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40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Sales Operations, Webber & Grinnell Insurance; Age 35

In college, Reynolds Whalen said, his dual passions were acting and travel. So, in 2011, he founded a company, called Performing Arts Abroad, that offered international experiences to travelers in music, dance, theater, and film.

He focused especially on collaborating with marginalized communities around the world, using the arts for education, development, and social change, growing the Northampton-based company to more than 160 participants in 2019.

And then the pandemic struck.

“It started as an arts-for-social-change program in Kenya, a country I’ve been involved with for many years,” Whalen recalled. “It grew quickly, and we had a lot of success, but COVID just wiped everything out; performing arts and travel both stopped in their tracks.”

His next role, at Webber & Grinnell Insurance, might not seem like an obvious progression, but he was intrigued by being able to tackle a culture-building role at the agency, while creating a more data-driven model and empowering the team to do their best work as efficiently as possible.

Outside of work, Whalen is active in the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew in Greenfield, serving on the governing board, directing the youth group, and founding a digital ministry during the pandemic; he also serves on the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. In addition, he’s a member of Eggtooth Productions in Greenfield and is a teaching artist for public-school program that uses an immersive theater framework to boost literacy for first- and second-graders.

His heart for the international community still gets a workout, too, serving as board clerk and a member of the finance committee at the International Language Institute in Northampton. He also supports several Afghan refugee families through a Circle of Care group, doing things like taking them to their local survival centers to get registered, showing them how to navigate the bus system, and helping them enroll in free English classes.

“My passion for a long time has been creating understanding amongst people of different cultures and ways of living in the world; the most important thing for our country at this moment in time is access to information about other people and other cultures, and understanding the value that immigrants bring to our community,” Whalen said. “Our community is made stronger by people who are visitors or settling here from other places. Those aspects of the community are particularly important to me.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Owner, N. Riley Construction; Age 39

Nick Riley knows construction changes lives — both those of his clients, when they step into a new home or undergo a dramatic renovation, and in his own life, in which a bet on himself paid off at a young age.

Age 24, to be exact. Riley had been working as a laborer for another construction business for a couple of years, and decided he loved the work, and how the results of his labor made people happy.

“I decided I was going to start my own business,” he recalled. “So I got into small remodeling, and gradually got into homebuilding pretty quickly.”

That was 2007, an interesting time to strike out on his own, with the global financial crisis and the Great Recession just around the corner. Riley credits his participation in an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build in Springfield in 2011 with bringing attention to N. Riley Construction and taking the firm to the next level.

“That definitely helped me,” he said. “Since then, we’ve been at it non-stop, growing by leaps and bounds every year. We’re doing 10-plus houses a year, large commercial buildings … I’ve got a good group of guys working for me, and that helps.”

It’s tough for contractors to keep and grow their crews these days, but Riley has been addressing that issue at the source, by cultivating the next generation of workers through an initiative called Student Builders.

“I’m the president, and I work with a couple other local people on that board,” he said. “What we do is purchase property in Chicopee — usually either dilapidated homes that need to be ripped down or pieces of land that need to be developed — and we set it up so kids in vocational programs, like carpentry, electrical, or landscaping, can build an entry-level house. It’s good, hands-on experience, and they can see if that’s something they want to do. It’s a good way to reach out to kids and get them into the workforce.”

The hope is that many will find the career as gratifying as he does.

“I love transforming people’s houses, working with customers and creating something for them that they’re excited about, that they’ll cherish for years,” Riley said. “It’s a very satisfying job. When I drive down the street and look around and say, ‘yeah, we did that house,’ or ‘we did that project,’ it’s nice. We take a lot of pride in our work.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Placemaking, W.D. Cowls Inc.; Age 39

Not everyone knows what placemaking is. But, to hear Hannah Rechtschaffen talk about it, maybe everyone should.

“Placemaking, to me, is really looking at the arts and culture and history and current residents of a place and really paying attention to how that place is developing and changing,” she explained. “Because all places are changing in some way.”

At W.D. Cowls Inc., specifically at the Mill District in North Amherst, a burgeoning center for living, shopping, dining, and lifestyle experiences, Rechtschaffen plans and executes events, convenes stakeholders in better leveraging the neighborhood’s assets, oversees the direction of the complex’s Local Art Gallery, guides internal team building and company growth, and interfaces with potential commercial tenants and developers.

“We want to create a great place to live and work and visit, by constantly paying attention to what’s here and what could be here and what we want here, and then stewarding that.”

The art gallery has been a particular passion; Rechtschaffen says the arts have been a lifelong passion, and her focus on economic development and how an ecosystem develops came after that.

“But I think the arts are very underrepresented; people don’t always imagine the extent to which the arts can be included,” she noted. On the other hand, “when we look at economic development, the arts are always at the core because artists are in the world to see things clearly and bring awareness and a voice to people, groups, or ideas that are not being seen.”

As a board member of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, she sits on multiple committees, including government affairs, marketing, the equity and inclusion task force (which she helped launch in 2021), and the first responders’ annual picnic. In Greenfield, where she lives, she chairs the town’s Sustainable Greenfield Implementation Committee, which is focused on tracking the use and communication of the town’s master plan.

“I live in Greenfield, and everything I get to effect in Amherst, I want that to happen in Greenfield as well,” she said. “It’s hard for me not to join in; I can’t expect other people to do it.”

Whatever her role, Rechtschaffen added that “my work is much more focused on equity and inclusivity than it used to be. That’s been a real gift of this time of COVID, a silver lining, as it were — I feel like I’ve always paid attention, but I’m putting more effort into paying attention to who a place is for and how a community is for everyone.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Chief Financial Officer, Holyoke Soldiers’ Home; Age 31

Michael Lynch’s accounting and finance career has long focused on roles with a community benefit.

Like when he joined the city of Springfield in 2014, working in Disaster Recovery and Compliance, a new unit created after the June 2011 tornado to fund new housing projects, demolish blighted properties, and improve the city in other ways.

Four years later, Lynch transitioned to the state level, serving as fiscal director for the Western Region of the Department of Youth Services. When the governor declared a state of emergency early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Lynch immediately began working with his colleagues to procure appropriate PPE to protect DYS youth and personnel on a daily basis.

A little over a year ago, Lynch saw another opportunity he couldn’t pass up — as chief financial officer at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, which was still recovering from a mismanaged COVID outbreak early in the pandemic that saw dozens of veterans die.

“When this opportunity became available, I had to jump at it,” he said, noting that he was aware of what had happened there, but behind the headlines, he also knew changes were being made, and he wanted to be part of the team that could turn the facility around.

“This is a very special place because of the people we serve, but also because of the employees I’ve been lucky to work with,” he added. “The people here have such a deep level of care for the work they do; they are so committed to helping veterans day in and day out.”

Lynch, an adjunct professor of Accounting at Holyoke Community College, is committed to his community in other ways as well, namely through two charity golf tournaments he organizes each year that have, to date, raised more than $25,000 for local organizations like Rays of Hope, Miracle League of Western Massachusetts, Autism Speaks New England, Autism Connections, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Special Olympics Massachusetts, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ COVID-19 Response Fund.

“I started these golf tournaments as a way to make sure families can come together to do something positive for local charities,” he said. “I love doing this; I love event planning. My dream is to add a banquet dinner afterward and a much larger raffle, which will ultimately raise more funds. It’s so exciting to me. I want to continue to do everything I can to help people and bring people together.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Community Outreach Specialist, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts; Age 31

Sasha Jiménez has performed plenty of jobs in her life — gas-station cashier, summer-programs facilitator, teacher of English and science, just to name a few — but her current role may be closest to her heart.

As the Community Outreach manager for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Jiménez provides resources to organizations across the Commonwealth and connects them to referral partners. She also gives presentations at schools and other venues and is the team lead for the organization’s HIV-prevention plan.

Her interest in this area was sparked as a freshman at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School. “I was exposed to such a broad range of topics, one of them being sexual reproductive health — not just the disparities that existed, but also the atrocities done to Puerto Rican women and Nicaraguan women, and how important sexual reproductive health is to marginalized communities,” she explained. “I’ve been passionate about it ever since.”

Even while teaching at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, she’d bring in Tapestry to give workshops on consent, and coordinated a donation drive to make menstrual products available and easily accessible at area high schools and homeless shelters.

Her daughter has been another source of her passion. “I’m trying to build a place where she can access something as basic as menstrual products or birth control or a Pap smear or chest exam. Part of my profession is making sure this work continues — not only for my daughter, but so all women have access to sexual reproductive health.”

Active in the community, Jiménez was instrumental in the passing of the Paris Agreement Declaration 4.0, signed by Mayor Domenic Sarno, designating Springfield as a Fast Track City committed to HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness initiatives.

Jimenez, who has earned degrees at Springfield Technical Community College, Smith College, and UMass Amherst, has also helped Putnam students access extracurricular opportunities for college readiness and improved MCAS scores through social and emotional learning; supported Inclusive Strategies and its goal of addressing systemic racism statewide; organized and advocated for political candidates; and worked with domestic-violence survivors at the YWCA while providing support with housing, employment, and other social determinants of health.

That role at the YWCA, in particular, opened Jiménez’s eyes to health disparities among women, especially in regard to intimate-partner violence, HIV prevention, and substance-use disorder, she said.

And as for all those other jobs in her past? They’re all important on her journey to the critical work she’s doing today, she said. “It’s always OK to be passionate and pursue something else and follow whatever feeds your soul.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Community Development Manager, Sevita; Age 33

When asked what she loves most about her job, Giselle Gaines had trouble picking out anything she doesn’t love.

“It doesn’t feel like work,” she said. “They say if you love what you do, you won’t work a day in your life. This is a lifestyle for me.”

She was speaking about her role with Sevita, a provider of home- and community-based care for people of all ages with any number of needs. “We offer adults, children, and families high-quality services and supports that lead to growth and independence no matter what physical, intellectual, or behavioral challenges they face.”

The organization, once known as the Mentor Network, has been around for 50 years, providing services ranging from home care and adult day health to foster care and programs for children with autism. As the Community Development manager, Gaines brings new partners and new revenue streams to the company, but also serves as a liaison between the community and those services, building relationships with other healthcare professionals who can help clients.

“I feel I can relate to these families and bring my own story to them,” she said. “I have children with disabilities as well. Part of the reason I chose this vital work is to help build a world I want for my kids and other kids when they become adults.”

As the mother of four children with autism, Gaines wanted a career where she could advocate for her family and others like it. But she has a heart for serving the community in other ways, too.

A Leadership Pioneer Valley alumna and coach, she’s also the Diversity and Outreach officer for the Springfield Ward 4 Democratic Committee and worked with Springfield College staff on last year’s Be the Change event, which promoted leadership and civic engagement. She’s also a board member of Easterseals Massachusetts’ Western Mass. Regional Board; founder and board chair of the Miracle Marc Foundation, which promotes water safety; and a board member with Keep Springfield Beautiful.

She also created 413 Community Hands, a collaboration among local organizations to bring essential resources, education, and healthcare access to people and communities in need.

Why take on all that on top of her career and family? Again, she doesn’t consider it work. “I want to be the change I want to see in the world, and I strive to do that every single day.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Superintendent of Operations, Westfield Gas + Electric; Age 33

Folks in Westfield don’t always see Greg Freeman during the best of times. But he’s always trying to make things better.

Freeman has been working with the city for the past decade, starting in the Engineering department, where he performed mostly clerical work, but rising up the ranks through a series of promotions to his current role as superintendent of Operations at Westfield Gas + Electric, overseeing more than 70 employees.

“Whether it’s someone building a new house or someone whose furnace fails in the winter, and we run a new gas line to the house, or the phone calls during the last storm that took out branches, and we got their power back up, we’re seen as very valuable to the town because of our quick response and reliability,” he explained.

Freeman, who earned degrees at Springfield Technical College, UMass Amherst, and Norwich University, oversees the general operations of both the natural-gas and electrical sides of the municipal utility, including construction, storm response, and regulatory compliance.

“I enjoy being part of the community I live in — that’s the biggest thing,” he said, with his community-outreach roles ranging from Dig Safe campaigns to safety and career presentations at local schools. “Almost every day is different, but helping people out and giving back to the community is nice.”

As the safety officer for WG+E, those civic engagements are especially meaningful. “Every year, we do a safety class with fifth-graders, things like how to notice a natural-gas odor or what’s not safe when you see downed wires. We try to get word out there as much as possible.”

Michael Erwin, an electrician and business owner who nominated Freeman for 40 Under Forty, noted that “Greg continues to work together with his team of colleagues to promote infrastructure improvements, foster safety culture, promote the success of future WG+E endeavors such as fiber, and is the embodiment of the term ‘community.’”

Through all of that, family is especially important to Freeman, who has four children, all under age 9, with his wife, Kelly.

“My biggest cheerleader is definitely my wife, and my family is my biggest accomplishment, and also my biggest motivator,” he said. “When I’m working a long day or I’m out on a storm for days on end, I always know I have a good group behind me, supporting everything I do.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director, Center for Social Justice, Western New England University School of Law; Age 39

From her early career, teaching elementary school in New York City’s Spanish Harlem with Teach for America, Ariel Clemmer has been passionate about changing lives.

“That was an amazing experience,” she recalled. “I was working with a community-based school, meaning most students lived next to the school in project housing. It was a small environment, and I was an outsider coming in, trying to shake up the system a little bit. That’s been true of most of my positions.”

While studying law, her initial plans were to be a public defender. In fact, immediately after graduation, she joined Bronx Defenders, representing low-income clients charged with crimes.

“From there, my career has taken kind of a winding path, but the common thread has been to help people and try to make the world a better place,” said Clemmer, whose passion for pro bono work saw her named one of the top 30 pro bono attorneys of 2014 by Legal Services of New York City.

What has stayed with her from her experiences in NYC was a burden for people who are struggling, especially those victimized by systemic inequities. She brought that passion to her recent role as pro bono director at the Hampden County Bar Assoc., and then to her current position, as director of the Center for Social Justice at Western New England University School of Law.

“Our mission is to advance justice through research, education, advocacy, innovation, and public engagement,” she said, and the center does so through initiatives like a sealing and expungement program to address harm caused to people of color by the war on drugs, a consumer-debt initiative to defend consumers facing wrongful credit-card collection actions, and a gender-affirming identification project that offers pro bono legal services to individuals who need help with gender-affirming name changes, birth-certificate amendments, and more.

“It’s an exciting time to be working in social justice and living out this mission through our programming,” Clemmer said. “I’ve always had the sense that the world would be a better place if everyone was allowed the same opportunities and treated equally, regardless of what makes them different. So many times in my life, I’ve seen that’s just not the case.

“When racial injustice happens, or other types of limitations are put on people because of disabilities or gender status or sexual orientation, it bothers me,” she added. “That’s why the work I do now is so meaningful. It enables me, every day, to work toward something better.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

The Fed Makes Its Move

 

 

Last month’s federal funds rate hike by the Federal Reserve — the first of what may be several such increases — was long-awaited and welcome in the banking community, while the Fed hopes it begins to produce its intended effect of cooling the economy and slowing inflation. The impact on loans and credit of all kinds will be meaningful, finance leaders say, but the long-term, historical perspective suggests this is still a very good time to borrow.

It’s a move many in the finance world are calling overdue, and in some ways welcome.

After keeping interest rates low through the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Reserve hiked the federal funds rate by one-quarter of a percentage point on March 16, while also suggesting it might issue up to six more small increases before year’s end.

“We’ve lived with this low-rate environment for the last few years, which has been extremely difficult for banks on the margins,” said Brian Canina, executive vice president and chief of Finance and Shared Services at PeoplesBank. “So this was definitely something we have been waiting for.

“Last year was very interesting because, despite the inflation we were seeing, there was no movement on interest rates,” he added. “These have been interesting times, and hopefully, as the Fed continues to monitor this and increase the rates in the future, it would be nice to see us get back to a more normalized interest-rate environment that we’re more familiar with.”

Jeffrey Sullivan, president and CEO of New Valley Bank, said the Fed’s move was not only expected, but had been announced and much discussed in the marketplace.

“People are saying it’s overdue, and many are saying the Fed should have done it earlier to cool off the economy and keep inflation down a little bit,” he told BusinessWest. “Some people are worried there could be a lot of increases coming down the pike. But if it’s slow and steady, it’s probably not going to be a huge shock to people borrowing money, whether businesses or consumers.”

According to Forbes, the Federal Reserve’s mission is to keep the U.S. economy humming, but not too hot or too cold. So when the economy booms and distortions like inflation and asset bubbles get out of hand, threatening economic stability, the Fed can step in and raise interest rates, cooling down the economy and keeping growth on track.

“We’ve lived with this low-rate environment for the last few years, which has been extremely difficult for banks on the margins. So this was definitely something we have been waiting for.”

“When the Fed raises the federal funds target rate, the goal is to increase the cost of credit throughout the economy. Higher interest rates make loans more expensive for both businesses and consumers, and everyone ends up spending more on interest payments,” the publication notes.

“Those who can’t or don’t want to afford the higher payments postpone projects that involve financing,” Forbes adds. “It simultaneously encourages people to save money to earn higher interest payments. This reduces the supply of money in circulation, which tends to lower inflation and moderate economic activity — a/k/a cool off the economy.”

Because so many other rates in the economy are tied to the funds rate, any increase by the Fed has a direct effect on the interest consumers pay when they carry a credit card balance or take out a loan, and on yields for savings accounts and certificates of deposit, Nerdwallet notes.

“In general, the Fed reduces rates to try to stimulate the economy and raises rates to try to head off inflation,” the site explains, using a mechanism that causes rates on savings accounts, mortgages, and credit cards to rise. “Interest rates have been low for so long that many consumers — Millennials and Gen Z, particularly — haven’t really known a time when borrowing wasn’t cheap and savings vehicles didn’t pay next to nothing.”

Sullivan agreed. “Obviously, they’re paying a little more than they were paying a year or two ago. But by historical standards, when you look at mortgage rates — which have been 6%, 8%, even 20% — it’s not as unbearable.

“Everyone wanted to lock it in when a 30-year mortgage was 2.75%, which was the low point — kind of like saying they wish they’d bought Apple stock early on; everyone wants to time it perfectly,” he went on. “But in the broader context, these are still really low rates compared to what consumers have seen. It shouldn’t slow down the economy tremendously.”

 

 

Gimme Shelter

Mortgages will certainly become more expensive following the Fed’s move — at least, the interest costs. Forbes noted that a $300,000, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage would add about $185,000 in interest charges with a 3.5% rate, but would add $247,000 — almost double the amount of the original loan — with a 4.5% rate.

“In response to this increase, the family in this example might delay purchasing a home, or opt for one that requires a smaller mortgage, to minimize the size of their monthly payment,” the publication notes.

But NPR notes that rising rates could stop the “runaway train” of higher home prices, which rose nearly 20% in the U.S. last year, on average. With a historic shortage of homes for sale and very low interest rates, bidding wars regularly broke out and drove prices ever higher. Meanwhile, soaring selling prices pulled in more buyers who didn’t want to miss out, which further overheated the market.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan says many in the banking world feel the Fed’s rate increase is long overdue.

“Higher mortgage rates may be helpful in cooling the housing market,” Selma Hepp, an economist with CoreLogic, told NPR. “That may help bring us back more to some level of normality, and in that case we won’t see so much bidding over the asking price.”

Prices aren’t likely to fall right away, Hepp said, but they might rise much less this year, say 3%, and a few years like that could give contractors time to catch up with demand and build more homes.

Canina notes, however, that low inventory is still the main factor driving home prices in Western Mass. So with interest rates increasing, “that’s kind of a double whammy, for lack of a better term.”

Sullivan agreed. “Lack of inventory keeps prices high, no matter what the rates are.”

Ninety percent of homeowners have fixed-rate mortgages, protecting them against rising rates. But most home-equity lines of credit — funds borrowed against the home — have variable rates, which will now go up. Forbes noted that some banks will let borrowers take the money they owe on their line of credit and lock that into a fixed interest rate.

On the other side of the coin, retail banking customers may expect interest rates on savings to rise now as well, but that may happen more slowly.

“These historically low rates on savings products won’t jump higher overnight, but a higher federal funds rate can stimulate competition among banks and credit unions, and consumers may benefit from that,” Nerdwallet notes. “It may be worth looking for a savings account with better rates if your financial institution is slow to respond to a Fed rate increase.”

“If they continue to increase interest rates six or seven times before the end of this year, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of impact that has on the markets and consumers particularly.”

Canina explained that, from a consumer standpoint, banks have been living with historically low rates, and their margins have been squeezed at the same time the federal government has been putting out trillions in stimulus into the economy. As a result, bank balance sheets have significantly expanded with deposits.

“Banks have so much liquidity on their balance sheets, and if loans slow down, even with rates rising, banks will probably be reluctant to raise [savings] rates,” he noted. “We’ve managed to maintain deposit rates at a higher level than our competitors, and we’ll continue to monitor it to make sure we stay in terms of where we are relative to our competition, but banks are likely not raising rates any time in the near-term future.”

Brian Canina

Even if the Fed decides on multiple hikes this year, Brian Canina says, consumers should realize that interest rates are still low from a historical perspective.

The expectation from consumers is that, once the Fed raises rates, savings interest rates will follow shortly after, Canina added. “In the current environment, that’s very likely not to be the case this time around.”

 

Uncertain Times

Canina noted that the Fed employed a similar rate policy in the wake of the Great Recession, but “this is a little different situation, so coming out of it, I think it will be a little different in terms of how it plays out.”

Specifically, the key factors in the financial crisis of the late oughts were credit and housing issues. “In this one, you have the supply chain. You also have the Great Resignation, and the labor market was heavily impacted. The supply chain has not corrected itself, and we do have some labor-market matters to deal with. If they continue to increase interest rates six or seven times before the end of this year, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of impact that has on the markets and consumers particularly.”

Canina added that commercial lending at PeoplesBank slowed slightly in 2020 and 2021, and 2022 is expected to be stronger.

“But the rising interest-rate environment has not impacted the commercial side just yet,” he explained. “Commercial rates are based more on competition than the markets. Mortgage pricing is really designated by the government agencies, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. So that’s kind of a set market, and mortgage companies price off that.

“When pricing commercial mortgages,” he continued, “you’re pricing to competition, and they’re usually a little slower to react, so right now, we’re seeing lower rates for commercial than residential mortgages, which is a total anomaly, something we don’t see in a normalized interest-rate environment. In the next six to nine months or so, that should straighten itself out. We’re seeing some unusual trends right now.”

Sullivan said gas prices are a larger factor for people right now than interest rates. “They’re staring at gas prices that average $4 a gallon and could be going to $5 a gallon. That’s more of a psychological factor for the average person.”

It’s certainly not the first economic shock of recent years.

“The pandemic definitely shocked the system, creating disruption in the supply chain,” Sullivan said. “That certainly includes building materials, which is one reason why real-estate prices aren’t coming down. And those material costs, the people I talk to say it’ll be another year or two before that starts to correct itself. So that will keep the inflation rate high.

“The Federal Reserve has some tools, but they’re limited tools,” he added. “We’re in such a unique situation with the supply chain being so screwed up. It’ll take awhile.”

As for the other factor weighing on the economy — a persistent worker shortage — “wages are going up, and pressure on wages is going up. Is that bad or good? That depends on what lens you’re looking through. It’s tougher for employers who have to pay that.”

Taking the big picture on what’s happening in the economy, Nerdwallet said the Fed’s recent move — and those to come — aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Reducing debt, especially when you’re paying a variable interest rate, will help you in a rising-rate environment. So will increasing your savings and staying focused on your long-term investing strategy, in spite of day-to-day fluctuations in the stock market,” the site notes. “If you manage your money carefully and the economy stays strong, rising rates could be a good thing for your wallet.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Nonprofit Management Special Coverage

Growth Is on the Menu

 

A rendering of the future Chicopee home of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, set to open in 2023.

A rendering of the future Chicopee home of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, set to open in 2023.

While it manages an impressive flow of food from numerous sources to the people who need it most, in recent years, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has been doing that job in a space that’s not sufficient for the work. That will change with the opening, in 2023, of a new headquarters in Chicopee that will more than double the organization’s space and allow it to serve more people with more food and more nutrition and educations — in effect, expanding the menu of what’s possible at a time when the need is great.

 

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts was launched in a Hadley barn 40 years ago. Four years later, it relocated to its current facility in Hatfield.

Today, as one of four regional food banks in Massachusetts, the organization provides food to 172 food pantries, meal sites, and shelters in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties. Its food sources include the state and federal government, local farms — including two of its own  — retail and wholesale food businesses, community organizations, and individual donations.

The organization also provides other forms of food assistance, such as nutrition workshops, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment assistance, and education, public-policy advocacy, and engagement around issues of food insecurity.

That’s a lot of food and a lot of people being served, and not enough space to do it all. In fact, the Food Bank has had to turn away about a million pounds of food donations over the past three years, said Andrew Morehouse, its executive director.

The need for a new facility is nothing new, but the reality of one is finally on the near horizon, with a $19 million, 63,000-square-foot facility breaking ground in Chicopee next month and set to open next year, more than doubling the organization’s current 30,000 square feet of space.

Those are gratifying numbers, Morehouse said.

“This is a project we’ve been planning for probably six years, when we realized we were beginning to run out of space here at the facility in Hatfield. So we began the process of figuring out what we needed to do,” he told BusinessWest. “Do we want to expand the facility in Hatfield or purchase or build a second facility in Hampden County? Can we operate two facilities? If we can’t, are we prepared to move to the Springfield area?”

About three years ago, the Food Bank decided to move to Hampden County, for multiple reasons. “One is because it’s right at the crossroads of two major interstates, which facilitates loads of food to and from the Food Bank. We distribute large amounts of food, tens of thousands of pounds of food every day — over a million pounds every month.”

“It’s right at the crossroads of two major interstates, which facilitates loads of food to and from the Food Bank. We distribute large amounts of food, tens of thousands of pounds of food every day — over a million pounds every month.”

In addition, Hampden County boasts the region’s largest concentration of people facing food insecurity. “For that reason as well, we said, ‘we really need to be in Hampden County,’” Morehouse explained. “We’ve been an upper Pioneer Valley organization, even though we serve all four counties, and this affords us the opportunity to raise our visibility in Hampden County.”

More than two years ago, the Food Bank honed in on a building for sale on Carando Drive in Springfield and made an offer to purchase, but backed out after the inspection stage. “So we went back to the drawing board,” he said, and that process eventually brought the nonprofit to a parcel of land at the Chicopee River Business Park owned by Westmass Area Development Corp.

Andrew Morehouse (center) with Big Y CEO Charlie D’Amour (left) and Dennis Duquette, MassMutual Foundation president

Andrew Morehouse (center) with Big Y CEO Charlie D’Amour (left) and Dennis Duquette, MassMutual Foundation president, when they announced pledges of $1.5 million each to the Food Bank’s capital campaign last year.

The space is plentiful — 16.5 acres, 9.5 of which are buildable, the rest protected as wetlands and greenspace. The Dennis Group had begun designing a building well before the land purchase (Thomas Douglas Architects also had a hand in the design), and C.E. Floyd, based in Bedford, will do the construction, with groundbreaking, as noted, likely to happen next month and the new facility expected to open in March or April 2023, with move-in complete by that summer.

“It’s twice the size of our current facility, which gives us the capacity to receive, store, and distribute more healthy food to more people for decades to come,” Morehouse said.

 

Special Deliveries

The Food Bank’s reach is impressive, serving as a clearinghouse of emergency food for all four counties of Western Mass., most distributed to local food pantries, meal sites, and shelters.

“It’s important to note that more than 50% of the food we distribute is perishable foods, like vegetables and frozen meats,” Morehouse noted. “And a lot of the non-perishable food is very healthy grains, pastas, beans, and nutritious canned food items, low in salt and sugar, for people who don’t have time to cook.”

Much of the food the organization collects is purchased, using state and federal funds, from wholesalers, local supermarkets, and three dozen local farms, from which the Food Bank purchased more than a half-million pounds of vegetables last year using state funds; farmers also donate another half-million pounds each year.

“It’s important to note that more than 50% of the food we distribute is perishable foods, like vegetables and frozen meats. And a lot of the non-perishable food is very healthy grains, pastas, beans, and nutritious canned food items, low in salt and sugar, for people who don’t have time to cook.”

“We’ve also increased our own capacity to distribute food directly,” Morehouse said. “Since the late ’80s, we’ve been providing food to seniors in 51 senior centers across all four counties, and we continue to do that. Every month, we send a truck and provide bags of groceries to 6,500 elders — about 16 food items to supplement elders who lived on fixed incomes. And in the last six or seven years, we initiated a mobile food bank where we send a truck once or twice a month to 26 sites in the four counties — 10 in Hampden County — and provide fresh vegetables and other food items to individuals who live in food deserts, neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores where they can buy healthy food.”

Andrew Morehouse

Andrew Morehouse says moving food — tens of thousands of pounds of it a day — in and out of the Food Bank’s headquarters will be much more efficient in the new facility.

The federal government responded well to suddenly increased food-insecurity needs in the first year of the pandemic, Morehouse noted, but by late 2021, many of those expanded safety-net programs were sunsetting, at the same time inflation was sending food prices soaring. “We believe that will lead to another spike in demand for emergency food.”

He intends for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to meet that demand locally.

“This brand-new building is designed to maximize the efficiency of the flow of inventory. Over the last 30 years at our current facility, we’ve been expanding in a very small footprint in any way we can; this new property allows us to maximize efficiency and store more food and move food in and out more quickly and have more bays to receive food and distribute it quickly.”

And because combating hunger requires multiple lines of attack, Morehouse plans to use the additional space for expanded nutrition education programs as well, including a large demonstration kitchen. He also plans to hire more staff.

“We have partnerships with local hospitals and community health centers to address people with food insecurity. We’ll have more staff to help people apply for SNAP benefits and have more community space to accommodate workshops and community events.”

One of the project funding sources, a MassWorks grant to the city of Chicopee for site development, requires the building to have a physical public benefit, Morehouse noted. “So we’ve entered into an easement agreement with the city where our parking lot and community room are available as emergency shelter in the event of a natural disaster.”

Speaking of funding, while the project budget is $19 million, the capital campaign aimed to raise $26.3 million, which includes financing, furniture, fixtures, equipment, legal costs, accounting, and fundraising. Of that, more than $25 million has already been pledged. Large earmarks included $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and $1.6 million from Chicopee’s coffers.

“Mayor [John] Vieau has repeatedly said how proud he is that the city of Chicopee will become the hub for food insecurity for the four counties of Western Massachusetts,” Morehouse said.

Other sources of funding include a New Market Tax Credit investment program, which will raise $4.2 million from investors, as well as support from individuals foundations, and businesses, he explained. “Lastly, the Food Bank will invest the proceeds from the same of our current building to the campaign.”

When MassDevelopment issued a $9.5 million tax-exempt bond for the project earlier this month, MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera noted that “more residents of Western Massachusetts will soon be able to access nutritious food and supportive services with the construction of this bigger, modern Food Bank. MassDevelopment is proud to deliver tax-exempt financing to help the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts fulfill its mission of addressing food insecurity and empowering people to live healthy lives.”

“This is a great project to be a part of,” added Matthew Krokov, first vice president of Commercial Banking at PeoplesBank, which purchased the bond. “The Food Bank plays a vital role in alleviating food insecurities in our region, and this investment in the Food Bank’s future home will help provide better access for individuals in our community.”

 

Food for Thought

The project, like any large construction project these days, has run into supply-chain obstacles that have caused delay and boosted costs, but Morehouse and other stakeholders finally see it coming into focus — and not a moment too soon for an organization that provided 11.6 million meals in 2021, reaching an average of 103,000 individuals per month.

“We are excited the Food Bank of Western Mass. has chosen the Chicopee River Business Park to relocate their operations and headquarters,” Vieau said. “I can think of no better place in terms of access, efficiency, and accessibility than right here in Chicopee, at the crossroads of New England.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Getting Reconnected

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser say the Business Breakdown is just one of many new ways Greenspace CoWork is forging connections within the business community.

 

While the past two years haven’t exactly been kind to co-working spaces, Jeff Sauser said, the long-term view is much rosier.

“COVID has really accelerated the trend toward remote work,” he explained, noting that the business world was already taking steps in that direction, but at a much more gradual pace. “One silver lining from COVID is that co-working spaces and other shared spaces are seeing a golden age moving forward.”

Jeremy Goldsher, who opened Greenspace CoWork with Sauser in downtown Greenfield several years ago, agreed. “We’ve managed to keep everything afloat during the last few years. Its definitely been a challenge, but Jeff and I have both developed a lot of creative avenues through the co-work model that we might never have considered.”

Specifically, the pair wanted to do more to connect the Greenfield business community, and one way is through a new monthly series of networking events called Business Breakdown.

The idea came out of internal conversations about how to bring people back together and give them a chance to reconnect, Goldsher said.

“I know I’ve spent the better part of two years isolated, and I was excited to find a good reason to be in person with my peers and understanding all the challenges everyone else is going through.”

In addition, he noted, “a lot of new businesses have opened up during COVID, and there hasn’t been much opportunity for anyone to present themselves. We wanted to give a platform for new businesses to come down Main Street and meet fellow business owners and market themselves and speak to the community.”

“Our model is to be more of a resource to our community, rather than just our membership.”

Each Business Breakdown session, which takes place at Greenspace, on the third floor of the Hawks & Reed building on Main Street, begins with an informal presentation from a new local business. The sessions also explore topics like transparency, resource sharing, and recovery in a disruptive climate; the challenges business people face both professionally and personally amid the pandemic; and inventive ways they can overcome those challenges.

