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Banking and Financial Services

Life Goals

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas says a diversified portfolio of investments is always a good idea, with a mix of high growth potential and stable returns.

In an ever-changing world — one in which career trends, technology, and, yes, financial markets have a way of shifting — it can be daunting to craft an investment strategy. Gary Thomas, president of the Wealth Technology Group, relishes the chance to help clients do just that, by focusing on the big picture. His job isn’t just financial planning, he says, but life planning — at least, as much as one can plan for the unexpected turns of life.

It can be daunting, Gary Thomas said, to plan for the future when no one knows what the future will look like.

“As long as there are innovators in this country, there’s going to be change, and that change is going to create disruption. And we’ve seen it already in the jobs that aren’t there that were there 20 years ago,” he said.

That’s not a new trend, of course. “We don’t even know what we want until we see it,” Thomas went on. “Henry Ford once said that, if he’d asked his consumers what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’ You just don’t know what you want until you get introduced to an idea. You always think things will be the same as they are in this little snapshot of life. You want to hang on to the past, but technology is going to be changing. And we can’t stop that.”

That’s the definition of progress, and that’s good for investment markets, which — despite their short-term fluctuations — have always grown over the long term, said Thomas, president of the Wealth Technology Group. “When the economy grows, everybody benefits sooner or later, but it doesn’t always go in a straight line.”

“Henry Ford once said that, if he’d asked his consumers what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.'”

He shared these thoughts by way of explaining why it’s important for individuals planning for retirement — or just looking to save for college and other expenses — to diversify their investment portfolios. And, indeed, Wealth Technology Group helps clients preserve assets, lower their tax burden, and pass legacies to the next generation through a broad mix of tools, including mutual funds, managed accounts, real-estate investment trusts, energy shares, annuities, and life-insurance options — with the goal of creating financial stability in what can be a volatile world.

That means trusting the long-term record of the stock market, he went on, but also making sure to place money in vehicles with a more predictable return.

“You have to have a philosophy where you basically pay yourself first,” he said. “I almost don’t care where you put it, as long as you put it away. If you’re far enough away from retirement, you should have a pretty diversified approach in equities, but as you get close to retirement, you need to make sure you have some secure money, for when markets go down.”

In other words, investors have to be both educated and flexible — especially at a time when Americans are living longer, meaning they have to make their money last longer.

“We’re in a different situation than our parents or grandparents were. It takes a more creative approach, it takes education, and it takes some hand holding, too,” Thomas said, bringing the conversation back to the role his firm plays. He cited studies suggesting that individuals with a consistent financial advisor tend to do as much as 2% better per year than those that don’t, even accounting for fees.

“Part of it is behavioral science — and having somebody to call,” he explained. “Typically, people make mistakes by moving around too much. You’ve got to have a balanced approach, where you have some secure money and some growth-oriented money for your older years.”

Thomas doesn’t only help his clients navigate this landscape in his Westfield office. He’s been active over the years delivering workshops, seminars, and classroom lectures on financial topics, so he knows the value of educating people.

“In some ways, people are more torn these days, because trying to sort out all that information on the internet is like trying to take a sip through a firehose,” he told BusinessWest. “Everybody’s got an agenda — the posts you see on websites are often promoted content, and it’s hard to distinguish. Even if they’re not, they still represent one person’s philosophy.”

The goal, he added, is for clients to develop their own philosophy.

“Money and financial security mean different things to different people, and it plays a big role in our life whether we want to admit it or not,” he said. “At the same time, there’s just too much information out there — we’re bombarded with it — and there’s a big difference between information and knowledge, or between information and wisdom.”

So, while some investors get wrapped up in “the latest shiny thing,” like Bitcoin or gold, he said, it’s more important to save consistently.

“You can make a lot of money from being average if you don’t switch things around too much, because the market’s averages are pretty darn good,” he said. “But you also have to have that nest egg because when things go down.”

Growing Need

When Thomas launched his business around 1991, financial planning was a field on the cusp of significant evolution.

“Before that, everybody just had a stockbroker, they had an insurance agent, they had an accountant, but there wasn’t much in the financial-planning world. So, basically, we started the company, and it was more estate planning to begin with, but it just sort of evolved over time into money management and financial planning, because that’s where the need was.”

For years, he built the company’s reputation through a number of call-in radio programs around Western Mass., an approach that appealed to listeners hungry for information about financial strategies. “People were looking for straight information and not a sales job. That’s been our philosophy ever since.”

It’s a philosophy that’s also middle-of-the-road when it comes to investment risk, he added.

“If you come from an insurance background, you tend to be very conservative. If you come from a stock background, you tend to be maybe more aggressive. Well, I come from a legal background, and lawyers like to question everything. So it also made me a little skeptical about some of the products. So, basically, we took a more conservative approach to money management — not ultra-conservative, but middle of the road.”

One key message, which has become a company motto of sorts, is “it’s not what you make, it’s what you keep” — which is why he helps clients navigate tax-related pitfalls as well.

“I take more of a holistic approach because of my background; I have a master’s in tax law. And what good is it if you make a ton of money but you have to pay 40% of it back in taxes? So we try to use strategies to avoid that. It’s a total approach of, where are you going to be down the road? If you take money out, is it going to be taxable? Are you going to have some tax-free money?”

While taking a conservative approach, he remains confident in the stock market, but understands that it can be scary to obsess over its fluctuations on a day-to-day basis — and that investors need to rely on other sources for guaranteed returns.

“I take more of a holistic approach because of my background; I have a master’s in tax law. And what good is it if you make a ton of money but you have to pay 40% of it back in taxes? So we try to use strategies to avoid that. It’s a total approach of, where are you going to be down the road? If you take money out, is it going to be taxable? Are you going to have some tax-free money?”

“I’ve been around long enough to see that markets don’t always go up,” he explained, “and when the markets are down, you need a conservative piece someplace to take money from when you need it.”

That said, Thomas added, “this country’s always going to grow. No matter what happens, no matter what financial crisis there is, we’re always looking for new ideas and new ways to grow. And that’s what the market does. You think of the major companies today that are big names, which were not in existence 25 years ago, like Amazon and Google. And Apple was almost out of business.”

He shares these strategies of diversified investment with mainly clients approaching their retirement years, but also many young families that are trying to figure out how they’ll pay for college for their kids, at a time when the average sticker price for four years of education is around $200,000. “It’s a real challenge today,” he noted.

In short, there are many reasons why people walk through his door.

“We do some estate planning, too, but it’s primarily holistic, complete financial planning — helping to find the right portfolio and the right financial tools for each individual, and then we actively manage that,” he explained. “It’s not just about picking an investment. It’s got to be right for you.”

As an independent financial-services firm, the Wealth Technology Group isn’t tied to any single product, and as an accredited investment fiduciary, he’s required to keep the client’s interests at the fore.

“If someone goes into a store, and the owner says, ‘that suit looks good on you,’ maybe it does — but maybe that’s just the suit they want to push that day,” he explained by way of analogy. Fiduciary responsibility simply means the firm considers more than what’s suitable for a client, but what would best meet his or her needs. “It’s not just going to benefit me as a financial advisor, but benefit you as the owner of it.”

Getting the Word Out

Long after his radio talk-show days, Thomas still enjoys conducting seminars and workshops that promote his work in more effective ways than a short radio or TV ad. They’re a means not only to help people understand the compexities of financial planning, but to get the word out that the Wealth Technology Group helps clients from all walks of life, not just high-net-worth individuals, as some firms do.

And when he shares his perspectives, both through seminars and one-on-one, he emphasizes that financial planning is really about life planning — and people are not always emotionally prepared for the changes that retirement will bring.

“Retirement brings a change in lifestyle,” he said. “It’s like you’re going 60 miles an hour, then you retire — and it can be hard to adjust when you don’t have eight hours a day filled up. If your purpose in life was to be a journalist and you were a journalist for 35 years and all of a sudden someone told you you weren’t valued as a journalist anymore, you’d better have a purpose beyond that. So we encourage people to have interests that really excite them beyond work.”

In fact, people don’t expect to be impacted by that lifestyle change, as well as the social withdrawal that sometimes comes with it, as much as they worry about money.

“I’ve had clients in the past that have come in and said, ‘I’m only 200 more Mondays away from retirement,’ and the next time I see them, they say, ‘only 150 more Mondays.’ And I say, ‘you know, what are you going to do the day you walk out the door?’”

Sometimes, the sudden change brings about problems with drinking or eating or their marriage, he went on, noting that some of the first astronauts who went to the moon came back and ran into personal issues once they were past that exciting, challenging phase of their lives.

But you don’t have to go to the moon to feel loss, he went on, and Thomas continues to help people plan for all stages of life — not just financially, but holistically. Because money matters, but it’s not everything.

“There’s got to be something beyond that ‘200 more Mondays.’ So that’s what we encourage people to think about,” he said. “Join a senior center, do something, get involved. And don’t concentrate too much on money. That’s our job.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

One Step at a Time

Scenes like this one — from the 20th Rays of Hope Walk five years ago — are played out each October in Forest Park.

Scenes like this one — from the 20th Rays of Hope Walk five years ago — are played out each October in Forest Park.

Lucy Giuggio Carvalho is a tough person to say no to, as Kathy Tobin found out one afternoon 25 years ago.

“I was a health reporter for WGGB, and I was in the lobby of Baystate Medical Center to do a story,” Tobin told BusinessWest. “And this little petite thing comes walking across the lobby, points at me, and says, ‘I had a dream about you, and you’re going to help me.’ And that’s how I met Lucy.”

Carvalho — then a nurse at Baystate — had been diagnosed with breast cancer some time earlier, and, inspired by an AIDS fund-raising walk she had recently participated in, had a vision to bring something like that to Western Mass. to raise money and awareness around the cause of breast-cancer research and treatment.

A quarter-century later, it’s safe to say that Carvalho’s creation — known as the Rays of Hope Walk & Run Toward the Cure of Breast Cancer — has done just that, and a whole lot more.

As it turned out, Tobin did help her; WGGB became the media sponsor of the first Rays of Hope walk in 1994, and Tobin spearheaded a half-hour documentary special to bring attention to the cause.

