country where she did her residency.

Specifically, that would be Mass Eye and Ear in Boston. But she did get out to the Northampton area on several occasions during those residency years, so she’s not a total stranger to the 413.

There were several career stops between Boston and CDH, including a lengthy stint back at Mass Eye and Ear, where, from 1999 to 2004, she directed the Emergency Ophthalmology Service and walk-in clinic and was an attending physician in the Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. And Watkins said all of them have helped her grow as both a provider of care and a manager of people. And she intends to put all of that experience to work at CDH.

Our story starts in Missouri, where Watkins, as noted, became intent on following her father into the medical field and earned her undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and an internship in internal medicine at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City.

“I grew up wanting to go into medicine, and I was asked quite often if I was going to be an ophthalmologist like my father,” she recalled. “Candidly, I got tired of the question. It was through a series of rotations and the fact that I needed money for car insurance that my father said, ‘why don’t you come work for me in my office?’

“I did, and I liked it,” she went on. “I didn’t tell him for a while, but I did make that transition, and eventually declared that this was the specialty I wanted to be in.”

This decision brought her to Mass Eye and Ear in 1995 for her residency and stint at the at the walk-in clinic and Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. She was there during 9/11, a moment in time and her career that convinced her to be closer to family and, in her words, “focus more on family.”

Elaborating, she said she went into private practice in Indiana and eventually became managing partner of a multi-specialty group, one with a large geographic footprint.

The administrative leadership of that group would later put it in “a significant financial disadvantage,” as Watkins put it, adding that she was thrust into the role of interim CEO. She said she would eventually wind down the two parent companies into multiple spinoffs, which are still ongoing today, an experience she described as both challenging and rewarding, and  one that would in many ways inspire her transition into management and leadership roles.

“We were able to keep patients seen, keep people employed, and move colleagues forward so they were able to practice — it was a huge, huge learning experience,” she told BusinessWest. “I joined one of the spinoff groups, but found myself wondering why I went through that experience.

“And it was actually a couple of colleagues, neither of whom had medical backgrounds but did have healthcare-industry backgrounds, who said, ‘this happened to you for a reason; you have this knowledge — why don’t you consider leading a hospital or healthcare system and pursue healthcare administration?’”

She thought about it and talked with family members, especially her father, to get buy-in and support. After securing it, she started pursuing healthcare administrative positions.

Her first stop was at Trinity Health in South Bend, Ind., and from there she joined Tenet’s Abrazo Community Health Network in Arizona as chief medical officer.

When that position was one of many eliminated in a round of budget cuts, she used connections she’d made to land a job as chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Paris Regional Medical Center in Texas, a system that was and is surrounded by some of the poorest counties in Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. Her time there was another important learning experience.

“One of the great joys of working there was working with people who keep in mind the individual who has limited access, limited transportation, and limited resources,” she said. “And in rural facilities where often there is one specialist or one type of provider, and there is limited access, having a high level of collaboration, particularly with the medical staff and the provider staff, is very important.

“Overall, that was an incredible learning experience, understanding the intricacies of running a facility that’s technically complex,” she went on, adding that, as chief medical officer and chief operating officer, she had oversight over just about everything except nursing, finance, and HR.

 

Right Place, Right Time

The learning experiences continued at the Baptist Health System/Tenet Health Care, where that system confronted not only COVID, but the severe — and highly unusual — weather pattern that visited most of Texas near the end of February.

Some called it ‘Snowvid,’ said Watkins, adding that healthcare systems had to confront not only the pandemic, but extreme cold that knocked out power and water to many communities.

“We had COVID patients, we had no electricity, we were on generators, and we did not have water, she recalled. “Managing through all that was a challenge, although what each of these events has shown is that it has not changed why we do what we do, but it does force us to change how we do it.”

Elaborating, she said some recent developments or trends will continue for the foreseeable future, including telehealth, which she described as a game changer for both the inpatient and outpatient sides of the equation. This became evident in Texas, as well as the hospital that would become the next line on her résumé.

Watkins told BusinessWest that the position at CDH came to her attention through a recruiter, and after more talks with family and friends, she decided that managing a smaller community hospital would be an appropriate next step on her career journey.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful fit,” she said of CDH, adding that her views on the delivery of healthcare and areas of focus are in sync with those of the hospital and its staff. “First and foremost, I’m a physician, and I want to make sure that we’re delivering safe, high-quality care and that we’re great stewards of resources, whether it’s finance or personnel or capital, and that’s what Cooley Dickinson does.”

Elaborating, she said the opportunity to lead a hospital that is an affiliate of the Mass General Brigham system, formerly Partners Healthcare, was also appealing.

When she talked with BusinessWest before her arrival, Watkins said one of her first priorities is to familiarize herself with the community and meet with many different leaders and constituencies — in whatever ways COVID will allow. Which means a lot of Zoom meetings, some phone calls, and, when possible and appropriate, in-person gatherings.

“My goal is to get out there and meet the community where they are at as quickly as possible,” she said. “I think it’s also important that I meet the team; meet our front-line caregivers, staff, and providers; and understand what’s working well and where we have opportunities.”

Returning to her thoughts on the lessons learned from the pandemic, Watkins said that  managing through this crisis has enabled her to grow and mature as a leader — out of necessity.

“Physicians inherently have trouble delegating,” she told BusinessWest. “And I fully disclose that I am one of those physicians. It’s been a journey, but the pandemic has really helped me to leverage and trust the team and be a better partner, a better collaborator, and a better support.

“One of the things I work hard to do is listen and gather information before executing,” she went on. “And that’s been incredibly important during this time.”

When asked about the management style she brings to CDH, Watkins started by saying she is an optimist by nature, and she believes this is an important trait in this business.

“We have the singular privilege of being able to take care of patients and the community, whether it’s one-on-one or on a larger scale,” she explained. “And from that optimism, I assume good intentions and assume that those who chose this profession want to take care of people as well. We will have challenging conversations, and it will be important to challenge and push each other to do better and innovate, but I would like to consider myself to be collaborative, open, very much driven, direct, and someone who feels it’s important to have fun at work. That’s because this work makes for long days, and there needs to be some form of celebration, some sort of fun.”

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Putting the Pieces Together

It’s called a ‘hyper-scale data center.’ That’s the name attached to a $2.7 billion proposal planned for a 155-acre parcel in Westfield. The complicated project, now entering the local-approval phase, has cleared perhaps the biggest hurdle — the aggregation of a site that can check a unique set of boxes, including accessibility to huge amounts of power and data. If it comes to fruition — and there are still many challenges to overcome — the project could make the region a player in the emerging sector known as Big Data.

Demetrios Panteleakis

Demetrios Panteleakis

 

Demetrios Panteleakis says he spent a good part of the winter, spring, and some of the summer walking through all 150 acres of mostly raw land in the northwest corner of Westfield.

“I probably know every inch of it by now,” Panteleakis, the principal commercial broker with Springfield-based Macmillan Group, who was charged with assembling the parcel, told BusinessWest, adding that he’s been through it in every type of weather imaginable. “I think my family thought I had gotten into hiking and the outdoors.”

These walks in the woods — and wetlands — were a necessary part of a complicated process to aggregate land for what could be the largest private development the region has ever seen and one of the largest initiatives of its kind anywhere — a $2.7 billion proposal to build a massive data center (a ‘hyper-scale data center,’ as it’s called) that will attract the likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Plans call for constructing 10 buildings totaling 2.7 million square feet over the next 12 to 18 years, said Erik Bartone, CEO of Servistar Realty, the project’s developer. He told BusinessWest he hopes to obtain local approvals by the end of the year and state approvals by mid-2022, and break ground in 2023.

It’s a daring project, one that comes complete with all kinds of large numbers and adjectives (like hyper-scale) that connote size and scope affixed to everything from acreage to the projected cost of the initiative to the number of landowners with which Panteleakis and the Servistar had to negotiate.

That last number would be 11, just one indicator of the level of complexity involved with getting just this far, said Panteleakis, adding that finding a location and assembling the land are perhaps the biggest hurdle for a project that will face many of them — everything from required approvals for a tax-incentive plan to steps to protect endangered species, such as the eastern box turtle.

As for securing a site … a project of this nature and scope requires that a number of unique boxes be checked, said Panteleakis. These include the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, straight from the grid — two recently upgraded 115 kV high-transmission lines run through the center of the site — as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult.”

When all is said and done, it certainly isn’t easy to find a parcel — or parcels that can be aggregated — that can check all those boxes.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult,” Bartone said. “Access to the electric transmission grid, robust fiber communication network, sufficient land, and the ability to develop the project in an environmentally responsible manner are all very important issues that must be fully evaluated before proceeding with a particular location.”

As noted, the proposal still has many hurdles to clear, but it’s not too early to speculate on what this could mean for the city and the region.

Rick Sullivan, who can speak about the project from a number of perspectives — he’s president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, but also former mayor of Westfield and a current city councilor — said it represents an opportunity to show what the region can do for the emerging sector known as Big Data — and perhaps do more of.

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project, if it becomes reality, could open the door to new opportunities in the realm known as Big Data.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention,” he explained. “Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

Jeff Daley, president and CEO of WestMass Area Development Corp., which has been hired as a consultant on the Westfield project, agreed.

“It’s an exciting project — this is a game changer,” he said. “If we get this project across the goal line, it opens up an entire industry; we would have the potential to bring other data centers here.”

As for Panteleakis, the data-center project represents another bullet point on a résumé complete with a number of big projects with complicated logistics, something he’s becoming known for within the development industry.

Indeed, when he was not walking the Westfield property and negotiating with all those owners, he was flying to Miami to put the final touches on a massive, $1 billion project that combines residential living with transportation, retail, and office space.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention. Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

The two projects offered a number of different challenges, with COVID presenting new and different issues to contend with, he said, adding that they epitomize what has come to be one of his trademark talents — putting the many pieces together on complicated real-estate puzzles.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how this complicated Westfield project came together and how this initiative could change the landscape — in all kinds of ways.

 

Big Bytes

Panteleakis told BusinessWest that, on many of his flights to and from Florida, he didn’t have much company on the airplane.

“I was on a 747 out of Boston — because you couldn’t fly out of Bradley to Florida — that had two other people on it,” he said. “It was weird. Logan was a ghost town, Miami International was a ghost town; it was very strange.”

That was how things were as he was working on two massive projects on opposite ends of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Miami initiative was a complicated matter of putting the pieces together for a project called Virgin MiamiCentral, a nine-acre living center in the heart of the city that includes 3 million square feet of commercial, office, and retail space, capped with twin residential towers, each more than 40 stories high, sitting atop a train station and retail hub.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Meanwhile, what is now known as the Westfield data-center campus became a very complicated matter of aggregating property that could meet all those unique requirements listed earlier.

In most all cases, the land required for such projects doesn’t come in one parcel, but several of them, which means negotiations on acquiring options — as in quiet negotiations — have to take place with a number of parties simultaneously.

Panteleakis, who compared it to cutting the Gordian knot, tried to put it in perspective for BusinessWest.

“We worked with about four or five different brokers in Western Mass. who represented some of the 11 owners, which at times made things easier, but a predominance of the owners self-represented,” he explained. “And that included people who had ongoing businesses, and it was very arduous and long and, of course, highly confidential.

“It was heavy lifting,” he went on, “and to see it at this stage is very gratifying.”

Overall, it took roughly 14 months to put the parcel in place to the point where the developer could move forward, he said, adding that the site, while challenged by wetlands and environmental issues, provides the size, location, and direct access to the grid needed by Servistar and its eventual clients.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges.”

The company has a considerable amount of experience with such projects, said Bartone, adding that Servistar has been in the electricity-procurement and energy- management business for 30 years, supporting large-scale commercial and industrial clients, including data and IT service clients.

“Our firm has provided advisory services to several data-center clients, including the management and procurement of their wholesale electricity requirements,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company currently represents a hyper-scale data-center client that is looking to enter the New England market once local approvals are obtained for the Westfield project.

Elaborating, he said there are several smaller-edge data centers in New England, including in the Boston area, but there are currently no hyper-scale data centers in New England, and for several reasons.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges,” he explained. “Our firm specializes in the wholesale electricity-procurement markets along with the integration of innovative load-management strategies to proactively reduce the electricity costs for data centers and large power users. 

“This is a key cost driver for the industry and critical to making the hyper-scale data-center project feasible,” he went on. “Electricity expenditures typically represent 50% to 60% of the operating costs of a data center. Property taxes typically represent 10% to 15% of operating expenses. These two operating cost components, along with local regulatory approvals, are the primary drivers to locate hyper-scale data centers to New England.”

Bartone said Servistar reviewed numerous sites in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts before focusing on Westfield, a community that emerged in this search roughly 18 months ago.  

“We identified various parcels in the city’s industrial zones that met the requirements for the site, but the area is challenging to develop due to wetlands and endangered species, including the eastern box turtle,” he noted. “So we needed a substantial amount of land that would support the 10 data-center building development while also allowing us to minimize environmental impacts.”

Beyond meeting the energy, fiber, and property-tax requirements, the site is also centrally located between Boston, New York City, Providence, Albany, and Hartford, said Bartone, thus providing access to more than 34 million people in the Greater New York metropolitan area and New England. It is also in close proximity to the Westfield-Barnes regional airport with corporate service, only 20 miles from Bradley International Airport, and approximately 100 miles from Logan International Airport.

“Boston also has a high-tech, information-based economy that is an attractive market for corporate offices of companies locating to Westfield for their IT services,” he said, adding that this concentration of trained tech workers was still another selling point.

 

Powerful Statement

As he talked about the project and its prospects for becoming reality, Sullivan turned to the often-used analogy of getting over the goal line.

He said this project isn’t in the proverbial red zone yet, but it is certainly past midfield and making steady progress.

“There’s still a long way to go, but once they have options on the property and they’re doing work around wetlands and having discussions with the electricity suppliers, you’re past midfield, but you’re not home yet,” he explained. “I don’t think you can have a higher, better use of that property.”

Daley said the next important step is approval of what’s known as a 121A, or PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) property-tax agreement that locks in the assessed value of the property, with built-in annual increases in property-tax payments. Westfield officials have said the project would bring in $1.2 million in tax payments within three years, making the campus the largest taxpayer in the city.

A joint public hearing between the Planning Board and City Council on the proposed agreement is slated for early October, said Daley, adding that there are other approvals, on both the local and state levels, that must be secured in the coming months.

“We’re hoping to have all local permits in hand by the end of the year,” he explained. “Shortly thereafter, we’d begin work on designs and infrastructure; it would be about 18 to 24 months from go date to being operational.”

Meanwhile, speculation continues about what this project could mean for Westfield and the region. That discussion takes place on many levels, starting with immediate, tangible benefits.

That list includes 1,800 construction jobs, 1,200 indirect jobs that will result from creation of the center, and what is projected to be 400 jobs that will pay between $85,000 to $100,000 at the entry level.

“When people in economic development talk about job creation, these are the kinds of jobs that you’re looking to create,” Sullivan said. “These employees will live in our communities, they’ll invest in our communities, they’ll shop in our communities, and they’ll support the charities in our communities, as will the companies.”

There’s also the tax revenue; Servistar has negotiated a 40-year property-tax agreement with the city that is expected to produce more than $350 million in direct property-tax payments over the term of that agreement. 

Beyond these direct benefits, though, is that opportunity Sullivan and Daley mentioned for the region to not only get in the game when it comes to Big Data, but become a player in that sector, which would appear to have almost unlimited potential.

“If you look in the crystal ball, this is a sector that’s only going to grow,” Sullivan said. “And of you overlay data storage and data transmission and all the issues that are somewhat related, such as cybersecurity and other Big Data, I think there’s a real opportunity for us in Western Massachusetts to grow and in some ways lead, if you will, in this sector.

“We have out colleges, especially Bay Path and the University of Massachusetts, that are doing a lot of cutting-edge work in cybersecurity and Big Data, and others will certainly follow,” he went on. “And this will help train a workforce, which is always significant as these companies look to grow.”

As for some of those other boxes that need to be checked, Sullivan acknowledged that the cost of doing business in this state is not as low as in some other areas of the Northeast, but Western Mass. is certainly more cost-friendly that Boston and other metropolitan areas. “Developing in New England may not be the cheapest, but we’re still competitive.”

 

Bottom Line

Panteleakis — who, as noted, has been involved in large development projects in many areas of the country — said the Westfield data-center campus project represents the type of development that all regions are striving for.

“I’ve done a lot of work in Florida and Texas, and this is how they drive economic development for the 21st century in their areas; they’re focusing on new sectors and technologies,” he explained. “This project will have a tremendous impact on quality of life in Westfield and across the region. It will have a very broad impact.”

As those we spoke with noted, there are still many hurdles to overcome before this proposal becomes reality. If it can clear those obstacles, it could be transformative in many different ways.

 

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

Business of Aging

An Impactful Gift

 

Allison Vorderstrasse says the $21.5 million gift from the Marieb Foundation

Allison Vorderstrasse says the $21.5 million gift from the Marieb Foundation will allow the nursing program to move forward with its mission more rapidly.

 

Transformative.

Allison Vorderstrasse acknowledged that this is a powerful word with specific meaning; it is not, or should not be, used arbitrarily.

But when it comes to the $21.5 million donation from the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Foundation to UMass Amherst, and, more specifically, its College of Nursing — the largest single gift ever given to the school — that descriptive adjective certainly fits.

“We know that, in order to transform care, we must first transform education,” said Vorderstrasse, dean of the school of Nursing, noting that the school will now bear the name of the woman who graduated with a master’s degree from the program in 1985 and passed away in 2018. “As a center of discovery — and true to our namesake — the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing will inspire individual and collective growth as we help prepare tomorrow’s leaders and advance the field.

“This gift will support multiple areas of our mission that align so well with Elaine Marieb’s legacy,” she went on. “It will certainly allow us to move forward in those areas in a more rapid fashion than we could without it.

These areas include the university’s Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, said Vorderstrasse, adding that the gift will also impact how the school delivers its curriculum and programs, enable enhanced use of simulation, and, perhaps most importantly, put more nurses in the pipeline at a time when they are desperately needed.

“There is a demand for nurses, obviously, and for us to be able to provide a program that can facilitate nurses coming into the profession, especially here in Western Massachusetts, where we’ve seen an even more dramatic nursing shortage, is an important part of our mission.”

When asked about the gift, how it came about, and what it means for the university and its Nursing program, Vorderstrasse started by talking about the message it sends and the trust it implies, something that’s very important to her.

Elaine Marieb

“What was really exciting to me was the enthusiasm at the foundation about honoring Elaine Marieb’s legacy in this way, and the faith and the trust that they had in us as an institution and a college to really make this gift transformative,” she explained. “They truly felt that the work we were doing was innovative, exciting, and, in many ways, unique, and this meant it was a good fit with her legacy and that they would see the impact of that gift. It was very exciting to hear the degree of enthusiasm that they had for what we do.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Vorderstrasse about the many ways her program, and the university, intend to honor that trust and put this gift to work in ways that have far-reaching implications.

 

Paying It Forward

The gift from the Marieb Foundation, announced on Sept. 16, is only the latest significant donation to come to UMass in recent months.

It comes after a $50 million gift from Rob and Donna Manning aimed at increasing access and opportunity across the five-campus university system (see story on page 28), and a $170 million gift from the Morningside Foundation to UMass Medical School, further positioning the university as a leading public education institution in the nation.

Together, these donations provide growing evidence that the system and its individual programs are growing in stature and reputation and are “well-positioned to advance education, research, and access for students at scale in the Commonwealth,” said UMass President Marty Meehan in a prepared statement.

Vorderstrasse echoed those sentiments and noted that this latest gift — again, the largest ever given to UMass Amherst — creates more momentum, enthusiasm, and exposure for the school at a pivotal time in its history.

“It’s such an exciting time for the whole university to see this come in,” she said, “because it says that the foundation and others who have been good friends of the university for a long time really do feel that this is a pivotal time to support UMass.”

Meanwhile, the $21.5 million gift is only the latest of many from Marieb and the foundation she created to area schools. Previously, she had made gifts of more than $2 million for campus-wide scholarships at UMass Amherst. She and the foundation have also made several gifts to Holyoke Community College and its Center for Life Sciences, which now bears her name.

Marieb, a Northampton native, died in 2018 at age 82, and ranks among the nation’s most influential nursing educators. As noted, she earned a master’s degree from UMass Amherst’s College of Nursing in 1985 with a specialization in gerontology. Prior to that, she received a Ph.D. in zoology from the College of Natural Sciences at UMass in 1969. She also held degrees from Holyoke Community College, Fitchburg State College, Mount Holyoke College, and Westfield State College. Her distinguished career included time teaching at Springfield College and Holyoke Community College.

Ultimately, Marieb became the author or co-author of more than 10 bestselling textbooks and laboratory manuals on anatomy and physiology after she started writing textbooks to address complaints from her nursing students that the materials then available were ineffective. Her work has been read by more than 3 million nurses and healthcare professionals practicing today.

Marieb’s impact on nursing education will only become more profound with the foundation’s latest gift, said Vorderstrasse, adding that it comes after six to nine months of collaborative discussions with foundation leaders about nursing education, the UMass program, and its mission moving forward.

In many ways, the nursing engineering program, launched last January, became a catalyst for the gift. Seed-funded by other donors and friends of the School of Nursing, the initiative was conceptualized to support graduate students in their research training and experience at UMass across various disciplines, Vorderstrasse explained.

“It functions at that nexus of healthcare, engineering, and healthcare professionals, especially nurses, and the development and application of new technologies or even existing technologies — how we apply those in an ethical manner and develop them in such a way that takes into consideration patients and the people who will use them, as well as nurses who are on the front lines using these technologies.

“We hope that it will evolve into a center that collaborates not only on our campus, but with industry partners, because Massachusetts is a hub for healthcare technology,” she went on, adding that the grant from the Marieb Foundation will fund research at the center, especially new initiatives and pilot programs that need seed funding to get off the ground.

Meanwhile, the gift will be used to help expand the nursing programs and put more nurses into the pipeline, she said. Plans call for student scholarships to be expanded to improve access for underrepresented students, and to link scholarships to academic and professional success.

Elaborating, Vorderstrasse said the traditional bachelor’s-degree program graduates roughly 65 students each year and sees more than 2,000 applicants for those seats.

Expansion of that program will be incremental, perhaps eight to 10 students at a time, she told BusinessWest, adding that a program like this cannot, and should not, double in size overnight. But over a period of years, growth can be achieved that will make a significant impact in the number of nurses entering the field.

Growth is also projected for what’s known as the second-degree nursing program, for individuals who have a degree in another field and want to venture into nursing, said Vorderstrasse, adding that this program currently graduates roughly 90 students each year.

 

Bottom Line

Getting back to the word transformative, it is saved for those occasions when someone or something can bring about profound, meaningful change.

The someone in this case, Marieb, has already done so much to change the landscape when it comes to nursing education. The something is a gift, the latest of many, that will accelerate the pace of growth and progress for the Nursing program and enable more people to earn degrees there.

As Vorderstrasse said, that adjective ‘transformative’ certainly fits in this case.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

Swinging in the Rain

 

When it hasn’t been raining, Mike Fontaine notes, this has been a very solid year for the region’s golf courses.

When it hasn’t been raining, Mike Fontaine notes, this has been a very solid year for the region’s golf courses.

 

Mike Fontaine has been working in the golf business for more than three decades now. As the general manager at the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, he speaks from experience when he says this season has been unlike anything course owners and managers have seen in a long while, if ever.

The rain has been almost constant, bringing with it lost rounds, lost days, damage to fairways and greens, logistical problems when it comes to all that has been postponed, additional expense on the course-maintenance side, and … well, you get the idea.

“It’s been a challenge at best,” said Fontaine, with a heavy dose of understatement in his voice. “In all my years in golf, this weather pattern has been the toughest I’ve seen. It was probably the wettest July on record, and August brought the humidity and more rain. And with no one wanting to work and it being very difficult to find people in all departments, not just food and beverage…”

His voice tailed off, but he got his key points across: 2021 has been a struggle, in every way.

But it hasn’t been a lost year by any means. Indeed, it’s been a solid season for many golf operations, especially those that are membership-based or are mostly private but allow public play. That’s because a good number of those who took up the game, or rediscovered it, during the pandemic, when there was seemingly nothing else to do, stayed with it.

At least … when the weather would allow them to.

“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year,” said Kevin Piecuch, head pro at Country Club of Greenfield, a quasi-public operation, noting that, based on last year’s strong numbers, the bar was set fairly high for 2021. “It wasn’t quite as busy as last year, but it has still been a solid year, although the weather has certainly hurt us.”

Fontaine concurred. “When it’s not raining, we’ve been packed.”

E.J. Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, a private club in West Springfield, went further. He said that, despite the rain, which has taken five whole days from the calendar, by his count, and parts of countless others, the club is doing nearly as well as it did last year, and much better than the years immediately preceding the pandemic.

“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year.”

“We didn’t reach 2020 numbers, but we surpassed all our 2019 numbers,” he noted. “And we destroyed 2018 numbers — absolutely clobbered them.”

Like Fontaine and Piecuch, Altobello said the surge the game witnessed in 2020 appears to have staying power, manifesting itself in everything from those impressive numbers of rounds to a waiting list for membership, something this club, and most area clubs, haven’t seen in quite a while.

“We’re back to an initiation fee at the club, for the first time in 15 years or more,” he noted. “Every category is filled up. We’re still taking some social memberships and things like that, but everything else is full; we have 20 people on a waiting list trying to get in for 2022.”

The hope, of course, is that the rain subsides for the last few months of this year and courses continue to build momentum for 2022. But as everyone has seen this past summer, forecasting can be difficult.

 

Clouding the Issue

The 8th hole at Greenfield is a fairly short par 5, while the 9th is a stout par 4 of nearly 400 yards. There were times this year, though, when the former was a par 4 and the latter a par 3, because portions of those fairways were just too wet for play and adjustments had to be made, said Piecuch, who also has 30 years of experience under his belt and can say with hesitation that he’s never seen this much rain.

“We’ve had to flop some holes around and take some other steps,” he said, adding that there has been some shuffling of the schedule as well, especially with league play, which has seen a number of cancellations.

There have been adjustments like this at many area clubs over the course of the year, with the relentless rains taking their toll on courses that were soft most all of the time and waterlogged a good deal of the time.

At many courses, carts were not permitted on some days, and were only permitted on the cart paths on many others. Some holes were simply unplayable, and others had to be shortened. And those were some of the minor steps to be taken.

Indeed, following some of the many heavy downpours, especially those accompanying Hurricane Ida just before Labor Day weekend, courses had to close and dry out.

Fontaine, like others in the business, has kept careful count of the days, and rounds, lost to the weather. “It rained parts of 19 days in July, enough for us to lose revenue each one,” he said, adding that there were other days when it didn’t rain but the course was closed, at least part of the day, because it wasn’t playable.

“There was standing water on holes where we don’t have cart paths, or the cart paths were impassable, or trees came down,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, overall, the couse has held up well through it all.

Often, the rain came with heavy winds. Altobello said a rare microburst took down 17 trees on the Springfield Country Club property in late August.

The rain became more poignant, and even more of a story, because, as noted, this was supposed to be a big year for area courses, a time to build on the momentum gained last season, when, because almost everything done indoors was closed, golf saw a resurgence. It wasn’t like 1997, when Tiger Woods was fueling almost unprecedented interest in the game and new courses — like the Ledges — were conceptualized and built to capitalize on that surge.

But it was certainly, well … greener times for courses in a region that had seen some tracks close — Southwick Country Club and Hickory Ridge in Amherst, for example — and many private courses struggle to find members and actively market themselves (something rarely seen in years past) in search of more.

And while it would have been much better in a normal weather year, 2021 was decent in many respects. Those we talked with said it didn’t rain much on weekends, their most important days, and the clubs were able to salvage at least part of the most of the days when it did rain.

“On most all days, we were able to salvage half a day — play in the morning, get rained out in the afternoon, for example,” said Altobello, noting that, even at private clubs, rounds matter because they add up to cart and food and beverage revenues. “For the amount of rain we received, we did way better than we could have.”

Perhaps more important than the number of rounds recorded this year is the evidence collected that the resurgence the game saw in 2020 might have some legs.

“There’s a ton of interest — people who quit the game for years have gotten back into it,” he said, adding that this interest is across the board, young and old, men and women. “They’re still using it as a way to get out and spend time with people they like or love without being in an indoor setting.”

Piecuch agreed. He said that, as challenging as 2021 has been — and it has been a challenge — it has certainly maintained and in some ways built upon the momentum gained in 2021.

“We rely on our membership, and our membership is up 15% — it’s the highest it’s ever been,” he noted, adding that the pandemic certainly had something to do with this. “We’ve had a solid year overall, despite everything, and I think that bodes well for the future.”

 

When It Rains…

Looking ahead to next year, Fontaine said area courses will likely have considerable work to do to make sure fairways, tees, and greens are in good shape for the spring given all the rain in 2021.

“I think everyone is a little nicked up, a little banged up from all the sitting water on the fairways — when the sun comes out, that just burns the turf,” he explained. “So I’m sure most courses will be overseeding and praying for recovery; there’s going to be extra fertilizer put down and a lot of grass seed planted over the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of seed — a pandemic-fueled resurgence in the game — seems to have already taken root in this region. And it continues its growth spurt despite weather patterns that haven’t been seen in decades, if ever.

And that’s why the future of this business seems, well, sunny.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Hire Ground?

 

For months now, business owners and elected officials have pinned the region’s mounting labor woes and all those ‘help wanted’ signs on too-generous federal unemployment assistance. Now that those benefits have expired for more than 3 million Americans, we’ll soon find out just how much of a factor those benefits were. Many involved in economic development and workforce matters say the problem has much deeper roots and that it might be some time before there is a return to anything approaching normal — whatever that is.

 

Dave Gadaire says considerable thought went into the timing of the massive, statewide job fair he helped coordinate last month.

Indeed, he said the week-long virtual gathering, said to be the largest such event ever staged, was scheduled for a time when employers across every sector of the economy were struggling to fill vacancies, often to the point where it was impacting productivity, if not profits — and when large numbers of individuals would be staring down the loss of federal unemployment benefits (specifically those weekly $300 bonus checks) in less than a month.

The thinking was that the convergence of these factors would create a sense of urgency and that the foundation would be laid for some good matches between employers and job seekers at this job fair.

And while that happened, and all those involved with the job fair, from the governor on down, have declared it a success, there are certainly question marks as to just how many matches will be made and whether this event will put a dent in a labor shortage that is, by all accounts, without precedent.

In many ways, the job fair, and the uncertainty concerning the bottom-line results from it, are a microcosm of what’s happening with the job market here and elsewhere, said Gadaire, president and CEO of MassHire Holyoke Career Center. The ongoing plight of employers seeking help and the end of those federal benefits would, logically, seem to indicate that jobs are going to be filled — probably sooner than later.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation. But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

But more evidence is indicating this is not going to be the easy fix that some employers and many elected officials — people who have been pinning the ‘workforce crisis,’ as it’s called, on an over-generous federal government — thought it would be.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), told BusinessWest that data and anecdotal evidence from states that did away with the federal bonus checks months ago indicate this has not been the cure most thought it would be.

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation,” he noted. “But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

He was quick to note, however, that he has heard from some of his members that, through smaller, more-targeted job fairs and other recruiting efforts, they are seeing an uptick in the numbers of applications and hirings. Still, he said far more evidence is needed to get a real grasp of what’s happening with the labor market, let alone project what will happen over the next few quarters and beyond.

Kevin Lynn, president and CEO of MassHire Springfield Career Center, agreed. “Murky” was the word he used repeatedly to describe the future of the jobs market in this region.

“This whole thing is not new. We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.”

“It’s an incredibly murky time, because it’s all unprecedented,” he explained. “And there are so any variables. This is not a recession, it’s a healthcare crisis, and it’s been like a rollercoaster; we seem to be on a rollercoaster going down again, and that does not play well psychologically.”

Lynn went further and said that, while the problems and frustrations currently being experienced by area employers may be heightened by the pandemic and factors related to it — childcare shortages, fear of returning to the office, mass retirements, and an unwillingness to work for low wages (he and others would get into all those) — in many ways, it’s all simply a continuation of what was happening before the pandemic.

“This whole thing is not new,” he said. “We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.

“Companies were having major recruiting problems prior to COVID,” he went on. “What we’re seeing is nothing new.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several area economic-development leaders about the workforce crisis and the murkiness that surrounds just what will come next.

 

Food for Thought

Lynn told BusinessWest he was in Boston over Labor Day weekend. During his time there, he had an experience at a restaurant that was eye-opening if not frightening — a hard look at how things are for employers, especially in hospitality, and how they might — that’s might — continue to be.

