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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.

 

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]

Cannabis

Aiming High

The executive team at 6 Brick’s

The executive team at 6 Brick’s includes, from left, Taylor Shubrick, Payton Shubrick, and their parents, Dawn and Fred Shubrick.

Payton Shubrick always wanted to effect change in the world.

She never thought it would be through a product that was, for most of her life, illegal.

Specifically, when she graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 2015 with a degree in political science — and concentrations in Africana studies and peace and conflict studies — the goal was to enroll in law school, she explained.

“Our speaker for our class talked heavily about moving mountains — ‘how do you leave this college on a hill and move mountains the rest of your life?’” she recalled. “So my idea was, I was going to have this landmark case that would change the trajectory of my career and rewrite some type of law.”

But she found herself working full-time at MassMutual instead — and missing her college days filled with extracurricular activities. “It was work, work out, and go home. There was nothing in between.”

So, with the help of her father, Fred, she secured an internship with the Springfield City Council. Meetings became more interesting after Massachusetts voters approved the legalization of adult-use cannabis in late 2016, with out-of-state operators hanging around and officials trying to hash out what the rules would be for zoning and other aspects of legalization. And Shubrick was intrigued — so much that, when the councilor she was interning for lost a re-election bid, she kept attending meetings anyway.

“I was hearing so much conversation about how these businesses were going to make millions. Honestly speaking, they made it sound so easy.”

“I was hearing so much conversation about how these businesses were going to make millions,” she recalled. “Honestly speaking, they made it sound so easy.”

But as Shubrick thought about her own potential in this new industry, she had something else in mind besides dollar signs. She’d read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and gained an understanding of how the failed war on drugs had impacted urban communities like Springfield. And she saw the cannabis industry as a way to engage with that community, succeed in business there, and pay it forward.

“I went to a Springfield public high school, where, if somebody dropped a dime bag, they were going to in-house suspension or being arrested in the middle of the school day because you had police officers present in the building with you. So, when you start to peel back the layers and realize this is going to be a billion-dollar industry, how can you get people in your community to benefit from that?”

The answer is 6 Brick’s, an adult-use retail cannabis shop expected to open early in 2022 on Main Street in Springfield, in the Republican complex.

“We are what most would describe as a mom-and-pop shop, which I tend to agree with since both my parents are on the executive team,” she told BusinessWest.

The Shubrick family hopes to have 6 Brick’s open by early 2022.

The Shubrick family hopes to have 6 Brick’s open by early 2022.

She thought her biggest hurdle would be getting her father on board. “Saying I wanted to be a lawyer has a certain level of prestige around it. Saying I wanted to be a legal drug dealer and own a cannabis dispensary … not so much. How do you make that business case and get Dad to switch gears?”

But not only has Fred become her biggest supporter, he’s also chief procurement officer at 6 Brick’s — a name that echoes the family name, Shubrick. Payton is CEO, while her mother, Dawn, is executive secretary, and her sister, Taylor, is head of community responsibility and quality assurance. Two younger siblings — who aren’t currently old enough to work in cannabis — round out the ‘6’ in the company name.

Once she decided to wade into this burgeoning industry, Payton knew she wanted to do it in Springfield.

“There’s this idea that, to be a star, you have to leave the area and go to Boston or New York. I heard, ‘you have so much potential; go somewhere.’ That was frustrating because I’ve always seen the potential Springfield has, and this industry, in many ways, allows me to prove people wrong; I can stay here, and I can be successful in my own right, and I don’t have to move out of the city of Springfield to do that.”

“Saying I wanted to be a lawyer has a certain level of prestige around it. Saying I wanted to be a legal drug dealer and own a cannabis dispensary … not so much.”

Furthermore, she said, “I can participate in an industry that previously caused so many people’s lives to be disrupted and negatively impacted, and I can try my hand at something I had always been interested in, which is entrepreneurship.”

It hasn’t been easy, and the journey is far from over — and the cannabis landscape in Massachusetts is still a difficult one for minority entrepreneurs, despite the state’s establishment of a social-equity program (more on that later). In a wide-ranging interview, Shubrick talked about why that’s the case, and what can be done to improve the prospects of business owners who lack the resources of large, established companies and, ultimately, create a more level playing field.

 

No Easy Road

Shubrick and her family officially launched 6 Brick’s in 2019, and the road since has been a thornier one than she had imagined.

Back in 2017, “I thought if I did my homework and put together a really strong application, I would get the license. I didn’t expect an RFP, 27 groups applying, only four being selected. That’s when your heart starts to do many palpitations — what if we don’t get picked? What happens next? I didn’t have a plan B.”

Payton Shubrick and Marcus Williams, president of the Block

Payton Shubrick and Marcus Williams, president of the Block, which seeks opportunity for minority-owned cannabis businesses, share a few words at a recent mixer.

But she did fight through to become one of the four entities chosen in Springfield’s first round of permits.

“The running joke in the industry is they never ask when are you going to open, they say where are you in the process,” Shubrick said, noting that it’s a two-pronged process. At the city level, it involves a special permit and a host-community agreement, while the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) requires a provisional license, post-provisional-license inspections, and other steps, including a certificate of occupancy (back to the city for that), which is required by the state for the final license.

Shubrick described it all as a long sequence of queues, of getting on meeting agenda after meeting agenda. “It’s a very layered process with two entities that don’t talk to each other, and you need a series of documents from each. It’s a series of waiting rooms in some capacities.”

On top of that, 6 Brick’s has had to deal with supply-chain issues during the pandemic to get its space — now 90% built out — up and running. It even had to wait for doors that were stuck in shipping containers. “There’s not a lot in your control as you think about moving through this process. So patience is key.”

All along, a Springfield-based business was the only goal, she noted, as opposed to, say, Northampton, which never capped the number of cannabis permits.

“I didn’t look to start as a business model that was going to be rinse and repeat in any city,” she explained. “I looked at it as, ‘I can be the hometown hero because, when I hire people, I’m going to hire them from the community, and I’m going to hire those who were impacted by cannabis prohibition.’ And that doesn’t just mean who did jail time — it could be their daughter, their niece, their nephew, because, let’s be honest, when someone is removed from the home and incarcerated, that whole family is impacted.”

In short, “for me, this was aligned to social-justice elements of my hometown and less aligned to me becoming a millionaire overnight.”

She found tht the road to being profitable at all begins with a lot of money up front — between $1 million and $2.5 million, typically, depending on the state of the building, its HVAC requirements, and other costs.

“I didn’t look to start as a business model that was going to be rinse and repeat in any city.”

That has been a roadblock for many applicants that have gone through the state’s social-equity program aimed at creating an entrepreneurial path for communities that were particularly hard hit by the war on drugs — most of them minority-dominated communities. Today, only 8% of cannabis companies currently open in Massachusetts are run by those who emerged from the social-equity program.

“Some go through the process but have no funding at the end of the program,” Shubrick said. “So now you’re well-versed in the process and know how to get through it, and you’re looking around, and there’s no banks giving you money. If you don’t know people with deep pockets, how do you get the right investors? I’ve seen horror stories of people who have the best of intentions and got so far in the process, but you have the wrong investor, and then it becomes a nightmare. And now you’re selling for pennies, and you’ve lost time, energy, and money.

“That’s the heartbreak people don’t talk about,” she went on. “And I wouldn’t categorize it as those people failing; I would categorize it as not having have a holistic structure in place that supports people from start to finish. It’s almost a tease in order to say, ‘hey, I’m going to show you how to make a pizza, but I’m never going to give you the ingredients so you can make your own.’ Many people simply can’t raise the money to do what they’ve gone through a program to learn how to do.”

In an editorial last week, the Boston Globe agreed, noting that the state has ignored calls to create a loan program to help equity applicants, adding that, “as if the barriers to entry weren’t high enough already, getting financing for a marijuana business is difficult because of its murky legal status.”

But the Globe cites other barriers to social-equity applicants as well, particularly the power of municipalities — which are not required to consider equity when awarding licenses — over the approval process, not to mention the head start large medical-marijuana businesses have had in the recreational license-approval process, which has paved the way for bigger medical companies to dominate the market.

“So the state has to double down on its social-equity program and prioritize licensing for minority applicants,” the Globe argues.

It’s also a hyper-competitive industry in general, Shubrick said, one where players are fiercely protecting their piece of the pie, and new retailers are often offered unfair deals to partner with growers, manufacturers, and wholesalers, and vice versa.

“It’s key to have a team of lawyers and accountants help you stay away from the sharks in the water because people are so hyper-focused on trying to extract as much money as possible, they’re not thinking through long-term impacts like ‘how can I be a decent businessperson to this other individual so maybe down the line we can do business together?’ Instead, it’s ‘how can I squeeze as much equity as possible? How can I give them terms that maybe aren’t favorable because I’ll benefit in the short term?’

“Other states around us are legalizing, so the captive audience in Massachusetts won’t be the same,” she went on, “and that doesn’t bring out the best in people when they don’t view competition as healthy and an opportunity to get better.”

 

Seeking Solutions

Proponents of true social equity in cannabis are working toward a more equitable industry, however. Earlier this month, the Block — an organization that aims to support black and Latino cannabis professionals in Massachusetts — held the last of three networking mixers at White Lion Brewery in downtown Springfield. About 80 people attended, including a CCC commissioner.

In addition to efforts around business development, resources, and connections for its members, the Block is also developing options for members to gain capital, such as minority-owned investment firms, crowdsourcing, and more traditional, institutional backing.

“Plenty was discussed. It was a really good evening overall,” Shubrick said. “Social equity here in Massachusetts is well-intentioned, but logistically, it has opportunities to become more meaningful so we see more people opening doors who have gone through the program.”

She stressed that she’s fortunate to be entering this business backed by people — her family foremost — with her best interest at heart, and she’s passionate about using her business to lift up the only city she considered for this business.

“I want to hire folks from the community who can benefit from this industry, not just because they were impacted by the war on drugs, but also because Springfield should be benefiting from these jobs.”

That passion, she noted, will be shared by ‘budtenders’ who understand the plant and can educate customers on the store’s products, many of them created by local manufacturers that are also smaller companies, many owned by women, veterans, and people of color.

