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Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

Signs of the Times

By George O’Brien

Hyman G. Darling

Hyman Darling

Liz Sillin

Gina Barry

Hyman Darling says the calls started coming in several weeks ago.

At first, there were a few, and then, as the news about the COVID-19 pandemic became steadily worse and the grim reality of the situation became ever more apparent, the volume started increasing.

On the other end of the line were people looking to update a will or estate plan, or, more likely, finish the one they’d started but never finished or finally get started with one, he said, adding that there are obvious reasons why.

“Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has the virus, and they’re worried — about their parents, their brothers, their cousins … somebody,” said Darling, a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Bacon Wilson and one of the region’s pre-eminent estate-planning specialists. “And there’s more people sitting at home with less to do; they’re paying attention to this and thinking about it. The news is very distressing, and people are responding to it.”

Meanwhile, healthcare workers, and especially those on the front lines of the crisis, don’t have to watch on TV — they can see it right in from them — and, thus, they’re responsible for many of these calls to Darling and specialists like him across the area.

This phenomenon, if it can be called that, is certainly keeping area estate planners much busier than they were, providing some much-needed peace of mind to those who are watching the news and seeing the death tolls rise, and even adding some new phrases to the lexicon, like ‘driveway signing.’

That’s the phrase Liz Sillin, an estate-planning specialist with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, summoned as she talked about one of the more challenging aspects of this development: documents need to be signed and notarized, and at this moment (things may well change), Massachusetts does not allow electronic signatures for such documents as wills and healthcare proxies.

That’s why there really are signings in the driveway — and with all the proper precautions taken for preventing or at least minimizing the spread of the virus.

“We take as many steps as possible to keep us all away from one another and not cross-contaminate the paper,” said Sillin, who has now been part of a few of these elaborate exercises, which involve the lawyers and four participants — the party creating the document, two witnesses, and a notary. “Everyone brings their own pen, and everyone steps back while one person signs, preferably without touching the paper with his or her hand. We use lots of hand sanitizer; we use a clipboard, and we sanitize the clipboard. It’s kind of a bizarre process, but there are people for whom getting these documents done is paramount, and if remote signing isn’t legal, this is the only way we can do it.”

Mike Simolo, an estate-planning specialist with Springfield-based Robinson Donovan, who, like most all of his counterparts, has taken part in a few driveway signings himself, agreed. And, like others we spoke with, he said that, while it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to get people to do what they should have some time ago, he’s glad that many have been motivated to get this important work done.

“People who had been putting this off for one reason or another are suddenly deciding not to put it off anymore,” he said. “They’re calling up, hoping to get a plan a plan in place sooner, rather than later.”

With the accent on sooner.

And while their phones are ringing more often, those we spoke with noted that they are apprehensive that some, in an effort to get something done, and in a hurry, will take shortcuts, perhaps visit one of the legal websites out there, or, worse still, take the DIY route.

“This is LegalZoom’s dream situation,” said Simolo, referring to the popular website that provides legal assistance. “People are waking up, watching the news, and realizing, ‘I don’t have anything.’”

He said that, while people can certainly take that route, he projects that many who do will leave out something or make a mistake that could have serious implications later, when loved ones are left to settle an estate (more on that later).

For our upcoming issue’s focus on estate planning, BusinessWest looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting many to get important estate-planning work done, and how the legal community is responding.

Where There’s a Will…

As she talked about her greater workload and when and why it came about, Gina Barry, another partner and estate-planning specialist with Bacon Wilson, used the story of a pharmacist at one of the local hospitals — an individual with a number of the health risks that make him especially vulnerable to the virus — to touch on a number of the relevant points in this intriguing development.

“He’s working long hours in the hospital,” she said, “and he was terrified — and he probably still is — that, because of his high-risk concerns, he would be one of those who would contract the virus and not survive it.

“We started his plan a few years back,” she went on. “Recently, he e-mailed me and said, ‘I have no right to ask this, given that I delayed a bit, but can you rush?’ And I said, ‘absolutely, I can rush.’ I dropped everything and got it done.”

Continuing that story, Barry said this individual managed to get the notary from the hospital and two of his co-workers together to sign these documents, and she Zoomed in for the gathering to make sure everyone was signing in the right place.

As noted, this anecdote touches on a number of the many elements of this story, from the fear exhibited by healthcare workers to the need to move fast; from the logistics involved with getting a signing done to the technology used by lawyers to get the documents signed, sealed, and delivered.

And it’s a story that is now playing itself out countless times across the region.

Indeed, while not everyone calling to write or update a will or a related document is in healthcare — and the lawyers we spoke with said these individuals have been given first priority —  most everyone is terrified. And they’re also in a hurry.

And, for the most part, estate-planning specialists are able to accommodate them.

Simolo said a process that might normally take several weeks can be expedited and handled in perhaps a week to 10 days, with a fairly simple will being done in just a few days.

Meanwhile, many of these wills and other documents — living wills and healthcare proxies are also being sought — are being created in what would be considered non-traditional ways. Indeed, since face-to-face meetings are all but out given new social-distancing guidelines, estate-planning specialists are using the phone, Zoom, and other vehicles for communicating with clients and getting documents reviewed.

“People don’t care about coming in now,” said Darling. “They’re happy to do the telephone messaging, e-mails, Zoom … as long as it gets done, they don’t care if they meet us in person.”

Interest in getting documents written and notarized is especially acute among those in healthcare, and often it’s those individuals’ loved ones who are getting the ball rolling.

“I’ve been contacted by the husbands and wives of doctors,” Simolo said. “They’re saying, ‘let’s get this done as soon as humanly possible.”

Sillin agreed, and noted that there is interest among those old and young to have their affairs in order.

“Just today, I got a call from someone who is a doctor  — he’s very young and has a young family,” she explained. “He’s in a facility that has cases around him, and he’s like, ‘yikes, I have to do something.”

But interest is across the board, said those we spoke with, adding that some of those calling are finally getting around to having these documents written, while others are realizing that the ones they have are dated and need to be made current.

“People are at home reading about nothing but COVID-19,” said Sillin. “They begin to contemplate this aspect of life, and we’ve been getting a lot of calls from people of all ages who want to get going on some estate planning.”

Simolo agreed.

“It’s mostly been people who don’t have a plan in place or had a plan in place 25 years ago, when the kids were 3,” said Simolo. “Now, the grandkids are 3 — that kind of thing.”

But while those we spoke with are certainly pleased that their phones are ringing more — for themselves, but especially for their clients — they are concerned that many may try to do this work online or even draft something themselves.

“It’s been my experience that, nine times out of 10, something’s missing from those documents,” said Darling, adding that, in many other cases, documents are not signed properly. “You get what you pay for, and mistakes made now can be very costly later — not for the deceased, but for their loved ones; litigation is very expensive in a will contest, not to mention the emotional stress that it brings on family members.”

Barry agreed and summoned an analogy she’s used many times during her career — too many to count by her estimate — when talking about do-it-yourself wills and related documents.

“You can pull your own tooth, too,” she said. “But would you rather visit a dentist or tie a string to a doorknob and try it that way?”

Peace of Mind

Finishing her story about the pharmacist in one of the local hospitals, Barry said that, at the conclusion of the signing — which, again, she witnessed via Zoom — she asked her client if he now had some peace of mind.

“He signed, and his shoulders must have dropped like four inches visibly,” she told BusinessWest. “They were up around his ears, and he just relaxed and dropped his shoulders. And I said to myself, ‘this is why we’re doing this.’”

And doing a lot of this.

There aren’t very many bright spots to be found in the midst of this pandemic, but this is clearly one of them. People across the region are becoming proactive and getting needed documents in place.

And that’s allowing many more people to sigh, relax, and drop their shoulders.

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

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

I called Evan Plotkin for a story I was doing on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the commercial real-estate sector.

It’s one of many stories I and others here have been working on as this crisis unfolds, and I had many questions for him involving everything from how property owners can assist tenants hard hit by the virus to what may happen to the office market after all this is over.

And Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, a family-owned business that manages a number of properties across the region, was — as he seemingly always is — more than willing to discuss such matters.

But first, he wanted to talk about his mother, Judy.

A resident of a local nursing home, she was displaying symptoms of COVID-19 and had been taken to the hospital. And he was naturally quite concerned. He answered all my questions, but the tone of his voice made it clear that his mind was elsewhere — and where it should have been.

Less than 48 hours later, he posted a message on Facebook that his mother had passed away, providing more tragic evidence of something all of us already knew: this virus wasn’t somewhere else anymore. It’s here. And it’s killing people.

For months, it had been somewhere else. First, it was in China and a place none of us had ever heard of before called Wuhan. Then it was in South Korea, Italy, and Spain. And when it came to this country, it was still somewhere else. It was in Washington State and California, New York and New Jersey.

Not anymore. Now, it’s here.

This became all too apparent during a week we won’t forget, although we’re certain to see more like it.

This was the week we (and everyone else in this country) learned of the tragedy at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Many heroes of a number of different wars have contracted the virus, and more than a dozen have died, some with strong ties to this area. The sorrow being expressed across the region — almost everyone knows someone in that home or knows someone who has a father or grandfather there — is tinged with controversy surrounding reports of missteps in the handling of the virus and an unwillingness to take the matter as seriously as was necessary.

During that same week, Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize Springfield, posted a note on Facebook that her father had died in a Hartford Hospital soon after testing positive for COVID-19.

“This virus is devasting and cruel,” she wrote as she explained that she and other family members could not be with her father as the end came. “His healthcare professionals are heroes! Do your part to help all of us — STAY HOME!”

Loveless, as you might know, was honored by BusinessWest with its Difference Makers Award in 2014. And in the ‘gee, it really is a small world’ department, Evan Plotkin received that same honor a few years later.

It is a small world, and this virus is making it even smaller — in every way we can imagine.

It used to be somewhere else, this virus, this invisible menace. But not anymore. It’s right here, right now.

Plotkin, the Difference Maker, honored for all he has done to help revitalize Springfield and restore the vibrancy he remembered from his youth, wanted to talk about how his mother was a difference maker in her own right.

“She was a career volunteer for Baystate Medical going back to the late 1960s,” he wrote in an e-mail the day before she died. “She served as chair of the board of trustees, the first woman to hold that position. My entire life growing up, I thought my mother was an employee of Baystate; it wasn’t until later on that I realized that she did this as a volunteer.”

Judy died in the hospital she served for so many years on April 3.

And, tragically, she won’t be the last.

In case there was any doubt at all, the virus isn’t ‘somewhere else’ anymore. And it’s time to heed Colleen Loveless’s advice.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest; [email protected]


Pitching In

By George O’Brien

It’s called an ‘intubation box,’ or an ‘InTuBox,’ to be more specific.

As that name suggests, this is a box that helps shield healthcare workers while they are intubating a patient, thus helping reduce the likelihood of spreading infection.

Pia Kumar says the product was conceptualized by an anesthesiologist in Taiwan, and in what would still be considered limited use, it has proven successful in doing what it was designed to do. And now, the company she serves as president, Universal Plastics in Holyoke, will start to produce them for healthcare providers, with the first boxes due to roll out of the plant on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke early next week.

Production of the boxes is part of the company’s efforts — which mirror those of manufacturers across the region and, indeed, across the country — to adjust and retool for what many are calling a ‘wartime’ economy, while helping a healthcare sector desperate for essential equipment.

Indeed, in addition to the intubation boxes, the company is also producing face shields that can be used by those in healthcare industry and other sectors as well. Even individuals with compromised immune systems can use them at a time when everyone is trying to reduce their exposure to the dangerous virus.

Production of those shields commenced recently, and the company is on pace to produce roughly 1,000 of them per day, said Kumar, adding that these efforts were inspired by need, and the company’s desire to help meet it.

In a way, the story of how Universal has launched these initiatives — and how it is carrying out this specific mission — is a microcosm of the many-tentacled saga of COVID-19, touching almost every aspect of the pandemic, from the economic impact to the plight of the healthcare community as it girds for days that will be even worse than they are now, to the manner in which companies and individuals are going above and beyond.

Let’s start with the economic impact. Universal, like most every company in every sector, has been hard hit by the pandemic. Some of its major customers are in aerospace, one of the hardest-hit sectors, and many of its products — from seat backs to tray tables to arm rests — wind up in commercial airliners.

“It’s been very tough … we have a good company and a great workforce, and we’ll rebound from this, but this is certainly a very difficult time,” she explained. “Our number-one business is aerospace and airline interiors, and I don’t have to tell you how that’s doing these days, so our work has really slowed down.”

So the company was looking for ways to keep people employed and also contribute to what in many ways has become a war effort, said Kumar, adding that the company already produces a number of products for the healthcare industry — from diagnostic testing equipment to containers for sharp instruments — and has been hard-pressed by those customers to keep producing them in this time of great need.

“We were seeing how this situation was getting worse and how there was a shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment], and we thought about what we could make in-house that we could give to hospitals and other healthcare provides locally and across the country,” she told BusinessWest, adding that two items that quickly emerged were face shields and the intubation boxes.

With the former, it’s a relatively simple product and one that it is certainly in demand. “We offered it around, and we’re getting a lot of interest from a lot of hospitals,” said Kumar. “That’s because these are reusable, they’re durable, and they can used by a number of people.”

She listed doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and workers in nursing homes, among others in the healthcare profession, and even individuals going to the grocery store — although those in healthcare are the company’s first priority.

As for the intubation boxes … as information about the product, which was conceptualized as the COVID-19 virus started its spread, started to filter into the healthcare community, some doctors approached Universal with inquiries about whether it could produce the item.

“It really started just last week,” she explained. “Baystate Medical Center reached out, as did a hospital in Miami, and we just thought the product was practical and made a good deal of sense.”

The company created a prototype and is slated to begin production on April 6, she went on, adding that some orders have been placed for a few hospitals in other markets, and Baystate is currently testing the product.

But producing these items will pose some challenges, said Kumar, noting that many employees at Universal, fearful of the spread of the virus, have not been coming to work.

But production of the face shields and the intubation boxes proceeds as remaining employees press on, assisted by some front-office workers who have stepped into the breach.

“People have rallied behind this PPE effort with the face shield and the intubation boxes,” she told BusinessWest. “Some of the people in our front office are helping with the assembly of these face shields — everyone is pitching in, rallying behind this, and coming together.

“We’re not looking to turn a profit here — we’re selling these items at cost,” she said in conclusion. “We’re just trying to keep ourselves busy and do a little good if we can.”

From all appearances, she and her staff are succeeding with both missions.

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

Coronavirus Cover Story

A Time to Collaborate

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of virtual roundtable discussions with area business leaders concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on virtually every aspect of life and business. For this installment, we talked with five area bank presidents — Steve Lowell at Monson Savings Bank, Chuck Leach at Lee Bank, Tom Senecal at PeoplesBank, Jeff Sullivan at New Valley Bank & Trust, and Michael Tucker at Greenfield Cooperative Bank — about how this crisis is impacting this important sector and in what ways the region’s banks will be assisting those businesses impacted by the pandemic.

By George O’Brien

Chuck Leach

Steve Lowell

Tom Senecal

Jeff Sullivan

Michael Tucker

Steve Lowell called it a “fireside chat.”

That’s how he chose to describe his efforts to reach out to customers during this time of crisis and communicate a number of key points.

“With my wife holding my phone in front of me and me speaking onto the camera … we put it on our YouTube channel and sent out an e-mail blast with a link to it for our customers to get an update,” said Lowell, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, adding that, like the creator of the original fireside chat, Franklin Roosevelt, he used his to talk with people directly and work to calm fears at a time when many are afraid. “We wanted to assure our customers that we’re here, we’re operating, and we intend to remain here and continue operating.”