“There were 15 tables there, and one woman was waiting on all 15 tables — I couldn’t believe it,” he said, using exasperation in his voice to add an exclamation point. “She was hustling, and I mean hustling. They had one woman on the tables, they had one person busing, and they had a bartender — I don’t know how many they had in the kitchen. The food was coming out, and she was hustling.”

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you. And there is no employee loyalty.”

While that situation represents an extreme, it encapsulates what many employers are facing these days — an inability to staff up in the manner they want and need, often in ways that impact service, the customer experience, and, in many cases, the bottom line.

In Western Mass. and many other regions, print shops have been working overtime filling orders for ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘We’re Hiring,’ and ‘Join Our Team’ signs. Meanwhile, other signs get far more specific, listing benefits as well as as wage scales and sign-on bonuses. Meanwhile, most restaurants in the region have cut back days of operation and closed portions of their establishments, school systems struggle to hire bus drivers, and healthcare providers tussle with one another to find nurses and other professionals.

And the fight certainly doesn’t end when the person is hired, said Nancy Creed, executive director the Springfield Regional Chamber, adding that loyalty among employees is a thing of the past, and retention is every bit as challenging as hiring.

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you,” she noted. “And there is no employee loyalty.”

The questions on the minds of everyone in business and economic development concern just when, and to what extent, the pendulum will swing back in the direction of an employers’ labor market.

And the answer is a universal ‘I don’t know … we’ll have to wait and see,’ or words to that effect.

While the massive virtual job fair didn’t provide any hard answers to what’s ahead, neither did the most recent jobs report, which was a headscratcher to most analysts; only 235,000 jobs were added in August, the lowest number since January, following expectations for three times that number.

Getting back to the job fair, it was large in every respect, said Gadaire, who broke down the numbers. The event drew more than 1,700 employers from across the state and across all sectors of the economy, and 17,264 job seekers. Over the course of week, 21,046 résumés were exchanged, and there were nearly 1.4 million virtual visits to the companies’ booths.

While those totals are all impressive, they will not ultimately define how successful this event was, he went on, because the numbers that really count concern the number of jobs to be added in the weeks and months to come.

“We felt we at least got some mass when it comes to what we were trying to do,” said Gadaire. “What we’re doing now is doing all the follow-up to find out how much of that turned into job offers and hires; we’re getting that information back from the companies now as we speak, and it looks like a pretty successful event.”

Time will tell, obviously, and there are a number of factors that will ultimately determine how much of a dent will be put in the state’s labor crisis.

Indeed, those we spoke with said the federal unemployment benefits were certainly a contributor to the deepening of the labor shortage that’s been witnessed over the past year and especially the past nine months. But it appears it’s not as big a factor as many thought, and in the meantime, there are many other factors.

Childcare, or a lack thereof, is a huge issue, said Creed, noting that many working parents — or parents who were working, especially single mothers — cannot return to the workplace without childcare, which is suffering from its own workforce crisis and other issues. Fear of COVID is another factor, she added, noting that the recent surge in cases spawned by the Delta variant will, in all likelihood, slow any kind of return to something approaching normalcy when it comes to the labor market.

“There are three large contributors — the federal stimulus, childcare, and the virus itself,” Creed said. “They all play a role to some degree within specific demographics and populations, and we just need to give it some time to play out and see what happens.”

 

Money Talks

Which leads to another question: just what constitutes normal these days?

Is normal what was seen in 2019, as described by Lynn and others? Is normal what existed a decade or more ago when unemployment was low, yet candidates were far more plentiful?

More to the point, what will be … wait for it … the new normal? And what do employers have to be thinking about as they try to navigate that new normal?

That’s a lot of questions, many of them without easy answers.

Indeed, as a result of the labor shortage of the past several months, wage inflation has become a matter to contend with, and it is one of many factors keeping matches from being made.

“Job seekers have realized that they’re in a bit of a buyer’s market right now,” Gadaire said. “They are in high demand, so they’re asking for higher wages than what most companies are offering or can offer, and that’s certainly a problem.”

Creed agreed. “Not every business can afford to pay $40 an hour,” she noted. “So when you hire someone, and they get pennies more at another company, they’re going to switch; it creates a wage competition that small businesses just can’t afford.

“A lot of these businesses already have very thin margins — so there’s not a lot of wiggle room,” she went on, adding that budget concerns are further compounded by unemployment-insurance issues, paid family leave, hiring incentives and bonuses, and more.

Also, the surge in the pandemic has brought a whole new level of concern, as some people are afraid to enter the workforce, Gadaire noted. “A few months ago, I thought that problem was going away, but now, here we are again.

“And that has the ripple effects attached to it, like childcare and transportation,” he went on. “And then there’s the very real onset of people realizing, and businesses realizing, that remote work is now not just a luxury, it’s a reality, and people are redefining how they do work.”

For some companies, he explained, especially those in hospitality or the broad service sector where workers are face to face with customers, remote work is simply not an option. But for those where it is an option … those companies should look long and hard at creating such remote-work opportunities because doing so will greatly increase the amount of talent available to them.

Creed said the companies may also need to rethink how they hire and whom they hire moving forward.

“Does that position really need a four-year degree? Can it be a two-year degree, or a certificate, or just a GED?” she asked rhetorically, while noting just one way companies may be able to widen the pool of applicants for a job. “We need to rethink our recruitment practices, which is something we’ve always talked about, but now, I think you have to start digging deep into your workforce and saying, ‘how can I adjust?’”

While companies have to be creative and innovative, so too does the region, said Sullivan, adding that a new ‘job trail,’ created by the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and supported by the EDC, is one such example.

On Sept. 8 and 15, participating businesses throughout this region put out signage and orange and blue balloons to identify the ‘trail.’ Interested applicants could visit those businesses, fill out an application, and perhaps schedule an interview (participating companies were required to have people on site to handle inquiries during designated hours).

“There’s a focus on restaurant and hospitality jobs, but we have Yankee Candle, United Personnel, Big Y, Monson Savings Bank … we’ve had a really good response,” he said. “It’s a good cross-section of jobs, and the timing of it is not incidental — we appreciate the fact that the unemployment benefits are running out.”

 

The Job at Hand

As with so much else with this evolving story, time will tell regarding how effective outreaches like the job trail have been when it comes to easing what has become a historically challenging labor market for employers.

For months, experts have speculated about why so many jobs have gone unfilled when so many people are out of work and supposedly looking for work. The federal unemployment benefits were presumed to be the main culprit, but as the weeks and months go by, it’s becoming clear that there is far more to this story. And, as Lynn and others noted, what’s going on is really a continuation, and perhaps an escalation, of what was already happening before the pandemic.

Answers to this crisis have been slow to emerge, and the hope is that, in the weeks and months to come, matters will become more clear and the pendulum will finally begin to swing back.

 

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

Berkshire County Special Coverage

Walking the Walk

Mindy Miraglia was inspired to launch Berkshire Camino by her treks in Northern Spain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided many individuals with the motivation, opportunity, and time to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. That’s certainly been the case in the Berkshires, where new ventures launched, or set to be launched, include a new brewery, a guided-hikes venture, and a treasure-hunt concept that introduces consumers to area businesses.

Like most of those people who find themselves walking the Camino de Santiago — the pilgrim trail (actually, several different trails) that end at the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela — Mindy Miraglia was at a crossroads in her life.

Indeed, after many years in advertising and market research, subsequent burnout, and some time working at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health that didn’t end well, she was trying to figure out what could — and should — come next for her.

So, like hundreds of thousands of people each year, she decided to walk the Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, to pause, reflect, and maybe, just maybe, find an answer to her question. And as she tells the story, the Camino — and, specifically, her experiences on the 250-mile trek across Northern Spain — became the answer.

Sort of. Let’s just say it’s a work or progress. Or a business in progress.

It’s called Berkshire Camino LLC, which specializes in guided hikes through the Berkshires, many of which take people from community to community and are thus patterned after what Miraglia experienced in Spain on her two treks on the Camino.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change.”

But that was not the original plan. Instead, she wanted to create hostels — the lower-cost, dorm-like hotels that are an important part of the Camino experience — in the Berkshires and thus bring a different type of accommodation for tourists to that market. But reality, in the form of skyrocketing real-estate prices, as well as a lack of capital and few options for obtaining it, has kept that dream in check — at least for now.

But Miraglia, at the advice of mentors assigned to her by the nonprofit EforAll Berkshires, has pivoted and now leads a number of guided hikes within the Berkshires through a venture that is not yet profitable but showing some forms of promise.

Overall, she can find countless ways, and phrases, to compare the rugged challenge that is the Camino to that of starting and growing a business.

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real found the inspiration, and the time, to launch Hot Plate Brewing during the first year of the pandemic.

“It’s a hero’s journey,” she said of the trek in Spain, but also entrepreneurship. “You put yourself onto that path, and you have to overcome challenges and see who you are.”

Miraglia is part of what many are calling a surge in entrepreneurship in the Berkshires, one fueled in part by the pandemic, which left many out of work and looking to start their own business. It left others wanting to leave the city and head for far more rural areas — and, again, start their own business. For still others, the pandemic triggered imaginative ideas for ways to get people out and about, and generate revenue while doing so.

Mike Dell’Aquila and his wife, Sara Real, don’t fit neatly into any of those categories, but in some ways, they encompass all three. They left their condo in Brooklyn for a home in Lenox in July, and are advancing plans to launch Hot Plate Brewing Co. in Pittsfield.

As with all breweries, there’s a story behind the name; in this case, the couple lost gas service in their condo for a period of time just as they were getting serious about transforming this from a hobby to a business. So they famously bought a hotplate so they could continue honing their craft.

There’s more to this story than the name, though, said Dell’Aquila, adding that the pandemic certainly helped provide the motivation — and the time — to take their dream, which has been, well, brewing since 2018, off the drawing board.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he and Real were both working day jobs, from home, during the pandemic. Motivated by this ‘sign’ from above, they used the extra hour and half they gained each day from not commuting, as well as Zoom technology, to advance their concept.

They are closing in on a location for their venture and plan to start brewing beer by early next year.

As for Liam Gorman, the pandemic certainly helped inspire his venture, CozQuest, which he bills as “the new way to explore the Berkshires.” It’s a local treasure hunt, as he called it, one that connects consumers and businesses “through their love of community and adventure.”

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do. We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

Using their phones, players solve a puzzle, follow a map, and find and scan a QR code to win a prize from a local business. If a player finds all the prizes, he or she can win some cash. German has created a number of these hunts, in cities and attractions such as Hancock Shaker Village and MASS MoCA, and says the business has developed a loyal following among both players and sponsoring businesses. His plan is to expand the concept and perhaps take it to other markets.

These entrepreneurs and many others are part of an emerging story in the Berkshires. It’s about people finding entrepreneurial energy during the pandemic — and finding ways to harness it.

 

It’s No Walk in the Park

As she goes about trying to grow her venture, Miraglia says there are times when she will actually tell herself that she’s “on the Camino.”

By that, she meant she’s on an arduous journey, one where you’re just trying to get to the next day and really don’t know what’s around the next bend.

“It’s hard,” she said, using that phrase to describe both the Camino and entrepreneurship, which has tested her in every way imaginable.

Indeed, while her concept has drawn interest from adventure seekers across the country and even other countries — not to mention a significant amount of press locally — there have been countless challenges to overcome. These include everything from the weather, which has canceled many hikes, to lingering anxiety about gathering in, or even walking in, large groups, to lingering anxiety about how to generate revenue in the winter months.

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children, believes he’s found a scalable venture in CozQuest.

“I’ve had to refund 15% of my deposits so far because of the weather,” said Miraglia as she referenced a spring and summer of almost incessant rain, adding that these seasons have been challenging enough; winter is a matter that will be decided another day.

Meanwhile, Dell’Aquila, while obviously confident and enthusiastic about his venture, was quite candid about his leap from a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

“It’s definitely terrifying,” he noted. “I vacillate from being super-excited to being super-scared.”

By all accounts, there are more people experiencing these mood swings in the Berkshires these days.

Deb Gallant, executive director of EforAll Berkshire, told BusinessWest that the agency, part of a larger, statewide network that also includes an office in Holyoke, staged its first accelerator program just before COVID-19 arrived in the winter of 2020; it had eight participating businesses. The agency then saw a considerable uptick in applications for the next few cohorts, at the height of COVID, and for all the reasons mentioned above.

“We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

“A lot of people were unemployed, especially those in hospitality,” she explained, noting that many large employers in that sector, such as Canyon Ranch, Kripalu, and others, shut down or curtailed operations. “We had a huge uptick in applications for the next two cohorts.”

The number of applications declined somewhat for the upcoming fall cohort, which she attributes to improved stability at many of those businesses that had shut down partially or completely during the pandemic. But the agency will still have a large cohort, said Gallant, adding there is still a good amount of entrepreneurial activity in this region, which has been reinventing itself for the past 30 years from an economy dominated by manufacturing, and especially General Electric’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, to one that is far more diverse and driven in many ways by tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Jonathan Butler, executive director of 1Berkshire, a multi-faceted economic-development agency, agreed.

From the early days of the pandemic, he noted, he could sense that, while COVID would bring a wide range of challenges to the region, it would also provide some opportunities for the Berkshires as well.

They have come in all forms, he went on, from professionals relocating to the area from urban centers, a migration certainly helped by the growing success of remote working and one that is prompting population growth in cities and towns that have needed such a surge, to an unparalleled explosion in the real-estate market, which has created opportunities and challenges of its own.

And, as noted, COVID has prompted a surge in entrepreneurship, said Butler, adding that it involves both new owners of businesses that failed during the pandemic — there were many, especially in the broad hospitality realm — and a wide range of new businesses as well, many of them fueled by an even greater interest in visiting the area and taking in many types of attractions.

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do,” he explained. “We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

 

Something’s Brewing

For Dell’Aquila, it wasn’t really a matter of whether he and Real would launch their brewery operation. The questions were when and where they would launch.

And COVID helped answer both, but especially the former, he said, adding that it provided the time and impetus to move ahead with their plans. “We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

Now, he and Real are home brewers with firm plans and, hopefully, a location. They are finalizing commitments for investing in their venture from friends and family, exploring possible incentives from local and state sources, and meeting with architects to finalize blueprints for their operation. They also have a slot in the next accelerator cohort for EforAll Berkshire, during which they hope to gain both a better understanding of the local business landscape and garner more feedback and mentoring on their plans and their brand, which they believe will be a solid addition to the local craft-beer landscape.

He said he and Real will bring what he called a “culinary approach” to brewing, with such as offerings as a chamomile-infused blonde ale and a Jalapeno pale ale, in addition to more traditional stalwarts such as Belgian-style farmhouse beers, some classic American pale ales, and an IPA.

Dell’Aquila acknowledged that the Berkshires were already home to a number of solid craft-beer labels, but there is room for more — and more, in his view, creates opportunities for both himself and others.

Indeed, with Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams, Shire Breu-Hous in Dalton, and others, the addition of Hot Plate in Pittsfield boosts the potential for what Dell’Aquila called a “beer trail” from the southern part of the county to the northern region.

“One of the things we found when we were really digging in is that there is a lot of excitement and desire for craft beer,” he explained. “And adding more options will only help; to me, density is a good thing.”

While Hot Plate is preparing to launch, CozQuest is looking to build on a solid first year and explore a number of possible growth opportunities, said Gorman, who brings a varied background to his venture. Originally in journalism, he moved to Los Angeles and ventured into television.

After relocating to the Berkshires five years ago in a search for a more stable environment in which to raise children, he became part-owner of the bar Thistle and Mirth and helped reverse its sagging fortunes. He sold his share just prior to COVID’s arrival in the region, and used some of that windfall to start CozQuest, which is in many ways inspired by geocaching, a type of global treasure hunt where seekers use GPS devices to find hidden caches.

“The engagement level has been pretty high; I like to call CozQuest a foot-traffic-building machine,” he told BusinessWest. “It brings people to places they might otherwise not have known about to discover and explore.”

German was a participant in the spring cohort of 2020, and said the experience of working with mentors and other local business owners gave him the confidence to move ahead with the concept, which is currently in what he calls phase 1, where he’s honing the concept and gauging its revenue potential.

The plan is to scale up in all ways, starting with the website, which he built himself. “It looks like someone’s first website, but … it works,” he said, adding that his ultimate goal is to take the concept to other markets.

As for Miraglia, her first 14 months in business have been a learning experience on many levels.

As noted earlier, she did a hard pivot, from hostels to guided hikes, thanks to input from mentors and what she called a “reckoning with reality” when it came to the costs and other challenges or making those hostels reality.

After pivoting and focusing on hikes, she did some proof-of-concept testing in the late summer of 2020, often giving away her product away as she did so. She found that there is promise, but likely more refinement of the business model as she gains more evidence concerning what will sell and generate profits.

Indeed, she’s learned there is considerable interest in private hikes — small groups and even one person going where they want to go and not necessarily on a pre-set course.

As she noted, there have been many challenges and hurdles for this venture. She started it too late to qualify for any PPP money, and has wound up bootstrapping the operation herself, drawing down a retirement fund to do so.

“As a for-profit venture, grant opportunities are scarce,” she said. “I joke that Joe Biden has invested in Berkshire Camino since I’ve invested the pandemic aid that I received as a citizen into the business. He’s welcome to come on a hike with us at no charge.

“My aim is to establish a solid baseline in 2021 that I can use to demonstrate to a lender or investor that this has viability,” she went on, adding that the business is not yet profitable and she is not drawing a salary. “I learned from walking the Camino de Santiago that the journey is long and you take one step at a time, stay present and flexible. Just like in business.”

 

The Finish Line

Miraglia didn’t finish the Camino on her second trek in 2019. She had completed roughly 250 of the 500 miles before she injured herself and was forced to eventually call a halt, pack up, and head home.

She remembers exactly where she had to call it quits, and has plans to go back to back there — 2024, when she turns 60, is the current goal — and finish the walk the Santiago de Compostela.

Between now and then? She has more immediate goals and dreams, especially to take the venture she started to stability and profitability. She is not at all sure she will get there — the road ahead is paved with question marks and uncertainty.

As it is for all entrepreneurs. There are more of them in the Berkshires these days, by many accounts. They’ve launched ventures that have been inspired by, accelerated by, or facilitated by the pandemic — which has provided the time and opportunity to reflect and, and in these cases, move a dream to reality.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Emerging Leader

Hospital Epidemiologist, Baystate Medical Center; Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, Department of Medicine, Baystate Health

Dr. Sarah Haessler

Dr. Sarah Haessler

She ‘Stands on a Wall Between the Community and Infectious Diseases’

Dr. Sarah Haessler has already been honored as a Healthcare Hero. Actually, a ‘Healthcare Superhero,’ to be more precise.

That was the unofficial title bestowed upon 76 fully vaccinated healthcare workers from across New England who attended the Super Bowl last February as guests of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The group flew down on the Patriots’ team plane and got to see Tom Brady win his seventh Super Bowl — and promote vaccination while they were at it.

Haessler, hospital epidemiologist at Baystate Medical Center and vice chair for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Medicine at Baystate Health, was one of three from this region to be so honored; she was joined by Baystate colleague Stephen Boyle Sr., senior director of Hospitality; and Cherie Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Mercy Medical Center.

Haessler has many memories from that day, with only some of them involving the action on the field.

“It was the quintessential American experience,” she recalled, noting that healthcare workers from across the country were recognized at the game. “It was big. Everything about it was big. The music was loud, there were fireworks for everything, there were military flyovers, the jumbo screens had the president on them … America doesn’t do anything small. This was very big and very American.”

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health. And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

Haessler said pairs of tickets to the game were made available to various hospitals, and she was chosen by officials at Baystate to attend; she’s not sure how or why.

Matters are a little more clear when it comes to her being chosen as the winner in the intensely competitive Emerging Leader category for BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes awards. She has been chosen in large part for her many efforts to prepare those at Baystate for what was coming in early 2020 and for her ongoing work throughout the pandemic to plan, educate, and help carry out all the operations of a hospital during extraordinary circumstances. But there is certainly more to the story. Indeed, COVID-19 wasn’t her first experience with a highly infectious disease, and she acknowledged, with some resignation born from experience in her voice, that it won’t be her last.

Meanwhile, she has taken on more leadership roles over the years, serving as interim chief medical officer at Baystate Noble Hospital and currently sitting on the board of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiologists of America.

Her work in her chosen field, and her status as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and beyond, is best summed up by Dr. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer, incident commander, COVID-19 Response, at Baystate Health, who nominated her for this honor.

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health,” he wrote. “And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

In a candid interview, Haessler talked about that harsh reality, her work at Baystate, her chosen career in epidemiology, and the many kinds of rewards that come with it.

 

At the Top of Her Game

When asked how she chose epidemiology as a specialty, Haessler started by saying that, during her residency at Dartmouth, she was interested — make that fascinated — by all aspects of medicine. It soon became clear to her that she needed to pick something broad that would cross all other specialties.

“When I sat down to pick one, I ultimately decided that the specialty where the cases that kept me up late or got me up early in the morning to learn more and read more and try to figure out what was wrong with this person — these puzzles — were the cases that were most interesting to me, and the most satisfying and challenging. And that was infectious disease,” she told BusinessWest.

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’ in attendance at last February’s Super Bowl in Tampa.

“I’ve never looked back — I’ve always loved it,” she went on, adding that, in this field, she does get to interact with specialists of all kinds. “It’s been an interesting career — I’ve never been bored. And the other thing about it is that it just keeps moving. I’m a high-energy person — I keep moving — so it suits me very well.”

Things were certainly moving in the latter days of 2019, said Haessler, noting that the information coming to her from hospital epidemiologists in China, and later the state of Washington, made it clear that something ominous was on the horizon.

“We saw the pandemic potential for it because it was so swift and had created a huge influx of patients in those hospitals in Wuhan,” she recalled. “It essentially overwhelmed those hospitals immediately, and the fact that China’s approach was to put the area in lockdown … that is the kind of organism, like SARS, that causes a pandemic.”

She said Baystate was ready, in large part because it had gone through this before with other infectious diseases and had learned many valuable lessons. And she was at the forefront of these efforts.

“We had been through H1N1, and then we had been through the Ebola epidemic,” she explained. “And this really created an impetus, and a framework, across the United States for preparedness for the world’s most contagious diseases.”

Because of Ebola, Baystate had created a Special Pathogens Unit to manage extremely contagious patients, said Haessler, who manages this unit and the team that operates it. And as part of that team’s work, it created protocols and procedures for how it would manage patients, took steps to ensure that there would be adequate supplies of PPE, put in place scenarios for how patients would be cared for and where, determined if, when, and under what circumstances elective surgeries would be halted, and much more.

In short, as Artenstein noted in his nomination, Haessler was the point person for preparing the medical center for what everyone could see was coming.

“Her work provided great comfort to all, knowing that we had such an expert in such a key role,” he wrote. “Her team’s magnificent work in collaboration with employee health services led to the earliest possible recognition of infectious contacts and allowed us to limit the risks for patients and staff during a time of great uncertainty and fear.”

While the past tense is being used for most of these comments, the work battling COVID is obviously ongoing, said Haessler, adding that the Delta variant brings a new and very dangerous thread to this story.

When asked about what the past 18 months has been like, personally and professionally, she said, in essence, that it’s been the culmination of all her training and hard work.

“It’s been one of biggest events that I’ve had to participate in, and while it’s been challenging, it’s also been very gratifying, because Baystate has been an incredible organization, rising to the occasion in this. I’m so proud of Baystate; I’ve never been more proud to work at this organization and to be part of the leadership team.

“The responsiveness, the focus on what was important and what remains important, has been incredible,” she went on. “It’s been a laser focus on the safety of the healthcare workers, and protecting our patients and our healthcare workers from getting and passing this disease, getting the resources we needed to enable safe management of these patients, and staying really, really focused on what’s important here has been a phenomenal experience and an opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.”

 

Passing Thoughts

Returning to Raymond James Stadium and Super Bowl LV, Haessler said she had the opportunity to meet with healthcare workers from across the country who had been, at that time, battling with COVID for roughly a year.

“It was an opportunity to meet with other people, commiserate, and just be among kindred spirits — people had been through so much,” she said, adding that, seven months later, the fight continues, and in some ways, it has escalated.

In the future, there will be other fights against infectious diseases, she said, adding that the best hospitals and healthcare systems can do is try to be prepared, because, as Artenstein noted, these threats never cease.

That, in a nutshell, is what her career has been all about. Her ability to exceed in that role and many others has made her a Healthcare Hero — and a ‘superhero’ — as well as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and her chosen field.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider

Doctor and Owner, DeCaro Total Foot Care Center

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro

This Specialist Has Helped Patients of All Ages Take Huge Strides

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro is firm of the opinion that no one actually has good feet.

Rather, experience tells him that everyone has one of 24 variations of bad feet.

“That includes high arches, low arches, no arches … people come in and they think flat feet are the only bad feet,” said DeCaro, owner of Hatfield-based DeCaro Total Foot Care Center, referencing a chart of what he calls the ‘24 Foot Structures.’ “But you can have an arch that causes not foot pain, but back pain. So often, high-arch people have back pain, but they don’t realize it’s coming from their feet.”

This chart, and DeCaro’s extensive use of it to explain problems people are having now — or might have later — is just one of many reasons why he was named the Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the always-competitive Provider category. Indeed, he has made pediatric podiatry his specific specialty, and throughout his career he has helped people of all ages, but especially children, make great strides, both figuratively and quite literally.

“To get a hug from a parent who tells me that their child is finally walking or is able to run or keep up with their friends … that’s really priceless.”

He has done this through everything from education to complex surgical procedures, to the development of new orthotic products, such as littleSTEPS, orthoses created specifically for young people and designed to improve coordination, balance, pain, posture, and strength, while aiding in the development of a more stable and functional gait.

He even makes an impact through his photography. DeCaro, who travels often with his family and through his work, photographs animals wherever he goes and winds up selling prints of some of his best shots, with the proceeds going to help families in need offset the cost of orthotics.

Thus, his work can be — and often is — described as life-changing, and that’s why he finds all facets of it, but especially his work with children, so rewarding.

Dr. Louis DeCaro, seen here with his children, Eliza and Lucas, and wife Jamie, says foot issues impact people of all ages, starting with the very young.

Dr. Louis DeCaro, seen here with his children, Eliza and Lucas, and wife Jamie, says foot issues impact people of all ages, starting with the very young.

“People often ask me why I do pediatrics,” he said. “And I tell them that one of the wonderful things I get to experience is when a child follows up who couldn’t walk, and I helped them walk; that’s got to be one of the most rewarding things in the world. To get a hug from a parent who tells me that their child is finally walking or is able to run or keep up with their friends … that’s really priceless.”

Over the years, DeCaro has received many hugs like that, and that just begins to explain why he is one of the Healthcare Heroes for 2021.

 

Positive Steps

Like many in healthcare, DeCaro said that, while he ultimately chose his specialty, in many ways, it chose him.

Relating the story of how he ventured into podiatry, he said he had just finished his junior year at Stony Brook University on Long Island and was on a path to a career in allopathic medicine when he got a letter from someone at Barry University, a podiatry school in Florida.

“I didn’t know anything about podiatry at all,” he recalled, adding that the school was impressed with his MCAT scores and offered to fly him down for a visit. He took them up on their offer and came away impressed with the school, the specialty, and the opportunities it presented.

“Podiatry seemed like a wonderful profession because I could specialize in whatever I wanted — I could do surgery if I wanted to, I could treat kids if I wanted,” he said, adding that he wound up skipping his final year at Stonybrook and getting on an airplane to attend Barry.

“It was the best decision I’ve ever made; getting into this specialty has been wonderful, “he went on. “It was an opportunity-knocks moment — and I opened the door to see what was behind it.”

Dr. Louis DeCaro photographed this bear while visiting Alaska. The image is one of many he has sold to help families pay for needed orthotics for their children.

Dr. Louis DeCaro photographed this bear while visiting Alaska. The image is one of many he has sold to help families pay for needed orthotics for their children.

To say that DeCaro has made the most of his opportunity and had a profound impact on patients and their families during his career in his chosen field would be a huge understatement. Indeed, as noted, he has been changing and improving lives in many ways — through education, treatment, and the development of new orthotic solutions, such as littleSTEPS.

DeCaro Total Foot Care Center now counts 30,000 active patients, with some of them coming from other states and the four corners of Massachusetts.

“Besides Boston Children’s, which is two hours away, there’s really no other pediatric specialist in this state for foot care,” he explained. “So we get patients all the time who travel two or three hours to see me, just because of the lack of pediatric specialists.”

He said podiatry is regarded by many as a specialty focused on the elderly and the diabetic, and while many of the practice’s patients are in those categories, foot issues impact people of all ages. And many problems of the foot develop when people are young.

DeCaro said he treats many children on the autism spectrum with sensory-processing disorders, others with neuromuscular diseases like cerebral palsy, children who are late walkers or delayed walkers with low muscle tone, athletes with injuries that start with their foot structure, kids with growing pains, and those with other ailments.

“Often, orthopedic issues, especially in the pediatric population, are caused by poor mechanics in the foot,” he explained. “And it starts with the minute we walk.”

He said he sees roughly 20 patients a day, fewer than many specialists, because he enjoys spending time not only with his younger patients, but their parents as well, because they often must be educated about their child’s condition.

Similarly, when he sees a child, he will often then examine the parents as well because, by looking at their respective foot structures, he can often gain some perspective on where that child might be headed when it comes to overall foot health. “Like hair color and eye color, foot structure is genetic,” he explained.

As noted earlier, treatment of his patients is just one of the reasons why DeCaro has become a standout in his field — he has been listed among the 150 Most Influential Podiatrists in America by Podiatry Management magazine — and why he will join seven others as Healthcare Heroes on Oct. 21 at the Log Cabin. He’s also an educator who lectures often; pens articles such as one called “Assessing the Role of Gait Analysis in Pediatric Patients with Flatfoot,” which appeared in Podiatry Today magazine; and teaches the ‘24 Foot Structures’ to many of his colleagues.

Within the 24 different foot structures there are six distinct foot types or categories — A to F — and given each names, like ‘John Wayne.’ “You actually turn your legs out and walk like a gunslinger,” he explained, adding that there are fun names for each category, and they are designed to help patients understand their feet and the treatment being given them.

He’s also an entrepreneur; in addition to littleSTEPS, he and business partner Roberta Nole have also developed the RX24 Quadrastep System, a state-of-the-art alternative to traditional custom orthotic management.

There’s also his photography — and philanthropy, by which he uses his hobby to help children and families in need.

The walls of the rooms in his office are covered with photos — his favorite is one of a puma he “met” in the rain forest of Costa Rica, although he’s also fond of a bear he photographed in Alaska — primarily his feet (paws), which are prominently on display.

When asked how he gets so close to his subjects, he quipped, “big lenses.”

 

Toeing the Line

In many ways, DeCaro has spent his career  helping patients, and especially the younger ones, understand the proverbial big picture when it comes to their feet and how they are never to be overlooked when it comes to one’s health, well-being, and quality of life.

Suffice it to say that he has made the most of that opportunity-knocks moment when he got on a plane bound for Florida and podiatry school. He found a profession that has been rewarding in every way imaginable.

But the real winners from that decision he made are his patients, who have benefited from his compassion, his desire to educate, and even his ingenuity and prowess as an entrepreneur.

His ability to change their lives has made him a Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Community Health

Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Program Director,
New North Citizens Council Inc.

Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson

He Has Made a Career of Being There for People Who Need Help, Direction

Richard Johnson has a simple and laudable philosophy when it comes to those seeking help. And it goes a long way to explaining why he’s a Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the always-competitive Community Health category.

“When people who are in need find the fortitude to step out of themselves and ask for assistance, there should be somebody to respond,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s because it takes a lot sometimes for many people to ask for help. And so, I like to make sure that, if I’m able, I can be that person to respond.”

For more than two decades now, during a lengthy career in public health, most recently as Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Program director for the New North Citizens Council Inc., Johnson has been able — and ready — to respond and provide that help, in the many forms it can take.

His title is a mouthful, and there is a lot that goes into it.

Indeed, from his office at the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center, Johnson helps those in the Mason Square area of Springfield and beyond cope with issues ranging from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases to opioid and other addictions; from sickle-cell anemia awareness to treatment for mental-health issues.

And with the arrival of COVID-19, that list has only grown, with new responsibilities including everything from securing PPE for those in need to educating residents about the importance of vaccination. In short, he and his team have been helping people live with everything else going on in their lives and COVID.

“When people who are in need find the fortitude to step out of themselves and ask for assistance, there should be somebody to respond. That’s because it takes a lot sometimes for many people to ask for help. And so, I like to make sure that, if I’m able, I can be that person to respond.”

“We wanted to provide an education for these individuals so they could limit or at least mitigate some of their risk factors for contracting COVID and other things,” he explained. “So 2020 became COVID-intense. Our focus changed; our priority was educating people on how communicable this disease was, and saying to them, ‘yes, I understand that you have addiction challenges and housing challenges, but you really need to pay attention to how to prevent contracting COVID, and then we can work on some of the other things.’”