“We’re being intentional about our partnerships and helping customers understand why we’re partnering with them,” she said. “So it’s more of an experience and less of a transaction.”

Certainly, opening a cannabis retail shop — and, again, it’s a long process, one that’s not over yet — has been quite the experience for the Shubrick family.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote James Baldwin, a quotation Payton calls her favorite. Indeed, she’s facing the challenging realities of cannabis entrepreneurship — with a mind to change things for the better for those who come after.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Health Care

Critical Condition

Workforce challenges are common to virtually every industry these days — in fact, it’s the dominant economic story of our time, affecting everything from wages to employee relations to damaged supply chains. In healthcare, the pandemic has only exacerbated workforce issues that were already present. Hospitals, nursing homes, and other providers have to keep providing their services, of course, but the stress, burnout, and soaring costs resulting from the talent crunch have many saying the current environment is simply unsustainable.

While workforce shortages in healthcare are not a new story, Spiros Hatiras said, COVID-19 certainly didn’t help the situation. Far from it.

“We had some challenges even before, but really, the pandemic has created a sort of crisis situation,” said Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center and Valley Health Systems, noting that industry estimates peg current healthcare vacancies around a half-million jobs nationally. “There’s a mixture of reasons why they left, and a lot of them had to do with the pandemic.”

Essentially, he explained, many nurses and specialists have re-evaluated what they want to do for a living, while others who were close to retirement anyway decided to make that transition earlier than they might have. Others who had been part of a double-income household stayed home with the kids during the pandemic and decided they wanted to continue to do so.

“You have people who got burned out dealing with acute illness and decided to stay in the profession, but looked for a setting where they weren’t dealing with acute illness,” he went on. “Then you had some people with an existential crisis, saying ‘healthcare is not for me.’ We certainly had some of those. Put it all together, and we had a lot of folks leave the profession on the clinical side.”

Entry-level, non-licensed jobs in healthcare, like housekeeping and dietary services, have been a struggle to fill as well, Hatiras said, but nowhere near as difficult as on the clinical side.

Adam Berman also recognizes that these issues predate COVID. Well before the pandemic — for several years before, actually — Berman, president and CEO of Legacy Lifecare, would attend trade-association panels and conferences and speak with state and national colleagues, and one topic would always be at the forefront.

“It was always workforce, workforce, workforce,” he said. “This was pre-COVID, and it’s what kept providers up at night.”

However, at Legacy’s two partner companies, JGS Lifecare and Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, Berman agrees with Hatiras that the pandemic took an already-worrisome problem and worsened it.

“We had some challenges even before, but really, the pandemic has created a sort of crisis situation.”

“When COVID came, many individuals who may have been considering careers in healthcare went for it, but for others, COVID gave them pause. And some people elected to retire earlier than they were otherwise going to. For many people, there was the calculus of determining whether they’d stay at home taking care of somebody versus re-entering the workforce.

“That’s not just in healthcare; that’s in general,” Berman added. “You see it across every industry. There are fewer people overall than were previously in the workforce.”

The growing labor shortage in healthcare is starting to have serious bottom-line effects, as organizations boost wages to compete for scarce talent and swallow skyrocketing rates being demanded by travel-nurse agencies.

A recent study conducted by Premier, a national healthcare-improvement company, found that U.S. hospitals and health systems are paying $24 billion more per year for qualified clinical labor than they did pre-pandemic, and approximately two-thirds of hospitals’ current costs are from wages and salary.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras says hospitals like Holyoke Medical Center are feeling the bottom-line impact of soaring workforce costs.

As reported by the Massachusetts Hospital Assoc., Premier found that “overtime hours are up 52% as of September of 2021 when compared to a pre-pandemic baseline. At the same time, use of agency and temporary labor is up 132% for full-time and 131% for part-time workers. Use of contingency labor (or positions created to complete a temporary project or work function) is up nearly 126%.”

The Premier study follows a September study from Kaufman Hall projecting that hospitals nationwide will lose an estimated $54 billion in net income over the course of 2021, even taking into account the funding they received from the federal CARES Act.

Meanwhile, Moody’s Investor Services also predicted hospital margins will continue to fall. “Over the next year, we expect margins to decline given wage inflation, use of expensive nursing agencies, increased recruitment and retention efforts, and expanded benefit packages that include more behavioral-health services and offerings such as childcare. Even after the pandemic, competition for labor is likely to continue as the population ages — a key social risk — and demand for services increases.”

All of this results in what healthcare leaders are increasingly calling an unsustainable situation — one that’s necessitating a great deal of flexibility, creativity, and, yes, anxiety.

 

Heightened Competition

In the world of home care, COVID posed some very specific issues, said Mary Flahive-Dickson, chief development officer and chief medical officer at Golden Years Homecare Services and Golden Years Staffing Agency.

“We already had an ongoing issue with a shortage of healthcare providers, but with COVID, people were moving loved ones out of facilities and into their homes — getting them out of skilled nursing and assisted living, keeping them out of hospitals. But now they needed home care, and a lot of it — not just an hour here and an hour there. These were people with 24-hour needs.”

The government’s generous unemployment policies didn’t help, she added.

“When the government pays you to stay home, why the hell would you go to work? If you’re getting paid $15 or $16 an hour to potentially expose yourself to COVID by entering someone’s home, why not stay home and get paid $25 an hour to stay home? We had the same issues every other industry had: the government simply made it way too easy to stay home.”

All that became what Flahive-Dickson called a “perfect storm” of increased home-care needs when the worker pool was dramatically shrinking — a simple matter of supply and demand, really. She understands the reluctance to work last year — not just because of the unemployment benefits, but because it was unclear, especially early on, how COVID spread and how serious the risk was. But almost two years after the pandemic began, the workforce disruption still resonates.

Adam Berman

Adam Berman

“When COVID came, many individuals who may have been considering careers in healthcare went for it, but for others, COVID gave them pause. And some people elected to retire earlier than they were otherwise going to.”

This past year did bring some relief, she noted, from the end of the extra-large unemployment checks to the expedited vaccine rollout to healthcare workers in February and March. However, the tight labor market has also created a competitive situation in which nurses, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), home health aides, and others are willing to jump from job to job for a pay bump — and companies are, indeed, offering those bumps.

“If I work for company A and company B offers me a quarter more an hour, I’m going to company B,” she said in explaining the mindset. “Then, if company C offers more than company B, I’m going to company C. Competition for home-care workers and other healthcare workers is through the roof.

“The reimbursements haven’t gone up, but payouts have gone up,” she went on. “A lot of companies are just not able to do that; if you don’t have a certain volume, you’re out of business.”

Wearing her staffing-agency hat for a moment, Flahive-Dickson noted that Massachusetts is the only state in the country that puts a cap on what a staffing agency can charge a facility; in fact, it’s illegal to go over the cap.

“If you’re getting paid $15 or $16 an hour to potentially expose yourself to COVID by entering someone’s home, why not stay home and get paid $25 an hour to stay home? We had the same issues every other industry had: the government simply made it way too easy to stay home.”

“Everyone is trying to outbid each other, and these employees find themselves jumping from opportunity to opportunity simply because the opportunity is there. You can’t blame them for doing that, but it’s completely unsustainable.”

Agency nurses are causing financial problems for hospitals because of the pay they command, Hatiras said. As a result, nurses are leaving their employers, signing on with agencies as ‘travelers,’ and then often returning to the same hospitals at two or three times the pay.

“The staff is making significantly more money, and it enriches those agencies, but the hospitals and consumers are footing the bill,” he said. “That’s an additional problem for us, but we’re not alone.”

HMC offers stability of schedule, without the travel, that agencies can’t, he noted, and has been offering incentives — like bonuses for signing up and for staying on for a certain amount of time, as well as tuition reimbursement and loan forgiveness. “But we can’t match the $100 an hour agencies are paying.”

What all this means, Berman said, is that “employees have far more power to be very discriminating about their future employment. I think that’s wonderful — it does require employers to think differently than in the past. You can’t take for granted that people will show up at your door. You need to do a better job of messaging: ‘this is a good place to work; everyone is treated fairly.’”

And not just say it, but back it up, he added.

“Competitive providers are raising wages, which is one of the positive impacts. It’s tough on employers, but those employers are becoming more competitive in terms of working conditions and wages, and that should not be minimized.”

 

Priming the Pump

Hatiras said the lack of interstate licensing reciprocity doesn’t help efforts to boost nursing staff, and state-level efforts to create reciprocity have run into union resistance. But he added that any effort to put more workers in the pipeline locally would be welcome.

“I don’t know if the pandemic has discouraged people who ordinarily would want to get into nursing but are staying away from it,” he told BusinessWest.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says many people want to remain in healthcare

Mary Flahive-Dickson says many people want to remain in healthcare, but not in acute-care settings because of stress and burnout.

One step Holyoke Medical Center has taken is to reduce the volume of non-clinical work that its nurses do, like personal hygiene, handling phone calls, and procuring supplies. In that way, the workforce crunch is lessened not by hiring more nurses — which the hospital would do if it could — but giving them more time to do the clinical work they’re uniquely trained to do.

“We decided to go to a model where we add more more staff that acts in a support role — certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists, secretarial help. At times when staffing is down, those support functions will take some of those duties and responsibilities off nurses and give nurses more time to be able to do medication management, care documentation, all that.”

The goal in the past has been one CNA for each two nurses on a shift, but HMC is now shooting for a one-to-one ratio. “The feedback from nurses has been tremendous,” Hatiras said. “Given everything going on, we think this is a good solution.”

It’s a way to reduce the burnout factor, which is real and significant, Flahive-Dickson said. When it’s not chasing healthcare workers toward early retirement, she noted, it’s making others more picky about their work setting. Her staffing agency hears from some clients who want to stay away from high-stress hospital and acute-care settings, and ask instead about shifts in schools, clinics, camps, and the like.

Berman said his industry has long had to stay on message simply because the role of a nurse in a skilled-nursing facility has never been the most glamorous-sounding job. While some people have a passion and calling for it, others need to be persuaded that this is fulfilling work, he noted.

“I don’t think this is going to be a short-lived situation. It’s going to take a long time to dig out from under … you can’t refresh the pipeline immediately.”