The sessions meet the first Wednesday of every month. The April 6 event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“Our model is to be more of a resource to our community, rather than just our membership,” Goldsher said. “It’s something we’ve thought about a lot over the past couple years, as the world changed.”

With Greenspace membership back to pre-pandemic levels, Sauser said, “events like these are symbolic for us — people are opening their doors back up, and we’re seeing a lot of good interactions from the business community. They’re anxious to get back together. It’s been tough psychologically for business owners.”

The guest speakers for the inaugural Business Breakdown last month were the head brewer and taproom manager at Four Phantoms Brewery. “They spoke at length about how local flora and fauna have really influenced their ingredients, and how they use local artists for their cans,” Goldsher noted. “It was spectacular.”

Future sessions will collaborate with Cocina Lupida, a restaurant on the first floor of the Hawks & Reed building, which houses Greenspace CoWork. That includes April’s session, which will feature the partners from Madhouse Multi-Arts, which offers collaborative, accessible art spaces on Main Street and helps aspiring artists and musicians access resources and skills they need to reach their creative and professional goals.

“We’re very excited to have them. It’s a new business started by two young Hampshire College grads. They’re very much in the vein of our co-work space, but focused more on the arts,” Goldsher said. “We’ve watched as they took a historical building on Main Street that had been dormant for many years and brought it back to life.”

He added that the event series is “definitely evolving,” and that participation and feedback will help determine what future events will look like. But for now, he and Sauser are encouraged — and excited to hear what Madhouse brings to the table.

“How do you take arts and crafts and turn it into a business? How do you make a living doing those things? We have so many creative people around here — how do you take art and turn it into your livelihood?” Sauser asked. “We want to get a good variety of different business perspectives, not all of which are bricks-and-mortar companies.”

“It’s amazing to shift the process away from being a tradititional co-working operator to take a more in-depth approach to supporting local businesses and business leaders.”

Greenspace is also working with Greenfield Community College and the Franklin County Community Development Corp. on a pilot series they hope to launch this spring, Sauser said, a handful of workshops on topics like how to start a business, how to write a business plan, getting financials in order, obtaining a bank loan, and more.

“We’re not reinventing resources that don’t exist, but providing an additional outlet to do them,” he explained. “We’ll gather data while we’re doing it and, moving forward, may evolve that into something more substantive and cohort-based, with classes you can go through, a program like LaunchSpace in Orange. We’re looking at opportunities to grow something similar here. We’re thinking about Franklin County holistically.”

And the region’s business owners could benefit from that kind of collaborative approach to growth, Goldsher added.

“A lot of people are just not communicating openly with each other — it’s almost like people forgot how to be honest, and they’re a little bit unsure about how much they’re willing to discuss about their trials and tribulations. But it’s amazing to shift the process away from being a tradititional co-working operator to take a more in-depth approach to supporting local businesses and business leaders.”

Sauser agreed. “This was something we always wanted to do, and if not for COVID, it might look a little different. I’m excited — it feels like we’re emerging from this situation and responding to what the community needs. We want to have an impact on Greenfield’s revitalization, so we’re looking at it through that lens. And we believe it can be a model for other communities.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Travel and Tourism

Call of the Wild

Kayakers paddle on the Connecticut River

Kayakers paddle on the Connecticut River with Mount Toby in the background. (Photo by Alexander Terrill)

 

Feeling burned out by a career in health finance, Brian Pearson and his wife went on an adventure, backpacking through South America for seven months.

They liked it so much, they stayed there for well over a decade, settling in Santiago, Chile, where he built a travel company. But when international travel was halted by the pandemic in early 2020, he came home to Massachusetts and launched Adventure East, with the goal of helping locals in Western Mass. access the great outdoors.

“I decided it was a great opportunity to take advantage of all the outdoor interest coming out of the pandemic,” he told BusinessWest. “People wanted more time outdoors when there was nowhere else to go.”

The idea, he said, is that people enjoy being out in nature, but planning an outdoor adventure can be time-consuming and challenging. So Adventure East handles the logistics of outings involving hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, shoeshoeing, and more — as well as the equipment — so participants can take in the region’s natural beauty without the hassle of figuring out logistics, and be shuttled back to their car to boot.

The model has remained a strong one even with indoor tourism opening back up in late 2020 and through 2021. For one thing, the health benefits of being outdoors became more widely discussed during the pandemic. And more people simply came to realize — and are still realizing — how much the region has to offer in that regard.

“We’re providing access to the outdoors, providing information about where to go, guides that are knowledgable … they’re very experienced people, passionate about what they do. We have experts in a lot of different areas.”

While its activities take place throughout the region’s forests, mountains, and waterways, Adventure East’s headquarters is in Sunderland, across Route 116 from the Connecticut River boat ramps there.

“That nine-mile stretch from Turners Falls to Sunderland is really wonderful; there are farms and residential homes along the river, but the state has done a fantastic job over the years building the Connecticut River Greenway,” Pearson said, noting that paddlers are always impressed by the sights of Mount Toby and Mount Sugarloaf, and of bald eagles flying about.

The company has been expanding its activities in the corporate and education sectors as well, he said, with clients including Baystate Health, Amherst College, UMass Amherst, the Bement School, and Hartsbrook School.

“We’re already working with large companies like Baystate and UMass, getting their employees outdoors. I wouldn’t call them full-blown corporate retreats, but more having people enjoy a walk or hike and unwind and be in nature, share a meal … we do farm-to-table activities in connection with local farms in Sunderland, Whately, and Hatfield.”

On the education side, Adventure East has gotten Sunderland grade-schoolers outdoors during winter vacation, and brought kids from Mohawk Trail Regional School canoeing on Ashfield Lake when it’s warmer, he added.

“At the colleges, we’ve gotten more outdoor programs onto their radar, and we’re looking to do more outdoors with students, showing them what they have in the Valley. We continue to provide information on the walking trails right out their back door. It’s really fantastic.”

Pearson said the guided hiking tours are geared at a wide range of skill and experience levels, with access to trails on both state and private conservation lands, ranging from trail walks with naturalists to snowshoeing; from bird watching to yoga and ‘forest bathing’ — a form of mindfulness where participants “soak up the energy of the forest and take that with them,” he explained.

“It’s been scientifically shown that 40 minutes in the forest can reduce stress, reduce cortisol levels … there’s a real therapeutic aspect to nature. It’s not complicated. You don’t need us to experience it, but we love to share it and support people getting out there.”

And when people appreciate nature, he added, that leads to greater respect and even conservation efforts, “to preserve the outdoors for future generations to do the same types of activities.”

As tourism begins to open up fully after two pandemic-hampered years, Pearson envisions Adventure East evolving into a destination company that works with other operators like itself and destinations throughout the Northeast.

“It could be up in Maine or the White Mountains or Vermont, really connecting these types of experiences into multi-day itineraries, which is exactly what I was doing in South America,” he noted. “There is a segment of the population that really appreciates the exact type of service we offer and enjoy not having to deal with details. We want to connect with people and provide a personalized experience.”

It’s work Pearson finds gratifying.

“When I was in Chile, many local Chileans would call me up: ‘we’re going to such and such a place this weekend; what does Brian recommend?’ It was an honor to help Chileans appreciate their own country.”

The Pioneer Valley is a lot like that too, he said, filled with outdoor opportunities to explore that many locals really don’t know about.

“It’s about being out there, experiencing it, having a real appreciation,” he said. “I enjoy doing that, whether it’s teaching kids to ski for the first time or showing people magical spots in the woods, 10 minutes from Route 116. There’s so much in our valley.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

Tourism & Hospitality

Staging Ground

Actors in last year’s production of King Lear, starring Christopher Lloyd (center), rehearse in costume on The New Spruce Theatre stage.

 

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more / Men were deceivers ever / One foot in sea, and one on shore / To one thing constant never.”

That’s a line from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Three words in particular — ‘Sigh no more’ — have been adopted by Shakespeare & Company as its theme for 2022, and for good reason.

“We’ve chosen to signify we’re walking out of hard times, but they’re not far behind us,” said Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing & Communications at the Lenox-based theater organization. “‘One foot at sea and another on shore’ — we’re moving on to greater things, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Cultural destinations across Western Mass. and the U.S. can certainly relate to that sentiment, navigating plenty of woods as COVID-19 shut down almost all live performances in 2020 and continued to hamper the craft in 2021. But Shakespeare & Company has one foot firmly planted on the shore of a post-pandemic world, and hoping it stays there.

“It’s been very challenging,” Stevenson told BusinessWest. “We went from having no performances at all to having outdoor performances last year — and it was a great benefit to have that option. Then, as things started to reopen, there’s that constant challenge of monitoring what the COVID-19 protocols for the public are, and on top of that, the protocols for actors are often different, so we’re looking at the safety of the patrons as well as the safety of our actors.”

Part of that process was creating a second outdoor space, the 500-seat New Spruce Theater, an amphitheater that went up in only 90 days last summer.

As the company’s two indoor venues reopened as well, changes ranged from an entirely new HVAC system, ensuring the best air quality, to ‘safety seating,’ which puts empty seats between each party. That means less tickets sold, but safety was paramount, Stevenson noted.

“This summer, we’re going to have performances on four stages, two outdoor and two indoor. Some people like the air-conditioned performance experience, and some people like to be outside. But the summer season will continue to be challenging because things are ever-changing.”

The two Shakespeare productions planned for 2022 include Much Ado About Nothing — “a lot of companies are doing it this year because it’s so celebratory; everyone’s happy to be back,” Stevenson said — and Measure for Measure, which involves “war and a madman and depression, so it’s very timely.”

This year marks Shakespeare & Company’s 45th season of performances, actor training, and education, Stevenson said, and while the shows are well-known, not as many people are aware of the other two pillars.

The actor training takes several forms: month-long intensive programs, weekend intensive programs, and a Summer Shakespeare Intensive modeled after the month-long program, which provides young actors — undergraduate theater students, recent graduates, and early-career acting professionals — the opportunity to immerse themselves in Shakespeare six days a week for four weeks during the summer performance season.

In addition, the Center for Actor Training offers a variety of specialized workshops throughout the year, exploring a full range of disciplines, including rhetoric, wit, clown, fight, voice, movement, public speaking, and more. The Center for Actor Training now offers many of its workshops and classes online, providing the opportunity for theater professionals around the world to study with its faculty.

The education side of the ledger is highlighted by the annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare, which brings more than 500 students from 10 high schools together each year for a nine-week, collaborative, non-competitive, celebratory exploration and production of multiple Shakespeare plays. “Our faculty members are working, professional actors,” Stevenson noted.

The program — which culminates in full-scale productions at their own schools and then on the main stage at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse — is the subject of Speak What We Feel, a 2021 documentary by Patrick J. Toole that won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Film at the 2021 Berkshire International Film Festival.

“The Fall Festival has persevered and continues to grow,” Stevenson said, though it was much scaled back in 2021. “Hopefully, this fall, we can go back to a typical setup.”

While Shakespeare’s plays are the heart of the organization’s mission, Stevenson was quick to point out that visitors can take in plenty of contemporary plays as well throughout the year, as well as comedy and other events.

Meanwhile, she noted, the campus itself is a recreational — or at least relaxing — spot. “We have a 33-acre campus and walkable, accessible grounds that include a full array of modern sculpture peppered in with buildings of many eras. It’s a beautiful campus — you can come here, park your car, walk around, and have a picnic.”

It’s all located in the heart of Lenox, which is why the company has collaborated with local restaurants, which have created Shakespeare-inspired cocktails and desserts.

“The idea is, you can order an ice-cream cone and be reminded that, right down the street, we’re offering productions during the day and evenings in a full array of modern and contemporary titles.”

Bridging the gap between classic and modern — that’s Shakespeare & Company, which hopes 2022 is the year it finally steps out from the sea of a pandemic and moves confidently up the shore, sighing no more.

 

— Joseph Bednar

Environment and Engineering

Elevating an Industry

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan says OTO’s workload is higher today than it was pre-pandemic.

When she was named president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun at the start of 2020 after two decades at the engineering firm, Ashley Sullivan knew she was in for a time of transition.

What she didn’t know was … so was every other business, thanks to a pandemic that shut down much of the economy for a time, and continues to reverberate today.

“You had to adapt; everyone did,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “So I do think it was something that helped us work through so many things and put another name to the transition. There was an external reason for us to look at everything: what are we doing? Are we shutting down the office or not? What’s our COVID policy? How are we going to work remotely? And our services for some projects were deemed essential. That’s good, but how do we keep our people safe?

“In a way, I think that gave us time and a reason to move through our own transition and the change of leadership,” she went on. “We looked through our business practices, looked at our services, reconnected with clients … we had time to think of our culture and our brand and do some marketing, which we knew was going to be important. And how were we going to get to the other side of this? It was quite the ride.”

At the same time, “it was almost easier, in a way, to ask for help during that time because nobody knew what they were doing,” Sullivan added. And what she was hearing was, “‘hey, you need to keep marketing, you need to reach out to your clients … don’t stop those things right now because, when you get to the other side, you’re going to have to make sure all those investments into your company were happening, investments in your people.’”

Investing in people, and growing the team, is something Sullivan wanted to emphasize from the beginning, aiming to create a company where people would want to work, she said, listing her core values as respect, togetherness — “we found that people did want to work together; they do like to collaborate, network, and be on design teams” — and transparency. “We want to keep communication open and make people feel like they’re part of something bigger than any one individual.”

“It’s not about competition with the person next door, it is about elevating the whole industry. We believe in the services we provide. We believe in what we do.”

All that, she said, is in the service of elevating the industry, as the mission statement posted in the conference room attests: “We will elevate our industry to create and deliver the best solutions for natural and built environments.”

As she explained, “it’s not about competition with the person next door, it is about elevating the whole industry. We believe in the services we provide. We believe in what we do. I really enjoy working with other consultants. We’ve been able to do some master service agreements with other consultants where, if they don’t have capacity to do a job, we will help them, or vice versa. That came out of the pandemic, people helping each other. We saw a lot of helping.”

And to elevate an industry, Sullivan believes she must first elevate her people. “I’m so proud of this team and what they’ve done; they put some trust in me, and so many people have stepped up, and they did a lot of professional development. Now I’m seeing people I mentored who are mentoring the new people coming in.”

Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.

Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.

That workforce-development philosophy carries over to her role instructing the civil engineering capstone design course at Western New England University. There, she guides graduating students through a mock building project, and many of her peers join her in presenting practical technical knowledge, writing skills, and soft-skills training.

“I love that,” she said. “I feel like our industry should do a better job with mentoring, with creating the next generation of people to work. Again, it goes back to elevating the industry: are we doing all we can to show that we’re good at what we do?”

 

From the Ground Up

Before O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun’s three founders launched the firm in 1994, they were working together at an environmental-services firm in Connecticut. The Bay State had just developed the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, a law that tells people how to go about cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. As that program rolled out, the three saw an emerging need for people with their skills. So they started a company.

Over the years, OTO’s services have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, which may involve helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand, or determining the strength of an existing building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

“I feel like our industry should do a better job with mentoring, with creating the next generation of people to work.”

OTO’s early-pandemic experience — also Sullivan’s trial by fire in the president’s chair — mirrored that of many in the construction and engineering world.

“There was a time initially where we all went remote and some projects definitely stopped. Construction already in place before the pandemic typically kept going, so we had that work. Any new projects tended to slow down and stop.

“Also, in-person meetings, site meetings, that all stopped,” she went on. “So we really had to adapt and ask, ‘OK, how are we going to collaborate, how are we going to communicate?’ Our work definitely did slow down for a little bit, as we figured out how all this was going to work. Then some public jobs started coming back, and it was a real push to keep public work going.”

Most of the firm’s services continued at some level, though anything associated with property transfers stopped for a while. “Now property transfers have started up again; a lot of work has started up again. It went from the slowdown to this crazy pickup of a lot of work.”

As a result, the project load is busier now than it was pre-COVID, Sullivan said, adding that “anything on hold has moved forward.”

OTO’s certification as a Women Business Enterprise has also helped create new relationships and new opportunities. “We’ve been able to meet new clients, new architects, and get on more design teams and be brought into a lot of interesting projects. So we are very busy. There is a lot of work, and we’re actually trying to grow staff-wise, which is very hard to do right now.”

That’s true across the entire industry and, indeed, all sectors. That’s why companies that want to hire need to stand out, and one of the ways they can do that is through culture.

“One of my roles is to create a place where people want to work,” she said, noting that OTO has made three technical hires over the past two years. “I’m always on the lookout. It’s not easy, particularly with being a small company and competing with some of the bigger firms.

“We have found — and this is exciting for me — a lot of the people that we have hired have been referred to us: ‘go check out OTO; go speak with Ashley. That might be a good fit.’ And I try to do that for other people. When I come across somebody who does a technical service that OTO doesn’t provide, I’ll put them in contact with somebody I work with. But I think what you give off is what you get. You have to have your eyes open to opportunity and be a place where people want to work.”

 

Engineering Change

During the past couple years, OTO has renewed some sectors, such as industrial compliance, where some staff had retired but not been replaced. “But during this time, we looked at some professional development and said, ‘hey, maybe there’s not work in one service sector; what else can we renew?’ And we’ve been able to renew those services.”

Among the firm’s recent notable projects is the geotechnical and hazardous-materials assessment on the project that will replace the dilapidated Civic Center Parking Garage next to the MassMutual Center in Springfield.

“How can I not be enthusiastic for a project I can see out my window?” Sullivan said. “And their vision for it is just amazing for downtown. So that’s super exciting.”

Other local projects include a number of schools in Springfield, West Springfield, Gardner, and other communities, as well as work with Westmass Area Development Corp. on the ongoing Ludlow Mills redevelopment. “We’re a small piece of a lot of projects. Any one of us here probably has 30 projects at any one time.”

Because Massachusetts has done a good job cleaning up its largest contaminated sites, OTO focuses more on site redevelopment, as it’s tougher these days to find untouched land to develop in Massachusetts, Sullivan noted.

“We have to look at environmental implications for jobs. When we get involved early on, we can guide the design team in how to approach these projects and provide value early on.

“What we’ve been able to do more is actually couple our services,” she added. “On a redevelopment project, we’ve been able to offer our hazardous-materials compliance, our Massachusetts regulations compliance, and geotechnical engineering all in one, and we’ve been working a lot more internally cross-sector-wise. That’s sometimes harder to communicate internally than externally, but we’ve really worked on a lot of those skills and working together in teams, and we’re able to provide clients with cross-sector services.”

In short, O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun has emerged from two pandemic-dominated years in strong shape, but it took plenty of persistence and flexibility to get there.

“It’s been hard,” Sullivan said. “But as soon as things get overwhelming or challenging, I look around and see how everybody here has progressed and developed and stepped up and taken ownership. They’re why I’m here — and our clients. We work with so many wonderful and talented people.”

Looking back to those initial months of COVID — again, also her initial months in charge at OTO — she was surprised by the support she received from other local engineering players.

“I had so many people reach out to me from other firms, checking in: ‘how are you doing? Do you need advice?’

“There were so many people willing to help and come together, different leaders from other firms and other organizations,” she went on. “There were times I was blown away by how people really do want to help other people. I made some great relationships with other CEOs that, two years ago, I might never have called.”

In short, Sullivan isn’t the only one trying to elevate an industry, and that’s a good thing.

“A lot of people want other people to succeed,” she said. “That’s something I believe in, and that was really neat to see. It keeps me going.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Doors of Opportunity

Both at the Springfield store and online, EcoBuilding Bargains promotes itself as a way to save money and keep items out of landfills.

When Darcy Ratti was living in Southern Connecticut, she heard about EcoBuilding Bargains — shortly after she completely refinished her basement.

“I was so angry,” she recalled. “I would have saved so much money, and it would have looked so much cooler.”

These days, as store manager at the Springfield-based seller of reclaimed building materials, Ratti is sharing that enthusiasm with customers both near and, increasingly, far away.

“We get a lot of higher-quality materials now than we did four or five years ago as word has spread,” Ratti said, explaining how the store procures its ever-shifting stock of used building materials and also new items taken off contractors’ and wholesalers’ hands. “We’ve got brand-new Samson doors that have never been installed — an overstock. I’ve got a lot of brand-new windows that were a misorder.

“In general, people want to save some dollars here and there, and they want to buy something that will help out the environment a little bit,” she went on. “You can get better quality here for the price than you would at a big-box store. Instead of getting a pressboard cabinet set IKEA or Home Depot, for the same price, you can come here and get a full plywood set with all the bells and whistles.”

“People want to save some dollars here and there, and they want to buy something that will help out the environment a little bit.”

The Center for EcoTechnology (CET) launched EcoBuilding Bargains more than a decade ago as a way to repurpose materials that otherwise might be headed for landfills, but the past few years have seen the store expand beyond in-person sales and into an online presence, first on eBay in 2019 and then, last spring, onto its own e-commerce website (ecobuildingbargains.org), making it one of the few sellers of reclaimed materials with a national (and global) online platform.

“We started our e-commerce on eBay two and a half years ago, selling doorknobs, hinges, more of the antique, rare items that folks look for specifically,” Ratti explained. “Then we branched out with a broader range of items.”

Darcy Ratti

Darcy Ratti says she’s surprised at what people want to toss out — but her customers are the ones who benefit.

From there, the store launched its own web store last May. “Basically, anything that gets posted to our eBay store also gets posted to our web store, and vice versa,” she noted. “But we’ve expanded the types of stuff that people can buy online. You can buy cabinets online now. You can buy a door online and ship it. We’ve got an extremely large chandelier we’re selling to someone from Texas, waiting to be shipped. We’ve sold and shipped to every state, as well as places like Italy, Australia, and Japan.”

That’s a boon for people searching for very specific, hard-to-find items, and now don’t have to travel to Massachusetts for them. “Maybe it’s faucets you can’t find or brass hardware or an Anderson window sash that’s very specific to a certain model or a Velux skylight kit or a mid-century-modern Legomatic chair. We get into reclaimed items that are very specific. A customer who knows the exact model number can go online and type it in, and if we have it, we’re going to come up.”

An online store made even more sense during the pandemic, said Emily Gaylord, CET’s director of Communications and Engagement. “One, we wanted a safe way for customers to shop. Two, there was all this renewed interest in home spaces, and a lot of people had to make a home office out of nothing. Subsequently, we saw a lot of supply-chain issues. Honestly, I think, with the direction retail is going, online stores are inevitable.”

EcoBuilding Bargains also launched virtual shopping appointments for far-flung shoppers.

“Yes, you’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping us with our mission, but you’ll also find something you won’t be able to find anywhere else.”

“That was a really cool, important piece,” Gaylord said. “If you’re searching for a cabinet set, you can book a virtual appointment, send the measurements ahead of time, and we can walk you through them in a video call. Looking for a new front door? Here are six doors with the finish and size you want. Virtual shopping experiences are a huge time saver.”

 

Two Ways to Save Green

The clientele at EcoBuilding Bargains, both in person and online, has been broad, Gaylord told BusinessWest.

“We definitely get people who say, ‘I just need a window, something affordable; what do you have?’ And there are some people making sustainable choices, people who really care about their environmental impact and carbon footprint; they’re shopping with us as well. Then, over the last few years, the DIY space exploded, and we have trendy and unique materials for your space. We serve all those people.”

She noted that buying secondhand items has a sort of double environmental impact, keeping materials out of landfills while reducing the impact of what would have been made and purchased new instead.

Emily Gaylord

Emily Gaylord says the store has stocked newer and higher-quality materials in recent years.

“We’re dealing with some serious issues. We’re at a moment right now where people are understanding climate and environmental issues in a way they haven’t ever before,” Gaylord went on. “But making sustainable choices has so many benefits. Yes, you’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping us with our mission, but you’ll also find something you won’t be able to find anywhere else. Or you can have a much higher-quality item than you could otherwise afford. When you start thinking in a sustainable way, it’s not just for the earth, but for you as a business owner or homeowner.”

Items arrive in the store from a variety of sources, Ratti explained.

“We’re looking for the person who has that overstock or a contractor that has done a bunch of remodels, and they’re finding good, reusable materials and taking them to their shop or their garage and just hanging onto them because they know they’re good. We’re helping them defray the costs on their end so they don’t have to dispose of it, and they get a tax donation receipt.”

Homeowners are bringing in materials as well — after replacing an old vanity or lighting fixtures, for instance.

“What we saw during the pandemic was people coming up with unique ways to put together home offices, and they’d come in here for different pieces,” Ratti said.

She’s often surprised by the quality of items that wind up at EcoBuilding Bargains, like a striking, solid chestnut front door, nine feet tall and three inches thick.

“When you’re shopping more sustainably, you’re going to find better alternatives, not just your run-of-the-mill thing. You’re buying a door like that, and you’re spending less than you would somewhere else. We’ve got a marble mantel from 1867; it came out of a brownstone on Newbury Street in Boston. You’re not going to find that someplace else.”

Gaylord agreed. “It’s not a salvage yard; it’s high-quality materials. That’s really important for us and our mission; we don’t want to push stuff back into the world that’s not going to meet that mission. We want to make sure we’re selling good-quality doors, low-flow toilets, fixtures that don’t have any lead in them. We’re always thinking of the quality of the materials, not just the quantity.”

“We want to make sure we’re selling good-quality doors, low-flow toilets, fixtures that don’t have any lead in them. We’re always thinking of the quality of the materials, not just the quantity.”

Even the packing materials used to ship items are recycled, Ratti noted. “Here, you’re saving some money but also helping with the environment. By being a little more frugal, there’s less production happening in the world.”

 

City of Home Improvement

Gaylord feels like EcoBuilding Bargains, through its national presence online, is just one more way Springfield is being put on the map.

“To see our store in Springfield start to have a national reach, and people be exposed to us from all over the country, is amazing,” she said. “Springfield is really special, and our store is really special. Seeing people fall in love with it is great to see.”

And the reasons they are seeking out sustainable options aren’t going away.

“How we work and how we use buildings is in flux right now,” she told BusinessWest. “The world looks a lot different than it did two years ago. It’s really exciting to see our business in Springfield not slow down, but, in fact, innovate and grow. People are getting more exposed to the Western Mass. region through this. It’s more than just selling a reclaimed door.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Beyond the Numbers

 

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat says the factors holding women back in the workforce must be fully understood in order to shift the tide.

The numbers speak for themselves. But more importantly, they demand a response.

According to a global study published in the Lancet, between March 2020 and September 2021, women were more likely to report employment loss than men during the pandemic (26.0% to 20.4%), as well as more likely to drop out of school or forgo work to care for others.

“The most significant gender gaps identified in our study show intensified levels of pre-existing, widespread inequalities between women and men during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report reads. “Political and social leaders should prioritize policies that enable and encourage women to participate in the labor force and continue their education, thereby equipping and enabling them with greater ability to overcome the barriers they face.”

That’s exactly what the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — and a broad network of like-minded partners — have in mind through an effort they’re calling the Greater Springfield Women’s Economic Security Hub.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund. “So we created our own framework, where we considered the factors that affect some women’s economic security as more expansive than what other people might think.”

That includes a lack of unpaid caregiving. During the pandemic, that issue was the dominant factor in women dropping out of the workforce at an uprecendeted rate. The numbers have recovered somewhat, but not all the way, and the factors causing the workforce exodus remain problematic.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens. So we created our own framework.”

“Women weren’t dropping out of the workforce because they wanted to stay at home and eat bon-bons, but because schools were closed or childcare centers were closed, and someone needs to be home with the children,” Haghighat said. “Oftentimes, because of pay differentials and so forth, it made more sense for women to drop out of the workforce.”

Then there are issues around transportation and internet access. “Prior to the pandemic, people didn’t realize how critical that was,” she went on, whether the problem was lack of online access altogether or having difficulty sharing devices or WiFi with other family members.

To create the research and action project it called the Women’s Economic Security Hub, the Women’s Fund began collaborating with key area partners, including Arise for Social Justice, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western New England University School of Law Social Justice Center.

This work will focus on women, mostly of color and living at or below the poverty line, to understand the myriad factors that make or break an individual woman’s ‘economic engine,’ thereby affecting family prosperity.

The UMass Donahue Institute developed a survey instrument that will be refined, implemented, and analyzed by the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families, and the survey will delve into 12 interconnected determinants, to form a framework which will be used to survey women in communities that have historically faced disproportionate challenges to economic growth.

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears,” Haghighat said. “Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

 

Obstacles to Success

Luisa Sorio Flor, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington and lead author of the Lancet study, noted that “the pandemic has exacerbated gender disparities across several indicators related to health and other areas of well-being. Women were, for example, more likely than men to report loss of employment, an increase in uncompensated care work, and an increase in perceived gender-based violence during the pandemic, even in high-income countries.”

By partnering with the UMass Donahue Institute and surveying 200 area women, Haghighat hopes to localize those global trends to determine where the economic engine is jamming.

“Is it child and dependent care or job preparation or lack of a supportive network?” she asked. “We added ‘supportive network’ as one of the determinants we use, understanding that, when something goes wrong in a woman’s life, she might have a supportive network she can reach out to when things are going wrong, like a grandmother who can watch a child. But we realize that, oftentimes, women will lack that supportive network, which will obviously deter them from achieving economic security.”

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears. Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

Another determinant is identification, which can be a serious barrier not only for undocumented women, but women emerging from incarceration.

“When you come out of incarceration, you don’t just get handed your ID. You have to re-establish your identification, which is mindblowing to me,” Haghighat said. “So many things these days require identification, so that’s a huge barrier to getting housing, getting paid to work, all those things.”

A report from UMass Amherst School of Public Policy (SPP), released last month, revealed some of the impacts that the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic had on Massachusetts households. Led by UMass Amherst economist Marta Vicarelli, the team from SPP’s Sustainable Policy Lab surveyed more than 2,600 Massachusetts residents from October 2020 to February 2021 to gather information about the challenges households faced due to the public-health crisis and its socioeconomic fallout, and the strategies adopted to address these challenges.

The survey covered a wide range of topics, including employment and financial strains, childcare and education, physical and mental health, substance use, and food security. Vicarelli said the team’s analysis devoted particular attention to women, children, and minority populations.

“Our results shed light on the socioeconomic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts households across different socioeconomic groups,” she wrote. “Many of these impacts have been persisting throughout the pandemic. Special focus is devoted to delays in children’s academic and emotional development, negative mental-health outcomes, and negative effects on women’s employment. If not addressed quickly, these socioeconomic impacts will have lasting, and possibly irreversible, implications for the United States. We hope that our results will inform the design of policies that address these impacts and support vulnerable groups.”

Notably, the survey found that 31% of respondents saw a decrease in overall income and savings, and women were more likely than men to report having become financially dependent on their partner due to pandemic disruptions. Echoing the global Lancet study, female respondents were also more likely to indicate substantial changes in their professional life to support the needs of their households, such as keeping their jobs but working fewer hours, taking unpaid leave, leaving their job, or changing jobs.

“There’s a real concern about lost stability for retirement purposes,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “And who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth. Over time, we’ll see how that plays out.”

 

An Ongoing Conversation

A 2019 Women’s Fund report called “Key Findings on the Status of Women and Girls in Western Massachusetts” highlighted the fact that women in Hampden County were underemployed and experiencing high rates of poverty. Since then, COVID-19 has complicated the issue, and the impact on women in Greater Springfield has disproportionately affected black and Hispanic women — often women concentrated in low-wage employment who were shut down for extended periods or were laid off entirely.

The 2019 report also emphasized barriers for formerly incarcerated women, positing that resources like affordable housing, debt relief, financial assistance, access to sober housing — especially for women — quick reunification with children and other family members, and continuity of therapy and recovery are greatly needed.

The next report will be a tale of how COVID impacted everything. That and the Women’s Economic Security Hub survey are necessary next steps in closing troubling gaps for women when it comes to economic security, Haghighat said.

“Who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth.”

“And not just for us, but for area policy makers,” she added. “It’s important for them to take this lens to things — people quitting or not taking positions, not just because of pay, but because of hours, transportation, getting there. We want this framework for thinking about all the things affecting women. Then, employers can be more visionary about making sure the workplace or compensation package they’re creating really responds to the realities women are facing.”

She noted that federal lawmakers can get behind supporting physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges, but often balk at other forms of support, like a national early-childcare program that has come up for discussion in Congress before, but never went anywhere.

“I look at that as a huge missed opportunity,” Haghighat said — one of many that may one day be remedied as decision makers get a grip on the hard data that’s forcing too many women into hard decisions they shouldn’t have to make.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

All Systems Go

 

 

One of the surprises of the pandemic’s early days was how quickly companies of all kinds were able to move their workers to remote, home-based setups. Much of the credit for that goes to the IT teams who helped them achieve that transition quickly. It’s just one way IT firms help clients navigate changes in technology, defend against constantly evolving cyberthreats, and make regular assessments of what a business needs to be efficient and effective.

 

 

It can start with a cyber breach. Or questions from an insurance company. Or a business simply realizing it needs a hand with its technology.

“Different clients call for different assessments,” said Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT in West Springfield. “They might say, ‘we don’t know where we are with our technology,’ or maybe they have an outsourced IT department, but they’re having an ongoing issue, which triggers a call. ‘What are we doing right, what are we doing wrong?’ They want a second set of eyes on something.”

What they often find, he added, is “they don’t know what they don’t know,” and the conversation turns to this: what is the desired IT outcome?