A day in the life for Johnson takes him to the drop-in center, but also to the neighborhoods beyond for off-site presentations and testing at various facilities on subjects ranging from substance abuse to prevention of communicable diseases to overdose prevention and Narcan distribution. These sites include the Friends of the Homeless facility, Carlson Detox Center, Opportunity House, Bowen Center, and Valor Recovery Center.

Richard Johnson, center, with many of the team members staffing the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center

Richard Johnson, center, with many of the team members staffing the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center in Mason Square.

COVID has reduced the numbers of such visits, but the work goes on, he said, adding that it is highly rewarding in many respects, because through it, he is helping not only individuals but neighborhoods and the larger community become more resilient.

This has become his life’s work, and his devotion to that work, that mission, has made him a Healthcare Hero for 2021.

 

Source of Strength

As he talked with BusinessWest in the tiny lab set up in the drop-in center, near the Rebecca Johnson School, Johnson said the facility lives up to every word over the door.

It is, indeed, a drop-in center, where one can find testing, counseling, education, and help with prevention. There is a team of individuals working there, but Johnson is the leader, in every aspect of that word. Meaning, he sets a tone for the work there, one born from experience working with this constituency and trying to meet its many and diverse needs.

He first became involved in community health in 2002, when he volunteered for an agency called Northern Educational Services, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“There were a number of folks I knew who were impacted by substance use and HIV,” he explained. “So this provided an opportunity for me to be directly involved in trying to navigate them to some sort of care.”

After this stint as a volunteer, he joined Northern Educational Services as a relapse counselor, and from there, he went from relapse prevention to HIV case management, starting first as an assistant and then working his way up to senior case manager. Ultimately, he became the director of Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Services.

“Much of my work as a case manager centered on really just helping people to adjust to a new reality with regard to being diagnosed with HIV and confronting some of the stigmas associated with that,” he told BusinessWest. “I helped them understand that there are treatments that were effective, and helping them to communicate with their physican or medical provider as to what their concerns were and how their lives worked in terms of some of the stigmas associated with it and being able to talk to loved ones about their new status.

“That was really challenging for some,” he went on. “And so, case management at that time was a very hands-on thing; we made a great difference in the lives of those who were living with HIV, but equally so those who were unaware of how it was transmitted, and what prevention methods could be deployed by them, and that it was OK to have dinner with someone who was living with HIV, as opposed to some of the rumors, stories, or myths that they’d heard.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many, substance use and HIV went hand-in-hand, and efforts focused on helping people find recovery through detox and treatment facilities and helping these individuals understand that it was OK to live substance-free and face and confront some of their challenges involved with having a diagnosis that was highly stigmatized.

In 2010, he assumed that same title — director of Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Services — with the New North Citizens Council, and has been continuing that challenging but needed work to counsel those in need and help with the medical and social aspects of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and substance abuse, while connecting people with healthcare providers.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have built relationships with medical providers that lend themselves to understanding that when we have an individual, that service, that treatment, needs to be provided, and they’re willing to provide it,” he said, listing Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, and the Caring Health Center among the providers he and his team work with.

Over the years, Johnson has become involved with a number of community groups, boards, and commissions, including the Mason Square C-3 Initiative, the Massachusetts Integrated Planning Prevention Committee, Baystate Health’s Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center Community Advisory Board, the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, and the Springfield Food Policy Committee.

As noted earlier, COVID has added new layers to the work and the mission for Johnson and his team. While helping individuals and families cope with what would be considered everyday matters, there is also a once-in-a-century pandemic to contend with.

Work to distribute PPE and other needed items, from masks to hand sanitizer, socks to toothpaste, goes on, said Johnson. “We still go about daily and provide PPE to people who are on the margins and often don’t have ready access to such items.”

Critical work on vaccination goes on as well, and comes in many forms, from education to dispel myths and misinformation to getting shots in arms. He mentioned a clinic at the drop-in center the day before he talked with BusinessWest, at which nine people received their second shot and two more got their first.

“Vaccination has been a challenge because there is a lot of information out there, and not all of it is accurate,” he explained. “There’s a significant amount of resistance based on information that individuals have received, so it’s really about re-educating people and helping them achieve a level of comfort receiving new information. As great and wonderful as the internet and social media are, sometimes it doesn’t provide both sides of a story.”

 

Bottom Line

Helping individuals and families achieve a needed level of comfort with many aspects of their lives — from living with HIV to battling substance abuse — has long been the best way to describe Johnson’s work and his commitment to the community.

As we noted that at the top, he fully understands just how hard it is to seek help. And that’s why it’s been his mission to be there for those who find the strength and fortitude to take that step.

His unwavering commitment to that mission has made him a Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Cover Story

A Different Kind of Gig

For roughly two decades, Richard Swift hop scotched the country on a series of interim assignments during which he shared his considerable expertise with several different health plans. As fruitful as this niche has been for Swift, he has traded his ‘interim’ tag for something permanent at Health New England — the role of president and CEO — and at a very unique and challenging time, for him and the company.

Richard Swift says he applied for the position of interim chief financial officer at Health New England with the expectation that this assignment would be like all the other longer-term interim gigs that had dominated his résumé for the previous few decades.

To say that things haven’t turned out as he originally thought would be a huge understatement.

For starters, while he interviewed for the position at Health New England’s offices in Monarch Place in downtown Springfield and had the opportunity to meet many of those in the finance team before starting, once he was awarded the job, he wouldn’t set foot in those offices for close to six months, and only then for short, very infrequent stops.

His arrival coincided almost exactly with that of COVID, which would put him in a working environment unlike anything he was used to.

“I’m told I was the first person they remotely onboarded,” he said, adding that several days before his scheduled start date the company had begun “experimenting” with employees working remotely, experiments that went very well. “They said, ‘I guess we’ll just send you a laptop.’ They sent me a computer, the IT folks hooked me up … the first time I came into the office was in August.”

While that was a huge adjustment for him, there was an even bigger one to come later.

Indeed, he would soon lose the word ‘interim’ from his business card — only he never actually had any in the CFO role, to the best of his recollection — not only from that title, but from the one he would be given roughly a year ago — president and CEO, succeeding Marion McGowan, who would become executive vice president and chief operating officer at Baystate Health, which owns Health New England.

After roughly 20 years of taking on year-long assignments as president of Medwise Partners and flying home every weekend from wherever he was stationed to his home in Arizona, he was planting roots; he even bought one of the Classical High Condominiums. When asked why, and why at Health New England, he said, “this was the right opportunity at the right place at the right time.”

It’s certainly been a whirlwind 18 months for Swift, whose tenure has, indeed, been dominated by the pandemic in every way imaginable, from its impact on Health New England and all health plans, to how and where the 380 employees at the company get work done, to the company’s work within the community and how it has changed in some ways but not in any of the ones that matter.

In a wide-ranging interview from his office at Monarch — he’s been there for several months now, usually without much company — Swift talked about all of the above. And in so doing, he provided some keen insight into what it’s been like to manage during a period unlike anything that a business manager has seen before.

“One size is not going to fit all. And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

“We need to be sensitive to our diverse workforce and their diverse and different needs,” he said, while summing up the challenge of leading at this time. “As a leader, I need to be sensitive to these varying needs, and I need to make sure the organization is sensitive to them. One of the things this experience has taught me is the need to be adaptable — both personally, for myself, and the organization and everyone within it — and accessible.”

As for the pandemic and health plans like Health New England, he said COVID and the changes resulting from it have brought challenges in many shapes and sizes, including to the bottom line. Indeed, while 2020 saw insurers facing far fewer claims than would be considered normal, and most eventually issuing rebates to members, 2021 has seen a surge in claims, with many health plans posting losses in the second quarter.

Swift said Health New England posted losses in that quarter as well (specific numbers were not available), but it has been able to avoid layoffs and cutbacks while actually increasing its involvement in the community, financially and otherwise (more on that later).

As for where and how people work, Swift said the pandemic gave him a first-hand look at how effective employees can be when working from their home office or dining-room table.

And he is using that experience as he goes about setting policy for the company. Above all else, he said he’s learned that managers must be practical and flexible in such matters.

“One size is not going to fit all,” he noted. “And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

 

Assignment Desk

As he talked about his lengthy tenure as a consultant to a number of different health plans and life as an ‘interim,’ Swift said he thoroughly enjoyed what he considered a ‘niche,’ and a successful one at that.

“For me, it was fun to parachute in somewhere and learn new people, new things, and new places; I liked to travel — it was fun to go back and forth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his various gigs took him to all corners of the country and for assignments — usually as CFO but also CEO and COO — that varied with the health plan in question.

“Sometimes they were eight months long, sometimes they were for a couple of years,” he explained. “In some cases, people left suddenly; in other cases, it wasn’t suddenly, but they realized that they didn’t necessarily have the successor they thought they had, or they knew they didn’t have one and were going into a search process.

“Sometimes they were successful, strong health plans that just needed some expertise, and some of them were turn-arounds,” he went on. “What I brought to the table was that experience of running that business.”

Health New England was looking to tap into that experience early in 2020 when its CFO announced his retirement and a search for a successor had commenced. As noted earlier, Health New England was going to be another one of those interim assignments.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market.”

But things didn’t go according to script, starting with day one — or actually, even before day one.

Indeed, Swift was scheduled to start in April of 2020. COVID, as we all know, made its arrival in the 413 in mid-March, abruptly changing the landscape for the company and its new CFO (he quickly lost the interim tag), who wouldn’t have to get on a plane to take on his latest assignment.

He recalls that leadership at the company was going to use March 13, 2020, a Friday, as an experiment to see how effectively people worked remotely. That experiment went so well, and COVID invaded so suddenly, that workers never came back. In his case, he never arrived.

“I remember that conversation about ‘we’ll just send you a computer and you’ll work remotely,’ and how stunned I was at the time,” he recalled. “Because in 20 years of interim work, I pretty much got on a plane every week and flew out to my client. I was in my office in whatever city it was, on site. So the notion of doing all this remotely … it took me a while to wrap my head around it.”

While making these adjustments, Swift would soon have to make some others as well.

Indeed, in June, as McGowan was assuming some duties at Baystate while still serving as president and CEO at Health New England, Swift picked up some additional responsibilities for the company. And in October of last year, as McGowan moved to Baystate full time, he was asked to become CEO — again, without the ‘interim’ before the title.

When asked what he saw in Health New England that made him accept a permanent position — he had declined a few offers of that type in the past — he said it was a combination of things, including the team that was in place at Health New England and the opportunities he saw to partner with Baystate in meaningful ways.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market,” he said. “And I was really excited by those possibilities.”

 

By the Numbers

Looking back on his first 18 months with the company — and ahead to what might come next — Swift said this has obviously been a different and very challenging time for Health New England, and all health plans.

And the pandemic is just one reason why, albeit a big reason. At first, it contributed to a steep decline in claims because people were not visiting the doctor or seeking help even if they needed it. And then, it prompted a huge surge as people went back to the doctor and the emergency room, often with conditions made more serious by not seeking care through most of 2020. Meanwhile, treating COVID itself has often required lengthy and very expensive hospital stays.

“We’re certainly seeing more members having more claims and more services, and more-costly services than we did in 2019,” he said, adding that all this certainly contributed to the company’s second-quarter losses.

Richard Swift

Richard Swift

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty. So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

But mostly, the pandemic has created uncertainty and even greater difficulty forecasting into the future, which creates problems for health plans, Swift noted.

“We set rates well in advance based on what we think our costs are going to be, and we don’t really have a chance to revisit those until the next year,” he explained. “And we obviously don’t know what the services are going to be or what new technologies are going to emerge.”

Elaborating, he said that telehealth technology certainly came of age during COVID, and Health New England, like many health plans, had previously created a telehealth benefit for members.

“In all of 2019, we had something like 850 or 900 total claims for telehealth visits; over the past year, it has averaged almost 30,000 per month,” he noted, citing this as just one example of how quickly and profoundly the landscape can change and health plans can be impacted by those changes.

Vaccines are another example, he said, adding that health plans couldn’t anticipate a two-dose vaccine when they set rates for 2021 last year, and they couldn’t have anticipated a booster, or third shot, as they set rates for next year.

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty,” Swift went on. “So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

As noted earlier, the surge in claims and other factors have generated losses for some health plans in recent quarters and prompted layoffs and cutbacks as well.

Health New England has been able to avoid such cuts, he said, adding that, in the meantime, it has been able to maintain and, in many ways, increase its financial support to the community and its business community, something Swift takes great pride in.
“Even with everything going on with COVID, we’ve continued, and increased, the community support in terms of activities, foundations, grants, and actually providing PPE and hand sanitizer to people who didn’t have the wherewithal and the ability to get it themselves,” he said. “A lot of companies have turned inward, and many of them have laid people off; we made a conscious decision not to lay people off if we could at all avoid it, and fortunately, we have been able to avoid that.”

Elaborating, he said the company adjusted some of its sponsorship activity to accommodate what it would call “COVID mini grants,” roughly $300,000 worth of them that were awarded to community organizations that needed support to address their COVID-related needs.

In addition, the company created Where Health Matters grants, multi-year grants totaling $50,000 to $150,000 awarded to organizations to help offset the effects of COVID on their operations.

 

Giving the Forecast

Moving forward, Swift said the company would continue its pattern of flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions as a fall shrouded by uncertainty approaches.

As he talked with BusinessWest, he noted that he was one of very few employees in the building that day, and things would probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. Employees were slated to return, in a hybrid format, by this time, he went on, but there is now more of a wait-and-see approach than a definitive schedule.

Meanwhile, Health New England has joined a growing number of businesses, especially in the broad healthcare realm, that have made vaccination a requirement for employment, a step taken in the interest of maintaining the safety of employees and customers alike.

“One of the things we’ve said concerning our coming back to the office is that we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “The only thing we know for sure is that things are going to change.”

And with those sentiments, he summed up both the short term and what could be called the post-pandemic world — whenever that arrives. When it does, said Swift, noting that, in some respects, it is already here, it won’t look like the pre-pandemic world.

And that goes for everything from how and where employees work to how people will access healthcare.

With regard to the latter, telehealth will almost certainly continue to increase in popularity, he said, adding that while the numbers have fluctuated as the pandemic has waned and surged, the technology has gained a broad level of acceptance.

“I do think you’ll see a lot more movement to leverage the technology that’s out there and technology that’s being developed for care without having to traditionally go back and see your doctor in the office on their schedule,” he explained.

As for the office setting and what it will look like, Swift said things simply won’t go back to the way they were in 2019. Companies have learned that employees can work effectively in remote settings, and thus it only makes good business sense to allow them to continue doing so, either in a fully remote fashion or in a hybrid format now being tried by many area businesses of all sizes.

“We have some departments that, by and large, were partially remote before and will be partially, or maybe completely remote in the future,” he explained. “The work they’re doing is such that it’s fine remotely, and they’ll stay that way.

“We have not come out with any edicts that people have to be here on ‘x’ amount of days,” he went on. “Because we know that one size does not fit all and there are certain departments and functions that have very different needs than others; we came to the conclusion that an edict was as arbitrary as pre-COVID, Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, in some respects.”

And there’s a competitive aspect to creating flexibility with working conditions, he said, adding that Health New England can now hire talented individuals from outside the 413 and even outside the state because they have the ability to work remotely.

As for business strategy and long-term planning, Swift said COVID has certainly made such exercises more difficult. But companies still have to plan, he noted, adding that there must be layers of flexibility built into such plans.

“I think that COVID requires us to plan even further ahead, but be more nimble with those plans,” he explained. “Our original date for returning to the office was Sept. 1; with what’s happened over the past several weeks, we’ve pushed that back. But in the spring, we threw out that date of Sept. 1 as the one we were targeting, again with the caveat that everything is subject to change.”

 

Bottom Line

Swift told BusinessWest that, a few weeks back, his sister called him asking for recommendations on restaurants in Detroit, which she would soon be visiting.

He was able to help her, because that was one of the places he parachuted into while doing his consulting work.

That life has ended, at least temporarily, with a permanent assignment, one that is a far cry from what he thought he was originally signing up for back in March of 2020.

He was, by most accounts, the first Health New England employee to be onboarded remotely, but he certainly wasn’t the last. His first 18 months have been a learning experience on myriad levels, and in all ways it is still ongoing.

 

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

Cover Story

Fair Amount of Intrigue

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

As the calendar turns to late summer, all eyes in the region turn to the Big E in West Springfield and the much-anticipated 2021 edition of the fair. The show did not go on in 2020 due to COVID-19, a decision that impacted businesses across a number of sectors. There will be a fair this year, and the goal is to make it as normal — there’s that word again — as possible. But it will be different in some respects. Meanwhile, as COVID cases surge in other parts of the country and uncertainty about the fall grows with each passing day, the anticipation for the fair comes with a healthy dose of anxiety.

 

In a normal year — and this isn’t one, to be sure — what keeps Gene Cassidy up most at night is the weather.

Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, has been quoted many, many times over the years saying that just a few days of steady rain — especially if they come on weekends — can turn a great fair, attendance- and revenue-wise, into an average one, or worse, just like that. So even though there’s nothing he can do about the weather, he frets about it. A lot.

This year … while ‘afterthought’ might be too strong a word when it comes to the weather, it might not be, either.

Indeed, Cassidy has other matters to keep him up at night, including a pandemic that is entering a dangerous and unpredictable stage, a workforce crisis that has already forced the cancellation of a giant Ferris wheel that was scheduled for this year’s fair and may pose a real challenge for vendors and other participating businesses during the fair’s 17 days, and even concerns about whether one of the organizers of his massive car show can get into this country (he’s been given the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t recognized in the U.S.).

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure,” he noted. “And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair because the vacuum that would occur in our economy is nearly three quarters of a billion dollars, and there’s no way that anyone is going to able to replace that.”

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure. And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair.”

As the Big E enters the final countdown before it kicks off on Sept. 17, there are equal amounts of anticipation and anxiety. The former is natural given the fact that the region hasn’t gone without a fair, as it did in 2020, since World War II; Cassidy noted that advance ticket sales are “off the charts,” and running 80% higher than in 2019, which was a record-setting year for the Big E.

The fair will offer a welcome escape for all those who have spent much of the past 18 months cooped up and not doing the things they would traditionally be doing. And it will provide a much-needed boost for businesses in several sectors, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting enterprises, for those homeowners in the area who turn their backyards into parking lots, and for countless vendors who had a big hole in their schedule (actually, lots of holes) last year.

People like Sharon Berthiaume.

The Chicopee resident has been coming to the Big E with her booth, A Shopper’s Dream — which features animal-themed merchandise (mugs, ornaments, floormats, metal signs, etc.) — for 30 years now. She said the Big E is by far the biggest show on her annual slate, and one she and others sorely missed last year.

“It was a major loss, a huge disappointment last year,” she said. “We’ve been coming back for so many years, and we have a lot of regulars who come back year after year looking to see if we have anything new. I’m looking forward to being back.”

But the anxiety comes naturally as well. Indeed, the tents, ticket booths, and other facilities are going up — more slowly, in some cases, because of a lack of workers — as COVID-19 cases are spiking and as states and individual communities are pondering mask mandates, vaccination passports, and other steps.

While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other area events and gatherings that might be impacted in some way by the changing tide of the pandemic, from weddings to the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies early next month, none will be watched more closely than the Big E.

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E, but because of the pandemic and fears among some people about being in crowds, he’s not expecting to set any attendance records this year.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Cassidy told BusinessWest he watches and reads the news every day. He’s concerned by the trends regarding the virus, but buoyed by the fact that fairs of this type have been going off, mostly without hitches, across the country. And the turnouts have certainly verified a high level of pent-up demand for such events.

Overall, the sentiment within the region, and the business community, concerning the Big E and the fate of this year’s fair was perhaps best summed up Stacey Gravanis, general manager of the Sheraton Springfield.

“It’s huge … and it’s not just the business side, it’s the emotional side as well,” she said of the Big E and losing it for 2020, “because it’s been around for so many years. It’s something we’ve looked forward to every year for as long as I can remember. So we’re super happy to have it back this year, and we all have our fingers crossed right now.”

And their toes as well. That’s how important the Big E is to the region and its business community.

 

The Ride Stuff

As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming fair and ongoing planning for it, Cassidy joked about how much he and his staff had to tap their memory banks after their forced and certainly unwanted hiatus.

“It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget,” he said, noting quickly that institutional memory has certainly kicked in for the staff of 26, down from 31 — a nod to one of the many ways the pandemic has impacted the Big E.

It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget.”

And while getting the show ready for primetime, Cassidy, who also chairs the International Assoc. of Fairs and Expositions, a worldwide trade association, has been on the phone and in Zoom meetings with others from his industry. Such conversations have gone on with those in this time zone and others with institutions on the other side of the world. And the reports cover a broad spectrum.

“Australia has shut itself down again — after only nine deaths from this Delta variant,” he said. “And that’s a scary development; I think there are 24 million people in Australia, and to have that country impacted like that … it’s been devastating to their economy, and people are quite anxious there.”

Closer to home, and as noted earlier, the news has been much better.

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E, and they are among the many people happy to have the 17-day fair back on the slate.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

“At the fairs that have been produced, the crowds have not been diminished,” he said, listing successful events in Indiana, Wisconsin, and California as evidence. “At those fairs that have run, people have really returned — and in a large way; there have been a lot of attendance records set.”

At home, those off-the-charts advance ticket sales tell Cassidy that some people are interested in eliminating some contact points and avoiding the crowds at the ticket booths. But mostly, they tell him there is certainly pent-up demand for the fair.

“People are ready to get back to normal,” he said, adding, again, that the overriding goal for the staff was, and is, to make the fair as normal — as much like previous years — as possible.

But more important than normal is the safety of attendees and employees, said Cassidy, noting that a wide range of cleaning and sanitizing protocols are being put in place, and steps are being taken to try to thin crowding in some areas.

“We’ve have intentionally thinned out the grounds a little bit,” he explained. “There’s going to be roughly 10% more space on the fairgrounds as we have tried to space things out a little bit.”

Elaborating, he said there has been some attrition when it comes to food and other types of vendors, and some of the “lower performers,” as he called them, have been eliminated.

“We thought that space was more important than that commercial activity,” he explained, adding quickly, though, that the science is inexact regarding whether creating more space reduces lines and points of contact.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

When asked about what he expects for attendance this year, Cassidy said he believes last year’s record of 1.62 million is, in all likelihood, not in danger of being broken, because there are some — how many, he just doesn’t know — who will not want to be part of large crowds of people this year. He’d like to see 1.4 million, and notes that he needs 1.2 million to pay for the fair.

“My goal is simply to provide a great, healthy, family experience for the fairgoing public,” he said, adding that several factors will determine overall turnout. “Our demographic is a little bit older than in other parts of the country, and I think some people are going to be hesitant about large crowds, and I think that will have an impact on us. At the same time, if you look at some of the other events, their popularity has been very high. So I suppose it can go either way, but I think we will see some scaling back of attendance, and that’s OK.”

While crowd control is an issue, there are other concerns as well, as Cassidy, especially workforce, which will be more of a challenge for vendors than for the Big E itself, which has seen most of the regular workforce it hires come back again this year.

Indeed, he noted that work on several of the larger tents that dot the fairgrounds started earlier this year because vendors had fewer people to handle that work. This trend, coupled with cancellation of the Ferris wheel, which demands large operating crews, obviously leaves reason for concern.

However, Cassidy believes the clock, or the calendar, to be more precise, may be working in the favor of employees.

“We open on Sept. 17, and the unemployment bonus checks will cease in the first week of September,” he said. “So, hopefully, people will be wanting to get back to work.”

 

Impact Statement

While there is anticipation and some anxiety within the confines of the Big E, there’s plenty of both outside the gates as well.

As was noted earlier and in countless stories on these pages over the years, the Big E impacts the local economy, and many individual businesses, in a profound way. Gravanis tried to quantify and qualify it.

“It’s thousands of dollars in room and beverage revenue,” she said. “It’s keeping our people employed on a full-time basis. It’s seeing these people, these vendors, that we’ve worked with over the past 20 to 30 years — we missed them last year. It has both financial and impact for our staff and our local businesses.”

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E, which is seeing record numbers of advance ticket sales for the 2021 fair.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Elaborating, she said the hotel, like all others, suffered a seemingly endless string of hits last year as events were canceled, tourism came to a screeching halt, and airlines (who book crews into the hotel on a nightly basis) all but shut down. But the Big E, because of its duration and scope, was perhaps the biggest single hit of all.

Which is why having it back is so important, and also why those fingers are crossed.

“We get hundreds, if not thousands, of room nights, as well as the incremental spending in our restaurants — it’s extensive,” said Gravanis. “We sell out every weekend of the year with a combination of vendors and attendees; right now, there are very few rooms left.”

Berthiaume certainly has her fingers crossed. She told BusinessWest that the return of fairs, and especially the Big E, could not have come soon enough for vendors like her. She said the Charleston (R.I.) Seafood Festival, staged earlier this month, was the first event she’d worked in roughly 18 months, and it has been a long, rough ride since gatherings started getting canceled in March 2020.

“It was crazy last year because you couldn’t plan — life was in limbo,” she said, adding that events were postponed early in the year and there was general uncertainty about when or if they would be held. This year, there was less uncertainty, but also nothing in the calendar, for most, until very recently.

She said a good number of vendors have been forced to pack it in or take their businesses online. “I know a lot of people who have gone out of business because of this. Many had been in business, like us, for 30 years or more, and they figured, ‘what the heck, I’m not going to do this anymore — it’s too hard.’”

Like Cassidy, she senses a strong urge on the part of many people to get back to doing the things they’ve missed for the past year and half, and she cited the seafood festival as solid evidence.

“They had people waiting for two hours to get off the highway to get in — the traffic was so backed up,” Berthiaume recalled. “We hadn’t seen people like that in maybe five years.

“Everyone is ready to get out there,” she went on, with some enthusiasm in her voice. “People are just so happy to be out in public. So the Big E, based on what I’ve seen with their tickets for the concerts … everyone is ready to roll; everyone is waiting for the Big E.”

 

Fair Weathered Friends

Getting back to the weather … yes, Cassidy is still concerned about it on some levels. And why not? There has been record rainfall this summer and extreme conditions in other parts of the country and across the globe.

He’s hoping all that is in the past tense, with the same going for the very worst that this pandemic can dish out.

The weather can never be an afterthought at the Big E, but this year it is well down the big list of things that keep organizers up at night.

Indeed, this is a time of anticipation and anxiety — and for keeping those fingers crossed.

 

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

Autos Special Coverage

A Different World

Ben Sullivan says an ongoing inventory crisis

Ben Sullivan says an ongoing inventory crisis has forced dealers to place late-model vehicles under the showroom lights.

Auto dealers are used to adjusting to changing economic conditions and fluctuations with the laws of supply and demand. But in recent months, they’ve had to contend with an almost unprecedented mix of challenges — from dwindling inventory to an historic shortage of used cars. There is no real consensus on just when ‘normal’ will return, but all indications are that it won’t arrive until at least the first quarter of 2022.

As they talked about the past 18 months and what they project for the next few quarters, area auto dealers sounded similar tones and eventually came back to the same word. They are all adjusting.

To be more specific, they’re adjusting to some conditions they’ve rarely, if ever, seen before, and all at once. Things like:

• Used cars populating the showrooms. Yes, there have at times been some higher-end used models or a 1930 Model A in the showroom for effect, but now, area dealerships are showcasing cars with ‘2019’ and ‘2018’ stickers on the windshield, out of necessity — because that’s all they have.

• Lots that are half, or more than half, empty. Inventories of new cars are at levels never seen before as factories, confronting an ongoing microchip shortage, struggle, unsuccessfully, to keep up with what has been steady or even better-than-steady demand because many consumers still have money to spend, and it’s burning a hole in their collective pockets. Meanwhile, used cars are also in short supply. Most dealers report total inventory (new and used cars) to be one-quarter to one-third of what would be considered normal, with many being able to count new-car inventory using just two hands — with a few fingers left.

• Factory ordering becoming the new way of doing business.

• A complicated used-car market that is finally starting to level off in some respects. Still, cars are hard to find, dealers are going to great lengths to find them, and they must be careful not to pay too much and risk watching the market change quickly and profoundly.

• Even some workforce issues. Indeed, dealerships are not immune to the challenges facing businesses in seemingly every sector when it comes to hiring and retaining workers.

Add it all up, and it’s been a year described, alternately and by different people, as ‘interesting,’ ‘challenging,’ and ‘frustrating.’

“We went from trying to jump-start the auto industry after COVID happened — we had these great incentives and offers for customers who maybe weren’t in the market to incentivize them to buy a car — to now not even having the inventory levels to support that. It’s been a wild ride.”

“It’s an interesting world out there, that’s for sure,” said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales, noting that, over the past 18 months, dealers have had all sorts of challenges thrown at them, from the sudden standstill after COVID-19 hit to the current situation where they simply don’t have enough cars to sell.

Carla Cosenzi, president of the TommyCar Auto Group, which includes Northampton Volkswagen, Country Nissan, Country Huyndai, Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley, and Genesis of Northampton, agreed.

“We went from trying to jump-start the auto industry after COVID happened — we had these great incentives and offers for customers who maybe weren’t in the market to incentivize them to buy a car — to now not even having the inventory levels to support that,” she said. “It’s been a wild ride.”

Moving forward, the $64,000 questions concern how long this period of extreme adjustment will continue, and what things will look like when it does.

There is no real consensus on the answers, but most believe it will be well into 2022, and perhaps a year or more from now, before the dust fully settles and the lots at area dealerships start to look like they did back in early 2020, when the challenges were much different and there were … too many cars.

Mike Kuzdzal says his lot in Chicopee has historically boasted more than 400 total vehicles, new and used. Now, there are often fewer than 100 of each.

Mike Kuzdzal says his lot in Chicopee has historically boasted more than 400 total vehicles, new and used. Now, there are often fewer than 100 of each.

“I think we’re at the bottom of the curve when it comes to availability,” said Sullivan. “From now through the fourth quarter, it will start to improve, but it won’t be back up to what we would call normal historical levels until June of next year.”

Cosenzi agreed. “They’re saying that October is when we’re going to see the inventory slowly start to trickle back in,” she said, noting that ‘they’ means the manufacturers. “We’re not going to get back to the same levels by then, and the expectation is that, by mid-2022, we’ll be back to something approaching normal.”

Mike Kuzdzal, general manager of Metro Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Chicopee, concurred.

“The manufacturers are optimistic month over month that they’ll hopefully be able to ramp up production, but they just can’t keep up with current demand,” he noted. “As they make these cars and put them in an in-transit mode to us, we’re selling them before they even hit the ground.

“My hope is that, by the end of quarter one next year or the beginning of quarter two, we can get back to what we used to be,” he went on. “But the manufacturers are going to have to go double or triple time to get us there.”

 

A Different Gear

Kuzdzal told BusinessWest his dealership is one of many in the area that have placed signs on the property saying ‘we buy used cars’ — or words to that effect.

And, by and large, these signs are working, he said, noting that, just before he spoke with us, he bought a car off the street.

Such transactions, once quite rare, have become somewhat commonplace, said Kuzdzal and others we spoke with, noting, first, that COVID has yielded conditions whereby many families can do with at least one fewer car in the driveway, and, second, that prices for such vehicles have never been higher — and no one knows how long they’ll stay this high.

“Because of the pandemic and people working from home, a second or third car is not required,” Kuzdzal explained. “They’re sharing one car and saying, ‘I’m going sell my car at an all-time high and save that monthly payment, the excise tax, and insurance — and if I do go back to work, I’ll get back in the market.’”

Transactions like one he described are more than welcome, because traditional sources of used cars — everything from new-car trade-ins to rental cars — have dried up in dramatic fashion. So dealers have had to get creative.

“We’ve been acquiring a lot of vehicles from our service customers and past customers,” said Cosenzi, adding that her dealerships are now also buying essentially any car that comes off lease, where before they would cherry-pick. “We came up with a really easy five-minute trade process that has helped us generate quite a bit of used vehicle inventory.”

Overall, those signs offering to buy used cars or print, TV, and radio ads stating that ‘no one will pay more for a used car than we will’ are just part of the changed landscape in auto sales.

Carla Cosenzi (with her kids, Nico and Talia) is among many dealers expecting a return to something approaching normal by next spring.

Carla Cosenzi (with her kids, Nico and Talia) is among many dealers expecting a return to something approaching normal by next spring.

The dramatically lower volumes of inventory, used cars in the showroom, factory ordering, and essentially selling cars long before they reach the showroom, or even leave the factory, are other components of this altered state, one in which dealers say business is still solid in many respects, but altogether different.