“Everyone is looking for staff, and everyone is being bombarded with different messages recruiting people. That becomes more challenging for us.”

Some organizations have become creative in building their own talent pipeline. Faced with a shortage of CNAs in the region, Legacy Lifecare created its own school, covering the cost of training for several dozen individuals so far and hiring many of them.

Likewise, Golden Years offers a 75-hour home health aide certification course, a $1,200 to $1,500 value, for free. “We’re giving them an education and certifying them and, in return, ask them to sign on for six months,” Flahive-Dickson said. “It’s one of the ways we try to offset the incredible need that COVID posed.”

Hatiras understands that other industries are facing similar headwinds when it comes to the availability and rising cost of talent. “You’ve seen everyone struggle. Look at the restaurant industry. When I see McDonald’s advertising high pay rates and tuition reimbursement, you know how bad things are.

“I don’t think this is going to be a short-lived situation,” he added. “It’s going to take a long time to dig out from under … you can’t refresh the pipeline immediately.”

Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Assoc., took a similar perspective during a recent meeting of the Health Policy Commission’s advisory council.

“I get that people fully want to go back to some semblance of normal,” he said, “but our healthcare organizations don’t have that option.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Gift Guide Special Coverage

’Tis the Season

It’s not always easy to find the perfect gift item for everyone on your list, but, thankfully, Western Mass. provides a plethora of options, from cooking classes to balloon rides; from sporting events to spa experiences — not to mention books, toys, locally created art pieces … the list goes on. Even better, all support local businesses and organizations — many of which have struggled during the pandemic — and, in turn, boost the region’s economy at a time when it could really use the lift.

When Bill Cole took over leadership of Living Local 413, he said, it was a loose collection of businesses in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow supporting each other. He knew it could be more, and grew its presence and mission; soon, it will even launch an accelerator program.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s about the entire business community in Western Mass.”

It’s a business community, like others across the U.S., that has been ravaged by the pandemic and the economic turmoil that has followed in the wake of COVID-19 — and those challenges have not ended, which is why Cole says it’s critical to support locally owned businesses over national chains and online retailers this holiday season, and beyond.

“We should all eat, shop, and hire local,” he said, citing some statistics to back up that thought. “It’s very, very simple: when you take $100 and spend it at a local business, up to $69 stays in the community. When you spend $100 on Amazon, none of it stays in your community.”

Even shopping at a local big-box store returns just $43 of that $100 to the community, he noted.

“The bottom line is, when your money stays local, it helps things like police and fire departments, and sports teams, which are always sponsored by some local business. And it’s better for the environment because you’re not shipping stuff all over the place. Basically, everyone wins. That’s what it comes down to.”

Bill Cole

Bill Cole

“It’s very, very simple: when you take $100 and spend it at a local business, up to $69 stays in the community. When you spend $100 on Amazon, none of it stays in your community.”

Claudia Pazmany, president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed, noting that local retailers offer unique, often handmade gifts that stand out from what can be purchased on Amazon.

“This is a time when we have to look inside and say, ‘I want to support local businesses,’” she said. “People often say they support local, but can you really say you do?”

To help shoppers come to that decision, the Amherst Area Chamber has developed an economic-stimulus initiative to support local businesses through a gift-card match program. The gift cards can be used at many local businesses, and two chamber members have each donated $5,000 to a gift-card match. Thus, beginning on Nov. 15, each $25 gift card purchased will be doubled in value to $50, thanks to these donations.

“That will translate into a $20,000 reinvestment in our small-business community,” Pazmany said, adding that the Amherst Business Improvement District is bringing back its red-ticket event, and for every $25 gift card purchased, the buyer will receive two red tickets toward a cash drawing on Dec. 18.

Again, it’s a win-win for shoppers and local businesses, she said, noting that restaurant gift cards make good holiday gifts as well.

“Let’s make an effort. Restaurants haven’t opened to full capacity because of staffing. We’re not there yet. That’s the big message I’d like to send — we’re not out of this by any means. A lot more support is needed, and the best way to do it is to buy local during the holidays.”

Cole said the pandemic has certainly made things tougher for businesses, but many were already feeling the crunch of online and big-box sales before COVID arrived. Fortunately, he added, more people have become aware of the need to support their area retailers, restaurateurs, artisans, and others.

“Any restaurant, smaller retailer, event business, these are segments of the economy that had the crap kicked out of them really, really badly, and they’re still struggling,” he told BusinessWest. “Even if they got help with PPP and all the things available to the small-business owner, it wasn’t easy to begin with. Some of these people may not recover.

“On a more positive note,” he added, “those people who will recover are awesome entrepreneurs. They know when to pivot and change and do things that make a difference.”

And they deserve the community’s support to keep pivoting and keep rebounding, Cole added. “Certainly, that’s what Living Local is going to do. We want to be 100% behind that.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 


 

Keeping It Local

Western Mass. Offers Plenty of Gift-giving Options This Holiday Season

 

The Baker’s Pin

34 Bridge St., Northampton

(413) 586-7978; thebakerspin.com

This extensive kitchen store carries a wide range of cookware, cutlery, electric devices, bakeware, kitchen tools, home goods, cookbooks, and food products as well — extracts, condiments, jams and jellies, sweets and chocolates, oils and vinegars, tea, spices, pastas, and more. But it also offers an array of cooking classes, both online and in person, exploring different foods and techniques appropriate for the season.

 

Book Moon

86 Cottage St, Easthampton

(413) 203-1717; bookmoonbooks.com

Since its 2020 opening, Book Moon has established both a local clientele and a robust online presence. The independent store is run by married couple Kelly Link, author of the Pulitzer finalist Get in Trouble, and Gavin Grant, founder and publisher of Small Beer Press. They carry new and used books, collectible first editions, cards and gifts made by local artists, and “mysterious book bundles in brown paper packages tied up in string.”

 

Cooper’s Gifts

161 Main St., Agawam

(413) 786-7760; coopersgifts.com

Cooper’s is not just a store — it’s a destination,” shopkeeper Kate Gourde has said, calling her facility a shopper’s oasis featuring trendy clothing, window fashions, distinctive home furnishings, and exquisite gifts. “I’ve watched babies be born, grow up, and shop now with their little ones. I’ve assisted them in finding the perfect gifts for all the happy and the sad occasions that life sends us.”

 

Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

125 West Bay Road, Amherst

(413) 559-6300; carlemuseum.org

The Carle calls itself “the international champion for picture books. We collect, preserve, and present picture books and picture-book illustrations for audiences passionate about children’s literature.” But in addition to the museum, its store carries books, gifts, prints and décor, cards and stickers, clothing and accessories, party supplies, and more. Parent’s Choice calls it “the very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world.”

 

Glendale Ridge Vineyard

155 Glendale Road, Southampton

(413) 527-0164; glendaleridgevineyard.com

Glendale Ridge Vineyard is a small, family-owned winery committed to producing wines that express the land, climate, and winemaker’s vision. Visitors can taste small-batch wines, tour the inner workings of the boutique winery, or enjoy a glass of wine with family and friends in a scenic rural setting — then purchase a bottle or two from the wine shop. The winery building features indoor seating and space for private events.

 

The Mill District General Store and Hannah’s Local Art Gallery

91 Cowls Road, Amherst

(413) 835-0966;
facebook.com/milldistrictgeneralstore

(413) 835-1765;
facebook.com/hannahslocalartgallery

Part art gallery, part experiential retail store, the Mill District General Store features an array of household items, gardening supplies, pet supplies, games, art supplies, gifts, and locally sourced items. The adjacent Hannah’s Local Art Gallery creates a community hub for emerging and established artists to show and sell their work, teach pop-up classes in their art modality, and learn with and from one another.

 

Misty River Ballooning

(413) 586-9579; mistyriverballooning.com

Misty River Ballooning offers hot air balloon rides in the skies above Western Mass. Veteran balloon pilot Don LaFountain launches from several locations in the Pioneer Valley and the surrounding hilltowns. On a clear day, riders can see the Berkshire hills, as well as the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire. Each flight is followed by a traditional champagne toast and light snacks.

 

Museum Outlets

31 South St., Pittsfield

(413) 499-1818; museumoutlets.com

One of the product categories on its website is ‘cool stuff,’ but really, it’s all cool stuff, with items like vintage maps, French posters, art and prints, and home goods, including elegant serving trays, candle lanterns, alpaca blankets, sculptures, Amish tin stars, bookends, weathervanes, picture frames, doorstops, pillows, rugs, as well as clothing and accessories. No wonder Museum Outlets was voted Best of the Berkshires in the gift-shop category in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021.

 

Odyssey Bookshop

9 College St, South Hadley

(413) 534-7307; odysseybks.com

Over its 59-year history, Odyssey Bookshop has earned a reputation as an eclectic spot to look for books, and also also features a full-service website for ordering. In addition, according to its website, “we strive to provide a hospitable and nurturing environment to encourage the healthy exchange of ideas by hosting numerous readings, book groups, panel presentations, and online discussions.”

 

Off the Beam Woodworking

www.offthebeamwoodworking.com

Local artist (and full-time nurse) Sheri Lee handcrafts unique woodworking pieces, including cheese and serving boards, picture frames, cribbage boards, knife racks, and lanterns from domestic and exotic woods. “Many of the items I make will represent a specific nonprofit organization,” she says. “When you purchase the item, all of the proceeds from the sale minus just the cost of wood and hardware will be donated to the nonprofit the item represents.”

 

Pioneer Valley Food Tours

www.pioneervalleyfoodtours.com

This enterprise creates walking food tours that explore local flavors from Northampton and around the region. It also creates gift boxes sourced from the unique natural resources of the region’s fields and farms, as well as Pioneer Valley picnic baskets of selections ready to bring on an outdoor adventure. Choose a pre-set tour itinerary, or create a custom tour to suit your tastes.

 

Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting

10 West St., West Hatfield

(413) 446-7845; pioneervalleykarting.com

The 1,000-foot track at Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting is capable of racing up to eight karts at once, with the longest races and fastest on-track speeds in New England, featuring a combination of straightaways designed for speed and sweeping corners for technical driving that will challenge everyone from beginners to experts. The track is equipped with a state-of-the-art timing system to record the individual lap times of each kart.