The need for a fireside chat and the method of delivering it show just how different these times are for banks and their customers, commercial and consumer alike. Most of those in both categories are in some form of distress, and they’re looking to their bank, especially if it’s a smaller community bank, for help.

And the banks are providing it, in the form of everything from deferments on mortgage payments and commercial loans to interest-only payment options if customers prefer that option, to refinancing large numbers of mortgages to enable consumers to take advantage of lower interest rates.

And, for commercial customers, these banks are expected to be key players in the process of funneling federal stimulus money to impacted businesses — just as soon as they figure out what that role is and how it will be carried out.

Right now, for the most part, they just don’t know. What they do know is it will be a different — and, in many ways, more important — role than they play now.

“In many ways, it’s analogous to what some of the manufacturers are doing now: a company that was making clothing for a baseball team a few months ago is now making masks and gowns,” said Jeff Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank & Trust. “We’re going to go through a version of that and have to retool and pivot and think about the new SBA loans that are part of the relief package as different than how we usually do business.

“There are some opportunities,” he went on. “But there’s a whole ton of risks that we don’t understand yet because we haven’t done it yet and haven’t thought about all the downside risks such as fraud — there’s a lot of work to be done.”

While they read the legislation and try to understand it, the banks themselves are coping with the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic — and there are many. Most have closed their lobbies or reduced hours to a large degree, with business conducted by appointment only. This means more customers are using online banking and automated tellers, technology that is new to many, and that brings its own set of challenges — and opportunities. Meanwhile, employers are working remotely and finding new ways to work as well.

“For some who didn’t bank digitally, they’re beginning to be forced to use it, and at our institution, for the most part, we’re getting extremely positive feedback on this,” said Tom Senecal, PeoplesBank president and CEO. “Surprisingly, many people who were afraid to use it are liking it now, and I do think this will change the behavior of people in the future to adapt to it more quickly.”

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank, agreed that both customers and employers are adapting to new ways of doing things.

“We’re getting everybody — customers, clients, and employees — more on board with a different way of working through electronic channels,” he told BusinessWest. “As for employees, we were thinking more about working from home before this; we were having conversations already, and we knew we could do it technology-wise, but this just triggered an acceleration of that, which has been healthy for us.”

Overall, these are different and somewhat complex times for banks in that they and their customers are relying more heavily on technology to do business. And yet, it’s a time when many customers need a close banking relationship perhaps more than they ever have.

“Whether it’s in traditional retail or banking, there’s been this drumbeat of ‘everything’s going digital,’” Leach said. “But what this crisis has also illuminated is the need for human contact, albeit by phone or e-mail. When you’re trying to go back and forth with a bank on deferment or interest-only — when you’re solving problems — you still want to talk with someone. Those are not transactional exercises.”

What banks won’t be focusing on this year, said Senecal and others, is earnings. That’s because the bottom line clearly will not be as attractive as it has been in recent years — not with interest rates down to zero, residential customers refinancing their mortgages to take advantage of these lower rates, and other revenue streams being heavily impacted by the pandemic (more on that later).

A New Norm

As noted earlier, while banks are still conducting business, it is certainly not business as usual. Most all establishments have either closed their lobbies or established ‘by-appointment-only’ policies, in efforts to safeguard both customers and employees.

Drive-through windows are open, as are ATMs, and institutions with ITMs (interactive teller machines) report a dramatic increase in usage — out of necessity. Overall, those we spoke with reported a few bumps and a slowing of the pace of activity as customers began using new technology, but, overall, a relatively smooth transition, if it can be called that.

“It’s been surprisingly smooth,” Lowell said. “And I say surprisingly because I wasn’t sure how customers would respond. But they have been great. We’ve had people getting documents notarized, opening accounts, and more right through the drive-up. And while it was very busy initially, it has slowed down; we extended hours originally because we didn’t know what to expect, but we’re thinking of reducing things and going back to our normal hours to give our staff a break.”

Returning to the subject of digital banking, Senecal, speaking for all the others at the ‘table,’ said his bank has been gently pushing its customers to embrace new technology like ITMs. The pandemic has provided a great assist in these efforts, and most customers are enjoying the ride, if you will.

“Whenever a customer has done it, you get this reaction like, ‘oh, my God, this is unbelievably easy,’” he said of ITM use. “Like all of us, you need to be pushed toward new technology — it can be intimidating — and the more we push or force people, and they understand the environment we’re in, they’re learning that it’s not so bad.”

But the pandemic has also brought some staffing challenges, said many on the panel, noting that, as they try to keep employees safe, they are limiting the number of people working at one time. And there are other constraints as well.

“We have people in some critical positions who are in the National Guard,” Senecal said. “So we’ve had to readjust some of some our staffing. But otherwise, we have not diminished our services at all; we’re doing everything through the drive-up.”

Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank, said one of his branches actually had to be closed for a short period because the spouse of one of his workers, a first responder, had come in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

“We had split our staff into Team A and Team B at each location,” he explained, noting that the employee in question is on Team A. After deep cleaning and sanitizing the office, it reopened with Team B, with Team A on self-quarantine.

Such developments could not have been imagined even three weeks ago, but they are now part of a new norm for banks.

As for the types of business conducted, the bank presidents we spoke with said that, by and large, people understand that their money is safe, and there has been an inflow when it comes to deposits, rather than anything approach a rush to withdraw money. Meanwhile, commercial activity has slowed tremendously, as might be expected. But on the residential-mortgage side, business has been booming.

‘Crazy’ was the word used by most all them.

Meanwhile, another word uttered over and over by those around this virtual roundtable was ‘outreach.’ Indeed, while taking calls from commercial clients with questions and issues, area banks have been making them as well.

“We’ve been doing a ton of customer outreach, particularly in the hospitality area, and there is a large concentration of those types of businesses in Berkshire County,” Leach said. “We’ve done a lot of proactive outreach with that sector, and there has been a significant number of loan modifications, including more than 80 interest-only and three full deferments on the commercial side.”

All methods of communication have been used, from snail mail — although not much of that anymore — to e-mail, to that fireside chat Lowell gave with the assist from his wife.

“We’ve been trying to be creative as to how we get the word out,” Lowell said. “I recently recorded several commercials that are going to be on radio stations, as well as a brief TV spot using my phone; we’re trying to be creative and take advantage of technology.”

Tucker agreed, noting that his bank has used videos on its Facebook page and other vehicles for communicating a simple but direct message: “we’re here, and we’re going to try to help.”

Lending a Hand

BusinessWest talked with these bankers just a few days after the sweeping $2.2 trillion stimulus package was passed, and all of them were still digesting its hundreds of pages and dozens of provisions. The homework is intense and the need is great, and these factors will contribute to a very busy and exceedingly challenging time for banks.

For now, as noted, they’re trying to get both hands around it.

“It’s a vital piece for all of us bankers to understand,” Senecal said, “because we’re going to get bombarded with phone calls; Congress and everyone else says ‘call your local banker,’ but they haven’t really communicated too much to us yet other than, ‘if you go try to find the bill yourself, you’ll understand what it’s saying.’”

Leach said his bank has already received a number of phone calls regarding the relief bill, and he acknowledged that the “onslaught,” as he called it, has only begun.

While the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will ultimately be the conduit for much of the funding to be released from the payroll-protection program and other initiatives within the bill, he noted, area banks will be providing what amount to bridge loans, and this role brings with it a good deal of risk.

“That’s an intense amount of pressure on community banks to participate in this way, and that’s the really the untold story here,” he explained. “A significant portion of these programs that will enable more liquidity, or relief, are enabled by banks, and especially community banks.”

And while they’re still digesting the massive measure, the bankers we spoke with said they have a basic understanding of how the payroll-protection program, one of the key components of the package, will work. Sullivan explained by using the example of a small landscaping company.