“She had this overwhelming desire, not just to do this walk, but to change the way we treat breast cancer,” said Tobin, who has come full circle since then, now serving as director of Annual Giving and Events for Baystate Health, which has long overseen the Rays of Hope organization.

The first Rays of Hope event attracted some 500 walkers and raised $50,000. Today, it has raised more than $14.2 million and attracts about 24,000 walkers and runners each October. This year’s annual fundraiser, slated for Oct. 21, will once again step off from Temple Beth El on Dickinson Street in Springfield and wind through and around Forest Park.

As usual, all money raised remains local, administered by the Baystate Health Foundation to assist patients and their families affected by breast cancer. Funds support research, treatment, breast-health programs, outreach and education, and the purchase of state-of-the art equipment, as well as providing grants to various community programs throughout Western Mass. 

“Sometimes I can’t believe all that’s been accomplished,” Carvalho said. “I never would have believed we could raise the amount of money we raised; $14.2 million over the last 25 years is a lot of money, and we can do a lot of things with it — and we have. I’m really proud of Rays of Hope and all we’ve accomplished.”

It wouldn’t have happened, she added, without the continuing, loyal support from the community. “We’ve mostly accomplished what we have through individual walkers and local organizations that have supported Rays of Hope from the beginning. Most of the agencies that got involved in the early years are still involved, as well as the walkers; they come back year after year.”

Carvalho said she created Rays of Hope with a very specific vision.

“I wanted to help people that were going through breast-cancer treatment, to help them navigate the healthcare system,” she explained. “I’d found it difficult, and it was my motivation to make it easier for other people, seeing that I had such a hard time. And I wanted the money to stay local, too. That was really important for me.”

Beyond the critical funding, however, she has long recognized the importance of Rays of Hope as a bonding agent for individuals facing one of life’s most daunting challenges, and the people who love them.

Lucy Carvalho (left) and Kathy Tobin at the first Rays of Hope walk in 1994.

Lucy Carvalho (left) and Kathy Tobin at the first Rays of Hope walk in 1994.

“I think the event is very unique in that, when you’re there, it feels like there’s a big hug all around you, and that people really care about you. It’s just uplifting to be involved, and it’s something to look forward to, something that has become a tradition.”

Tobin also compared the event to a massive hug — one with a great deal of feeling behind it. “We have such a support system in place. It’s like a sorority — but I shouldn’t say sorority, because men are diagnosed, too. It’s just a network of people who care.”

Changing Times

Dr. Grace Makari-Judson has witnessed the evolution of Rays of Hope from a clinical standpoint; she was appointed medical director of Baystate’s breast program at the same time Carvalho was organizing her first walk.

“Lucy’s initial mission for Rays of Hope was not only helping breast-cancer research, but trying to provide coordinated care … a holistic approach,” Makari-Judson said — in other words, to make the journey easier for others than it was for her.

“Thinking back, it’s amazing how much we’ve been able to do with addressing those goals,” Makari-Judson went on. “Twenty-five years ago, women were having mammograms in the hospital, sharing the same waiting room with people who needed X-rays or had pneumonia. Biopsies were done in the operating room, and women got unnecessary scars.

“Today,” she went on, “we have a dedicated breast center where women go for mammograms and other breast imaging. We have needle core biopsy, which is done at the breast center and is a less invasive approach, so women go home with a Band-Aid instead of a scar. That’s the minimally invasive approach started in the mid-’90s and has since become the standard of care. It’s the whole philosophy of less is more.”

Other examples are sentinel node biopsy, introduced at Baystate in 1996, and radiactive seed localization, started in 2010. Both are minimally invasive procedures that Baystate pioneered in the region that have since become national standards of care, Makari-Judson said — and both benefited from Rays of Hope funding.

Meanwhile, Carvalho’s vision of more coordinated care has become reality as well, the doctor said.

Dr. Grace Makari-Judson

Dr. Grace Makari-Judson

“Twenty-five years ago, physicians were seeing patients all in a row — the surgeon, then the medical oncologist, then a radiation oncologist,” she explained. “And sometimes that would leave women with conflicting information. In today’s approach, we have something called a multi-disciplinary breast conference, where we get all the experts together to review radiology images and pathologist slides and come to a consensus recommendation. That has had a positive impact on care and really enhances our mission.”

It’s a model, she said, that started to coalesce around the time Rays of Hope was being launched, and it eventually spread to all Baystate hospitals and eventually became the model of care regionally and nationally.

“Everything about cancer has come such a long way,” Tobin agreed. “Women don’t have to wait days for biopsy results; they don’t necessarily have to have drastic surgeries. Everything about treatment has changed.”

“Twenty-five years ago, women were having mammograms in the hospital, sharing the same waiting room with people who needed X-rays or had pneumonia. Biopsies were done in the operating room, and women got unnecessary scars.”

Then there’s the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research, launched in 2011 with the help of a $1.5 million Rays of Hope grant. The center brings together a group of scientists with diverse areas of expertise who work toward reducing the impact of breast cancer — for instance, understanding how obesity, diabetes, and environmental exposures interact to alter breast-cancer risk and prognosis.

It’s important work, and not something to be taken for granted, Tobin said, adding that many events like Rays of Hope eventually peter out — Avon’s national fundraiser for breast cancer isn’t continuing this year, for example — and such events require a lot of work and diligence to thrive and grow.

“Sometimes the fundraising becomes secondary,” she added. “After a while, people want to be a part of it, but they don’t remember the fundraising piece, and that’s critical to our survival. We’re trying to drive home the point that, yes, we need your involvement, but we also need your fundraising, because that’s what makes the programs happen.”

And it’s not just Baystate programs that benefit, Tobin added. Other local organizations, like Cancer House of Hope, also rely on support from Rays of Hope.

“We’re always getting new people involved,” Carvalho said. “Unfortunately, it’s often because they have breast cancer or someone close to them has breast cancer — but that passion keeps us going, and keeps us a vibrant organization. I think we’re always going to walk until there’s a cure, and we don’t need to walk anymore.”

Personal Impact

Denise Jordan was first introduced to Rays of Hope by her late friend, Tracy Whitley, and she joined its advisory board in 2008. A decade later, she’s chairing the 25th interation of the event, dedicating her service to Whitley, who succumbed to the disease last year.

Jordan calls herself an ambassador for Rays of Hope, making public and media appearances and encouraging people to take part in the Oct. 21 walk. She hasn’t found it to be a hard sell.

“I think, as long as people are affected by breast cancer, there will always be a willingness to participate in an initiative whose main focus is finding a cure,” she told BusinessWest. “Also, unlike a lot of organizations, when you give money to Rays of Hope, you can actually say, ‘the money I gave went to this person or that person; I know that because all the money stays right here in the region.’”

During her time as chief of staff for the city of Springfield, Jordan helped establish Pink & Denim Days, when city employees took up that dress code in exchange for donations to Rays of Hope. “It was really an easy ask,” she said. “Folks were very enthusiastic.”

Rays of Hope has proven to be a meaningful event for both survivors and supporters, as well as an educational experience for all ages.

Rays of Hope has proven to be a meaningful event for both survivors and supporters, as well as an educational experience for all ages.

So was Jordan, when she was asked to chair the event this year, even though she had some reservations about the time commitment. But when she thought about her Whitley, and the way she not only battled cancer but became a strong advocate for survivors, it wasn’t a hard decision.

“There’s going to be some special things happening that day,” she said of this year’s walk. “I’m pushing to get more people involved. We’ve had participants in the past who have missed a couple walks, but, this being the 25th anniversary, we’re hoping to bring a lot of folks back to the walk.”

Tobin agreed. “We’re adding some exciting elements. We’re going to tell the story of the progress we’ve made and celebrate some joyous stories of beating the disease — and remember those we’ve lost. I think there will be some special moments.”

Having been active in the walk for 25 years, Tobin has lots of stories, but likes to recount one from the event’s first year. Her 4-year-old son attended and took in the speeches, and as he settled into his car seat for the ride home, he said, ‘I’m so glad I’m not a girl.’

“My feminist self practically slammed on the brakes,” she laughed. But when she asked why, “he said, ‘because I can never get breast cancer.’

“The earnestness of this little boy took my breath away,” she continued. “I realized in that moment the impact this walk was having, and could have, if someone that young understood the seriousness of breast cancer.”

The fact that he assumed it was a girl’s disease isn’t odd; many adults think the same thing, and Rays of Hope has created plenty of teaching moments around that misconception as well.

In short, it’s hard to overestimate the impact this 25-year tradition has had on breast-cancer treatment, research, awareness, education — not to mention the giant hug of support that so many women (and men) need.

“Lucy had certainly given us a gift,” Tobin said. “She had done something incredible in that parking lot that day, and $14.2 million later, we’ve seen a lot of profound moments.”

Added Carvalho, “there’s a spirit at Rays of Hope, and I don’t know exactly how it came to be, but it’s real, and it’s powerful, and it’s heartwarming. That’s what I’m proud of — how the community has come together to make a difference.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress on higher-profile developments, like the health complex at the Longmeadow line and a possible mixed-use project on Chestnut Street.

Denise Menard has witnessed plenty of growth in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall since becoming the community’s first town manager two years ago, from the creation of a seven-member Town Council to the creation of a Human Resources department, a new director of Finance and director of Planning and Community Development, and the establishment of a Board of Health overseen by a full-time director.

But she says the most important change in the city offices may be the ease with which new businesses to town can navigate the permitting process.

“I see myself as a business manager for the town — a business manager that has the authority to make the kinds of decisions that need to be made to streamline the process,” she said. “Just being here day to day, helping implement the priorities of the council and all these other things, is a real a plus for the community. And in the last two years, we’ve seen a lot.”

Take, for instance, the 18,000-square-foot medical office building at 250 North Main St. constructed by Associated Builders last year for Baystate Dental Group. The dental office occupies the first floor, and the second floor is being rented for medical and office space.

“That’s a great credit to the community; they just wanted to locate in East Longmeadow,” Menard said. “We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

Another, more complex project in the health realm is a joint venture with the town of Longmeadow — a medical complex that will add to East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center at 305 Maple St., cross town lines, and provide benefits to both communities.