 

Renew.Calm

160 Baldwin St., West Springfield

(413) 737-6223; renewcalm.com

For the past two decades, Renew.Calm has offered an array of both medically based and luxurious spa treatments, with services including skin care, therapeutic massage, nail care, body treatments, yoga, hair removal, makeup, and lashes. The 4,000-square-foot facility also hosts educational events, fitness classes, and more. Multi-treatment packages make great gifts.

 

Rosewood

34 Elm St., Westfield

(413) 642-5365; rosewoodwestfield.com

Rosewood Home & Gifts is a trendsetting retail store located in the heart of downtown Westfield, offering home decor, gift items for special occasions, jewelry, apparel, and more, with a focus on products that support fair trade and products produced locally on the Pioneer Valley. Rosewood also offers seasonal, interactive workshops.

 

SkinCatering

1500 Main St., Suite 111, Springfield

(413) 282-8772; skincatering.com

SkinCatering offers a release from the hectic holidays, so an extra-special, very personal gift may be just what the doctor ordered. Pamper someone special with a massage, facial treatment, spa and sauna package, or any number of other options. And check out its soothing, expanded space on the first floor of Tower Square. Membership packages are available at several different levels.

 

Springfield Thunderbirds

45 Bruce Landon Way, Springfield

(413) 739-4625; springfieldthunderbirds.com

A great deal for big-time hockey fans and folks who simply enjoy a fun night out with the family, Thunderbirds games are reasonably priced entertainment in Springfield’s vibrant downtown. The AHL affiliate of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, the T-birds play home games through April at the MassMutual Center, with a constant stream of promotions, from theme nights to $2 hot dogs, sodas, and beers every Friday night. Purchase tickets at the box office or online.

 

The Toy Box

201 North Pleasant St., Amherst

(413) 256-8697; thetoyboxamherst.com

The Toy Box is “the family fun store of Amherst,” encouraging kids and adults to play and explore, with a wide array of unique products and features like a birthday club and ‘mystery bags.’ For owner Liz Rosenberg, “the gift of sharing something that promotes family and togetherness, is educational and fun, brings joy to children and grownups alike … well, that helps extinguish fears and makes for a better world, better community, and just plain feels right.”

 

The Trustees of Reservations

200 High St., Boston

(617) 542-7696; thetrustees.org

This nonprofit land-conservation and historic-preservation organization is dedicated to preserving natural and historical places. The Trustees own title to 120 properties on 27,000 acres in Massachusetts, all of which are open to the public, including historic mansions, estates, and gardens; woodland preserves; waterfalls; mountain peaks; wetlands and riverways; coastal bluffs, beaches, and barrier islands; farmland and CSA projects; and archaeological sites. A membership makes a great gift.

 

UMass Store

1 Campus Center Way, Amherst

(413) 545-2619; umassstore.com

This is the place for UMass-branded men’s and women’s apparel, drinkware, home and office supplies, accessories, and more. The UMass Store is also the first collegiate campus store to develop a sustainability section. As part of this commitment, it is reaching out to vendors and increasing the variety of sustainable products carried in the store, from recycled newspaper pencils and bamboo calculators to organic cotton T-shirts and recycled bottle apparel.

 

Veronica Martin Design

(413) 628-1985; veronicamartindesign.com

“I’ve always felt compelled to make things with my hands. It’s a reaction, an impulse. It’s how I breathe. Every day should be filled with beauty, and the everyday item should be beautiful.” That’s how Veronica Martin describes her handmade ceramics, candles, and beauty products, which are both lovely and functional. “Their thoughtful aesthetic and elegant characteristics make them luxurious items to own or stunning gifts to give. They are made with a passion for quality, everyday luxury.”

 

Zen’s Toyland

801 Williams St., Longmeadow

(413) 754-3654; zenstoyland.com

Zen’s Toyland, formerly known as The Wooden Toy, has been in business for more than 30 years, selling a variety of items ranging from baby teethers to adult puzzles. “You will find high-quality and unique items that aren’t available elsewhere,” owner Harshal Patel says. “All the toys are handpicked, and we only bring in toys that we would give to our own kids. Also, we have a playroom for your little one to test-drive things we carry. Everyone is a kid at our toy store.”

 

 

 

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Open for Business

Ben Leonard outside Tower Square

Ben Leonard outside Tower Square, where Country Bank just opened an office to service growing commercial business in and around Springfield.

Businesses didn’t stop borrowing in 2020, although much of last year’s lending activity had more to do with staying afloat with Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans than expanding operations. These days, with the economy in a more stable — if not exactly robust — place, many businesses are looking to invest and grow (that is, if they can get enough people to come to work), at a time when banks are sitting on more liquidity than usual and are anxious to lend it out.

When Country Bank announced it was opening a commercial-banking office in Springfield, Ben Leonard was intrigued by the opportunity, noting its similarities to the bank’s push into Worcester in recent years.

“Country Bank has been around a long time, but historically, the physical presence has been between Worcester and Springfield,” noted Leonard, a senior vice president who leads the new Springfield office, located downtown in Tower Square.

“But we’ve always served clients everywhere within a 100-mile radius, and we’ve seen more activity here,” he went on. “We have clients in Springfield and the greater area of Western Mass., so the impetus to build that office was to be closer to those customers. Part of that is growing our C&I [commercial and industrial lending] business — we see a growth market here. It’s an opportunity to grow.”

The C&I lenders who work in the Springfield office have experience in niches like manufacturing, distribution, and equipment-heavy companies, Leonard explained. “That’s kind of what the team knows, and that’s a big part of why Springfield and Worcester are appealing markets for the bank to expand in, because those kinds of businesses are what’s here.”

Those are also the kinds of businesses that maintained operations at a more or less steady level during the pandemic, and now they’re ready to grow — and borrow, he said, adding that the real-estate market is active as well.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

“If there’s a hindrance to businesses growing, it’s labor. It’s not being able to buy the machine, it’s hiring someone to run the machine.”

“Certainly there’s a need for affordable housing, and we’re seeing a lot of turnover in real-estate properties, some repurposing, and some interesting dynamics with real-estate valuations being as high as they are. We’re also seeing situations where the dynamics have changed, where an office building is half-empty now, and it needs to change hands.”

In short, commercial lenders are busy, which marks a change from a year ago. More accurately, they were just as busy last year, but often dealing with some very pandemic-specific activities, from PPP loan processing to commercial-loan deferments, particularly for hard-hit industries like hospitality. These days, however, businesses (not all, but many) are moving past the treading-water stage and calling on banks to help them expand, not just survive.

“People are spending money,” said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which is based in downtown Springfield, noting that some business owners are looking to buy property rather than continue to pay a landlord, while others are making speculative investments in real estate, rather than sitting on cash they may have accumulated during the pandemic, when spending was suppressed for both individuals and businesses.

“We’ll see two or three buddies get together and pool some money to use for a down payment on a two-family or three-family house, thinking, ‘I can make 10 to 15% on my money investing in real estate rather than have it make zero percent in my savings account,’” Sullivan said.

Many are first-time real-estate investors, he added, including young people and people of color aiming to build wealth, while established businesses are anxious to invest in their own operations.

“A lot of people have squirreled away cash from the government programs during the pandemic, and have been hanging onto that cash for a rainy day, and now they’re in a situation where they can use some of that — and banks are lending,” he said. “If there’s a hindrance to businesses growing, it’s labor. It’s not being able to buy the machine, it’s hiring someone to run the machine.”

Mike Lynch, senior lender at Florence Bank, said his institution is looking at commercial-loan numbers that are at least equal to pre-pandemic activity — and that’s on top of PPP loans.

Kevin Day says last year’s loan deferments were a “lifesaver” for many businesses.

Kevin Day says last year’s loan deferments were a “lifesaver” for many businesses.

“We do all kinds of loans, commercial real estate and C&I loans. We’ve seen strong activity across all sectors; it hasn’t been one pocket more than others,” Lynch said.

Florence Bank President Kevin Day agreed. “It’s kind of across the board — not every sector, necessarily; we’re not seeing many new hotels and restaurants opening up. But investment properties are creating new borrowers, and they need help with financing.”

The combination of low interest rates and high prices were driving the commercial-loan market a year ago, the last time BusinessWest tackled this story, and that has remained true. “In the real-estate market, everyone understands residential properties are hot,” Day said. “But in commercial real estate, it’s similar.”

 

Back to Normal?

One thing that has changed is the reliance on loan deferments, which was one of the leading stories in commercial lending (and retail lending as well, for mortgages, car loans, and credit cards) last year.

“We were very active in the deferment program. It was a lifesaver for a lot of businesses,” Day said. “As we’ve come into 2021, a lot of the deferment periods have ended, customers are emerging from pandemic lockdown activity, and things are becoming more normal.”

In the business world, “almost all commercial customers are out of deferments, back on normal schedules, and it feels like their business is gaining traction, getting back to to pre-pandemic levels,” he added. “In the hospitality areas — hotels, restaurants, and such — the pandemic hurt them, but even they’re coming back out of the malaise, and business is starting to pick up. The deferments gave people time, and as everything is starting to come back online, those businesses will get their customers back and should come out of it fine.”

Leonard said Country Bank handled close to 1,000 PPP loans totaling around $75 million.

“I’m happy to say we deployed a lot of that, and consulted with folks on the front end to be sure it wasn’t a rubber stamp,” he said. “It was a differentiator; I think the smaller banks really shined, and were nimble enough to support their customers. You can talk about being there for your customers when they need it, but could you deliver? I think Country Bank did.”

The bank is well-positioned to be a stable provider of financing going forward, he added, “because our capital ratios are head and shoulders above most other banks, which allows us to do a couple things. It means our lending limits are higher, but it also allows us to be patient and pragmatic with our customers.

“We have a lot of capital to lend and the ability to lend it, but where we’re going to be most successful is really understanding our businesses, so that we can bank them through cycles.”

“So I think we see an opportunity because of that,” he added. “We have a lot of capital to lend and the ability to lend it, but where we’re going to be most successful is really understanding our businesses, so that we can bank them through cycles. That is more important than ever, I think.”