“They’re trying to figure out if there’s going to be work and if they should lay off people or keep them on,” he explained. “As I understand these new loans, for employees they’ve kept on the payroll or brought back, they’ll get eight to 10 weeks of payroll covered as a forgivable loan. So this will basically take their payroll and their costs out till the end of June, and the employer isn’t going to have to worry about sinking the ship because they’re not going to have revenue on the other side to offset those costs; these are forgivable loans.

“This basically keeps people from going to the unemployment line, and it allows business owners to keep their staff as a core unit,” he went on, adding — and lamenting, as others did — that it will probably be at least 30 days before any relief trickles down.

This seems like an eternity to the small-business owners devastated by the crisis, many of them forced to close their doors entirely, they said with one voice, but this is the pace the federal government moves at.

All those sitting at the ‘table’ expressed the hope that the process of accessing relief will be relatively simple and user-friendly, but many had their doubts.

“SBA lending has always been pretty paper-intensive and tedious, and you have to make the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted,” Lowell said. “The challenge for us is that we’re going to be be the intermediaries — they want us to be the ones dealing with the customer. And in order for us to do that, they need to make it simple, and they need to make it easy for us to work with our customers.

“My hope is that this is what will happen,” he went on. “The skeptic in me is concerned, but hopefully I’ll be wrong.”

Senecal agreed completely, but said that, based upon his reading of the legislation, there is some reason to be optimistic that relief can be accessed in a simple, effective manner.

“If you pay payroll and you have employees, you are eligible for an SBA loan that does not need to have collateral and is 100% guaranteed by the government and will be administered by the banks,” he told BusinessWest. “And the application process seems pretty simplified. What is not clear on the bank side is what happens to us and how we fund this. What risks are we taking? The government guarantees the loan, the borrower doesn’t have to guarantee the loan, and the borrower doesn’t have to put up collateral; the interest rate cannot exceed 4%, but it’s still unclear who pays that 4%.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he continued. “But it does feel good that there is relief for employers, and they can use those funds for pretty much anything to operate their business.”

Earnings Statements

While the banks will play a large role in helping businesses stay afloat during this crisis, they will have to be mindful of their own bottom lines as well. Those we spoke with are projecting that this will be a very challenging year in that regard for all those reasons mentioned above.

“Margins were shrinking before this,” Tucker said. “And now, with no interest coming in for a while, that’s going to put even more pressure on banks. The good news is that the banks here are well-capitalized and have the ability to weather this, but 2020 will be a very difficult year at the end of the year when you see the numbers.”

The banks we spoke with are all mutual banks, meaning there are no stockholders. And their presidents said their respective boards understand the unusual circumstances as well as the need for these institutions to step up and help the community get to the other side of the pandemic.

“Most of us, if not all of us, are sitting on a good amount of liquidity, so we’re in a position to take these steps, suffer through a few months of losses, and still fund things that need to be funded,” Lowell said. “And on the regulatory front, everything that we’ve heard from the FDIC, federal examiners, and others is that they are encouraging us to keep this economy running and help people — and they won’t hold it against us, as long as we do it within reason and do it within the confines of safety and soundness and don’t take on excessive risk.

“I think we’re going to be prudent, and the last thing we want is to see any of our customers not get through this,” he went on. “We’re going to be looking to our existing customers first, and then, if we can help other people, we’ll try to do that, whether it’s through the SBA or direct lending, or some of the other programs.”

Sullivan agreed, saying this will be a unique opportunity for the banking community to collaborate, as perhaps never before, and work collectively to steer the economy out of extremely dangerous whitewater.

“I don’t see this as competition or anyone trying to be opportunistic about this,” he told BusinessWest. “The size and scope of this problem is huge, and part of what we want to message to the community is that the industry is collaborating to get through it.”

Senecal agreed. “The focus is to get through this year and be there in support of the community,” he said. “As mutual banks, we’re here for the community, and all of us have enough capital to sustain a really bad year. None of us are focused on earning this year; we’re doing everything to make sure our communities get through this and economically come out of this in a great position.”

Lowell might have summed up the situation, and the sentiments of everyone at the ‘table,’ by saying in conclusion: “it will be an interesting year; I don’t anticipate any of us are going to make a lot of money, but we’re all in good shape at the start of this, and I see us all coming through it the end while helping people stay in business.”

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


Quick Action

Mike Vann says the phone started ringing only a few moments after the e-mail blast went out last Friday to clients and other companies across the region.

It wasn’t a flood of calls, but there were several, and he expects there to be many more in the days and weeks to come. That because his company, the Vann Group, a business consulting firm with a number of specialties, has assembled what it is calling a ‘COVID-19 Crisis Response Team’ to help businesses deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

And a good number of businesses are already in what could be called crisis mode, and the ones that aren’t will likely end up there.

“A lot of companies are going to hit with serious cash-flow issues; if they’re not there now, we probably will be at some point,” he said, adding that a major trust of this new service will be helping companies make sense of the massive, $2 trillion federal stimulus package passed last week, as well as other forms of assistance, and decide which path is best for them.

“There’s a number of different options there — there’s the payroll-protection program within the CARES Act, which will certainly get the most attention, but there’s also the SBA disaster loans and whatever the states are doing,” he explained. “And there’s a variety of options on the federal side; we’ll help people navigate what makes the most sense.”

Vann said creation of the team — comprised of himself, his father and company founder Kevin Vann, and Vann employee Nick Carella — was inspired by incoming calls from clients who had questions that needed answering and a desire to get on top of the situation, to whatever extent that’s possible.

“They’re calling and asking, ‘what does this mean, how do we go about it?’” he noted. “So we thought we would try to get ahead of it a little bit and formalize something so people know they can come to us to help them out.”

The team will provide resources and guidance to support businesses as they navigate those critical strategic, financial, and general business issues that are impacting their organization. More specifically, the team will be assisting organizations with:

• Assistance with the identification and submittal of applications for grants, loans, and other relief programs that a business may qualify for;

• Negotiation support with lenders, landlords, and vendors as well as practical guidance on how to deal with hard business issues; and

• Development of cash-flow models to provide a plan for managing the financial aspects of the business, which will be necessary in determining loan and grant requests.

The team is also launching what it’s calling the “Getting to Next” workshop to help individual companies formulate a strategic action plan for getting through the current period of uncertainty while being ready to capitalize on opportunities once the curve is flattened. The facilitated session is approximately two to three hours and results in a clear and concise plan of attack for the next 30-90 days.

Vann told BusinessWest that how companies respond to the many challenges they’re facing in the coming weeks will be critical to their survival. In such an environment, a proactive response is needed, he added.

Looking for such a response, a number of companies have already called looking for help. And, as might be expected, they cover a wide spectrum of business sectors because virtually all of them are being impacted in some way, shape, or form.

“We’ve heard from financial-services companies, a printing company, a landscaper, and some pretty good-sized service businesses,” he noted. “And, of course, there’s the restaurant scene as well; it runs the gamut.”

Some of these businesses were existing Vann Group clients, but others were not, he went on, adding that this could well become a solid opportunity for the firm.

“A lot of business owners will need help with just stabilizing the business,” he told BusinessWest. “That includes cash-flow projections and looking out from that standpoint, because we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

—George O’Brien


By George O’Brien

By most accounts, this region is still in the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the experts are saying it will several months before things will return to something approaching ‘normal.’

But while we have a long way to go, it’s certainly not too early to begin speculating about what ‘normal’ will be, whenever we get there. And it’s fair to say that ‘normal’ won’t look like it does now. In fact, it could look much different because of what we’re all experiencing — and what we’re all learning — during these unprecedented times.

Some questions come to mind even as we’re only about a week into the state’s shutdown of non-essential businesses. In no particular order:

• Will men ever wear ties again?

• Will anyone ever print out a document again?

• Will anyone ever go into a bank branch again?

• Will anyone visit a car dealership again?

• Will companies ever again lease out all the space they’re leasing out now?

• Will we still need college campuses?