“We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

The project includes four structures on a 20-acre site: a 50,000-square-foot medical office building in Longmeadow that will be occupied by Baystate Health; a two-story, 25,000-square-foot office building in East Longmeadow; and an assisted-living facility and expansion of an existing skilled-nursing facility run by Berkshire Health.

“It’s really moving along,” she said, adding that the buildings on the East Longmeadow side should be up by the spring. Meanwhile, the two towns have worked together to improve road infrastructure at the site. The project encompasses three intersections on Dwight Road — two in Longmeadow and one in East Longmeadow. Longmeadow is managing the road improvements, and East Longmeadow is receiving contributions from the nursing-home developer, which will pass through to Longmeadow to offset the cost of the street improvements.

“The road improvements have been painful to say the least, but it will be such a great improvement at the end of the day,” Menard said. “It’s so nice to have a joint venture with Longmeadow, and both sides are going to win with that. Longmeadow and I are good neighbors. The two town managers really work well together.”

Major projects like these are complemented by a number of other developments in town, a trend she says was boosted by the town’s change in government two years ago.

“I’ve had developers come in and say, ‘we waited because we wanted to see what the new charter was going to be like before we decided to come to East Longmeadow,’” she recalled. “So there was a change in the philosophy of people looking in from the outside, as to what they would like to see here, and I think they’re happy with what they see now with the new government.”

Setting Down Roots

Menard said East Longmeadow has a decent stock of developable land.

“We have industrial space, and we also have agricultural land, and we’re wondering what’s going to happen with that because farming is getting more difficult. But we want to be agriculture-friendly and hope to continue down that path.”

The new director of Planning and Community Development, Constance Brawders, has been taking the land stock into consideration as part of a master plan that’s in the early stages, Menard added.

“That master plan will focus on what residents here want,” she explained, adding that a series of public forums will focus on topics like recreation, traffic, and what kind of land-use mix residents want, balancing residential neighborhoods with the need for commercial and industrial investment.

East Longmeadow
at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 15,720
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.94
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.94
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Cartamundi; Lenox; Redstone Rehab & Nursing Center; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation
* Latest information available

“It will take a little while, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time,” she told BusinessWest. “So it’s time for us to take a snapshot of today and see what we want to look like in the future.”

It’s healthy to conduct such an exercise because society changes a lot over the years, and that affects how businesses operate and how towns cater to their needs.

“Think about the changes in the world just in the past 20 years. There are huge differences,” she said. “The big businesses that required a lot of space because they needed a lot of employees — now maybe they don’t need so many on site because a lot of them can work from home. My son works from home, and he’s part of a huge organization; they don’t require the footprint they used to.

“So a lot of things have changed since we’ve updated our plan,” she went on, “and it’ll be time to just address what we have now and what the current businesses and residents and everybody that has anything to do with East Longmeadow wants, so we can move forward. That’s really exciting.”

Some projects in the works have the potential to create vibrancy in town, such as an ongoing plan to create a mixed-use development at 330 Chestnut St., in the former Package Machinery building. The project would include commercial, retail, and possibly office space in the front part of the building, and above will be some residential apartments or condominiums.

The applicant for that project, MM Realty Partners, withdrew the proposal last winter, but they are now moving forward. The exact nature of the project is still being hammered out, but Menard says mixed use is a promising model for the site, due to the energy and foot traffic it would create.

“That’s the interesting part about it, but we’ve got to make sure it’s the right fit in the right spot for East Longmeadow,” she noted. “It certainly is an interesting concept.”

Other projects have come on line recently, including a gas station and 6,500-square-foot convenience store at 227 Shaker Road, a lot that had been empty for many years. That development was delayed when Atlantis Management Group bought out the property, but after a second round of permitting and approvals, construction went forward and was completed this year.

“The whole change in ownership delayed them applying for the permits they needed to bring it all together,” she added, “but now that’s on board, and they’re always busy.”

Attractive Mix

Part of what makes East Longmeadow attractive, Menard said, is a healthy mix of properties of all kinds, both residential and commercial.

“We have some very high-end housing, but we have some very moderate housing as well,” she noted. “We have a great Recreation Department, and our schools have a great reputation.”

Residents and businesses also appreciate that the town is conservative when it comes to taxation and spending, she added.

“Businesses see that our tax rate isn’t fluctuating up and down; it is really just gradually going to a level of what we need to address the needs of the community. And it’s a community that people are saying they want their children to grow up in. They want to own houses here.”

Employers feel the same way, she added. “In fact, we had a business come in — he was going to be leasing from somebody in East Longmeadow — and he said, ‘I want to come here because my staff, my workers, would be able to live in a nice community with good amenities and good community spirit.’”

Maintaining that culture takes planning, of course, and the woman who sees herself as a business manager is pleased that those plans will be carefully crafted — and hopefully implemented — in the coming years.

“This is a moving, growing community, to be sure,” Menard said. “We have a lot going for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Sowing Seeds

Julia Coffey brought this selection of mushrooms to a local farmers market

Julia Coffey brought this selection of mushrooms to a local farmers market. She also sells to restaurants, campus food services, and other food distributors.

Julia Coffey’s business was mushrooming — in more ways than one.

In fact, her enterprise, Mycoterra Farm, specializes in mushrooms. And when she was looking for a larger space in which to grow, she received a fortuitous phone call.

“In mushroom production, as with much agriculture, efficiency of scale is big — and we had maxed out capacity at our farm in Westhampton,” Coffey said.

She found a closed equestrian center on the market in South Deerfield that would make an ideal space, and initially pursued loans through the USDA Farm Service Agency. But she still needed more funding to get up and running on the new site.

“We were trying to figure out how to get the new farm online with a little less money than I needed, and it was Rebecca who reached out to me to see if we had any funding needs,” she recalled. “It was very timely.”

That was Rebecca Busansky, program manager for the Pioneer Valley Grows Investment Fund, or PVGrows for short, a regional investment and loan program launched in 2015 that provides financing and technical assistance to food and farming businesses in Western Mass.

“We really set out to help the whole food system. This is about farms and local food businesses and everything that makes a healthy food system,” Busansky told BusinessWest the day after the Franklin County Community Development Corp. (FCCDC), which oversees the fund, marked the project’s three-year anniversary with a celebration at Raven Hollow Winery at Koskinski Farms in Westfield.

It wasn’t just an anniversary being celebrated, but a funding milestone — $1.25 million, in fact, halfway to the fund’s original goal of $2.5 million. That money has helped more than 25 local farms and food entrepreneurs grow their businesses — and, in turn, a critical sector of the Western Mass. economy.

Mycoterra is a good example. The gourmet and exotic mushroom farm, as Coffey described it, grows “wood-loving” mushrooms indoors year-round. Mycoterra specializes in shiitake, oyster, and lion’s mane mushrooms, but experiments with many other varieties as well — and, in doing so, impacts scores of other food-related businesses.

“We market directly to farmers markets, about 50 restaurants statewide, and campus food services, and with the recent move, we’re increasing production and are working with a number of local distributors,” she noted.

John Waite, executive director of the FCCDC, said PVGrows offers an innovative, mission-driven way for community members to invest in their values by supporting and sustaining businesses that can make real changes to how food is grown, distributed, and purchased. “It takes the local movement to a whole new level. It’s beyond eating local — it’s investing locally.”

Good Idea, Naturally

To date, nearly 50 investors, including individuals, businesses, and foundations from New England and New York, have contributed a minimum investment of $1,000 to the fund, with interest paid annually, Busansky explained. These community investments are pooled together to provide the financing that farm and food entrepreneurs need to grow their businesses.

The fund grew out of existing FCCDC programs that provide technical assistance to local farms and food producers in the Valley, she added, noting that a need became evident for a funding source specifically aimed at benefiting these businesses.

Jennifer Ladd says supporting local food production brings cultural, economic, and even regional security benefits.

Jennifer Ladd says supporting local food production brings cultural, economic, and even regional security benefits.

Three foundations have been important to the fund’s growth: the Solidago Foundation, the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation, and the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, which collectively established a loan-loss reserve. A community pool was then established, accepting investments of $1,000 to $10,000 with a five-year term and a very low interest rate.

“We felt it was important to add this community-investment piece,” Busansky said. “The whole idea was to make it a minimum $1,000 to invest, which doesn’t make it completely accessible to everyone, but it’s not only open to wealthy people, either. It democratizes capital.”

Larger investments come with longer terms and higher interest rates, with the idea that investors with a little more money could be willing to take on more risk, Busansky added. But so far, there hasn’t been much risk for investors.

“We have 25 well-performing businesses borrow from us so far, and we haven’t touched the loan-loss reserve — in part because we give a lot of technical assistance.”

Coffey described the loan process as easy to navigate, but that straightforward experience wasn’t the only thing that impressed her.

The recent three-year anniversary celebration featured food provided by many of the fund’s borrowers.

The recent three-year anniversary celebration featured food provided by many of the fund’s borrowers.

“I’ve got a background in bookkeeping, so I feel I had some skill sets that some people don’t,” she said. “But they were prepared to offer technical assistance, too, for people and startups and agricultural food businesses that need it. They are a very knowledgeable resource, and it was great getting things established right away.”

The FCCDC has been involved in small-business lending for close to 30 years and has plenty of expertise in providing guidance to young enterprises, Busansky noted, from business plans to websites. So she’s not surprised the PVGrows fund has found early success in its mission. “We have a system in place that’s worked well, and now we’re ready to seek the additional $1.25 million in commitments.”

Jennifer Ladd is one of those investors. “You don’t have too be a wealthy person to invest in Pioneer Valley Grows, which I think is a wonderful thing about it,” she told BusinessWest.

“Supporting agriculture in this Valley feels like contributing to a sense of vitality. It’s the same kind of feeling I get when supporting the arts — there’s creativity, growth, collaborations between people,” she went on. “And there are multiple layers of assurance that your money will actually have an impact and be of service.”

Ladd said the low interest rates for investors shouldn’t deter anyone because most people getting involved in this do so because they believe in the value of supporting local farm and food businesses.