Elaborating, Leonard said the pandemic reinforced the need for banks to have close relationships with their commercial clients and really understand their business, and to understand how much struggle — or success — over the past two years was a pandemic-induced anomaly and how much might remain the trend going forward.

“The value add for any banker, especially a C&I lender, is knowing a company well enough to make those educated decisions,” he told BusinessWest. “Our strategy is to spend a lot of time getting to know the companies we bank, so once we start a banking relationship, we’re in it, and we find a way to be pragmatic and support companies for the long term. That takes thoughtfulness on the front end.”

Sullivan said New Valley has been actively reaching out to small-business owners, who are often too busy running their business to seek help. “Larger companies have more resources and have banks calling on them all the time. There’s plenty of capital out there, and we want to make sure we connect with those business people, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Almost as one, bankers say there’s plenty of liquidity in the market, and once businesses began seeing some clarity with the pandemic — and, to be sure, there’s still plenty of uncertainty — they started moving into growth mode. But, again, the current labor situation is dampening some of that enthusiasm.

“I talk to a lot of business owners who are grateful the government bailed out businesses during the pandemic,” Sullivan said. “But there are some who would rather have a more normalized market where people are coming back to work.”

Meanwhile, “deposits are way up, and all the community banks I know are looking to put that money to work as loans rather than having it sitting around in cash. If anything, that’s become more exacerbated the last few weeks.”

 

Good Business

Like Country Bank, Florence Bank has expanded its geographic footprint in recent years, into Hampden County, specifically, to serve — and expand on — commercial business it was already doing in the region.

It has been a successful transition, Day said, one that has turned into retail business growth as well. But right now, he sees plenty of opportunity on the commercial side.

“Our credit quality, frankly, has never been better. People who had jobs and operated businesses during the pandemic have a lot of cash on hand. Hospitality businesses had to take time off because of the pandemic, but are now starting to get over it. Deferments helped people like that a great deal to come back online.”

The resulting liquidity in the system — and the resulting credit quality — mean delinquencies are at record lows, Day added. “Not only is business good, but the business we have is good business as well.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Gathering Storm

Christopher Viale

Christopher Viale says student-loan deferments, set to end in February, may pose issues for families who haven’t paid them back in a while.

 

During times of recession or economic upheaval, the last thing economists expect is for credit-card debt to fall.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened during the first year of the pandemic. According to Experian, from the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2020, credit-card balances fell by 24% nationally. The percentage of credit-card users carrying an interest-bleeding balance month to month fell from 58% to 53%, according to the American Bankers Assoc.

One reason was that this was no normal economic downturn; during the early months of COVID-19, businesses were shuttered, restaurants were closed, and consumers simply reduced their spending dramatically — even if they were still working, and despite the government stimulus checks.

“For the first year of the pandemic, people weren’t really spending; they were paying down debt. Record amounts of debt were being paid down,” said Christopher Viale, CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling in Agawam.

But that has not been the case in 2021.

“When things started opening up a little bit, people went haywire; they started spending like crazy,” Viale noted. “Credit-card debt has increased by 13% over the last quarter, which is the most it’s ever increased in a quarter.”

“For the most part, consumers have been in a good position, but then, when all these debts start to come due again, it’s going to be a very difficult time.”

Basically, stimulus worked — in the sense of stimulating spending. “You got free money, the $250 tax credit per child, you got whatever other government programs were there … people had a lot of money in their hands. Even though they weren’t working, the unemployment checks they were getting were as good as if they were working. So, for the most part, consumers have been in a good position, but then, when all these debts start to come due again, it’s going to be a very difficult time.”

And that’s what economic leaders — and people like Viale, who help families get out of debt — worry about. The increased spending in 2021 has coincided with an end to loan-deferment programs launched at the start of the pandemic, and if they haven’t been paying attention to their budget, many families might be in for a shock.

“It really is a perfect storm,” Viale said. “Consumers have had the ability to not pay their rent or mortgage or credit-card payments. Most, if not all, of that has ended, except for the 800-pound gorilla, which is student loans.”

Those will continue to be in moratorium until Feb. 1, which is when $1.3 trillion of debt will start to be drafted back out of consumers’ checking accounts. “Yes, they are being alerted and warned to be ready, but after not paying on these loans for almost two years, it’s going to be a shock for many.”

All of this has banks — with whom Viale talks all the time — worried about huge loss rates due to credit defaults starting in late 2022 and early 2023. In short, we may be heading into perilous times for household debt.

 

Change of Plans

According to a recent CreditCards.com survey, 44% of respondents they are willing to take on debt in the second half of 2021 for non-essential purchases, such as dining out.

That marks a dramatic change from savings-happy 2020. Even after that temporary dip in debt in 2020, 42% of U.S. adults with credit-card debt have increased those balances overall since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to a Bankrate.com survey conducted in September.

“It’s been an upside-down credit environment,” Stephen Biggar, who covers financial institutions at Argus Research, told CNBC this month. “If you told me the market was going to crash 40% and we would have 20% unemployment, you would have also said card delinquency rates would go through the roof, particularly for the lower-end consumer.”

But instead, the savings rate spiked to levels not seen in 70 years, as consumers curtailed spending — and were allowed to halt payments on student loans and mortgages — and started paying back other debt, notably credit-card balances. Now, the tide has completely turned. Meanwhile, most of those deferment programs no longer offer last year’s safety net.

“People haven’t had to pay their bills for a long time,” Viale said. “Mortgage, rent, student loans, even credit cards allowed a period of time when people didn’t have to make payments.”

Unlike payment deferment for credit cards, in which interest keeps accruing, “student loans are very different because that was a true moratorium; no one was being charged,” he explained. “So whatever status someone was in with their student loans when the pandemic started is where they’re going to be in February when they have to start paying again.

“Yes, they are being alerted and warned to be ready, but after not paying on these loans for almost two years, it’s going to be a shock for many.”

But on Feb. 1, those autodrafts will begin again. “And that’s going to be a shock for consumers because they haven’t made these payments in 18 months or so.”

Politico reported that the U.S. Department of Education is considering providing student-loan relief to borrowers who miss a payment during the first 90 days after payments resume, so credit scores won’t be adversely impacted.

According to Forbes, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to go even further; fretting about a surge in student-loan delinquency and default once payments resume, she and other members of Congress have repeatedly asked the Biden administration to postpone the restart of payments.

The average monthly payment for student-loan debt is between $400 and $600, Viale noted. “That’s a pretty big-ticket item they haven’t had to pay for a long time, and now, out of nowhere, they’re going to have to start paying it again.”

This will only exacerbate what seems to be a looming credit crisis, Viale said, one that makes programs like Cambridge’s — which manage and pay down a client’s debt payments in a way that reduces interest costs and protects their credit rating — even more critical.

Because of concerns about consumer debt next year, the Federal Reserve is allowing such relief programs to be extended to offer consumers even more concessions if they are struggling to keep up with mortgage and credit-card payments, Viale added. “My industry has been working flat out to develop and implement these additional hardship programs.”

 

Back to School

It’s not easy to escape credit-card debt — especially with the average annual percentage rate topping 16%.

According to a Bankrate.com survey, 54% of adults carry credit-card balances from month to month, and 50% of have been in credit-card debt for at least a year. The average person with credit card debt owes $5,525.

And that’s only one element of household debt. Wth student-loan payments ramping back up in February, the Department of Education has launched an extensive outreach campaign to borrowers.

“They’re giving people several months notice. They’re doing a pretty good job of letting consumers know this is coming,” Viale said. “But that doesn’t really mean much when you haven’t had to do it in a long time.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Women of Impact 2021

Executive Director, Christina’s House

She Helps Homeless Moms and Kids Achieve Stability and Independence

One Sunday morning in 2010, Linda Mumblo was sitting in church when she felt God calling her to minister to homeless women and children.

“She noticed there were a lot of services for men in the area, but she felt there weren’t a lot of services for women,” said Linda’s daughter-in-law, Shannon Mumblo, adding that Linda turned the idea, which she called Christina’s House, into a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit within the month.

Shannon was a nurse and licensed clinical social worker at Baystate Medical Center at the time, but she was intrigued by Linda’s vision — for a very personal reason.

“I knew I wanted to be a very big part of what she was going to do because, growing up, I was the child who lived in a situation with an alcoholic mom, who lived in an apartment with just a mattress on a floor and didn’t always know where my next meal was going to come from.”

Fortunately, her grandmother stepped in. “She became the person for me that was my encouragement, that provided me with the love and support that I needed to allow me to have opportunities in life that I feel like I would not have been able to have with my mom,” Mumblo told BusinessWest.

And she saw Christina’s House as a way to help children be reunified with their mothers, and to help women realize their full potential and be the best parents they could be, she explained, “so that those children can grow up with their moms or have the opportunity to have a relationship with their mom that they might not otherwise have had. That’s how I started to be involved.”

Today, as executive director of Christina’s House, Shannon Mumblo has grown the organization to two large homes in Springfield, each serving up to 16 individuals at any given time, who live there for up to two years not only to escape homelessness, but to develop the skills and education necessary to live independently, with financial security, afterward — and deliver it all through a faith-based model.

“Growing up, I was the child who lived in a situation with an alcoholic mom, who lived in an apartment with just a mattress on a floor and didn’t always know where my next meal was going to come from.”

“In 2012, when we incorporated and formed the board,” she explained, “our mission was to educate, embrace, and encourage mothers and their children who are homeless or near-homeless through the love of Jesus Christ.”

The results — specifically, the many lives changed not only in the moment, but for the long term — speak for themselves, and demonstrate why Mumblo, by taking her mother-in-law’s vision to new heights, is certainly a Woman of Impact.

 

Teach a Woman to Fish…

At its heart, Christina’s House provides a program for moms and their kids to transition out of homelessness or near-homelessness and into independent living, Mumblo explained.

“It’s not a shelter — it’s a transitional, educational facility. We didn’t just want to house people, we wanted to teach them then skills they needed to break the generational patterns of poverty, abuse, trauma, all the barriers that keep people in a place of poverty. It’s education.”

The first Christina’s House location on Madison Avenue

The first Christina’s House location on Madison Avenue was followed last year by a second site on Union Street.