• Will we ever need to meet anyone in person again?

The answer to all these questions is ‘yes.’ But the more accurate answer, when we examine things closely, is probably ‘yes, but certainly not as much.’

OK, maybe guys will go back to wearing ties as much as they used to, but … then again, maybe not. Probably not. A good number of them had decided they no longer needed to long before this crisis, and now, this club, if that’s what you want to call it, is certain to get bigger. Maybe much bigger.

As for the rest of those questions, life with COVID-19 has certainly changed how we do things, and maybe for the rest of time, not just until we get that signal that it’s safe to go back in the water, whenever that might be.

Let’s start with paper. Most offices were at least trying to use less paper, but many weren’t exactly fully committed to the task. Now, as offices are relying on other forms of communication, and in many cases, they can’t hit the ‘print’ button, many are learning that it’s OK not to have a print copy of everything. And when the smaller bill comes in from the office-supply company, it’s a good bet that things won’t go back to the way they were.

As for leasing office space, some companies will go back to the same footprint. But it’s safe to say many will find that having employees work at home when they can isn’t just for snowstorms and pandemics. Not everyone wants to work at home, certainly, but if the spouse and the children are not at home at the same time as you are when you’re working — unlike now — it begins to look more doable and more attractive.

Yes, there are limitations, and some people have already found that working at home is like being retired in that you lose track of the day and date. Meanwhile, it can be lonely, and many are finding they need to be around others and just hear the sound of a human voice. But now that some are doing it, they find they can do it.

Bank branches? Some young people can boast that they’ve never been in one. And now, many who are not so young are joining those ranks. People who were intimidated by new banking technology found themselves without a choice — and many have now found themselves saying ‘that wasn’t so bad’ or even ‘that’s pretty cool.’ And, by that way, the same goes for office technology as well.

As for meeting people face to face, this will probably stage some kind of comeback. Skype, Zoom, and all those other platforms are fine, but there’s nothing like sitting across the desk or the coffee-shop table from someone. Although … many people are starting to think those aforementioned options are almost as effective, and they save time, gas, and money. They’ve been around for a while, but now that people have a need to use them, they are.

This doesn’t mean auto dealers, bankers, college presidents, and insurance agents won’t ever meet as a group or an association again. But technology is now showing us that there are other ways to meet collectively.

As noted, we’re still in the beginning stages of this crisis, but we’re already learning things. We’re learning that the technology we were afraid to use for some reason is nothing to be afraid of. We’re also learning new and different ways to do things, and it’s likely we’ll keep doing them that way when this crisis is over.

That’s why things on the other side will certainly look much different.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.


Participants Say It’s Anything but Business as Usual

By George O’Brien

If you call the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast these days, the person at the other end of the line will likely ask you if you want the agency’s hotline.

Almost everyone does.

“We’re getting inundated — we’re getting more calls in a day than we would get in a week or two,” said Meredith Wise, EANE’s executive director, who told BusinessWest the calls vary in nature, but the vast majority of them have to do with workforce issues — whether to lay off people in the wake of this virus or furlough them (we’ll explain the difference in a minute), and how to somehow keep them if they are laid off. But there are other matters as well, especially the many evolving layers of support on the state and federal levels.

“People don’t know what to do, and they’re looking for help — they’re looking for answers, because there’s so much uncertainty, and the picture seems to change every day and even every hour,” said Wise, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging businesses of all sizes as they have probably never been challenged before.

Wise was one of several area business leaders who took part in a roundtable on this virus and the many ways it is impacting the business community — a different kind of roundtable, to be sure. Indeed, there was no actual table, round or otherwise; this was all done via a conference call and some subsequent follow-up interviews as the scene changed. (Editor’s Note: that scene continues to change, and this story will be updated as needed at businesswest.com.)

Through these discussions, we learned what should seem obvious — that, at this time, it isn’t ‘business as usual’ for anyone, and for many, there is no business at all. But we also learned that, in some cases, there is something approaching business as usual, as legal transactions and real-estate deals, both commercial and residential, move forward. Meanwhile, the marketing expert we spoke with had a simple message for businesses of all kinds — “don’t stop communicating.”

Here are the highlights from this COVID-19-style roundtable:

At the EANE

Wise told BusinessWest that, understandably, employers are on edge as they see revenue sources dry up and cash flow interrupted. A good number of calls to the hotline concern what to do with employees — lay them off, furlough them, or try somehow to keep them on, especially if the stimulus package currently being debated includes provisions that provide small businesses access to private bank loans equal to several months of expenses (payroll, rent, utilities, etc.) that would be covered by the federal government if they stayed open, maintained their workforce, and paid their bills.

“People are at wit’s end — do they lay off everyone, do they furlough people, do they shut down this operation, do they keep with that operation?” she told BusinessWest, adding that ‘lay off’ and ‘furlough’ are technical terms with specific definitions, and they are not the same thing.

“With a furlough, you’re still considered an employee — people are not going to get paid, but they’re still on the payroll, and they’re still eligible for benefits — all that stays in place,” she explained. “If you lay people off, they’re no longer an employee. They may get a call-back date, but in essence the business is parting company with that employee.”

And, with a layoff, a company has to pay all accrued paid time off and give the employee a check for that amount on their last day.

Wise said some manufacturers, concerned that business will dry up for a longer term, are laying off people (especially recent hires), while others, especially those with sizable investments in the people they’ve hired, are taking the furlough route with the hope that business will soon pick up or help from a stimulus package of some form will arrive.

“But people just don’t know when this is going to end — will it be by April 1, April 14, or are we going to the end of April or into May?” she said. “I’ve heard people say this could go on for three months and that they can’t keep their workforce going for three months.”

Meanwhile, with regard to the governor’s order to close non-essential businesses, Wise said it will certainly be unpopular with small-business owners not on the ‘essential’ list, but it might help bring a form of normalcy and routine that will replace the daily uncertainty that was annoying, to say the least.

“Let’s just do it and get it over with,” she said as the order was coming down. “This constant drip, drip, drip of changes every day is driving everyone crazy, and it doesn’t let you focus on anything.”

Developments of Note

Jeff Sullivan noted that it’s not business as usual for the region’s banks, and it won’t be for quite some time. But there will be a good deal of business, especially if, as expected, banks play a key role in funneling federal stimulus money to small businesses in the form of what will amount to bridge loans.

In the meantime, banks are keeping busy enough — with everything from customers who want some cash in their pockets during these uncertain times (and that’s many people) to businesses seeking lines of credit, or larger lines, to get through the crisis, to homeowners looking to take advantage of the recent drop in interest rates to refinance. And, again, that’s many people.

“It’s a little strange here … we had a large backlog of loans that were closing during the month of March, so we’ve tried to stay somewhat business as usual with those,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank & Trust. “Most of those are happening, and part of the reason we want to get through that is because the nature of the loan requests we’re going to get are going to change dramatically, from the normal buy, sell, refinance-my-building kind of stuff to building up piles of working capital to get through the downturn.

“I think I’ve heard more of the ‘we need to do whatever we can to keep the doors open’ type of conversations from people,” he went on. “But we’re also hearing about people wanting to refinance their free and clear property so they’ll have a lot of cash because they think there will be some opportunities down the road — there’s a little of that going on, too.”

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of refinancing on the residential side of the equation as homeowners look to capitalize on those interest rates, he said, adding that there is also commercial activity and a limited amount of business expansion happening.

Things should change dramatically with the stimulus package and its likely provision for forgivable loans that will, as he put it, essentially put everyone on unemployment for three months.

“People are on pins and needles waiting to see what happens,” he said as the bill was still being hammered out. “If something doesn’t happen, there will be another wave of layoffs.”

Case in Point

Scott Foster, an attorney with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, said his firm’s phones might not be as busy as EANE’s, but they are ringing constantly. And many of those who are calling are looking for the same kinds of answers.