“I enjoy cheese, fruits, vegetables, and wine around here, and I don’t mind not getting much of a financial return,” she said. “I’m choosing low interest because that serves people just starting out. These new endeavors need time to get their roots in the ground, so to speak, and this money can help them do that. It will yield benefits in many ways.”

Some of that benefit is cultural, she added, contributing to quality of life and a certain agricultural fabric of the region, as well as a sense of connection with people who thrive off the land and wind up feeding their neighbors.

“We don’t have huge farms here, like in the Midwest, with thousands of acres of corn. This is agriculture we actually do benefit from immediately,” Ladd said. “I also feel like it’s contributing to my sense of security; with climate change and the volatility we see in the world, it’s good to have food being produced locally. So it’s a sort of regional security that has a payoff right now.”

Green Thoughts

Food and farm businesses applying for financing and business support through the PV Grows Investment Fund are vetted for mission fit by a consortium of community-lending institutions and food and agriculture specialists, Busansky explained.

Terry and Susan Ragasa, owners of Sutter Meats in Northampton, were among the early borrowers. “From start-up funds to get us open to facilitating a business consultation to get us to the next level, the PVGrows Investment Fund has been an incredibly supportive asset for Sutter Meats,” Terry noted.

Coffey has had a similar experience, as she grows a business that takes agriculture and sustainability seriously. Her mushrooms are handcrafted in small batches, and her natural methods of production accelerate decomposition, build soil, and cycle nutrients — critical processes for healthy ecosystems, she explained.

In turn, she also appreciates the financial ecosystem being created through the PVGrows investors and borrowers. She said she ran into an old friend recently who had invested in the fund, around the same time Coffey became a borrower, and it struck her how PVGrows is essentially neighbors helping neighbors — and helping a critical part of the region’s economy succeed.

“Western Mass. has a phenomenal agricultural economy, not just the producing, but the processing, and the loan program helps add layers to it,” Coffey said. “We eat really well locally, but the funding and the technical aspects of setting up a business — and setting up a business well — is something that is often overlooked.”

As the fund expands, the hope is that Mycoterra won’t be the only agricultural business in the region that’s mushrooming.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

The Power of Movement

Chad Moir turned his resentment against Parkinson’s disease into a chance to help others fighting the disease that took his mother.

Chad Moir turned his resentment against Parkinson’s disease into a chance to help others fighting the disease that took his mother.

As they don boxing gloves and pound away, with various levels of force, at punching bags suspended from the ceiling, the late-morning crowd at this Southampton gym looks a lot like a group exercise class at a typical fitness center.

Except that most of them are older than the usual gym crowd. Oh, and all of them are battling Parkinson’s disease.

“A lot of them have never boxed before in their lives, and now they get to put on gloves and punch something,” said Chad Moir, owner of DopaFit Parkinson’s Wellness Center in Southampton. “Some are hesitant at first, but usually the hesitant ones are the ones who get into it the most.”

Tricia Enright started volunteering at DopaFit before joining Moir’s team as a fitness trainer.

“I just fell in love with the people,” she told BusinessWest. “I absolutely love my job, and I don’t think many people can say that. But you come here, and they inspire you in so many different ways — they walk in here with all these things they’re dealing with and get in front of these bags, and they’re pushing it and fighting. It’s so amazing to see. It makes me want to come to work every day, which is not something I’ve experienced before.”

Tricia Enright says she’s inspired not only by members’ physical progress, but by the support they give each other as well.

Tricia Enright says she’s inspired not only by members’ physical progress, but by the support they give each other as well.

It’s not just boxing. Members at DopaFit, all of whom are at various stages of Parkinson’s, engage in numerous forms of exercise, from cardio work to yoga to spinning, and more. On one level, activities are designed to help Parkinson’s patients live a more active life by improving their mobility, gait, balance, and motor skills.

But research has shown, Moir said, that it does more than that: Exercise releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, slowing the progress of Parkinson’s symptoms.

Moir has seen those symptoms first-hand, by watching his mother, stricken with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s, decline quickly and pass away five years after her diagnosis.

“She went through a hard diagnostic process,” he said. “There were probably about three to four years where we knew something was wrong; she was going to the doctor, but they couldn’t figure out what it was. There are symptoms of apathy and depression and anxiety that come along with Parkinson’s, and those manifested first. So they were trying to treat it as a mental-health issue, but Parkinson’s was underlying everything the whole time. Eventually she got her diagnosis, and from there she deteriorated pretty quickly.”

Moir said he took his mother’s death hard. “I fell into a bit of a depression. I hated Parkinson’s disease and everything to do with it. I didn’t even want to hear the word Parkinson’s. But one day, something clicked, and I decided I was going to use my resentment toward Parkinson’s in a positive way and start to fight back.”

He used a half-marathon in New York City to raise some money for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, and ended up collecting about $6,000 — an exciting tally, as it was the first time he’d ever raised money for a cause. And he started to think about what else he could do for the Parkinson’s community.

“At that point, I was a personal trainer, and the more I looked into it, the more I found out that exercise is the best thing someone with Parkinson’s can do. All the research shows that it can slow the progress of some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s, so I started researching what people with Parkinson’s could do through exercise.”

He started working with individuals in their homes, but a visit to a support-group meeting in Southwick was the real game changer. “I asked the people there if they wanted a group exercise class, and they said ‘yes,’ so I started one. I think we had four people at first.”

These days, a visitor to DopaFit will typically see around 25 people working out. “Really, it’s set up like a regular gym would be — aerobic training, running, dumbbells,” Moir said.

“At that point, I was a personal trainer, and the more I looked into it, the more I found out that exercise is the best thing someone with Parkinson’s can do. All the research shows that it can slow the progress of some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s, so I started researching what people with Parkinson’s could do through exercise.”

The difference is the clientele — and the progress they’re making toward maintaining as active a life as they can.

Small Steps

The first DopaFit gym was launched in Feeding Hills in 2015, but moved to the Eastworks building in Easthampton a year later. This year’s move to the Red Rock Plaza in Southampton was a bid for more space; ample parking right outside the door and a handicapped-accessible entrance are pluses as well.

Meanwhile, a second DopaFit location in West Boylston — Moir lives in Worcester — boasts about 20 members.

When the business was starting out, Moir was studying occupational therapy at American International College. “That’s a grueling program, so I had to make a choice — and I don’t love school as much as I love this. The deal with my wife was that I could leave the OT program, but I’ve got to finish my degree.”

Today, he’s back at AIC, working toward a degree in public health. “They’ve been instrumental and supportive of what I’m doing here, creating a business and working with this population,” he said. “Any time you’re helping the public with a healthcare need, it becomes public health.”

The Southampton gym runs classes four days a week — exercise groups on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and a yoga session on Wednesday. “Most people come two or three times a week, but some come every day,” Moir said, adding that members with jobs often make time for exercise before or after their work schedule.

Individuals are referred to DopaFit by their therapists, neurologists, movement-disorder specialists, and family members as well.

“Some go to their neurologist, who says, ‘you need to exercise,’ and they find out about us, exercise here for six months, go back to the neurologist, and their scores are better than they’ve been. When the neurologist finds out they’re going to DopaFit, they reach out and start referring more people. The proof is in the pudding.

“Exercise is the best medicine,” he added. “Your pills are great because they help with the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but when the medicine wears off, the symptoms come back right away. The exercise helps prolong some of that, so you’re less symptomatic for a longer period of time.”

When they first arrive at DopaFit, members undergo an assessment of where they are physically and where they would like to be in six months. Then they’re assigned to one of two exercise groups. No Limits is made up of people who don’t need assistance getting in and out of chairs and can move about freely with no assistive equipment, like canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. The second group, Southpaw, requires a little more assistance.

“The exciting thing is, some of those people come to that class with canes and eventually come in with no canes, and eventually they’re in the next class, running and jumping around,” Moir said. “Especially for someone who’s been sedentary for a while, it really makes a huge improvement.”

He said studies have shown that Parkinson’s patients who have been sedentary can show improvement in their symptoms simply by getting up and doing the dishes or another minor task each day, just because they’re up and moving. “If you take someone sedentary and get them moving in a training facility, sometimes the outcomes are almost immeasurable.”

Not to mention that exercise can be fun, Enright said.

“You get these people on the floor with a hockey stick and a ball, it brings them back to when they were 8,” she said. “They’re spinning and jogging, and it’s just so neat to see what it brings out in them. It’s such a testament for what this does for them. They’re pretty inspiring.”

Special Connections

Between the business and his studies, Moir doesn’t have a lot of time to stand still, but he said he occasionally allows himself to step back and let the potential of DopaFit sink in.

“I’ve been so deeply involved in it that I forget how special this really is,” he told BusinessWest, and not just because of members’ physical progress, but their growing confidence.

“A lot of times, they’re leery of going out to eat because they can’t eat a bowl of soup, or their food’s going to be shaking off the fork. When they come here, they don’t have to worry about that, or they talk about that with each other and tell each other, ‘oh this is how I get around that.’ Or, ‘when I go to this restaurant, I order this because it’s easier to eat.’”

Those conversations and the social support they gain at DopaFit hopefully translate to greater confidence in other areas of their lives, Moir said. “That support system is huge, and it’s special.”

Enright agreed. “They’re such a close group, and the support they receive is as important as the exercise, and they come for that too. But the physical piece really is amazing, to watch them slow the progression of the disease because of what they’re doing here.”

She said members are excited when they visit their neurologist, and the doctor is pleasantly surprised with how they’re managing their symptoms. “Exercising gives you a lot of confidence in your physical ability anyway, so that’s really cool to watch. They’re amazing.”

In addition to the exercise and yoga, DopaFit also hosts the Smile Through Art Workshop once a month, an art program for individuals with Parkinson’s disease that’s run by Moir’s wife, Saba Shahid.

“It’s even more gratifying knowing that, every day, I get to honor my mother. What’s happening here is a living testament to the values she instilled in me.”

“It’s the only art program in the country designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s,” he explained. “We do different art projects that work on different symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, like tremors. Or we’ll do a workshop on handwriting.”

One goal of that particular class is, simply, the increased independence someone gets by being able to sign a check or do any number of other tasks that most others take for granted. “When you give that back to someone, it’s another barrier they feel they can successfully navigate in society.”