“Every client is obviously unique,” Mollison said. “We want to work with them and understand how their business operates. We’re just an extension of their business. Our solutions need to be in line with their technology and business goals. So normally, when we work with a new business, we assess what they have currently and discuss what kind of issues they may be having or sticking points — maybe they’re not able to conduct business as fast as they would like, or their technology doesn’t work for them.”

“We’re just an extension of their business. Our solutions need to be in line with their technology and business goals.”

Or, these days, they have questions about maintaining and securing remote-work connections. Whatever the case, the high-tech side of the business world isn’t getting less complicated, highlighting the role that IT firms play for their clients.

“The goal for us is to act like your internal IT department,” said Jeremiah Beaudry, president of Bloo Solutions in Chicopee, and that means learning the ins and outs of a client’s business and how it uses hardware and software, so Bloo can make holistic recommendations about its technology needs.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry says his goal is to act like a client’s internal IT department, in every facet that may entail.

“Every business is different, and their needs are different. They all serve their clients differently,” Beaudry added. “Not every solution is right for every business, so one-size-fits-all packages don’t really work. We also want to know what tools you’re using now: are there redundancies that overlap, or are there other tools that are more unified and give you a more collaborative, one-pane-of-glass solution?”

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Easthampton, recently published a blog post citing a report that worldwide IT spending is projected to total $4.5 trillion in 2022, an increase of 5.5% from 2021.

“This is a monumental amount of growth which can likely be attributed to employers embracing work-from-home or hybrid-work environments, security concerns over cybersecurity breaches, and the world’s desire to utilize cloud technology,” he wrote. “For small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs), this means that they will have more access to enterprise-level technology solutions, which will empower them to drive productivity and increase their bottom line, if they position themselves properly.”

 

Serve and Protect

It all starts with the basics, Beaudry said, with security topping the list.

“What data do you have now? How are you securing data to keep it out of bad actors’ hands, while making it easy for employees to access it? Balancing access with security is the hardest part.”

For example, people may dislike retyping a password every time they wake their computer up from screen-saver mode, but there’s a reason for that vigilance. And because passwords need to be complex — and people generally use a lot of them — he stresses the use of a password vault. “We’re getting people to adopt them instead of leaving Post-It notes all over their desk, which is a pretty huge fail.”

Bloo is putting more emphasis on end-user access in general, he went on — teaching people how to spot phishing attempts and e-mails from bad actors, and knowing what files are safe to open and download, and which aren’t. “That was important before the pandemic, but once people started working remotely, it added on variables to the mix.”

Mollison said a lot of IT security-tightening measures are being driven by the insurance industry.

“They’ve clamped down on organizations, requiring you to fill out a lengthy statement of your current security. That’s a big thing that’s happening, so there’s been a lot of discussion around that. A lot of times, folks come to us — they get that questionnaire and don’t even know how to answer it. They have an internal IT person, but it’s not their day job, just a hat they wear. So a lot of times, they come to us to make sure their business insurance is going to cover them. Actually, I’ve heard from a few firms that are paying an additional premium because they don’t have basic security pieces in place.”

Besides security and maintaining the network, Northeast also works with clients on replacement cycles for hardware and technology updates. “When Windows 7 went away in January 2020, all our clients knew about it well in advance, and had years to prepare for it and make changes. Those are the types of things we’re continuously doing to put clients in the best position in regard to technology and compliance.”

All of this has become increasingly difficult for businesses to handle in house, he added. “There are so many pitfalls, so much change. It takes a team of experts who understand the technology, the security levels, who understand all the concepts and how they relate to a particular organization.”

Joel Mollison

Joel Mollison says helping clients navigate cybersecurity is part technology, part behavior training.

Some services deal with the human side of IT and cybersecurity, Mollison noted.

“We’ve done training sessions with clients to go over common phishing techniques and what to look for to distinguish whether an e-mail is credible or not. Obviously, we promote spam filters and other security measures, but we’ll still do a phishing campaign and training videos, making sure our end users are keeping up with what they may see in the real world. Even spam-filtering technologies are not foolproof — things still get through.”

Small businesses shouldn’t assume they’re not targets, Hogan wrote — quite the contrary, actually. “For most small businesses, their IT defense strategy is to simply hope they aren’t a target; however, as larger enterprises increase their spending and become tougher to break into, unprepared SMBs will unfortunately become an ideal target.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“All of this increased IT spending is reflective of a world that is accelerating its migration into a fully digital world, when we thought things were already moving in that direction as fast as they could.”

Mollison said Northeast doesn’t conduct free assessments with potential clients because he wants companies to be committed to the process.

“We want to develop a relationship with an organization and be their outsourced IT department and provide these types of services and help them grow, and that starts with being invested in participating in their assessment,” he told BusinessWest. “I’ve seen a lot of boilerplate, free assessments from other IT firms, and there’s not much to it, and they don’t do much for the clients.”

 

From a Distance

The shift to remote work over the past two years kept IT firms busy, but the ease of transition varied, Beaudry said.

“Working remotely is so different for each business; some clients just use Microsoft Word and Office docs, and working remotely is a pretty easy-to-accomplish task, versus some companies, which have a line of business applications and complex software, and you have to set up secure, virtual private networks to allow employees to access them.”

Businesses that weren’t already set up to work remotely found challenges early on, but they soon adapted — as the still-ongoing work-from-home revolution has made obvious.

“Most of our clients already had the technological components to work remotely, so it wasn’t a big issue,” Mollison said. “Numerous insurance agencies were remote within 48 hours. It really wasn’t a big deal for most companies — it usually boiled down to licensing and multiple security steps and VPNs.”

Whether at a business site or remotely, Beaudry said Bloo handles a wide range of IT issues for clients, including supporting the servers, hardware, and software applications; creating file shares; managing the servers; and maintaining security measures and patches.

“It’s a constant process; you have to be vigilant with those things,” he said. “We’re also dealing with end-user issues — ‘oh, my app won’t run,’ or ‘this program is giving me an error.’ It’s a lot of stuff to deal with, and now that this all stuff going remote, it’s evolving — instead of monitoring hardware, we’re having to monitor the dashboards for multiple cloud servers and take a look at 100 or 200 alerts a month; do these alerts all need action? Is it just an informational alert, or is there a pattern of things happening constantly?

“We’re a managed service provider,” he went on, “which means we are proactively doing all these things just as if you had an internal IT department. If the user is constantly pushing the limits of performance of that machine, we can see that on our dashboard.”

Speaking of which, Beaudry makes sure hardware assessments happen on a regular basis, “but we do a good job monitoring these things proactively, so we can avoid too many surprises,” he said, thereby avoiding unexpected downtime and loss of productivity. “Those surprises are what cost you the most money.”

And the bottom line matters, Hogan said, which is why companies of all kinds are investing in IT to boost efficiency and protect their assets.

“IT spending has increased so dramatically because the pandemic forced decision makers to make their organizations more flexible. They’re starting to understand the increased potential that they have to become more efficient with the latest in technology,” he wrote. “All of this increased IT spending is reflective of a world that is accelerating its migration into a fully digital world, when we thought things were already moving in that direction as fast as they could.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis

Extracting a Workforce

Susanne Swanker

Susanne Swanker says cannabis programs at AIC are being constantly reviewed and updated to remain current and relevant

 

The cannabis industry — and workforce — has come a long way in just a few years, Jeff Hayden says.

“What I think is really crucial, and what we’re trying to emphasize to job seekers, is that this is a business. This is not like going to somebody’s basement and growing a couple of plants. We’re talking about a multi-million-dollar investment for some of these companies,” said Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

In that city alone, for instance, entire mill buildings have been renovated and brought back to life, bringing jobs to the community and tax dollars to city coffers, he noted.

“This is a business where they’re generating private investment, creating new jobs, and they’re also generating tax revenue. It’s been a win for Holyoke in terms of the amount of growth that’s been stimulated.”

To keep the momentum going, these new companies need employees, which is why HCC launched its Cannabis Education Center in 2020, a series of non-credit courses, in conjunction with the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network, that provide skilled workforce training to prepare participants for a career in the cannabis industry. By this spring, 120 people will have completed the core program, and many will have begun or completed another career-specific track (more on that later).

The conversation about a cannabis training program at HCC began when legal adult-use cannabis was still being debated in the Bay State. If that came to pass, Hayden and others expected, significant workforce needs would follow. And that has proven to be true.

“This is not like going to somebody’s basement and growing a couple of plants. We’re talking about a multi-million-dollar investment for some of these companies.”

Similar discussions were happening at American International College (AIC) when adult-use cannabis was legalized, which is why it launched, also in 2020, a graduate-level program in cannabis science and commerce, the first of its kind in Western Mass.

The 30-credit program is designed for individuals interested in a career in the cannabis industry and provides students with an understanding of the science, business, and legal issues associated with the cannabis industry. The program offers education in the areas of basic science, including chemistry, horticulture, cultivation, uses, and delivery systems; business management, marketing, and operations; and federal and state laws and policies.

The first cohort of the program graduated in August, said Susanne Swanker, dean of the School of Business, Arts and Sciences at AIC, and they are now being surveyed to get a sense of where they are working in the cannabis industry.

“We’ll use that information to help us make changes as necessary to the curriculum,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re only in our second year now, but over the next few months, we’ll be reviewing the program for fresh content, updating materials, and ensuring currency and relevancy in the field, making sure we’re covering the topics and content needed.”

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says that, to continue growing, the cannabis industry in the region will need a solid pipeline of qualified workers.

Last fall, AIC introduced another cannabis-education track, an undergraduate certificate program called Micro Emerging Markets: Cannabis, which offers three business courses in rotation: “Cannabis Entrepreneurship,” “Cannabis Business Operations,” and “Law and Ethics of Cannabis” — again, with the goal of channeling a pipeline of skilled workers into a fast-growing industry at a time when all sectors are struggling to secure and retain employees.

“We’re in the process of adding some additional courses,” Swanker said, including a broad overview of the history and culture of cannabis, which could be a popular general-education course. “I think we have a lot of interest from our students in that. So that’s an option.”

Five-plus years after legalization in Massachusetts, the popularity of the cannabis industry is no longer in doubt, more than justifying the decisions by HCC and AIC to add some educational fuel to the workforce.

 

Knowledge Blooms

Hayden explained the thinking behind the Cannabis Education Center and its multiple tracks.

“Essentially, because this was new to Massachusetts, we tried to design a process to inform people about some of the fundamentals in relation to the industry itself, so we developed a module called the core program, and we ask every participant to go through the core program,” he said.

“We’re finding many of the students enrolled in the program are already in the field working, and they’re coming to us with information and knowledge. The discussion in the classroom is that much more enriching because of the prior experience they’re bringing.”

That program requires two eight-hour Saturday sessions. Beyond that are four separate, occupation-specific tracks, typically three all-day Saturday sessions, to train for a specific area of the cannabis workforce: patient services associate (what’s commonly known as a ‘budtender’), who works directly with customers on both adult and medical use; cultivation assistant, who helps in all areas of the grow operation and requires knowledge of plant biology, soils, hydroponics, plant health, nutrition, harvesting, trimming, inventory tracking, and managing plant waste; extraction technician, who learns how to safely extract useful molecular components from cannabis and hemp; and culinary assistant, who is responsible for cooking, baking, and infusing cannabis- or hemp-based products with extracts.

“We’re in the process of creating a fifth track designed for entrepreneurs,” added Hayden, who noted that the center focuses on five key pillars: community education; social-equity training; occupational training; custom contract training to cannabis businesses, including communication, leadership, and mentorship skills; and developing different trainings that would be useful for the industry.

Scholarships are available, and each job-training program is followed immediately by an internship period with a licensed cannabis industry employer. The center has helped place graduates in full-time jobs as well, at companies like GTI, Trulieve, and Analytic Labs, and some companies have engaged directly with HCC about the kinds of skills they need.

AIC relies on industry professionals as well, as adjunct instructors to complement the college’s own business professors.

“From the onset, the program has been a collaboration of full-time faculty in business working with individuals in the field, people who own their own business as well as individuals that are working in larger operations in different parts of the country,” Swanker said. “They work together to inform the current content, what needs to be covered, and develop the curriculum.”

This professional input from outside AIC is key, she added. “They’re the ones who are experts in the cannabis field, and the ones constantly helping us update materials and discussions. Also, we’re finding many of the students enrolled in the program are already in the field working, and they’re coming to us with information and knowledge. The discussion in the classroom is that much more enriching because of the prior experience they’re bringing.”

AIC leaders were quick to recognize the coming workforce needs in cannabis when the college developed its programs, Swanker said, and also found the Cannabis Control Commission’s focus on diversity and social equity to be appealing as well. “That’s something that speaks to us as an institution and fits our mission. That was just another attractive part of it.”

 

High Hopes

Swanker said interest in AIC’s cannabis programs remains strong. “When we launched it, we had a tremendous number of inquiries, and that remains at a very high level, which is very encouraging.”

And why not? According to a February 2021 jobs report issued by Leafly, the world’s largest cannabis website, legal cannabis supported 321,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. at the time, and since then, tens of thousands more jobs have been created in states like Massachusetts, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, making cannabis one of the most robust job-creation engines nationally. In Massachusetts, adult-use cannabis sales crossed the $2 billion threshold last year.

In short, both nationally and regionally, this fast-growing market offers plenty of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for years to come, and for a wide range of skill sets, Hayden said.

“We’re really at the start of it. This is a new industry with new opportunities for people looking to get into a new career area or take the skills they already have and use it in this new sector. If you’re an accountant or bookkeeper or human-resources specialist, then there are job opportunties within this industry for you.”

Which is why programs to educate the next wave of the cannabis workforce are expected to multiply and expand.

“The industry has a need for high levels of sophistication in terms of business management, marketing, and the like. I think we’re going to continue to see it grow,” Hayden added. “At some point, there might be too many companies trying to start up, but not yet; right now, they’re all trying to take advantage of opportunities to get in and grow.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Peace of Mind

Ruth’s House

Ruth’s House dedicates its lower-level Garden neighborhood to memory care.

 

The connection between music and memory is a complex and often surprising one. Just ask the families of loved ones with dementia at Ruth’s House, the assisted-living residence on the JGS Lifecare campus in Longmeadow.

“We ask, ‘what sort of music did your loved one enjoy?’ Then we have volunteers come in and build personal playlists,” said Susan Halpern, vice president of Development and Communications at JGS. “It’s amazing to see the reactions — to see someone who’s agitated get less agitated, or someone who had been very quiet come out of their shell because they’re hearing something that’s very familiar to them.”

Mary-Anne Schelb, director of Business Development, has also seen the results of what JGS calls its music and memory program.

“Maybe they’re not much of a talker, and suddenly they’re singing this song. It’s hard to carry on a conversation with them, but when the music comes on, they remember every word. The artistic and creative ability is really the last to go. It’s in there — we just need to know how to pull it out.”

Or, as Halpern put it, “it’s about meeting them where they are.” That’s why residents’ families fill out a long (around eight pages) resident profile upon admission, Schelb added.

“We really want to get to know your mom or dad, and we want to know what they like and don’t like, because then we utilize that.”

“If they can’t stand bingo, we’re not going to try to push bingo. Or if they love hot-air balloons, we can go up to them and ask, ‘hey, do you know we’re showing a hot-air-balloon movie in the movie room?’ You see their face light up — ‘you are? I love hot-air balloons.’ The profile is time-consuming, but we really want to get to know your mom or dad, and we want to know what they like and don’t like, because then we utilize that.”

Meeting residents where they are is especially important for those with early- to mid-stage memory impairments and other dementia-related diseases who live in the Garden at Ruth’s House, a separate, secure neighborhood that caters to individuals with increased cognitive and physical limitations, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, and where staff members are specifically trained to care for individuals in need of memory care.

Sue Halpern (left) and Mary-Anne Schelb

Sue Halpern (left) and Mary-Anne Schelb say incorporating memory care into the entire JGS continuum makes sense with people living longer and dementia becoming more prevalent.

But what some might not know, Schelb said, is that JGS has, over the years, incorporated specific memory-care training across its contimuum of services, from Spectrum Home Health & Hospice Care to Wernick Adult Day Health Care; from the Leavitt Family Jewish Home to the Sosin Center for Rehabilitation.

Why? Because the memory-care population is on the rise as Americans live longer than ever — and early-onset dementia in younger people is ticking up as well. So the model JGS has adopted, of making sure all the points along its continuum of services can handle different levels of dementia, is one increasingly taking hold in the world of senior living and care.

“We were the ones who spearheaded dementia-friendly Longmeadow a few years ago, which was really important to us, to make people aware of the differences of folks that have this higher level of memory loss, because people really didn’t know how to deal with them. They didn’t know what to do, how to act,” Schelb explained. “We wanted to make people aware, so I worked with the senior center, some emergency responders, and we worked with the Alzheimer’s Association and got certified as a dementia-friendly town.”

Similarly, making JGS a dementia-friendly campus was a natural evolution, she noted. “Except for Genesis independent living, every single piece of the campus concentrates on memory care.”

 

Gardening Tools

The Garden gives Ruth’s House an element of security and higher-level care for individuals with dementia, Schelb explained.

“Maybe you start out in traditional assisted living, and as they progress [with memory loss], we could add services to the apartment as long as they’re not a wander risk, and if they do become a wander risk, we’ve got the secure Garden level, which is beautiful inside and out,” she said, noting the waterfall, scenic walkways, and benches out back; the fact that the area is safely fenced in is obscured by the landscaping.

“We just wanted to make it this gorgeous, park-like environment. A lot of people like to walk, and and here they can be outside, and it gives them that sense of freedom.”

In the Leavitt skilled-nursing facility, two nursing neighborhoods are dedicated to caring for people with memory impairments, Halpern explained, while staff of the other JGS programs, like Wernick and Sosin, are trained in working with people with memory loss as well.

“As a campus, we’re caring for elders, and it sort of goes hand in hand that, as people get older, they’re suffering memory loss,” she told BusinessWest. “So we take the care of people with dementia, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s disease as a central care delivery that we train our staff on during orientation.”

That orientation, when staff are taught how to engage with people with dementia, is followed by annual reviews and specific skills-training events during the year, she added, noting that JGS will be using grant funds to expand that skills training.

Ruth’s House’s memory-care residents

Ruth’s House’s memory-care residents take part in both indoor and outdoor activities intended to engage their minds.

“We’re a person-centered campus, and we deal with memory impairment across our entire campus the same way,” Halpern added. “You take the approach that you’re meeting the person where they are.”

Added Schelb, “we’re finding a lot more people suffering from memory loss at earlier ages. Early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s is something very real that a lot of people are experiencing, so we need to pivot and shift to make sure we can care for our folks here on the campus in any way, shape, or form.

“We’ve even got our home health dealing with folks with memory loss, or even end-stage Alzheimer’s in hospice,” she went on. “Unfortunately, we have seen more of it, across the board; I think healthcare in general has seen a lot more. And we want to be able to give our residents as fulfilled a life as possible.”

“We just wanted to make it this gorgeous, park-like environment. A lot of people like to walk, and and here they can be outside, and it gives them that sense of freedom.”

Many times, Halpern said, a senior-living facility is one of the first places family members contact when they suspect a memory issue.

“People reach out to us when they need help. And when do families need help? Often, it’s when they have a loved one who’s suffering from dementia and memory impairment, and they’ve tried to work with them at home. So we’ll work with them at home with our Spectrum Home Health Care, but then it can get to a point where you just can’t handle it. Maybe it’s the incontinence, maybe it’s the wandering and the risk of that, but we find that families are reaching out to us when they’re willing to give up their loved one. And it is a tough decision to place your loved one in a care setting.”

Even people with dementia who are able to live at home with family members can benefit from Wernick’s day programs, Halpern added.

“We were one of the first adult day health centers in Western Mass., back in the ’70s. We get a lot of people needing adult day care who have memory impairment and forgetfulness, and they are benefiting from being in social settings — and we offer social settings, be it in adult day care or assisted living, that helps people not feel isolated, and we help give them experiences that are failure-free.”

 

High-tech, Human Touch

Some of those experiences at Ruth’s House take place in a sensory room that allows residents to have experiences that reduce agitation and frustration, especially late in the day, a phenomenon known as sundowning.

“Some don’t want to be touched, or don’t like bright lights or loud sounds. They react differently to activities,” Schelb said, explaining that the sensory room is softly lit, soothing music often plays, and the room incorporates tactile technology, on touchscreens and activity panels, that stimulates in a calmer way.

“We downplay the aggravation for them. We teach staff how to recognize it and what to do, and it’s part of their care plan. We know what activities they like. And any new technology they have out there, we try to get and incorporate into our care plans and train staff to utilize them properly.”

Beyond its own programs, Ruth’s House works with families on their own communication, Schelb said.

“Sometimes we find families don’t know how to interact with their loved ones, causing frustrations. There’s a level of resentment because it really engulfs their whole life. We say, ‘let us help you; let us be the caregiver, and you go back to being the son or daughter or husband or wife.’ It’s really hard to do both.”

By focusing on the relationship and not the caregiving, families learn to move past the frustrations of life with Alzheimer’s or dementia, especially during the early stages when they’re just getting acclimated to the situation.

“They can get upset with mom or dad: ‘I just told you that; how do you not remember that?’ But they’re not purposefully forgetting; this is just part of the disease,” Schelb said, so family education and support groups are crucial — as is understanding when it’s time to seek the appropriate level of help. “Sometimes they can stay at home, and we can help. But sometimes they realize it’s just too much, and they realize they have options on our campus.”

It’s a campus that embraces not only person-centered care, Halpern said, but — at least in the Sosin Center — the ‘green house’ model of small-house care, which focuses on three goals: an authentic, home-like setting; meaningful life; and empowered staff.

“We recognize the environment is important to peoples’ well-being and how they feel,” she noted, adding that a second phase of what’s been called Project Transformation will bring the green-house model of renovations to the Leavitt Jewish Family Home as well — arguably a more important site for it, since it’s a long-term facility where residents will live the rest of their lives.

In short, Halpern said, JGS continues to look at ways to meet residents where they are.

“That affects how we care for people with dementia as well,” she added. “It’s part of our philosophy.”

Cannabis Special Coverage

Joint Concerns

Julie Steiner

As a law professor, Julie Steiner saw the thorny issues raised by cannabis legalization in Massachusetts — and the way it conflicted with federal law — very early in the process and turned it into a passion of sorts, not only educating students at Western New England University School of Law, but bringing other educational resources to the region and becoming a go-to resource on the topic of cannabis law. Yet, it’s not just legal nuts and bolts she’s interested in, but the real people impacted by a drug-regulation history in the U.S. that’s problematic at best — and still evolving.

 

 

Julie Steiner has been interested in the connections — and, often, the contradictions — between the fields of law and cannabis for a long time.

And when momentum was building in Massachusetts to legalize adult-use cannabis, just a few years after medical marijuana was given the green light, she really started thinking about the implications.

“Lawyers raise their hand and swear to uphold the law of the United States,” said Steiner, professor of Law at Western New England University (WNE) School of Law. “But cannabis is federally illegal, even though it’s technically legal in Massachusetts. How are lawyers to navigate this whole murky system?”

Based on informal conversations with her colleagues, plenty of law professionals were fascinated by this topic — and unsure how the practice of law could deal with the emerging business of cannabis.

“Cannabis is federally illegal, even though it’s technically legal in Massachusetts. How are lawyers to navigate this whole murky system?”

“It was getting off the ground in Colorado and Washington recreationally, so we had those two states to look at,” Steiner told BusinessWest. “But there was a dearth of scholarship. It was such an interesting time, really. Back then, support for legalization wasn’t as strong as it is now. In law, there was concern about clients and lawyers being prosecuted under RICO statutes.

“I called it the Wild West,” she went on. “The state bar association in Colorado had taken the stance that you can advise on the law, but since it’s federally illegal, if you actually started advising clients through the process of licensure, you risked bar sanction. That ultimately went away because courts reversed the bar stance on that, but it was a risky time. It was really, really interesting.”

That’s one reason why she applauds her university and its administration for being forward-thinking in establishing curriculum around this rapidly evolving topic, specifically a course called Cannabis Law and Policy. She proposed the course in 2015 and, after a year of legwork, and study, started teaching it in 2016, just a couple months before voters made adult-use cannabis legal in Massachusetts — but long before businesses actually started to open.

“Our primary mission was, and still is, lawyer competency,” Steiner explained. “I try to touch upon every facet that I can of the industry, teaching aspiring lawyers but also the practicing bar about how to counsel clients.

“I call the most risky the ‘plant touchers’ — cultivators, manufacturers, and retailers. They’re the most highly regulated and most vulnerable to prosecution if they do anything wrong,” she went on. “That requires a lot of competence, legal advice, knowledge about regulatory regimes, and ability to keep abreast of the ever-changing landscape.”

Julie Steiner welcomes Cannabis Control Commissioner Steven Hoffman

Julie Steiner welcomes Cannabis Control Commissioner Steven Hoffman as a guest lecturer in one of her Cannabis Law and Policy classes.

And changing it is, she emphasized. “I find I can’t rely on anything I said last month without updating it.”

Beyond the plant touchers, plenty of other types of businesses have been involved in the world of cannabis, from lightbulb suppliers for growers to drivers who transport money; from property landlords to IT and security firms. And the list goes on.

Sensing that this new industry would need legal guidance, Steiner not only created the course, but was involved in bringing Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) regulatory public hearings to the law school starting in 2018. The following year, the city of Springfield retained her to serve as a consultant to develop a process to solicit and select marijuana shops.

And she’s become a sought-after resource on cannabis law, having been been interviewed by regional and national media; published scholarly articles in many legal journals; advised educational institutions on the topic of drug policy; and lectured on the topic in WNE’s Mini Law School and Road Show programs.

It’s a field, she notes, that has already crept into numerous law niches, from banking and finance to taxation; from real estate to employment law; from intellectual-property law to prosecution and defense, just to name a few. “Cannabis law touches on all of it. It’s a serious and evolving subject field in the law.”

 

Legal, Yet Illegal

The Cannabis Law and Policy course, WNE’s website explains, “focuses on how society has historically, and is currently, regulating cannabis,” also touching on legal, professional, and business ethics; enforcement policy; and much more.

Prohibition, Steiner noted, began at the state level early in the 20th century and eventually crept into the federal code. Over the past decade or so, individual states have again led the change to decriminalization, then legalization, but federal law has not followed suit … yet.

As a result, if it wanted to, the U.S. government technically could enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act, which pre-empts all the conflicting state laws, she explained.

“I call the most risky the ‘plant touchers’ — cultivators, manufacturers, and retailers. They’re the most highly regulated and most vulnerable to prosecution if they do anything wrong.”

“Now, they can’t force states to enforce federal laws. The real conflict happens when participants, pursuant to those state regimes, start touching the plant. Once you get there, you have a conflict with the Controlled Substances Act. You have cultivation, which is prohibited. That’s where the federal government could technically come in and enforce. But that’s not happening because the federal government is exercising enforcement restraint.”

Changing public opinion is a factor as well, she noted. “When I started teaching this, public support was hovering just above 50% in the Gallup poll. Support is now about 68%. There’s much stronger public opinion for legalization than there was back then.”

Along with the history of cannabis regulation and enforcement, Steiner discusses civil rights, mass incarceration (using Michelle Alexander’s popular tome The New Jim Crow), and social equity.

“We have a robust dialogue about this. It’s very eye-opening to students,” she said, noting that drug laws regarding cannabis possession in the U.S. have historically had a fourfold disproportionate impact on people of color and those of lower socioeconomic means.

“Then we start thinking about what it means to be a lawyer representing the cannabis business. We talk about what that business looks like,” she went on, noting that she previously used Colorado and Washington as templates, but now draws on Massachusetts, since the cannabis industry has taken such deep roots here.

She also talks about banking challenges and Section 280E of the federal tax code, which requires even illegal enterprises to pay taxes. These tend to be more onerous for cannabis businesses, which can deduct the cost of goods, but not payroll.

“They get hammered. So lawyers work to structure these plant-touching businesses to maximize the taxation system, often creating two separate companies.”

The Cannabis Control Commission

The Cannabis Control Commission has often used the WNE Law School as an outpost for holding public hearings and listening sessions, like this one, attended by (from left) then-commissioners Britte McBride, Shaleen Title, Chairman Steven Hoffman, and Kay Doyle.

Steiner will bring in guest speakers from different areas of the law, including CCC members, to provide real-world perspectives, and students are also required to write and present their own independent scholarly papers on cannabis-law topics.

Speaking of the CCC, the law school’s seminars with commissioners and other experts in various areas of the law proved to be a valuable resource for locals, including potential business owners, who wanted information on topics ranging from licensing to operational requirements to municipal controls, without having to go to Boston.

“We thought early on we had the ability to align with the Cannabis Control Commission to help educate the practicing bar across the state,” she noted. “Lawyers, consultants, and people who wanted to be stakeholders would show up, and we’d talk about regulations and what businesses looked like. When they amended the regulations, we educated people again. We were, pre-COVID, the physical presence in Western Mass. for the Cannabis Control Commission.”

 

Changing the Narrative

Cannabis law is a passion project for Steiner, who also teaches Environmental and Land Use Law, Torts, and Introduction to Law.

“I’ve been involved in the history of how it has gone from its infancy through decriminalization through medical legalization, watching the birth of the adult, recreational-use industry, and now we have a viable and developed phenomenon. We have to keep pace with this, and that’s a fun challenge, educating lawyers and would-be lawyers. It’s truly a mission of mine in life.”

She prides herself on teaching law students how to be not only competent, but ethical practitioners in the field, who can counsel clients who often have plenty of misimpressions about legalization and what that means, since state and federal laws are currently so far apart.

As for federal legalization, “I welcome it because it’s sensible policy,” Steiner said. “We simply shouldn’t have a robust, viable workforce and an industry that is a real economic player that is forced to confront all-cash situations, which is dangerous and poor policy for everyone involved.”

Her public talks have addressed colleges grappling with the issue of legal medical marijuana, employers wondering if they can drug test for something that’s now legal in Massachusetts, and other audiences, ranging from public-health professionals to drug task forces, and even legislators. “Early on, policy influencers needed to think through policy changes. We tried to be on the cutting edge, helping them think through that lens.”

Steiner is also passionate about social justice in the realm of drug policy. “Or, should I say, social injustice,” she quickly added. “We have become part of the sealing and expungement movement and have partnered to provide sealing and expungement clinics.”

But even that effort is problematic, she wrote in a scholarly article last summer.

“While expungement is a laudable and necessary remedy to mitigate individual cannabis criminal record-based harm,” she wrote, “expungement also yields an outcome paradox: to further justice by expunging criminal records, society is erasing evidence of historic enforcement injustice.”

Because of the need to balance relief for the convicted with the need to maintain an historical account of the cannabis enforcement era, she suggests expunging entities maintain a record — one that eliminates sensitive, personally identifying information, while maintaining other important information of historic and legal value.

And that expungement process needs to continue, she told BusinessWest.

“We’ve gotten involved in helping those with prior drug convictions clear their records. This helps mitigate the profound effect of the War on Drugs, which we now understand overly penalized people given the severity of what was going on. And that criminal conviction follows them for life, with all those collateral consequences,” she added, making it harder for convicted drug users to access a job or housing. “It’s hampering people in their ability to move forward in life. We’re part of that social-justice movement to mitigate the effects of the War on Drugs.”

Again, cannabis law — and how it impacts not only future lawyers, but users as well, past and present — is one of Steiner’s passions, and it’s a satisfying challenge to stay atop the latest developments.

“We have a body of law now. When I jumped in, there was hardly any case law,” she said. “Learning about it, compiling it, and providing it to students is something I continually do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

They Know the Drill

Rocky’s Ace Hardware President and CEO Rocco Falcone II

Rocky’s Ace Hardware President and CEO Rocco Falcone II

 

 

The Falcone family have been innovators since 1926, when Rocco Falcone II’s grandfather opened his first hardware store in Springfield — and later doubled his profits with a foray into tool rentals. Now part of the Ace Hardware co-op, the family business has made plenty more pivots since then, adopting the home-center model in the ’70s and then shifting to a more targeted, customer-service-focused model in the ’90s to combat the rise of Home Depot. And today, at a time when the pandemic is crushing small, independent stores, Rocky’s is still growing, to 38 stores and counting.

 

 

Rocco Falcone II didn’t need a pandemic to tell him his business is essential.

His family business, Rocky’s Ace Hardware — helmed for the past 30 years by Falcone, its third-generation president and CEO — has been proving that for more than 95 years.

But when businesses of all kinds were shuttered almost two years ago, during the early days of COVID-19, hardware stores were, indeed, among the ‘essential’ businesses the state allowed to remain open.

And it’s a good thing, judging by the surge in demand that followed.

“What really took off with COVID, the first area we saw a spike, was home-improvement projects. When people were suddenly staying home, the biggest thing they were buying was paint. They wanted to be productive working at home, and have a nice home office.”

“We’re fighting with Home Depot and Lowe’s for these products, and you want to get your fair share, but there’s a disruption in the supply chain.”

When the weather warmed up, the next spike was backyard grills. “Everyone wanted to get outside because of COVID, and they were buying Weber and Traeger grills and the Big Green Egg — gas, charcoal, smokers, pellet grills … that business remained strong, and still is.”

He paused for a moment. “But we’ve had our challenges, too.”

The biggest have emerged during the second year of the pandemic, and affect industries of all kinds: namely staffing and supply-chain issues. At Rocky’s, the former involves making sure everyone is healthy.

“We employ more than 500 people,” Falcone said. “I would say not a day goes by when someone in the company isn’t out on quarantine with COVID. It’s a challenge staffing stores. We have a great staff, though, and people are willing to help out. If a store’s assistant manager is out, or two assistants are out, we have someone from another store hop over to that store.”