The program can last anywhere from 18 to 24 months, Mumblo said. “It can take six months just to earn their trust that we don’t want anything from them, just the best of who they are, and the motivation to be part of the program — six months to let their walls down and receive what we’re giving them.”

Early on, she and her team members break down with each client what their goals are — financial, educational, employment, health, parenting, even spiritual — and create a syllabus to help them achieve those goals. “Every week, we look at each of those categories and more and go through them and start to unpack them — look at what they need in each area and seek resources to help fill the gaps.”

Those resources include community partners ranging from Dress for Success and Springfield WORKS to local churches and community colleges. And the program ranges from job-training initiatives to classes that bolster life skills from parenting to anger management. Counseling is a part of every client’s schedule, including financial counseling from the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Thrive program. After about a year in the program, discussions begin on planning for independent living, whether in a house or apartment.

Mumblo said she wants to stay in contact with graduates for at least five years after they leave, not only to track their self-sustainability and independence, but because the stories can be inspiring.

“It literally saves lives; some of our moms have been on the brink of suicide because they just didn’t have somebody to help them.”

“Once you’re really invested in the program, this becomes like a family. Most of our moms and kids didn’t have a family coming in here, so this becomes their family, and we don’t let them go,” she said, noting that one of the program’s first graduates came back to volunteer, and Christina’s House sent her son to summer camp for two weeks.

“She’s saving up for a house now. She’s still independent, still growing, still getting raises in her job. She’s a corrections officer — that was always her dream, and that’s what she’s doing.”

Even those who don’t finish the program can reap its benefits, she noted, recalling a woman who left the program early, and how devastated she felt about that. But then the woman stopped by recently to donate some of her granddaughter’s clothes.

“It was such a healing experience,” Mumblo said. “She shared that the seeds planted during her time here never left her. She kept hearing our words about what it meant to be financially independent, kept hearing our words about boundaries and parenting and all the things that were taught during her time here. So even though she didn’t finish, she’s still a success.

“I gave her a big hug and said, ‘whatever you need, we’re still here; we never left,’” she went on. “And for her, she felt like it was one last piece she needed to have healing and wholeness. So we never understand the full impact of the seeds we plant. Experiences like that make me excited to get up and be in a job where this is my calling.”

 

From the Ground Up

That calling took plenty of work — and faith. The first Christina’s House on Madison Avenue was owned by Cottage Hill Church, which gave the keys to Shannon and Linda at a time when the fledgling nonprofit had $300 in the bank, so they could give tours and raise awareness of the mission.

A fundraising ball later that year netted $8,000, and between that and donations from supporters, they were able to put a down payment on the house and move in.

A connection with the Springfield Police Department proved to be a key source of early support. Mumblo wanted to name a room after the late Kevin Ambrose, an officer who died while protecting a mother and child in a domestic-abuse situation. After visiting the house, Ambrose’s widow, Carla, decided to make Christina’s House her charity of choice.

Later that year, police Sgt. John Delaney launched the Ride to Remember, a fundraising bike ride in honor of fallen first responders, which donated $64,000 to Christina’s House in its second year to help repair the leaking roof and paint the house.

These days, donations — from individuals, businesses, and churches, as well as a few grants — are more steady, and the annual ball, now in its ninth year, is a $100,000 fundraiser.

“I feel like it started on faith, and every step of the way, we had faith,” Shannon said, and that went for buying and renovating a second Springfield location on Union Street in April 2020, to serve even more families. “The vision started in a church, and everything we do here has been a leap of faith, so to speak.”

Asked why she emphasizes a faith-based model, with a program delivered from a Christian perspective, with regular Bible studies, and her answer was simple yet firm.

“If we took God out of it, it wouldn’t be the program that it is. I’ve said it from the beginning — this has been about faith; this has been God’s mission and vision that was placed on my mother-in-law’s heart, and we give him all the glory for everything here every day. It’s not about us, it’s not about me — it’s about God working through me to do this work that I do every day.”

Mumblo believes it’s a model that can be replicated in other areas that need such a facility.

“I see God growing Christina’s House; it’s so needed,” she said. “It literally saves lives; some of our moms have been on the brink of suicide because they just didn’t have somebody to help them.

“And it’s about giving these kids the ability to have a mom and to have love around them and be in a safe environment where they don’t have to have drugs around them, and they don’t have to worry about what they’re going to eat,” she went on. “They’re fed, they’re cared for, they have a beautiful house to live in, and they have us long-term. We don’t go anywhere.”

Her clients, meanwhile … well, they’re going places.

“The most gratifying thing is watching the moms and kids grow and be successful and realize their potential, realize their goals, get that CNA certificate, get their GED, get a scholarship to attend school,” Mumblo said. “It’s more than I could have ever asked for in this lifetime.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Women of Impact 2021

CEO, YWCA of Western Massachusetts

Her Advocacy for Women and Children Has Taken Many Powerful Forms

 

Liz Dineen was always a bit different from her young peers. During the 1960s, when they were listening to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones, she would scour her local library for famous speeches — in print and on vinyl — from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Winston Churchill, and John and Robert Kennedy.

“I was very intrigued by the power of the word to mobilize people into action for good, and to motivate people to change,” she said.

At age 12, watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral and procession, “I remember saying to my mother and father that day, ‘I want to be a lawyer. I want to make a difference.’ I’ve wanted to be an advocate for women and children my whole life, from when I was 12 years old, and I’ve kind of directed the rest of my life that way.”

Dineen wasn’t interested in criminal law when she entered law school, but an internship in the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office hooked her. So she kept working there, and stayed after graduation — for the next 27 years, in fact.

“I just loved being an advocate, being a trial lawyer and being able to fight in that legal arena for justice for women and children,” she said, specifically on wrenching cases involving physical and sexual child abuse, adult rapes, child murders, and domestic-violence murders.

“I’ve wanted to be an advocate for women and children my whole life, from when I was 12 years old, and I’ve kind of directed the rest of my life that way.”

“Liz Dineen was the epitome of a caring, supportive, and compassionate champion for those victims,” said attorney Stephen Spelman, who met her while working with her in the DA’s office in the 1990s, and later married her. “She was a zealous advocate in the courtroom, renowned throughout the state, and the nation, for getting decades-long sentences on those who had sexually assaulted children and women, or brutally harmed them physically.”

Always thinking innovatively, she also began a series of lectures and meetings among various professional groups (nurses, doctors, law enforcement, and prosecutors) to ensure, while women and children were receiving medical care after being assaulted, that crucial items of evidence were not tossed out or ignored. “These meetings not only improved the collection of evidence for trial, but also improved the medical care of the victims, particularly in sexual-assault cases,” Spelman said.

It was critical, deeply gratifying work, but after 27 years, Dineen felt it was time to step away. She had been teaching law in an adjunct capacity at Elms College and Bay Path University, and when an opportunity arose to chair Bay Path’s Criminal Justice department, she pursued and landed that role in 2009.

 

Liz Dineen with the most recent Springfield Police Academy class, which made a donation to the YWCA’s programs.

Liz Dineen with the most recent Springfield Police Academy class, which made a donation to the YWCA’s programs.

“I reinvented the department,” she said, “with a strong emphasis on developing women leaders within the criminal-justice arena.”

But in 2015, it was time to shift gears again, and this time, for the first time in her adult life, she took six months off to really think about the future. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, and I knew I was too young to retire,” she said, so she asked people who knew her well what they envisioned for her. “The answer that kept coming back was to go for a judgeship.”

So, with encouragement from judges and others she had interacted with, she applied for a Superior Court judgeship in December 2015. But then something unexpected happened — something that would completely alter Dineen’s life and career, but made perfect sense along her journey as a Woman of Impact.

 

Opportunity Knocks

It was the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, which was looking for an interim executive director, and reached out to ask if she would consider the role.

Coincidentally, Dineen had just finished reading Year of Yes, a book by TV production powerhouse Shonda Rimes. “The whole message was, ‘don’t be afraid to say yes, even if you’re not 100% qualified,’” she said. “Men will say ‘sure,’ while women make sure every ‘T’ is crossed and every ‘I’ is dotted. So I said, ‘sure — I will throw my hat in that arena.’”

Two weeks later, she was on the job — with no nonprofit experience, but plenty of exposure to some of the Y’s programmatic issues, like domestic violence and sexual assault. “It was a real learning curve in terms of how nonprofits work, how to go about maintaining the funding we already have, obtaining new funding, and seeking new opportunities to expand.”

In March, just a few months into the job, the state’s Judicial Nominating Committee contacted Dineen, wanting to interview her for that judgeship. When she told the executive committee of the YWCA board, they didn’t want to lose a good thing — and offered her the CEO position permanently. She said she’d need some time to think about it.

“But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘if I take this position, I can be proactive. If I’m on a bench, I have to be reactive, meaning I have to wait for cases to come to me.’ And you can’t be political at all if you’re a judge. You have to be very selective in terms of who you’re associating with so you avoid any appearance of impropriety or preference. So I said, ‘OK, let’s try it. Let’s stay here and see what happens.’”

“Everyone realized, when the pandemic hit, that this community would need us now more than ever, and people just really stepped up. I’m proud that we could keep offering those services. We didn’t let the community down.”

Importantly, she noted, “I saw it as an opportunity to continue to serve women and children. I saw it as an opportunity to grow this organization and to be a changemaker in the nonprofit arena, especially on issues relating to women and children. And I have not regretted it.”

Besides growing the organization from 70 employees to 150 in just five and a half years, she has developed and expanded a number of programs, all with the YWCA’s mission — to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote social justice — in mind.

The YWCA offers 22 programs, residential and non-residential, to support women and girls, including a large domestic-violence shelter, residential housing for teen mothers, residential housing for women who are survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, sexual-assault counselors who respond to local hospitals when a woman has been raped, in-court counselors for domestic-violence survivors, a 24-hour hotline, workforce-development programs, and many others.

Programs take a forward-looking approach to immediate crises. For example, the Children Who Witness Violence program provides therapy to kids (ages 3 to 17) who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. “We’re trying to change the paradigm so they don’t replicate what they saw — so we can change generations going forward.”