“I’m as busy as ever — the phones are ringing off the hook; people are working and getting things done while they still can,” he said just prior to the governor’s order to shut down non-essential businesses. “It’s mostly about contingency planning, looking at federal aid that’s already passed or is coming down the pike and how it’s going to help them, or staffing decisions — whether to furlough people, lay them off, or keep them on the payroll.

“All these questions are coming, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknowns,” he went on. “But this is business — people have to make decisions; you don’t get to not make decisions, or the decision gets made for you. So we’re very active.”

Foster said that deals — everything from real-estate acquisitions to business transactions — are still taking place, albeit at a slower pace in some cases.

“I have some real deals … they’re not closing tomorrow, but they’re still going,” he explained. “I haven’t had anyone pull the plug on any deal I’m working on; next week might be a different story, but right now, they’re all charging forth.”

As for the general tone of those in the business community, while many are understandably anxious, there’s also discernable optimism, he said, especially regarding some provisions of the stimulus bill being debated — ones that would essentially ‘mothball’ businesses until the crisis is over, with funds provided by the government to pay people and pay other expenses as well.

“Big sections of the economy are going to go on pause,” he explained. “And if the federal aid is sufficient and businesses reopen in a few months and the economy restarts … there’s a lot of optimism I’m hearing from business owners about what things are going to look like on the other side of this. It might be misplaced optimism, but it’s there.”

Overall, he said most business owners are “keeping their heads on,” as he put it, and not panicking.

“And the main reason they’re not panicking is because everyone is going through this,” he said. “It’s not one business or one sector, it’s hitting everyone, and you’re seeing some people growing — Amazon’s hiring, Walmart is hiring, Domino’s is hiring, online delivery services are hiring … there are some positive things happening.”

‘Cover’ Story

Dave Griffin has been in the insurance business for decades now and has certainly seen almost everything in the course of his career. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been different — in all kinds of ways.

That assessment refers to everything from the volume of the phone calls to the very difficult nature of the conversations with the people on the other end of the line.

“It’s been a tough few weeks, obviously,” said Griffin, vice president of Holyoke-based Dowd Insurance. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years here, and you develop a strong relationship with your clients. There have been a lot of hard conversations here this week with people just trying to do whatever they can to keep their business open. They have a real passion for what they do, and it’s heartbreaking to hear that they have to lay off employees and talk about the business like it might not be around.”

While talk of stimulus packages continues, business owners, especially those hit immediately by the crisis — restaurants, hotels, clubs, banquet facilities, and retail establishments — have been dealing with the moment, said Griffin, and most come forward with the obvious question: ‘does my business-interruption policy cover this deadly virus?’

And the answer he has had to give, unfortunately, is ‘no,’ and, as noted, he’s given it to a large number of people.

There is hope that this answer may change, just as it did after 9/11 — terrorist attacks were not covered in most all business-interruption policies, but that law was changed — but for now, the answer remains ‘no.’

If there is any good news for most insurance customers, it is that their payments are generally based on annual sales volume, and as those numbers go down as the pandemic continues, so do those payments. Meanwhile, many insurance carriers are responding to the crisis by providing flexibility on payments and commitments not to cancel policies if payments cannot be made.

While answering questions about policies and listening to his clients, Griffin also offered some perspective on the situation in the form of hope — and expectation — that most of those business owners he’s had these hard conversations with find a way to persevere and come out on the other side.

“Hopefully, we can come out of this sooner rather than later,” he said. “And I have no doubt that this region will rally behind the local businesses.”

And Now, a Word, or Two, or Three, About Marketing

John Garvey, president of Garvey Communication Associates Inc., told BusinessWest that, while every sector, and almost every business, has its own unique situation with regard to the virus and its impact, there are some common threads, or thoughts, when it comes to marketing in these difficult times.

To explain it, he summoned three words — actually, one word repeated three times — that was essentially the mantra of Doug Bowen, the now-retired president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, a long-time client.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate — that’s what he used to say, and I think that’s practical advice for everyone right now,” he said. “You need to be talking to your employees, and you need to be talking to your customers.”

As for the messages to be conveyed, he said they generally fall into several categories — from informing the public about what’s happening with a specific company during this crisis to speaking directly to employees. In both cases, the messages are generally about reassuring the intended audience.

“You really want to reach out to employees from the standpoint of appreciation and thank them for their efforts,” Garvey explained. “There is a lot of insecurity out there, and anything organizations can do to placate or resolve that is really important right now.”

Such efforts to reassure and thank people become more difficult and more complicated when a company is also laying off or furloughing employees, he acknowledged, but this shouldn’t stop businesses from heeding Bowen’s mantra.

Meanwhile, as for marketing and communicating in general, this is a perilous time, but it’s also a time when your message can be heard, he went on, because people are listening, and they’re looking for information.

“Your whole audience, your whole customer base, is pretty much sitting at home right now,” he noted. “They’re on social media, they’re reading things online, etc., etc. — you have their attention; never have people been more focused.”

That said, advertisers need to send messages that are important or interesting, or they won’t keep that audience’s attention, Garvey went on, and people need to send messages that are sensitive to the times.

Overall, he said many businesses have been so caught up in the day to day of coping with the crisis that they have become “frozen” when it comes to marketing. The “thaw,” as he called it, should come now, or very soon, as something approaching a new sense of normalcy prevails.

“And then,” he said, “the responsibility is to communicate, communicate, communicate.”

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


The Power of Positive Thinking

By George O’Brien

On one hand, Pam Victor would seem like the perfect person to turn to for advice on how to stay positive and maintain morale during this time of extreme crisis — when everyone’s life and work has been seemingly turned on its ear and nothing seems safe anymore.

After all, she started Happier Valley Comedy with a simple mission — to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world), and she uses improv to help others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure.”

But, on the other hand … the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted, or eliminated, every revenue stream at her disposal. Indeed, Happier Valley carried out its unique mission through classes in improvisation, comedy shows staged at the playhouse she and business partner Scott Braidman built in Hadley (and other venues), and through team visits to area companies and institutions — the so-called ‘Through Laughter’ program — during which those client companies would undertake interactive exercises designed to bolster everything from confidence levels to communication. Victor would also do a lot of motivational speaking in front of audiences large and small.

You can’t do any of that in the middle of a pandemic when people have been asked, and increasingly ordered, to socially distance themselves from one another. Or so Victor thought as the crisis unfolded and escalated over the past few weeks.

“We’re on pause, as we call it — no shows, no classes — and we were in the middle of a session of nine different classes with hundreds of students — and we’ve lost or at least postponed a great deal of our professional-development programs,” she explained. “So, basically, almost every revenue stream has dried up.”

But like so many other business owners and managers in these precarious times, Victor is, well, improvising (you knew that was coming) and finding ways to not only make some kind of living, but also stay upbeat, as difficult as that is.

She gave a ‘virtual’ keynote address for the recent Nerd Summit, the partners recently conducted their first virtual stand-up show, they’re looking into ways to teach improv online, and they’re finding ways to stay connected with clients and the rest of the world through ‘happiness tips’ on Instagram and a host of other initiatives.

“We’re trying to think creatively,” Victor said in a voice that conveyed that she and Braidman have no other option if they want to survive this pandemic. And she used that virtual keynote address as an example.

“At first, I was thinking, ‘oh my God, I do an interactive talk — of course I can’t do it virtually,’” she explained. “But that was just my first fearful thought, and then I … figured it out.”

“We’re on pause, as we call it — no shows, no classes — and we were in the middle of a session of nine different classes with hundreds of students — and we’ve lost or at least postponed a great deal of our professional-development programs. So, basically, almost every revenue stream has dried up.”

Elaborating, she said she changed the subject of her planned talk and instead discussed the need to improvise in these dire and uncertain times, and how improv can help with that assignment.

“I’m very grateful that I’m an improvisor,” she told BusinessWest. “Because it has been absolutely essential to just stay afloat.”

And while improvising, Victor has thoughts on how others can try to stay positive and maintain morale in their businesses in these uncertain times. And, as with most things in business, she says it starts at the top.