Rocky’s has grown from a single store in downtown Springfield

Rocky’s has grown from a single store in downtown Springfield to a 38-location chain in eight states.

The supply issue, however, is more complex, and doesn’t necessarily involve the same products month to month. When Texas froze over in February 2021, paralyzing manufacturing and trucking down south, the situation crippled the supply of PVC piping and glues and adhesives — products produced in great volumes in Texas, a state most people associate more with oil and energy, Falcone said.

“The freezing created a big shortage in PVC, which you’d see when you’d go down the PVC aisles. The whole supply got disrupted.”

Oh, and back to those grills — it’s been very difficult at times to stock them, especially when big-box stores responded to the shortage by buying up six months’ worth. “That disrupted the supply chain even more. We’re fighting with Home Depot and Lowe’s for these products, and you want to get your fair share, but there’s a disruption in the supply chain.”

Or Stihl leaf blowers. “We’d be ordering at 8 in the morning, going on every day, seeing what they have. All our store managers were trying to reserve leaf blowers and other things. By 8:05, they were gone.”

All of which has spurred inflation, so store owners are seeing vendors push through price increases of 5% or 10% across the board, Falcone noted. “These are crazy times with the supply chain; now we’ve got price increases, and we’ve got to stay on top of that. It’s different for everyone. I know in the car business, new cars have gone up 5% to 10%, but used cars went up 25%. It’s kind of crazy. And we’re seeing that inflation in our prices, too.”

But here’s the thing: two years of economic disruption and shifts in customer expectations aren’t going to slow down a family business that has endured even more dramatic changes over the years — including, perhaps most notably, the rise of the big boxes starting in the early ’90s.

 

Tools for Success

The Rocky’s story begins much earlier that that, however — in 1926, to be exact — when Falcone’s grandfather, also named Rocco, opened a 500-square-foot hardware store at the corner of Main and Union streets in Springfield, soon relocated into larger quarters across the street, and later opened a rental center that would soon match the hardware store for annual revenue — just one of the family’s many smart ideas over the past century.

The original operation was a classic mom-and-pop operation, run by Rocco and his wife, Clara. Later, their son, Jim Falcone, would pitch in after school and on weekends. The venture survived the dark days of the Great Depression, and Rocco eventually expanded the operation in the early ’40s. When he passed away in 1965, his son, Jim Falcone, took the helm of the family business and, with his sister, Claire, as vice president, steered it toward steady growth.

“We started with rentals, hardware, paint, and wallpaper. By the ’60s and ’70s, when my father ran it, they were converting the stores to home centers, with kitchen cabinets, windows, lumber, and sheetrock.”

Rocky’s became a chain with the acquisition of a small hardware store on the corner of White Street and Belmont Avenue in Springfield, with another location soon to follow on the corner of Breckwood Boulevard and Wilbraham Road in the 16 Acres section of the city. The chain became regional with the acquisition of a small hardware store on Walnut Street in Agawam, owned by a longtime family friend.

In the mid-’70s, Jim recognized a shift in the hardware retail realm, one that would ultimately change the size and scope of the stores, increasing their size and shifting to a ‘home center’ model.

“We started with rentals, hardware, paint, and wallpaper,” the younger Rocco told BusinessWest. “By the ’60s and ’70s, when my father ran it, they were converting the stores to home centers, with kitchen cabinets, windows, lumber, and sheetrock.”

By the late ’80s, the Rocky’s chain had grown to seven locations and launched an affiliation with the Ace Hardware co-op, which offered Rocky’s the buying power of a national chain, national advertising, and the computerization of accounting and inventory procedures while still maintaining its identity.

“We really focused on automation, computerizing the business, streamlining inventory,” he recalled. “These individual-owner stores weren’t able to do that; they were still ordering with pencil and pad in the ’70s and ’80s. We got everything automated, and it took a lot of labor out of the process. That way, we could focus more on sales and customers, and spend less time ordering stuff.”

The Ace Hardware co-op offers Rocky’s the buying power of a national chain

The Ace Hardware co-op offers Rocky’s the buying power of a national chain, national advertising, and other advantages while still maintaining its identity.

Rocco II, who moved up the ladder from store manager to director to vice president of store operations, eventually took over as president and CEO in 1992, during the rise of Home Depot — a painful time for Rocky’s and all other small hardware chains, which coincided with a long recession that impacted home buying and remodeling.

When the Falcone family was honored by BusinessWest as its Top Entrepreneur for 2006, Jim told the magazine that these larger, national chains, rather than chasing Rocky’s from the scene, provided a much-needed wake-up call, one that would ultimately make the company more efficient, competitive, and service-oriented.

“When I became president in ’92, I said, ‘hey, wait a second,’” Rocco said, and seriously reconsidered the company’s place in the industry — specifically, where they could compete most effectively on price, and where they couldn’t. So they got rid of the kitchen-cabinet business, as well as doors, windows, insulation, sheetrock, and other staples of large-scale projects.

“We got out of the building materials, and a lot of stores got smaller. In the ’90s, when Home Depot came in, we got out of new construction and focused more on maintenance and repair.”

“No one wanted to come buy sheetrock from us,” he said. “We got out of the building materials, and a lot of stores got smaller. In the ’90s, when Home Depot came in, we got out of new construction and focused more on maintenance and repair.”

Yet, the footprint kept growing. In the late ’90s, Rocky’s acquired eight stores from a chain in Eastern Mass. that was experiencing financial problems, doubling the size of the operation. Today, with 38 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, Rocky’s is the largest family-owned Ace retailer.

 

Working on Additions

While the pandemic may have tested Rocky’s, it convinced others, mainly single-store operators, to leave the game, and Rocky’s has picked a few of those stores up.

The two most recent additions are Karp’s Hardware in Stamford, Conn. and Clarke’s Ace Hardware in New London, N.H. “In both those cases, individuals owned them, they were family businesses, and they didn’t have other family members ready or willing to take over the business when the owners were stressed out with COVID and wanted to sell,” Falcone said.

Those acquisitions followed expansions into Bath, Maine; Washington, N.J.; and Forks County, Pa. over the past five years.

“We’re in a growth mode now; we’re looking to continue to grow our business, continue to expand business,” he said. “There is this little pocket of hardware stores, where the people who own them are in their 60s and 70s, and this whole COVID situation has done them in. They’re just stressed out; they’ve created a nest egg and want to unlock the capital they’ve created in their business by selling.”

Rocky’s, on the other hand, thrives in an attractive niche between the big boxes and those individual owners, with an economy of scale that allows it to roll with industry change, always innovating, while focusing on customer service in ways Home Depot and Lowe’s aren’t necessarily known for, and which are impossible on the internet.

“People don’t want to buy paint online,” Falcone told BusinessWest. “You could, but you want to match the right color, and you want someone to reassure you that you’re making the right decision. We have high-service, high-touch paint experts.”

Then there’s power equipment. “We teach the customer how to use it and not hurt themselves, how to use the right fuel, the right mixture, things like that. People don’t want to buy chainsaws on the internet.

“And some gas grills are big and bulky,” he went on. “We assemble them, and assemble them right, so the gas connections are done properly. Now we’re coming up with white-glove delivery; instead of dropping it at the mailbox, for a slight added fee, we set it up on your deck and take away the old grill.

“We’re finalizing that now,” he added, along with the ability to buy from Ace online and pick up the product at a store (and get that lesson in how to use it, too).

Even the way stores are laid out has changed over the years, Falcone added, noting that making it easy to find products is part of customer service, too.

 

Hammering It Home

The fourth generation has joined the Rocky’s team, Falcone said: his son Johnny currently works in merchandise and buying — as noted earlier, a job with some added challenge these days.

Staffing can be a challenge as well, and it varies by store. “We try to treat people fairly,” Falcone said, and that goes beyond pay and benefits, and involves a culture of training.

“Our people tell us amazing stories: ‘I’m a homeowner, and now I know how to fix all these things — a light fixture, toilet, under-sink repair — where I’ve never done that type of thing before.’ That great training helps people grow over time as individuals. You can’t understate the value of that.”

It’s another way Rocky’s Ace Hardware is making people’s lives a little easier. Its success in doing so, and continued growth as it approaches a century in business, is a testament to a model — and a willingness to change it when necessary — that has seen this family business survive recessions, the big-box home-improvement boom, and a whole lot more.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2022

By Reviving a Beloved Event, She’s Creating a More Vibrant Downtown

Leah Martin Photography

 

Ruth Griggs was having coffee with Amy Cahillane one day in 2017, when Cahillane, who had recently taken charge of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., posed a question.

“She said, ‘what do you think about the Jazz Festival?” Griggs recalled. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’”

Cahillane told Griggs that, in her interactions with people downtown, she kept getting asked questions like, “can we have the Jazz Festival back? We miss live music downtown. What happened to the festival? Can you get it back?”

Griggs had been involved in the first incarnation of the Northampton Jazz Festival, from 2011 to 2015, after returning to her hometown following a three-decade marketing career in New York City. “I went to the shows, and once they got to know I was a marketing professional, I kind of was an advisor to them. I was never on the board, but I was definitely an advisor and helped them out quite a bit, the last two years in particular.”

Then the festival went away for two years, and Cahillane was angling to get Griggs and others who had supported it in the past to bring it back to life, promising to help build stronger relationships between the festival and city leaders and boost marketing and fundraising efforts.

“Having a strong presence downtown and good relationships downtown was really important to me, and I also know all the jazz people who knew how to put on that festival, some of whom had been involved in previous festivals,” Griggs said. “So I set to work to rally some support.”

The biggest challenge at the time, she said, was not losing the event’s 501(c)(3) status, which had been achieved right before the final festival in 2015. “If you let a 501(c)(3) go without any kind of documentation to the feds or the state for three years, it’s gone. And I could not let that happen.”

So Griggs and others formed a board, pulled the festival back from the brink, and started planning for the return of the event in 2018. Oh, and that board put Griggs in charge.

“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton. I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”

It made sense — since returning from New York in 2011, she had built a marketing firm, RC Communications, that focused on small to mid-sized businesses and especially nonprofits, which are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the region. She has also been a board member with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce for the past six years and is currently its immediate past vice president.

“I am a marketing strategist by trade, and, as such, I am good at seeing the big picture, keeping my eye on the vision and mission of an organization,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “When you combine that with my work in nonprofits over the last 15 years, that adds up to the type of experience that enables me to lead a nonprofit, which, of course, is what the Jazz Fest is at the end of the day.”

Her leadership in the chamber and her role as an entrepreneur with RC Communications have helped her build a wide network in the business community, she added.

Ruth Griggs announces from the stage of the Academy of Music in Northampton during the headline Jazz Festival concert last October.
Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

“I also just have a knack for getting things done; I am a doer,” she went on. “Fundraising for the Jazz Fest, which is a big part of what I do, benefits from these relationships. As president of the board, I oversee all operations of the festival and keep everyone’s eye on the ball, but I have a particular focus on marketing and fundraising and community relations, with the help of Amy Cahillane.”

Within that model, she leaves the choosing and booking of the musicians and the running of the performances to five producers who serve on the board. And the model works, with the two-day October festival roaring back to life in 2018 and following that with successful outings in 2019 and 2021 as well; pandemic-disrupted 2020 saw a series of virtual performances instead.

But that success isn’t contained to the festival, or even to jazz lovers. As a two-day event held in locations scattered throughout the downtown (more on that in a bit), the event promotes the downtown corridor and boosts its businesses, making the festival’s success a true economic-development story, and Griggs a Difference Maker.

“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton,” she said. “I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”

 

Taking It to the Streets

One key factor in the festival’s growing impact on downtown Northampton is a change in how it’s staged. From 2011 to 2015, it was presented in the Armory Street Parking Lot behind Thornes Marketplace. Along with the music stage was a beer tent, food vendors, a chef competition, and an art fair. It was a fun, multi-activity event, and attendees enjoyed it, Griggs said.

“What I felt was lacking was, if you were on Main Street, you had no idea anything was going on,” she explained. “It was tucked behind Thornes. It was efficient in that everything took place in one place, but there wasn’t a lot of space for an audience.”

Then, Cahillane and board member Paul Arslanian both came up with the same idea independently for the 2018 festival.

“In order to keep the cost down, which had gotten very high, and to be more all around town, they said, ‘let’s stage it in different places,’” Griggs said of the decision to schedule music acts inside downtown businesses, requiring attendees to move around to see them all.

The Art Blakey Centennial Celebration last October featured five original Jazz Messengers, including Robin Eubanks on trombone, Brian Lynch on trumpet, and Bobby Watson on saxophone.
Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

“The idea was to get people to walk from place to place and stop in at a gallery or stop in at a restaurant or stop in at a café, and we would leave time in between shows so people could do that,” she explained. “Half the mission is supporting the economy of Northampton and bringing vibrancy back, which is what people said they wanted.”

Saturday’s slate of performances ends with the only ticketed show of the festival, a nationally known headliner at the Academy of Music. In recent years, that show has featured the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet in 2018, the Kurt Elling Quintet in 2019, and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration in 2021, featuring five original members of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

The model has worked well, Griggs said, although the board has talked about streamlining it by bringing the venues closer together. One thing that won’t change, however, is the Friday Jazz Strut, which features local and regional bands, including student bands, and overlapping performance schedules.

“We stage the music a half-hour apart, and every band plays for two hours,” she noted. “That definitely gets people all over town, patronizing the restaurants and breweries and cafés. And that’s important.”

Speaking of students, the festival board also supports jazz education through a program called Jazz Artists in the Schools, in which Arslanian secures jazz artists from big cities across the Northeast to workshop with local high-school jazz bands.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn from musicians who make music, who have successfully made music their life — active, performing musicians,” Griggs said.

While “the board is the Jazz Festival,” she said, noting that it’s certainly a working board with year-round responsibilities, the festival itself also pulls in dozens of young volunteers each year, and she’s been moved by the sentiments they’ve expressed.

Cocomama performs at Pulaski Park in Northampton in October

Cocomama performs at Pulaski Park in Northampton in October, one of many female-fronted acts who played last year’s Jazz Festival.

“One said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll be a runner, whatever you need for this to run smoothly; this is important,’” she recalled. A woman who had recently moved from Brooklyn said, “when I found out that Northampton has a jazz festival, I thought, ‘wow, this is a cool down, I want to live here, this is really cool.’

“That’s important for me to hear,” Griggs noted, adding that one vocalist who took part in the Jazz Strut clamored for more involvement and is now serving on the board.

“That’s critically important to me,” she went on. “I want this to last. I’ve been at this now since 2017, and I’ll be darned if, when I step down, it dies. That cannot happen. I would feel I failed if that happened. It’s critically important. So we need to keep bringing in the younger players and the younger musicians and the younger people who really care about keeping it alive. I think the Jazz Festival is now, and will be, an important feather in Northampton’s cap.”

 

Community Focused

Another volunteer and musician noted the 2021 festival’s increased slate of women performers, telling Griggs that was a definite plus for such an event in Northampton. She was impressed by young jazz enthusiasts pointing that fact out. “The goal is to continue to showcase women in jazz.”

Griggs has certainly shone over the years as a woman in marketing. As noted, she worked in New York City for 30 years, marketing for dot-com firms, mutual funds, and large corporations like American Express and Coca-Cola. She and her husband actually owned a firm for eight of those years, doing mostly financial-services marketing.

“That was lucrative, but totally intangible,” she said. “I got so tired of marketing credit cards and things like that.”

Then, while taking her teenage sons on college tours, she fell in love with higher education and the idea of “marketing people.” So she segued into higher-ed marketing for Queensboro Community College in the city.

“It totally changed my life. I felt like I got a crash course in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, because I reported to Development.”

When she returned to Northampton in 2011, she carried that experience with her into her new firm, RC Communications, working with a host of nonprofits in the Valley. She was also part of the Creative, a marketing enterprise she formed with Janice Beetle and Maureen Scanlon.

“But I was getting so involved in the chamber and the Jazz Festival, I felt like I needed to pull back and be semi-retired,” she told BusinessWest. While she still works with a few long-time clients, the rest of her time is split between the Jazz Festival, the chamber, her role chairing the investment committee at Edwards Church, and also Valley Jazz Voices, a group, formed in 2015, of 30 vocalists who sing exclusively jazz throughout region. “I just have so many initiatives I’m doing in the community, I just feel fortunate that I can spend more time doing them.”

She sees a symbiosis in these roles, just as she does between the Jazz Festival and the downtown environment it lifts up, and gets a lift from in return.

“The relationships I’ve made in the chamber are helpful to my business, and also helpful to the Jazz Festival, which is, in turn, helpful to the town. It’s a complete full circle.”

And a full life, one with the controlled, yet exciting, rhythm of a jazz performance — a life of true impact, note by note.

“I feel like I’m making a difference that people see most visibly — in the Jazz Fest — because of all the other things I do,” Griggs said. “It’s all of those things that I think make a difference together.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2022

He’s Spent a Lifetime Investing in His Community — and People in Need

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

Herbie Flores could have become hardened, even embittered, by a tumultuous youth.

Instead, he’s spent a lifetime helping people overcome their own difficulties.

“I came from a very poor family in Puerto Rico,” he said, raised by his mother early on after his father died. “At some point, my uncle told my mother and sister it would be better if I had a male role model. That’s a cultural thing. So I ended up in Delaware with my uncle, who was a hardworking guy.”

Back in the ’60s, Delaware wasn’t the liberal bastion it is today, as it grappled, as all states did, with school desegregation and other racial issues. So he learned early on about race relations and the futility of racism.

After moving to Springfield in 1965, Flores entered the Army and shipped off to Vietnam, where certain images stick with him to this day. “It’s not a good feeling killing a human being. But as George Patton said, the mission is to go from point A to point B, and whatever gets in the way, get rid of it.”

He remembers servicemen being spit on and called baby killers back stateside, but he was more haunted by the sheer numbers of U.S. wounded and dying. “You just put that someplace, everything goes to a compartment — it’s the only way. You continue moving on. There were a lot of drugs. Many of my friends did not sleep.”

After his war experience, though, Flores wanted to focus on bettering lives, not dwelling on a war that ruined so many of them.

“Life is short, when you put it in perspective. And the time you have here, what do you do to make it better — not only in a selfish way, but for the next person?”

Specifically, his affinity with migrant farm workers that led to the development of an agency — the New England Farm Workers’ Council (NEFWC) — to help them out with various needs, from fuel assistance to job skills to education.

That agency, launched in 1971, eventually morphed into Partners for Community, a nonprofit with multiple departments under its umbrella, including the Corporation for Public Management, which seeks solutions to welfare dependency, chronic joblessness, and illiteracy, and also focuses on providing services to those with physical and developmental disabilities; and New England Partners in Faith, which seeks to provide sustainable development and capacity building for small faith-based organizations throughout New England through technical assistance and job-related training.

Herbie Flores’ office walls are filled with proclamations, awards, and photos of his interactions with state and national leaders.

Herbie Flores’ office walls are filled with proclamations, awards, and photos of his interactions with state and national leaders.

“All those experiences, from there to here to Vietnam, helped me see that things are bad, but they’re not real bad,” Flores said. “Life is short, when you put it in perspective. And the time you have here, what do you do to make it better — not only in a selfish way, but for the next person?

“I’ve been homeless, I’ve been without food, but you move forward,” he added. “Many people get stuck in the same place, but you can’t stay stagnant.”

For helping people move forward from adversity over the past 50 years, while continually investing in the vitality of Greater Springfield, explains why Flores is certainly a Difference Maker.

 

Taking Root

Established in 1971 as a small organization to support farm workers, NEFWC has become a multi-faceted human-services agency dedicated to improving the quality of life for thousands of low-income people throughout the Northeast.

Among its chief programs are home-energy assistance for income-eligible families in Hampden and Northern Worcester counties; emergency shelter assistance for at-risk families throughout Massachusetts; employment and job training for migrant seasonal workers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, as well as welfare-to-work populations in Connecticut; and youth programs providing services to at-risk, low-income youth both in and out of school in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

And its programs, both under the NEFWC name or the Partners for Community umbrella, continue to evolve.

“We have different organizations still tied up with us,” he said, citing, as one example, Gándara Center, which arose from Partners for Community because a population of Latino and Puerto Rican veterans were struggling with heroin. “We were not trained psychologists, but we wanted to help those guys. So we started bringing people in who could.”

Many of the organization’s services, like its fuel-assistance program that helps low-income households with utility bills through subsidies and discounts, and its three homeless shelters for families eligible for emergency assistance, found growing need throughout the pandemic, but a more challenging environment to deliver services.

“I brought life to this building; it was a historical building, but it was empty. I like to use old buildings because you bring back the history.”

Take fuel assistance, for example. “There are federal regulations, paperwork, we give to people who give us money. But a lot of people in state government took off and were working at home. Before, you could talk to a human being. Now, you’re not talking to a human being — they give you a number, you call it, but the telephone is ringing all the time. For days, that information wasn’t transmitted,” he recalled.

“I’d have 1,600 applications here for fuel assistance ready to go, but I can’t get to the right person,” he went on. “And it’s not just me; all the state nonprofit agencies were dealing with that. The bureaucrats went home.

In other words, he said, communication broke down just as needs were rising. “It was tough, but we survived.”

Flores knows something about need. He was intimately acquainted with poverty as his family struggled for sustenance throughout his childhood in Puerto Rico. It was there, he said, that he began to identify himself with economically deprived groups and devote himself to service on their behalf — just as his experience in the military has spurred him to stay active in veterans’ causes; he was named Springfield Veteran of the Year in 2001.

Yet, through all his work with NEFWC and Partners for Community — whose services also extend to young people through HiSET support and mentoring programs, workforce-training programs for job seekers, and programs for adults with developmental disabilities or acquired brain injury — he remains humble.

“Everything we have done … I’m the figurehead, in a sense,” he said. “I have a whole team that works with me.”

 

Growing Recognition

This is the second time BusinessWest has honored Flores with one of its coveted awards; he was named Top Entrepreneur for 2011 for all his community-investment work, but particularly his real-estate projects that focused on urban renewal, housing, and other forms of economic development.

These included the Borinquen project in the impoverished North End of Springfield, which involved the renovation of 41 units of low-income housing, as well as six commercial spaces. The $11 million project combined federal tax credits, private-investment tax credits, Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development funds, city of Springfield HOME funds, and private financing — a good example of the tapestry of players Flores must weave together to turn one of his visions into reality.

“I brought life to this building; it was a historical building, but it was empty,” he said. “I like to use old buildings because you bring back the history.”

About 35 years ago, Flores made his first forays into real estate through Brightwood Development Corp. (BDC), a nonprofit formed with the goal of providing housing and economic development on the north side of Springfield. As president and CEO of the BDC, he developed a $2.5 million shopping center, La Plaza del Mercado, on Main Street in 1995, followed by a $3 million neighborhood medical clinic, El Centro de Salud Medico Inc., the next year. That was immediately followed by a $2 million rehabilitation of blighted, multi-family houses in the North End.

A more current project, a $38 million effort to transform Springfield’s historic Paramount Theater, which opened in 1926, into a performing arts center — and the adjoining Massasoit building, which was constructed before the Civil War, into a boutique hotel — has run into debt issues and delays in recent years, but remains a significant part of Flores’ downtown vision.

In addition to his other endeavors, he is president of the North End Educational Development Fund, which administers the largest Hispanic scholarship fund in New England, providing college scholarships for underprivileged, inner-city Springfield residents — and, hopefully, starts them on their own journeys of success.

All this earned him yet another honor in 2019, the prestigious Pynchon Medal from the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts and the Pynchon trustees. Now, being named a Difference Maker soon after NEFWC marked 50 years of service is especially gratifying.

“I feel honored and proud to have been chosen by BusinessWest as one of the 2022 Difference Makers,” he said, noting, again, that his board of directors and staff deserves much of the credit for what he’s been able to accomplish. “Our longevity and success is a direct result of their dedication to our clients and our organization. All that I have accomplished is with the assistance of those around me.”

He also credited a number of regional business and nonprofit luminaries; throughout a broad interview, he dropped names like Janis Santos, Dick Stebbins, Leon Pernice, Bill Dwight, Paul Doherty, Joe LoBello, and Ronn Johnson as examples of mentors, supporters, and influences.

“I needed to produce something positive, not for me or for a little group, but for all of society,” he said. “In doing that, you develop relationships.”

He’s also been willing to lend a hand — and his acumen — to other organizations. “I sit on Janis Santos’ board,” he said, referring to the recently retired leader of HCS Head Start. “It’s about the education of children. People like that ask, ‘can you give us some time and help us open some doors?’ Yes, I can.”

Or, as another example, “Sister [Mary] Caritas asked me, ‘Herbie, can you come sit on my board? I need some advice for only three months.’ And three years later, I’m still there.”

 

Harvest of Success

He’s still there, all right — fighting the good fight to help folks who are struggling, and raising the profile and well-being of Springfield as well.

“You might change something a little bit,” he said of his philosophy of taking on new projects. “But it’s better than nothing. If you have a vision, you have to see where it will go.”

Springfield, and its environs, are certainly better off because of the difference Herbie Flores has made over the past half-century.

“It’s our city,” he told BusinessWest. “Let’s make it better, and leave it better for the next generation.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services

The People Have Spoken

Dan Moriarty (left) and Michael Rouette

Dan Moriarty (left) and Michael Rouette say it’s important to give customers a say in which nonprofits Monson Savings Bank supports.

 

The numbers speak for themselves: 3,500 votes, 373 nonprofits, $15,000.

That’s roughly the number of Monson Savings Bank (MSB) customers who cast votes in the bank’s 12th annual Community Giving Initiative, the number of different nonprofits they wanted to receive donations, and the total money being given to the top 10 vote getters.

“Each and every organization is a well-deserving nonprofit, and it is clear why they were chosen by our community members,” said Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank. “Each nonprofit provides tremendously valuable resources to our communities and their residents.”

The 2022 winners of MSB’s Community Giving Initiative, announced two weeks ago, include Academy Hill School Scholarship, Behavioral Health Network, I Found Light Against All Odds, Miracle League of Western Massachusetts, Shriner’s Hospitals for Children, and Women’s Empowerment Scholarship, all based in Springfield; Rick’s Place and Wilbraham United Players, both based in Wilbraham; Link to Libraries Inc. of Hampden; and Monson Free Library in Monson.

“There are so many nonprofits doing great work, but we don’t know them all; we couldn’t ever know them all.”

“It follows our philosophy of giving back to the local communities. Our local communities help us, so we try to find ways to continually give back, and there are various ways to do that,” Moriarty told BusinessWest.

“There are so many nonprofits doing great work, but we don’t know them all; we couldn’t ever know them all,” he added. “So this is a good way to reach out to the community and all the nonprofits out there by having their followers introduce them to us. It’s been great, and very well-received. We’ve received thousands of votes every year for nonprofits people think are doing worthy things. That’s why we started it, and why we continue to do it.”

MSB isn’t the only bank running such a program, however; other banks have involved the community in giving initiatives as well, perhaps none longer than Florence Bank, which launched its annual Customers’ Choice Community Grants Program 20 years ago. Voting runs to the end of each December, and recipients are celebrated in May.

Unlike MSB’s program, which features a set number of recipients and equal funding to all winners, Florence gives grants to all organizations receiving at least 50 votes and distributes the money ($100,500 last year) according to their share of the votes — in last year’s case, more than 7,000 votes in all.

Last May, those funds went to Dakin Humane Society, Cancer Connection, Friends of Forbes Library, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County, $5,000 each; Our Lady of the Hills Parish, $4,837; Belchertown Animal Relief Committee Inc., $4,326; Friends of the Williamsburg Library, $3,815; J.F.K. Middle School, $3,303; Riverside Industries Inc. and Friends of Lilly Library, $3,146 each; It Takes a Village and Goshen Firefighters Assoc., $3,107 each; Edward Hopkins Educational Foundation, $2,989; Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, $2,556; Northampton Neighbors, $2,399; Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Granby Senior Center, and Friends of Northampton Legion Baseball, $2,281 each; Northampton Community Music Center and Community Action, $2,202 each; Friends of M.N. Spear Memorial Library, $2,084; Safe Passage, $2,005; R.K. Finn Ryan Road School, $1,966; and Historic Northampton and Belchertown K-9, $1,966 each. In addition, the Williamsburg Firefighters Assoc. and Whole Children of Hadley were each granted $500 for coming close to receiving 50 votes.

“We do normal corporate giving, but 20 years ago, we started doing these Customers’ Choice grants in an effort to listen to our customers,” bank President Kevin Day told BusinessWest. “How better to support the community than to support the nonprofits that our customers feel are important and doing a great job in the community?

“It’s a great program, and we’ve given close to a million and a half dollars,” he went on. “And our event in May is a wonderful event that really links us to the community and our customers who have directed where some of our money should go.”

Just as the pandemic has shifted the giving priorities of some banks and credit unions based on community need (see story on page 17), Florence Bank saw the same phenomenon occur in the Customers’ Choice program last year.

In the second half of 2019, only 10% of customers cast votes for organizations that ease food insecurity. But as more people became aware of those needs in 2020, twice as many votes were cast for food-security causes, and $21,528 of the total $100,500 awarded last May went to five organizations focused on feeding people: the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Amherst and Northampton Survival Centers, Manna Community Kitchen in Northampton, and Easthampton Community Center.

“How better to support the community than to support the nonprofits that our customers feel are important and doing a great job in the community?”

Moriarty said the recipients in Monson Savings Bank’s program have shifted over the years as well, with more than 100 nonprofits benefiting in all.

“Some are repeat winners, and that speaks to their efforts to reach out to their followers to vote for them,” he said. “But it’s nice to see different nonprofits chosen.”

In any case, he added, “they are so genuinely appreciative of winning. It’s always nice to win a contest, but they are genuinely honored and thrilled to receive those donations. Every year, I talk to a few of them, and they seem so, so thankful. Some of these nonprofits count on the donations they receive from us and other community banks and other community businesses.”

Moriarty noted that the internet has been an important driver of the Community Giving Initiative, as social media was still on the rise when the program launched 12 years ago, offering a new way to connect people with the bank and generate enthusiasm online. “That was a catalyst for us in the initial stages. Social media wasn’t that big yet, but we knew it was coming.”

Clearly, customers are excited to wield some influence on this one element of their hometown bank’s giving priorities.

“We love working directly with the community and giving members a voice to ensure that the nonprofits that make a positive impact in our communities are recognized and supported,” said Michael Rouette, executive vice president and chief operating officer at MSB, when the 2022 recipients were announced. “As a local, community bank, we are committed to doing whatever it takes to support our customers, businesses, and communities. We understand that these charitable organizations have the power to truly make a difference for our neighbors. Thank you for casting your votes.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Manufacturing

Innovation and Adaptation

Bill Bither

Bill Bither says employee-retention efforts should consider wages and culture, but also how cutting-edge the company’s technology is.

 

Manufacturing is a healthy industry, Bill Bither days, and demand for manufactured goods is soaring across all sectors. Meeting that demand is … well, a challenge.

“The first half of 2021 was quite strong; we were actually averaging around 30% higher than we’ve ever seen since we’ve been collecting this data,” said Bither, co-founder and CEO of MachineMetrics, a Northampton company that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers and serves hundreds of customers all over the globe.

“Then, after the July 4 holiday, we saw this tick down … it was almost like a shift change. That was likely due to the supply-chain issues that occurred over the summer, and we’re continuing to see that in our data through the second half of the year,” he went on. “But if you look into the beginning of 2022, we’re starting to see some of that come back.”

Jerry Foster, chief technology officer at Plex Systems Inc., a software company based in Michigan, saw a similar trend in 2021. He noted a steady, 18% decline in production from the end of the first quarter to the end of the third quarter, when companies were feeling the pinch of labor shortages (see story on page 36) and supply-chain issues.

“This was not due to the economy shrinking or decreased demand; it’s just the opposite. Our customers are reporting three to six months of backlogged orders just waiting to be fulfilled, waiting for raw materials or the workers to do that work. So this downturn is definitely due to those two main issues of labor and supply chain.”

Bither and Foster were joined last week by Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Assoc. of Manufacturers (NAM), at a MachineMetrics-hosted webinar on the state of the manufacturing industry and the challenges that will continue to impact companies in 2022 and beyond.

To be sure, the past year was nothing like 2020 for many manufacturers. Foster estimates that Plex customers lost 26% of their normal year’s business during a deep trough in the spring of 2020. “Manufacturing really took it on the chin,” he said. “So 2021 had a lot of ground to catch up.”

It has done so — to a point. NAM has conducted a member outlook survey quarterly since 1997, and the sector has certainly rebounded since the recession of 2020, “but we have seen more recently that data pull back a little from where it was last summer,” Moutray said. Specifically, last June, 90.1% of members felt positive about their company’s outlook, but that crept down to 87.5% at the start of fall and 86.8% toward the end of 2021.

Manufacturing demand is really not the problem, he explained, despite a slight dip in production recently due to the surging Omicron variant. “In general, employment is the issue; it’s the ability to meet that demand that has been the larger issue we’ve continued to hear from our members.”

The survey revealed that members’ top four business challeges in the fourth quarter of 2021 — by far — were rising raw-material costs, supply-chain challenges, attracting and retaining a quality workforce, and transportation and logistics costs. Moutray noted that these are all issues that have arisen amid the global economic impact of the pandemic.

“They are intertwined,” he said. “Each of those issues, in my mind, are wrapped up and one and the same.”

They have also lent momentum to wage pressure on companies, the NAM survey suggests, with wages at an all-time high and expected to inch higher as manufacturers try to stay competitive for a shrinking pool of talent.