Moir has certainly navigated his own path since those days when he was so angry about his mother’s death that he couldn’t even think about Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s even more gratifying knowing that, every day, I get to honor my mother,” he said. “What’s happening here is a living testament to the values she instilled in me.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Serving Up Style

Karen Belezarian-Tesini (left) and Sarah Rietberg

Karen Belezarian-Tesini (left) and Sarah Rietberg are selling plenty of white and gray tiles these days.

Professional designers can often walk into a house and tell what decade it was built in by the styles of certain rooms, and the kitchen is definitely high on that list. From the high-gloss look of the ’80s to the more neutral ’90s; from a shift back to color at the turn of the Millennium to the current embrace of whites and grays, kitchens do seem to reflect their time. But one trend of the past generation isn’t likely to change — the increased perception of the kitchen as a home’s main hub of activity.

The economy wasn’t the only thing that went flat a decade ago. So did kitchen colors.

“When the economy tanked in 2007, 2008, everything became very flat. Color was gone, along with texture, pattern, flowers. Everything became industrial and cold — no frills. And that’s how the economy was, too,” said Karen Belezarian-Tesini, manager of Best Tile in Springfield. And she’s not the only one who noticed the coinciding trends.

“It’s funny how the economy dictates the colors,” said Frank Nataloni, co-owner of Kitchens & Baths by Curio in Springfield, recalling how many kitchens of the late ’80s featured high-gloss surfaces and plenty of black and red, but when the recession of the early ’90s hit, it was all earth tones. By 2000, color had come back, but around 2008, neutrals took over again. “I don’t know what that means, but when you look back, you can clearly see it.” That decade-ago shift has stuck, however, and even intensified, he added. “Everything now is white and gray.”

While taupe is making a comeback, said Belezarian-Tesini — “I love that more than gray because it gives you an option to go either way, warm or cool” — she’s seen the white-and-gray trend intensify over the years. But better financial times might be causing a subtle style shift.

“Now that the economy is picking back up, it’s getting a little warmer — softer edges, a little more color in glass mosaic or patterns,” she said.

That would be just fine by Lisa Lindgren, designer with Kitchens by Chapdelaine in East Longmeadow.

“The most popular kitchen is white — white on white. So whenever I get a client who wants some color and wants to do something a little different, I get excited,” she told BusinessWest. “People tend to be so scared of color. A lot of it is about sellability, but we tend to encourage people to go for what you like. It’s your house.”

Frank Nataloni

Frank Nataloni says styles shifted away from bold colors when the economy tanked, and have largely remained muted since.

R.J. Chapdelaine, owner of the company, an offshoot of builder and remodeling firm Joseph Chapdelaine & Sons, agreed.

“Whenever you have someone who comes in with a little imagination, wants to have a little fun, it gets exciting,” he said. “And why not? That’s where people want to spend their time. Kitchens are getting bigger, and other living spaces are getting a little bit smaller.”

For this issue’s focus on home improvement, BusinessWest visited a few companies that deal in kitchen design to get a read on some of the hot styles — only to find that the hottest is a decidedly cool white. But they offered plenty of other food for thought as well.

What’s Your Style?

Take countertops, for instance, where white- and gray-colored quartz surfaces are in, both Lindgren and Nataloni said.

But they’ll find contrast in other places, Lindgren noted, like weathered driftwood for accent pieces or a dark wood floor — or, more commonly these days, porcelain planks designed to look exactly like wood. “That’s the most popular floor. You can’t even tell it’s not wood. It’s pretty fascinating.”

“That seems to be what everyone’s looking for right now,” Nataloni added. “With some of them, it’s amazing how much it actually looks like real wood. You can even feel the texture. That’s what people are looking for.”

And homeowners aren’t stopping in the kitchen, Belezarian-Tesini said. “When I sell those planks, I might sell 2,000-3,000 square feet at a time. They’re doing their bedrooms, they’re doing the whole house. It’s just incredible. People say, ‘oh my gosh, I love that,’ and when we tell them that it’s porcelain, they look again and say, ‘are you sure? Really?’ ‘Yeah, really.’”

In addition to the move away from tile floors into wood and wood-like porcelain, Chapdelaine noted that shiplap walls — in both vertical and horizontal patterns — are popular as well, perhaps driven by their ubiquitousness on HGTV.

As for cabinetry, while painted white tops the list right now, Nataloni said, he was working with someone recently who wants a black cabinet with a rubbed-off type of finish so there’s some wood coming through. Still, those neutral shades provide plenty of flexibility.

R.J. Chapdelaine and Lisa Lindgren say it’s fun to work with customers who have a design vision not necessarily bound by what’s currently fashionable.

R.J. Chapdelaine and Lisa Lindgren say it’s fun to work with customers who have a design vision not necessarily bound by what’s currently fashionable.

“With a white or gray cabinet, we can make it look very formal or casual in the scheme of things,” he said. “I haven’t sold a cherry kitchen in over a year, but at one time, that was probably 60% of our business. Some woods remain relatively popular, though, including walnut. “That’s the fashion part of the business, and it changes depending on who walks through the door.”

Sarah Rietberg, showroom manager at Best Tile, said all these trends amount to people seeking a clean, uncluttered look in their kitchens, which is why subway-style tile backsplashes are still common, but with a twist — different sizes, something with a little texture to it, or even lines that aren’t perfectly straight.

“Those things can add some oomph to subway tile,” she said. “People want a little movement, but nothing too crazy. They don’t want to take away from the other things going on.”

In addition, a well-placed accent color can be striking amid a sea of white, Chapdelaine said. “We just did one all-white kitchen with a hale navy blue island, and it’s a striking look.”

Indeed, Belezarian-Tesini said, many customers complement the dominance of white and gray with mosaic tile backsplashes; where once a mosaic pattern broke up the solid color of the rest of the backsplash, now it’s being used across the entire backsplash to break up the white of the kitchen.

Sometimes it’s hard to predict the next trend, she added. “If you asked me 10 years ago if glass would still be here, I’d have said no, but glass is hotter than it’s ever been. It’s the medium of choice now. People still use ceramic, and porcelain has really come up the ladder. But glass has become the decorative. It’s a 10-year trend for sure, and it’s probably going to last longer than that.”

Meanwhile, she sees metallic tile coming into its own. “As technology gets better, you’re going to see more things within the glazing. You’re even seeing crystals in the glazing, little pieces of metal, to create a true, realistic metallic. So technology advances, and the tile changes.”

Good, Better, Best

The upside of so many options in kitchen surfaces is that there’s typically something for every budget, Nataloni said.

“We have to have a good, better, and best product selection,” he told BusinessWest. “We have a product for people flipping homes that’s very current with the trends, reasonably priced, good quality, with a quick turnaround time. Then we have a semi-custom type of product that offers a lot of selection and is a little quicker than the higher-end product. That means a lot if someone is doing a home renovation, because a kitchen is not an inexpensive proposition. If you know where to save money, you can get more bang for your buck, and that’s our skill.”

Some customers arrived with a vision in mind for their kitchen, he explained, and his job is to refine it. “Then there are other people who come in and don’t have a vision, and they’re looking for me to help them create the vision. That’s why we have to be flexible in meeting the need of whoever is coming to us.”

To help people envision the end product — quite literally — Nataloni uses a virtual-reality device called ProKitchen Oculus, which uses Oculus VR goggles to allow people to walk around in the environment Nataloni has programmed into the computer.

“For people who have a hard time visualizing, it really solves that problem for them,” he said. “We create a basic floor plan in 3D, and you’re actually in the room, so you can look and walk around. They literally see what they’re going to buy, or as close as possible to what it’s going to be like.”

For example, one customer was having trouble envisioning the soffit Nataloni suggested for the top of their cabinets. “Then I showed it to them on the Oculus, and their response was, ‘oh, now I understand what you were talking about.’ For those type of people, it really helps tremendously.”

Chapdelaine also sees a healthy mix — about 50-50 — of people who know exactly what they want and customers who need a little more guidance. “And that guidance can occur through Lisa, or through decorators. We see clients occasionally bring in a decorator to help them make decisions on color, cabinetry, and tile.

Most of those are typically renovating their whole house, Lindgren added. “It doesn’t tend to happen just with a kitchen, but with a broader scope.”

Whole-home renovations are common these days, said Chapdelaine, who noted that the remodeling business has been outpacing new home building for some time. His grandfather, who first hung out a shingle in 1925, saw the value of remodeling work early on, and evolved the firm in that direction after originally focusing on new construction.

“That became an integral part of our business,” he said. “You have to evolve. I see people who just build houses or just remodel, and I’d find that difficult. You can go from building three, four, five houses at a time to building one or maybe none, and doing all remodeling.”

Open Wide

He and Chapdelaine’s father also recognized perhaps the most prominent shift in kitchen design, and one that remains dominant today — the open floor plan.

“They were building compartmentalized houses, but they rolled into a more open floor plan on the single-story executive ranches,” he recalled. “Now, there’s very little compartmentalized building. Everything is wide open, with less formal living spaces.”

Nataloni said homeowners prefer a free flow of traffic through the kitchen, and islands are desirable if they can be put in. “Gone are the days of the U-shaped kitchen or a peninsula only, unless it’s necessary. Everyone is looking to have cabinetry that creates the outside shell of the kitchen and then some kind of an island in the middle, whether it’s with seating or without.”

That’s also the style potential homebuyers prefer when they’re visiting open houses, which is one reason why hot trends — like that white and gray — remain so dominant once they take hold; people design the room not only for their own comfort, but with resale in mind.

“For many people, this is where they’re staying, but we do have a lot of people coming in saying, ‘look, I want to fix up the kitchen, and we’re not going to be here forever, so I want it saleable,’” he noted. “We get probably more of the people who are staying for the foreseeable future, and they want to enjoy it. That’s the majority of our business.

Belezarian-Tesini said most of her business at Best Tile contractor-driven — either builders putting up or remodeling houses, or homeowners shopping for product, then hiring a professional to do the work. The do-it-yourself crowd is much smaller — perhaps because the kitchen is such a critical part of 21st-century home life that people don’t want to get it wrong.