Inventory is perhaps the biggest issue, and it has changed the landscape in all kinds of ways, the most noticeable being the lonesome lots at area car stores. The dealers aren’t used to it, and neither are local residents.

Indeed, Sullivan noted that more than a few people have asked if Balise has divested itself of the massive Chevrolet dealership on West Columbus Avenue. That Chevy store is quite visible from I-91, especially the ramp leading to the South End Bridge, which means people can see — or, in this case, not see — the rows of vans and trucks that have historically populated the south end of the property.

“Every single car that comes in is sold the day it lands there,” he said, adding that this phenomenon helps explain the bare pavement and put the inventory problem in perspective.

But not as well as some of the numbers offered by the dealers we spoke with.

“Where we normally run with 350 to 450 new cars and maybe 150 used cars, now we’re down to south of 100 of both, so we’re at a quarter of our running inventory,” Kuzdzal said.

Sullivan noted that the Balise family of dealerships includes more than a dozen makes, foreign and domestic, each one having inventory issues that have fluctuated over the past several months, with some doing better now than they were in the spring and others still struggling. He noted that, at the huge Honda store on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, there are normally 250 new cars on the lot. One day a few weeks ago, there were seven.

“It’s a situation we certainly haven’t seen, and each manufacturer will hit that low point at a different time. When Honda was out, Toyota had cars; when Toyota was out, Honda had cars. Each month, it kind of moves around, but at this point, heading into the fourth quarter, things will start to get back to what we call a more normal state.”

“It’s a situation we certainly haven’t seen, and each manufacturer will hit that low point at a different time,” he explained. “When Honda was out, Toyota had cars; when Toyota was out, Honda had cars. Each month, it kind of moves around, but at this point, heading into the fourth quarter, things will start to get back to what we call a more normal state.”

Cosenzi, who concurred with that assessment, noted that the TommyCar stable was helped initially by the fact that it traditionally keeps large volumes of inventory on its lots to offer consumers a wide selection.

“Our dealerships are usually crammed with cars,” she noted. “And that really helped us when this happened; we had a larger supply available to us when the chip shortage hit. Some dealers that only carry a one- or two-month supply ended up in trouble, while we carried a three and a half or four-month supply.”

 

Shifting Expectations

Given the shortages of microchips and other parts they’re facing, Sullivan said manufacturers, for the most part, are now only churning out the most popular, and sellable, variations of given models, and customers are adapting to this altered state.

“We’re used to carrying hundreds and hundreds of vehicles at every dealership, and customers are used to looking at 30,000 buildable combinations of a Honda Accord,” he explained. “They’ll say, ‘I want a blue one with a beige interior and this sunroof; I want this, but I don’t want that.’ The way the manufacturers have adapted through this is they’re only building the most commonly sold and fastest-churning vehicles that they have — they’re only doing certain trim levels.

“You’d think that customers would be mad,” he went on. “But they actually seem relieved. They’re saying, ‘OK, that’s the way they’re going to come in; I’ll take that one.’ Customers have been unbelievably accommodating, saying, ‘I really wanted a red one, but I guess a black one is OK.’”

Kuzdzal concurred, and noted that, in most ways, it’s easier to sell the few cars that the dealers do have on their lots.

“The consumer is coming in with his or her defenses down,” he explained. “They know it’s a tough time to get cars, and if we have it, they should buy it. If they don’t, we’ll sell it to the next person, so that makes the negotiations much easier.

“It’s never been like this,” he went on. “It’s a very comparable time to when we had the gas issue, when we spiked over $5 a gallon. But it has not slowed business down like it did then; it’s a different time, and we have to react to what’s coming our way. Inventory is at an all-time low, used cars are at an all-time high as far as value is concerned, and people are taking advantage of that.”

In addition to using that word ‘adjusting,’ all those we spoke with inevitably came back to that other word you hear and read so often these days — normal.

Some spoke of what is obviously a new normal, while others speculated on when and even if things would return to what used to be the norm.

But Sullivan spoke for everyone, and put things in their proper perspective, when he said, “I can’t wait to return to the old normal.”

Just when that will happen is anyone’s guess, but it seems certain that it can’t be a short drive from here.

 

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

Features

Moving Up to the Show

 

documentary on his one-man show, Yield of Dreams, Charlie Epstein

For the documentary on his one-man show, Yield of Dreams, Charlie Epstein visited the actual ‘field of dreams’ stadium in Iowa, a visit he said was inspirational on many levels.

Charlie Epstein joked that he has more people working for him on his one-man show — Yield of Dreams: A Financially Entertaining Experience — than he does at the financial-services company he founded, now part of Hub International.

Only … it’s no joke.

Indeed, over the past 21 months or so, Epstein, known to many as the 401k Coach, has hired comedians, directors, stage managers, animators, and more (the cast of supporters keeps growing) as he prepares to bring his show to the stage — in this case, the Northampton Arts Center — on Aug. 26 and 27.

That show, which has been delayed in some respects by COVID-19, will indulge both of Epstein’s passions — acting and financial advising, both of which he’s been doing for decades now.

The acting? That’s been a passion since childhood, and a diversion that was a big part of his life for more than a dozen years. He’s done everything from standup comedy in New York to another one-man show at the former CityStage called Solitary Confinement, in which he played seven roles.

The financial advising? That, too, has been a passion that has taken a number of forms, from books — Paychecks for Life and Save America, Save! — to a podcast to a video series.

Bringing the two worlds together has become yet another passion for Epstein, one that will put him on a live stage for the first time since he did an off-off-Broadway show just before 9/11.

After the final production of that show, he said a voice inside him told him it was time to leave the stage and move onto other things, including the books and the 401k Coach entrepreneurial endeavor.

“I’d pretty much accomplished everything I wanted to,” he recalled of his acting career. “I was done.”

Turns out, he was only done for a while. OK, a long while.

What brought him back was a desire to present his message in a new, different, and more entertaining way, and in the process, spread the message and attract new customers.

“We’re calling this a financially entertaining experience,” he said, “because the show asks the question: ‘what did you want to be when you grew up? And what happened to that promise?’ Everyone made a promise to themself growing up, only how many people kept the promise? My promise to myself was I always wanted to be an entertainer, and I kept the promise and figured out to successfully navigate living in both worlds.

“Most people are not pursuing their life’s passions — they are stuck in a job that is less than fulfilling, working for a paycheck, hoping one day they will finally get to do what they have always dreamed of.”

“Most people are not pursuing their life’s passions — they are stuck in a job that is less than fulfilling, working for a paycheck, hoping one day they will finally get to do what they have always dreamed of,” he went on. “In this show, I’ll bust your myths about money that hold you back from living the life you have always dreamed of.”

To do so, he’ll draw on some of his own real-life experiences, specifically with his acting career.

“I had basically taken three to five months off a year from 1988 to 2001,” he told BusinessWest. “And I discovered that the more time I took off from my financial business to pursue my acting and entertainment career, the more money I made every year.”

As noted, this show has been in the works for more than two years now and was inspired by a desire to return to the stage. Epstein said he met with Mike Koenig, serial entrepreneur, author, podcaster, and founder of the Superpower Accelerator, in the early fall of 2019 to discuss his plans.

“He told me that I should be like Leno and Letterman and all the great comics who have shows and hire my own comedy team to help me write these ideas that I had,” Epstein recalled, adding that, in exchange for being named producer of the show, Koenig said he would find the comedians — which he did.

“I flew out to La Jolla, California, and holed up for two days in a condo he [Koenig] has overlooking the Pacific,” Epstein went on. “I was there with three comedians, and I basically acted out all the ideas I had in my head. And with those three comedians, we crafted the outline of the one-man show. Then I went home and wrote 168 pages from October to Thanksgiving, then went back out to California in January for another two days of going over things. Then COVID hit, and we spent the next three or four months on Zoom, editing, writing, and acting things out.”

Subsequently, he has hired a director, a stage manager, a lighting designer, animators, and more to bring the show to life. He also traveled across the country for the filming of a documentary on the making of the show, created by Emmy Award winner Nick Nanton. There were location shoots in a variety of settings, including a mountaintop in California, New England, and the actual ‘field of dreams’ in Iowa, the one made famous in the movie starring Kevin Costner, a visit that Epstein said was inspirational on a number of levels.

“It’s like a shrine — it was fantastic being there,” he said, noting that he rented out for the field for two days so he and his crew could film at dusk. “I finally got to do what I always wanted to do, like James Earl Jones — walk into that cornfield like a ghost.”

Epstein, who is now spending several hours a day rehearsing, will perform Yield of Dreams: A Financially Entertaining Experience twice at the Northampton Arts Center, on Aug. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. There is no cost to attend those shows; seats can be reserved, and that aforementioned documentary can be viewed, by downloading the app at yieldof dreams.live.

After those shows … the plan is to take the show on the road, as they say.

“The goal is to go city to city, tour the country, and teach people that they, too, can achieve their dreams,” he said, adding that the timing for such a show is ideal because many people have been cooped up during COVID, thinking about the present — and the future.

“They’re thinking, ‘I’m working in a job I can’t stand for a paycheck, and I’m miserable. Why don’t I just go for my dream?” Epstein said. “That’s what this show is. It’s me living my passion and trying to be an inspiration to other people.”

 

—George O’Brien

Home Improvement

The Clock Is Ticking

 

With state financing now in place, construction is expected to begin in early 2022 on a $29.9 million project to transform the landmark Mill 8 at the historic Ludlow Mills complex into 95 mixed-income apartments for adults 55 and older and a center for supportive healthcare services, Westmass Area Development Corp. and WinnDevelopment announced.

The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development recently announced new tax credits and subsidies to support the next phase of the ambitious adaptive-reuse project, focusing on the section of the 116-year-old complex that contains the clock tower shown on the town’s seal. The Mill 8 project follows the successful transformation of Mill 10, which offers 75 units of mixed-income housing for adults 55 and older.

“There is a three to five-year wait for vacancies in the Residences at Mill 10, proving how vitally important it is to deliver additional quality apartment homes to seniors in and around Ludlow,” said Larry Curtis, president and managing partner of WinnDevelopment. “The continued support of the Baker-Polito administration was the last piece of the financing puzzle needed for us to begin the next phase of work to preserve and revive one of the town’s most treasured historic assets.”

Overseen by WinnDevelopment Senior Vice President Adam Stein and Senior Project Director Lauren Canepari, the project has received enthusiastic support from local, state, and federal officials representing Ludlow. The town has committed state and federal money for several key infrastructure improvements, including the ongoing construction of Riverside Drive and the addition of a wastewater pumping station for the area. In addition, the National Park Service has committed federal historic tax credits to the effort.

Support from the Baker-Polito administration includes federal and state low-income housing tax credits, as well as money from the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Housing Stabilization Fund, and HOME program.

“As Westmass continues its redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills, we are excited to see the long-awaited Mill 8 transformation begin. Westmass will also benefit from this as we will retain the majority of the first floor for commercial development.”

The 95 apartments to be built inside Mill 8 will cater to a wide range of incomes, offering 43 affordable units for rent at 60% of area median income (AMI), 40 market units, and 12 extremely low-income units available at 30% of AMI. The first phase of the project, the Residences at Mill 10, is 88% affordable.

“The cost of housing is one of the single greatest challenges facing our Commonwealth, and that challenge has been amplified dramatically by the pandemic,” state Sen. Eric Lesser said. “This development will be a welcome addition to Ludlow with 95 new affordable housing units. It will unlock opportunity and alleviate some pressure for housing access right here in Western Mass.”

Gov. Charlie Baker added that “projects like Mill 8 that bring mixed-unit, affordable housing to the community are an important part of the solution required to address the Commonwealth’s housing crisis, and our administration is proud to support them. Unlocking additional opportunities for community and economic development across the state will require more housing of all types in every corner of Massachusetts, and this project stands as an example of how we can continue making progress toward our goals.”

Mike Kennealy, secretary of Housing and Economic Development, argued that the Commonwealth’s housing crisis will be resolved only by the production of more housing — and through more projects like Mill 8. “Thanks to their many partners and the town of Ludlow, these new units will be specially designed for families of all incomes and with supportive services to help people stay in the community they call home.”

In addition to modern apartments, the project has partnered with WestMass Eldercare to create a 5,000-square- oot Adult Day Health Center inside the building that will provide on-site, enhanced supportive services to residents of Mill 8 and Mill 10, including nurse visits, a service coordinator, healthy-living programming, and transportation to the nearby Ludlow Senior Center.

“I am proud to see the public and private partnership between federal, state, and local government with Westmass Area Development Corp. and WinnDevelopment to breathe new life into the iconic Mill 8,” state Rep. Jake Oliveira said. “ As the project enters its next stage, I’m excited to see the clock tower mill building that adorns our town seal to finally become fully functional once again.”

The redeveloped property also will contain common area amenities, including on-site laundry facilities, on-site management, a fitness room, a resident lounge, and several outside recreation areas to serve future residents.

“Since Westmass began this project over 10 years ago, it has always been a priority to get Mill 8 redeveloped,” said Antonio Dos Santos, board chair of Westmass Area Development Corp. “This building has the marquee presence of the entire mill complex, and we are excited that the transformation of this iconic building will be getting underway soon.”

Nearly 43,000 square feet of space on the first floor of Mill 8 will be available for lease to local businesses.

“As Westmass continues its redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills, we are excited to see the long-awaited Mill 8 transformation begin. Westmass will also benefit from this as we will retain the majority of the first floor for commercial development,” said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. “As we pull together different uses in the mills complex, housing is one of the priorities, and we are excited to partner again with WinnDevelopment with the continued support of the Baker-Polito administration.”

The design and construction of Mill 8 will meet the standards of Enterprise Green Communities (EGC), an environmental certification program for affordable housing that includes milestones for water conservation, energy efficiency, healthy materials, and green operations and management.

— By George O’Brien

Autos

New World Order

Rob Pion says factory ordering has long been the norm with trucks and some SUVs

Rob Pion says factory ordering has long been the norm with trucks and some SUVs, but the wait time for some vehicles is now six months to a year.

 

When asked how many new cars he had on his lot, Rob Pion, general manager of Bob Pion Buick GMC in Chicopee, quickly said “eight.”

And he did so with a subdued voice that conveyed the frustration that he and every other auto dealer in the 413 is feeling right now regarding a situation that is clearly out of their control, but also a reality that must be confronted.

And the depth of that reality become clear when Pion paused after adding up his new-car inventory in his head and acknowledged that his number is certainly higher than some of his fellow dealers in the area.

“I guess that’s not really too bad compared to some others,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this situation is not going to get appreciably better anytime soon, especially when it comes to the trucks and large SUVs that comprise his bread and butter. Consumers don’t have a lot to choose from, so unless they want to settle, and many of them don’t, they must order what they want and wait for it to come in.

Before, you didn’t see that many factory orders — it would be the oddball unit. Now, we’re almost in a build-to-delivery stage, particularly with some of the domestics, like Ford; they’re really encouraging people to just put in their order — they know they’re making a car that the customer wants.”

Or, as the case may be with many truck models, and to borrow that famous line from the start of Casablanca, ‘wait, and wait, and wait.’

Indeed, these have become the days of factory-ordered vehicles — a trend that is a world removed from what dealers in this area are generally used to.

Yes, there have always been times when a customer would have to order and then wait for a model with a number of specific features, packages, or even a rare color. And when it comes to pickups, especially the larger models used for towing, factory ordering has long been a common practice.

But in these days when factories — dealing with shortages of not only microchips but a host of other parts — are well behind in production at a time when demand is high, factory ordering has become, well, the order of the day for many makes, especially pickups and SUVs, but also luxury models, which customers are generally more willing to wait for.

Peter Wirth says that, while Mercedes-Benz of Springfield has always handled a good number of factory-ordered vehicles

Peter Wirth says that, while Mercedes-Benz of Springfield has always handled a good number of factory-ordered vehicles, those numbers have never been higher than they are now.

“We’ve never had so many cars factory-ordered,” said Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield. “We have perhaps 50 cars at the moment that are already sold and just waiting to come in. Next month, for example, we have cars coming for inventory, and we have another 25 cars that are pre-sold.”

These factory-ordered cars are certainly helping dealers cope with inventory levels that are unprecedented, said Wirth, adding that, currently, perhaps 75% of total new-car sales are happening in this fashion.

“How many cars we have in our inventory is not a good measuring stick for us,” he went on. “It’s more a question of ‘what percentage of people who want to buy a car from us can we take care of?’ And the answer is still relatively high, as long as the customer is willing to work with us. And two things are helping us — the first is that the luxury-car buyer is generally more patient, and two, it’s been all over the media, so they’re generally used to it; they’ve heard from another brand they may have looked at, or maybe they heard it while they were trying to buy a kitchen appliance or building materials.”

Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer at Balise Motor Sales, agreed. He noted that factory ordering is becoming more prevalent, and the manufacturers are seeing some advantages to this profound change in the way things are being done — in this country, at least.

“Before, you didn’t see that many factory orders — it would be the oddball unit,” he told BusinessWest. “Now, we’re almost in a build-to-delivery stage, particularly with some of the domestics, like Ford; they’re really encouraging people to just put in their order — they know they’re making a car that the customer wants.”

Could this new way become a more permanent model for the future given what appear to be real advantages for the manufacturer and even the dealer? Sullivan acknowledged that this is a legitimate question, and that factory ordering is far more prevalent in other parts of the world, where huge showrooms and hundreds of cars on a lot are simply not practical. But he and others wondered out loud if Americans would tolerate such a process in anything but an emergency situation.

“The United States market has never operated that way,” he noted. “Ford has gone public and said they would like to move that way, so we’ll see. It will be a component of where things go, but I don’t know if it will ever completely replace what we’re used to here. Americans, once they’ve made a decision that they want to buy something, whether it’s a car or a TV … it’s a matter of immediacy.

“When you tell people you necessarily can’t get X, Y, or Z — or, if you can, you don’t know when — some people will wait, but others will say ‘I don’t need a truck right now,’” he explained. “Before, people would order vehicles, then they became trained to buy one off the lot — that Amazon-like mentality where, if I can’t have it in one day, I don’t want it, or I’ll move along.”

“I’ve had customers that have had vehicles on order for nine or 10 months for one reason or another. They haven’t been built, and they may never be built because of shortages of certain things.”

Moving forward, Sullivan said, dealers will ultimately have to be ready, willing, and able to serve customers in both ways — those who want to factory order a car and those who want to come to a lot, pick out a car, and drive it home a few days or even a few hours later.

“The way that we look at it as retailers is that we have to be adaptable enough to handle the people that want a car absolutely today, and those who want to put in an order and get it exactly how they want it and wait 12 weeks. For us, we have to be able to do both.”

Wirth concurred, noting that the current trends represent a minor shift from the way things were for his brand. Indeed, he said maybe two-thirds of those looking to buy a car wouldn’t drive home with something already on the lot. Instead, they would want something close, and the dealership would try to find it through its “pipleline” — a sister store in New Jersey or other dealerships in the Northeast.

Now, with inventories low everywhere, finding the car in the desired color and with all the preferred options and packages is becoming far more difficult. So the preferred route is now factory-ordering one and waiting for it.

Generally, the wait is a few months, but for some trucks, it can be half a year or more, said Pion, demonstrating that, even with factory ordering, there are limitations and challenges — for the dealer and the consumer.

“I’ve had customers that have had vehicles on order for nine or 10 months for one reason or another,” he told BusinessWest. “They haven’t been built, and they may never be built because of shortages of certain things.

“The problem you run into when you get to trucks is they get so granular,” he went on. “It could be as simple as ‘I want this wheel,’ and they just don’t have that wheel available. A simple option here or there makes a vehicle unbuildable.”

In this climate, some consumers are settling for somewhat less than everything they want, while others are not. “Some say, ‘it doesn’t matter if it takes a year or a year and a half for the truck to come in; I want what I want,’” Pion explained, adding that, in such cases, a new model year may arrive before the order is filled, and a 2021 model becomes a 2022.

 

—George O’Brien

Cannabis

A Front-row Seat

Bruce Stebbins remembers the time during his tenure on the Massachusetts Gaming Commission when that body was essentially subleasing some of its space on Federal Street in Boston to the recently formed Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), charged with overseeing an industry then — and in most all ways still — in its infancy.

While the two entities had separate quarters, the commissions and their staffs would cross paths often, he said, adding that there were lively discussions and some sharing of ideas between the two very different worlds.

“I was regularly running into my counterparts on their commission and staff while waiting for the elevator,” he recalled. “We actually had a lot of staff from our team having a lot of conversations with staff from their team, in part out of convenience — they were on the same floor. There was a lot of information going back and forth on the staff level … and it was the introduction of that new industry that was really exciting for me.”

Little could he have known at that time, but Stebbins, a former Western Mass. resident known to many in this region for his work with a host of economic-development-related agencies, would soon be on the front lines of that new industry.

Bruce Stebbins

Bruce Stebbins

“We have 267 cannabis establishments open in Massachusetts, most of them on the retail side. Unlike gaming, which had a limited number of licenses, there are no limits on the number of cannabis licenses; it’s an interesting structure because there’s been an effort to create opportunities for a local entrepreneur as well as larger operators who have significant experience in other states.”

Indeed, he would eventually trade his seat on the gaming board for one on the Cannabis Control Commission. And that puts him in a unique position.

Indeed, he’s able to talk firsthand (as no one else can, because no one else has sat on both commissions) about these two huge additions to the state’s landscape — and its business community. And he did just that in a lengthy interview with BusinessWest, during which he did a little comparing and contrasting of the two industries. But mostly he talked about his latest assignment, how it came about, and what he projects for a cannabis industry that is already having a profound impact on the state — nearly $2 billion in sales since the first retail establishments opened in 2018 — and, especially, individual cities and towns.

He said the industries are similar in that they are bringing millions of dollars in tax revenue to the state and adding thousands of jobs as well, but also different in some ways. There are only three casinos, obviously, while there are now nearly 300 cannabis-related operations doing business in the state. The casinos are owned and operated by huge international corporations, while the cannabis ventures come in all sizes, from huge, multi-state operations to smaller entrepreneurial enterprises.

And while the resort casinos have changed the landscape in Springfield, Everett, and Plainfield, the cannabis industry is reshaping dozens of smaller communities and bringing new life to idle real estate across the state (more on that later).

Named to the board in January, Stebbins said he’s still learning about the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts, and there is much to learn.

His education involves venturing out and seeing various operations in person, he said, and also listening to a large and intriguing mix of activists, stakeholders, physicians, parents, and those who have been in the industry, including some who have come to Massachusetts from other states that had legalized cannabis earlier, such as Colorado and Washington.

Overall, while it’s difficult to say how large and impactful the cannabis industry can become in the Bay State, he said there are essentially “no limits” on either the number of licenses or the bearing of this sector on the economy or individual cities and towns.

“We have 267 cannabis establishments open in Massachusetts, most of them on the retail side,” he noted. “Unlike gaming, which had a limited number of licenses, there are no limits on the number of cannabis licenses; it’s an interesting structure because there’s been an effort to create opportunities for a local entrepreneur as well as larger operators who have significant experience in other states.”

For this issue and its focus on the cannabis industry, BusinessWest talked with Stebbins about what he can see from his front-row seat, what he’s learning, and what he projects for an industry that is off to a fast start and shows no signs of slowing down.

 

On a Roll

When asked about how he wound up trading his seat on one commission for the other, Stebbins started by talking about the positions that became available on the CCC and his decision to apply for one of them.

Key to that decision is the why. As with the Gaming Commission, he was drawn to this board — and the cannabis industry — because of its broad implications for economic development within the Commonwealth.

“Part of my passion has been fueled by the opportunity to work with this new industry coming into Massachusetts,” he noted. “Similar to my interest in the gaming work that I did, I was looking for the economic-development aspects of this [cannabis] industry, whether it’s investment, jobs, small-business opportunity … I certainly saw that both gaming and the introduction of the cannabis industry was going to offer those opportunities. That’s where my passion lay with gaming, and it’s where it lies with cannabis as well.”

Surveying the scene in the Commonwealth, he said cannabis has come a long way in a short time in Massachusetts.

“I was impressed with the work of the commission and the staff … from the time the ballot question passed to the statute to opening the first retail, it was about two years; that’s very aggressive,” he said, adding that the industry is still ascending, with no real indication of just how high it can go.

“Right now, a big part of the agenda of our meetings is looking at renewals, final licenses for applicants, and also a healthy number of provisional-license applications that are coming through the door,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a slowing down of activity when it comes to people pursuing a license and people taking the final steps to opening their doors.”

Elaborating, he said there are a number of ways to measure the impact of this industry, with the number of licenses and the volume of sales being only a few of them.

Others include the positive impact on the real-estate market, with cannabis operations bringing a number of idle or underutilized properties — from retail storefronts to former paper and textile mills — back to productive life, with the promise of more at venues that include the massive former JCPenney property at the Eastfield Mall.

“Being from Western Mass., being from Springfield, and knowing Holyoke, I think one of the obvious returns has been investment in brick and mortar, whether it’s been an old mill building as a cultivation-and-grow facility to some of the new retail facilities that you see popping up,” Stebbins said. “There have been many healthy examples of how this has led to increased investment in communities that might have been struggling with underutilized properties that weren’t helping out the tax rolls.”

He cited examples of such dynamic reuse in Holyoke, Sturbridge, Southbridge, and several other communities, while noting that behind each of those walls are jobs that didn’t exist three years ago.

One of the industry’s best qualities, he went on, is the opportunities it offers to different constituencies, when it comes to both jobs and entrepreneurship — within the industry and supporting it as well.

“The cannabis statute obviously wanted to a heavy emphasis on hiring those who were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” he explained. “We are in the middle of our application phase for our social-equity program, which gives individuals from those neighborhoods an opportunity to explore being an entrepreneur in this industry, looking at a management track, looking at an entry-level job track, as well as ancillary business; maybe you don’t want to actually be a cannabis retailer, but you might be an electrician, and what job opportunities and business opportunities are out there because of this industry?”

Stebbins acknowledged there are certainly some barriers to entering this industry, especially when it comes to capital and access to it, and he lauded the CCC and the Legislature for efforts to create loan funds — some of them from revenues generated by the industry — and other programs to ease access and remove some of those barriers.

“Some great work has been done, and we’re not taking our eye off the focus of making sure those opportunities are available for social-equity applicants,” he said.

These qualities separate the cannabis industry from gaming in some respects, he went on, adding that, while both have created jobs, the cannabis sector has created more opportunities in more regions and in more cities and towns — and also more types of opportunities.

“Cannabis has created a wide variety of jobs — testing jobs, cultivation jobs, retail jobs, product-manufacturing jobs,” he said. “And there’s also the fact that the industry has the ability to take root across the Commonwealth and not just in specific regions or specific, identified communities.”

 

Joint Ventures

Reflecting on the past several years, Stebbins said he’s had a remarkable opportunity — one that has placed him on the front lines in the development and maturation of not just one new industry within the Commonwealth, but two of them.

It’s been a rewarding experience — and a learning experience — on many levels, he said, adding quickly that he has a great deal of energy and passion when it comes to finding solutions and helping new businesses grow, reach their full potential, and be successful.

That’s true of both sectors, but especially his latest assignment — a cannabis sector that has certainly taken root, both literally and figuratively, but will inevitably suffer growing pains. u

 

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

Cover Story

The Road Ahead

In late May, after 15 months of living through a global pandemic, the state entered into a phrase the governor called “a new normal.” A few months later, most businesspeople would say this ‘normal’ isn’t everything they expected or wanted. Indeed, while business has picked up in many sectors, from hospitality to healthcare, there are myriad challenges facing the business community, from what can only be called a workforce crisis to shortages of goods and rising prices; from a new and very potent strain of the coronavirus to issues with when and how to bring employees back to the office. To get a sense of where things are and, especially, where we may be headed, BusinessWest convened a panel of area business leaders — Deborah Bitsoli, president of Mercy Medical Center; Harry Dumay, president of Elms College; Patrick Leary, a partner with MP CPAs; Elizabeth Paquette, president of Rock Valley Tool in Easthampton; Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank; and Edison Yee, a principal of the Bean Restaurant Group. Their answers to a series of questions on the economy and the forces shaping it are certainly eye-opening.

 

BusinessWest: How is the process of returning to ‘normal’ proceeding at your business?

 

Bitsoli: “It does appear that patients are coming back; our Emergency Department is really returning back to the volumes it had before the pandemic. On the surgical side, the same thing is occurring. I do think there is a lot of caution about the fall, but for the time being, patients are seeking the appropriate level of care, including a lot of the screenings they put off. That’s the good news in terms of a public-health policy standpoint. At the hospital, we’re still wearing masks, and we’re still relying heavily on Webex; we have some meetings face to face, but we still have masks on. As for returning to normal, we continue to have a focus on patient safety, and we have an expansion planned in our Emergency Department. Overall, we are trying to return to normal, but everyone is looking to the fall, and there is caution there. The one big difficulty is hiring staff.”

 

Dumay: “At the college, ‘normal’ for us would mean getting back to the high-touch, nurturing, vibrant, in-person environment for teaching and learning. Returning to normal means having everyone on campus in the same mode we had pre-pandemic. The process for preparing for that is the same as we had last year, with the ElmsSafe Plan for making sure that employees and students are safe. That begins with a level of vaccination that we need to accomplish. That’s why we came out very early and required vaccinations for our students and employees. The challenges are to ensure that we’re getting to that level of vaccination that the state considers optimal for campuses, which is roughly 90%. We are gearing up for the fall, to have full in-person learning and all of our faculty and staff on campus. We have a task force that is meeting on a regular basis to come up with all the elements of the ElmsSafe plan so that we can make sure our campus is safe and as back to ‘normal’ as possible.”

 

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

“For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before.”

 

Leary: “We have found that our biggest challenge to returning to normal is a big investment in software. When we all went remote in March of 2020, we found the flaws in our system, we found out where we were falling down and where our system couldn’t handle the stress of people working remotely, etc. So we had a big investment in software across the board — we’ve replaced really all of our systems, so we met the challenge of not only keeping up with workload, but having people keep up with workload while also learning new software. The other challenge involves getting back to the office; being a CPA, we can work from just about anywhere — I can be in my office, or I can be sitting in the Caribbean, which, unfortunately, is not what I’m doing now. This presents us with a lot of challenges. We have a very young workforce — half our staff is 30 or younger — so they’re very much tuned into the social aspects of being in the office and like being in the office, which is great. Our greatest challenge is going to be how we incorporate our client-service work with the protocols of each of our clients; each one presents its own unique circumstances — our staff can’t be stagnant and say ‘this is how we’re going to do things.’

 

Paquette: “We’re a machine shop that manufactures parts for aerospace, defense, sports, and leisure, blow-mold and extrusion. When everything hit in the spring of 2020, we were getting letters from larger customers saying ‘you can’t shut down — you have to stay working.” So we were very busy, but at the same time, we had seven of our 43 employees leave for one reason or another due to COVID, so we had this intense workload, and we had to scrounge and fill the gaps in our workforce. And then, in mid-June, our largest aerospace customer said, ‘we don’t have anything to send anymore,’ and by the end of the summer, we had laid off a total of 13. Now, with things a little more normalized, we’ve been able to bring back some of those we had to lay off. So when we talk about returning to normal, we’re just trying to work our way through this crisis and keep people’s mental health in mind and … just keep working.”

 

Senecal: “Overall, I don’t know if ‘normal’ is the right word at this point — it certainly is a new normal. We’re going back to a hybrid method for our workforce — we’re going to allow people to work from home as well as work in our building. I’m a firm believer in culture, and I’m a firm believer in some sort of work in the office. The challenges with that hybrid workforce include dealing with office space — that’s going to affect a lot of our customers — and technology needs; how do we adapt to technology, and how do we use technology? One of the biggest ones is communicating expectations when you go to a hybrid model — how do you communicate with people expectations of what is expected of them, for meetings, for hours worked, for a lot of things? How do you evaluate good performance from a remote-workforce perspective? Those are all a challenge. Also, getting people comfortable with and without facemasks — we’re going back to work in this new normal, and people aren’t sure of the expectations when it comes to facemasks. It’s challenging getting people comfortable in those settings.

 

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, it’s a new normal as well. Outdoor dining is very much prevalent, but customers are starting to return to the dining rooms. And while they are beginning to feel more comfortable doing so, not everyone has made that transition — although a lot of them have. Our late-night business has not come back yet, but we feel that might change as time progresses. But to be frank, it was a messy way to get into COVID, and coming out of it has been messy as well, with lots of disruption in supply chain, with labor shortages, and other issues. We’re adjusting, as we always do, in the restaurant business, with much more takeout business as part of our overall sales, and with using technology to help us smooth out the rough edges from not having enough frontline workers.”

 

BusinessWest: How has this year been business-wise, and what is your forecast for the rest of this year?