Add it up, and it all poses an interconnected, global series of manufacturing challenges that may not have an immediate end in sight — but could also bring about more innovation down the line.

 

Frustrating Shortages

The past year has not treated all manufacturers equally. According to NAM survey data, aerospace, computers and electronic products, chemicals, and machinery bounced back the most in 2021, while motor vehicles and automotive parts, printing, furniture, and petroleum and coal products lagged the most.

Bither noted the struggles of the automotive space in the second half of 2021. “That’s where those supply-chain issues with the chip shortage seemed to have the biggest impact.”

Moutray noted that just 1.9% of NAM survey respondents feel the supply-chain issues have already cleared up for them. Of the rest, 53.4% believe they will improve this year, 27.6% say the situation will stabilize in 2023 or beyond, and 17% are uncertain.

“It’s important to note some of these issues will take longer than that; the chip shortage could take a lot longer than 2022. The workforce issues are structural issues and are going to take a little bit longer.”

That said, Moutray is pleased that the majority of NAM members are optimistic about seeing supply-chain improvements between now and the end of 2022.

Even with that cautious optimism, however, “manufacturers still need to be smart about how they navigate the supply-chain challenges and workforce challenges,” he added. “Right now, obviously, Omicron is hitting manufacturers pretty hard; we’ve seen a number of stories that it’s affected overall production. So 2022 is shaping up to be much like the last couple of years — another year of uncertainty, which we’ve kind of gotten used to of late.”

Foster and Bither both said companies need to think about how employees are treated in terms of both wages and culture.

“We need to treat employees better because it is an employees’ market,” Bither said. “Part of that is having systems and technology that the younger generation of workers are used to and expect. If you’re an old-school manufacturer and you’re not leveraging these technologies, you’re going to have more difficulty bringing on this newer workforce. So leveraging these technologies and a really good user experience are going to be really important.”

That said, the current situation is also an opportunity to invest in technology, Moutray noted.

Foster agreed; when asked if robotics and AI will help relieve a qualified labor shortage, he answered, “most definitely. We used to be afraid that automation, robotics, and AI were going to take jobs. Now, we are desperate for these technologies just to keep our heads above water by filling gaps and compensating for labor issues.”

 

Investing in the Future

Moutray admits these have been trying times, not just during the pandemic, but before it, with trade wars and workforce issues that predate COVID-19.

“We’ve been talking about uncertainty as long as I’ve been at the NAM,” he said. “But I think manufacturers have had to be smart about some of the moves they’ve made over the past couple years when it comes to supply-chain management or technology adoption or upscaling their workers, and that’s going to pay off in spades moving forward. It’s not hard to be bullish about the manufacturing sector in terms of predicting growth and where it’s headed over the next few years.”

That said, he’s keeping a sharp eye on wage growth in 2022 as one of the key factors impacting manufacturers. Bither agreed, but added that the supply chain is still the problem of the day when he considers why machines are down across the industry.

In truth, all these factors are important — and none are easily solved. But the webinar participants agreed that manufacturers are an innovative bunch, and ready for the challenges ahead.

“Manufacturing has been behind other industries, but it’s catching up. There’s a lot more investment on this space, more adaptation,” Bither said. “It’s a really exciting time to be in the industry. As technology providers, we know we can get through the pandemic and all the other problems thrown our way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

More Than Writing Checks

Kevin Day

Kevin Day says banks — including Florence — responded strongly to rising food-insecurity needs during the pandemic.

Banks and credit unions have long touted their role in supporting local nonprofits through philanthropic efforts, but those efforts took on more urgency over the past two years, especially in areas such as food insecurity and other basic human needs. But even before the pandemic, these institutions were giving back in ways that went well beyond writing checks, from participating in fundraising events in the community to promoting a culture of volunteerism among officers and employees. In other words, the needs remain numerous, but so do the ways to address them.

 

 

When it comes to philanthropy, Kevin Day, says, Florence Bank’s overall goal never changes.

“We just try to be resilient and strengthen our communities and nonprofit sector,” said Day, the bank’s president and CEO. “We don’t necessarily go out year after year and do the same things; we tend to respond to the needs that arise, and needs in the community ebb and flow each year. Certainly, the last two years with COVID, we’ve responded to what the needs are and basically evaluated requests as they come in and tried to find the ones that have the broadest impact.”

The most obvious such need — one that many banks made a point of focus over the last two years — is food insecurity. Since the start of the pandemic, Florence Bank has donated at least $140,000 to organizations addressing that issue.

“We supported many local pantries and survival centers because the pandemic ramped up that need,” Day said. Meanwhile, “other organizations couldn’t run their normal events or even run the services they normally do. The way we managed our donations was responding to needs as they grew, and we were able to respond in a bigger way than normal.”

Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing at UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, said it’s “in the DNA” of credit unions to invest money back into their local communities, and his institution does so in four main ways: writing checks to nonprofits, running donation drives, encouraging volunteerism among employees to help out community organizations, and financial-education programs that empower members in their financial lives.

“We had new requests coming in that we never had before because of agencies that were feeling an impact from a surge of families and individuals needing support because of the pandemic.”

Some of the events UMassFive typically supports, such as Will Bike 4 Food and Monte’s March, which both support the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, took on new importance during the pandemic, while the credit union also raised $16,000 last year for the UMass Cancer Walk and Run, bringing its total support of cancer detection and prevention through that event to around $160,000. It has also made a 10-year, $100,000 commitment to CISA to help people access healthy food through farm shares.

Meanwhile, members can use their ‘Buzz Points’ from a debit-card reward program, typically redeemable for gift cards at local establishments, to donate to area nonprofits instead, Boivin said.

“We’ve really tried to play that up over the past couple years because there’s so much need in those local organizations, and not everyone has the means to support them by writing checks, so, just by doing normal shopping, they can donate points earned from the program.”

On what Boivin calls the “roll up your sleeves” side of the bank’s efforts, members and employees provided 350 pounds of personal items to food pantries and the Amherst and Northampton Survival Centers last year, collected hundreds of winter coats for people in need, while continuing to participate in events like the Connecticut River Conservancy’s Source to Sea Cleanup.

“During the pandemic, we were thinking creatively about what else can we do that’s different than what we’ve done in the past to support different folks,” Boivin said. “In some cases, it was really kind of doubling down on our efforts because the needs jumped more than expected.”

Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president and chief banking officer at Westfield Bank, agreed. He said that, during the pandemic, the bank has received requests for help for many new organizations, as well as different kinds of requests from nonprofits it has assisted in the past.

“We had new requests coming in that we never had before because of agencies that were feeling an impact from a surge of families and individuals needing support because of the pandemic,” he noted. “We looked at every agency we didn’t know and looked at how they were doing things to support people. It might have been people we already gave to before, like the Boys and Girls Club of Westfield, that was doing something new and different.”

The bank was able to support many of these new requests through what he called a ‘reallocation’ of resources, especially when it came to events — and there were many of them — that were canceled because of the pandemic.

Moving forward, he said the bank has increased its budget for giving in 2022 to support events and organizations it has backed for years, if not decades, and also support some of those new, pandemic-related requests that won’t be going away any time soon.

 

Expanding Needs

Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank (MSB), said the bank has long supported the basic needs of people in the community, whether that’s food, shelter, clothing, or education, to name a few. “We look at the basic needs first, and then we look at community development and youth. We try to spread money around to as many organizations as we can. And need plays a major role in those decisions.”

The nature of the pandemic, and how it isolated people and disrupted the economic well-being of families and forced them into challenging situations, certainly changed the calculus of those efforts, Moriarty noted. “I think it exacerbated the need to help people with their basic needs, even more than during a normal cycle, outside of a pandemic. Again, with so much need out there, we strive to eliminate it.”

PeoplesBank recently announced a record level of charitable contributions in 2021, with donations reaching $1,315,000 over the past year with a total of close to $11 million donated since 2011. The bank has doubled its donations in the last five years.

“During the pandemic, we were thinking creatively about what else can we do that’s different than what we’ve done in the past to support different folks. In some cases, it was really kind of doubling down on our efforts because the needs jumped more than expected.”

“We do have funding focus areas, as we call them, that are probably similar to other banks,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, listing among them economic development, food insecurity, housing, social services, sustainability and the environment, and literacy (both early-childhood and financial).

“I would say 90% of our grant requests fit into one of those categories,” he said. “The other category is community, which is anything that doesn’t fit another category. For instance, fireworks or First Night Northampton — things that are good for community spirit.”

The bank has donated meals to frontline responders during the pandemic (as has UMassFive and other institutions) and PPE, actions which are unique to the current environment, but most people negatively impacted by COVID tend to fall into one of PeoplesBank’s traditional philanthropic focus areas, like housing needs, food insecurity, or social services.

“We’ve given to specific COVID causes as they’ve come up over the past couple of years,” Bannister said. “We’ve done that over and above the normal giving we do anyway.”

He noted that, “even giving what we give, we’re still not able to give to everyone who asks; the needs out there are pressing.” To further address those needs, the bank’s employees donate 10,000 volunteer hours per year, and 74 of them have served on 54 different nonprofit boards.

Florence Bank takes pride in similar efforts, Day said. “We encourage all our officers to be part of the nonprofit community in some way. And our employees are involved in roughly 125 organizations in the area, as board members, volunteering at events, and so on.”

Monson Savings Bank recently announced that its employees donated $8,880 to various local nonprofits in 2021 through the bank’s Team Giving Initiative Friday (TGIF) program.

“Western Massachusetts is not only the bank’s home, but home for many of our team members,” Moriarty said. “We work here, live here, and raise our families here. We are invested in the well-being of the local landscape and ensuring that our neighbors’ needs are met.”

Through the TGIF program, bank employees elect to donate $5 out of each of their paychecks to employee-selected nonprofit organizations that support the bank’s local communities. Since the program was launched seven years ago, MSB employees have donated a total of $45,170 to various charitable organizations.

“The TGIF program is just one example of our employees holding up the bank’s value of helping our neighbors in need,” Moriarty went on. “I often refer to us as a team here at Monson Savings. The TGIF program is a true team effort. Participants of this program donate just $5 out of their pay, and each donation comes together to create a large impact.”

 

Mission Driven

O’Connor said Westfield Bank, like other institutions, looked at new and different ways to support the community as a result of COVID, with many of them being public-health-related.

As one example, he cited the bank’s support of vaccination efforts in Springfield in a partnership effort with the Basketball Hall of Fame and other entities.

“We offered some support to help draw some bands and other kinds of entertainment to the Hall of Fame so that people would then hopefully go in and learn about vaccination, and hopefully get vaccinated, if that was their choosing,” he noted, adding that there were other initiatives with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and other agencies working to meet growing needs during the pandemic.

Boivin stressed that part of UMassFive’s community support stems from its financial-empowerment workshops, which have traditionally been offered at branches during the evening and sometimes during lunch hours.

“One silver lining of this pandemic is that it really forced us to get into the virtual world, opening those workshops up to a greater pool of people who might not get into our branches,” he said. “We had people from a much wider range of locations because we put content online and they could log in from home and don’t have to trek over to a branch.”

The workshop topics range from budgeting essentials to understanding credit to the basics of homebuying 101 — “quite a range of topics that all directly support our mission,” Boivin added, noting that these efforts and those directly supporting nonprofits all stem from the same philosophy.

“Even by giving out loans to people buying their first car or their first home, all those big life events, we play a role in the community,” he told BusinessWest. “Part of playing a role in the community is keeping more dollars local, investing in local organizations, and at the same time amplifying the mission of the credit union to better the financial lives of the people we serve. It takes many forms.”

Day agreed. “Community banks are in the same boat. Our employees are here, we all live and work in the community, and we all have a vested interest in making sure our community thrives.”

Unlike larger institutions whose management or directors don’t necessarily have a personal stake in the community, “for us, it’s a very important connection,” he added. “The decision makers are all here in the community. We’re not giving to places we don’t know. We see people impacted every single day, so there’s a tight connection between a bank like ours, where all our customers come from the local community, and our local organizations.”

Moriarty said Monson Savings Bank turns 150 this year, and he’s been looking at documents from the institution’s founding, which drove home MSB’s place in the community and why philanthropy is important, whether in a pandemic year or … well, a more normal one.

“Community banks were established to help people. They’ve always followed that mission,” he said. “We’re here to help the community; our mission is to help people save and prosper, but also to help the community wherever there’s a need, and we take that to heart.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

After the Sticker Shock

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says families aren’t always aware how many resources are available to help pay for college.

It’s not exactly news that the cost of college — at least, the published price tag — has consistently risen over the past two decades. But the net cost — what students actually pay — has actually crept down a bit. That’s largely due to the myriad resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Putting the pieces together takes some effort, self-education, and patience, but most families would agree that the end result, a degree, is worth the journey.

 

Fifty thousand. Sixty thousand. Seventy-five thousand.

A generation ago, dollar figures in that range might get a student through college; these days, at many schools, they’re typical price tags for one year.

Good thing no one pays sticker.

“I don’t care if you’re making $5 million a year or no money; there isn’t a single student paying the sticker price,” said Richard O’Connor, director of Financial Aid at American International College (AIC). “There’s a lot of shock when families see the sticker price, but as you take them further through the process, they see what the final bottom line is for them.”

Indeed, according to the College Board, for the 2021-22 year, the average published tuition and fees for full-time students average $10,740 for a public, four-year, in-state college, 1.6% higher than in 2020-21. For public, four-year, out-of-state schools, it’s $27,560, 1.5% higher than in 2020-21. Private, four-year colleges currently average $38,070, 2.1% higher than the year before.

However, the majority of full-time undergraduate students receive grant aid that helps them pay for a good deal of those costs. The average net tuition and fees paid by first-time, full-time, in-state students enrolled in public four-year institutions currently sit at $2,640, a 15-year-low. At private schools, it’s $14,990 — again, a 15-year low.

“Almost all families enrolling in college do not pay that sticker price,” said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University. “There’s always a combination of merit-based and need-based money that goes into it.”

Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC, noted that all colleges offer merit scholarships based on a student’s GPA and other measures of high-school success. “They would receive it for all four years, as long as they’re successful progressing in the program. Every school has different guidelines students need to hit, but it’s usually pretty attainable for most students, in addition to federal or other institutional aid.”

In addition, she noted, “students may find it less expensive to go to private school, because of the aid award, than it is to go to a state school. When I was going through 20-plus years ago, that’s exactly what happened. I was a low-income student, had high academics, and was able to attend a private school and live on campus for the equivalent cost of a state school. A lot of people don’t know that until financial-aid time.”

“Almost all families enrolling in college do not pay that sticker price. There’s always a combination of merit-based and need-based money that goes into it.”

On the admissions side, Gross added, “it’s really important for families to understand that different colleges and universities have different ways they evaluate the family’s financial circumstances.” For example, some schools are ‘need-aware’ in crafting the merit package, incorporating a family’s ability to pay, while others, including AIC, are ‘need-blind’ when they award financial-aid packages.

Merit decisions are based on more than grades, too; schools also consider standardized test scores — although these are starting to recede in importance, and many colleges are even test-optional now — as well as extracurricular activities, volunteerism, letters of recommendation, and more.

And that’s just the start of what families need to know about paying for college — a process that can be confusing and intimidating, but is also rife with opportunities to shave down that sticker price even further.

 

Guiding Lights

Community colleges offer a less-daunting price tag to begin with, but that doesn’t mean the process of seeking aid and paying for school is any less thorny. Darcey Kemp, vice president of Student Affairs at Springfield Technical Community College, said STCC guides entering students and their families through a robust onboarding process.

“We do an initiative called Roadmap to STCC, a series of live webinars with students, parents, and guidance counselors on different topics over the course of the year, depending on the time of year it is,” she explained, noting that topics range from testing and placement to financial-aid deadlines and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Darcey Kemp

Darcey Kemp says efforts to help students manage college costs begin well before they arrive on campus and continue through their time at STCC.

“We make sure we’re ahead of all that,” Kemp said. “FAFSA can be intimidating, and we always want to make sure they know it’s coming and we’re helping them through the process.

“It’s important to normalize the financial-aid process,” she added. “It can be overwhelming — in particular, for anyone who has not had experience doing it before.”

Cole said colleges offer an online net price calculator, where families can input data on GPA, expected family contribution, and other factors to generate an expected net cost well before submitting FAFSA or getting an offer. “It’s not exact,” she noted, “but it’s pretty darn close.”

In addition, O’Connor noted, Western Mass. is rich with resources to secure outside scholarships, from entities ranging from community banks to Big Y; from the Horace Smith Fund to the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the latter of which provides access to scores of scholarship opportunities with one application.

“The importance of a little effort in writing an essay can yield you thousands of dollars in outside scholarship money,” he added.

And high-school seniors shouldn’t overlook the smaller ones, Cole said. “Make this your part-time job on Sunday afternoon — take an hour or two, look for scholarships, write an essay, and send those out. Even $25, $50, $100, those add up; that’s a textbook.”

Gross refers students to fastweb.com, which he calls “a clearinghouse of lots of external scholarships. A lot of students don’t realize these scholarships often have a lot fewer applicants than you would expect, especially those that require an essay.”

Like Cole, Gross suggested students carve out time on the weekends to make an investment in their finances. “Now, the last thing you want to do is write another essay, but take Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and do some essay prompts; what you find on Fastweb can be reused and apply to a bunch. I’ve seen families surprised they got some of these national and regional scholarships — $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 … every bit helps.”

Meanwhile, he added, parents might reach out to their employers to see if they offer tuition-reimbursement programs they might not have even been aware of.

Once on campus, many students take advantage of federal work-study programs to reduce their tuition bill — and gain valuable work experience to boot.

“It’s a job on campus, but it’s also a learning experience for students,” Cole said. “If they’re going to make mistakes, better to make them here, and be mentored and educated through the process, than make them out in the corporate world. Many of them don’t have office experience; most students wouldn’t at 18 years old. That’s another benefit of work study.”

Gross stressed that jobs on campus are available, but not guaranteed. “You still need to interview for a job, show up, demonstrate skill, or you could lose the job.

“It’s a good opportunity for students,” he added, “but at the same time, with COVID-19 stress and academic demands, you always want to have a family conversation about whether working the first semester makes sense, or if it’s better to adjust to all the academic issues before working.”

 

A Dramatic Shift

A few colleges have made a splash in recent years by eliminating loans from their financial-aid packages and replacing them with grants. Smith College recently announced it would begin doing that starting this fall.

This expansion of the college’s financial-aid program represents a new annual investment of $7 million, which will bring the college’s total aid awarded next year to more than $90 million. All students receiving need-based institutional aid, which represents more than 60% of the student body, will receive an increase in their grant funding from the college.

Kerry Cole and Richard O’Connor

Kerry Cole and Richard O’Connor say students shouldn’t be hesitant to reach out if they run into difficulties with college costs during their time at AIC.

“Eliminating loans from financial-aid packages will enable Smith to recruit and enroll the best students, regardless of family resources, and enable future alums to begin their careers or continue their studies with their debts greatly reduced or eliminated,” President Kathleen McCartney wrote in a letter to the campus body last fall. Reducing college debt, she added, “will be life-changing for students, families, and future alums.”

In addition to providing financial aid, Smith will award one-time ‘startup grants’ of $1,000 to entering students with an expected family contribution of less than $7,000. And to seniors graduating in 2022 with need-based institutional grants, Smith will offer one-time ‘launch grants’ of $2,000 to help with the cost of transitioning to life after college. All these new initiatives will be funded through gifts to the college and recent endowment gains.

That’s a turn for the better for many students at the Northampton institution. But circumstances can turn for the worse, too, on any campus. A job loss or death in the family can suddenly put a student in financial distress, O’Connor noted. “There are some resources we use at AIC to try to help students who are enrolled and on their path, but face some financial hurdles, which pop up all the time for families.”

Sometimes the hurdle is too much to overcome, but he stressed the importance of contacting the Financial Aid office sooner than later. “My advice is, if you know you’re having some financial issues, reach out and start those conversations.”

Sometimes AIC isn’t the right school for a prospective student right now, but it could be in the future, Cole said. In that case, a transfer path from a community college may be the best option. “The important thing is to keep the same timeline. If you want to graduate in four years as a history major, go get yourself a solid liberal-arts foundation at a community college.

“We can talk about all your options early on,” she added. “Our goal is to have students finish.”

Kemp said families should learn about the Commonwealth Commitment program, which aims to significantly reduce college costs by having students do just that — spend two years at a community college followed by two years at a four-year institution. “We always want to make sure, especially in such challenging times, that we’re as proactive and sharing as much information as possible with the student.”

“It’s important to normalize the financial-aid process. It can be overwhelming — in particular, for anyone who has not had experience doing it before.”

Gross noted that the federal government has a process called professional judgment in the case of changing financial circumstances for students already enrolled at WNE or any other college. “We take families through the professional-judgment process, the government re-looks at the FAFSA information, and can adjust families’ expected contribution, which would potentially qualify them for more federal or state funding.”

In addition, “most schools have some emergency funding, which is limited,” he said, as colleges can’t hand out money to everyone.

 

Toward the Finish Line

At STCC, the importance of understanding the financial process, and laying down a foundation for success after college, doesn’t end with enrollment. A counselor is on campus twice a week, working with students individually with financial-aid questions.

In addition, the Center for Access Services provides a broad range of non-academic supports, including assistance with food and basic supplies in the event of financial hardship.

“There are some resources we use at AIC to try to help students who are enrolled and on their path, but face some financial hurdles, which pop up all the time for families.”

“During COVID in particular, we’ve seen an increase in students encountering short-term financial emergences that prevent them from continuing their education goal, so we help them overcome those short-term emergencies and successfully complete their coursework,” Kemp explained.

There’s a curricular focus on financial literacy as well, including a personal-finance course, she noted. “Everyone has different needs when it comes to personal finances. We’re really trying to provide as many supports as possible but educate students from a financial-literacy perspective as well.”

The bottom line? Colleges want students to succeed — when they’re on campus, to be sure, but also when they’re still pondering whether they can afford to enroll at all.

“The average school may discount tuition by 40% or 50%,” Gross said. “So definitely look beyond the sticker price.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

Feeding Frenzy

Cheryl Malandrinos says the pandemic changed

Cheryl Malandrinos says the pandemic changed how people look at how they work and where they live, sparking greater demand for homes in Western Mass.

“A $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize.” That’s a quote from a Realtor who spoke with BusinessWest last January about the low supply and high prices of homes in Western Mass. A year later, the situation has, simply put, not stabilized, with the region remaining an in-demand destination for remote workers and new housing stock still lagging. For potential buyers, it’s a situation that demands patience — and, again, hope for a correction down the road.

In her 25 years as a Realtor, Nancy Hamel has never seen anything like it.

Looking back at 174 houses sold in Amherst last year, 63 sold for more than $500,000, said Hamel, who is a top-producing agent with Jones Group Realtors. “That’s crazy. For years, we just had a handful sell for over $500,000.”

She rattled off some actual examples: a home with an asking price of $410,000 going for $511,000. A $595,000 listing selling for $675,000. A $649,000 listing topping out at $740,000. “It could just be underpriced, or it could be it rang all the right bells.”

Mostly, though, it’s supply — and that’s an issue in residential real estate that has pushed home prices into the stratosphere.

“Supply has just been very strange,” said Amy Hamel, Nancy’s daughter and partner on her team at Jones — and someone who, unlike Nancy, focuses primarily on the buyers’ side. It can be hugely frustrating.

“Lack of inventory has played a role in people panicking to find suitable housing,” Amy continued. “More people are able to work remotely now because a lot of companies decided to do that long-term because it’s worked so well. They’re saying, ‘why have communal space when we’re doing the same amount of revenue, or more, having employees work from home?’”

As a result, buyers have flocked to Western Mass. — and other attractive regions of the U.S. when it comes to quality of life — and the existing housing stock is not sufficient to meet demand.

“We see a lot of people moving here from all over — from New York, or from out west, Arizona, New Mexico. People are picking a place on a map, and Amherst is definitely a top place for people to come to,” she explained. “So prices are going up more than I could have ever imagined. Money is coming in from all over the place.”

“When it comes from high-home-value regions like California, where a half-million doesn’t seem as expensive for a home, that drives up prices for locals, for whom that is an intimidating chunk of change,” Amy said. “What they’re paying beyond the asking price is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 15 years.

“A lot of people are saying it’s been the best year for Realtors,” she went on. “Not really, unless you’re a top listing agent. Working on the buying-agent side has been very frustrating. I’ve had a lot of buyers put in many, many different offers before they found something, and still I have a lot of buyers laboring because they’re being outbid. And it’s not like they haven’t put in strong offers.”

Nancy noted that her daughter lost out on $14 million in offers last year. “She just got outbid — by people with cash, people offering $50,000 over asking price and still not getting it.”

“A lot of people are saying it’s been the best year for Realtors. Not really, unless you’re a top listing agent. Working on the buying-agent side has been very frustrating.”

She took one buyer from California on a virtual tour over FaceTime, who made an offer immediately, and well over asking price.

That’s great for sellers and listing agents, she admits, “but I’m having concerns. What are working people going to do? If you haven’t made money in real estate, it’s very hard to buy in now.”

Locally, in her Amherst-area market, “it could affect people who apply to UMass because professors don’t want to live far away and teach; they want to live in a 20-mile radius,” she noted. “But South Hadley’s expensive, Belchertown’s exploding, Hadley … forget it, and Northampton’s out of sight.”

The pricing has forced some creativity, to say the least, Nancy said. “People are waiving inspections; that’s scary to me. And I’m seeing an awful lot of parents step up to the plate and help. They say, ‘I’d rather help my kids when my eyes are open, rather than having them get it when I’m gone, and I don’t get to see the joy.’

Amy (left) and Nancy Hamel say they’ve never seen home prices where they are now

Amy (left) and Nancy Hamel say they’ve never seen home prices where they are now, sometimes selling close to $100,000 over the asking price.

“I’m grateful — we’re lucky to be a listing agency,” she went on. “But a lot of my colleagues are disappointed they’re in this feeding frenzy. If they’re new and working with buyers, it’s a lot of work to place an offer — a lot of paperwork, disclosures, everyone has to sign, get pre-approval … to do all that work just to be disappointed. The feeding frenzy is just cuckoo.”

 

Shifting Sands

Cheryl Malandrinos, president of the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley (RAPV), said the pandemic caused people to look differently at how they work and, in turn, where they live.

“They decided they didn’t really need to live as close to their offices if they were going to be able to stay remote for the time being. So we’ve definitely seen a shift here,” she told BusinessWest. “We did see buyers from the outside area, from other states, come into the Valley as well. So we continue to struggle with low inventory and rising prices throughout. The reality is, we haven’t been able to produce housing for quite some time. That has not helped us any.”

At the end of 2021, inventory in the region was 30% down when compared to December 2020, and prices rose about 15.4%, on average, over that same time period — which is remarkable, considering that articles like this one — discussing the same issues of a supply crunch and high selling prices — were being written a year ago, too.

One issue is that Millennials are increasingly entering the market, and they’re looking for affordable homes. “The reality is 41% of total buyers are first-time homebuyers, so entry-level homes are high demand,” Malandrinos said, and those homes aren’t being built at the rate buyers demand — especially during a lumber shortage. “It’s hard to build that first-time-homebuyer, entry-level home and make it affordable.”

“A lot of my colleagues are disappointed they’re in this feeding frenzy.”

For that reason and others, she said, Realtors and economists expect demand to continue to soar in 2022, especially with the prospect of the Fed raising interest rates. “Buyers will keep us busy in the winter season, looking for homes and hoping to secure them while the rates are still historically low, which gives them more purchasing power.”

Last year, the median price of an existing single-family home nationally jumped to an all-time high of $357,900, up 23% from 2020, according to the National Assoc. of Realtors (NAR).

“Supply-chain disruptions for building new homes and labor shortages have hindered bringing more inventory to the market,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. “Therefore, housing prices continue to march higher due to the near record-low supply levels.”

Yun noted that inflation and the pace of price appreciation is expected to subside next year. At NAR’s recent Real Estate Forecast Summit, economists and housing experts agreed that inflation would likely ease in 2022 at a 4% rate, while home prices are expected to rise at a moderate pace of 5.7%.

So what does that mean for buyers? “You have to be prepared because you’re going to face a fair amount of competition in the marketplace,” Malandrinos said. “Gone are the days when you could find something and, a few days later, think about talking to a lender.

“You need to be prepared right away — engaging a Realtor as soon as possible, getting pre-approved, so you’re all set once you find what you want, because you’re not going to have time to second-guess it,” she continued. “You have to move forward with a strong offer. We’re still most likely going to see things selling over asking price, with multiple offers on properties that are well-priced.”

At the end of 2021, listings lingered on the market 22 days on average, but that number is skewed by a few outliers. “In reality, many properties are leaving the market before that.”

What she doesn’t recommend is acting out of panic — for instance, by waiving inspections. “I’m not one, in good conscience, to recommend that. Maybe you’re saying, ‘I want to hold off my inspection and reserve the right to withdraw, but don’t expect you to do any repairs.’ That’s also a way to get around that.”

 

Street-level View

Nancy Hamil has seen downtown Amherst values rise to 20% higher than similar properties in other neighborhoods, and one factor might be that migration into Western Mass. from people in urban centers who still want to live near amenities.

Lawrence Yun

“Supply-chain disruptions for building new homes and labor shortages have hindered bringing more inventory to the market. Therefore, housing prices continue to march higher due to the near record-low supply levels.”

“People covet living in downtown Amherst; they love to be able to walk places. Northampton is the same,” she said, noting that apartment rents are also on the rise, again impacted by supply and demand, and people priced out of the home-buying market needing a place to live.

“I do think affordable housing needs to stabilize to some extent because prices have gone a little beyond where I thought they would be in our area,” Amy Hamel added. “I do wonder what this year is going to be like. There are many factors that play into the market, and especially with COVID still running rampant, it’s going to be interesting to see how this year plays out.”

The pandemic did change the way homes are shown, Malandrinos said, with 2020 givijg rise to virtual tours using 360-degree videography.”

“That stayed with us and likely will continue, as it makes everyone feel safer,” she said, while noting that in-person tours are still common, though some sellers are leaning more toward open houses instead of many individual showings.

“Some people are still concerned about safety, so you have to work with your Realtor and make a plan that makes sense for you,” she noted. “Often, properties come on the market, and Realtors defer showings and have many people come in at once instead of private showings.”

It’s not unusual, she added, for those tours to have a set layout, with interested buyers entering by one door, following a path, and leaving by a different door. “As we go back to in-person showings, we’re trying to keep it as normal as possible, but as safe as possible, too.”

She pointed to the state’s Housing Choice Initiative, created a few years ago to incentivize communities to build more housing stock, as one way to increase supply.

“I really hope for a market correction so more people can afford to come into the market,” Nancy Hamel said. “I remember, when I was young, we didn’t require these huge down payments, and a house cost $50,000. Home ownership shouldn’t be only for the wealthy.”

Malandrinos agreed. “Buyers are tired,” she said. “It’s not unusual to hear, ‘my buyer lost out on their third property.’ Everyone benefits when there’s more equity in the market. I hope we get there, but we’re not there yet.”

There’s only so much comfort those words bring to people who feel they’re priced out of the kind of home they want in Western Mass.

“It’s easy for people to get frustrated, but stick with it. There is a property for you,” she added. “You need to be confident and come in with a strong offer you’re comfortable with — and hang tight.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County Special Coverage

Food for Thought

Fred Gohr says the lingering pandemic may extend industry trends

Fred Gohr says the lingering pandemic may extend industry trends both positive (more outdoor dining) and negative (staffing issues).

There’s no doubt that 2021 was a better year for restaurants than 2020, which was marked by weeks of closure in the spring and strict capacity restrictions after that. Many restaurants stayed afloat with expanded takeout and outdoor seating, while looking forward to what they hoped would be a stronger 2021. But while restrictions were lifted and patrons returned last year, other issues — from a workforce shortage and supply issues to new COVID variants — kept the industry from reaching full strength. What’s on the menu in 2022 for this industry so critical to the economic health of Hampshire County? Stay tuned.

 

By Joseph Bednar and Mark Morris

 

Fred Gohr recalls thinking, a year ago, that there would be a lot of pent-up demand for eating out in 2021, and he was right.

Which is why it’s a little strange to be thinking the same thoughts again, after a persistent series of COVID-19 surges — the Omicron variant is only the latest — that kept slowing down restaurants’ progress last year.

Still, “we’ve actually done pretty well,” said Gohr, owner of Fitzwilly’s in downtown Northampton. “Fortunately, Fitzwilly’s is pretty large and kind of spread out. We put up plexiglass between all the booths, which a lot of places did; it makes guests certainly feel more comfortable.

“But all in all, 2021 was not a bad year,” he added. “It certainly had ups and downs, peaks and valleys — a few patches that were really rough — but overall, from a business level, we looked back at the end of the year and felt we did better than we thought we would at the beginning of 2021. So that was a pleasant surprise — or relief, whatever you want to call it.”

Restaurants, one of the main economic and tourism drivers in Hampshire County, certainly saw that pent-up demand manifest in 2021, especially after Memorial Day, when the state lifted the final restrictions on gatherings. Most restaurants reported strong summer business. The problem, however — and it’s a big one — came when they realized hospitality workers were leaving the field in droves, and not coming back any time soon.

“I guess the biggest challenge in 2021 was staffing. It was very, very difficult,” Gohr said. “We’re fortunate we have a core of staff who have been here a long time. Most of those folks hung in through the highs and lows and are still here.”

“Probably in late December we noticed a little slowdown because of the resurfacing of Omicron and the changing variants. But overall, it was a very good year.”