That said, “business has been fantastic,” she noted. “I’ve seen a lot of new construction over the last few years. When I started here 23 years ago, it was all new building. Then it went to remodeling, and now it’s coming back again to new construction, which is nice to see.”

So, for the foreseeable future, she’ll continue to track the design trends and help customers design the kitchen of their dreams — usually with an open concept.

“It makes for easy living, and really great entertaining,” she said. “After all, the kitchen is the heart of the home.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Folks in Western Mass. know they’re often dismissed by residents out east, Lisa Stowe says. So how does a city like Westfield make its case as a vibrant destination for a business looking to plant roots?

By working together.

That’s exactly what a handful of partners — municipal leaders, Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank — have done by launching Go Westfield, a still-evolving engine to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“We worked on this for six or eight months,” said Stowe, marketing and communications specialist for WG+E. “We want to use this opportunity to highlight what makes Westfield unique and a good place to do business. So many people think Massachusetts stops at 495, but there are a lot of things that are not so great about living in that part of the state — cost of living, high traffic, the cost of buying a piece of land. We wanted to draw attention to the things that make Westfield really attractive for people who are looking to relocate.”

The partners in Go Westfield had been doing that, to varying degrees, in their own ways, she added, but a focused partnership allows them to broadcast the message more efficiently.

“If you’re a site selector, we check a lot of boxes,” Stowe said, citing not only the city’s access to Mass Pike, an airport, and rail service, but its strong inventory of developable land — not to mention the municipal utility.

“If you’re a commercial customer, you pay 18% less than the state average for electricity, and 13% lower for gas rates than the state average,” she added. “If you’re an organization doing manufacturing, that’s significant. We feel that’s a good piece of the story to tell.”

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it. It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?”

So is Whip City Fiber, a division of WG+E that now reaches 70% of residences and businesses with high-speed internet. “The fiber project is a big deal,” she said, noting that customers like not only the speed, but the fact that service comes from a local company, not a national behemoth. “We’ve easily met the targets we had set in the business plan.”

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said early meetings with the Go Westfield partners focused on how to promote the economic-development landscape in Westfield.

“We wanted a way to really persuade businesses to come to Westfield,” she told BusinessWest. “There are the usual assets everyone knows, like the turnpike exchange, airport, and rail, but we wanted to get a group of stakeholders together and come up with a marketing plan for all of it. We’re very excited about this initiative. There’s a local component to it, but the bigger initiative is a push outside the region to get companies to look at Westfield for commercial developments.”

The group has been discussing marketing strategies as well as ideas like industry-specific focus groups.

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it,” she said. “It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?

Westfield also boasts strong schools, a state university, and proximity to numerous other colleges, she added, as well as a chamber of commerce that continually strives to keep businesses informed of state and national trends and developments that could affect them.

In short, the Whip City has a lot going for it, and Go Westfield is just starting to broadcast that message far and wide.

Heart of the City

Meanwhile, the Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, focuses on revitalizing 4.88 acres in a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. The city has also directed funding to revitalize the so-called Gaslight District adjacent to it.

One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017. The transit center was designed to both catalyze related economic development and increase the use of public transportation. The state-of-the-art center includes parking space for four buses with bicycle racks, as well as a bicycle-repair station, which speaks to the proximity of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail only a block away.

The Westfield Redevelopment Authority also demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The city recently issued a request for proposals for the project, taking advantage of the area’s designation as an ‘opportunity zone,’ a state program that provides tax relief for people willing to invest in certain neighborhoods in need of economic development.

“The PVTA project was the first phase of renewal,” said Peter Miller, Westfield’s director of Community Development. “We’re looking for private development to get some mixed-use retail space on the ground floor, and residential space on the top floors.”

Joe Mitchell, the city Advancement officer, noted that Millennials in particular are drawn to urban, mixed-use living, one reason why such projects have popped up around the region in recent years.

“A three-bedroom house and a white picket fence on a half-acre is not what young people are looking for,” he said. “They want a coffee shop downstairs and a bike rack, and being part of a tight-knit community where there’s activity going on right at their doorstep.”

Another $25,000 in state money will soon fund a wayfinding project for downtown, not just to point visitors to destinations off the main thoroughfare but to help them access parking as well. “We have sufficient parking in our downtown, but people don’t always know where it is,” Miller said. “This infusion of money from the state will allow us to better direct people to where the parking is.”

Phelon noted that the city recently switched all on-street parking, which had been a mix of one-hour and two-hour time limits, to two hours across the board — a small change, maybe, but a good example of how quality-of-life issues can be communicated and remedied across departments.

The momentum downtown has spurred some organic growth, too, Mitchell added, noting that Myers Information Systems is relocating there from Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it.

“They’re moving from an urban, walkable space they’ve outgrown in Northampton to buying one of our old buildings and investing private dollars here,” he added. “It was an extremely underutilized building, and they’re converting it into modern office space. They have a real vision for it.”

He doesn’t think Myers will be the last to make that move. “One of the reasons to relocate to Westfield is that we’re at the cusp of something, and people want to be a part of it.”

Back to School

Phelon says Westfield has accomplished more in recent years because of its culture of collaboration. One example is the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent.

At a time when the state is looking for public schools to forge more meaningful pathways to economic development, she added, the alliance puts the Whip City at the forefront of an important trend.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $36.82
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State College, Baystate Noble Hospital, Savage Arms Inc., Mestek Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

She said the next phase could be an adopt-a-classroom program in which area businesses could engage repeatedly with a teacher and his or her students. “I also think we need to get students and teachers into the business world on a regular basis. The work environment is changing so rapidly, with technology and robotics and social media.”

Because of this, she went on, it would benefit teachers to see what employees at area companies do on a day-to-day basis, and how. “That’s what they need to be teaching, so they need to see that.”

The Westfield Education to Business Alliance also facilitates a career fair at Westfield High School that gives students exposure to the types of career opportunities available at local companies — and, more important, what skill sets they will need to take advantage of them.

The goal of the next career fair will be to attract 75 companies, up from 51 last time, to interact with the 500 or so students who show up.

“It’s not a job fair; it’s a career fair,” Phelon stressed. “The message is twofold: for students to see what companies are here, and see that they can go away to college and come back here and get good jobs. It’s also good for these students to talk to these employees about their hiring practices, what degree do I need, should I expect a drug test or a CORI check, what are your procedures. And they could talk to students about internships and co-ops.”

The alliance one of many examples of how Westfield continues to bring people and organizations together to raise the fortunes of all.

“The mayor [Brian Sullivan] has been very supportive of these collaborations,” Miller said. “He made building bridges his theme. That’s how we’ll get the most out of the assets we have — not by operating in silos.”

Phelon agreed. “We have our individual purposes and missions, but there’s a bigger picture of working together and collaborating. It’s such a great city, and we’re fortunate to have the assets we have.”

Now it’s time to let everyone know it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

Creating an Ecosystem

State and local officials joined with stakeholders in the Berkshire Innovation Center to break ground on the project last week.

State and local officials joined with stakeholders in the Berkshire Innovation Center to break ground on the project last week.

Steven Boyd isn’t just the president and board chairman of the Berkshire Innovation Center; he’s a true believer that the $13.8 million facility will be a game changer for the region’s manufacturing and life-sciences economy.

“From a broad perspective, I’d say the center aims to support the legacy manufacturing base that has a long history of innovation here in the Berkshire region,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re an innovation center that is equal parts research and teaching institution and programming for private-sector businesses.”

State and local officials gathered last Tuesday at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires in Pittsfield to break ground on a project that has been in the planning and fundraising stages for a decade, and is expected to open by the third quarter of 2019.

The two-story, 20,000-square-foot workforce-development center will include training facilities, lab space, clean rooms, and office and event space for small- to medium-sized companies, just to name a few amenities, with the collective goal of boosting economic growth, employment, and private investment in the region.

“The center aims to support and accelerate growth and innovation by providing access to state-of-the-art equipment like 3D printers and a microscopy suite, as well as conferencing and teaching facilities,” Boyd said, adding that the center will also be the centerpiece of the mostly underdeveloped, 52-acre business park it calls home.

“The building will have all these types of spaces combined into a very cooperative, shared maker-space type of environment,” he went on, with one goal being to bring ideas and inventions from colleges and research institutions, even those from the eastern part of the state, together with local manufacturing knowhow and the resources needed for commercialization.

“One of the things that makes Cambridge so vibrant is all the new technology that’s being researched or commercialized as a result of all the ideation happening at places like MIT,” Boyd said. “So, as part of stimulating the economy in the Berkshires, we want to promote more of that ideation and commercialization here.”

Gov. Charlie Baker said as much at last week’s groundbreaking. “Our administration is focused on boosting the Commonwealth’s thriving life-sciences sector in every corner of the state,” he noted. “Investing in the Berkshire Innovation Center will help expand the capacity and capabilities of this region’s entrepreneurial community to drive job creation, retention, and outside investment in Western Massachusetts.”

Boyd, who is also CEO of Boyd Technologies in Lee, said the Baker administration has been focused on creating a network of innovation in manufacturing and the life sciences that encompasses the entire state, and the Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC) will be a key part of it.

“They recognize all the momentum going on in Boston and see the opportunity to provide efficiencies by creating a statewide ecosystem,” he noted. “In the Berkshires, we have available space and facilities at lower cost to provide that type of efficiency. It can be invented at MIT and commercialized in the Berkshires, and you don’t have to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world to make something that’s truly innovative.”

Nearly 5,000 jobs in Berkshire Country are in the manufacturing sector, making it the fifth-largest industry in the region.

With that in mind, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash noted that the center will serve as an anchor institution for region, “strengthening connections between the life sciences and advanced-manufacturing industries and education institutions, creating jobs, and shaping the next generation of home-grown innovators.”

Precision Endeavor

At the start of the summer, the BIC board brought on Consigli Construction Co., one of the largest general contractors in the Northeast, to oversee construction at the former General Electric site. John Benzinger, a senior project manager for Skanska USA Building Inc. of Springfield, will serve as the owner’s project manager. Skanska recently served as the project manager for Union Station in Springfield.