 

Bitsoli: “Business is almost back to normal, but it will very interesting to see what happens in the fall when we hit flu season and everyone goes back into the office. And we still have a large number of people who haven’t been vaccinated. Directionally, we’re moving back to normal, but everyone is looking to see what happens when we migrate back inside. Internally, while the volumes of business have returned, people are tired because of the duration of this and the expectation of what’s going to happen in the fall. So we’re investing a lot of resources right now in things like a Zen room, spot yoga, massage chairs … so that is a new normal for us in terms of something we’re going to need to continue on with until we come to the end of this pandemic.”

 

Dumay: “For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before. For continuing-education students, those who come to us from community colleges, that’s a population that often doesn’t enroll until the last minute, so we’re still watching that, but it looks a little softer than it had been previously. And graduate-school enrollment is very much looking to be a record year in terms of enrollment. One area where students and families may still be hesitating is a return to residential living.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, we like to compare numbers to 2019, our last ‘normal’ year. And for quarter one, it was lower, when you’re looking at year-over-year numbers. It wasn’t until the vaccinations reached the general population that things started improving; in the second quarter, the sales have bounced back to a much higher level, better than 2019. We anticipate that this trend will continue.

 

Edison Yee

Edison Yee

“We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels.”

 

Paquette: “While we had lost work in aerospace, we’ve started to see some of it comes back. For us, workload is good and steady, and we project that this will continue through the rest of the year. The workload is good for the number of people we have.”

 

Senecal: “In the past 18 months, our deposits are through the roof. We are up more than 35% in a little over a year. And the balances are not going down. As we talk about demand and this influx of demand and a surge in spending, I’m not seeing it from people’s deposit accounts — those numbers are not going down. We’re up over a little more than $1 billion over the past 18 months in deposits. That’s a function of a lot of things — PPP money, stimulus money, people not going out and spending. We have an enormous amount of money in the system, and the government continues to put money into the economy. That adjusts to inflation, and that’s showing up everywhere in our economy — food, transportation, supplies, inventory, computer chips … it’s showing up everywhere, and I think it’s going to have an impact. We see good times ahead as long as inflation can be kept in check and interest rates stay relatively low.”

 

Leary: “The need for our services greatly increased in 2020 because of the PPP program and other initiatives and trying to help clients understand the rules, what qualifies for forgiveness, and so on. There was great demand for our services, and it’s continued into this year. As for our customers … most of them are doing OK post-pandemic, but I’m concerned that the federal money that these businesses have received is masking how they are doing financially. And as demand starts to grow, will these businesses be able to find the staffing to supply the products and provide the services?

 

BusinessWest: That’s a good segue to the next question. Attracting and retaining workers has become the dominant challenge for 2021. How has your business been impacted?

 

Yee: “There is virtually no one applying for jobs, and the people we do have working are tired from working extended hours, so we’re trying to give them breaks by closing an extra day during the week or sometimes two, which we’ve never done in the past. But we’ve found that’s one of the only ways we can deal with this labor shortage — giving people some extra time for that work-life balance.

 

Senecal: “I received a résumé the other day from a headhunter for a position we were looking to fill … the person was very well-qualified and has all the right skill sets. But in big, bold letters on the résumé, it said this person is only interested in working remotely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen on that on a résumé before, but it’s an indication of the world to come.”

 

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

“I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits.”

 

Leary: “We’re seeing the same thing many of our customers are seeing. As tax laws change and accounting rules change, we have a great demand for people, and it’s not for entry-level people, but more experienced people. And it’s very challenging to find them. But what we’ve found is that, because of the ability to work remotely, instead of searching for someone and saying, ‘we want you to work in our Springfield office or our Connecticut office,’ we can say, ‘you can work anywhere in the country — we have the ability to let you work wherever you want.’”

 

Dumay: “I haven’t looked at the comparisons closely, but it certainly seems, anecdotally, that we have more open positions than we normally have. For some, we’re seeing good pools of candidates, and for others, the pools are not as strong as we would like. So in many ways, we’re like everyone else. There is a higher level of vacancy at the college, and for many positions, the pool of applicants is simply not as robust.”

 

Bitsoli: “From a business standpoint, the thing that’s very different for us and most all businesses is the staffing. It really is different. There are people who retired early, people who decided to change career paths … so we’re dealing with quite a few staffing challenges, like everyone else. One of the things I’ve heard anecdotally is that, because of the incentives being offered by the state, for people at a lower level, like dietary, housekeeping, nurse aides, and other positions, it’s almost better for them financially to stay at home than it is to work. I’ve also heard anecdotally that there’s a group of people that are gathering resilience over the summer, and they plan on coming back after Labor Day.”

 

BusinessWest: What are the forces — workforce, inflation, inventory, COVID, and more — that will determine where the local economy goes?

 

Senecal: “I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check. Businesses are opening and growing, and with the levels of demand we’re seeing, that’s a good problem to have. And I think things will start to open up from a supply-chain perspective. We talked a little about unemployment benefits ending in September; let’s see if that pushes people back to work and brings the labor situation closer to normal. Overall, as long as COVID stays under control and we don’t go back to shutdowns — such shutdowns are devastating for the economy — I feel very positive about the fourth quarter and going into 2022.”

 

Dumay: “I second that optimism and emphasize the ‘as long as’ comment regarding COVID. The only thing that is sobering or bringing caution to my optimism is the slowdown in the rate of vaccination across the country, especially in areas of the country where it’s very low. Also, with the CDC looking at potential mask mandates and people getting alarmed about another surge … that could slow down what is looking to be an optimistic time and an opportunity to really get back to normal.”

 

Yee: “We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels. We’re really positive about what’s to come, but there are many challenges that could slow things down moving forward, like labor shortages, inflation, and supply-chain disruptions … those are all major concerns. We’re eager for everyone to get to normal so we can see a higher level of business than we have and, we hope the pent-up demand generates business across the area.”

 

Bitsoli: “People are looking for optimism, and I think as long as the economy holds out, and if we can get more people vaccinated, things should continue to improve. With the new variants out there are certainly concerns, and there are questions about whether the vaccines are going to continue to keep people healthy even when they’re exposed to the variants and keep them out of the hospitals and from getting severe complications.”

 

Deborah Bitsoli

Deborah Bitsoli

“As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big.”

 

Paquette: “It’s really business as usual for us now. Our biggest concern is trying to hire people who are skilled — which means we’re like everyone else. But we’re seeing a lot of people who are interested in growing their skill set, and that, to me, is a positive; I’ve never had as many people enrolled in school and training programs as we do now. We’re rebuilding, we’re in a good space, and we’re growing. It feels much different than a year ago.”

 

Elizabeth Paquette

Elizabeth Paquette

“I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them where they’re at.”

 

Leary: “I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits. But as we heard, deposits are way up, which means people have money to spend; they have disposable income. So I think people will start to spend as they get out and feel more comfortable going to restaurants or getting on an airplane. I see that continuing for the next year or so, but who knows after that what will happen? We need to have supplies free up, and we need to push for everyone to get vaccinated.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, what have you learned during this pandemic, and how has this made you a different and perhaps better leader?

 

Bitsoili: “As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about t the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big. Also, I knew this before, but now I really know it: you really have to lead from the heart because employees want to feel the empathy and the caring from leadership. Lastly, it’s visibility and the ability to connect with people on their turf and really be able to listen to issues and immediately follow up with resolution. These are all things I knew, but this pandemic has caused me to reflect and overemphasize the need to do those things.”

 

Dumay: “I realized the importance of connecting with the people with whom I work, the faculty and staff at Elms College, and be present and pay attention to what people are experiencing and have that be relevant to my decision making. Also, I’ve learned the importance of giving people some answers, even if they don’t have the complete answer. There was a lot of uncertainty during the past year, and people were looking for the leaders of organizations to provide some answers. For someone who likes to completely process things and share them when they’re finalized, I had to learn to provide answers that are sometimes incomplete and need to be finalized. That was important to me.”

 

Leary: “One thing that I learned is that each person is very unique with regard to what their circumstances are — they might be a single parent with high-school children, or they may have a newborn … there are so many factors, and we can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy. We have to be flexible when it comes to work-life balance.”

 

Paquette: “I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them we’re they’re at. Everything was remote to me outside the shop, but in the shop, it just seemed important that people had someone that they could look to make them feel better. We definitely improved our transparency with employees to let them know where we were at. It was probably so scary to see so many people laid off, some by choice, but some by our choice. I held meetings with people just so they would know what was going on and that they had as much information as I had in that moment. And the response was pretty good. Most people stayed, and they kept at it at a time when it was hard to keep at it.”

 

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

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Doing the Math

 

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession to “trying to sail a ship while you’re building that ship.”

For accountants, the past 18 months have been a time of change, challenge, and adapting to everything from new ways of doing business to new responsibilities with clients to ever-changing tax laws. Looking forward, they note that many of these changes are permanent in nature.

It’s been called the ‘never-ending tax season.’

That’s just one of the many colorful ways those in the accounting sector have chosen to describe the past 18 months or so, a time of change, challenge, learning, and adapting — for them and for their clients.

Indeed, this time of COVID-19 has been marked by everything from changing tax laws to fluid filing deadlines; from new responsibilities, such as helping clients handle PPP and SBA loan paperwork, to changes when it comes to where and how work gets done; from a greater reliance on technology to the acceleration of a shift in accounting toward a more advisory role as opposed to merely adding up numbers.

Summing it all up, Joseph Bova, CPA, CVA, CGMA, a partner with Northampton-based Bova Harrington & Associates, said navigating all this has been “like trying to sail a ship while you’re building the ship.”

Nick Lapier, CPA, a partner with West Springfield-based LaPier Dillon, used phraseology from sports (sort of), but more from politics.

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts.”

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts,” he said, referring to the many changes in tax laws — some coming in the middle of tax season — and moving of filing deadlines. “For some people who filed their tax returns early, we then found ourselves amending those returns because they changed some of the rules. And some we didn’t file because we hoped they would change the rules.

“The end zone kept moving,” he went on. “We’d be on the 10-yard line, work really hard, and still be on the 10-yard line. There are 50 sovereign states that have the right to tax, so if you have clients filing tax returns in multiple states, each state was also possibly changing their laws and moving the goalposts.”

As the calendar turns to August, those we spoke with said this has been a time for many at area firms to catch their breath and take some of the vacation days they didn’t take last year or earlier this year. It’s also a time to reflect on what has transpired and what likely lies ahead in terms of the lessons learned and which of the changes seen over the past year and half are more permanent than temporary in nature.

Nick Lapier

Nick Lapier says a taxing period for all accountants was exacerbated by the federal and state governments constantly “moving the goalposts.”

Julie Quink, CPA, CFE, managing partner of West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., said her firm, like most others, is not simply turning back the clock to late 2019 when it comes to returning to something approaching normal, especially when it comes to how and where business is conducted. She said most employees have returned to the office, but moving forward, there will be even more flexibility when it comes to schedules and working remotely because of what’s been learned over the past 18 months.

“We’re not going to dial back to everyone needing to be here those static hours of 8:30 to 5,” she noted. “I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

Meanwhile, Lapier told BusinessWest that many accountants, himself included, spent far less time meeting face-to-face with clients in 2020 and early 2021, and he expects that trend to continue.

“This current generation lives in the digital world; they don’t need to see people — they transact their personal and their business life electronically,” he explained. “What has changed because of COVID is that all the prior generations have adopted that same mentality — not 100%, but a heck of a lot more than before the pandemic.”

Howard Cheney, CPA, MST, a partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. and director of the firm’s Audit and Accounting Services, agreed, while noting, as others did, that the pandemic in many ways accelerated a trend within the industry toward accountants shifting to roles that are more advisory in nature, with a greater focus on the future than the numbers from the past quarter or two.

“I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

“Accounting has for many years been an historical-look-back kind of thing,” said Cheney, part of an executive committee now managing the firm. “With the speed that people can now get data, they don’t need us to tell them about what happened six months ago; they need us to tell them what’s going to happen six months from now and help them interpret that.”

For this issue and its focus on accounting and tax planning, BusinessWest talked with several CPAs about the never-ending tax season, which still hasn’t ended — many are still dealing with a large number of extensions, many of them resulting from changing tax laws — and what will come next in a sector that has been taxed (yes, that’s an industry term) by this pandemic, and in all kinds of ways.

 

A Taxing Time

Chris Nadeau, CMA, CPA, CVA said he spent most of the past April — the height of tax season — in Florida. And hardly any of his clients knew he was working and handling their needs from more than 1,000 miles away.

Julie Quink

Among the many lessons learned from COVID, Julie Quink says, is the need for more flexibility in when and where people work.

“No one would have known unless I told them,” said Nadeau, a director with Hartford-based Whittlesey, which has offices locally in Holyoke, adding that he would never have considered such a working arrangement prior to the pandemic, but COVID provided ample proof that a CPA doesn’t have to share an area with a client to get the work done.

This anecdote speaks volumes about just how profoundly the landscape has changed in the accounting and tax-planning world over the past year and a half. There have been a number of seismic shifts, and where people work is just one of them, said Nadeau, who has come to his office on Bobala Road in Holyoke only a few times since St. Patrick’s Day of 2020 and was in on this day only to meet with BusinessWest.

Others we spoke with told of similar learning experiences during what has been a year and a half of acting and reacting to everything that has been thrown at them since those days in mid-March of last year when everyone — well, almost everyone — packed up and went home for what they thought would be a few weeks.

As everyone knows, that certainly wasn’t the case, and thus accountants, like all those in business, had to adjust to a new playing field, finding new and sometimes better ways to do things and communicate with clients and fellow team members alike.

“We had to reinvent our processes — how we communicated with the team and how we shared information back and forth, especially when working remotely,” said Lapier of those early days, noting that a three-month extension of the traditional April 15 filing deadline helped spread the work out and was a saving grace.

Bova agreed, noting that his firm of nine employees adjusted to the new landscape out of necessity, with investments in technology, a move to a paperless work process, Zoom meetings between employees and with clients, visits by appointment only, and other steps.

Moving forward, many of these new ways of doing things will continue, with perhaps the biggest being where people work. Indeed, most of the firms we spoke with said some variation of hybrid schedules will become the norm for at least some employees .

“In the future, there will be more hybrid work models, where people work in the office, but they do some work at home — I can see some real potential for that,” said Bova, adding that not all workers have returned to the office, and he’s not sure when they will. “We’re going to explore our options with this; there’s no need to deal with it in the summer — it will be more of a fall issue.”

Howard Cheney says the pandemic

Howard Cheney says the pandemic may have accelerated, or amplified, a shift within accounting to an advisory role, with more emphasis on the future than the past.

Cheney agreed. “We’ve been really flexible as a business with not requiring people to come back just yet,” he said, adding that most at the company have returned to their offices in the PeoplesBank building, but some are still working remotely. “The likelihood is that some kind of hybrid work schedule will be the future for our business.”

Whittlesey recently adopted a hybrid work policy, one that enables people to work “from wherever they will be most efficient,” said Nadeau, adding that most are finding it more efficient to work remotely, and they will continue to do so in the future.

“Some people are not coming in at all, and some are coming in a day or two a week,” he explained. “It’s ‘work where you need to for that day.’ Some employees have actually moved away to another state during COVID, so you could definitely call them ‘remote.’ And it’s been pretty seamless — and flawless.”

And this shift brings a number of benefits for the company, including a possible reduction of its physical footprint, he said, adding that it is likely that the firm will be able to downsize in Holyoke. “At some point down the road, we’ll see what kind of space we’ll need.”

It also means more and better opportunities to recruit top talent to the company because such employees will be able to work from anywhere, including another state, as Nadeau did earlier this year.

“It’s incredibly challenging to recruit people — I think there are fewer accounting students graduating now, and a lot of the people who do graduate end up going to Boston or New York to work for the Big Four firms,” he explained. “So having a remote-work or hybrid-work policy is an added benefit that we can offer, and one that firms are probably going to have to offer if they want to attract top talent.”

As for interaction and communication with clients, while all those we spoke with said face-to-face is still the preferred option, COVID has shown that Zoom and even the telephone work well — and, as with working arrangements, when it comes to interacting with clients, flexibility is the new watchword.

“As we’re talking with our clients, we’re seeing a combination of the two, in-person meetings and those by Zoom and phone — some want meetings in person, and other times, a Zoom meeting or phone call is sufficient,” said Nadeau, noting, as others did, a significant time savings from not physically traveling to see clients, so those at the firm are able to do more with the hours in the day.

Cheney agreed, to some extent, but noted there will always be plenty of room for, and need for, in-person service to clients.

“You don’t want to lose sight of that personal-touch aspect,” he told BusinessWest. “You don’t want to do everything remotely — I don’t think clients want to do everything remotely. But they’re OK with some level [of remote interaction] because we’ve gotten used to it, and they see the efficiency, too.”

 

Crunching the Numbers

As he tried to put all the changes to tax laws — and changes to the changes — into perspective, Joe Bova recalled the communication he received from the U.S. Small Business Administration concerning PPP loans that came with the header “Interim Final Rules.”

This oxymoron was just one of many challenging measures and changes that CPAs had to make sense of over the past 18 months, a time that Bova described as “a shooting gallery.”

“What’s been different during these past two seasons is that tax-law changes have been happening during tax season,” he told BusinessWest. “And when the PPP loans first came out … the SBA and the Treasury were updating their websites almost daily, and there was a lot of ambiguity in the definitions. We [accountants] were kind of on the front lines because people were calling us, even the banks.

“We all had the same information, which wasn’t clear, so people were calling us to help them interpret these changes,” he went on. “You were in the water on the boat, but you were still building the boat.”

In addition to coping with new legislation and changing rules, there was simply more work to do, said those we spoke with.

“Our workload has gone up probably a good 20% without adding a single client,” said Lapier, listing PPP applications, forgiveness, and audit work, as well as helping companies with SBA loans and the unemployment-tax credit as just some of the additional assignments.

Indeed, on top of all that, there was simply more consulting work to do as companies, especially smaller ones, leaned on their accountants as perhaps never before to help them make what were often very difficult decisions during truly unprecedented times.

Now, with the pandemic easing in some respects, the nature of some of this advisory work is changing, said Quink, noting that many business owners are now able to focus more on the future instead of being consumed by the present.

“We’re seeing a lot of clients that are buying and selling businesses, which is a good sign,” she noted. “And overall, people are starting to think forward now; they were in survival mode for a period of time, and now they’re starting to think forward from a business perspective.”

And there is a lot to think about, she went on, noting that what she and others at her firm are advising clients on is how to adapt to change and navigate challenge — such as a global pandemic.

“We’re talking to our clients that we see as potentially at risk because they don’t have the ability to adapt or they’re not identifying how to adapt,” she explained. “We know that things can change in the blink of an eye; we’ve seen a client, a third-generation business, close because it wasn’t able to look forward and move in a way that still made them competitive. You can’t rest on what you have — you have to be always looking forward, and that’s a hard thing for some of our more mature clients and businesses who have done things they’ve always done, and it’s worked.”

This additional advisory work, as Cheney noted earlier, is merely an acceleration of a trend that has been ongoing for many years now when it comes to clients and what they want and need from their accounting firm, with the accent on the future and how to be prepared for it.

Quink agreed that this shift, if that’s the proper term, has been ongoing for some time now as technology has enabled clients of all kinds to access data more quickly and more easily than ever before.

“We see robots in all aspects of life, and our profession is going to go that way as well,” she explained. “We’re using technology to do the things we’ve always done by hand; we’re now going to have programs that run that data for us. What we’re seeing and what we’re preparing people in our profession for is a shift to more of an advisory-slash-consulting role.”

 

Bottom Line

For several years now, Quink told BusinessWest, Burkhart Pizzanelli has closed its doors on Fridays. Historically, those Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day have served as comp time for those who logged considerable overtime during tax time, and it’s been a time to recharge the batteries.

This year, staff members have needed those Fridays off more than ever, she said, adding that, for many reasons — from all the additional work detailed above to the vacations that haven’t been taken over the past 18 months — there have been many signs of fatigue.

It’s certainly understandable. Indeed, while every business sector has been impacted by COVID, those in accounting were affected in different ways, with more work to do, different work to take on, and learning curves when it came to new and different ways of doing business.

They don’t call it the ‘never-ending tax season’ for nothing. It’s far from over, but in many ways, things are … well, less taxing.

 

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

Modern Office Special Coverage

Getting Up Off the Floor

For those in the office furniture and design sector, the past 18 months have been a long and extremely challenging stretch. Looking ahead, while the pandemic has eased to some extent, new challenges and question marks loom. The questions concern everything from how many people will return to the office to whether they will have their own space if and when they return. And the challenges involve everything from long wait times for ordered products to the specter of skyrocketing prices and the impact they will have on business.

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors makes it difficult to project what will come next for this industry.

Mark Proshan says the e-mail found its way into his inbox earlier that morning. It was short and to the point, but it clearly articulated one of the many challenges still facing those in the office furniture and design business.

“‘I’m in the process of closing my office and moving employees to fully remote work,’” wrote the business owner and client that Proshan, president of the West Springfield-based Lexington Group, opted not to name. “‘I have a lot of office furniture I’m looking to sell.”

As he commented on what he was reading, Proshan started with that last bit of news. He said there are a number of business owners and managers looking to unload unneeded office furniture these days. They should know first that there is already a glut, and, second, that the price they have in the back of their mind is not likely to be the price they’re going to get for what they’re looking to sell. “With the massive amounts of furniture now on the market, selling furniture isn’t something that’s going to realize an amazing return on the investment.”

But that’s just a small part of the story now unfolding, said Proshan, noting that, while this particular business owner knows just what he’s doing with his office, many do not.

Indeed, a full 18 months after the term ‘COVID’ entered the lexicon, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what will happen at many offices, colleges, hospitals, and other kinds of businesses moving forward. Proshan has his theories, and we’ll get to some of them later, but he and others believe there will certainly be some downsizing, some hybrid work schedules for many employees, and more of the outright closures and conversion to remote working described in that e-mail.

But at the same time, some businesses and institutions that are waking up (for lack of a better phrase) from COVID are ready to advance plans for new furniture and accommodations.

And they are running into strong headwinds in the form of supply shortages, long wait times for desired items, and, almost certainly, higher prices in a nod to the laws of supply and demand — and the skyrocketing cost of shipping items from abroad.

“We can’t get the products out of where we need to get them from,” said Fran Arnold, owner of Holyoke-based Conklin Office Furniture, which, in addition to selling new and used furniture, manufactures its own lines of products overseas and remanufactures used furniture here. “Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold, new challenges include supply-chain issues, soaring shipping costs, and long wait times for ordered products.

“On the import side, we’re running with massive delays in shipping and huge increases in the cost of shipping,” he went on, with some noticeable exasperation in his voice. “Our shipping costs have gone from $3,500 to $5,000 per container all the way to $23,500 per container. That’s a massive increase for freight; it’s now costing us more money to get the stuff here than to manufacture it over there.”

Proshan agreed.

“Because most of the manufacturers have employee shortages and raw-goods shortages, everyone’s lead times have been drastically pushed out,” he noted. “You try to stock up on what you think might make the most sense for when the floodgates open, but you just don’t know, and it’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

Overall, while the worst of the storm might be past for those in this sector — that’s might — there is still considerable cloudiness and general uncertainty about the forecast, and challenges ranging from those inventory issues to simply finding people to drive delivery trucks, to a huge merger in the industry between manufacturers Herman Miller and Knoll, which only leads to more question marks.

Indeed, what happens next is anyone’s guess, as BusinessWest learned as it talked with Proshan and Arnold about has transpired and what is likely on the horizon.

 

Measures on the Table

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest in his huge showroom, Proshan noted that he’s selling a number of items to be used by people working at home, especially chairs — “they want good seating, but they don’t want to spend a lot for it” — and sit/stand desks, because they’re smaller and also because many people want the option of sitting or standing.

Meanwhile, he said he’s also been selling more large conference-room tables — those for 12 to 20 people — than would be considered normal.

When asked why, he gave a quick and definitive “I don’t know, exactly, but we are,” before joking that companies might need bigger tables for all those meetings that will decide what they’re going to do next.

Overall, this interest in large conference-room tables and the possible reasons behind it comprise just one of the many unknowns for this industry. What is known is that the past 18 months have been an extremely difficult time, and the challenges are far from over.

They may just be different challenges.

“Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.”

Looking back, Arnold said Conklin, like all businesses in this sector, saw business evaporate early on during the pandemic as businesses shut down and then hunkered down, with buying new or used office furniture, or redesigning their space, the last thing on their minds.

“We were flying just before COVID, and then we just hit a wall,” he explained, adding that, through a number of efficiency and austerity measures — including a four-day work week for all employees — the company managed to slash expenses to an extent that it was nearly as profitable in 2020 as it was in 2019.

Elaborating, he said that, in hindsight, the timing could not have been better for the company to consolidate operations and move into new facilities on Appleton Street in Holyoke in late 2019.

“We’re able to do more with fewer people,” he explained. “We’re much better organized, and we’re not so spread out. We’re much more efficient.”

Now, as it emerges from those very difficult times, there are new and different challenges to face, including supply-chain issues and a lack of inventory, just as some larger corporations are in a “panic mode,” a phrase he used a few times, to move on from the pandemic themselves.

“These corporations are working our sales teams to the limit,” he explained. “They want numbers, they want to know when things can be delivered … and a lot of the news we have to give them is not good; prices are going up, and deliveries are being postponed.”

Overall, Arnold said, inflation and the skyrocketing cost of shipping product are just starting to impact prices within the industry.

“We’ve just had our first price increase on our imported products; we just couldn’t hold it where it was any longer,” he explained, adding that, as the cost of shipping continues to escalate, more price hikes are likely. “It’s been quite an experience, and I don’t know how it will all play out; it’s a perfect storm that’s developing, and where it will go, I don’t know.”

 

Looking ahead and projecting what might come next, Proshan said this assignment is difficult because many companies are still very much trying to decide what they’re going to do.

“At the moment, business leaders are trying to figure out what their employees want, and employees are trying to figure out what their employers are going to be expecting,” he explained. “With all of that taking place, not a whole lot has happened yet. People have been talking about business getting back up to speed in the spring, and then the fall, which is not here yet, and then, the first of the year. We still have those mileage markers out there in front of us, so there’s a whole lot more that’s unknown than known.”

Proshan theorizes that many companies will create more space for each employee in efforts to create safer environments, and that, in all likelihood, there will be fewer people working in the office and more in remote settings.

“Every time you have a space that was occupied by three people, that had three work environments, they might cut that back to two to create a bigger gap between people,” he explained. “So now you have a work environment that’s going to be for sale or is going to become surplus; that’s one of the things we’re seeing.

“It’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

“And I think that when it gets sorted out as to who’s going back and who’s not, and how often they’re going back,” he went on, “I think a lot of personal space is going to disappear. If you work at home, you’re going to have your own workspace; when you go to the office, you may or may not have your own workspace. It may be a space that’s occupied by someone else on the days you’re not there.”

 

Bottom Line

Proshan, who does a good bit of sailing when he’s not working, made a number of comparisons between what’s happening in his industry and what transpires on the water.

Specifically, he talked about wind.

“You can’t see wind,” he told BusinessWest. “What people experience as wind is what they see as the result of wind and its impact on objects. When you see wind blowing through the trees, you don’t see the wind, you see the result of the wind. When you’re on a boat and there’s no wind, if you look at the water and see it start to ripple, you know that wind is approaching you, and it can either knock you over or make you go faster, or help you determine which direction to go in.

“It’s almost as if we’re sailing,” he said of the current conditions in his business, “and not able to see the wind in the trees.”

That was Proshan’s way of saying that an industry that has been blown about for the past 18 months, and not in a good way, is still very much in the dark about what will happen next.

The mission, he said, is to be as prepared as possible, even with all those unknowns.

“If you don’t pay attention to the possibilities,” he said in conclusion, “you’re going to be too late.”

 

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

Employment

Leaving — No Doubt

Peter Rosskothen admits to not knowing there is a statistic called the ‘quit rate.’

But he could certainly relate when told that this stat — a measure of how many people in the workforce quit their jobs in a given month — is historically high (2.5% in May, down from a record 2.8% in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and also when told the reasons why.

Rosskothen, owner and operator of the Delaney House restaurant, the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, and several other businesses, told BusinessWest he cannot recall a time (and he’s been in business for nearly 40 years) when it’s been more difficult to hire, and especially retain, people, particularly in the restaurant and banquet business.

He cited a host of reasons, starting with the fact that, during the pandemic, many of the workers in that field couldn’t keep working within it because businesses had to close their doors — for a few months or, in some cases, forever. So they found something else, and now, they don’t want to go back.

Meanwhile, with everyone fighting hard for good help, many companies are paying more — enough to turn heads in many cases and prompt people to leave for what appear to be greener pastures. With that, Rosskothen related the story of how he lost one of his managers to a competitor, one that was offering considerably more than this individual was making.

Sara Pileski

Sara Pileski

“When the pandemic hit, many people had a lot of time to think — they were in quarantine, some were furloughed or laid off — and they took this time to assess what was important to them: flexibility, compensation, career advancement, and whether their own values line up with those of the company they work with.”

“I had to decide if I wanted to match, and ultimately decided that I wouldn’t,” he said, adding that he opted to hire someone at roughly the same rate he was paying and absorb the other costs attended with doing so, such as training. And everyone he knows in this sector is facing the same kinds of hard decisions — on a regular basis.

Leaving for a higher salary is just one of the reasons why the nation’s quit rate is so high, said Sara Pileski, a regional vice president for Robert Half International, a national staffing business with a local office in Springfield.

She said many individuals stayed with their jobs through the pandemic because of the security they provided at a time when unemployment was soaring. Now that the worst is over, many are looking around and, in many cases, deciding it’s time to move on — for any number of reasons, ranging from a fondness for remote work and a preference to keep toiling that way when the boss is ordering them back to the office, to a desire for a different culture.

“Some people are looking to obtain a salary boost, and others are looking for greater career-advancement opportunities,” Pileski told BusinessWest. “When the pandemic hit, many people had a lot of time to think — they were in quarantine, some were furloughed or laid off — and they took this time to assess what was important to them: flexibility, compensation, career advancement, and whether their own values line up with those of the company they work with.

“During COVID, people re-evaluated what they are looking for in their careers,” she went on. “And a lot it has to do with flexibility. People, and businesses, have learned that people can be successful working remotely, so many individuals have been looking for fully remote roles, and a big piece of that is Millennials.”

Elizabeth Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, concurred, and said members are telling her that employees are leaving their jobs for a host of reasons, ranging from retirement, or, in many cases, early retirement, to those higher salaries that are now available as companies desperate for good help ante up. Like Pileski, she said many employees used the pandemic to take stock of their situation, with a good number not only finding something, or some things, lacking, but also discovering a newfound determination not to settle for what they had.

“Members are seeing more quits, more people leaving, than they would certainly like to see,” she said. “And it comes down to employees taking a step back, looking and things, and saying, ‘I’ve enjoyed my time with this company, I’ve done this, and I like this, and all of this is great, but I don’t know where things are going to go, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve always wanted to try this new field or this new area, or making this kind of change, and now is the time to do it because there are job offers out there, and the pay I’m going to get for making the change is better than it’s ever been. So I’m going to put my toe in the water.’”

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

“Everyone is in the same boat — they’re fighting for people, but paying them more. And then you get into the conversation … is it worth ‘this much’ to keep this person? Before COVID, you would almost always say ‘no.’ But I don’t think you can think that way anymore.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest looks at why so many people are putting their toes in the water and leaving their jobs, and also at what employers are doing, or should be doing, in response to this challenging trend.

 

Resigned to the Situation

Pileski stated the obvious when she told BusinessWest that this is a candidate-driven market. How long it will stay that way is anyone’s guess, but for now, job seekers are in the proverbial driver’s seat.

That’s because there were more than 9 million job openings nationwide at the end of May, and also because, well, people are still quitting a near-record rate, creating more jobs to fill.

“The ball is in the candidate’s court,” said Pileski, adding that her company has been flooded with orders from clients looking to fill positions, and there is a dearth of candidates to fill them. And those who are looking can pick and choose and go to the highest bidder, if you will. “When we call individuals on opportunities, whether it’s contract or permanent, they have multiple offers on the table, where in the past, we may have been their only resource or their only offer. Now, they’re seeing three, four, or five offers because the ball is in their court and they have the upper hand because the talent market is so low right now.”

This environment is certainly contributing to the higher quit rate, she went on, because there are myriad places for people who aren’t entirely happy to go, and, in many cases, more attractive employment packages to be found.

“Whether people are actively looking or not … they’re definitely thinking about it,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she believes the quit rate will remain higher than normal (which is just south of 2% historically) and speculates that it might not have actually peaked yet.

These sentiments were put into perspective locally — and, more specifically, across the hospitality sector — by Rosskothen, who used some words and numbers to paint a picture about how dire the hiring scene has become.