Meanwhile, a financial-empowerment program considers that the vast majority of victims of physical domestic violence are also victims of financial abuse. This fiscal-education program dovetails with the YWCA’s workforce-development programs in that they aim to cultivate independence for women down the road, and they are also open to the public, not just to those who enter through the Y’s crisis services.

The YWCA also visits college campuses to talk about domestic violence and sexual assault, both counseling students and teaching about awareness and intervention in the classrooms, with an eye toward preventing those crisis situations to begin with.

Back on her own campus, Dineen finds satisfaction in seeing troubled lives change.

“I go into the shelter every day — it fuels me,” she said. “I particularly like to see the kids because the kids in the shelter are really happy. That surprised me, but it’s a little like camp — they’re around other kids — and they’re happy because they’re safe and they know their mom’s safe. You see a transformation within 24 hours; they come alive again.

“I can’t even imagine being a kid and seeing my mother get abused like that,” she went on. “Especially the little boys — you can see they’re very, very protective of their mothers. Some of them have said to me they feel bad they didn’t protect their mom. And I just keep saying, ‘you’re just a kid; it’s not your job. Your job is to do well in school and then go outside and play and scream and yell.’”

 

Shelter from the Storm

While the pandemic threw the social-service world into disarray, Dineen said she’s proud that all YWCA programs continued — many virtually, but some in person, including the domestic-violence shelter, two teen residential programs, and the supportive-housing program — “and we kept COVID out the entire time, which was a miracle.”

At the same time, many needs became more urgent. “So many women were looking for help, saying, ‘I’m trapped at home with my abuser. How can I get out, how can you help me?’”

The YWCA raised large amounts of money during that time, as individuals and organizations recognized those needs — including the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which awarded $200,000, some of which was used to place women in hotels because the shelter was full.

“I’m so proud of my staff and my board of directors,” Dineen said. “Everyone realized, when the pandemic hit, that this community would need us now more than ever, and people just really stepped up. I’m proud that we could keep offering those services. We didn’t let the community down.”

Throughout all of that, she’s never forgotten the legacy she’s forged, of empowering women — some in crisis, some learning from her, some working beside her — to move forward in their own lives. “The thing that gives me the most joy and causes this 65-year-old Irish Catholic girl, who never cried before, to actually cry is seeing another woman succeed.”

That goes for the women of color who direct the YWCA’s programs, and are encouraged to continually advance their education and training.

“I keep saying to them, ‘you are the future leaders of nonprofits of Western Mass. I want to be 80 years old, reading in the newspaper that you just got made a director or CEO of some organization.”

A four-decade career spent not only standing up for women, but helping them become advocates for others — that’s a real Woman of Impact.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Cybersecurity Special Coverage

Threat Level: Constant

Brian Levine says the UMass Cybersecurity Institute

Brian Levine says the UMass Cybersecurity Institute’s work is “security for the common good.”

 

Make no mistake, we live in an increasingly interconnected world, and the technology that makes that possible is always under threat from those who would mine, expose, and exploit data — often in life-altering ways. So while it’s no surprise that the cybersecurity field is rife with job opportunity, exactly how much opportunity (a half-million open jobs nationally, according to one study) may still raise eyebrows. Area universities with cybersecurity degree programs hope those statistics also raise interest in a challenging field that offers good pay and the chance to do some truly meaningful work.

It’s impossible to envision a world that doesn’t need cybersecurity, Brian Levine said, and that’s not exactly good news.

“I don’t think there’s any way this will go away, unfortunately,” he said, after listing common threats ranging from malware and ransomware attacks to massive breaches of consumer data. “It’s an ever-present problem. So what we do here is really important.”

He was referring to the UMass Cybersecurity Institute on the Amherst campus, which launched in 2015 with the mission of advancing what it calls “security for the common good,” said Levine, the institute’s director. For example, he has worked over the past decade to build tools used by law enforcement around the country — and the world — on cases of internet-based child sexual abuse (for example, the sharing of exploitative photographs).

“That’s a privacy issue, and a forensics issue,” he said, stressing that the institute’s researchers never lose focus on the human benefits of their work — in other words, it’s never just a technical exercise.

“The courses we offer are influenced by research that we do,” he went on. “We have a lot of pride in moving the research we’re doing into the classroom.”

That high-impact work is appealing to many who enter this profession, but one of the most obvious draws is the career opportunity. Matt Smith, director of Cybersecurity programs at Bay Path University, noted that a half-million jobs in cybersecurity are open across the U.S. — more than 20,000 of them in New England, and roughly two-thirds of those (13,389, according to the national CyberSeek research project) in Massachusetts — the 12th-highest total among all U.S. states.

“The industry is changing so rapidly.Turn on the news — one day they’re talking about ransomware, another day it’s the Colonial Pipeline attack … it’s all about security. So, workforce in this industry is in demand.”

“The industry is changing so rapidly,” Smith said. “Turn on the news — one day they’re talking about ransomware, another day it’s the Colonial Pipeline attack … it’s all about security. So, workforce in this industry is in demand.”

That’s the other side of the ‘bad news’ coin — at least for people who want to make a career of defending against threats that will only continue. “It’s real job security, with high starting salaries. You’re going to retain employment and have opportunities to upscale.”

Reflecting the many different niches in cybersecurity, Bay Path offers three undergraduate degrees in the field — digital forensics and incident response, information assurance, and risk management — as well as a master’s degree in cybersecurity management.

“We renew the courses every time we go live, sometimes two times a year,” Smith said. “Every time it’s being presented to another cohort, we look at the information being presented and decide if it’s still applicable, or how it can be improved upon.”

Matt Smith says the constantly evolving nature of threats means job security

Matt Smith says the constantly evolving nature of threats means job security and advancement opportunities for today’s cybersecurity professionals.

For example, “the Colonial Pipeline incident hadn’t happened two years ago — so, let’s talk about that this year and remove something else from the course. We’re always going through the courses, tweaking them, fine-tuning them, and I think that sets us apart from other universities. We handpick the material we incorporate, and we update it, and we use the best forensic software we can.”

And that’s a challenge, said Beverly Benson, Cybersecurity program director for the American Women’s College, Bay Path’s all-online arm, which offers intensive, accelerated versions of the undergraduate cybersecurity programs taught at the main campus.

“I am constantly doing research on threats, making sure my curriculum and content is fresh, because the reality is, those individuals who are trying to attack systems, they don’t take vacations,” she told BusinessWest. “We need to stay abreast of everything to make sure students are getting as up-to-date a curriculum as possible.”

The industry’s constantly evolving nature makes it attractive to many career seekers, she added.

“It’s not a repetitive type of field. There may be a framework to adhere to, but as technology advances, so does the work that needs to be done. Our world is becoming more connected and interconnected, and data is everything. Think about the gadgets in our homes — even washing machines, dryers, and stoves are connected to the internet. We need people to understand how to keep that data safe.”

For that reason, Benson went on, “cybersecurity touches everyone, whether it’s healthcare, financial services, food service, the travel industry, the Department of Defense, you name it. We’re a very interconnected world, and we’re able to do things faster because of data — so we need to protect that data, whether it’s at rest, in transit, or in use.”

 

Defending Data

Levine listed a number of ways the cybersecurity research — and classwork — at UMass affects real people.

“One professor looks at ensuring that people have censorship-free access to information on the internet, which can be very important if you’re a dissident in a country that has censored or filtered it,” he said. “Another professor works with differential privacy, and his technology is being used by the U.S. Census.”

That term refers to technology that allows the government, corporations, or anyone else to release statistical information while not exposing people’s individual data.

Beverly Benson

Beverly Benson

“It’s not a repetitive type of field. There may be a framework to adhere to, but as technology advances, so does the work that needs to be done. Our world is becoming more connected and interconnected, and data is everything.”

“One problem with studies that collect information about you and release it later is the possibility that someone’s personal details can be inferred by looking at the data set,” Levine said, noting that differential-privacy measures ‘fuzz’ the information so the statistics are accurate, but don’t reveal information about any one person.

“We have courses on what some people call ‘ethical hacking’ — how to analyze a computer for its vulnerabilities and learn to defend those vulnerabilities. It’s teaching students to be white hats,” he explained, adding that other classes delve into reverse-engineering security, digital forensics, ethics and law, and securing distributed systems — which, these days, means cryptocurrency.

“Cryptocurrencies are one of the hardest challenges — no one is in charge, and people are exchanging things of value,” Levine said, adding that, whatever the topic, UMass brings in experts with practical experience in the field to teach students. “We don’t want everything taught from an ivory-tower point of view. And we want to teach techniques that will survive past graduation in a quickly evolving field. It’s not just computer science.”

At the American Women’s College, Benson said the average age of a cybersecurity student is 35, many no doubt drawn by the expansive opportunities in the field. “We have career changers, we have people in IT fields who are looking to specialize, and some are new to it, looking to learn more about cybersecurity and join the workforce.”

She’s also gratified that the program is making a small dent in what is currently a male-dominated workforce, to the tune of 80%. Part of the pitch, she said, is the reality that work in this field is wildly varied.

“We have the opportunity to demystify cybersecurity,” she said. “I explain to our women that cybersecurity is more than someone being in a basement coding. Part of cybersecurity is things like risk management, which can be a more consultative approach, helping someone understand assets, risks, and how to protect against vulnerabilities. Those are not technical skills; those are essential business skills.”

Smith agreed. “This hits on financial services, healthcare, government, you name it. Every industry has been affected in one way or another by cybersecurity.”

He should know, having worked in a number of sectors, ranging from the Pentagon to the financial-services world, and he often calls on professionals who actually work in those fields to bring their real-world expertise to Bay Path students. “A lot of programs are computer-science-driven; they’re experts in coding and programming. When you jump into cybersecurity, it’s a different animal.”

Introducing more women into the field, and all the sectors it influences, would be a healthy development, he said.

“I’m the program director, but also their cheerleader,” Benson agreed. “They know my motto is ‘dare to dream,’ and having a diverse workforce will bring about diversity of thought, diversity of problem solving, diversity in the ways people will collaborate. And I think that’s so needed.”

 

Making Connections

Another needed element is networking and making connections in the field early, Smith said. Many Bay Path students take advantage of a Mass Cyber Center mentorship program, working with large companies like Baystate Health, Travelers Insurance, and MassMutual.