Resources inside in the innovation center, when it is completed, will include:

• Precision measurement and reverse engineering utilizing the BIC’s flagship platform, the Hexagon Metrology 121510 CMM with touch probe, laser scanner, camera module, and ROMER Arm;

• A rapid prototyping center featuring cutting-edge 3D printing capabilities in plastics and metals;

• Precision analysis and microscopy with the Zeiss Axio Imager 2 platform, for both life-sciences and materials research;

• Clean-room lab space to conduct research or pilot production for nanotechnology, life sciences, or other applications requiring a clean environment; and

• Wet-lab space to conduct collaborative life-sciences research or start up a biotechnology company. The lab will feature sinks, DI water, fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, autoclave, centrifuge, incubators, deep freezer, glass washer, ice machine, and lab supplies.

The center will also offer customized training programs for advanced manufacturing, access to Berkshire Community College’s engineering technology classes, and the space for companies to conduct their own proprietary training in technology-loaded classrooms.

In addition, BIC members will be able to collaborate on research with UMass Amherst, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, UMass Lowell, and SUNY Colleges of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, as well as develop training and internship programs with Berkshire Community College (BCC), McCann Technical School, and Taconic High School.

This broad coalition of academic partnerships sets BIC apart from other facilities, like the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, that provide cutting-edge resources for manufacturers and commercialization opportunities for innovators, Boyd said.

“When we started thinking about the business plan, we felt this area is underserved in terms of business-class conferencing and teaching areas,” he told BusinessWest. “Of course, BCC has wonderful classrooms and teaching facilities, and many companies around here have their own conference rooms, but not a place to host larger-scale strategic meeting or annual board retreats. I think it would be nice to have a local facility that allows third-party distance learning and access to state-of-the-art conferencing that is otherwise not available here.”

Steven Boyd

Steven Boyd

“We’re an innovation center that is equal parts research and teaching institution and programming for private-sector businesses.”

In fact, it’s the workforce-development aspects of the facility that have Boyd as excited as the cutting-edge technology.

“Specifically, we envision training that is very germane to industry, and at the same time we want to provide a provide a place for our fundamentals to be available for incumbent workers,” he said. “BCC will play a very central role in training — in manufacturing fundamentals, LEAN manufacturing concepts, STEM-related programs — but we also will bring in subject-matter experts to talk about things like sensors and actuators that relate to automation systems and things that provide deeper lifelong learning for the workplace out here — and, of course provide a steady stream of talent.”

Next Generation

That last aspect is key, he added — the idea that partnering with area high schools and colleges on training and internship programs will boost the pipeline of young talent into fields like biotechnology and precision manufacturing that desperately need it.

“It’s self-serving for businesses in that way,” Boyd said. “We’re preparing kids in schools today for careers that may start with a local company but end with a long career in biotech. Our point is, if you are qualified in this space and engage in a growth mindset and lifelong learning, you will have the opportunity for upward mobility, both at your specific company or at another one in the industry at large.”

Plans for the Berkshire Innovation Center were launched about a decade ago, when the city of Pittsfield received a $6.5 million earmark in then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life-sciences bill to construct a facility in the William Stanley Business Park. When the project moved forward in 2014, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center provided an additional $3.2 million.

However, construction, originally scheduled to begin in 2015, was delayed after the original bids came in $3 million higher than expected. Since then, a coalition of state, local, and private-sector funding sources raised the difference, with the state coming through with the final $2.3 million earlier this year. Boyd was elected the BIC’s first president and board chairman in 2015, while Rod Jané, president of New England Expansion Strategies in Westborough, was hired as the BIC project director.

While planning the facility, the BIC has already begun developing and launching its programs, such as a speaker series that, since 2015, has conducted more than 10 speaking events on topics relevant to advanced manufacturers in the region. The featured speakers for these events have included executives from the medical-device industry, advanced equipment manufacturers, researchers from leading research universities in the region, workforce-development leaders, and career-center directors from colleges and universities.

“If you are qualified in this space and engage in a growth mindset and lifelong learning, you will have the opportunity for upward mobility, both at your specific company or at another one in the industry at large.”

Meanwhile, BIC workforce-training programs were launched in 2016, and have featured all-day training seminars on topics such as lean manufacturing and continuous improvement, thermoplastics for medical devices, and medical-device regulations. That same year, the first wave of advanced R&D equipment, acquired through grants by Berkshire Community College, and training for employees of BIC member companies on the advanced equipment has been ongoing.

Taken as a whole, Boyd said, the innovation center will essentially cast a net to attract and train the next generation for some of today’s most intriguing careers — and, in some cases, careers that haven’t even emerged yet. What is clear, he added, is that modern manufacturing jobs are a far cry from long-outdated stereotypes about factory floors.

“You don’t get dirty on the production floor,” he said. “Quite the opposite, at Boyd Technologies, they’re the cleanest spaces in the building. They’re precise and clean-room controlled and certified as such, and people that work there are mainly using computers. Of course, there are materials and all types of processes and actual manufacturing, but it requires statistics and technical reading and understanding of biocompatibility and sterilization methods. All these are things the workforce of today have to be cognizant of.”

The Berkshire Innovation Center promises to not only build that awareness, but provide the resources and partnerships to make the Berkshires a key part of a high-tech ecosystem that is no longer the exclusive domain of Boston and Cambridge.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Sparking Success

Jay Peloquin says gas fireplaces are especially popular at a time when natural gas is inexpensive.

Jay Peloquin says gas fireplaces are especially popular at a time when natural gas is inexpensive.

 

Jay Peloquin remembers the heady days for pellet stoves, back in 2008, when oil surged to more than $100 a barrel.

“When oil prices were skyrocketing, we couldn’t keep these things in stock,” he recalled. “We had people lining up out the door just to order stoves because it would save them so much money over their regular heating bills.”

Oil prices have come down significantly since then, he said, but pellet stoves remain popular, particularly for people who otherwise heat their house with electricity or propane. “For people in the right situation, it’s still a great investment — it pays for itself within a few years, and you’re using a clean energy source.”

For Fireside Designs, a family business that dates back 40 years, those economic trends have occasionally impacted sales, said Peloquin, the West Springfield store’s general manager. But more important has been a continual focus on what products — in the categories of fireplaces, heating equipment, and grills — customers want most.

In the realm of fireplaces, that tends to be gas-burning units, in addition to pellet stoves. In addition, “if you have an existing brick-and-mortar fireplace used for wood, and if you want to convert it to gas to make it more efficient and get more heat out of it, you can do a gas fireplace insert, because natural gas is one of the cheapest ways to heat right now.”

As for new construction, Fireside receives a number of calls from consumers who want a higher-end fireplace rather than the one that came with the house.

“A lot of times, builders will spec in a fireplace for a customer, and if they’re building, say, a $400,000 house and putting in a $1,000 fireplace, something doesn’t add up,” Peloquin said. “So that’s when they come to us and see what’s available for their budget and the style they want, whether they want contemporary, traditional, or something in between. Some higher-end builders do tend to spec in some of the fireplaces we carry, because we definitely are on the higher end.”

Whether a large wall unit or a smaller fireplace installed above the TV, he said, there are plenty of options for customers who want to bring the heat home.

Tools of the Trade

When Peloquin’s father, Jean, launched the company 40 years ago, its product line was a far cry from what it is today.

Back then, the elder Peloquin sold tool sets, which evolved into a small retail store on Brookdale Street in Springfield, mainly focusing on tools and glass doors. From there, around the mid-’80s, he moved into selling and installing stoves, before relocating to Riverdale Street in West Springfield, not far from the store’s current location on that same road.

“We found that during our off season, we needed to keep busy. So that was when we got into the grills, which keeps us busy during the spring and summer.”

In 2004, Jay came on board, and has seen the store grow consistently since then. But he had a long path to his leadership role of today.

“When my father brought me in, he said, ‘go sweep the warehouse. Go stock the shelves,’” Peloquin recalled. “I wasn’t treated with kid gloves by any means. My father was very hard on me, but 14 years later, I can say it was worth it. Because I started at the bottom — from stockboy to installer to salesperson to general manager — it’s been a gradual path to where I’m confident, and the employees feel confident that I can lead them, and my father feels that way as well.”

During his tenure, Fireside saw a major shift to outdoor grills as a significant part of the inventory because people weren’t seeking out home-heating products during the warmer months of the year.

“We found that during our off season, we needed to keep busy,” he said. “So that was when we got into the grills, which keeps us busy during the spring and summer, even though during that time we’re still putting in fireplaces for new constructions and additions.”

Besides the Napoleon line of grills, Fireside sells the Big Green Egg, a versatile charcoal grill that does anything a regular grill or oven does, in addition to its capabilities as a smoker, he explained.

“Those are very popular as well. They have more of a cult following, whereas they don’t advertise nationally, but if you try the food off of them once, you’ve got to have one. It’s that good,” Peloquin said. “On the internet and YouTube, you’ll find people cooking new recipes, and we have customers who come in and say, ‘this is one of the best things I’ve ever bought,’ and they use it every day.”

Grill islands are becoming more popular as well, he noted, due to the growing prevalence of outdoor entertaining spaces. “Napoleon makes modular products, and you can put in, say, a sink or some cabinets for an outdoor kitchen. It’s something that’s relatively new for us, but something we’re definitely moving toward doing more of.”

As for the wintertime work, that’s the prime season for pellet stoves — Fireside is the number-two Harman dealer in the country — and gas fireplaces and inserts. “We’re starting to expand and getting into the commercial side of fireplaces as well, and we’re working with builders that are building senior citizens’ homes and resorts,” he said.

“There are things in my father’s 40 years of experience that I haven’t experienced, so I still need to learn from him. But also with all the new products that come out, we learn together,” he went on. “Every day, it’s a new thing — it’s learning, it’s evolving, not just in terms of products, but your advertising and who you’re marketing to.”

Take social media, for instance; Fireside has a robust Facebook presence, and highlights not only products, but informational links like safety tips.

“That’s the thing about social media — it isn’t necessarily about ‘come in and see our sale and buy this,’” Peloquin told BusinessWest. “If you engage people enough to where they want to read about something that goes on in their everyday lives, I feel like that’s brand building.”