First, some numbers. He estimates that he’ll need maybe 350 employees at his various facilities to handle the peak of the season, to arrive in just a few weeks. He’s at 270 now, and really has doubts about whether he can hit his number.

“I’ve got a little bit of forgiveness in July because it’s busy, but we’re not crazy yet,” he said. “But it’s coming — it’s coming fast.”

He further estimates that his overall payroll is running about 10% higher than last year (or the last normal year), when a 2.5% to 3% increase (reflecting raises of that amount given to most employees) would be the average.

“The biggest challenge for us in this industry is that, to attract and keep people, we’re paying a lot more money than we were two years ago — a lot more,” he said. “For example, for a line cook, I used to be able to keep them happy at the $16- to $17-an-hour rate; now, I can’t get a line cook for less than $20 or $22 an hour now, because if I don’t pay them that, they’re going to go right down the street and find a job that pays them that.

“Everyone is in the same boat — they’re fighting for people, but paying them more,” he went on. “And then you get into the conversation … is it worth ‘this much’ to keep this person? Before COVID, you would almost always say ‘no.’ But I don’t think you can think that way anymore.”

Elaborating, he said that, in this climate, retention is extremely challenging. He estimates he can only retain maybe 30% of those he hires, where historically, the number is more like 60% to 70%.

Speaking in general terms, Wise told BusinessWest this problem extends across the board, to all sectors. “It’s an equal-opportunity quit rate,” she said, adding that departures are being seen in healthcare, higher education, hospitality, and other areas of the economy.

Some of those leaving are retiring, she noted, adding that the pandemic convinced many that it was time to leave the workforce, at least on a full-time basis. For others, there might be burnout, she went on, noting that, during the pandemic, many employees actually worked longer hours and skipped vacations, while dealing with stress on a number of fronts. With something approaching ‘normal’ returning, some are seeking out opportunities to take some stress out of their lives.

Whatever the reason, people are quitting in higher numbers, and employers must respond proactively, both Wise and Pileski said. And raising wages is just part of the equation. In some cases, they may need to be more flexible when it comes to where people work and when, although Wise does not believe that’s a huge issue in the 413.

As for wages, she said they are “starting to come up in Western Massachusetts,” with the pace and rate of climb determined by how competitive things are getting in a specific sector and how desperate employers are feeling.

 

Bottom Line

Adding more perspective, Rosskothen said things are certainly desperate within his sector.

“Everyone I talk to is dealing with this right now — everyone,” he noted, adding that he has seen and heard about companies offering bonuses to start and bonuses to stay a certain number of months.

He’s opting to give the bonuses to existing employees who refer people who are eventually hired. And overall, he and his managers are working harder at recognizing and rewarding long-time employees.

“I have a really hard time giving an incentive to a new employee to start with us,” he said. “I’d rather give an incentive to an old employee for being loyal.”

That’s just one way employers are coping with a quit rate — and all that comes with it — that just won’t quit.

 

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

Alumni Achievement Award

Hampden County District Attorney

It’s called the Emerging Adult Court of Hope, or EACH for short.

The court, blueprinted by Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni in partnership with Springfield District Court and the Massachusetts-based youth-justice nonprofit Roca, is one of very few in the country to focus specifically on high-risk young adults typically aged 18 to 25.

And it was created with the goal of helping these young adults — whose brains, research has shown, are still developing, and whose understanding of consequences and of risk taking is not the same as it is for adults — break the cycle of crime and incarceration that has ruined so many lives by intervening and putting them on the path to not just a job, but a career.

“These are young people who are starting off 100 steps behind, really at birth,” Gulluni told BusinessWest. “They are born into really poor situations, disadvantaged situations with poor role models around them … they never get off on the right foot in school, they’re not supported, they’re not enriched, they’re not resourced, and they end up committing crimes.”

EACH is just one of the number of new programs, initiatives, and events launched by Gulluni and his office since he prevailed in the race for Hampden County DA in 2015, a lengthy list that easily explains why the judges made him a finalist for the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award. Others include:

• A Cold Case Unit that has experienced a number of successes, including an arrest and later a guilty plea to first-degree murder in the 1992 slaying of Lisa Ziegert and, more recently, what amounted to a deathbed near-confession on the part of defrocked Catholic priest Richard Lavigne in the death of Chicopee altar boy Daniel Croteau (Lavigne died before he was set to be charged with the crime);

• The Hampden County Addiction Task Force, a collaboration of community resources, local and state law enforcement, healthcare institutions, service providers, and community coalitions working toward the common goal of a county-wide approach to addressing drug overdoses, addictions, and preventions;

• Development of the Western Massachusetts Human Trafficking Task Force, a collaboration of local, state, and federal law-enforcement partners working on a new approach to pursuing and prosecuting human-trafficking cases based on an understanding that some of those who are traditionally prosecuted for prostitution are victims of force, threat, and coercion;

• The Campus Safety Symposium, which focuses on a multi-disciplinary team approach to the investigation of sexual-assault and domestic-violence complaints and a review and update of applicable laws and the legal issues frequently occurring during these investigations;

• A training event called “Protect, Report and Preserve: Fighting for Elders and Persons with Disabilities” for service providers and care workers to learn best practices for the recognition and reporting of abuse;

• Creation of the District Attorney’s Youth Advisory Board, which consists of local high-school students who meet on a regular basis with the DA’s office to address issues facing today’s teens and research-effective prevention strategies;

• A training event called “How Can You Not Remember? Understanding a Victim’s Response to Violence” for members of the law-enforcement community to highlight a trauma-informed approach to interviewing victims of sexual assault;

• The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children conference, designed for healthcare, mental-health, law-enforcement, and school professionals to provide tools and skills for recognizing and accessing the necessary resources in the aid of children suspected to be victims of exploitation;

• A #StoptheSwerve public-service-announcement contest for Hampden County high-school students to highlight the dangers of impaired driving; and

• A summer job fair and 3-on-3 basketball tournament that combines fun with a chance to learn about employment opportunities.

Slicing through all those new initiatives, Gulluni said that they are the embodiment of the mindset he took while first campaigning for the office.

“During that campaign, we communicated to the public that we could build a safer community by engaging with young people, by preventing crime, and by dealing with the core issues that cause crime, namely addiction, mental illness, and others, while also continuing to do the core work of the district attorney and law enforcement,” he explained, “which is to deter serious crime and to take people who are violent and repeat offenders off the streets.

“And when I look back on the first six and half years, I really feel that we’ve lived out that very philosophy,” he went on, adding that recent headlines have provided testimony to the progress his office has made.

Lavigne’s deathbed interview with Massachusetts State Trooper Michael McNally, which was front-page news across the state and beyond, tops that list in most respects, but there have been many other developments, including multiple arrests of members of the Knox Street Posse, a local street gang in Springfield, the first strike made by the Strategic Action and Focused Enforcement Team, which operates out of the DA’s office. The sweep resulted in the seizure of 20 firearms, 100,000 bags of heroin, and approximately 2.8 kilograms of cocaine.

And then, there’s EACH, which was first conceived more than four years ago. It first convened in March 2020 and was slowed in its development by the pandemic, but early results are very positive, said Gulluni, noting that the court has caught the attention of both the press and other regions looking to emulate it because of its potential to intervene and help steer young, high-risk youths to a different path.

“We’re intervening and wrapping these young people with support and services,” he explained. “We have seven young people in the court, and they’ve really begun their turnaround. And we’re dealing with high-risk young people — these are people with records who have committed serious offenses for which they would almost certainly be going to jail.”

As noted, EACH is just one of the initiatives that have not just made Gulluni a finalist for this award, but are changing lives in this region.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

President and Owner, Chikmedia

Meghan Rothschild says the role of event emcee comes naturally to her — and that’s just one of the many reasons why the requests for her to take on those duties keep pouring in from groups ranging from the Ad Club of Western Massachusetts to the American Cancer Society’s regional chapter.

She’s adept behind the mic and standing in front of people because … well, she’s had a lot of experience doing so — as a college instructor, specifically in marketing and public relations, and as a public speaker delving into subjects ranging from social-media marketing to sun safety (she is a melanoma survivor who started survivingskin.org to help share her message).

Sometimes she gets asked to emcee, but quite often she volunteers, one of many ways she gives back to specific nonprofits and the community at large.

“I really enjoy it,” she said. “And I try to use a little humor, a little self-deprecation, and try to get people to laugh; I try to reflect what the organization wants me to reflect.”

Rothschild, a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2011, has been a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, formerly known as the Continued Excellence Award, on several occasions. And it’s easy to see why different panels of judges have come away so impressed.

Indeed, over the ensuing decade, she has continued to add scores of new lines to her résumé (figuratively but also quite literally).

She started Chikmedia in 2014 and has grown the agency to a staff of five and a client list that includes Dunkin’ Donuts, Papa John’s Pizza, Square One, and many others. In addition to being an entrepreneur, Rothschild has also become a mentor to several young women in the region and a coach and resource for many women-owned businesses looking for effective ways to tell their story.

Efforts in this realm also include the recent creation of scholarships for women of color pursuing degrees in marketing and public relations. Last year, the first for this initiative, the company awarded one $500 scholarship; this year, it awarded four because several area companies heard about the program and wanted to be part of it.

“This was something we felt passionate about last year, when everything was going on in the country and there was so much turmoil over racial injustice,” she told BusinessWest. “It was something we needed to do to give back and try to combat these issues; since we’re very much focused on women’s empowerment, we thought this was a great way to support a young woman who is pursuing a degree in this field.”

In addition to her success in business and efforts to mentor and coach other women in business, Rothschild is well known for the many ways in which she gives back to the local community, and especially its nonprofits.

Indeed, she has become a resource on many levels, from those aforementioned emceeing duties to the way in which she engages the classes she teaches at Springfield College and Southern New Hampshire University in building social-media strategies for selected nonprofits (five to 20 of them, depending on the size of the class).

Meanwhile, Chikmedia chooses three to five nonprofit events each year to sponsor on a pro bono basis, with help ranging from free publicity to fundraising to event coordination. Beyond that is ongoing support to several nonprofits. Rothschild said she started her company with such efforts to give back in mind, and it has become a huge part of the culture of the business, one that others are now striving to emulate.

“We donate five hours of time every month to Girls Inc. of the Valley, we work with Square One, we have been very involved for years with all of the Food Bank of Western Mass. events, and I’ve been volunteering for and emceeing events for the American Cancer Society for many years,” she said, offering just a partial list of such efforts.

But Rothschild and her company go further in their backing of nonprofits by compelling their for-profit clients to make support for, and alignment with, a nonprofit part of their overall marketing plan.

“Every marketing strategy I devise for my for-profit clients aligns them with a nonprofit that makes sense for their mission; that’s something I’ve always been passionate about,” she explained. “Yes, you can buy traditional advertising, and that’s great; you can place digital advertising, you can do all these things. But if you can find a nonprofit or a charity you can support, it’s going to really help reinforce your mission, but it’s also what you should be doing.”

Rothschild’s effort to mentor others, work within the community, and be a role model to countless others was summed up perfectly by Heather Clark, event manager for Baystate Children’s Hospital, who nominated her for the Alumni Achievement Award.

“People tell me all the time how much Meghan inspires them through her passion for not only helping businesses to succeed through great marketing and PR, but also her straightforward approach,” she wrote. “She cares deeply about her clients and about the nonprofits for which she volunteers her time. Most importantly, Meghan is as authentic as a person gets, and is the best friend anyone could ask for. She has personally lifted me up more times than I can count and encouraged me to follow my dreams.

“She doesn’t settle for mediocre, but instead demands the best from herself and everyone around her,” Clark went on. “I truly wouldn’t be in the career I am today without her encouragement and leadership. I have learned so much about business, marketing, and events, and I push myself each day to present myself in a way that would make me proud.”

Those sentiments, echoed by many others, explain not only why Rothschild is a finalist for this award, but why she has become a true business leader in this region — in every sense of that word.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

State Senator, First Hampden and Hampshire District

Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser says he doesn’t know if a proposed high-speed rail project linking the eastern and western parts of the state has enough support on Beacon Hill to become reality.

What he does know is that the concept has never been this close to becoming reality, and he isn’t shy about touting his role in getting what has become known as ‘east-west rail’ as far down the tracks as it has ever traveled.

“We’re at a closer and more exciting moment than we’ve ever been,” he said of the initiative. “With Joe Biden in office, with the feasibility study done … after eight years of advocacy and work, we have the best chance we’ve ever had of making this reality.”

The rail proposal is just one of the initiatives Lesser has led since first being elected to the First Hampden and Hampshire District Senate seat in 2014 (and earning a 40 Under Forty nod the following year). Most, but not all, of them have fallen into the broad realm of economic development and, more specifically, into the area of leveling the playing field between east and west within the Commonwealth and bringing opportunities to the people — and communities — of the four western counties.

“The animating principle of both my campaign in 2014 and, really, every day I’ve been in office since then has been unlocking and creating economic opportunity for Western Mass. that’s comparable and equal to people in Eastern Mass.,” said Lesser, a first-time finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award. “I will have succeeded if a child born in Springfield or Chicopee or anywhere in Western Mass. has the same shot at making a good living and supporting a family as a kid born in the Boston area.”

By now, most know the story of how Lesser, then 29, moved to the State House from the White House, specifically a position in the Obama administration as a special assistant to Senior Advisor David Axelrod. Lesser, who has a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard and a juris doctor from Harvard Law School, started his career as an aide on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Today, he holds several leadership positions in the Legislature. He is Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, Senate vice chair of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, Senate vice chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, and Senate chair of the Joint Legislative Manufacturing Caucus, the Gateway Cities Caucus, and the Libraries Caucus.

Recent initiatives have included a number of efforts to bolster the state’s manufacturing sector and raise awareness of the 10,000 vacant manufacturing jobs in the four western counties, including work to create apprenticeship tax credits and fund mid-career training programs for workers. Lesser has also been at the forefront of efforts to create the Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights, which recently became law in the Commonwealth.

As for those efforts to level the playing field between east and west, they come in a number of forms, said Lesser, who started by referencing the Clinical Trials unit at Baystate Health, which will open in the fall, part of the Life Sciences Bill passed several years ago. It will create jobs, but also enable people in this part of the state to take part in clinical trials without having to travel to Boston.

He also cited his efforts to lead an initiative to encourage more people to relocate to Western Mass. through a remote-worker incentive, which would pay workers up to $10,000 to move to this region, a concept that, given the lessons provided by the pandemic about where people can work and how, proved to be ahead of its time.

And then, there’s east-west rail.

“Frankly, I got laughed out of a lot of rooms when I talked about connecting Springfield and Boston by train service,” he told BusinessWest. “People said it would never happen; they said it was something we shouldn’t focus on. But now, our chances are as good as they’ve ever been, and the next year will provide the answer. We need to get the federal money secured, and we’re closer than we’ve been to seeing that happen.

“A major unfinished piece is the governor supporting it from there,” he went on. “That’s a major piece that requires our focus and our attention. An eyelash isn’t batted about investments in Boston, but when an investment will help the whole state … suddenly there’s a lot of questions about how expensive it will be.”

Lesser’s latest assignment is as co-chair of the new Future of Work Commission, which will include 17 members from across the state who will address a topic that was already dominated by question marks before the pandemic.

“These are some of the biggest questions in society right now,” he said. “How are people going to work in an era of remote working? How are benefits going to work? How is commuting going to work? What does transportation look like when people are no longer in 9-to-5, in-an-office-building jobs? How is automation going to be impacting society? These are some of the biggest questions we have, and this commission will look to answer them.”

Summing up his first seven years in the Legislature, Lesser said this time has been a learning experience, and what he’s learned is that change and progress come through patience and diligence.

“Success in politics is about methodical, persistent progress,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back; sometimes it’s two steps forward, three steps back. But staying focused on the ultimate goals and working collaboratively with people is the key. One of the things I’ve seen seven years in is that some of the seeds we’ve planted back in 2015, 2016, and 2017 are now blooming.”

By keeping that focus and working collaboratively, Lesser has certainly seen many of his initiatives bear fruit, which helps explain why he is a finalist for the coveted Alumni Achievement Award.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Vice President and Senior Private Client Relationship Manager, TD Private Client Group

Gregg Desmarais

Gregg Desmarais

It was more than 10 years ago now, but Gregg Desmarais still remembers the day one of his managers at TD Bank invited him to spend part of a Saturday joining others as they did some work revitalizing one of Springfield’s neighborhoods.

“I joined him and a few other volunteers cleaning up an old lady’s house and tidying up her yard, cutting down some trees, stuff like that,” he recalled. “I liked doing that kind of work anyway, and knowing that it helped someone in need made it even more enjoyable.”

And so began what has become a long and ongoing tenure of service to Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC), a nonprofit that serves the Greater Springfield area and performs critical repairs and modifications to the homes of low-income families with children, the elderly, military veterans, and individuals with special needs. That service punctuates a résumé that has made Desmarais a finalist for the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award.

A member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2015 (three of this year’s finalists are from that class), Desmarais captures the essence of this award, which was created that same year to recognize those who have built upon their track records in both business and service to the community.

He has steadily risen in the ranks at TD Bank, moving from an assistant store manager in Agawam to vice president and manager of the store in his hometown of Westfield, then to manager of the flagship office in downtown Springfield, the post he was in when he took his walk down the 40 Under Forty red carpet at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House.

Today, he serves as vice president and senior private client relationship manager for TD Private Client Group, a business of TD Wealth.

In that role, he serves as a liaison to whom those in the area branches refer high-net-worth customers. “I’m their point person for anything to do with their finances, be it deposits, lending, financial planning, investment-management services, trust and estate work, and more,” he said, adding that he works with others to see that all these various needs are met.

His work covers essentially all of Western Mass., and he works with TD employees in, and customers of, more than 20 branches stretching from Longmeadow to Great Barrington. It’s rewarding work, he said, noting that many of the aspects of work with high-net-worth individuals is complex and involves solving problems.

“I’ve been in customer service my whole career, so this is essentially the culmination of everything I’ve done,” he told BusinessWest. “Not many people can say, ‘I love what I do,’ but I can.”

Like all those in financial services, Desmarais said the pandemic has created a number of challenges when it comes to customer service, which have forced adjustments when it comes to how work is carried out and where. Indeed, he’s been to his office at the bank’s local headquarters at 1441 Main St. only a few times over the past 16 months.

“We’re just reinventing ourselves and figuring out new ways of doing business, like videoconferencing, and it’s been working out just fine,” he said.

While working to serve high-net-worth individuals, Desmarais continues a long track record of service to the community, especially with Revitalize CDC. When named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2015, he told BusinessWest, “I take advantage of any opportunity to get out of my suit and tie, get my hands dirty, and give back to the community; I want to make Springfield as healthy, safe, and beautiful as it can be.”

He meant that quite literally. While he has given back in a number of ways, including as chairperson for three years during the Community Foundation’s annual Valley Gives fundraiser, as a former member of the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s grant approval board, and service on the fundraising committee for the American Cancer Society, he is best known for his work for Revitalize CDC, where he has also risen in the ranks, if you will.

Indeed, he moved from volunteer that Saturday a decade ago all the way to chairman of the board (a role he recently relinquished), although he remains quite active with this nonprofit group, in fundraising and also as a house captain for its rebuilding events.

During his tenure with Revitalize CDC, and especially as chairman of the board, Desmarais worked to improve fundraising efforts and create more community events for the nonprofit, enabling it to grow and serve more families each year. Under his leadership, Revitalize CDC officially became a community-development corporation in 2015.

During COVID, Desmarais helped orchestrate a needed shift in services, with volunteers mostly unable to go into individuals’ homes. Indeed, the nonprofit found new ways to give back.

“We had a few projects to rehab here and there, but mostly we were bringing sanitary products, household cleaners, masks, and food to people,” he explained. “We found more ways to help people in those difficult times.”

Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, who nominated Desmarais for the Alumni Achievement Award, summed up not only his work with her group, but his ability to inspire others to give back.

“Gregg exemplifies the characteristics of a strong, community-based leader — vision, mentorship, hands-on service, and a positive understanding of the strength of the local community,” she wrote in her nomination. “He quickly saw the underserved population of Springfield residents who could directly benefit from the services of Revitalize CDC, and he understood that it would take a more robust fundraising structure.”

In these and other ways, Desmarais truly exemplifies the characteristics of an Alumni Achievement Award finalist — an individual who continues to build on an already strong record, both in business and within the community.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Vice President of Business Development, Greenfield Savings Bank

Tara Brewster

Tara Brewster

Tara Brewster likes to refer to herself as a “recovering entrepreneur.”

She uses that phrase to describe everything from how she can’t fully unplug while on vacation (which she was when talking with BusinessWest) to life in general after she and partner Candace Connors sold the clothing store they created, Jackson & Connor, in 2013.

She has spent the years since … well, recovering from a thoroughly enjoyable time running her own business and essentially deciding what comes next for someone with entrepreneurial energy still to be tapped and a deep commitment to serving the community.

Actually, many things have ‘come next,’ from some work in consulting to her current assignment as vice president of Business Development for Greenfield Savings Bank (GSB); from a wide range of work within the community, especially in Hampshire County, to something new and completely different — her own radio show.

Indeed, Brewster recently succeeded Ira Bryck as the host of the weekly Western Mass. Business Show on WHMP. She started only a few months ago and admits to still being in the process of learning the ropes and becoming comfortable behind the mic.

“I’m still kind of shaking off the jitters and the ‘how am I going to craft my voice,’” she told BusinessWest. “And I’m still figuring out what I can ask and how deep I can go, all those things. I’m still learning, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, she was already quite comfortable with getting involved in the community, but has only become more so in recent years, donating her time and talents to agencies and causes ranging from the Hampshire Regional YMCA to the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) to the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce. But more on that, and how the sum of her work has made her a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, later.

First, we flash back to when Brewster sold Jackson & Connor — a difficult time, as she described it, because she really didn’t know what to do with herself and fill the void created by selling the business that had been her passion — or one of them, anyway.

“I was like, ‘this was my whole identity; what am I going to do now?’” she said, adding that she worked as a consultant for the Vann Group (which helped her sell the business), and later did some work for the Springfield Business Improvement District and CityStage. Through those assignments, she reconnected with her former loan officer from Greenfield Savings Bank, who took her to lunch, at which Brewster did a lot of ‘complaining’ (her word) about being a consultant and how different it was from the retail world she was in.

She remembers saying, “‘after a decade of being entrepreneurial and making my own economy, I think I’m ready to go back to being an employee — but no two days can be the same; it has to be entrepreneurial, I’ve got to have freedom, and I have to be out and about in the community and making an impact.’”

All of which is serendipity, because that loan officer was essentially there to encourage her to apply for a position in business development at GSB, a job that offered essentially everything she just said she needed.

Overall, her job at the bank, which began in late 2016, has allowed her to take her work within the community to an even higher plane, one that recently earned her the Kay Sheehan Spirit of the Community Award, presented by the Community United Way of Hampshire County.

That involvement, which includes work with the YMCA, DNA, MassHire, Double Edge Theatre, Pathlight, Safe Passage, the chamber, and many other groups, was put into its proper perspective by Bryck, who not only gave Brewster the keys to the radio show he handled for more than a decade, but nominated her for the Alumni Achievement Award.

“Tara exemplifies for many what commitment and giving back looks like,” he wrote. “Western Mass. is fortunate to have Tara continuing to improve our backyard. She is a person for whom each day is a blessing, and she shows her appreciation, and uses her position, in ways that help fellow humans.

“I know a lot of people who see Tara as an inspiring leader,” he went on. “They are lit by her fire, and they become better people by seeing her compassion and action. She embodies sincerity and is brilliant at luring others into the river that she flows with.”

Brewster, a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2009, summed it up this way: “To work for a community bank in Western Massachusetts is just a gift, especially for someone who is a true philanthropist at heart, someone who really sees the jeweled web of a region and understands that everything happens because of connections, everything happens because you make asks, everything happens because you see others before you see yourself.”

As for the radio show, she sees it as an extension of her work in business — and in the community — and she has committed herself to using the show to give a platform to those who need to tell their story.

“I try to focus on people in the community who need to be highlighted and aren’t necessarily highlighted,” she explained. “I have a real bent in my heart toward nonprofits, so I try to bring them on so they can talk about themselves. Also, people of color. COVID really took off my rose-colored glasses and put on some pretty intense eyeglasses from which I now view a lot of the work that I do, how we are in the community, how we treat each other, and who has the mic.”

Her work sharing the airwaves is just the latest installment of ‘what comes next’ for this recovering entrepreneur, a list that now also includes being a finalist for the 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award.

 

—George O’Brien

Cover Story

Study In Entrepreneurship

 

Bob Lowry calls it his ‘list-in-the-back-pocket’ technique.

That’s because it concerns a list he used to keep his back pocket — a list of ideas about how to make his emerging chain of fresh-Mex restaurants, Bueno Y Sano, better and more responsive to customers. It wasn’t what was on the list at any given time that was important, but rather how he handled the discussions that came up with employees about these items.

“Especially early on,” Lowry explained, “when we had a million things to figure out, I would keep a list in my pocket of the things I observed around our operation that we could improve or change; if I had an idea, I’d put it on the list. We’d have more or less regular meetings — every couple of weeks, we’d sit down as a staff, and I would ask them for their ideas.

“I’d say, ‘what do we need to do?’ ‘What do we need to change?’ ‘How do we get more organized?’” he went on. “They would have their ideas, and half of their ideas were the same ideas that I had. But instead of saying, ‘I already had that on my list,’ I’d say, ‘good idea, we’ll do it.’ In that way, it’s their idea, not my idea.”

Lowry talks about this technique often, and especially with the students in the “Introduction to Entrepreneurship” class that he teaches at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. He uses it to demonstrate the power of positive reinforcement, the kind that was drilled into him when he first read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, which serves as the textbook, if you will, for that class.

“Back then, the food at UMass was terrible. Most universities were already off to the races, but UMass was still stuck with food that wasn’t that great. So everyone was starving.”

“That notion of making the other person feel that the idea is theirs is right out of How to Make Friends — it’s a chapter,” Lowry told BusinessWest, adding that positive reinforcement is just one of the principles he focuses on not only in the classroom, but in his business. You might say he practices what he teaches.

All of which has helped him take Bueno Y Sano from that single store he started with in Amherst back in 1995 to what could be called a chain.

There are now locations that he owns in Amherst, Northampton, South Deerfield, and West Springfield. There is also a location in South Burlington, Vt., managed by Lowry’s brother, Will; another in Springfield owned by a business partner; and a store in Acton, Mass., owned by Lowry’s stepbrother.

It’s a thriving enterprise — one that actually managed to increase sales at some of its locations during the pandemic — that keeps Lowry busy enough so that he’s unsure if and to what degree there will be more expansion.

“Those things tend to pop up out of nowhere — it’s an organic thing,” he explained, adding that there are ongoing discussions about another location in the Acton area. “We’re not in a rush to have a big company at all. We have enough restaurants; we might have more, we might not.”

These days, Lowry spends his time “troubleshooting,” as he put it.

That’s how he described the practice of driving back and forth between locations, talking with staff, dealing with problems and issues that may arise, and, yes, coming up with ideas that go on a list, one that now resides in his briefcase and not in his back pocket.

He’s still giving employees credit for the ideas that he had already written down on his list, and that’s one of many reasons he’s quite content with a personal and professional life that meets a basic requirement he set a long time ago — working for himself rather than someone else.

The West Springfield location in the Riverdale Shops

The West Springfield location in the Riverdale Shops is one of the later additions to the growing portfolio of Bueno Y Sano locations in Western Mass. and beyond.

“I knew I did not want to work for a company — it was deep within me … I just knew that wasn’t going to be fun for me,” he recalled. “I might have been wrong — I’m sure there are jobs out there that would have been fine — but still, it wasn’t what I wanted. And I knew that when I was 12. I knew I wanted to do fun stuff, and jobs didn’t seem like fun to me.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Lowry about what he did want, and did get: the opportunity to work for himself. We also talked about what he’s learned and now passes on to students and a few mentors, especially about that concept of success in business, how it’s defined, and how it’s achieved.

As one might say in his industry, it’s food for thought.

 

Taste of Success

Lowry was quick to note that, at one time — soon after graduation from UMass Amherst — he did, in fact, have a job.

It was with State Street Bank as a mutual fund administrator.

“I got an interview through somebody’s girlfriend; she knew someone who could get me an interview,” he recalled. “They hired me because they needed people — they hired like 500 people a year. I wasn’t good at the job, but I didn’t die, though, and I would have been OK, but…

He voice trailed off, and he didn’t really finish the sentence, because he wasn’t in that job long before he came back to the Amherst area to visit friends who had not yet graduated. And it was on that trip that he famously spotted a ‘for-rent’ sign on a property in downtown Amherst and began thinking seriously about a burrito shop there.

Many in this region now know the story of how Lowry called the number on that sign, found out the location was already (or soon to be) under contract, but kept on pursuing the dream at another nearby location. With a rough business plan and a $20,000 investment from his father, the 24-year-old Lowry opened Bueno Y Sano just four months after he originally started thinking about his concept.

That thinking was blended with solid research in the form of surveys that revealed a real need for such an establishment, said Lowry, who noted that, upon opening, the Amherst location struggled mightily to keep up with heavy demand — and for a reason.

Indeed, this was 1995, years before UMass Dining reinvented itself and eventually earned a place near and then at the top of the annual rankings for best on-campus food.

“Back then, the food at UMass was terrible,” Lowry recalled, speaking from personal experience and anecdotal information. “Most universities were already off to the races, but UMass was still stuck with food that wasn’t that great. So everyone was starving.

“We couldn’t keep up — for years,” he went on. “Back then, we were doing three times the business we’re doing now in Amherst, adjusted for inflation. We were serving three times as many people back then as we do now, because UMass food is now some of the best in the world, so students don’t go out to eat as much.”

Still, the Amherst location, and the others as well, are faring quite well amid what has become a boom in Mexican fare, and especially fresh-Mex food, one that has helped fuel expansion of Bueno Y Sano well beyond its downtown Amherst roots.

Bob Lowry

Bob Lowry says he long ago learned the importance of positive reinforcement, and he passes that message along to those he teaches and mentors.

Indeed, while a location that opened in Boston not far from Boston University quickly proved a bust — “we didn’t do any business in the evening because BU had awesome food” — the others have generally thrived, although the location in West Springfield in the Riverdale Shops hasn’t generated the traffic that was anticipated.

“We’re not a college-town place,” Lowry explained. “It’s a very broad market that we serve. Mexican food … if it’s not the biggest sector right now, it’s going to be, and soon. And we’re fresh Mex, quick service, which has grown like a weed ever since the day we started. There are probably 250 fresh-Mex, quick-service places in Massachusetts right now, where back then, there were probably 10, including us.”

The popularity of fresh Mex certainly helped Bueno Y Sano weather the pandemic, said Lowry, adding that, in 2020, the company registered roughly 75% of the sales it would during a normal year by focusing entirely on takeout and benefiting greatly from an online ordering system that was put in place before COVID-19 but not used extensively until the pandemic arrived.

“The Acton and Springfield locations actually did better than they did the year before,” he explained, adding that the company continues to do a great deal of business via the takeout route, with perhaps 80% of sales coming that way, while before the pandemic, it was probably 50%.

 

Hot Stuff

Flashing back to the days when he conceived Bueno Y Sano, Lowry said fresh Mex was a solid idea and, as things have turned out, a solid business proposition.

But it was also a means to an end — an opportunity to do what he wanted and not do what, deep down, he knew he couldn’t do — work for someone else.

“The things that go with a job were not motivating to me,” he explained. “I wanted to be the boss. I wanted to make decisions and do the fun stuff if I wanted to.”

Elaborating, and putting to work a phrase one hears often these days, Lowry wanted a business he could work on, not in.

“The vast majority of entrepreneurs get stuck working in the business as opposed to on it, and that’s a big trick,” he told BusinessWest. “That was part of my vision from the very, very first thought: I’m going to work on it, and other people can work in it. And it’s going to be fun, and people are going to like working for me because I’m not going to step on my feet by discouraging people.”

Expanding on that thought, Bueno Y Sano has become the kind of business he can work on, not in, he said, adding that he’s involved day to day, but there isn’t anything approaching micromanagement. He has put aside time to do other things, like teaching entreptreneurship, which creates an important balance — and often more fun.

He said the class, which he’s been teaching since 2006, has several components, including a pitch contest, the textbook, and guest entrepreneurs (he’s one of them) who will share experiences from their ventures and adventures. Over the years, a number of students, maybe 40 to 50 by his count, have gone on to start their own businesses.

Lowry said the teaching has been … well, a learning experience for him while standing at the front of the classroom, one that has given him great clarity about what works in all workplaces, and especially his.

“When they’re the boss, most people have as their first reaction the thought that their job is to catch people doing things wrong and tell them about it. But with just a small adjustment in philosophy, they could understand that their job is to catch people doing things right and tell everyone about it. And if they did that, they would be much more successful.”