“Be mindful of your tone,” she advised managers. “You could be Eeyore [the Winnie-the-Pooh character] and be the voice of gloom and doom, or you can be a role model of positivity. We’re seeing a little of both from most people because we just don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s far more helpful to be a voice of positivity and say, ‘we’re in this together, and we’re going to get through this together.’”

Elaborating, she said that, like a Little League coach or a parent, managers should be thinking about praising employees when they can and phrasing thoughts in a positive manner.

“Instead of ‘this is the worst thing that ever happened,’ they should look for a positive, more helpful refrain, like ‘we are going to become stronger as a group,’” she said. “And this becomes a mantra: ‘if we can get through this, we can get through anything,’ and ‘now I know I can count on this team because we’re getting through this together.’”

Beyond that, she said managers, and employees at all levels, for that matter, need to accept the situation and move forward. Many, she believes, haven’t yet been able to do that.

“So many of us are still stuck in ‘I wish things were different,’ or ‘I’m just so mad that this is the situation we’re in’ or fear, like I had, that I’m not going to have a company to go back to, or I’m not going to be able to pay people,” she explained. “What improv helps us with, and what I teach a lot, is how to quiet that critic and that internal voice of fear, because it’s unhelpful, and once we have that voice quieted down, we can focus on problem solving and innovative thinking, and all that important collaborative work that we need to do.”

When asked how one quiets that voice, she said she spent an hour explaining it all during her Nerd Summit keynote. Hitting the highlights, she said the most important thing for people to remember is that this voice — she named it the ‘evil mind meanie’ — is “a big fat liar” and needs to be quieted.

“This thought that I’m having, that my company is going to go out of business … I don’t know how this story is going to end. It’s just a belief, it’s just a fear at the moment,” she explained. “For me to go down the rabbit hole and follow that fear is not helpful or productive to solving the problem of how to keep my company afloat.

“When everything went down, my first reflexive thought was ‘this is it — everything we’ve worked so hard for is lost,’” she went on, recalling those hard days as steps put in place to limit the spread of the virus robbed the company of almost all its revenue streams. “And then, you remember that this is just a belief, and you don’t know how the story is going to turn out, and my job is to be of service to my community and move forward with positivity.”

Beyond all this, Victor recommends that companies, and individuals in general, find ways to stay connected. She suggests everything from Zoom happy hours (“booze optional, everyone pours their own drink”) and Netflix parties to companies sending food or treats to employees’ homes to show appreciation, and even virtual karaoke, something she heard one company was trying.

“You have to find opportunities for fun,” she said in conclusion, “because, when we laugh together, that stimulates a relaxation response and a connection response in humans. And we need that right now — we need to feel normal, even if it’s just for half an hour.”

Victor told BusinessWest that she recently bought a bottle of champagne and put it on ice. There it will stay until the crisis is over.

Needless to say, like everyone else in this region and this country, she’s really looking forward to that day when she can pop that cork. In the meantime, she’s going to go on improvising and finding ways to laugh.

And she suggests that everyone else do the same.

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


Strength in Numbers

Sue Tansey, co-owner, with her husband, Mark, of Partners in Agawam and the Cup in West Springfield

Bill Collins says he was bought to tears by the edict from the governor that banned people from dining inside restaurants across the state — and he certainly wasn’t the only one within this sector to have such a moment.

“There is nothing about this that’s not going hurt — I mean really hurt,” said Collins, owner of Center Square Grill in East Longmeadow and HighBrow in Northampton, referring to everything from the ban on indoor seating to the inability of serve alcohol, a huge profit center for most all restaurants. “This is heartbreaking, but I usually don’t cry in my restaurant.”

But not long after reacting emotionally, Collins summoned some internal strength and determination to try to do what every business in this region — and, indeed, across the country — is trying to do: get to the proverbial ‘other side’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It won’t be easy, but Collins and other restaurateurs are responding with equal doses of grit and imagination, with initiatives ranging from a gift-card sales effort called Strength in Numbers (more on that in a minute) to Collins’ plans to essentially bring the restaurant experience into one’s home at a time when they can’t actually go to a restaurant.

“We’re putting together packages now for parties of two to 10 — $75 per person that would include a chef, a server, the food, and have us come over,” he explained. “We’ll try to create some of that restaurant feel.”

In many ways, the restaurant business, and the larger hospitality sector, is the tip of the spear with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results are immediate, and so are the emotions, the responses — from layoffs and closures of some establishments to creation of new revenue generators — and optimism, which is hard to come by in these unprecedented times, but it’s still there.

The immediate response taken by most restaurants was to adjust staffing as necessary, lock up the alcohol, clean and sanitize their businesses, and then figure out what to do next, which in most cases means finding ways to offer takeout and curbside service. For many, the painful layoffs have begun, and the cuts are deep.

“We’re putting together packages now for parties of two to 10 — $75 per person that would include a chef, a server, the food, and have us come over. We’ll try to create some of that restaurant feel.”

“The word ‘layoffs’ was very moving for me — in the 55 years we’re been in business, we’ve never had to deploy that terminology or even exercise the notion of laying off our most valuable asset — our employees,” said Andy Yee, a principal with the Bean Group, which operates a number of restaurants across the area, including the Student Prince in Springfield and Johnny’s Tavern in South Hadley, noting that the company had to let more than 350 employees go. “It was very painful for my family and I to go ahead and lay off the majority of our workforce because of this horrific turn of events. Nonetheless, when there’s no revenue coming in, there’s no other choice but to exercise that dreaded word.”

Sue Tansey, co-owner, with her husband, Mark, of Partners in Agawam and the Cup in West Springfield, said the company, which focuses on breakfast, lunch, and catering, is seeing all aspects of its business impacted, with the catering all but wiped out. The Cup has been closed, while Partners will carry on with carry-out, curbside delivery, and online ordering.

“We’re trying to utilize as few employees as possible,” she said, adding that, nonetheless, the company is trying to preserve as many jobs as it can while also provide services to a public that is often challenged to cook.

With this is mind, the company will expand its offerings to what Tansey calls “family meals” — takeout offerings that include soups, chicken parm, turkey, and, for St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef and cabbage — and also extend its hours from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (previously, it was open 7 to 2).

Collins, who has closed HighBrow, said he’s trying to find ways to keep as many of his employees at Center Square Grill (95 of them by his estimate) working, even  if it’s part-time.

“We’re going to take the opportunity over the next three weeks to do some deferred maintenance, cleaning, and painting, and we’re going to offer that out to people,” he explained. “If the response is more than the workload, we’ll at least give people part-time shifts. My goal is to support all 95 people, in one shape or form, through this.”

Local and state governments are supporting local restaurateurs in other ways. For example, Massachusetts will postpone the collection of taxes to provide relief to the state’s restaurant and hospitality sectors by delaying the collection of sales tax, meals tax, and room-occupancy taxes, while also waiving all penalties and interest. Meanwhile, the city of Springfield has introduced an initiative called Prime the Pump, offering $222,679 in grants, up to a maximum of $15,000 for qualified restaurants.

“While the small-business support being advanced by the federal and state government is beneficial, it is clear to me that more creative and flexible financial lifelines need to be established for the small businesses, especially restaurants which have disproportionately felt the economic impact resulting from the coronavirus mitigation measures designed to protect us all,” said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer.

Still, restaurants are finding ways to stay nimble in response to the crisis. While most had some form of takeout and delivery services, they now find themselves ramping up those efforts, many with curbside service that will enable customers to pick up dinner without going into the restaurant or even getting out of the car.

Overall, things got off to a somewhat slow start with such initiatives, said Yee, who theorized that this results from people having crammed freezers and refrigerators as a result of panic buying, and a desire to eat what they have.

He predicts — and really hopes — that, over time, people will want to get back in the habit of eating out — even if it’s still in their own home.