Hot Takes

Because Fireside Designs has been around a long time, there aren’t many companies with the Peloquins’ experience in the field, he noted. That’s also a long time to develop good word of mouth and repeat business, which is something the team relies on.

“We can advertise all we want, but especially in this day of social media, if you’re not treating your customer right from A to Z, you’re not going to survive,” he said. “I’m taking over [leadership] gradually, and I want to make that a priority.”

Part of that reputation is shouldered by Fireside’s in-house technicians, he noted. “If you buy something from us, you don’t have to go somewhere else if something breaks. That’s the advantage of buying from a company like ours, a fireplace specialty store, as opposed to buying fireplaces online. People go to Home Depot and buy a fireplace, and then when something happens, they come to us for service. When you buy something from us, if anything goes wrong, we take care of our customers, and we service everything we sell.”

That’s just part of being a small business with deep community roots, he added.

“As a family business, we do appreciate when customers keep their business local. That’s helped us get to where we are today. Hopefully consumers realize that when you keep your business local, it supports the community.”

If Jean Peloquin set his son to sweeping floors 14 years ago instead of a cushy job he hadn’t earned, perhaps it was a way to determine whether he had a passion for this business. As it turned out, a fire was lit — both literally and figuratively.

“I don’t really consider this a job; I consider it what I do,” Jay said. “I consider this my future. I work every day not as a 9-to-5 thing, but to improve the business as a whole. I enjoy what I do, and I enjoy the fact that my experiences — from sweeping the floors to being an installer to what I do now — all of that together has made me a leader here. And I have employees that trust me — great employees that I look forward to keeping around for a long time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance

Lines of Defense

While major data breaches at national companies justifiably make news, small businesses may not recognize that hackers target businesses of all sizes and types. But awareness is on the rise, especially as insurance companies hone their products aimed at protecting against cyber threats — and help clients understand that buying insurance is only one line of defense, and that complete protection requires in-house diligence, too.

When is cybercrime not cybercrime?

When it falls under the broad category of something called ‘social engineering,’ said Bill Trudeau, president and CEO of the Insurance Center of New England.

That term refers to a broad range of ways to manipulate people into giving up confidential information, or even money. It can include anything from phishing schemes to leaving a flash drive on the ground, hoping someone will find it and load it onto their computer out of curiosity, thereby installing malware on their company’s network.

Or say, Trudeau suggested, a CFO receives an e-mail he thinks is from the company CEO, reading, “we worked out a new deal with ABC Company. Wire them a $20,000 deposit; I’ll have full details when I return.”

“If they get your CFO to wire money to an unknown source, it’s not really theft because they did it voluntarily; it was a trick,” Trudeau said. More importantly, the loss would not be covered by typical cyber liability insurance, because it’s not technically a cybercrime, which involves the perpetrator physically hacking a network, not conning someone else into doing it. Instead, the client would need a fraud endorsement on its insurance policy.

“Social engineering is cropping up more, spreading like a pandemic,” Trudeau said. “Now, enough bookkeepers have been embarrassed or fired that, when they see an e-mail like this, they usually say, ‘wait, I’m not falling for this.’”

But the ones who do succumb to social engineering make it abundantly clear that, while cyber liability insurance is still an important part of a company’s defense against risk, just as important is a culture that trains employees in avoiding being conned.

“Social engineering is a relatively new term that refers to illegal fund transfer or diversion,” said John Dowd Jr., president of the Dowd Insurance Agency. “You can also unwittingly introduce a virus to a third party. This virus may have been put on your website by someone without you knowing it, and when people go onto your website, they get infected … and it’s your fault.”

That’s not to say cybercrime the way most people understand it — a hacker breaking in and exposing confidential data, for example — isn’t still a major problem, one that companies need to work with their insurance agents to cover. While historic breaches like Target in 2013, with 70 million customer records exposed, make headlines, the reality is that most breaches occur in businesses with 100 or fewer employees.

According to the latest report by Cybint Solutions, which provides cybersecurity education and training solutions to businesses and organizations, a hacker attack occurs every 39 seconds, affecting one in three Americans each year.

Bill Trudeau

Bill Trudeau says businesses need to take stock of exactly what data is at risk, and how damaging it would be to have it exposed, in order to craft a plan of defense.

In 2016, 95% of breached records came from three industries: government, retail, and technology. However, 64% of all companies have experienced web-based attacks, and 43% of cyberattacks targeted small businesses. Meanwhile, 62% experienced phishing and social-engineering attacks.

The threat is growing due to the increasingly interconnected nature of the world today, Cybint notes. According to a recent Symantec Internet Security threat report, there are 25 connected devices per 100 inhabitants in the U.S. By 2020, there will be roughly 200 billion connected devices.

The total cost for cybercrime committed globally has added up to $100 billion, Cybint adds. “Don’t think that all that money comes from hackers targeting corporations, banks, or wealthy celebrities,” the report notes. “Individual users like you and me are also targets. As long as you’re connected to the Internet, you can become a victim of cyberattacks.”

It’s concerning, the report notes, that only 38% of global organizations claim they are prepared to handle a sophisticated cyber attack.

“Many businesses, by and large, do not manage the threat as well as they should,” Dowd told BusinessWest. “This could be due to lack of understanding the true exposure and financial implications of a breach. Certain businesses have a greater exposure than others, but any business that stores personal information or uses a computer has the potential for a claim.”

Growing Costs

While the average cost for each lost or stolen record containing sensitive and confidential information increased 4.8% last year, to $148, according to IBM’s annual “Cost of a Data Breach” report, Trudeau said companies need to individually assess what they have at stake.

“You’ve got to look at this on a granular level,” he said. “What data do you have? What data-breach exposure do you have? Do you store information that’s a concern?”

The answer to that question could vary by quite a bit. “You might have blueprints or schematics, designs, but how critical is it? Some might shake their heads and say, ‘no one cares; it’s on the Internet, so it’s not top secret.’ But if a law firm’s files are stolen, there could be embarrassment and reputation risk. You have to decide what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Cyber liability coverage typically protects against a wide range of losses that businesses may suffer directly or cause to others, and these come in two forms: first-party and third-party losses. Third-party losses involve regulatory fines and lawsuits brought by affected customers, while first-party losses are what the business itself incurs up front, such as business-income loss, data-retrieval services, downtime, and notification of customers, to name a few.

The costs to businesses associated with a data breach, from lawsuits to regulatory fines to notification expense, can be staggering, Dowd noted, and insurance companies have responded with new policy forms that protect against many cyberthreats that customers may never have heard of.

“Policies today are much broader than they used to be out of necessity — the crooks keep coming up with unique ways to hack into your computers and steal information,” he said. “In some cases, they will charge you a ransom to return the information they stole from you. Insurance policies can cover all of the costs associated with a breach, including fines and penalties.”

When a data breach does occur, how a company responds up front — self-reporting to authorities and having a turn-key response — can reduce its liability. In fact, carriers that specialize in this type of coverage, like Beazley and Chubb, have turn-key response operations as part of the policy.

“Social engineering is cropping up more, spreading like a pandemic. Now, enough bookkeepers have been embarrassed or fired that, when they see an e-mail like this, they usually say, ‘wait, I’m not falling for this.’”

Immediately notifying victims and paying for identify-theft-prevention services can help avoid the liability costs that typically outweigh the first-party losses, Trudeau added. “You need liability coverage, but you hope you’ll never have to use that if you handle everything correctly with the victims.”

Businesses need to have not only insurance against cybercrime, but a plan of defense in case something does occur, Dowd said. “Virtually no one is immune from this danger. The laws on the books today are very strict with regard to protecting personal information, whether it is your clients or your employees.”

In response, according to the Cybint report, approximately $1 trillion is expected to be spent globally on cybersecurity from 2017 to 2021. Meanwhile, unfilled cybersecurity jobs worldwide will reach 3.5 million by 2021. Even now, more than 209,000 cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. are unfilled, and postings are up 74% over the past five year. Clearly, it’s a threat that isn’t expected to go away.

Eyes Wide Open

Employers can take a number of steps to prevent data theft, such as protecting every computer connected to the Internet or the internal network with anti-virus and anti-spyware software; installing security-software updates promptly to stay ahead of hackers; securing the company’s wi-fi network by requiring passwords or even configuring the wireless access point or router to hide the network name; securing computers and network components and requiring log-on passwords for all employees; and continually educating employees on security guidelines for computer, network, database, e-mail, and Internet usage, as well as penalties for violating those guidelines.

And, of course, training employees on how to spot a scam.

“It’s not a data breach when you fool someone into giving up data,” Trudeau said. “In the last few years, insurance providers have seen a striking increase in people voluntarily parting with their money. We need to make sure we’re having the right conversations.”

He said he’s heard of someone posing as a technician visiting a business, and asking to use the bathroom. Once out of sight, he ducks into the first empty cubicle he sees and inserts a flash drive onto a computer to upload malware.

“Certainly prevention is important. A lot of little things can happen,” he told BusinessWest. “Awareness is important, to stay fully ahead of all the shenanigans.”

Some cybersecurity-insurance carriers pose a long series of questions on their application forms about the details of a company’s exposure to data risk, and if the underwriter isn’t satisfied with the answers, they may not write the policy until certain practices have been changed and safeguards put in place. Companies may also choose to hire a third party to poke around their computer systems and challenge their operations when necessary.

“Prevention is critical because the fallout from a breach is not limited to out-of-pocket expense,” Dowd said. “You can also lose clients and sales.”

Indeed, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit consumer survey conducted in 2013, 18% of respondents had been a victim of a data breach, and, of those individuals, 38% said they no longer did business with the organization because of the breach. Meanwhile, 46% said they advised friends and family to be careful of sharing data with the breached company.

“Having a good IT firm who knows how to protect your system on an ongoing basis is critical,” Dowd continued. “Going through the application-for-coverage process is very helpful and often eye-opening because it reveals what you may or may not be doing correctly from a prevention standpoint. I will often suggest to clients that they go through the process of applying in order to educate themselves, even if they ultimately choose not to buy the insurance policy.”

After all, the best policy against becoming a victim is knowledge and vigilance. But an actual insurance policy is a good idea, too.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]