Bryan Graham, regional manager for the Bean Restaurant Group, which boasts a family of 11 eateries throughout the region, many in Hampshire County, agreed that staffing has been a challenge even for the most popular restaurants.

“All restaurants across the region are struggling to find hourly cooks, along with a few entry-level positions,” he said. “We definitely had to reshift our labor pool and are taking care of employees with more aggressive wage increases to retain them.”

Edison Yee, president of the Bean Group, agreed with that assessment of the workforce shortage. “It’s still a big part of the picture. We’re definitely focused on the future and retaining our employees, but the general application pool is way down.

“We have guys, hourly employees, with longevity, who love this group, but when someone is offering a $4 hourly increase to them, they have to jump ship a lot of times, unfortunately,” Yee added. “We’ve been giving more increases to employees in the past six months than in prior years.”

The problem has been exacerbated by Omicron, which has kept many employees out of work at establishments around the region, forcing some restaurants to reduce hours or even close for certain days.

All of this affects the bottom line, but so does another global economic issue currently impacting not only restaurants, but industries of all types: supply shortages and costs. For restaurants, that largely means food products, but affects paper products and other supplies as well, Graham said, and it sometimes forces eateries to switch menu items or ingredient brands to keep up with price fluctuations and availability.

Bryan Graham says there’s often “no rhyme or reason”

Bryan Graham says there’s often “no rhyme or reason” to what products will be harder or more expensive to obtain.

“Products have definitely increased in price. As far as supply goes, it’s hit or miss. We’re still seeing shortages on some of your higher-end meats — prime meats are definitely a little scarce to come by and very expensive — but some other products have come back down in price. There’s no rhyme or reason to it — just the trucking-industry delivery windows of these vendors getting their products in.”

Still, overall in 2021, “we did see a good recovery, with most of our restaurants operating at 2019 levels or a little bit below,” Yee said. “I think we saw a good amount of pent-up demand in 2021, especially in the latter part of the year; through the summer and into fall, we were really busy, traffic-wise. Probably in late December we noticed a little slowdown because of the resurfacing of Omicron and the changing variants. But overall, it was a very good year for our restaurant group in Hampshire County.”

 

Takeout Takes Off

Amit Kanoujia, general manager of the India House in Northampton, said the pandemic has taught everyone to be nimble and to roll with the punches. His recent renovation of the India House came as the result of winning a liquor-license lottery; when the Sierra Grille closed, that license became available. Kanoujia entered the lottery and, to his great surprise, won, calling it a blessing in many forms.

“Before the vaccines were widely available, we were only doing takeout, so that’s when we considered remodeling,” he said. “When we won the liquor license, we now had to install a bar, so we did a once-in-a-lifetime renovation of the restaurant.”

Kanoujia, like other restaurants, is also facing a shortage of help, noting that his ‘help wanted’ sign has been up since April. And because he has had to rely so much on takeout business, he said the costs for supplies used for takeout meals has skyrocketed. “The same containers I used to buy for $35 a case now cost $100, and that’s if I pick them up myself.”

Another problem is finding the right supplies. Kanoujia pointed out not all containers are equal, just like not all cuisines are equal.

“Our food is curry-based, so I need to use containers that will hold the heat and not scald the person handling it,” he said, adding that he’s grateful Northampton has backed off a proposed ban on plastic takeout supplies for now, because supply-chain issues often make plastic the only available choice.

He’s far from the only restaurateur who made a hard pivot into takeout over the past two years. At Fitzwilly’s, takeout service, never a major factor in the business, morphed into a significant part of the model, accounting for about 25% of sales at its peak, when indoor capacity was restricted. While those restrictions were still in play, other restaurants relied even more heavily on pick-up service — 75% or more, in some cases — because they don’t have the interior space or outdoor-dining opportunities that Fitzwilly’s has.

To move outdoors, as many Hampshire County establishments did, Gohr rented a large parking lot next door in 2020 and used it for tented outdoor dining, seating up to 70 patrons under the tent. The option proved so successful, he returned to it in 2021 — and wants to keep doing so, if possible.

“For the last two summers, state’s ABCC [Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission] made it much easier to get an extension of the premises necessary to make that happen, so I’m talking to the [city] License Commission and ABCC now to make sure we can do that,” he explained. “I’ve already talked to the fellow that owns the parking and have his blessing. Now it’s in the hands of the License Commission and ABCC.”

Gohr noted that restaurants that remained closed the longest during the peak of the pandemic may be finding it more difficult to secure and retain staff now. “We got up and running fairly quickly with takeout back in the spring 2020, and when it was outdoor dining only, we kept the tables under the tent pretty full and kept our staff busy. Folks who weren’t able to do that are probably having a little more difficult time now with staff.”

Across Main Street from Fitzwilly’s, a handful of restaurants teamed up last year, with the city’s blessing, on an initiative called Summer on Strong, closing off a section of Strong Avenue to traffic and setting up tables on the street. It was a huge success, packing the road each night.

Inside restaurants, patrons in Northampton, Amherst, South Hadley, and other communities have had to continue wearing masks under mandates that have never really loosened over the past two years, Graham said. But he noted that the college students who make up much of the region’s restaurant business are already used to wearing masks to live and study on campus, and other patrons have been gracious about understanding the need for them.

“We do provide masks for those who don’t have one; we’ll hand them out,” he said. “But we haven’t run into too many problems in that area.”

Yee agreed. “Customers have been really working with us and understanding for the most part. We haven’t had too many disgruntled customers over the mask situation — very few of them.”

 

Welcome Mat

During the holiday season, the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce promoted their local restaurants — and retailers and service businesses as well — with gift-card programs (and, in Amherst’s case, a gift-card-matching promotion).

After all, anything that helps the county’s restaurants bounce back from an Omicron-infused winter will be welcome.

“The last few weeks with the new variant certainly slowed us down considerably,” Gohr said. “But January and February, after the holidays, are always a quieter time for us, and for Northampton in general.”

After that? Well, he’s hoping to see another winter of pent-up demand manifest at his tables.

“We had a good ’21, I think. The Omicron variant is at the forefront of people’s minds, but once we get through that, barring another variant, the spring and into summer should be good.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Special Coverage

Come Together

Timm Marini

Timm Marini says HUB has become more “laser-focused” in the way it grows.

If you think you’ve seen more headlines than usual lately about insurance agencies being bought and sold, you’re not mistaken. In fact, 2021 was the fifth straight record-setting year for M&A activity in the insurance world. The reasons range from federal fiscal trends to a desire to broaden an agency’s expertise; from pandemic fatigue to the aging of the Baby Boomers who built and grew many of these firms. The idea, area leaders say, is to grow strategically, with customer service and company culture at front of mind.

HUB International is no stranger to mergers and acquisitions in the insurance world; they have long been a key element of the company’s growth, nationally and globally.

“For us and some of the bigger acquirers, we’re getting more laser-focused in what we do,” said Timm Marini, president of HUB International New England. “It used to be you acquired to grow — and grow profitably. And then it became geographic expansion, where you wanted to find some agencies in places where you weren’t.

“In the last 18 to 24 months, it’s gotten more laser-like,” he went on. “When I say that, I mean looking for specialists or looking for specialty shops that may bring in different disciplines, like medical malpractice, life sciences, startup companies, or financial services. In the last two years, we’ve acquired 50 investment firms across the country, four or five of them in New England alone.”

Still, even at a firm with that kind of record, the sheer pace of M&A activity in recent years has been striking, Marini said. Last year, a record 798 insurance agencies were sold in the U.S. — breaking the previous records of 711 in 2020, 653 in 2019, 580 in 2018, and 557 in 2017.

“Part of that was the pending increase in taxes — people were nervous the tax rate was going to go up significantly, and that may have given some of them the impetus to sell,” he noted.

Phil Trem, president of Financial Advisory for Marsh Berry, a leading M&A advisory firm for the insurance industry, noted the same dynamic.

“The heightened activity can be traced back to a number of different factors. Firms who sold believed that they might be negatively impacted by a potential federal capital-gains tax increase and a shift in expectations by the insured community,” he wrote on the firm’s blog. “While tax legislation was not enacted in 2021, there are still looming concerns that it could happen at some point in 2022. Will it be retroactive? Anything is possible, but at this point concern about a significant tax increase has waned.”

But other factors have been in play as well, Marini said. “I also think there’s some COVID fatigue in the marketplace, folks dealing with all the extra issues we’ve all had to deal with. Plus, honestly, the multiples folks are paying for these companies are significant.”

John Dowd, president and CEO of the Dowd Agencies, agreed, calling the current landscape a “feeding frenzy” marked by “irrational exuberance” on the part of buyers. “We look at what’s a good fit, what’s a fair price. We’re not going to chase.”

Dowd, whose own firm has made some key additions recently (more on that later), sees a demographic shift in play as well.

“Baby Boomers, who built this modern-day economy and have been a powerful force in every industry across the country, have been retiring to the tune of 2 or 3 million a year. That obviously includes every segment of the economy, including insurance agencies,” he noted. “A lot of agency owners have reached the point of retirement, and if they don’t have an internal succession or perpetuation plan in place, they might look to sell to somebody. That’s what’s going on out there.”

John Dowd

John Dowd

“A lot of agency owners have reached the point of retirement, and if they don’t have an internal succession or perpetuation plan in place, they might look to sell to somebody.”

As for that feeding frenzy, Dowd and Marini both noted that agencies are being sold for multiples of the EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization) valuation formula that would have been uncommon just a decade ago.

“Our business models haven’t changed, so why have these multiples suddenly gone so much higher?” Dowd wondered. “It’s causing people to maybe sell sooner than they had planned, thinking the multiples will go away sometime, and they don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to monetize their asset.”

 

Pathways to Growth

There are two ways of growing an insurance company, Dowd told BusinessWest. One is organic.

“That’s what we do every day, trying to attract more customers and certainly hold onto and retain those we already have,” he said. “Then there’s growth through acquisition. Our philosophy and strategy is to do both. Any business plan is going to focus on growth, profitability, and retention. When you put together your growth plan and have a healthy balance of organic growth and growth through acquisition at a pace you can accommodate and not stress your staff and your balance sheet, that’s what we consider a good, strong, healthy philosophy for growth.”

Marini said HUB has made targeted investments in niche-specific talent as a way to better serve customers, but has also not shied away from acquiring good-sized firms in the region — like the Insurance Center of New England in 2019, a move he called a strong “cultural mesh” at the time, similar to the one HUB found when it acquired his former firm, Field Eddy, five years earlier.

Over the past year or so, the Dowd Agencies acquired two local agencies, J. Raymond Lussier Insurance and Wilcox Insurance Agency, citing a similar cultural fit.

“When I talk about a good fit, it’s book of business, carrier representation, geographic location, and, most important, cultural fit,” Dowd said. “By that, I mean, are the current owners sharing the same philosophy that we have in terms of how they treat clients and how they treat staff? When there’s a good match in those two areas from a cultural standpoint, we can begin to move forward with analyzing the proposal that’s on the table.

“Not every prospective agency is a good fit for acquisition,” he went on. “We know the metrics we look for, and we have to check the boxes before we start to move forward. We can’t grow for the sake of growing; we have to do it incrementally and selectively. That’s our philosophy. We see people out there acquiring agencies all over the place; they’ve got their own philosophy, and we have ours.”

Elaborating, he called Lussier and Wilcox good examples of strong cultural fits. “We’ve known these owners for years. We know how important a priority their customers were. It was very important to these owners that their clients, who they worked very hard to build over the years, are going to be well cared for by the new owners, treated similarly and respected and serviced at the level they had become accustomed to.

Phil Trem

Phil Trem

“The build-versus-join decision is bringing a lot of firms to the deal table. This dynamic is not going away, and the market will likely continue to be very robust.”

“The proof is in the pudding,” Dowd added. “Lussier came on a year ago, and Wilcox was six months ago, and they have blended beautifully with our staff. We’ve had some get-togethers as a team where everyone gets to meet and know one another.

“That careful vetting is really important so there’s not any disruption to service to clients, that it’s seamless and smooth, and everyone is comfortable,” he went on, “because people get anxious when there’s change. It’s natural. To the extent we can, we want to address and dispel those concerns before, during, and after the transition. And it’s worked well.”

A larger agency with a broader range of specific expertise is important to customers these days, Marini said.

“Customers are demanding more service for the same dollar amount,” he noted. “And then, industry experts who know the nuances of different coverages can negotiate better premium deals with their carriers.”

It’s a win-win, in other words.

“One major driver of sellers coming to the table is evolving expectations of brokers’ clients, the buyers of insurance,” Trem wrote. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, insureds have created an expectation that their broker act as a consultant, not just someone who helps purchase insurance coverages. The end client is looking for someone who can help provide strategic guidance, risk management, and/or mitigation services.

“This creates a conundrum for insurance brokers who must keep investing in tools, resources, and talent in order to effectively compete,” he went on. “Independent brokers have to decide whether they want to use their cash flow to make these investments or partner with a firm that has already done it. The build-versus-join decision is bringing a lot of firms to the deal table. This dynamic is not going away, and the market will likely continue to be very robust.”

 

Bigger and Better

Building broader and deeper expertise in an insurance agency is one way to counter the bottom-line-focused direct writers, Marini said, especially on the personal-lines side, where they continue to grow market share in New England. And not just expertise, but relationships.

“We don’t want to be big just to be big; that thinking was 10 or 15 years ago. Now it’s getting big to be good, or just being good … and part of that model is having independent expertise, services, and claim advocacy like never before.”

He noted that HUB has won some national awards for its COVID-related communication about how the industry should react and deal with all the different challenges the pandemic has wrought. “We’ve had some competing brokers, large companies, bigger than us, grabbing those materials for their customers. We didn’t protect it; we shared it.”

Dowd agreed that M&A activity often focuses on what it brings to customers, from a broader carrier mix to specific expertise. While the mergers with Lussier and Wilcox focused more on the shared culture, he added, any benefit to customers is a factor when considering an acquisition.

Nationally, those mergers and acquisitions will continue to be a major story in the insurance world. After five straight years of setting new records for M&A activity, Trem doesn’t see a major slowdown in 2022.

“Buyers and investors are continuing to push their way into the marketplace,” he wrote. “If anything, the pandemic reminded the financial community what a great investment the insurance distribution space is and that demand is greater than ever before. It is a very favorable seller’s market because there is still more demand than there is quality supply.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

New Lease on Life

Daniella Grimaldi

Daniella Grimaldi says it often takes weeks for clients to warm to the program — but the results speak for themselves.

 

Daniella Grimaldi has worked with young addicts long enough to know it can happen to anyone.

“I say this to everybody: you don’t know what you don’t know about your kids. You could have the best kids in the world and raise them the right away, but all they have to do is hang out with someone who’s doing the wrong thing. That’s when kids fall behind.”

And fall, all too often, into substance abuse. That’s where Goodwin House comes in.

“We are one of the only programs like this in the state,” said Grimaldi, program director of the house in Chicopee opened by the Center for Human Development in 2017 and named after its long-time CEO, Jim Goodwin. Its clients are teenage boys, ages 13 to 17, who live there, often after a stint in detox, for 30 to 90 days in order to recover from addiction and learn the coping mechanisms and life skills they need to be successful — and remain drug-free — afterward.

“There aren’t a lot of these programs for adolescents,” she went on. “But this is the age where, if you get the help you need, you’ll be more successful than if you get the help at 30 or 40 years old and know you’ve wasted all that time engaging in substances and not getting help.

“I think it’s critical. A lot of our kiddos who leave us call us a year or two later and say, ‘I’m really thankful for the opportunity,’” Grimaldi added. “I recently talked to a kiddo who left us at beginning of 2020, and he was like, ‘Daniella, do you remember me? I’ve been sober for 399 days.’ That’s something I’m really proud of, when kids call back, and they’re proud of themselves.”

“This is the age where, if you get the help you need, you’ll be more successful than if you get the help at 30 or 40 years old and know you’ve wasted all that time.”

At first, Goodwin House focused solely on substance abuse, but earlier this year, it became ‘co-occurring enhanced,’ which means it focuses on both substance abuse and the mental-health piece. In doing so, the client-to-staff ratio shrank from 1:5 to 1:3. “We changed the ratio to better support the residents we serve, and we hired a bunch of new positions,” Grimaldi said.

Among those are a recreational therapist. “She was a teacher, so she’s always worked with adolescents. She’s able to do therapeutic relationship building with our residents and tie it all back into their therapeutic approach, which I think is awesome. You never think about how teaching clients how to play basketball together could actually be a therapeutic group. You think it’s just you out here playing with your friends; it’s just basketball — but it’s not. It’s more than that.”

Goodwin House also hired an educational liaison to help clients bridge the gap between their work at Liberty Preparatory Academy — a recovery-focused high school in Springfield they attend during their time in the program — and their normal school districts. “It makes for an easier transition; it’s not so chaotic,” Grimaldi explained.

“They don’t want to be here,” she was quick to admit. “I’ve never had a kid who really, truly wanted to physically be here, but they work the program, and then they realize it’s not as bad as they think, and they do the work so they can gain the sobriety they need.”

And then come those post-program phone calls, when Grimaldi hears them say they’re glad they stayed.

 

Busy Schedule

Clients are referred to Goodwin House from many sources, she told BusinessWest.

“It could be self-referral from the adolescent themselves, from teachers, schools, courts, the DYS system, the DCF system, or it can be from their own parents. Anyone can make a referral to Goodwin House. We accept all different types of insurance, and if we don’t accept your insurance, the biller of last resort pays — so DPH picks up cost, or DCF — so no kid is left behind and everyone is entitled to treatment.”

Goodwin House opened in 2017

Goodwin House opened in 2017 focusing solely on substance abuse, but recently became ‘co-occurring enhanced’ to focus on mental health as well.

The house’s capacity is 15 residents, although it’s running under that during the pandemic. A typical weekday has clients attending Liberty Prep, then returning for a snack and ‘room time’ so they can settle down from the day.

“Some kids don’t like school; it can be traumatic, triggering, and bring a lot of anxiety, so we let them have a cool-off period of about 30 minutes,” Grimaldi explained.

That’s followed by a strict regimen: a group therapy session, recreational therapy, dinner, chores, another clinical group, maybe a local recovery meeting with Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, then phone calls, down time, and bed.

The weekends are similar, with school replaced by recreational activities in the community, such as bowling outings. That is, as long as they’re eligible to go. The program operates on a motivational ‘level’ system, and clients progress from orientation to level 5, with more privileges the higher they go.

“If you work the program, the program works for you,” Grimaldi said. “What you’re willing to put in is what you’ll take out of it.”

Often, the residents aren’t serious about the program for the first month, she noted. “I call it the honeymoon period, or the adjustment period. Often, the work doesn’t start until 35 or 40 days in, and a lot of times that’s when you see kids really struggle with themselves and their internal issues, and they’re asking, ‘can I do this without substances, or can I not?’

“Sometimes we see kids have to return,” she added. “But a lot of times, those are the kids who are actually more successful. At first they didn’t get it, but they try it again, and it works for most of them.”

Goodwin House also encourages family engagement and involvement during the client’s stay, Grimaldi said. In fact, last month, all the families were invited to the house for Thanksgiving dinner, each family seated in a separate area so they could have a meaningful holiday together.

“I’ve never had a kid who really, truly wanted to physically be here, but they work the program, and then they realize it’s not as bad as they think, and they do the work so they can gain the sobriety they need.”

“A lot of times, a client will come to Goodwin House and will have a poor relationship with their parents. ‘Oh, my parents are mean because they put me here. My parents don’t care about me.’ We hear that all the time. So we try to work on that family relationship. We rebuild that through family therapy as well as family engagement and involvement.”

By the time clients leave, Grimaldi and her team want them to have a sponsor, be able to work their recovery, and also to have success academically. The center’s after-care coordinator keeps in touch with clients for a month after they leave, helping connect them to outside resources they can call upon to support their continued recovery.

“I’ll give them my business card, and a lot of them call me,” she added. “They’re interested in what’s happening. Sometimes it’s the kid who had the worst behaviors who wants to call back and say thanks. The one who was 399 days sober, he had a lot of incidents while he was here, but he turned it around and did what he needed to do and realized his life was worth living. And once you realize your life is worth living and there’s something to live for, your mindset changes.”

 

Breaking the Stigma

While stigma around mental health and substance abuse has lessened in society in recent years, it’s still an issue for many, especially parents of struggling teenagers — and it’s one factor keeping some families from seeking help, Grimaldi said.

“Stigma is always going to be there. But I tell parents, ‘it’s not what people think about you, it’s what you do to help your kid’ you’re the one bothered by your son being in a drug program, not him. He’s here to get the treatment he needs.”

Part of that is building life skills, she explained.

entrance to Goodwin House.

This apt message recently greeted people at the entrance to Goodwin House.

“We’re not just a substance-abuse and mental-health program. We teach them a lot of independent-living skills, all the different skills they haven’t learned at home. A lot of kiddos, when they come to us, they don’t know how to do basic chores. They were never taught.

“Or they’ve never done dinner as a whole, like we do here,” she went on. “They’re like, ‘why are we all eating together?’ They’re not used to it. It’s sad because you think, at their age, they would be used to having dinner with their family, but they’re not, so we teach them how to exist within a big, cohesive family.”

Grimaldi has some advice for families whose kids may not necessarily be struggling with addiction: talk to them before they get to that point. Because, again, it can happen to anyone.

“So many people wait until their kid gets into the worst point, when they’re in the hospital, getting stomach pumped, getting Narcan, but we shouldn’t wait until it gets to that point. We should be able to help our kids from the start, realizing there’s small changes that can happen, and those small changes lead to the bigger things.”

For example, a teenager might suddenly stop hanging out with long-time friends or engaging in a sport they’ve loved all their life.

“Instead of waiting until the school calls and says, ‘hey, your kid was caught with a cigarette,’ or ‘your kid was smoking pot up on the hill,’ be more attentive right now. There’s more to life than the busyness.”

It often starts with the most basic questions to get communication flowing between parent and child — and lessen the chances of those signs being missed.

“Ask, ‘how was your day? What did you learn today? What did you have for lunch today?’ These are basic questions parents don’t ask. I’ve seen parental visits where they just stared at each other because they don’t know how to talk to each other. They never took the time to get to know their kid. And I think it’s because people are so busy doing busy things.”

Goodwin House keeps Grimaldi plenty busy, and she loves seeing clients progress through the levels — and, more importantly, progress into sobriety and independence.

“I love my job. I love being able to work with so many different youth in such a short period of time,” she told BusinessWest. “You’re able to work with them and see where their struggles are. I love what I do because I think we make a difference, in the sense that we’re able to support them and help them gain sobriety. Even if it’s just 90 days, it’s 90 days they didn’t have before.”

Which then becomes 399 days — and counting.

Features Special Coverage

Missed Connections

It’s a widely quoted statistic that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much in recent years — only about one-quarter of information-technology (IT) jobs are held by women, and the percentages are much less for women of color — and women in IT leadership, for that matter. That will change, those working and teaching in the field say — but only with a stronger emphasis on making not only women aware of the wide array of careers available in IT, but girls as well.

Hilary LeBrun

Hilary LeBrun says stereotypes have obscured what a rich, varied field IT is — and kept many women from exploring it.

As an associate professor of Computer Science at Elms College, Beryl Hoffman is somewhat far afield of her first chosen college major: biology.

“I had not really heard about computer science as a career at all — my high school didn’t offer it,” she told BusinessWest. “But a friend talked me into taking a coding class for fun.”

And she enjoyed it — enough to eventually push her studies in a different direction.

“As soon as I started it, I felt that, if girls had that experience early on, they would also really enjoy it,” Hoffman recalled. “What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots. Girls don’t get to experience that as much.”

That reality has no doubt contributed to a wide gender disparity in the IT world. According to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S., but hold only 25% of computing roles. It’s more dire for minority women; of the 25% of women working in technology, Asian women make up just 5% of that number, while black and Hispanic women account for 3% and 1%, respectively.

“What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots.”

“It’s mostly societal expectations and stereotypes,” Hoffman said. “I do believe we need to start introducing people, especially young girls, to computer science and technology when they’re young. That’s happening more and more — I’m seeing more computer science even in elementary schools. It will change; it’s just slow. But I have been seeing slight improvements every year.”

Hilary LeBrun didn’t start out in computer science, and she certainly never thought she’d eventually be COO of Paragus IT when she was working in the hotel industry.

“I was up for a change — I wanted to work in a more family-friendly industry, and the hotel industry isn’t family-friendly. I also wanted to work for a growing company with a good culture that was doing something important. And I found it in Paragus.”

She started as an assistant to CEO Delcie Bean and was quickly excited about how the company helps other businesses — keeping networks secure, creating efficiencies, finding budget-friendly solutions for clients, and the like. She sees the wide variety of work available in IT, and the relationship-centered focus of much of it, and has thought about why more women aren’t plugging in to these careers.

Beryl Hoffman

Beryl Hoffman says one key to closing the gender gap in IT is introducing girls to computers at much earlier ages.

“Part of it is the stereotype,” LeBrun said, echoing Hoffman’s thoughts. “It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

For instance, “it can attract somebody who wants to solve problems, and also create efficiencies, even someone who wants to go into management — there are just so many different aspects. There’s a lack of awareness around that, and the ways that women — and even men — can learn and get that education, get that foot in the door.”

“It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

Zoe Alfano got her foot in the door as a college student at UConn, where she had her eyes on an engineering degree but began working in campus tech support and realized she was good at solving problems. With four years of that work experience in hand, she was hired by Paragus as a client support engineer. She cited a couple of reasons why women don’t follow a similar path.

“It depends a lot on the person, their experience. They might not have been exposed, or didn’t have someone in their lives say, ‘try it out, you might be good at it.’ Or, some people just don’t consider themselves technical; they think they’re not good at it. But they might be good at problem-solving, and solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem. Some people might be better than they anticipate, but don’t have the opportunity to try.”

Constant Change

When they do try, Alfano said, they find that it’s a field that’s constantly evolving, with always something new to learn.

“There’s such a wealth of knowledge, it’s impossible to be a jack of all trades, with so many things to specialize in. A network manager can prevent attacks. A technician like me is good at solving day-to-day issues but might not be as good at solving network-related issues. There are so many different things to know about and learn, and you always have an opportunity to learn something new and choose where want to go.”

Zoe Alfano

Zoe Alfano

“Solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem.”

That can be appealing for women who love learning and working collaboratively, she added — and, often, helping people.

“You’re able to say, ‘hey, I can help with your issue,’ and if you value getting a positive response from someone, that’s a big reason to stick with the field. You talk on the phone, and they’re so grateful their problem isn’t happening anymore. It just makes you feel good.”

LeBrun finds a gratifying challenge in how quickly IT changes.

“Even just the technology we support — 10 years ago, every company had a server. Now servers are dying; everyone’s going to the cloud,” she noted. “So we always need to adapt, always need to change, and that’s one of the aspects I love about it. The industry is not stagnant. There’s always something to learn, new technology to adapt and bring to our clients.”

Beverly Benson, IT and Security program director at Bay Path University, first became interested in the field when her own information was compromised. The more she learned about cybersecurity, the more she related it to the non-technical things people do every day to keep safe, from locking doors to watching over their kids. In short, she saw an appealing human element to a technical field.

“We do that as mothers naturally, always trying to protect our children, always checking in and protecting. I just get paid to do it,” she said. “I think it comes naturally as a woman; we’re the nurturers in a positive sense, a protective sense.”

She agreed with the others BusinessWest spoke with that more awareness of the breadth of IT careers, from the highly technical side to the more relationship-driven side, would boost the number of women interested in pursuing it. “There are a variety of careers within the field — they need to know it’s much more than coding,” she noted.

“There is a need to protect information and infrastructure in every sector,” Benson went on. “It has the potential to impact the food you eat, the vehicles that you drive, it can impact healthcare and your medical records … everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

Hoffman agreed. “It’s a really awesome field of high-growth, high-paying jobs,” she said. “Also, technology is essential in any field now. A lot of folks are missing out on the opportunities out there. And I think a lot of it starts with education. We need to let people know about these careers and have girls experience them.”

To that end, Hoffman is part of a nonprofit, Holyoke Codes, that aims to bring coding and robotics to kids in Holyoke. She also received grant to build a high-school curriculum called CSAwesome, a free e-book that teaches AP CS A and Java and is becoming more widely used in high schools.

“That’s great to see, too,” she said. “And the AP College Board has done a lot to try to get girls to take AP classes in computer science. It’s nice to see as we try to grow that pipeline, and see it broaden and become more diverse.”

Beverly Benson

Beverly Benson

“Everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

The education needs to start earlier than high school, though. “They say that most kids start thinking about careers in middle school. So we need to start educating them there,” Hoffman said, adding that girls need to see more female role models from the IT world.

“As more women go into IT, they will encourage even more women to go into IT. But it’s just slow. We should start them young — even at home, often the robotics and the computers are bought for the boys, not the girls.”

Disparities linger in school districts as well, she said, noting that suburban schools are more likely to present robust computer-science programs than urban and rural schools.

That’s a lot of factors in play, she told BusinessWest, “but it’s slowly changing.”

 

Serve and Protect

LeBrun admits IT can be an intimidating field for women, considering the gender disparity and stereotypes, and is glad she found a company in Paragus that employs — and promotes — plenty of women. She hopes others will find similarly supportive cultures.

But she also believes women need to consider how important IT is to the work world as a whole and how gratifying it can be to be a part of that.

“COVID really opened up businesses’ eyes to how important their IT is and how much they depend on it,” she said. “We try to tell our clients, ‘picking your IT firm should be as important a decision as picking your lawyer or accountant.’ We’re a partner. We’re working to protect their business.

“And I think that’s really exciting,” she added, “to be in an industry that can protect other companies so much — it just creates so many opportunities. Again, it’s about bringing that awareness to girls in school who are still trying to figure it out.”

For older women and career changers, Tech Foundry, a workforce training program affiliated with Paragus, is one example of how to create opportunity — “to just make it doable for them, because it can be scary,” LeBrun said. “There’s a lot to learn in the field.”

“A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

IT companies would do well, she added, to seek employees who might not have every technical skill, but brings fresh perspectives to an organization. “They might not have the traditional background, but have the drive and personality, and the rest can be taught.”

The collaborative nature of much IT work is appealing as well, Hoffman said. “A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

The IT industry is also becoming integrated into other careers, she added, from healthcare to finance. “More and more, all fields are integrating IT, so no matter what you do, those skills are going to be useful in the future, especially in Massachusetts, with so much growth in biotechnology and health sciences.”

The ability to work remotely is another plus — for many firms, a fairly recent one, Benson said.

“Because we had no other choice, we had to work remotely during the pandemic. That has opened doors of possibilities for all people, including women. You don’t have to uproot your family to move to a state heavily populated by cybersecurity opportunities. Now some organizations are OK with you working remotely.”

In short, opportunity abounds. Hopefully, the women we spoke with said, awareness will follow — and stereotypes will continue to crumble.

“I try to encourage women to give it a try,” Benson said. “My mantra is ‘dare to dream.’ I want to see more women in this field. We need them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Health Care Special Coverage

When It Can’t Wait

Mercy Medical Center

Mercy Medical Center, like all area hospitals, has seen a series of COVID surges over the past two years, including the current one.

Last month’s DPH guidance to hospitals, telling them to postpone all non-essential procedures that could result in an inpatient stay, is a challenge on multiple levels, local hospital leaders say. One, it’s not so easy to simply redeploy personnel from one department to another. Two, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of ‘non-essential.’ But most important, it’s critical that patients seek out the care they need and let doctors make the judgment calls — and the fear is that this new guidance will chase those patients away. It wouldn’t be the first time.

It’s never good to put off necessary treatment, Spiros Hatiras said, whether that be cardiac screenings, lab tests, or cancer surgery.

“The outcome is not going to be good,” said the president and CEO of Valley Health Systems, which includes Holyoke Medical Center. Yet, that’s exactly what has happened over the past two years, due to a combination of people’s fear of public places and guidance from the hospitals themselves for people to stay home during the early height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“People were initially scared; they wanted to stay away from the hospital,” Hatiras said. “Then we started reducing capacity and told people, essentially, ‘don’t come to the hospital.’ We started seeing people come back over the summer and fall, and now we’re back to telling people to stay away.”

He was referring to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s (DPH) guidance to hospitals concerning non-essential, elective, invasive procedures, which took effect Dec. 22.

“We started seeing people come back over the summer and fall, and now we’re back to telling people to stay away.”

“To preserve healthcare personnel resources, all hospitals are directed to postpone or cancel all non-essential elective procedures likely to result in inpatient admission in order to maintain and increase inpatient capacity,” the guidance reads. “Patients are reminded to still seek necessary care at their hospital or from their healthcare provider.”

The guidance comes as the Omicron variant has pushed hospitals to capacity limits with a new COVID surge.

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose says treating all patients, urgent and non-urgent cases alike, is part of Mercy’s mission, but it will abide by the state’s guidance.

“Hospital capacity is stretched more than it has ever been since the beginning of the healthcare emergency,” Massachusetts Health & Hospital Assoc. (MHA) President and CEO Steve Walsh said in recent testimony to the state Legislature. “After two years of fighting this virus, our caregivers are simply exhausted.”

He acknowledged that “some of these pressures, we feel, are not COVID-related and may have also been mounting for several months.” Still, a strained healthcare workforce is facing a staffing shortage that has contributed to the loss of approximately 500 medical/surgical and ICU hospital beds since the beginning of the year.