With that, he returned to his chosen textbook, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is subtitled The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success, commentary he agrees with wholeheartedly.

Slicing through its 288 pages, he said it provides a roadmap for being not necessarily a popular leader (although that, too), but an effective one.

“Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain,” he said, while listing some of the tenets he has long lived by. “Show people genuine appreciation; let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers; give people a reputation to live up to; avoid arguments; be a great listener. These are the things you need to do as a leader and business owner.

“I’m always learning to be a better listener, and I’m always learning to take advantage of positive reinforcement,” he went on. “When they’re the boss, most people have as their first reaction the thought that their job is to catch people doing things wrong and tell them about it. But with just a small adjustment in philosophy, they could understand that their job is to catch people doing things right and tell everyone about it. And if they did that, they would be much more successful.”

And while this approach, or attitude, is one that works for entrepreneurs, it does for everyone else as well, he noted.

“If I can help them see what works with people, then I will have succeeded,” Lowry said in conclusion. “Because all of them will use it in their lives, whether they’re entrepreneurs or not. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement. If you take it to heart, you can enjoy management and help people grow. The success of the people in your business is your success.”

 

Bottom Line

Getting back to that list of ideas that he used to keep his back pocket and that now mostly resides in his briefcase, Lowry said that, during those staff meetings — both years ago and quite recently — he would often get around to some of those items he had written down that hadn’t been addressed to that point.

“Half the time, they had a better idea than me, but at the end, I would have a few ideas left on my list, and I would say, ‘what do you think about this, and what do you think about that?’” he explained. “People are much more open to things after you’ve listened to their ideas.”

That’s another lesson that he passes on to his students, many of whom share his lack of enthusiasm, if not fear, of working for someone else.

In his case, that fear led to opportunity, and a chance to not only be successful in business, but also impart lessons to others on how to do the same.

In both cases, Lowry has certainly been a class act.

 

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

Education Special Coverage

Challenge Accepted

Linda Thompson, the 21st president of Westfield State University.

Linda Thompson had never applied for a college presidency position before a recruiter called and invited her to pursue that post at Westfield State University. She listened, and agreed it was time to take a 40-year-career in healthcare, public policy, and healthcare education to a new and much higher plane. She becomes WSU’s 21st president at a challenging time, especially as schools large and small return to something approaching normal after 16 months of life in a pandemic. But with her diverse background, she believes she’s ready for that challenge.

 

Linda Thompson remembers not only the call from the headhunter, made to gauge her interest in applying for the president’s position at Westfield State University, but the words of encouragement that accompanied it.

“She said, ‘Linda, I think you’re ready to think about being a president,’” said Thompson, who at the time was dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UMass Boston and hadn’t pursued a president’s position before. “She said, ‘you’re a dean now … look at the work deans do; they raise money, they create new programs, they create partnerships, they work with the board. The things you do as a dean are the things you’ll do as a president.”

More important than the recruiter thinking she was ready for the post at WSU, Thompson knew she was ready, even if she needed a little convincing.

“I thought I had the right background at this point in time to make a difference at this specific university,” she said, adding that it’s much more than the 35 years in higher education in various positions within nursing and health-sciences programs that gave her the confidence to enter and then prevail in the nationwide search for the school’s 21st president. It was also experience in public policy, working with a host of elected leaders to address a wide range of health and public-safety issues and, essentially, problem-solve.

“Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people.”

“Most of my career, I’ve worked with children and youth, trying to develop programs and policies to promote healthy outcomes for children, youth, and families,” she explained. “I started out, like most people in nursing, in a hospital and moved to community and public-health work. I really became interested in high-risk children just based on my work in public health, seeing how children who grew up in poverty, children who grew up in less-than-fortunate environments, were impacted by those circumstances.”

She points to her own family as an example, and noted that her two older sisters both died young, one from a gunshot wound at age 21 and the other from complications from diabetes during her second pregnancy as a teen.

“I always thought that the reason I thrived was education,” she told BusinessWest. “Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people. I’ve been blessed; I’ve not only had the opportunity to work as a nurse, I’ve also had the opportunity to work to develop programs for children who were in the justice system, people who were in state custody. I did work all over the country looking at ways we can promote good outcomes for people who had the misfortune to be engaged in the criminal-justice system.

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, and it will apply them as the school, its students, faculty, and staff return to something approaching normal this fall.

“I worked for the governor of Maryland for five years and developed programs and policies for children and youth statewide,” she went on. “We looked at how we could develop inter-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary programs, starting with education, all the way to how we need to work with housing and economic development to create good outcomes for families and for children.”

Thompson arrives at the rural WSU campus at an intriguing time for all those in higher education. Smaller high-school graduating classes have contributed to enrollment challenges at many institutions, and even some closures of smaller schools, and the soaring cost of a college education has brought ever-more attention to the value of such an education and how schools provide it.

Meanwhile, institutions will be returning to something approaching normal this fall after enduring two and a half semesters of life in a global pandemic, an experience that tested all schools in every way imaginable and also provided learning experiences and opportunities to do things in a different, and sometimes better, way.

Thompson acknowledged these developments and said they will be among the challenges and opportunities awaiting her as she takes the helm at the 182-year-old institution, founded by Horace Mann, whose pioneering efforts in education — and inclusion — are certainly a source of inspiration for her.

“He wanted to look at how education is important to a new society — a society that was going to be self-governed and where people needed to understand how to engage in civil society. I was very intrigued with this history, the inclusive nature of his approach to higher education, and how he looked back at some of the historical development of what I will call democracies in ancient Greece and the importance of an educated community to support democracies and health societies.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Thompson about Horace Mann, the challenges facing those in higher education, and why she believes WSU is well-positioned to meet them head-on.

 

Grade Expectations

As noted earlier, Thompson brings a diverse portfolio of experience to her latest challenge.

Our story begins in 1979, when she began her career as a clinical nurse specialist in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Soon thereafter, she would begin interspersing jobs in education with those in the public sector.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

In 1987, she became assistant dean at the School of Nursing at Coppin State College in Baltimore, and two years later took a job as director of the Office of Occupational Medicine and Safety in Baltimore. In 1993, she joined the school of Nursing at the University of Maryland, where she would hold a variety of positions between 1993 and 2003, with a four-year diversion in the middle to serve as special secretary for Children, Youth & Families in the Maryland Governor’s Office.

In 2003, she became dean of Nursing at Oakland University in Troy, Mich., and later returned to the East Coast, where she would join the staff at North Carolina A&T State University, first as provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, then as associate vice chancellor for Outreach, Professional Development & Distance Education.

“I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

In 2013, she became dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and a professor of Nursing at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and in 2017, she came to UMass Boston, serving as dean of the College of Nursing and Health Services.

Slicing through all that, she said she’s had decades of experience working collaboratively with others to achieve progress in areas ranging from student success to diversity with staff and faculty; from forging partnerships with private-sector institutions to creating strategic plans; from creating new academic programs to securing new philanthropic revenue streams for faculty research.

And she intends to tap into all that experience as she leads WSU out of the pandemic and into the next chapter in its history.

As she does so, she intends to lean heavily on Horace Mann, considered by many to be the father of public education, for both inspiration and direction. In many respects, they share common viewpoints about the importance of education and inclusion.

“This whole idea of looking at healthy communities and using education to strengthen communities resonated with me,” Thompson explained. “And it resonated with me given some of the things we’re starting to see with our divided country; how do we get people educated so that they’re able to know how to be critical thinkers, how to separate fact from fiction, and how to begin looking at the importance of creating communities where everyone is healthy? To me, healthy is more than physical health — it’s emotional and social and environmental, this whole way that we look at values that really enable people to thrive and survive in society.”

Looking forward, she said she has many goals and ambitions for the school, with greater diversity and inclusion at the top of the list. She pointed to UMass Boston, which she described as one of the most diverse schools in the country, as both a model and a true reflection of the demographic changes that have taken place in the U.S.

“Those diverse populations are the future of higher education in this country,” she told BusinessWest. “We are becoming a majority minority population, and there are opportunities to reach out to communities of color and stress the importance of education to be part of a lifestyle where we’re constantly looking at ways to engage with people and give them tools to thrive.”

 

Course of Action

Thompson arrived at the WSU campus at the start of this month. She will use the two months before the fall semester begins to make connections — both on campus and within the community.

She said the calendar was quickly filling up with appointments with area civic, business, and education leaders, at which she will gauge needs, come to fully understand how the university partners with others to meet those needs, and discuss ways to broaden WSU’s impact and become even more of a difference maker in the community.
The discussions with business leaders will focus on the needs of the workforce and how to make graduates more workforce-ready, she said, adding that the school has been a reliable supplier of qualified workers to sectors ranging from education to healthcare to criminal justice.

Meanwhile, the meetings with those in education focus on widening and strengthening a pipeline of students through K-12 and into higher education, and also on finding paths for those who can’t, for various reasons, take such a direct path.

“For those who are not able to go to college right after high school, how do make it easy for these adults to come back to school?” she asked, adding that she will work with others to answer that question.

And some of the answers may have been found during the pandemic, she went on, noting that, out of necessity, educators used technology to find new and different ways to teach and engage students. And this imagination and persistence — not to mention the direct lessons learned about how to do things, especially with regard to remote learning — will carry on into this fall, when the campus returns to ‘normal’ and well beyond.

“For us, moving forward, I’ll think we’ll never go back to the way we educated people before,” she told BusinessWest, “because people have learned to do this work in a different kind of way, and the public has learned that this is an option moving forward to give people an opportunity to return to college.”

When asked about what she brings to her latest challenge, Thompson reiterated that it’s more than her work in higher education, as significant as that is. It’s also her work in public policy, and, more specifically, working in partnership with others to address global issues.

She counts among her mentors David Mathews, former president of the University of Alabama and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Ford. She worked with him when he was leading the Kettering Foundation.

“I spent time with him learning about the way he approached leadership and the way he approached democracy,” she noted. “I’ve been a dean, and I’ve had experience as a provost; overall, I believe I have the right set of skills to use the lessons I’ve learned to help develop the next set of community leaders in all fields.

“We need to look at a way that we can create curriculum and graduate people who are innovative, who are critical thinkers, who know how to research on their own, who know to look at problems and how to work in teams with other people in order to create solutions,” she went on. “These are things I’ve learned in my life, and those are things I want to impart to the students who come to this campus.”

As for her leadership style, Thompson described it this way: “I look at creating a vision and an idea and working with and through people — people who are above me, people who work alongside me, people who are younger — and learning from people at all levels and ages and stages of their development.

“I tend to see myself as someone who is transformational,” she went on. “I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

 

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

Education

Maintaining Momentum

Anne Massey

Anne Massey says that early on, she told faculty and staff at Isenberg that the pandemic was not to be looked at as “a short-term problem we’re just trying to solve.” Instead, it has been a learning experience on many levels.

 

When Anne Massey arrived at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst in the late summer of 2019, she came with a lengthy set of plans, goals, and ambitions for an institution that was steadily moving up in the ranks of the nation’s business schools and determined to further enhance its reputation.

The overarching plan was to decide what was being done right, what could be done better, and how the school could continue and even accelerate its ascendency with those rankings.

Massey was already making considerable headway with such initiatives when COVID-19 arrived just eight months later and turned normalcy on its ear. But she was determined not to let the pandemic create a loss of focus or momentum.

And almost 16 months after students went home for a spring break from which they would not return, she can say with a great deal of confidence that she has succeeded with that broad mission.

In fact, the pandemic may in some ways have even created more momentum for Isenberg, which is now the top-ranked public business school in the Northeast.

Indeed, those at the school have used the past 15 months as a valuable learning experience, said Massey, who was most recently the chair of the Wisconsin School of Business. She stressed repeatedly that this was a time, as challenging as it was, not to simply get through or survive, and as a homework assignment for her staff, she strongly recommended Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is the Way — The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph.

“I said early on that we’re not going to be looking at this pandemic, and all the things that it wrought for us in terms of remote teaching, remote learning, and remote work, as a short-term problem that we’re just trying to solve,” she explained. “I said that we’re going to learn things, and we’re going to carry them over to when we came back and be better than we were in March of 2020.”

She believes the school will be better because of how it has learned to use technology to do things differently and in some ways better than before, but also because of the many experiences working together as a team to address challenges and find solutions.

“I said early on that we’re not going to be looking at this pandemic, and all the things that it wrought for us in terms of remote teaching, remote learning, and remote work, as a short-term problem that we’re just trying to solve. I said that we’re going to learn things, and we’re going to carry them over to when we came back and be better than we were in March of 2020.”

Moving forward, Massey said those at Isenberg, whether they’ve read Holiday’s book or not, are responding well to the notion of looking at obstacles as opportunities and not letting challenges, even global pandemics, stand in the way of achieving goals and improving continuously.

As she noted, this mindset will serve the institution well in the future as it and all of its many competitors prepare to return to normal, but not a world exactly like the one that existed 16 months ago.

“It was also obvious to me in March and April of 2020 that everyone was going to be forced to be remote, at least for some period of time,” she said. “We’d been in the online space for 20 years, so we were ahead of the game. But now, suddenly, everyone was going to be playing the game. They weren’t all going to be good at it; some of them still aren’t good at it, but think they are.

“But now, there are going to be more people joining this competitive space,” she went on. “And some of them have more resources than we do. So we needed to say, ‘we’re just going to keep plowing forward. We need to be better than they were because that’s the only way we’re going to maintain our competitive position.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Massey about her challenging and, in many ways, intriguing first two years at the helm at Isenberg, and especially about how the school will take the experiences from the pandemic and use them to make the school, as she said, better than it was before anyone heard of COVID-19.

 

Getting Down to Business

The lawn signs were first introduced a year or so ago.

They say ‘Destination Isenberg,’ and were intended to be placed on the front lawns of the homes of students bound for the school — enrollment in which is increasingly becoming a point of pride.

While those first signs to be issued were technically accurate, many of the students didn’t have the Amherst campus as their actual destination because of COVID, said Massey, adding that that the latest signs — they’re at the printer now and will be distributed soon — speak the full truth: students will be back in the fall.

There will be a party in August to welcome them to campus, and planning continues for an orientation that will feature programs and events not only for freshmen but also the sophomores who couldn’t enjoy such an experience last fall because of the pandemic. As part of those celebrations, there will be recognition of the national-champion UMass hockey team, which included 15 players who are enrolled at Isenberg.

The students will be coming back to the ultra-modern, $62 million Isenberg Innovation Hub, which opened in January 2019 and sat mostly quiet for the bulk of the pandemic. They’ll be coming back to a school now ranked 53rd in the country by U.S. News & World Report when it comes to undergraduate programs (34th among public schools).

The ‘Destination Isenberg’ signs soon to grace lawns

The ‘Destination Isenberg’ signs soon to grace lawns across the country will have real meaning this year, with the school back to fully in-person learning this fall.

They’ll be returning to a school where enrollment continues to grow even as competition increases and high-school graduating classes shrink. “We have the largest incoming class ever,” Massey said. “We have more than we probably should have, but we’ll deal with it.”

But they won’t be returning to the same school. Indeed, as she noted, they’ll be coming back to, or joining, an Isenberg that used the pandemic as a learning laboratory of sorts, one that will stand the school in good stead as it continues its quest for continuous improvement and movement up the rankings in an even more competitive environment.

She said this work actually started before the pandemic, soon after she arrived on the campus. She started with a survey that went out to faculty and staff that included three key questions:

• ‘What unexploited opportunities do you see for Isenberg?’

• ‘What’s standing in our way of those opportunities?’ and

• ‘Given what you know, what do you think Anne Masse should focus on for the next year?’

She received a 95% response rate to that survey, and the answers provided considerable fodder for discussion at what would eventually be more than 30 meetings with various groups within the school, including faculty and staff.

She then developed five key priorities for maintaining and enhancing the school’s reputation for excellence and went “on the road,” as she put it, visiting alumni in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and other cities. These visits continued until the pandemic arrived, she said, adding that, while the road trips have to come to a halt, the work of developing these priorities, identifying areas in which the school needs to invest, and shaping all this into a strategic plan have continued unabated.

Getting back to the pandemic, Massey actually had considerable experience on her résumé in the realm of research regarding virtual teams and how they function. And that work came in handy during the pandemic, especially as it related to communication, coordination, and relationships among individuals in those teams.

“We have the tools and technology that support communication and that support collaboration and coordination of our work,” she explained. “But the relationship building and maintaining relationships is something that people often don’t pay attention to. They get wrapped up in the work, and not the nature of the team and the relationships amongst the team members.”

Flashing back to March 2020, when students, faculty, and staff were sent home for spring break, Massey said she knew they wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon and that all operations, from teaching to recruiting to development, would have to go remote.

“I knew that we had the tools, but what we really needed to focus on were the connections,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she soon launched what became knowns as the Dean’s Briefing, which, as that name suggests, was a briefing sent out to faculty and staff almost weekly.

“Sometimes it was a pat on the back, sometimes it was ‘I know how hard it is,’ sometimes it was personal, sometimes it was about what was going on at the university and what we thought the summer was going to look like and what the fall would look like; it was always about trying to keep people in the loop,” she said, adding that she encouraged the associate deans, the department, and others to do the same with their own group. “They needed to maintain communication that was positive and supportive.”

 

Driving Forces

At the same time, Massey emphasized the importance of the faculty engaging with students and helping them through a difficult and unprecedented time.

Because not all faculty members had taught online, or certainly to that extent, the school named five Isenberg teaching fellows, all of them experts in remote learning, who are assigned to one or a few departments and a cohort of faculty.

“They took the ball and ran with it,” Massey said, adding quickly that she wasn’t sure at first how this initiative would go over. “They had workshops, they had brown-bag lunches, they used Zoom, they coached people, they surfaced new best practices, they shared ideas … they even wrote a few research papers that have been published. They were phenomenal.”

Lessons learned from the pandemic and these teaching fellows will carry over into ‘normal’ times, she said, adding that she’s expecting to get back on the road in the fall and continue to push the five priorities for the school as it works to sustain and enhance its overall reputation for excellence, a key driver of those all-important rankings.

“They’re all about reputation in various ways,” Massey said of the rankings, of which there are many across several categories, from undergraduate offerings to part-time MBA programs. “The question that I asked over a year ago, and that I always ask, is ‘how might we sustain or advance our reputation for excellence in all we do? And excellence in terms of students and our quality of students, the quality of our faculty and their research, the placement of our students, what the recruiters think, and companies once students are working for them and they’re out a few years. Do they deliver the goods? All of that.”

Listing those priorities, which all intersect, she started with attracting exceptional students, which means more than those with the top GPAs. It also means achieving diversity and attracting students with a commitment to their communities, she said, adding that another priority is sustaining faculty excellence, especially at a time when business schools, and higher education in general, is facing what Massey described as a “looming retirement problem.”

“It’s becoming more and more difficult to attract and retain faculty; we’re not producing Ph.D.s at the rate that we probably need to,” she explained. “So I’m always thinking about how we can make this a good place for prospective faculty, and then, when we get them, how do we keep them? And how do we support them in their research efforts, and how do we support them becoming better teachers?”

Another priority is what Massey called “enabling career success,” which involves both current students and alumni, many of whom were impacted by the pandemic and the toll it took on employers in many sectors. To address this matter, she created an Office of Career Success and integrated the Chase Career Center with the school’s Business and Professional Communications faculty in an effort to expand services to alumni as well as current students.

Still other priorities include “creating global citizens and inclusive leaders” and “inspiring innovation in teaching and learning,” Massey said, adding that she wants Isenberg to be a significant player in business education, especially when it comes to advances in teaching and the use of emerging technology.

“How do we use 3D? What about augmented reality?” she asked, adding that these are just some of the questions she and others at the school are addressing. “One of our initiatives when it comes to inspiring innovation in teaching and learning is the creation of a ‘technology sandbox,’ a dedicated space where new and emerging technologies will be available for our faculty to play with and our staff to play with — because you can’t provide support for something if you don’t know how to use it — and for our students to play with.”

 

Positive Signs

Getting back to those lawn signs, Massey, who has one in her yard (her son attends the school), said they’re great exposure for Isenberg, especially outside of Massachusetts, where the name is somewhat less-known, but becoming better-known.

“It’s good to have them all over the country, and the students love them,” she said, adding that these are literal signs of growth and progress at Isenberg, but there are many others, from the record class for the fall of 2020 to its longstanding home at to the top of the rankings of public business schools in the Northeast — it’s been there since 2015.

There were signs of progress during the pandemic as well, she said, even if they’re harder to see. The school was determined not to lose momentum during that challenging time and to turn that obstacle into an opportunity.

Time will tell just how successful that mission was, but Massey already considers it a triumph for all those at the school.

 

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

Women in Businesss

Shoebox Greetings

Suzanne Murphy has put UTCA on a path to continued growth and influence — in this region and well beyond.

As she looked back on 30 years in business — and a very different kind of business, to be sure — Suzanne Murphy retold a story she’s recounted probably hundreds of times.

It concerns the conversation one of her clients had with the firm it was leaving to start doing business with Murphy’s Unemployment Tax Control Associates (UTCA) — as related by that client.

“He said, ‘I just got off the phone with our current vendor, and I told them I was moving my business to your company — and they laughed and said, ‘that’s a little shoebox out in Western Mass.,’’” Murphy recalled, adding that the implication was clear — that those in this region are not on the cutting edge in this realm. “He then said, ‘I was sure to tell them that this was one highly organized, very effective shoebox, and that’s where I was taking my business. And I also told them to think about those kinds of comments and how they land out in Western Mass.’”

Murphy said those remarks, which date back to the early days of her venture, and especially those referring to the size of her company and its mailing address, have stuck with her all these years, especially as she continues to add clients — and employees — from across the country.

Indeed, no one is laughing at this not-so-little shoebox anymore — although UTCA is still rather small when compared to some of the giants that also handle unemployment matters for businesses, although they do it as one of myriad services rather than focusing energies on that one area (we’ll get to all that later). In fact, UTCA has emerged as a regional and national leader in this realm.

“From all we’ve heard, the governor and the Legislature have no intention of revisiting this matter, and I think that’s very shortsighted.”

And most of the reason why is its founder, a thoughtful, enterprising entrepreneur who sat down with BusinessWest recently to talk about everything from her business and how it has evolved to the future of work and where it’s conducted in the wake of the pandemic, to the state’s recent decision not to use some of the $5 billion in federal stimulus money coming its way to help businesses absorb the massive unemployment-insurance costs facing them.

That controversy over the so-called solvency assessment has certainly put Murphy and her company’s work under a much brighter light. Indeed, while she’s been very successful at what she does, companies don’t need UTCA’s services until they need them — and over the years, it has operated in relative anonymity, if that’s the right word.

But the recent debate over the solvency assessment and state’s decision to not use stimulus funds, and instead stretch the payments out over the next 20 years, has brought Murphy and her firm to settings ranging from an East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce (ERC5) webinar to BusinessWest’s podcast.

It’s a subject she’s passionate about, and she believes the state’s decision will have some long-term ramifications.

“I think it’s ill-advised, and I think it will put the state at a competitive disadvantage,” she said, noting that many bordering states and others as well are friendlier from an unemployment-tax standpoint. “From all we’ve heard, the governor and the Legislature have no intention of revisiting this matter, and I think that’s very shortsighted.”

As for where people work, Murphy said the pandemic has shown her — and it should have shown every employer — that workers don’t need to be in the office to be effective, and they don’t even have to be in Massachusetts, which is good for employers, but potentially not so good for the Bay State, especially given its recent stance on unemployment costs and the manner in which other states have become much more business-friendly in that regard.

 

Taxing Situation

As she talked with BusinessWest, Murphy was preparing for what she expects to be — and really hopes will be — the last move her company makes. Or, at least, the last move she will make.

Indeed, as she walked amid furniture and boxes with sticky notes on them to tell the movers where to put them, she said she was trading space at 1350 Main St. in downtown Springfield for a building she purchased in West Springfield, one more suited to the hybrid/remote work model the company has adopted, and one that will even let employees work outdoors of they so choose.

“We want to make it a modern, fun place to work,” she explained, adding that the company should be moved in by mid-July.

The move is the latest of several, an indication of how UTCA has grown over the years, not only in size, but in stature within the realm of unemployment and, as the name on the letterhead says, unemployment tax control.

Murphy was handling such work for a larger firm, one that is no longer in business, when she decided it was time to go into business for herself — with a different business model.

That model was to take a handful of clients that were encouraging her to strike out on her own and start a business in Western Mass. and launch a venture focused entirely on helping companies manage and reduce their unemployment costs.

“I was toying with the idea of doing something, but I was still unclear on whether this was the path I wanted to take,” she recalled, adding that she credits those clients with being persistent and convincing her to take the plunge.

Starting with just herself and a single employee, she he took that small but reliable block of clients and continually built upon that base, primarily by differentiating herself from the larger competitors — “huge data warehouses,” as she described them — such as Equifax and Experian, for which unemployment services are part of a one-stop-shop model and, typically, a loss leader.

The differentiation, in addition to focusing solely on unemployment-tax matters, comes in the company’s proactive, rather than reactive, approach to serving clients, said Murphy, adding that, in this industry, it is generally understood that, in order to protect an organization from unwarranted claim costs, the most effective measures an employer can implement must occur before the employee has separated.

“ I feel the market needs a reliable, responsible, client-focused broker in the industry, and I’m going to keep slugging as long as I can.”

Elaborating, she said UTCA helps companies identify and target cost drivers, and then works with them to develop solutions for reducing them, an MO that has resonated with a wide range of clients.

The firm now boasts 20 employees, including Murphy’s daughter, Meghan Avery, senior vice president; and son, Evan Murphy, director of client development, as well as a number of independent contractors who handle hearings in a number of different states.

Getting back to those giants in the industry, Murphy said trying to compete with them, at least with regard to price, is extremely difficult, and this is why so many smaller players have not been able to stay in business over the years. She’s determined not to join the growing list of casualties.

“I would not do that my clients; I feel the market needs a reliable, responsible, client-focused broker in the industry, and I’m going to keep slugging as long as I can,” she said, adding that she laments the loss of many smaller players.

“I’d welcome more privately held, small or medium-sized competitors from the perspective that they be expected to be more focused on results, unable to confuse the marketplace with a very diluted spectrum of services or a blitz of advertising,” she explained. “It’s said that iron sharpens iron, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s plenty of business to go around and no shortage of complexity or issues employers must contend with in our space.”

 

Market Forces

There has certainly been enough business in recent months, as companies of all sizes have been forced to contend with the huge bill that has come due in the wake of huge numbers of people going on unemployment due to the pandemic and the deep toll it took on businesses across virtually every sector.

Indeed, Murphy described that period as by far the busiest of her career, dominated by helping clients handle both legitimate and fraudulent claims — and there were large numbers of both.

And then came what most would describe as a controversy regarding the solvency assessment and the decision of the governor and the Legislature about how to address it.

From her position on the front lines of this battle, Murphy heard directly from a number of small and mid-sized business owners facing huge assessments, often through no fault of their own, at a time when many were still struggling to fully dig their way out from the pandemic. Thus, she became highly visible, and highly vocal, in efforts to convince the Legislature to use money from the American Rescue Plan to offset those costs to businesses. Despite those efforts, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature have instead opted to spread out the payments — an estimated $7 billion in total — over 20 years, a decision that disappoints her on many levels.

“There need to be discussions about tax equity and tax justice. The larger corporations are not going to feel this as much. But the smaller and medium-sized businesses are going to be far more disadvantaged; it’s going to impact them detrimentally. There’s no upside to how this was managed.”

“The governor and the Legislature believe the fix has been provided and nothing more needs to be done,” she said. “And that could not be further from the sentiments that we are experiencing on the ground, from our clients, and even those who aren’t clients — people who have reached out to us because they know of our role on this issue.

“There need to be discussions about tax equity and tax justice,” she went on. “The larger corporations are not going to feel this as much. But the smaller and medium-sized businesses are going to be far more disadvantaged; it’s going to impact them detrimentally. There’s no upside to how this was managed.”

As noted earlier, this controversy has put UTCA, and especially Murphy, under a brighter spotlight. For her, it’s a different role, one she’s accepted enthusiastically because of what’s at stake and because of the way her clients — and, as she said, non-clients, too — are now in the line of fire.

“It has morphed into more of an activist role, especially with our work with the ERC5,” she noted, adding that such involvement is important in that it helps bring the perspective of the small-business owner — often lost on those in power, in her view — into the forefront.

But the pandemic has done more than bring unprecedented levels of business — and visibility — to the company. Indeed, Murphy said it has also provided lessons in how work can be done, and where.

Elaborating, she said her company, like many others, has adapted a hybrid/remote model of work, with many employees working from home. But because of the technology available, home doesn’t have to be in the 413, or even in Massachusetts. And as employers look at whom they might hire and where they live, unemployment-tax rates and policies will likely play an increasingly significant factor in those decisions.

“Massachusetts will have to compete with every other state now — and there are 21 other states that have chosen to use federal stimulus funds to offset their losses on their unemployment trust funds,” she explained. “Massachusetts has used zero dollars for that purpose, and has chosen to strap employers with a 20-year assessment.

“We have two positions to fill,” she went on. “And now, we can interview and hire people from Michigan or Texas or California, and those will be the jurisdictional states for unemployment. As more employers with remote workforces become aware of this, they may be more prone to hire people from states where the unemployment-tax burden is much less.”

This changing playing field allows UTCA, and all companies, for that matter, to cast a wider net, said Murphy, and attract talent that was formerly out of reach because of geography.

“We used to talk about getting people from the eastern part of the state to relocate to Western Mass., and that was a difficult task,” she told BusinessWest. “All that has shifted; we can now focus on recruiting directly in the market where our competitor is — or wherever we want to be. We can do our homework and attract people within our industry who have niche experience and knowledge, or we can attract others who are in a demographic we want to focus on to make our company more diverse, as well as productive. And I would be surprised if businesses do not see the opportunity there to have a very robust workforce that will give them a competitive advantage.

Doing her homework and staying on the cutting edge of trends and new developments in business has enabled Murphy to take that ‘small shoebox’ referenced by that jilted competitor all those years ago and turn it into a much bigger shoebox — and, more importantly, one of the region’s more intriguing business success stories.

 

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

Cover Story

Beyond the Firewall

The recent spate of high-profile cyberattacks, many involving paid ransoms featuring six or seven zeroes, has brought an ongoing, and escalating, problem even more to the forefront. Businesses are being advised that the problem needs to be managed — before the worst happens. That means having a detailed plan involving many layers to keep things safe.

 

As he talks about cybersecurity, Charlie Christianson, owner of CMD Technology Group, equates that art and science (mostly science) to an onion.

By that, he means it has layers — many of them — with each one being important to the desired end in this matter: keeping one’s data, business, financial information, and perhaps life and livelihood safe.

“The goal isn’t to have one be-all, end-all product or solution that’s going to protect you — it’s a variety of things,” he explained. “It’s about trying to put as many layers between the threat on the outside and the asset, which is at the core.

“Most people understand the firewall discussion,” he went on. “But what they’re starting to understand is that it’s not just the stuff that protects you — it’s your staff, it’s your people, it’s the training, it’s the education, it’s the policies, and having all that in place.”

Christenson, like everyone else in this business, has been making this onion analogy — or whatever phraseology they use to get their points across — quite often these days. That’s because cybersecurity — mostly in the form of high-profile, as in very high-profile, attacks — has been in the news lately. Again. Or still, to be more accurate.

These attacks have come one after another: the Colonial Pipeline, the steamship service to the islands in Massachusetts, the meat company JBS, and many others.

Collectively, what these hacks have shown that businesses across all sectors are vulnerable, and this isn’t a problem for other people to worry about.

That has always been the case, said those we spoke with, but the recent spate of cyberattacks and the relentless coverage of them have served as a needed wakeup call for business owners of all sizes, most of which — the number varies depending on who you talk to, but it’s at least 50% — are simply not ready to handle or respond to the kind of attacks seen lately.

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson likens cybersecurity to an onion; both have, or should have, many layers.

Which brings Christianson back to his onion, and Phil Bianco to diabetes, or type 2 diabetes, to be exact.

“It’s always easier to prevent diabetes than to treat it after the fact,” said Bianco, chief technical officer with Melillo Consulting, which has three offices in the Northeast, including one in Springfield. “It’s the same thing with security — it’s always easier to manage things prior to the incident and be prepared for that and act appropriately.”

Elaborating, he said there are many elements to the process of managing before something bad happens, everything from having your system assessed so that vulnerabilities can be identified to acting on the recommendations listed in that assessment; from training employees on how spot suspicious e-mails to knowing what to do and whom to call when your system is attacked.