“This is old terminology, but people are loaded for bear — their refrigerators are chock full,” said Yee. “That first night, it was pretty much crickets when it came to people thinking about getting takeout. I think that’s going to change in time; people will say, ‘I’m tired of sitting home eating spaghetti and meatballs — I want a pizza,’ or ‘I want sushi.’”

Peter Rosskothen, co-owner of the Delaney House in Holyoke and several Delaney’s Market facilities where consumers can buy prepared meals, said that, after careful consideration, he decided the Delaney House was not well-suited to takeout and delivery, so efforts are being focused on the markets.

And at those locations, business has been “steady,” he said, echoing those thoughts about people eating what’s in their own freezers at the moment.

“We’re not going crazy, but we’re not slow, either,” he explained, adding that those facilities also do delivery, and if anything, he’s worried about being able to keep up if demand for that service increases dramatically. If it does, that will be a good problem to have at a time when people in this sector could use one.

But despite their lives and businesses being turned upside down, restaurateurs, at least the ones we spoke with, are trying to remain positive and look for opportunities to succeed both now and when they get to that other side.

“I think we’re all in the same boat; we’re just getting hit first,” Rosskothen said, referring to the broad hospitality sector. “Only time will tell. The best we can do is utilize our smartness and fight through this as much as we can. We’re a very resilient country; we’ll come out of this, and something good will come out of this — I’m convinced of that. We might be struggling a little bit, but something good will come out of this.”

Collins also chose to find a bright side to all this.

“This is opportunity … everybody has to stay positive and say, ‘how am I going to come out of this?’” he told BusinessWest. “Maybe it’s with a new and exciting menu and a cleaner restaurant that’s in better shape than it’s ever been. People can give careful thought to promotion and how to operate on the other side, and also charge their batteries. A lot of people burn out in the restaurant business — so take a break, collect your thoughts, and kick some ass on the other side.”

Meanwhile, many are already seeing some good in the form of the support they’re receiving from loyal patrons who want to help see them through these incredibly difficult times.

“We have a loyal following, and there are people out there supporting our initiatives,” said Yee. “I received a couple of texts last night … people saying, ‘I’m here, I got some takeout, I’m here to support,’ and they send along a picture of them with their takeout bag.”

And though they’re competitors, many of these restaurant owners are also collaborating, especially with the Strength in Numbers initiative.

It will run for three days later this month — March 28-30 — and incentivizes consumers to help restaurant owners by including a $20 gift voucher with each $100 gift card purchased.

The list of participating restaurants continues to grow, and includes the Fort and Student Prince, Johnny’s Tavern, Johnny’s Tap Room, Johnny’s Roadside Diner, the Halfway House, Union Kitchen, McLadden’s, Johnny’s Bar and Grille, IYA Sushi, the Boathouse, Wurst Haus, Copper House Tavern, the Delaney House, Delaney’s Market, the Mick, Center Square Grill, HighBrow, Spoleto, Mama Iguana’s, bNapoli, Lattitude, the Meeting House, the Federal, and others.

Coronavirus Cover Story

Experts Stress Everything from Communication to Listening to Millennials

Ross Giombetti acknowledged that it’s never easy to be a leader.

But it’s certainly much easier when times are good and the decisions are not that difficult. It’s when times are stressful and uncertain — and those two adjectives clearly and effectively define what it has happening locally, regionally, nationally, and globally due to COVID-19 — that leaders have to earn their pay and be … leaders.

“What’s that phrase — a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Giombetti, president of Wilbraham-based Giombetti Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in helping individuals, teams, and businesses reach maximum potential. “When everything’s going right, it’s easy to act the right way and manage the right way. The real test for a leader is how they act, behave, handle themselves, and make decisions in times of pressure, stress, or crisis.”

So, how does one lead effectively in such times? We talked with Giombetti and two others who would be considered experts on leadership — Jim Young, a Northampton-based coach, consultant, and founder of the Centered Coach, and Anne Weiss, a Longmeadow-based coach and consultant who specializes in everything from executive and team coaching to transition and succession planning. Suffice to say they had a lot to share on this subject. Here are some of their collective thoughts and words of advice on providing effective leadership in these unprecedented times:

• Be compassionate. “First and foremost, people need to be compassionate and understanding,” said Giombetti. “They need to listen to people and understand how all this is impacting them. And then be responsive. But first, you have to be compassionate, you have to be understanding, and you have to listen.”

Weiss agreed. “Listen to what people are having to deal with,” she said. “You don’t know what people are having to cope with — it might be their finances, it might be their kids, especially if school is closed. Leaders should have listening lessons where they say, ‘tell me what you’re dealing with, so I know.’”

• Be flexible. “You have to be flexible in times of stress and pressure,” Weiss noted. “In situations like the one we’re facing now, if you’re not flexible with your approach and mentality, that would probably make the situation with those around you far worse.”

• Gain the input of others. “Leaders need to open things up,” Young said. “They should say, ‘we’re in this together; I’m going to take the lead because that’s my role. But I’m also open to hearing what ideas you have.’ The strength of the organization as a whole is greater than the leader.”

• Be emotionally honest. “Leaders are looked to for answers at times like this,” Young continued. “And especially in this situation, there are no easy answers. It can an alluring trap to fall into — ‘I need to be in command, and I need to come up with answers and be in control’ — but they need the vulnerability of saying, ‘this is unprecedented. I don’t know what the answers are here, but I’m going to be here to work with you and take care of you, and I want to know what’s going on with you.’”

• But make the tough decisions. “Once you’ve heard people out and been compassionate with your ears by listening and showing that you really care, then it’s the leader’s responsibility to take bold action,” Giombetti said. “He or she has to make the tough decision. It may be unpopular, it might be one that gets ridiculed, but a real leader doesn’t worry about getting flak or being ridiculed, because they’re going to get it regardless of what they do. So you must have broad shoulders.

“If you worry too much, if you panic, if you’re indecisive, if you’re not committed to taking bold action,” he went on, “I think that’s when things can get far worse.”

• Maintain morale. “You keep morale up by acknowledging the leadership and what they’re having to deal with,” said Weiss. “You recognize the hard work people are doing, and you thank them for what they’re doing in these difficult times. Talk to people and show that you appreciate them.”

• Slow it down. “This is counterintuitive, but in situations like this, the best leaders will slow things down a little bit,” noted Young. “They’ll take an extra moment to assess what their plan is going to be and how they’re going to communicate that. Rushing with answers in a complex situation like this can create more damage because you might have to walk things back.

• Create a balance between thought and action. “A majority of us tend to react to situations of stress and pressure emotionally — it’s how our brains work,” Giombetti said. “We’re wired to react emotionally to most difficult situations. What leaders have to fall back on in times like this is, before they react or make a decision or even say something, just think through it; spend some time and think through it. Most people jump too quick to action, and most of it is based on emotion.”

• Show your emotions, but try not to panic or overreact. “Leaders have to balance being responsive, being compassionate, and caring about doing the right thing, and remaining calm,” Giombetti went on. “If you’re a leader and you panic and you show it, as kids do with their parents, your people will feed off that.”

• Listen to young people. “Generally, they’re not as stuck in their ways as many older people are,” noted Weiss. “They see opportunities and ways of doing things that we might not see.”

• Look for new opportunities. “Instead of looking at this as doomsday, leaders should be thinking about where there might be opportunities,” said Young, who is doing this himself. Indeed, he traditionally presents programs in front of large audiences, something he won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future. In response, he’s looking to present more programming virtually.

“There’s always light waiting on the other side of the dark,” he went on. “Sometimes, what’s required in these moments when the lights have seemingly gone out is an attitude of ‘what can we discover? What can we do differently?’

Weiss agreed, noting that many restaurants in the Boston area — and they are among the hardest-hit by the crisis — are responding by creating new takeout and delivery services.

• Finally, take care of your health. “Leaders have to be available to address what’s happening,” said Weiss. “So, while watching out for everyone else, they need to take care of their own health.”


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