Still, Hatiras questions the wisdom of simply assuming caregivers can be efficiently redeployed to other tasks.

“The idea is that, if we don’t do these surgeries, it opens up resources to redeploy in the hospital. But we know that’s not so easily done. You can free up nurse, but in a lot of cases, there’s not a whole lot they can do. It’s not like they can suddenly be an ER nurse or an ICU nurse. There are a lot of issues around that in terms of training and competencies. So the value of actually redeploying staff is somewhat questionable.”

He suggested what might work better is to issue the guidance as an advisory. “We can advise hospitals to find ways to create capacity. At the end of the day, there’s not a single hospital that would leave a patient untreated because they’re going to schedule a plastic surgery ahead of that patient. What we really need is more staff, which we don’t have.”

Dr. Robert Roose, medical director of Mercy Medical Center, said his team takes pride in caring for all the needs of the community, so the DPH guidance poses a challenge.

“Hospital capacity is stretched more than it has ever been since the beginning of the healthcare emergency.”

“It is important for us, from a mission perspective as well as from an operations perspective, to be able to be there when patients need us, whether for emergency care or non-emergency care,” he said. “All types of care across the continuum support individuals’ well-being and wellness.”

That said, “Governor Baker and the Department of Public Health have issued an executive order for hospitals to suspend non-emergency procedures that could result in an inpatient stay. In order for us to fulfill our obligations as a hospital, we are, of course, complying with those orders. We recognize this can be a concern for patients, as well as our providers and colleagues who wish to continue to provide the care they are so expertly trained to do. This is not an ideal situation, but one we find ourselves in, and we look forward to resuming all care in the very near future.”

 

What Is Non-essential?

To help redirect resources, Gov. Charlie Baker activated the Massachusetts National Guard on Dec. 22 to address the non-clinical support needs of hospitals and transport systems. Up to 300 of these Guard members will support 55 acute-care hospitals, as well as 12 ambulance service providers across the Commonwealth.

DPH surveyed hospitals and ambulance service providers and, in concert with the MHA, identified five key roles that non-clinical Guard personnel can serve in support hospital operations for up to 90 days: driving ambulances used to transfer patients between two healthcare locations, such as when patients are discharged from a hospital and transferred to a long-term-care facility; providing continuous or frequent observation of a patient who is at risk for harm to themselves; helping to maintain a safe workplace; bringing patients via wheelchair or, if needed, stretcher, from their patient room to tests such as X-ray or CT scan, or from the emergency department to their inpatient floor; and delivering patient meals to their rooms.

Spiros Hatiras says very few procedures can be deemed non-essential when one considers the health effects of delaying them.

But if resources are, indeed, being directed away from non-essential procedures, the question becomes what, exactly, constitutes a non-essential procedure. And the answer, in many cases, is complicated.

“The decision of what can be safely postponed, even for a week or three or four, is left to the discretion of the surgeon or clinical team,” Roose said. “That is an incredibly important fact because, ultimately, the providers are the ones responsible for the care of the patient, and we never want to see something untoward occur during the period of time when they could have been attended to. At Mercy, just like at other hospitals, those decisions are made by the treating providers and patients in collaboration, with their best interest in mind.”

Hatiras agreed. “When we talk about necessary procedures, first of all, there’s no particular approach; every individual is different. If you think about it, there are very few procedures where postponing it enhances one’s health. We’re talking about surgery here. When somebody gets to the point where they need surgery, it’s not like getting a haircut, where it can wait until next month.”

Exceptions to this rule might include discretionary plastic surgery and perhaps Lasik, where the worst-case scenario might be a few more months of wearing glasses or contacts.

“But that’s about the only things I can think of,” Hatiras said. “With other things, you’re doing it because you’re in pain or your health is deteriorating in some way.”

Take bariatric surgery, which some people might put in the non-essential category. Those patients start the process six months before surgery and tackle issues such as diabetes and blood pressure — “all the issues that make COVID deadlier,” Hatiras said. They typically have to lose a certain amount of weight before surgery and undergo psychological screening and counseling.

“When they meet all the milestones and the date approaches where they’re ready for surgery, should we now tell them, ‘guess what? We can’t do your surgery; we’ll let you know when we can.’ That would be wholly detrimental to the patient, who worked for six months to get to a point they might never get back to.

“Could you call that elective?” Hatiras added. “When you do the surgery, the diabetes gets better, the blood pressure gets better, the heart gets better. I take issue with what some people consider elective.”

Or take knee and hip replacements, he went on. “Is that really elective when there’s a risk of blood clots because they can’t walk or they’re risking other illnesses because they’re taking pain medications to cope with it?”

 

Call Your Doctor

Hatiras and Roose both hope the new state guidance doesn’t chase people away from seeking the care they actually need. That’s what happened last year, and hospitals and patients are still feeling the effects.

“At this point in the pandemic, our concern is that we have started to see the impacts of people in the community delaying care during prior waves of the pandemic,” Roose said. “We want to encourage members of the community to seek out important primary care, preventive care, and non-urgent care that can contribute to their health and wellness.”

In other words, let doctors and facilities decide what’s necessary — and how that care can be delivered.

“We have seen the pandemic shift many things in healthcare, including the way people seek care, which now is occurring far more through digital or virtual means than prior to the pandemic,” Roose said. “We’re seeing high demand for additional services in the home after a hospital stay, or in skilled nursing and other facilities. We are paying attention to how we can provide a service that delivers both in terms of convenience and excellence, because the pandemic has changed fundamentally the way care will be delivered for many years to come.”

The MHA, the DPH, and hospitals are united on one front: the unvaccinated far, far outnumber the vaccinated when it comes to taking up inpatient beds — and especially ICU beds — with COVID, in turn making it harder for hospitals to provide other services.

“When somebody gets to the point where they need surgery, it’s not like getting a haircut, where it can wait until next month.”

According to the DPH, 97% of COVID breakthrough cases in Massachusetts have not resulted in hospitalization or death, and unvaccinated individuals are five times more likely to contract COVID than fully vaccinated individuals and 31 times more likely to contract COVID than individuals who have a booster.

The MHA’s executive committee recently released an “urgent plea” for Massachusetts residents to do five things if they haven’t already: get vaccinated for both COVID-19 and the flu, and get boosted when eligible; always wear a mask when in public and when social distancing isn’t possible; get tested for COVID-19 if you develop symptoms or if you come into close contact with someone who has tested positive; keep up with regular medical appointments, “as we are now seeing the devastating effects of delayed care from the first waves of the pandemic”; and seek care from a doctor or urgent-care center when appropriate.

“When in doubt, you should never hesitate to visit your local emergency room,” the committee noted. “But for many medical situations, these settings can provide you with more timely and efficient care.”

It’s notable that, along with the expected advice to vaccinate and mask up, these medical professionals would warn against delaying care, even amid the DPH’s guidance to hospitals to postpone some procedures.

“Cumulatively, I think we’re dropping the health status of individuals,” Hatiras said, noting that people have put off colonoscopies, mammograms, and other procedures that are key to detecting issues early, before they develop into health crises. Holyoke Medical Center has responded with a public campaign to bring patients back, so they don’t keep delaying important visits.

“Don’t put something off. Don’t make that decision yourself,” he added. “To me, there is no safer place than a hospital. To me, a hospital is a lot safer than a restaurant, a lot safer than the mall, whatever you want to compare it to, because we have personnel aware of infection-control issues. We wear masks indoors, we hand sanitize, we know how to avoid infection.”

And don’t put off behavioral-health needs, either, Hatiras added, noting that isolation and anxiety have soared during the pandemic. “We see a lot of people deteriorating, in both their physical health and mental health, and that combination is never good.”

Roose agreed that it’s critical for individuals to seek the care they need, no matter what the state is saying, and let their doctor guide their next steps.

“There’s a lot of attention on capacity in hospitals, but we would not want anyone to delay care for important business, like mammograms, colonoscopies, lab tests, or emergency or urgent care,” he told BusinessWest. “We are here to take care of you, and we want to continue to send that message.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Economic Outlook

Sector Is on the Rebound, but Hospitality Still Faces Staffing Issues

 

the Big E came roaring back in 2021

After skipping 2020 altogether, the Big E came roaring back in 2021, even posting its best-ever attendance day in fair history.

John Doleva said 2020 was supposed to be the “year of all years” at the Basketball Hall of Fame, when it would unveil a $25 million renovation of the museum and welcome record crowds to a series of events and new attractions.

It was the year of all years, all right. Just for … another reason, namely a pandemic that shuttered most tourist attractions for months.

But the Hall did get to that ribbon cutting this past May, said Doleva, the institution’s president and CEO. And that wasn’t all.

“We had a terrific summer,” he told BusinessWest. “We were up 36% over 2019 — and that’s comparing it to a quote-unquote ‘normal’ year; we were up 300% over 2020.”

The Hall was very aggressive in promotion and advertising across a variety of platforms in 2021, he added, highlighting additions like a 14-by-40-foot LED screen on center court that could host remote visits with Hall of Famers, and recently wrapping up a series of eight college basketball tournaments in major cities across the country.

“I’d say we came out of 2021 as positive as we possibly could,” Doleva said, adding that the plan is to continue to aggressively market and elevate the brand in 2022, as well as looking to open new galleries every year, taking a lesson from Six Flags, which tends to unveil a major new ride each spring. “We’ve adopted that thinking. We want to give customers reasons to come back and see something new and exciting.”

Mary Kay Wydra has also been impressed with the tourism sector’s resilience in 2021.

“When the restrictions were lifted in late spring, we saw a boost in the attractions, and hotel occupancy grew,” said Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Looking ahead, I do feel like we’re positioned to continue building on this momentum.”

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra

“When the restrictions were lifted in late spring, we saw a boost in the attractions, and hotel occupancy grew. Looking ahead, I do feel like we’re positioned to continue building on this momentum.”

Last year’s boost in tourism was largely generated by leisure travel — and a need among people to go to something, she noted.

“When we were hunkered down at home, not doing anything, we all had a desire to reconnect with family and friends. The industry term is ‘human-oriented travel’ — the collective urge of people to reconnect. And we saw that.”

What she also saw was a region uniquely situated to meet that need in enriching ways. “We have a lot of things to do in our area. And when people come to visit, not everyone stays with family; they’re staying in hotels and visiting our attractions. So we had a very robust summer.”

So robust, in fact, that hotel occupancy rates in the region this summer exceeded pre-pandemic 2019 levels in three different months.

“It would be great to continue the momentum in 2022,” Wydra went on. “We always know the first three or four months is soft — it’s our shoulder season — but we should see good travel again this summer, again dominated by leisure travel. Conventions and meetings have been far more impacted by the pandemic, and 2022 will still be a little light. But the forecast for 2023 is far better.”

That’s because many organizations schedule their annual events a few years out, and events that were canceled in 2020 already had other sites scheduled for 2021 and 2022, but not 2023, she explained — and Western Mass. is aiming to get some of that business back — that is, “if they’re still doing in-person meetings,” Wydra said, and that is, indeed, a lingering question on the convention circuit.

It didn’t seem like many people had a problem crowding into the Big E a few months ago. A total of 1,498,774 people visited the 2021 event, after it was canceled outright in 2020. According to Carnival Warehouse’s annual Top 50 Fairs list, the 2021 Big E was the third-largest fair in North America, even surpassing the Minnesota State Fair — a huge achievement, Eastern States Exposition President and CEO Gene Cassidy said — for the first time.

On its way to that achievement, the Big E set four daily attendance records over the course of the 17-day event, including an all-time single-day attendance of 177,238 on the final Saturday.

“I think there was pent-up demand,” Wydra said of those numbers. “You miss something for a year, you definitely want to get back there the next.”

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, said hard numbers won’t be known for a while regarding visitorship in Berkshire County in 2021.

“But our feeling, especially post-Memorial Day weekend, was that the Berkshires was really bustling during the summer,” he told BusinessWest. “And we saw different types of visitors to the Berkshires — a lot more younger couples, younger travelers trying to get out of the urban setting and finding the Berkshires to be a great option for them, with open space, a lot of recreational opportunties, and room to breathe. We saw bits and pieces of that in the summer of 2020, but saw it exponentially increase in 2021.”

Two factors slowed the momentum somewhat, and they’re both national in scope, not unique to Western Mass., Butler said. One was the Delta variant of COVID-19 (and, on its heels, Omicron), and the other is a lingering workforce shortage, which has kept some attractions, restaurants, and retail destinations from being open every day, and forced some hotels to operate at less-than-peak room capacity.

“We’ve seen a little bit of growth in terms of job applicants and some employers being able to get some workforce back,” Butler said, “but it’s still a bigger gap than we want for the economy to get fully back on its feet.”

“We saw different types of visitors to the Berkshires — a lot more younger couples, younger travelers trying to get out of the urban setting and finding the Berkshires to be a great option for them, with open space, a lot of recreational opportunties, and room to breathe.”

One factor that especially impacts hotels has been a decline in international workers coming to the region on work visas, due to both pandemic fears and shifting federal rules, he explained. “These are highly trained, motivated members of our local properties’ teams, and the loss of that demographic in the workforce has been another obstacle that has disproportionately affected hospitality.”

On the plus side, “even starting in 2020, we’ve seen a boom in outdoor recreation; it’s been a leading reason to visit the region,” Butler noted. “We saw continued increased activity at museums this year, again, building off 2020. Many museums and historical sites feature outdoor space, which is a nice option for people. And we saw some return to live performing arts this year. We’re very sensitive to the impact the pandemic has had on performing arts in the Berkshires, so it was good to see a return to live performances again at places like Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow.

“The big takeaway from 2021 was that people want to be here, and it’s a broader group that wants to be here, not just couples over 50,” he went on. “We’re seeing an influx of young adults, young families, who want to take part in a large variety of things — outdoor recreation, the food economy, health and wellness opportunities. We’re exposing whole new audiences to the Berkshires, and that will benefit us in the long term.”

Wydra feels the same about Western Mass. as a whole, and said the industry has learned to roll with the shifting demands of the pandemic because society demands it.

“Just like people in general, we have to adapt to the challenges COVID puts in front of us, things like masking, sanitary conditions, safety protocols. It’s super important to visitors, and something that will not go away for a while, if at all,” she said. “It’s becoming our new normal, and we’re all trying to figure it out.”

While noting, once again, how important it is that conventions and group business return at some point, Wydra also admitted the region has plenty going for it.

“The beauty of Western Mass. is that we have this amazing collection of great attractions and incredible natural resources. If people don’t want to go to Six Flags, they can go ziplining or rafting. There are so many things to do here, and that’s why we’re positioned well as a destination.”

Doleva has been busy promoting the re-envisioned Hall as an ideal site for meetings, fundraising dinners, product launches, and more, and he takes a similar interconnected view of the tourism industry in general. In fact, he says it’s necessary if the sector truly wants to shake off the pandemic and move ahead.

“We certainly take our obligation as part of the major attractions in the Valley very seriously,” he said. “We can and will work together as we go forward, and I think we’ll be in a very good position. None of us thinks of this region as a single-day trip. There’s multiple things to do, and we’ve recommitted to that idea throughout this whole COVID experience.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Seeking a Return

Paul Scully says customers are feeling more optimistic about the future.

Paul Scully says customers are feeling more optimistic about the future.

While year one of the pandemic taught banks how to constantly pivot — to remote work, new modes of serving customers, and multiple phases of PPP loans — year two has brought more stability, even normalcy, but also new challenges, particularly inflation and supply-chain disruption that has made it more difficult for customers to save, borrow, and invest. That they’re doing all these things, to some degree, lends a healthy sense of optimism to 2022.

 

There’s nothing wrong with normalcy, Paul Scully said.

And if nothing else, the business of banking in 2021 was more stable than in 2020. That doesn’t mean all the economic issues individuals and businesses are dealing with have gone away, just that banks, and businesses in general, had to do less pivoting. Or at least have learned to roll with the punches.

“With vaccination rates increasing — or at least the availability of vaccinations up — we saw business picking up and customers feeling more confident coming into the banking centers,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank. “And with commercial business picking up, people were feeling a little more optimistic with what the future has in store for them — where 2020 was all about trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”

What was going on last year were the early throes of a pandemic with no vaccines available, widespread shutdowns of economic activity, and banks more involved in PPP loans than normal commercial activity. “But we started to see, probably by the second quarter of this year, a normalizing, with customers feeling more confident and feeling more optimistic about the future and for their business.”

“With commercial business picking up, people were feeling a little more optimistic with what the future has in store for them — where 2020 was all about trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”

That’s a positive trend for commercial lending. Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, was on an economic-outlook call with Visa recently, which projected a 7% uptick in 2022 in business investments in fixed assets, which means more borrowing. “That’s pretty healthy growth,” he told BusinessWest. “People are looking to borrow out there. Corporations’ financial statements are looking pretty strong the last couple of years, and a lot of consumers are sitting in pretty good financial shape; we’ll see whether they want to pull the trigger or not.”

On the consumer side, they have, with 2021 being the second straight year of double-digit growth on the mortgage-lending side at Freedom, along with healthy business in auto and home-equity loans. “And last year, deposits were up over 20%; this year, it was 10%. Our balance sheet, like many institutions, has grown pretty significantly since COVID hit.”

Tony Liberopoulos, Liberty Bank’s senior vice president and regional manager for Commercial Banking, said the bank’s new commercial-lending push in Western Mass. — it opened a loan-production office in East Longmeadow in June and has added three more employees since then — has gone well.

“We’ve been very happy. We had a very strong year; we’ve been very busy,” he told BusinessWest, noting that much of that success can be attributed to customers craving normalcy — in this case, face-to-face dealings with a stable team.

“With the amount of market disruption between mergers, community lenders leaving their jobs for other opportunities, and, in many instances, competitors still working from home, we’ve had opportunities to meet prospects and clients to grow our business,” he explained.

Tony Liberopoulos

Tony Liberopoulos says borrowers want access to digital tools, but mainly prefer face-to-face interactions.

“We’re firm believers that, while businesses have been struggling with things like COVID and supply chains, things will bounce back,” he went on. “And we’re seeing a lot of opportunities just by being in front of the clients. They want to see familiar faces; they don’t want to deal with just Webex and phone calls.”

Liberty’s lending numbers have borne that out, with 2021 figures close to what they were pre-COVID, Liberopoulos added. “That’s all we can ask for at this point. We’ve found customers and prospects still want face-to-face meetings; they want a normal relationship with banks.”

With that in mind, “I think the trend is toward more confidence in 2022 than there was in 2021,” he went on. “I think companies have seen their business come back since late May, early June, when a lot of COVID restrictions were lifted. We’re seeing businesses thrive again, and now they’re starting to invest in 2022. That’s what we’re counting on.”

 

Into the Digital Age

While many customers do, indeed, prefer to bank in person, Scully said, one of the big industry stories of the pandemic was how customers who had avoided digital banking options embraced them when they had to — and then stuck with them.

“More and more people developed a comfort level with technology,” he explained. “Many had a fear of the unknown — ‘will my money be safe?’ But the last 20 months allowed people to recalibrate a little bit, and we’re seeing more and more reliance on technology, which is great.”

Country even converted a small branch in the Ware Walmart to an interactive banking office with two interactive teller machines (ITMs). “They can absolutely do anything on the machine. The customer response has been really positive.”

Technology has helped banks in other ways — including combating a workforce shortage that has affected every industry and has not spared banks and credit unions.

“The fact that there aren’t a lot of employable people out there is taking its toll on businesses. Anyone in a customer-service business is looking for people; it doesn’t matter whether if you’re running a bank or a local coffee shop.”

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in these days, the fact that there aren’t a lot of employable people out there is taking its toll on businesses. Anyone in a customer-service business is looking for people; it doesn’t matter whether if you’re running a bank or a local coffee shop.

“But that customer expectation still exists for us, so technology has helped quite a bit,” Scully went on. “Customers during the pandemic became more familiar with doing their banking through technology, and their reduced reliance on coming into the branch reduced some of our traffic.”

At Country, while the banking centers operate five or six days a week with in-person staff, in the back-office areas, employees remain on a hybrid schedule, three days in the office, two remote — with Wednesdays mandatory for everyone to come in. “That’s more of a cultural thing for us, so folks would still be connected to one another.”

And the hybrid model has worked well, he noted. “We recognized early on, as we started to look at the reopening process, there are a lot of benefits to having a hybrid workforce. It’s like 2020 allowed us all to recalibrate, and ask why you’re spending an hour twice a day commuting to the office just to do work you were able to do at home for a year. We decided, ‘let’s rethink this.’”

Staffing has also been a challenge for Freedom, Welch said, which had to close down a branch or revert to drive-up only on occasion to deal with it.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says workforce issues have not only affected staffing for banks and credit unions, but have begun to put pressure on wages.

“We’ve seen other institutions have the same issue. We’re certainly trying to hire people, but it’s been difficult. People leave, and it’s hard to get people interested in coming in and working. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a retail environment — that’s where most of our openings are, in branches — or it’s just people retiring or finding other things they want to do.”

The crunch has started to put pressure on wages, Welch added, which not only affects the banks themselves, but often doesn’t do enough to balance surging inflation for those earning the paychecks.

Liberopoulos said the shift toward digital banking options is a good one, and even though many of his commercial clients have wanted to do business in person, they, too, also want to be able to access the same digital experience — with its speed, flexibility, and personalization — that consumer clients have.

“Innovation is always the key to growth and sustainability. To survive, you need to invest not only in talent, but in products and services,” he said, noting that there’s certainly a need for both online options and a bricks-and-mortar presence.

 

Back to the Street

Communities and nonprofits saw their needs soar during the pandemic, too, and that’s one area community banks and credit unions continued to focus on in 2021. For example, over the summer, Country Bank — which has traditionally focused its giving on basic needs like food insecurity, homelessness, and healthcare — donated a total of $1 million to two regional food banks.

“To be a healthy community, residents in the community need to be in good health. Nutrition should be a right and not a privilege,” Scully said, noting that needs became more dire due to the pandemic, job losses, inflation, and an increase in addiction.

“If you have a heartbeat, you enjoy giving back, and it doesn’t have to be a certain size,” he said, turning the topic around as a challenge to others. “You may be able to donate only a dozen boxes of pasta, but that’s a dozen more boxes of pasta available for someone in need. What we like to do is partner with organizations and get their stories out there, so other people can jump on the bandwagon and be a part of it too.”

That speaks to Liberty’s priorities as well, Liberopoulos said. “We’re very in tune with our community and helping out the non-for-profits; we’ve done a lot of good things so far and continue to do that. That’s very important to us. We live, work, and lend in this area, and we want to support this area as well.”

Welch said Freedom has not only supported nonprofits, but gotten others involved by choosing a charity each month — A Bed for Every Child, the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and Unify Against Bullying are just three recent examples — and involving members in the giving.

“We have been advertising that on our website and trying to get donations not only from the credit union, but from members who find the causes worthwhile and have the ability to donate,” he explained.

As for member business in the coming year, Welch knows inflation remains a drain on savings and assumes interest rates will rise at some point in an attempt to slow it down. “That could have an impact on people being able to borrow. Student-loan payments are starting up again, too, so people will have $300 or $400 coming out of their pocket for that in addition to increased prices and increased rates.”

These are problems that affect businesses, too, Scully said.

“With inflation and the cost of goods going up, and so many businesses looking at inflated utility expenses, now, with the shortage of qualified, available help, payroll tends to go up as well,” he noted. “Clearly there are a lot of challenges for folks in the business arena — which is why you really want to encourage people to shop local and keep Main Street storefronts occupied.”

Many businesses struggling with higher costs are still looking to borrow and invest, he added. While the PPP loans of 2020 were about keeping the lights on and keeping employees paid, for more traditional loans going forward, borrowers need to show a continuation of revenue streams without the PPP revenue to bolster them.

“For the most part, that’s exactly what happened. Businesses have returned to a good level,” Scully said. “Certainly, some are still taking their hits — hospitality was one of the hardest-hit, whether it’s food services, hotels, or entertainment venues. They had tough restrictions put on them last year. Those restrictions were lifted for the most part, but now they can’t rehire enough workers.”

These are all factors that might cause individuals and businesses to pull back from borrowing, he added.

“What will the impact of inflation be? When will interest rates start to rise a little? The big piece that looms for me is employment: where is the workforce going to be? Will there be enough employable people for all of the jobs? We’ve heard about this Great Resignation. It’s real.”

Still, like other financial leaders we’ve spoken with recently, Scully remains optimistic. “All indications suggest 2022 should be an OK year from a business perspective.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Some Moves of Interest

 

For a bank that’s been around for 136 years, PeoplesBank came across commercial lending fairly recently.

“My predecessor, Doug Bowen, started commercial lending at PeoplesBank probably 35 years ago,” Tom Senecal, the bank’s president and CEO, told BusinessWest. “We didn’t do any commercial loans until then, and we started out with just commercial real estate. And we stayed conservative with real estate, and never went into the C&I side because we didn’t have a lot of expertise. Just by virtue of what our comfort zone was, we focused on the real-estate side.”

That’s all changed, as PeoplesBank has made a strong push into the realm of C&I (commercial and industrial) business lending over the past two years.

“A little over two years ago, we started talking about our strengths and weaknesses and who we are are and what we do as the largest mutual institution in Western Mass.,” Senecal explained. “We have a very successful commercial real-estate portfolio. What we didn’t have was the C&I side. So we started talking about how to get into the C&I business.”

The reason the bank hadn’t done so sooner came down to expertise, which it had in spades on the real-estate side but much less so in C&I, where “you’re financing equipment, you’re financing lines of credit, there’s different types of collateral, it requires more monitoring, more analysis … we didn’t have that experience,” Senecal said. “It’s a very complex and very different lending skillset than commercial real estate.”

That’s why Senecal started talking with Frank Crinella, who has decades of experience in lending in the region, about bringing over a group of individuals from a large regional bank to spearhead a push into C&I lending.

“We have a very successful commercial real-estate portfolio. What we didn’t have was the C&I side. So we started talking about how to get into the C&I business.”

“We talked for several months about his group of people coming over, and we brought over five people that have an enormous amount of experience on the C&I side,” Senecal said. “Real estate is much more transactional, and we wanted to develop relationships in our home market much better than we ever had in the past, and C&I, to us, was the way to do it.”

Crinella is now the bank’s senior vice president and senior lender, and will also take the title of senior credit officer when Mike Oleksak, the institution’s longtime senior lender and senior credit officer, retires at the end of the year.

“C&I typically brings over the relationship more than just the real-estate transaction. And now that we have the group of people that we have, I think it’s going to be tremendously successful, not just for the Western Mass. market, but for our growth strategy going down into Connecticut as well,” Senecal said. “Frank and the group of people who came over have been here just over a year and have been enormously successful in that period of time, starting to build relationships here in Western Mass.”

Crinella saw great potential in what PeoplesBank was trying to do.

“What attracted us to Peoples was really the culture,” he said. “And C&I is all about relationship lending, the team approach. We have a very strong credit culture, but we also have a lot of depth on the cash-management side, and our branch network is very strong and plays well to the companies here in Western Mass. and Northern Connecticut.”

The commercial-lending department is now up to 50 people, Crinella noted. “The team complements each other so well. They brought in a lot of credit analysts that have C&I experience, so we’ve got depth now on the underwriting side.”

He was also drawn to a lending model at Peoples that prioritizes the ability of lenders to make quick decisions (more on that later).

“We talk about speed to market around here — we make all our decisions here on Whitney Avenue, so we can turn around a loan request quickly, and kind of outmuscle the big boys in that way … and, with the depth that we brought, outmuscle the local competition as well.”

 

Lending Support

Senecal said he knew PeoplesBank could excel at C&I lending based on its culture and ability to forge relationships through its branches.

“C&I is small business,” he explained. “And the interconnectivity between our branch network and our C&I lending is extremely important. It’s very difficult to develop a relationship on the small-business side without a branch network. So, in a lot of my conversations with Frank, we’re focused on our growth strategy and continuing to have the brick-and-mortar strategy, which complements the C&I side.”

Retail banking, Senecal noted, is moving in the direction of digital modes like mobile banking, online bill pay, and ITMs.

“When you talk C&I lending and small-business lending, you can’t do all that digitally online. You need a relationship. Accounts are very different for small businesses than they are on the retail side, between needing cash-management services, wires, positive pay … there are a lot of different functionalities small businesses utilize, more than the typical retail customer. A lot of services need to be communicated, and you can’t do that necessarily digitally. So the branch network has a huge impact.”

Crinella called it “delivering the bank.”

To explain that concept, he noted that, “when a relationship lender goes out to visit a customer, oftentimes they’ll bring the banking-center manager as well as the cash-management professionals, so the customer gets the entire bank when they’re meeting with the relationship lender. That’s really the difference between C&I and commercial real-estate lending. That’s what we’re trying to capture when we talk about relationship lending.”

The relationships customers already had with the lenders who moved to Peoples have generated some business as well, Senecal said.

“When you transition a group of five people from one institution to another, you create some loyalty from those customers who had relationships with them, and you can tell that the relationship means a lot. We’re getting great, positive feedback as a result of that.”

Crinella agreed. “They become valued advisors to the customer,” he said. “They take the time to understand their business and make informed decisions. Again, I think speed to market has been a huge competitive advantage. We get there quick. We can get a term sheet out in 48 hours, and that’s something, competitively, the big boys have a tough time competing with.”

With Oleksak, and soon with Crinella, it was important that both titles — senior lender and senior credit officer — fall under the same individual, Senecal said.

“From a customer’s perspective, when Frank shows up at the table, he has the decision-making authority for quite a few loans. Certainly, when loans get larger, we have a committee, we meet and talk, but Frank has the ability to sit at the table and make decisions immediately with customers based on what he sees.

“That doesn’t occur at most larger institutions,” Senecal went on, “where the lender goes out and gets the loan, develops the conversation, and then goes back with all the information and says, ‘OK, this is the deal. This is the terms of the deal I’d like to do.’ And they sit around with other people — adjudicators, other credit people, who say, ‘yeah, I don’t like that deal. You need to do this, you need to get that.’ And it becomes a group decision.”

That’s not the best or most efficient experience for the customer, he said.

“When you sit in front of a customer and you make the customer believe we’re going to do the deal, then you go back to the office and all of a sudden five different people have their opinions on what it should look like, it’s really hard to go back to the customer and say, ‘yeah, the deal’s changed.’”

That’s why it’s important to empower people, not committees, to make decisions, Senecal explained. “If the loan is a large loan, yes, it goes up to committee discussion. But in my 25-plus years at the bank, maybe two loans didn’t get through loan committee — because the lenders know what they’re doing.”

 

By All Accounts

When commercial lenders at PeoplesBank were focusing solely on real estate, they excelled at deals for warehouses, multi-family facilities, mixed-use properties, and strip malls. With C&I, they’re talking to manufacturers, healthcare practices, nonprofits, lawyers, accounting firms, and many more entities. And that requires specialized knowledge and, yes, strong relationships.

“You’re not lending on the building, you’re lending on the business,” Senecal said. “In real estate, we lend the money and hope to get paid back. If we don’t, we have the real estate. On the business side, it’s a whole different aspect of trying to understand, ‘how are you going to pay the loan back?’ When you get into all these other industries, it takes a unique skillset to identify whether or not it’s viable and the loan is a good loan or not.”

It’s a skillset the bank plans to further grow as it evolves its lending presence in the region’s C&I landscape.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Special Coverage

More Demand Than Supply

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton.

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton. (Photo by Leigh Chodos)

By now, the phrase ‘supply chain’ has become one of the economic buzzwords of our time, as global shortages and slowdowns of goods, not to mention staffing crunches, have impacted industries ranging from food service and retail to manufacturing and auto sales. The construction industry has been particularly vulnerable to those trends, which is especially unfortunate considering that most builders say the work is there — they just can’t tackle it all until these broader issues begin to stabilize. When they will is anyone’s guess.

 

Most people have heard about the challenges facing the construction industry these days, Scott Keiter said — workforce shortages and supply-chain issues foremost among them — but it’s helpful, he noted, to understand how they’re really part of one large issue.

“Part of the supply-chain issue is the workforce,” said the president of Keiter, the new name for his company, which now encompasses four divisions: commercial and industrial, residential, site work, and real estate. “But the pandemic affects people, and people are the ones who produce products. I think the demand is out there, but those other things out there are causing a little bit of a bog on the system. This is something I hear from others in construction as well.”

It’s what BusinessWest is hearing, too — that there’s plenty of demand for work, but no one is in a place to take on all they could were the workforce and supply outlooks more stable.

“Demand is a great thing,” Keiter added, “but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Carol Campbell agreed. “It’s been a year like no other,” the president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC) said. “I think I’ve said that before, but this time is very different.”

“Demand is a great thing. but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Indeed, “we are certainly affected by the labor force, or the lack thereof,” she went on. “So when you evaluate your sales or how busy you are, well, if we were at full complement, it would be a different story. We’re at reduced labor teams, so we are busy, but it’s hard to serve all our customers at the level we’re at right now.”

From a supply-chain perspective, CIC is a contractor based in the manufacturing world. “Where we have issues with the supply chain is, if we have a team scheduled to do a project, the installation may take a week or two, then, with 48-hours notice or less, we get a phone call saying the machine hasn’t even hit the dock.

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy, but new challenges make it a different kind of busy than before.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare,” she went on. “I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The supply crunch affects both availability and cost, said Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction. “I just got off the phone with someone who needs 12 weeks lead for replacement windows. I’ve never heard of that before. And a lot of materials are unavailable, so we have to search for substitutes.”