And while Melillo and all other firms in this business sector will do remediation — coming in after the hack and putting things back as they were, to the extent possible — and “stop the bleeding,” as Bianco put it, businesses would find it much better, and cheaper, if they hired the same company to handle preparation and prevention and work to eliminate the cuts that cause the bleeding.

“The goal isn’t to have one be-all, end-all product or solution that’s going to protect you — it’s a variety of things. It’s about trying to put as many layers between the threat on the outside and the asset, which is at the core.”

The high-profile cyberattacks of the past few weeks are an indication of how widespread the problem is, but they are also misleading to some extent, said those we spoke with, because they have involved mostly larger businesses and entities with very deep pockets, as evidenced by the size of the ransoms they paid. The sobering reality is that small businesses are a more attractive target because they are likely to be less prepared for such an attack.

“Cyberattacks are really a numbers game, and small businesses are less likely to invest in the cybersecurity practices, so they’re seen as low-hanging fruit,” said Lauren Ostberg, an attorney with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson (and a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2021), who helped spearhead the launch of the firm’s cybersecurity practice.

Lauren Ostberg

Lauren Ostberg says small businesses, many without IT teams or sophisticated cybersecurity systems, are low-hanging fruit for hackers.

“And these attackers also sell each other pre-made malware, so less sophisticated attackers can just send out 100 different phishing e-mails, see what sticks, and then attack there,” she explained. “So nonprofits are at risk, small- to medium-sized businesses are at risk, and, in most cases, they don’t have the insurance to back them up to minimize that risk, and they don’t realize how vulnerable they are.”

Everyone should now understand just how vulnerable they are, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that some remain slow to take action and adjust to what is a troubling new world order. Those who don’t adjust do so at their peril, said these experts, adding that recent events show just how easy it is to be attacked, and how painful, costly, and time-consuming it is to repair the damage that’s been done.

 

What the Hack?

As they talked about those behind all the cyberattacks going on in the world right now, those we spoke with used a wide array of descriptive adjectives to let people know just whom they’re dealing with.

Words like sophisticated, diabolical, persistent, and relentless were used early and quite often, as was another that should get the hair up on every business owner: automated.

“It is only a matter of time before any organization falls victim to one of these attacks,” said Joel Mollison, president of Westfield-based Northeast IT, who said this inevitability shouldn’t prompt paralysis, but instead well-thought-out action to prevent (to the extent possible) such an attack, and then recover as quickly and painlessly as possible if an attack does occur.

“It’s always easier to prevent diabetes than to treat it after the fact. It’s the same thing with security — it’s always easier to manage things prior to the incident and be prepared for that and act appropriately.”

Mollison puts it in clear perspective, if anyone wasn’t already sure.

“Typically, we find that most organizations have basic security measures in place, but rarely understand their level of potential exposure or impact on operations during such an event,” he said. “The ability to recover from one of these events varies widely based on size of the organization, data volume, and locations of data and services. Even in the best-case scenarios, this process can take many days or weeks.

“Business operations are almost always crippled to a marginal capacity while systems are recovered,” he went on. “The financial impact, even without having to pay a ransom, is often devastating, and most cyber liability policies are underfunded, which compounds the problem. There are also compliance, reporting, and legal factors that are part of the recovery process that are often overlooked.”

Stan Bates, director of Business Development for Melillo, agreed. Relating some recent and current cases his firm is handling, he said they effectively communicate how widespread the problem is, what issues and problems are confronting business owners, the costs involved (and there are many of them), and the direction this matter is taking.

Joel Mollison

Given the sophistication and persistence of today’s cybercriminals, Joel Mollison says it’s only a matter of time before any organization falls victim to an attack.

One involves a large nonprofit in the healthcare sector, he said, adding that this client found out the hard way all that can be involved with returning things to the way they were before the attack.

“It got hit really hard, and they called us to help fix the situation,” Bates recalled. “They were hacked, they put their system down, they were out of e-mail, they were out of just about everything you can think of. The sad part was they weren’t prepared to know what to do, and to top it off, their insurance company forced them to use their security group, which had a limited knowledge of their network, and pay for those services, while also paying us to come in and help those guys understand what they had and fix it.

“They’re up and running,” he went on. “But it took about two weeks.”

Another case involves a small machine shop in the Hartford area, he said, adding that this small business has been informed that, if it wants to keep getting contracts from the federal government, it must meet a series of guidelines regarding cyberattacks and being fully prepared for them. “It’s going to run about $4,000 to $5,000 a month for us to monitor and secure his system and hit the score the federal government is telling him to hit.”

 

Something’s Phishy

These anecdotes are just some of many that help tell the story of how cybersecurity is becoming a huge issue for business owners and managers, one they can no longer ignore — not that they could really ignore it before.

Indeed, such sobering messages have been delivered with increasing frequency over the past several weeks as the high-profile attacks — and the ransom payments that include six and sometimes seven zeroes — come with increasing regularity. And they have certainly stimulated some interest within the business community, and also government offices and nonprofits, to be ready, or at least more ready.

“The conversations have changed. In the past, there were certain people you could talk to until you were blue in the face, and it was purely a dollars-and-cents discussion: ‘you want me to spend how much in a firewall, or this piece of software?’ Now, it’s ‘what can we do?’”

“The conversations have changed,” Christianson said. “In the past, there were certain people you could talk to until you were blue in the face, and it was purely a dollars-and-cents discussion: ‘you want me to spend how much in a firewall, or this piece of software?’ Now, it’s ‘what can we do?’”

Ostberg agreed. “People are taking the matter more seriously, and they’re taking me more seriously when I tell them they have to plan for cybersecurity incidents,” she said. “I’ve noticed an increase in concern, especially about ransomware, which can really cripple a business.

“The Massachusetts regulations and the advice I give my clients provide a lot of good ideas about ways to prevent or mitigate some of the risk that would be caused by some of the hacks we’re seeing,” she went on. “And it’s focused on building layers of prevention.”

At or near the top of any list of prevention measures is training, specifically involving the detection of phishing e-mails, which comprise the entry point for most of the hacks that occur today, according to those we spoke with.

Melillo Consulting

Members of the team at Melillo Consulting, from left, Phil Bianco, Doug Morrison, and Stan Bates.

As they talked about these e-mails, they summoned some of those same adjectives as they tried to convey just how sophisticated they have become.

“The phishing is getting more elaborate, and the social engineering that goes behind it is far more advanced than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Doug Morrison, practice director for the Development Operations team at Melillo. “It used to be that the e-mails were intentionally easy to sleuth out, because that way they could weed out the people they didn’t want; they wanted the people who were easily fooled to click on the link. But now, it’s getting very elaborate and very difficult to tell real e-mails from the fake e-mails.”

With this level of sophistication, Bianco said, it really is only a matter of time before someone makes a mistake and opens the door for a cyberattacker. But training and knowing to be on alert and skeptical of everything remotely suspicious are still critical to help minimize such incidents.

“Know who you’re doing business with,” he said. “Trust an e-mail if it’s someone you’ve done business with in the past. And if it isn’t someone you’ve done business with in the past, be skeptical of that; if you’re in question, send it over to your IT team, and let them take a look at it. If they see a bad e-mail, they can tell you immediately, ‘hey, we’ve seen this before, this is not something you should work with — please delete this or quarantine this,’ or, if they haven’t seen it, they can send it on to an anti-spam or anti-virus protection service that they’ve engaged with, and that individual or group can look at it across multiple things that they’ve seen.”

In dealing with suspicious e-mails, Bates cited his own firm as an example of the kind of rigorous training that can and should go on.

“We do quarterly training — each employee has to take a test and pass it,” he explained. “It’s terribly difficult, but it instills in your mind some of the things that are going on out there. Just the other day, we got hit, but everyone in the organization was smart enough, because of their training, to delete before they opened.”

 

Backup Plan

Because of the seeming inevitability that these sophisticated phishing attacks will succeed, businesses of all sizes need to have all the other layers of that onion to fully protect themselves from attacks — the training and the policies, in addition to the hardware and software.

“You have to have all the other layers in place because you simply cannot rely on humans not to click on e-mails at the pace that they’re required to do,” said Morrison, noting, as others did, that subsequent layers include a firewall, backing up all information, and encryption of information.

As noted, there are layers to backing up information, said the experts we spoke with, noting that the best solution is to isolate the backups as much as possible from the main network.

“Most companies do back up, but these malwares that do ransomware are pretty sophisticated,” Bianco explained. “The average time that that individual has compromised your network is typically a month or more. And in that month or more, they can go through and encrypt your backups as well as your production-installed system, your code bases, and things like that.

“Know who you’re doing business with. Trust an e-mail if it’s someone you’ve done business with in the past. And if it isn’t someone you’ve done business with in the past, be skeptical of that.”

“And they have a pretty sophisticated map of what your environment looks like, so we’ve been working with customers to do what’s called air-gabbing backups,” he went on. “Once that infrastructure is backed up, it’s completely separated from your network, so it can’t be encrypted.”

Christianson agreed, and noted that such independent, often off-site backup systems need to not only be in place, but be monitored as well.

“We’ve all heard the stories … people think they’re backing up for a long period of time, only to find out that, when they need it, the backups are not working,” he said. “That’s why people are starting to realize that it’s really important to have these systems monitored in some fashion, and that there are multiple layers.”

As for whether to pay that ransom … most consultants, and lawyers like Ostberg, certainly recommend against that practice, although that hasn’t stopped many of those who have been attacked from paying out millions in Bitcoin.

“One of the things that’s just awful is seeing people pay the ransom,” Christianson said, “because that’s not the answer. You’re just encouraging them to come back — and they will come back, not to mention the fact that they give you the key and you get your data, but you have no idea what they dropped in there and left for a back door.

“Honestly, in some cases, the only way to know is to reformat it, reinstall it all, scan the heck out of the data, and bring it back from the ground up,” he went on. “Or, manage a good disaster-recovery backup plan.”

Which brings him all the way back to that onion he referenced at the top. It should have many, many layers, he said, with more added as they become available and necessary, because what worked and what was enough a few years ago probably isn’t enough now, and certainly won’t be enough a few years and maybe even a few months from now.

That’s how quickly and profoundly the scene is changing when it comes to cybersecurity and protecting a business, nonprofit, school system, government agency, or household from those who would do it harm.

Managing the problem is all-important, said those who spoke with, but what’s most important is managing it before the worst happens — because doing so can often prevent the worst from happening.

 

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

Insurance

Cover Story

From left, Bob Borawski, Dave Malek, and Mark Rosa, the leadership team at Borawski Insurance.

From left, Bob Borawski, Dave Malek, and Mark Rosa, the leadership team at Borawski Insurance.

As he talked about insurance, and also about the agency started by his grandfather almost 91 years ago, Bob Borawski drew a number of analogies to the banking industry.

Specifically, he referenced an ongoing pattern of mergers, acquisitions, and overall consolidation that has left fewer players, and far fewer smaller, independent agencies.

In banking, said Borawski, who has been on the board at Florence Bank for many years now, this activity has created opportunities for those players with a track record of strong customer service and the ability to fill a void left by those agencies swallowed up by larger interests with fewer ties to — and employees living in — the 413. At the same time, while rates and prices are always important in banking, relationships are more important.

And, by and large, it’s the same in insurance, Borawski said.

“Anyone can give a rate that’s a half or five-eighths of a percentage point less,” he said in reference to banks. “But beyond the rate, you want to have a good relationship with your client. Like an independent bank, we have a focus on being independent — we’ve chosen not to be gobbled up by one of the larger players because we think independence is important. We still think people appreciate being local.”

Dave Malek, vice president of the company, who came aboard nearly 30 years ago, agreed.

“It really is all about relationships,” he noted. “And I think that is what gets lost when you get swallowed up by a larger conglomerate.”

In essence, Borawski said, he, Malek, and the other 15 employees at this company launched at the height of the Great Depression in 1930, are continuing a pattern of personalized customer service and relationship building that was started by his grandfather, Alexander Borawski, and continued by his father, Robert.

“These days, people are always saying, ‘we can save you…,’ ‘we can save you…,’ ‘we can save you…’ — and that’s great until something goes wrong and all that savings took coverages away and didn’t provide what you should have had.”

And this pattern has served the company well, especially when it comes to commercial lines, where the Borawski company has built a large and diverse portfolio that continues to grow.

Indeed, at present, commercial accounts comprise roughly 75% of the book of business, said Malek, adding that the portfolio includes everything from manufacturers to auto dealers; nonprofits to general contractors.

And this commercial business has spawned growth in numerous areas, especially employee benefits but also personal lines, said Borawski, adding that the ability to provide a wide range of products and services to customers has been a formula for growth going back nine decades, but especially in the past 30 years as the company has sharpened its focus on its commercial portfolio.

The first and second generations of leadership at Borawski Insurance: Alexander Borawski, left, and Robert Borawski.

The first and second generations of leadership at Borawski Insurance: Alexander Borawski, left, and Robert Borawski.

Overall, this agency has been conducting business in much the same way it has since the doors opened, even if COVID-19 forced some changes when it came to where employees were working and how work was done.

Moving forward, the business plan calls for simply “more of the same,” said Borawski, adding that the company intends to take full advantage of the trend toward consolidation within the industry and continue its focus on relationship building.

“You’re either moving forward or moving backward, and our plan is to continue to grow our way — organically,” he said, adding that he believes the company is certainly well-positioned to achieve that goal.

For this issue and its focus on insurance, BusinessWest talked with several team members at Borawski to get a full understanding of not only where it’s been, but where it wants to go and how it intends to get there.

 

Independent Thinking

Borawski told BusinessWest that, upon graduating from Stonehill College in 1980, he had no plans to join the family business. Instead, he went to work for then-emerging office-supply company W.B. Mason as a salesperson.

“There were probably 35 people there at the time; I really liked it and had no intention of leaving,” he said, adding that his career took a critical turn a few years later when, while he was home for Thanksgiving, his father, who joined the agency in the early ’60s, commenced a discussion on succession.

“He said, ‘what am I going to do with this business?’ and we continued to talk,” Borawski recalled, adding that, soon thereafter, he came back home to join the company as a salesperson; eventually, he would succeed his father as president in 1992.

By then, he was also working to take a friendship on the golf course with Malek to a much different level. The two were members at what was Hickory Ridge Country Club in Amherst (the club closed a few years ago), and while talking golf and shop — Malek had been in the insurance business for roughly a decade by then — a discussion commenced about Malek coming to the Borawski agency and “helping build something,” Bob said.

That something was the aforementioned commercial-lines division that has grown so dramatically over time.

“We made a lot of cold calls over those years,” said Borawski, adding that, in addition to that time-honored strategy, the business has benefited tremendously from referrals that have led to new customers of all sizes in both the commercial- and personal-lines sides of the business.

Overall, the company has decided to grow organically, not through acquisition, as many others have. Again, as in banking, growing organically means, to a large extent, taking customers from other players, something that’s accomplished through hard work, a strong track record, a deep portfolio of products and services, relationships with carriers (Borawski works with more than 30 of them), and — here comes that phrase again — relationship building.

“Business just doesn’t fly in the door — you’ve got to go find it,” he explained. “You have to hunt it and track it.”

That’s because the competition, as in banking, is fierce. To stand out, an agency has to possess those qualities listed above, said all those we spoke with, and especially a desire to work with clients to find solutions for them, not just get a signature at the bottom of a policy — or series of policies.

“One of the things that we try to do differently is evaluate someone’s insurance program, and not just from the perspective of price,” Malek said. “It’s important to understand what their needs are and what we’re trying to provide for them, rather than just focus on the bottom-line price, because, in most cases, that doesn’t end up working out.

“Insurance is an intangible. You can’t touch or feel it until you need it. And we try to get people to understand just that — that everything is great until something goes wrong. And when it goes wrong, you need to know that you’re going to be put back to where you were prior to that.”

“You get what you pay for, and we work to get people to pay for the right coverage,” he went on. “These days, people are always saying, ‘we can save you…,’ ‘we can save you…,’ ‘we can save you…’ — and that’s great until something goes wrong and all that savings took coverages away and didn’t provide what you should have had. No one goes to the cheapest doctor for a reason.”

Mark Rosa, senior account executive, agreed, and noted that he and others in similar positions at the company strive to be advisors, not merely salespeople.

“It’s not just a game of show and tell and salesmanship — we want to advise as well,” he noted, adding that business owners who are experts at whatever business sector they have chosen are not necessarily — and not likely to be — experts on the many different insurance and employee-benefit products available today and which ones might be best for their company.

This desire to advise is another strong attribute that has served the company well during this time of consolidation within the industry, said Rosa, adding that, with those mergers and acquisitions, a personal brand of service is generally lost, creating opportunity for those who can still provide it.

“From a new-business standpoint, many people have made up their mind that they want to go somewhere else,” he explained. “It doesn’t take much for a client to figure out that things won’t be the same as they used to be. They figure that out pretty quickly, and that’s when the phone starts to ring.”

 

Bottom Line

While there are certainly many direct comparisons between banking and insurance, there are some important differences as well, Malek explained.

“Insurance is an intangible,” he noted. “You can’t touch or feel it until you need it. And we try to get people to understand just that — that everything is great until something goes wrong. And when it goes wrong, you need to know that you’re going to be put back to where you were prior to that.

“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that we’re able to give people that sense of comfort to understand that their business is going to run just as if nothing happened,” he went on, adding that not all agencies can successfully provide this level of comfort.

Those that can think independently — in every sense of that phrase — can do it better than others. And that’s what has allowed this company to thrive for almost a century now, and prompt it to look toward the future with no plans to change how it does business.

 

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

Cover Story

The Next Stage

The governor calls the last phase of his reopening plan the ‘new normal.’ It’s a phrase people are already tired of, even if they use it themselves. Life in the new normal isn’t like it was during the pandemic, and it isn’t like it was in 2019, either. As the stories below reveal, it’s a different time — a time everyone has been waiting for since workers packed up their things and headed home to work in March 2020. It’s a time of opportunity and a chance to recover some of what’s been lost. But there are still a number of challenges and questions to be answered, involving everything from workforce issues to when business travel will resume, to just how much pent-up demand there is for products and services.

Hall of Fame

Shrine is poised to rebound from a season of hard losses

Bradley International Airport

Facility gains altitude after pandemic-induced declines

White Lion Brewing

After a year to forget, this Springfield label is ready to roar

The Starting Gate at GreatHorse

Reopening timeline prompts excitement, but also trepidation

The Sheraton Springfield

Downtown mainstay sees new signs of life, anticipates many more

The Clark Art Institute

This Berkshires staple has exhibited patience and flexibility

The Federal Restaurant Group

At these eateries, guests will determine pace of reopening

 

 

Opinion

Editorial

By George O’Brien

 

Andy Yee

Andy Yee

Andy Yee, who passed away late last month, was the true definition of a serial entrepreneur. Even though he had a number of businesses, especially restaurants within the Bean Group, he was always looking for that next challenge, that next opportunity.

He took on each project with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm that was as inspiring as it was contagious. And many of his undertakings were not just business ventures — they were game changers in our local communities, difficult yet successful efforts to save institutions such as the Student Prince in downtown Springfield and the White Hut in West Springfield from being relegated to the past tense.

In 2015, BusinessWest named Yee and several of his business partners, including Peter Pan Chairman and CEO Peter Picknelly and Kevin and Michael Vann, as Difference Makers for their efforts to save the Student Prince. And that title certainly fit him. He was a difference maker as a business owner and entrepreneur, as a family man, and as a leader in the community.

“He was a difference maker as a business owner and entrepreneur, as a family man, and as a leader in the community.”

The Student Prince was struggling when Yee and Picknelly stepped forward. Theirs was a business proposition, to be sure, but it was much more than that. It was an effort to save something that had become a part of the fabric of the city and of the region. It was more about community than it was about dollars and cents — although Yee, a very smart businessperson, was also focused on the dollars and cents as well.

The same was true with the White Hut in West Springfield — a different kind of restaurant, to be sure, but with a very similar brand of emotional attachment. Today, both establishments live on, and Yee is a huge reason why.

As a business writer who interviewed him dozens of times over the past two decades, I was always struck by how energetic he was, how hands-on he was in every endeavor he became involved with, and how he always had one eye on the present and the other on the future, trying to anticipate what was to come and be ready for it.

That is the essence of a leader, and that’s another word that fits Yee like a glove.

His latest endeavor is a restaurant project in Court Square in Springfield, another landmark that needed someone to step forward and give it a new direction, a new future. Yee was part of a large team doing just that.

We sincerely hope this project moves forward. It will be difficult without his leadership, his enthusiasm, and his ability to get the tough projects done. It will be a fitting tribute — yet another one — to how he had the ability to not only open a business, but change a community for the better — and make a huge difference.

He will be missed.

Features

Facility Gains Altitude After Pandemic-induced Declines

The addition of new flights from carriers

The addition of new flights from carriers Breeze Airways and Sun Country Airlines is one of many signs of progress and vibrancy at Bradley International Airport.

Kevin Dillon can see a number of signs of much-needed progress at Bradley International Airport, starting with the parking garage.

Until quite recently, it was all the parking the airport needed to handle not only the passenger volume at the facility, but all the employees as well. In fact, it was far more than enough. But over the past few months, things have started changing.

“Now, most days, we’re starting to fill the parking garage, and we opened up two additional surface lots — and that’s a good sign,” said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, adding that there are many others indicating that Bradley is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels of vibrancy, including the restaurants and retail shops that are reopening their doors after being closed for months, new carriers introducing routes out of the airport, and, most important, climbing passenger totals.

“We’re pleased with the way the numbers are starting to roll out, although we still have a ways to go,” he said, noting that most all travel at present is leisure in nature. “At the beginning of the year, we were still down 60% compared to pre-pandemic levels; now, on any given day, we’re down 40% to 50% — it can shift any day. And it really does seem to correspond with the vaccine rollout here in the region. The more people got vaccinated, the more people started to fly. The more people start to fly, the more people see that, and they start to get a level of confidence.

“As we look toward the summer, we are expecting a very healthy summer travel period,” he went on. “What you’re starting to see in terms of some of these airline announcements and route announcements is a recognition on the part of the airlines, as well, that this recovery is well underway.”

Elaborating, he said it’s difficult to project where the airport will be by the end of the summer in terms of those passenger-volume numbers, but he believes that, if current trends continue (and most all signs point toward that eventuality), then Bradley might be down only about 25% from pre-pandemic levels — a big number, to be sure, but a vast improvement over the past 14 months.

Overall, a number of factors will determine when and to what extent Bradley fully recovers all it has lost to the pandemic, including everything from business travel to international flights.

Let’s start with the former, which, by Dillon’s estimates, accounts for roughly half the travel in and out of Bradley.

While some business travel has returned, the numbers are still way down from before the pandemic, he said, adding that the next several months could be critical when it comes to the question of when, and to what extent, business travel comes back.

He expects the numbers to start to improve once businesses set their own internal policies for when employees can return to the office and resume many of the patterns that saw wholesale changes after COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?” he asked, adding that there has to be a “reckoning” within the business community as to where it’s going with some of its pandemic-related policies.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?”

Dillon said there are two types of business travel. One involves businesses traveling to see customers, a tradition he expects will return once COVID-related fears subside. The other is inter-company travel, where a business sends an employee from one of its locations to a different one. It’s this kind of travel that seems most imperiled, if that’s the proper word, by teleconferencing, Zoom, and other forms of technology, and it’s this mode that will likely lag behind the other.

As for international flights, these, too, will be among the last aspects of the airport’s business to return to something approaching pre-COVID conditions, said Dillon, noting that Air Canada is severely limited by severe restrictions on travel to that country. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus, which initiated flights out of Bradley in 2016, is still ramping up after restrictions on overseas flights were lifted in the fall of 2020. Nothing has been confirmed, but he is anticipating a return of that carrier in the spring of 2022.

Meanwhile, getting back to those signs of life — and progress — that Dillon noted, some new additions to the list were added late last month in the form of two new carriers. Actually, one is new, the other is an existing freight and charter carrier expanding into passenger service.

The former is Salt Lake City-based Breeze Airways, the fifth airline startup founded by David Neeleman, which will launch non-stop flights out of Bradley this summer, including Charleston, Columbus, Norfolk, and Pittsburgh. The latter is Sun Country Airlines, which will be expanding its footprint at the airport with the introduction of passenger service to Minneapolis.

Dillon noted that several of those new destinations, and especially Charleston and Norfolk, are primarily leisure-travel spots, meaning they could get off to solid starts as Americans look to make up for lost time when it comes to getting away from it all.

Looking at the big picture, Dillon said decisions in Connecticut and Massachusetts to move up their ‘reopening’ dates and accelerate the return to a ‘new normal’ will only help Bradley gain altitude as it continues to climb back from what has been a dismal 14 months since the pandemic struck.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

This Berkshires Staple Has Exhibited Patience and Flexibility

The Clark, which now features exhibits

The Clark, which now features exhibits indoors and outdoors at its Williamstown campus, will take it slow as the state enters the ‘new normal’ and gradually increase capacity. Photo by of Jeff Goldberg coutesy of Clark Art Institute

Victoria Tanner Salzman says it was a complete coincidence that the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s first-ever outdoor exhibition opened just a few months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

It takes years of planning to bring such an exhibit to fruition, she explained, and that was certainly the case with Ground/work, a collection of eight works created by six international artists that are found in varied locations across the Clark’s sprawling, 140-acre campus in Williamstown.

“These installations are embedded in a landscape that is ever-changing — both daily and seasonally,” according to a description on the institute’s website. “Ground/work highlights the balance between fragility and resilience that both nature and the passage of time reveal, while offering fresh experiences with every visit.”

Tanner Salzman, the Clark’s director of Communications, noted that “this exhibit has given our visitors the opportunity to see art outdoors, indoors, or both. And we’ve gotten tremendous response from our visitors about the experience; you can wander our trails and walk through our meadow and come upon these pieces and hopefully enjoy them.”

The phenomenal timing of Ground/work has been one of the many factors that has enabled the Clark to more than weather what has been a protracted and quite challenging storm, said Tanner Salzman, adding that others include a host of virtual initiatives and limited visitation marked by strict adherence to COVID policies and best practices to keep visitors and staff safe at all times.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will.”

“At certain points over the past year, the governor’s orders increased capacity, but we chose, at those points, to remain at a lower capacity just out of concern for the comfort of our visitors and the safety of everyone,” she explained. “We’ve either been at the capacity level prescribed by the state or below it.”

And as the state moves up its timetable for fully reopening the economy and removing restrictions on businesses of all kinds, the Clark will continue to be diligent and err, if that’s even the right word, on the side of caution, she told BusinessWest.

“We are taking it slowly, but we will increase our capacity; our current operating capacity is permitted to be 50%, but we’ve chosen to operate at a lower capacity,” she explained, adding that the facility planned to increase to that 50% level on May 29. And moving forward, it plans to increase the numbers as the conditions permit. “We will adjust upwards as we feel it’s best for everyone to do so.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will,” she went on. “We’ll take a look at it on a weekly basis, and certainly our hope is to be in a position in the summer where we’ll hopefully bump it back up. But we have not made that decision yet.”

While watching and adjusting as the conditions permit, the Clark will apply some of the lessons it learned during the pandemic, said Tanner Salzman, echoing the sentiments of business owners and managers across virtually every sector of the economy.

And many of these lessons involve using technology to broaden the Clark’s audience and bring its collections and programs to people who might not otherwise make it to Williamstown.

“We were learning lessons every day throughout this, and I’m sure that some of the practices that we adopted during this period will find a carry-over life as we move forward,” she explained. “We are certainly looking very hard at virtual events and continuing them; we found great success in doing such events, and we recognize that it allows us to open our doors to people who cannot necessarily be here to walk through them for an event. Instead of just having people at a live event at the Clark, we’ve had people tuning in from all around the world, people regularly coming onto live Zoom calls from California, Florida, all over, so we will want to continue that.

“I think there’s a hybrid model out there that we settle into as we move forward,” she went on, adding that there was a very limited amount of virtual programming before COVID. “We’ve done all sorts of things over the past year-plus, from gallery tours to lectures; Q&A conversations with curators to podcasts. We’re enthusiastic about finding ways to adapt these virtual programs into the menu we offer on a regular basis.”

Looking back on 2020, Tanner Salzman said the opening of Ground/work was certainly slowed by COVID. Pieces were arriving from the around the world, she explained, and as borders were closing and studios were closing as well, the process of bringing those works to Williamstown became more complicated and time-consuming, with the exhibit taking shape over time.

“We had to be more flexible and a little more patient,” she said, adding that these qualities have served the Clark well in very aspect of coping with the pandemic and effectively serving art lovers from across the country and around the world.

And flexibility and patience will continue to be the watchwords as this institution continues through that phase known as the ‘new normal.’

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

The Basketball Hall of Fame

 

John Doleva

John Doleva stands in the new Kobe Bryant exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is drawing considerable attention and is now one of many reasons for optimism at the shrine.

 

John Doleva says it was probably within minutes after Vanessa Bryant, widow of the NBA star and entrepreneur Kobe Bryant, posted an Instagram photo of her in the new exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame dedicated to Kobe — a photo that has garnered 17 million ‘likes’ — when the phone started ringing.

On the other end were people — from this region, but also across the country — who wanted to know more about the exhibit and how long it would be running.

“The phones been ringing off the hook,” said Doleva, the long-time president and CEO of the Hall. “We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post, followed soon thereafter by an article on her visit to the Hall in Us Weekly magazine and the response to both, is one of many things going right for the Hall of Fame a year and change after everything — as in everything — started going wrong.

Indeed, at the start of 2020, the year was shaping up as potentially the best in the Hall’s history. A star-studded class, headlined by Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, was going to be inducted that September. Meanwhile, a series of major additions and renovations to the Hall were being completed, prompting expectations for a surge in visitation. A commemorative coin was slated to be launched, one that was projected to become a major fundraiser for the shrine. And plans were being finalized for a massive three-on-three basketball tournament, with the Hall as a major player — and drawing card for participating teams.

And then … it all went away.

The induction ceremonies, a major source of funding for the Hall, were pushed back several times, and eventually to last month, and moved to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. The commemorative coin was scrapped, and the three-on-three tournament, dubbed Hooplandia, was scrubbed as well.

“The phones been ringing off the hook. We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

As for the Hall’s renovation, COVID-19 actually provided an opportunity to slow down the pace of work and add two new attractions — the Kobe Bryant exhibit and another exhibit that allows visitors to virtually join the set with TNT’s NBA broadcast team, which includes Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, and read a few highlights.

In recent weeks, visitation to this new, more modern, more immersive Hall has been steadily increasing, said Doleva, who expects that pattern to continue, and for a number of reasons, ranging from Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post to the fact that many people who might otherwise be heading to the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard this summer will be coming to Western Mass. for day trips because they can’t book rooms or cottages at those destinations.

“Our traffic right now is ahead of pre-pandemic, 2019 numbers, and our pre-bookings for upcoming weekends are excellent,” he noted. “On a normal Saturday in May, we would get 300 to 400 people; last Saturday (May 22), we had 660. School is not out yet, and yet we’re still seeing a few hundred on a weekday.

“Our projections are that this will be the best summer we’ve ever had; we’re going to be aggressive in our promotion of visitation — we didn’t invest $21 million to hope and pray people come,” he went on, adding that he’s expecting 100,000 visitors to visit this summer, a 30% to 40% increase over what has been typical over the years.

And the governor’s moving of the reopening date from Aug. 1 to May 29 will certainly help in this regard, he said, adding that June and especially July are key months for the shrine.

“We were anxiously awaiting the green flag — and now we’re ready to run,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while some businesses were not fully ready for May 29, the Hall was, and especially grateful for gaining nine critical weeks.

Overall, Doleva believes 2021 will, in many respects, be the year that 2020 wasn’t for the Hall. There will actually be two induction ceremonies, with the class of 2021, headlined by former Celtics Paul Pearce and Bill Russell (to be honored as the first black coach in the NBA), to be celebrated in September at the MassMutual Center, as well as a return of collegiate basketball tournaments that benefit the Hall. Meanwhile, Doleva is also projecting a strong surge in corporate events and outings at the Hall as the business world gradually returns to something approaching normal.

He said the Hall boasts a number of amenities, including a theater with seating for several hundred and Center Court, which can seat more than 400 for a sit-down dinner and now includes a 14-by-40-foot video screen.

“We’re getting a lot of interest, a lot of calls,” he said, noting that a few banquet facilities closed due to COVID, and the Hall stands to benefit whenever the business community and other constituencies are ready and willing to gather in large numbers again.

Getting back to those calls from California and the Kobe Bryant exhibit, Doleva said the typical lifespan for such a display is at least three to five years, and perhaps longer. He joked that those at the Hall are telling those callers, ‘why don’t you buy your tickets today, and we’ll hold it until you come.’”

Enthusiasm for that exhibit is just one of many reasons why those at the Hall of Fame believe they can fully rebound from a year that saw a number of hard losses.

 

—George O’Brien

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