Co-owner Pat Sweitzer said she was bidding a project, and a plumber advised her to order a certain piece of equipment needed for the job immediately. “So you ask yourself the question, ‘do we take a chance and order it and expect to get the job?’ These kinds of questions are coming up as well.”

These challenges tend to put contractors in a tough spot, stuck in the middle between customer demands and supply realities.

“Those are real concerns,” Craig said. “At first it sounded like a lot of people complaining, but it truly is an issue. Availability, the cost of materials and shipping, getting stuff shipped to sites … it’s all tricky.”

 

Links in the Chain

One aspect of the supply-chain issue is trucking, Campbell said, which has impacted her firm on two levels.

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this? It’s a scheduling nightmare, a financial nightmare for customers and vendors. It’s been … quite an interesting year.”

She gave an example of a hard deadline of Dec. 31 to get a machine up and running on a customer’s plant floor. “We’re at the bottom of that chain. It has to come through customs — most are made outside the U.S. — then it has to be piped by the piper, the electrician does his work, then you bring the rigger in, all those dovetail together.”

Keiter said supply shortages and delays are causing some price escalation with materials.

“It’s really causing us to have to look ahead and think about how the disruption and supply chain will affect schedules, and then, of course, the ever-moving pricing with materials is a challenge for not only us as contractors, but for clients and their budgeting. It’s very difficult — the days of just showing up and going at it are gone. We’re having to really get ahead of procurement and also securing tradesman and subcontractors. The industry is busy, but it’s a lot different than it was before.”

Windows and kitchen cabinetry have been especially problematic when it comes to significant timeline increases, Keiter noted. “That said, anything special-order, anything that’s not run-of-the-mill, anything made to order, anything not on a shelf, those seem to be taking longer on average.”

The Construction Products Assoc. (CPA) recently downgraded its forecast for construction growth in 2022 from 6.3% to 4.8% amid what it called a “perfect storm” in the supply chain, Construction Manager magazine reported.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare. I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The association warned that supply-chain constraints are now expected to hinder growth well into next year, citing a combination of talent shortages, product availability and cost inflation, driver shortages, the impact of energy-cost increases, and delays at ports as factors in that storm.

“The biggest impacts of the supply constraints are on the small construction firms,” CPA Economics Director Noble Francis said. “Large contractors and major house builders have a greater certainty of demand over the 12- to 18-month horizon and are better able to plan and purchase in advance as well as adjust to changing economic situations. Small firms, however, are more focused on flexibility and have less visibility over demand going forward. Plus, they have less ability and resource to plan and purchase in advance.”

But the workforce issues remain problematic as well.

Pat and Craig Sweitzer

Pat and Craig Sweitzer say supply-chain issues affect both availability and cost of materials, and, therefore, both project scheduling and budgeting.

“We were fortunate in that regard,” Keiter said. “We have a very strong, committed team of employees. However, you can see in the workforce in general, whether it’s vendors, subcontractors, or others, I think the pandemic has really shaken things up.”

It’s an issue that worries Campbell moving forward.

“I feel optimistic in our conversations with customers, and we’re booking into 2022, but I have great concerns about the labor force,” she told BusinessWest. “We pay well, and our benefits compare with a state or municipality. And we can’t attract a skilled workforce.

“We’ve always had issues hiring skilled labor just because, coming out of high school, it requires quite a few years of apprenticing. But nothing like we have right now. Over COVID, we had a few people age out, who said, ‘that’s what it took for me to hang it up’ — some people, quite honestly, I just didn’t expect. I understand why they retired, but I think COVID gave them that push.”

Craig Sweitzer said his firm has been navigating workforce issues well, although that did necessitate a lot of personal time to deal with COVID-related issues. “All in all, we survived intact.”

However, the industry’s worker crunch has made clearer the importance of keeping workers happy. “We’ve rolled quite a bit of our profits out of our pockets and put them to use to help our employees and subs. We stress that above and beyond profitability,” he said. “It’s easier to run a business when everybody’s on the same team, pushing in the same direction. So we’re happy to forgo a little profit to have that.”

Pat Sweitzer said she understands the strain workers in all industries have felt over the past two years.

“We have been really fortunate to have our employees and our subcontracting team with us for many, many years. In terms of our employees, they have had family obligations they had to meet during COVID, such as homeschooling and schools being closed down, kids at home. So we have accommodated their needs, and they have stayed with us through the whole year and a half, and we are really fortunate and glad that they have stayed with us all this time; they bring a level of knowledge and skill to our projects that really serve our company and our customers well.”

 

Optimism Ahead

As noted earlier, despite the industry-wide, often global challenges, area firms have stayed busy.

“For us, this year has been a really good year,” Pat said. “Part of that is thanks to Adaptas Solutions in Palmer, which is a manufacturer in the Palmer Industrial Park that had renovations of five high-tech buildings.

“We were building a clean room and upgrading their facilities,” she added. “It really sustained us and positioned them well as a company. It was a good, steady year for us.”

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this?”

The firm’s niches in medical and dental facilities continue top be strong as well, she added, and it’s starting to edge into an area with significant growth potential: cannabis.

“One thing I’m grateful about is that we have our bread and butter, our dental and medical work, and now that technical capability and knowledge we’ve developed in those industries is transferring over to the cannabis industry,” she told BusinessWest. “So we have a lot of work coming up, including projects that we hope will be coming through in the cannabis industry.”

Keiter is similarly pleased with his firm’s pipeline.

“We work with a lot of the institutions of higher learning, and those projects continue. We’re also working with a number of nonprofit organizations. We had a pretty good run in 2021. We built a number of new homes, got a lot of residential construction. All the various parts of our business are moving in the right direction.”

In other words, business is booming. That’s the big, positive takeaway amid all the industry concerns about workforce and supply — and how they are, in many ways, the same issue.

“It’s busy, and things are moving. Demand is there,” Keiter said. “We’re here and working hard, and we’re going to get through it. Everyone in construction is hopeful that we’ll start to work our way out of the pandemic and maybe stabilize a little bit.”

Craig Sweitzer agreed. “We’re bidding like mad, and I’m assuming there’s still a lot of optimism out there, so we can only hope to stay as busy as we’ve been. In spite of all the craziness, there does seem to be a lot of optimism out there.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Mall Star

Lynn Gray

Lynn Gray went from selling Holyoke Mall gift certificates at age 15 to running the facility as general manager.

Lynn Gray has truly come full circle, from attending the grand opening of Holyoke Mall as a newborn to her role as general manager there today. In a career spent in the shopping-center world, she has seen plenty of evolution and a few major challenges as well, the pandemic being the latest and perhaps most daunting. But current customer traffic and interest in available space tell her this is an industry with plenty of life, and she’s passionate about helping individual businesses succeed within it.

 

 

When Lynn Gray was two weeks old, her mother packed her up and took her on her very first outing — to the grand opening of Holyoke Mall in 1979, the center where she now works as general manager.

“How cool is that, right?” she asked.

The mall has certainly been a family affair; her mother worked there from its opening as an office manager, and her grandmother would later come on board as a customer-service manager.

“When I was 15, I started at the customer-service desk in the middle of the mall selling gift cards — well, back then it was gift certificates,” Gray recalled. “So that’s how I got into the shopping-center industry.”

It’s been a journey that has taken her across the Northeast and down the East Coast, but mostly at Holyoke Mall and Hampshire Mall, where she was general manager from 2016 until earlier this year, and is still serving in an interim role at the Hadley complex while a replacement is found. And, having been around shopping centers throughout her entire career, she’s seen plenty of evolution in the industry.

“It feels to me very cyclical,” she told BusinessWest, citing, as an example, the 10 years she spent away from Pyramid Management Group, which owns the Holyoke and Hampshire malls, as well as 12 other properties. Between 2006 and 2016, she was with General Growth Properties, taking on various marketing roles, eventually becoming marketing director for the East region.

“I was really focused on the East Coast and got to work with a lot of properties there, from marketplaces to smaller centers to super-regional centers in a variety of different markets. It was funny because, coming back to Hampshire Mall, where my management experience had started, I saw this evolution happening at the properties.”

“When I left them, I had just helped open Target and Trader Joe’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy,” she said by way of explanation — all of them big-name staples at shopping centers across the U.S. at the time.

“It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”

“Ten years later, Best Buy had closed, and we had already replaced them with PetSmart. We were putting in a bowling alley; we were putting in a gym. So I saw the the transition from the early 2000s — from Kmart to Target to a variety of new big boxes coming in — and then, when I came back, I saw that cycle over to the lifestyle components like a Planet Fitness, like a bowling alley and an arcade. It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”

Indeed, that’s the driving evolution in malls today, she went on — a move not necessarily away from retail, but complementing retail with more entertainment, experiences, and dining options.

“There’s been a lot of change even these last few years, and then, of course, COVID happened,” Gray said. “So then you see a little more of that cyclical stuff happening with the big boxes turning over and repurposing them for a variety of uses.”

And it’s not just a local phenomenon, she added. “I get to support leasing for all of our properties, so I’m not just focused on Hampshire and Holyoke; I get to see what’s happening across the Pyramid portfolio and across the industry. We’re seeing more hotels, we’re seeing apartments, we’re seeing shared office spaces in a lot of our properties. So it’s kind of cool to see it’s not just about a shopping center anymore, it’s about creating a lifestyle.”

 

Coming Home

Coming back to Hampshire Mall as general manager in 2016 was truly a full-circle event for someone who had built a career from the bottom up at the two local Pyramid properties. From her humble beginnings selling gift certificates at Holyoke Mall, she progressed in the mid-’90s to an office-assistant position at Hampshire Mall for a few years, which evolved into a marketing role. She returned to Holyoke in the late ’90s as assistant marketing director, then went back to Hampshire as marketing director before her stint with General Growth Properties.

“When I came back to Pyramid again,” she said of her hiring as general manager there in 2016, “it was like coming home.”

As for the recent evolution in the use of mall space, one that’s especially noticeable at Hampshire Mall, Gray said even individual tenants understand the trend.

“A lot of our partners in our tenant base have really gone out of their way to try to diversify their use,” she noted. “A great example is Pinz. You’re not just there for bowling; there’s also an arcade, there’s food, there’s dart throwing, axe throwing, all kinds of things. It’s about keeping people in these spaces longer, and that’s something we’re offering at all of our properties.”

That’s why both malls now feature a gym, bowling, and arcades, as well as shopping (including some big boxes, like Target, which is also featured at both). “We really are creating a destination for you to find everything you need. It’s creating sort of a downtown feel.”

No longer can mall managers cater only to people who want to stop in, get what they want quickly, and leave, even though there are still plenty of those. It’s about giving them more to do once they arrive and, therefore, more reasons to come in the first place.

“I think people have more choices today,” Gray said. “They have less time, more on their plates, they’re going in a million different directions, and creating a space they’re going to frequent more often because they’re not coming here just for shopping is critical, because it keeps us relevant; it keeps us top of mind.

“They’re not just going to Target to get their essentials, they’re coming here for a day with their family and going bowling, or maybe they’re coming several times a week because they’re visiting the gym. Or they’re having their birthday parties at Altitude,” she went on. “It’s a space that’s far beyond just a shopping destination. They’re coming more often and spending more time because they’re coming for a variety of different uses.”

Hampshire Mall in particular is no stranger to innovation. Gray credited the wisdom of its original owners, who built a shopping center on farmland in Hadley more than 40 years ago. The Route 9 corridor eventually exploded with much more retail, dining, and other amenities, fed by the affluent communities of Amherst and Northampton that bookend it, and, of course, UMass Amherst and other local colleges.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises.”

“Somebody had this idea that putting a shopping center there would be really successful, and it has been,” she said. “It’s very desirable real estate now.”

Still, no one in the shopping-center industry was prepared for the impact of COVID-19.

“The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty, which still resonates with a lot of us,” she said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises. Supporting those businesses, which were hit the hardest during the pandemic, has been something we’ve really tried to put our efforts into.”

That statistic surprises some people, she noted. “Some consider us to be the big-box destination and forget there are so many businesses in this center that are locally owned, here and at Hampshire, and I like to remind people of that. They live in your community, they’re supporting your kids’ schools and sports teams, and they also lease space at a shopping center. It’s not just about the big box and the large retailer.”

The good news, for tenants of all sizes, is that traffic numbers at the malls are up — not just from 2020, but from 2019.

“I think that’s a testament to people itching to get out,” Gray said. “They’ve been missing that in-person connection and getting outside their four walls, and we’ve been able to give them a reason to do that.”

And they’ve been, for the most part, gracious about safety protocols that still fluctuate between communities; in fact, Holyoke Mall currently recommends mask wearing, while Hampshire Mall requires it.

“They want to get out, so they’re going to do what they can to follow the rules so they can continue to frequent those businesses,” she added.

 

Leading by Example

Gray has long been active in the community, and for the past two years, she’s been president of the board directors at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“They were obviously two of the most challenging years for small businesses in particular, so being part of a chamber supporting them was really gratifying,” she said. “Being able to be in the trenches with the executive director and the board of directors and all the various committees that were supporting businesses staying open and surviving the pandemic … I’m really proud of the work we did there.”

She also serves on the board of the Amherst Boys and Girls Club — another family connection, as her mother served on the board of the Chicopee club for many years. She’s also a state ambassador in Massachusetts for CHERUBS, an organization that raises awareness and funds around congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition that affects newborn babies, including Gray’s own baby, who passed away seven years ago.

As the mother of a 19-year-old son, “I think it’s important to set an example for him that it’s not just about getting up, going to work, doing your job, and coming home at the end of the day — it’s about outreach and community development and being out there. It doesn’t just make you feel good, you’re actually doing good. I think it’s important to set that example for our future leaders as well.”

At her day job, of course, she supports businesses in other ways.

“It’s a little win every time we see a new business open, whether it’s an existing business or a small business just starting up. Pyramid is a leasing company; that’s what we do. We want to lease our spaces, we want to stay fresh and relevant, so every time we have a new tenant that’s opening up, we’re excited to share that news. I think it’s a testament to us as a developer that we’ve been able to celebrate so many new openings.”

Gray has heard the rumors over the years that shopping centers aren’t doing well, or are on the decline.

“But people still want to open businesses in successful centers. We’re seeing more and more walk-in requests to look at spaces. There was a time when the phone wasn’t ringing at all, but they’re starting to see that the trend is going up and people are craving being out and about and not just holed up in their homes anymore.”

She also loves working with existing tenants on ways to expand and market their businesses. “They really took a hit, so anything we can do to support the business and spread the word, anything we can do to keep the businesses going, I want to be part of that.”

Gray’s mother no longer works in the shopping-center world; she’s in residential real estate now. But she was very excited to hear her daughter was now general manager of Holyoke Mall.

“She said she’s really proud, and I said I’m really proud, because I went from selling gift certificates at the customer-service desk and answering phones to actually leading the charge for Western Mass.’s largest shopping center. I’m the first woman general manager at Holyoke Mall, and I’m really proud of that. I’m proud to share that story because maybe a little girl can hear that and know that you can start small, and if you grow and work hard at it, someday you can do this too.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Steady On

Thomas Crochiere

Thomas Crochiere at the Chicopee property he purchased, renovated, and tenanted up almost two decades ago.

 

Thomas Crochiere had a modest vision for his construction company a quarter-century ago — and, as it turned out, a successful one.

“Having worked for a company with up to 100 employees in the past, I knew I didn’t want to have a large company,” he told BusinessWest. “I was happy with a small company where I could know my employees very well and work with them and manage one or two projects at a time. I didn’t want to have a large plate of projects. So we’ve just continued in that direction for 26 years.”

Crochiere entered the construction world out of college and, as he said, worked for a large company that performed a lot of state and municipal work.

“I was working as a project manager for that company for about 10 years. But I got a little itchy; I wanted to become an owner. So my wife and I started this business back in 1995, and since I’d been doing mostly municipal and state work, and had pretty decent familiarity with that process, we stayed with commercial construction as our primary focus, and we have just picked away at jobs over the years.”

Tom Crochiere and Ann Collins-Crochiere launched Collins-Crochiere Construction Services Inc. in Palmer and rented shop space in Ludlow for a few years. Then, 18 years ago, they came across an eight-acre parcel on McKinstry Avenue in Chicopee, on which sat a large, long building in need of rehabilitation. They saw potential, not only as the company’s headquarters, but as a rental property for service businesses, under the name of Main Street Property Management.

“I was happy with a small company where I could know my employees very well and work with them and manage one or two projects at a time.”

“When we bought this, it was bankrupt, abandoned, contaminated, and pretty much in nasty shape,” he said of the property, which used to be the home of Jahn Foundry in Chicopee, the sister foundry to the Springfield site that suffered a fateful explosion in 1999. “When we bought this, we cleaned it environmentally and then started building it out for modern business space. It’s been hunky dory. But early on, it was a little sketchy.”

It has also helped him keep his employees busy during slow weeks. “We can always find something to improve here, whether it’s painting a hallway or doing some other repair that makes life better for the tenants. That’s been our filler.”

But the day-to-day business has been consistent over the past 26 years. “We have some busy years, some not-so-busy years, and our staffing ranges from around five to 10 employees. The high point was 10, but that was short-lived. It wasn’t as productive or effective as having four, five, or six.

“So we’ve stayed with that, and all of our work generally has been word of mouth,” Crochiere continued. “We don’t do a whole lot of marketing, and work just seems to come to the surface. When we’re finishing a job, someone else calls and has bought a building or is looking at a building or is planning a major renovation. That’s how work seems to fill our schedules. That’s how we got to this point. It’s worked out reasonably well.”

 

Work to Be Done

Crochiere noted several jobs from recent years to give an idea of the company’s work, including a renovation and addition to Ralph’s Blacksmith Shop in Northampton, similar work on a building purchased by Fire Detection Systems in Chicopee, and a renovation and upgrades to an older building purchased by Fire Service Group in Palmer. At Multicultural Community Services in Springfield, Collins-Crochiere tackled an office renovation two years ago and is currently working on a group home for the organization.

“A typical job is, somebody buys a building or is about to purchase a building, and they think they got a great deal on it, and then they invite me to do a walk-through, and I start to think about building codes, ADA codes, energy codes, and I inform my potential client that their budget is about a third of what it should be because the building codes require a certain amount of updating,” he explained.

“In a perfect world, property owners would have a contractor or architect or engineer walk through their building every five years just to give them insight into how far behind the 8-ball they are.”

“They look at me initially with ‘this isn’t part of my financial plan this year,’” he went on. “But we work through it. I work with local architects and engineers to do a full code review and come up with design requirements and upgrade requirements, and then we typically work with the owner to put together a team of subcontractors and suppliers to complete the project.”

In addition, Collins-Crochiere has been a subcontractor to some large electrical and mechanical contractors on state and federal jobs, Crochiere said. “We act as support; sometimes a large mechanical job requires two months of carpentry spread over six months. So we might be that supportive subcontractor to a larger mechanical contractor.”

Over the years, plenty of business has been of the repeat variety, he noted — maybe a former customer is growing and is buying a second or third building, or a first renovation was good for 10 years, and now they call looking for more upgrades or a new addition.

“That’s been nice. And our relationships in Western Mass. have been helpful. We often find that a new customer will call and say he’s spoken to two close friends, looking for a contractor, and our name comes up in both conversations. So he says, ‘I guess you’re someone I should talk to.’ That has led to a few jobs over the years.”

Springfield Technical Community College

One of the company’s recent projects involved repairs to this building at Springfield Technical Community College.

Consistency has been king when it comes to the company’s core of subcontractors and suppliers as well, many of which have been the same for decades.

“It’s been an asset for our business to be able to rely on our relationships with these local subcontractors who bring extra expertise in each of the trades, whether it’s electrical, mechanical, or plumbing. That means fewer surprises. That’s one factor that’s helped us with our consistent delivery of jobs.”

Even at the Chicopee property, the company has done plenty of tenant buildouts and renovations over the years. Crochiere knows properties everywhere are crying out for upgrades, but business owners often don’t realize it.

“In a perfect world, property owners would have a contractor or architect or engineer walk through their building every five years just to give them insight into how far behind the 8-ball they are, because codes change, technology changes, things wear out,” he explained. “And yet, when someone goes to sell their building or someone buys a building or someone plans an upgrade, the owner is frequently shocked at how much they have to do and how expensive a project might be — they only wanted to do a conference room and a bathroom, and it turns out to be a whole lot more.

“After so many years in the business, we’ve come to expect it, but unlike getting your car inspected each year, no one inspects their own building each year. And it would be helpful, I think, for owners to do that,” he went on. “Even with efficiencies, there are some products out there that have a short payback time, but they’re never considered until someone considers a major renovation or is purchasing a building.”

 

New Normal

While, as Crochiere noted earlier, some years have been stronger than others, no one was prepared for the chaos of the early days of COVID-19, and its lingering economic effects.

“When COVID hit, we were here for probably four months during that initial shutdown period, where we have some essential businesses that manufacture products here, so it was nice to be able to do some things to support them and keep our employees busy,” he said.

That was especially fortuitous because the firm had an office renovation in the planning stages, and the client — another essential service — called and decided they didn’t want anyone working in the building for a few months.

While work eventually restarted for contractors during the pandemic, this past year has seen a global supply-chain crunch impact firms of all sizes, and that remains a serious concern (see story on page 15).

“It’s hour to hour — it’s no longer planning for the week, it’s ‘what happened last night? What product isn’t going to get to the job this week that was supposed to be delivered, and it’s now six weeks out?’ It throws a wrench into everything,” Crochiere said.

“But it’s a nationwide issue, and everyone’s aware of it, so customers have been understanding when I send them an e-mail indicating we’ve had a wrinkle in this week’s plan or this month’s plan,” he went on. “Fortunately, our subcontractors are looking forward and trying to purchase long-lead items as early as possible to try to avoid significant effects on jobs. It’s a weekly — no, it’s a daily inconvenience, but everyone is trying to work through it.”

Like other contractors BusinessWest spoke with for this issue, Crochiere said demand for work is plentiful, and once the global issues clear, the future seems bright.

“I think people will continue to want to improve their buildings and make capital improvements to facilitate the changing business environment. Manufacturing has changed a bit over the last two years, and certainly office usage has changed the way we use our spaces. So I expect there will be continued work in the pipeline as a result of people adjusting their business needs.”

The other hindrance to taking on that work is, of course, persistent workforce shortages in construction — an issue that long predates COVID.

“The labor shortage is certainly an issue,” he said. “It does affect us. It would be nice to find another experienced, capable carpenter or laborer or employee, but I’d say those that respond to ads aren’t really employable for the work we do. They either don’t have the skills, don’t have the experience, or they don’t have the driver’s license that’s necessary. The labor shortage is affecting all of our subcontractors and everyone we speak to.”

Crochiere is a believer in construction as a career, though, and would like to see more young people catch the same vision.

“Very few young people are showing interest in the physical labor, but one has to be not just physically capable, but smart — technology is changing in every trade, every business, so it’s a great opportunity for young people who are motivated and want to work, with their hands and with their brain. There’s a lot to learn, but the opportunities are limitless. The lifestyle is good, the income level is good, they’re physically active during the day … it could be a good thing.”

It certainly has been at Collins-Crochiere Construction Services, for 26 years and counting.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Cannabis Cover Story

Rolling Along

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Matt Yee and Mark Cutting of Enlite in Northampton

Massachusetts had already legalized medical marijuana when voters were faced with another question in late 2016: whether to legalize cannabis for recreational use. The vote wasn’t close, sailing through on talk of jobs, tax revenue, and, well, people wanting to light up legally. Reality doesn’t always live up to promise, but in this case, it has. Yes, the industry is still facing growing pains, particularly when it comes to creating a level playing field for entrepreneurs. But when it comes to this new industry’s impact on jobs, real-estate investment, municipal tax revenue, and more, these are truly high times.

 

David Narkewicz wasn’t just a supporter of cannabis coming to Northampton. He was the first customer.

That was three years ago, when NETA opened on Conz Street and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis. Today, with cannabis businesses proliferating in the city and across Massachusetts, the outgoing mayor believes his initial enthusiasm was justified.

“We saw the experience of other states, and a lot of the Massachusetts law, when they were trying to put together the regulatory framework, was based on looking at laws in other states,” Narkewicz said. “First and foremost, I supported legalization just as a public-policy meaure, but I also saw an opportunity for investment in the community.”

Elaborating, he said the city is known as a destination with a vibrant retail sector, arts and culture establishments, and plenty of restaurants and bars. “So my sense, and my hope, was that this would be a new investment in the community and a new source of jobs and revenue, and another reason to come to Northampton. I think we took a pretty forward-looking approach to this.”

Today, Northampton is home to eight retail dispensaries for adult-use cannabis, seven manufacturers, four cultivation facilities, and a testing lab. Those numbers grow seemingly by the month.

Meanwhile, three years of excise taxes on adult-use cannabis have brought in more than $4.3 million. “That helps us continue funding schools, police, fire, DPW, all the services we provide as a city.”

Mark Cutting and Matt Yee certainly saw potential, not only in the state’s legalization of cannabis, but Northampton’s embrace of it. Just last week, they opened the city’s eighth adult-use dispensary, Enlite, just off the Coolidge Bridge rotary — and they have a long-term vision for it based on the idea that this is a still-evolving industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job. It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

“We thought that, with our background in business and the Yee family’s background in restaurants and entertainment, there may be potential beyond even the retail space,” Cutting said. “There may be opportunities to have some type of dining or some type of entertainment along with cannabis partaking at some point in time — though that’s not legal here yet.”

Yee noted that the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts — almost 190 and counting, not just in retail, but in cultivation, manufacturing, and wholesaling — is making it easier for all players to succeed, because of the cross-pollination. It’s why Enlite has adopted the model of many area dispensaries of partnering with boutique makers of cannabis products.

“Early on, it was difficult because [product] availability was so low, you had to be vertically integrated to supply yourself,” he noted. “But Western Mass. has been really kind to small-scale producers, and we’re really happy to showcase them here at this location.”

Cutting added that “a lot of the multi-state operators don’t necessarily like companies like that to sit on their shelves. But we’re basically an open market for some of these producers to share shelf space and advertise their product here locally.”

With each business open, total sales in Massachusetts increase — crossing the $2 billion mark, in fact, earlier this month, a number even proponents might not have expected so soon after voters approved legalizing recreational cannabis in November 2016, four years after giving a similar go-ahead to medical marijuana.

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says cannabis has created fertile ground for hundreds of new jobs in Holyoke — and an impressive diversity of them.

And those businesses mean jobs, said Jeffrey Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

“We’ve experienced high levels of unemployment during the pandemic; both Springfield and Holyoke unemployment have been ahead of the federal and state average. In both communities, we see a strong need to connect people to the workforce,” Hayden told BusinessWest.

That’s one reason HCC became a lead partner in the creation of the Cannabis Career Center in late 2019. If HCC exists to give people the skills they need to get into jobs, he reasoned, then the potential of cannabis couldn’t be ignored — especially in a city rivaled only, perhaps, by Northampton in its full-on embrace of this new industry.

“Our getting into cannabis was really just another attempt on our part to find jobs that people can get into at the entry level, or get a better job,” he explained. “It’s imperative that we find people who are unemployed, underemployed, those with limited education, limited work history, and get them into employment and on a career track.”

But cannabis is changing Holyoke in other ways, too, notably in its canal district, where long-neglected mill buildings are springing to life with cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and sales.

David Narkewicz

David Narkewicz

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing.”

“The private investment in Holyoke as a result of this industry coming to Massachusetts has been extremely significant,” Hayden said. “Cannabis companies are buying properties that have been long underutilized — and it’s not like acquiring a building and leaving it as is; they’re investing significant dollars to improve it and create new jobs in the city, literally hundreds of jobs already. And, obviously, the tax revenue generated for the city is significant. This is a growing industry in Massachusetts.”

That’s true — literally and figuratively. Five years after that critical vote and three years after businesses started opening, cannabis has proven to be a hardy economic driver, one that not only survived the pandemic, but thrived throughout it. And no one really knows what the ceiling may be.

 

Ironing Out the Issues

Not everything has been smooth in what is becoming a hyper-competitive market. Enlite is the state’s first Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) applicant to open its doors, and Yee concedes that the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to MBE and social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results.

“It’s a really big topic in the industry. We’ve had a lot of commissioners change out in the last year or so, and a lot of people in the program saw CCC failing them as far as getting those applicants to the finish line,” Yee explained. “It’s a combination of things: operators with not a lot of resources can be an issue. Obviously you’ve got your multi-state operators with a million dollars allocated to their lawyers and legal teams, so they’re able to have the resources to get them pushed through a little bit faster. Those are big issues.”

Holyoke’s mill district

Holyoke’s mill district has become a promising location for cannabis cultivation for companies like GTI.

But things are changing, he added, with new commissioners “really focusing on those applicants and assisting them, figuring out where the pain points are and getting them to the finish line and open. We’ve been seeing some traction on that.”

The process can be a tricky one (see related story on page 22).

“The biggest issue — because it’s not federally legal — is access to capital,” Cutting said. “It’s a journey getting through the CCC, and if you do make a mistake and don’t dot your I’s and cross your T’s, it gets rejected, and you have to start all over again, and you don’t necessarily go back to the same queue you were in — you may go to the bottom of the pile. And it can be a long, painful process to get back to the top of the pile. And God forbid you make a mistake again.”

It helped, he said, to deal with a city that didn’t limit the number of application approvals. “We sat down with the mayor, and it was the most seamless, easiest process you can ever imagine, versus other cities that either opted out, or there’s a lottery, or they really capped the number of cultivators or retailers they’re allowing.”

In Narkewicz’s eyes, Northampton’s voters approved cannabis — first medical, then recreational — at a much higher percentage than the state average, and the city’s leaders took their cue from that.

“We put in place zoning regulations that were not onerous; we’re essentially allowing retail cannabis anywhere we allowed retail, and it was generally the same for manufacturing,” the mayor said. “And I think we saw a pretty strong response — lots of people wanting to locate here in Northampton.”

He does hear questions from people wondering if the market is too saturated, and has a quick response. “Northampton has 17 liquor stores. I have yet to hear anyone complain that we have too many liquor stores. To me, this is a legal industry, and it’s the free market, which is why I opposed caps on liquor licenses for years, because they hold back economic development in a city like Northampton and only drive up the cost of those licenses and make it harder for entrepreneurs.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations. It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

“In an industry like cannabis, which is trying to focus on equity and economic empowerment, particularly for populations that were disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and the war on drugs,” he went on, “putting up barriers like that defeats the purpose and works against the goals of this new industry.”

Narkewicz also noted that each new business may be 20 or 25 new local jobs as well.

In Holyoke, cannabis means hundreds of new jobs in a short period of time. And the variety of jobs is appealing to us,” Hayden added, noting that someone with strong customer-service skills could become an effective patient advocate, while someone with an agricultural background could work in cultivation, and someone with a knack for science could work in extraction and infusion.

The appealing thing, he noted, is that companies are looking for workers with broad skills who just need, and want, to be trained in the intricacies of this field and their specific roles.

“There’s opportunity to get in on the ground floor and also opportunity to grow in these occupations,” Hayden said. “It’s not like we’ve got 100 people in Holyoke who are cultivators, or 50 people who have strong customer-service experience in retail dispensaries. No one has 10 years of experience in this area. So in Massachusetts, for the job seeker, it’s all about what they bring to the occupation.”

Kathleen Proper, chief Human Resources officer at Canna Provisions in Holyoke, said as much at a panel discussion that preceded a recent Cannabis Career Fair at HCC, titled “Cultivating an Industry.”

“Our biggest thing is providing outstanding customer service,” she noted. “So if you’ve got experience doing customer service, whether you’ve worked retail, worked in a restaurant, waited tables, tended bar, all of those skills work out really well. Even though cannabis retail is a different animal than other retail … we tend to do really well with people who have waited tables or tended bar.”

 

Word on the Street

Yee isn’t worried about the ninth dispensary that will open in Northampton, or the 10th or 11th. Like Narkewicz, he believes the legal cannabis industry is thriving, with the saturation point well in the distance.

“I always say our biggest competitor is the black market. Many consumers are still shopping on the black market because the pricing is far better,” he said, noting that an eighth-ounce of cannabis may cost $50 in a store and $30 on the street, with no tax.

“A lot of folks who are stuck in their ways, they know the brands they like on that market, they know the cultivators they want to work with … the black market is still very, very strong,” he went on. “As we see more interesting products hit the shelves here at a commercial dispensary and prices begin to drop — and we are seeing a little more of that — we’ll see folks moving over from the black market to the commercial market. So there’s still a massive untapped customer base out there.”

Cutting agreed that, as the legal cannabis industry matures and deepens, the sheer volume of product will lower prices, and that — as well as the aesthetic and educational experience that many cannabis shops tout — will draw more people in.

“Additionally, all the product on our shelves has been tested; you know what’s in the product. On the black market, you don’t have test results and don’t know what metals or pesticides or mold or yeast are in their product. They don’t have to test — they just roll and sell their product from whatever location they’re growing in.

“Here, it’s a safe, friendly environment,” Cutting went on. “You’re not looking over your shoulder buying something off the black market. And I think that market will eventually snuff itself out. Not entirely, but I think, over time, you’ll see it. The question some will ask is, ‘hey, do I want to be safe, or roll with this and take the risk of an untested product?’ I think most people will want to be on the safe side.”

As for public safety, Narkewicz said concerns from cannabis opponents — regarding surging crime and diversion problems — simply haven’t come to pass. And looking back, he’s proud to have been the first customer in the city’s newest growth industry.

“Obviously, in the early going, we had a little traffic crunch and parking crunch, but I don’t know many mayors worried about too many people wanting to visit their city,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a good problem to have.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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