“Networking doesn’t happen only when you go to conferences,” he said in explaining the value of such programs. “And most employers, after an internship, offer something on the spot — they’ll say, ‘please, when can you start?’”

That’s huge for new graduates, who typically enter the work world in significant debt. “We’re one of the industries that actually tackles that cohesively. We’re actually getting them employed at a very high-level-paying job, thus cutting down on student debt,” Smith noted, adding that a graduate’s employer will often pay for further education as well.

Speaking of connecting students with careers, the UMass Cybersecurity Institute recently secured a renewal of its CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which began in 2015.

The latest grant will support approximately 31 scholars at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the university’s computer science and electrical and computer engineering degree programs by offering them full tuition and fees, a stipend ranging from $25,000 per year for undergraduates to $34,000 per year for graduate students, and a professional-development fund for one to three years of their degree program. In addition, students complete an internship at a federal agency during the summers and, upon graduation, work full-time at a federal agency in a cybersecurity role for one to three years at full pay and benefits. Then they’re free to move on, but many don’t.

“We’ve done this for 34 students already, and the vast majority have stayed in the government after their service period is up,” Levine said, noting that federal opportunities range from working at the Pentagon to protecting land and wildlife with the Environmental Protection Agency; from tracking down cybercriminals with the FBI to joining the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which swoops in to manage ransomware attacks.

“This program will help create a new generation of cybersecurity professionals and researchers to address novel and challenging problems facing society,” said Sanjay Raman, dean of the College of Engineering at UMass Amherst. “These students will help to modernize the executive-branch workforce, advance science and technology at government laboratories, and secure our national defense.”

It’s that kind of real-world impact that inspires those who teach the next generation of cybersecurity pros.

“This is why I get up in the morning,” said Bay Path’s Smith, who worked in counterintelligence around the time of 9/11 and remembers how the world changed. “We did a lot of things to protect our country, and I’m proud of that. Now, I want to give back to the students and help them pick up some of the stuff I’ve learned, so they can excel in a workforce that’s begging for anybody with interest in their field.”

His job, and that of his department, is to stay at the forefront of developments in the field — and, again, they are constant — and continue to hone and evolve the program so it remains relevant and on the cutting edge.

“We want our students to stand out in the industry and get hired,” he said. “And we’ve been very fortunate — our students are landing some amazing jobs.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cybersecurity

Vulnerable Population

 

When people think about cybersecurity threats, Stephanie Helm said, they often think only about the technical side — the ways in which electronic devices can be compromised and data stolen.

They sometimes forget about the human side of the equation — but that’s where older adults are often especially at risk.

“There’s a technical vulnerability that can be exploited, whether it’s somebody’s password, exploiting a vulnerability because they failed to update the device to include a patch, or maybe they’re using an unsecured WiFi when they’re in a public location,” said Helm, director of the MassCyberCenter. “So there’s a technical component that everyone using the internet is facing today.”

Just as critical, however, is what she calls the “social engineering of the individual,” where a victim willingly divulges information based on the fact that somebody’s engaging them in a personal way.

Stephanie Helm

Stephanie Helm

“These are professional people who know how to hit those emotional buttons and continue that relationship with the hope that somebody is going to divulge information.”

“Older folks might not have the comfort level with the technology to secure their information,” she said, “and they may be more vulnerable to the social engineering.”

Helm shared these thoughts and others during a webinar presented last week by LeadingAge Massachusetts, titled “Cybersecurity: Helping Older Adults Stay Safer on the Internet.” She joined Rubesh Jacobs, managing director of 24/7 Techies USA, and Judy Miller, director of Technology and Accounting for Kendal at Oberlin in Ohio, to discuss the reasons seniors are increasingly falling prey to online and e-mail scams, and what can be done about it.

“The number of scams leading to financial loss has been dramatically increasing since 2019,” Jacobs said, citing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report that the number of online scams tripled between 2019 and 2020, outpacing phone-call scams — which actually declined slightly — for the first time. Meanwhile, e-mail scams more than doubled.

“The acuteness of that spike is shocking,” he added. “We’ve also noticed this trend in our own call centers; 28% of calls we get for help are somehow related to fraudulent activities online.”

According to the FTC, Americans age 60 and up are falling prey to tech-support scams — in which someone poses as a computer technician to gain remote access to the victim’s computer — about 475% more often than those ages 20 to 59. (By contrast, the younger group falls victim to online-shopping scams 60% more often than seniors.)

“Senior citizens are really in that nexus where a criminal can get at them through technical means, or they can get at them through social engineering” — and often a combination of both, Helm said. “The protections you put in place have to look at both of those aspects because you’re not quite sure which of those things a person might be most vulnerable for. I think that’s really troublesome.”

Judy Miller

Judy Miller

“Seniors lose an average of $500 or more when they’re scammed, sometimes due to the fact that they are often trusting and polite, they own their own home, and they have good credit, so they make a good target.”

Effective cybersecurity, she explained, considers people, processes, and technology working together to make someone more resilient and likely to recognize scams.

“The components of social engineering are worth thinking about,” she added, noting that a scam might begin with a realistic bot, either on the phone or online, that shifts over to a live scammer if the victim responds.

Those victims, Helm said, are often lonely and want to talk to someone, or they’re trusting and grateful that someone wants to help them solve a problem, which is why scammers try to establish trust.

One reason for the recent spike in cases is that many older adults were much more isolated starting early in 2020, with family members avoiding most visits until after COVID-19 vaccinations arrived, she noted. But families do need to engage with these topics. “Having an ability to ask questions or to talk about things they’ve been presented with in a safe manner is really important.”

But seniors are far from the only victims, Helm said. “If they continue the engagement, these are professional people who know how to hit those emotional buttons and continue that relationship with the hope that somebody is going to divulge information.”

 

It Takes a Village

Miller has worked for Kendal Corp. for 28 years, so she’s seen these threats evolve at her own facility, which offers units for independent and assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing.

“Seniors lose an average of $500 or more when they’re scammed, sometimes due to the fact that they are often trusting and polite, they own their own home, and they have good credit, so they make a good target,” she explained. “They have also been falling prey to cyber incidents because of their increased use of the internet.”

Scams that have targeted her residents have taken many forms, from imposters posing as legitimate government agencies or companies requesting payments to fake but attractive offers for gift cards, and much more. Most originate from e-mail, she noted.

When Jacobs asked Miller how often she hears such things, she responded, “it’s almost more important how much we don’t hear about them.”

To make sure people stay educated, if she hears of a scam targeting a resident, all residents are alerted, and some tech-savvy residents will even spread the word themselves if they encounter a scam attempt. “It’s really engaging the entire community to help each other in preventing some of those things from happening.”

Once a scammer gains someone’s trust, Helm said, they often introduce an element of urgency — the idea that the victim has to act now to get a deal or avoid a penalty or legal trouble.

“We should talk about how these scams exist and give senior citizens the confidence that they can recognize when this doesn’t make sense and avoid that sense of urgency to act, because that’s where you make a mistake,” she explained. “It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘I do all my business by mail — put a letter in the mail to me, and I’ll respond to you.”

But it’s easier said than done, she admitted, especially at a time when many seniors — and younger people, for that matter — have been more isolated than usual.

“I think it’s difficult for anybody in society to be fully armed and resilient. I feel if people become isolated in their old age and are not as familiar with some of the technology, they can get intimidated. So this is an area where we’re trying to see if we can be more helpful to them.”

Family members can help educate their older loved ones by asking gentle but probing questions about what may be going on, the webinar participants noted, and encourage residents of senior-living communities to call an administrator if they encounter a suspicious e-mail or think their information may have been compromised. And, of course, they should emphasize the importance of protecting passwords and other sensitive information, not clicking suspicious links, and shopping only at reputable, well-known websites.

“If it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true,” Helm said. “I like to talk with senior citizens about having confidence in the skeptical skills they had throughout life. These are scams that happen to be on a computer, but they’re scams we grew up with since we were kids — bait and switch, or acting like an imposter.”

She takes a broad view of threats, having served in the U.S. Navy for 29 years. After her retirement as a captain, she taught military operations, specifically on integrating cyberspace operations into wargames.

“That was an opportunity to talk about how cybersecurity or cyber operations can affect operations that you traditionally would not think they would impact,” she explained. Now, in her role with the Mass Cyber Center, she knows there are few areas cybersecurity doesn’t impact — and that older Americans are often especially at risk.

“Today,” she said, “we all know this has great consequences to our daily lives.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Setting Some New Goals

Team President Nate Costa (back row, fourth from right) with the front-office staff

Team President Nate Costa (back row, fourth from right) with the front-office staff

For team President Nate Costa and Springfield Thunderbirds ownership, it has been a frustrating year and a half — but not a quiet one, even with the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. Indeed, the organization has been busy staying connected to the community through a host of programs and providing value to its supporters, while preparing for a 2021-22 season of great promise — season-ticket sales remain high — but also great uncertainty. It’s a season, Costa said, that not only the team, but its city desperately needs.

 

For Nate Costa, launching a hockey season after skipping the previous one might feel like starting from square one, but it isn’t, really. Because he was at the real square one, tasked by the Springfield Thunderbirds’ ownership group with fielding a team just four months after luring it from Maine to Western Mass.

“This is a completely different challenge because at least then you didn’t have COVID surrounding you,” he said. “But the processes are very similar.”

To be sure, while no hockey was played in Springfield during the 2020-21 season, ‘skipping’ may not be the right word. Because keeping the franchise relevant and in the public eye was a daily challenge.

“Unfortunately, we had to make some really hard decisions last year in terms of staffing,” said Costa, the team’s president. “We did our best to get through the year, but we had limited staff on reduced hours, and a lot of our staff had opportunities to get jobs elsewhere.”

With eight newcomers on this year’s front-office staff of 17 — about half the crew — “it’s both challenging and exciting,” he went on. “But I tend to hire young because we like to bring people in and teach them how we do things. We find you don’t have a lot of bad habits that come with those individuals — a lot of them have really good energy, and that’s what’s happened. They’ve energized me and the entire staff.”

Nate Costa has high hopes for the season based on robust season-ticket sales and loyalty among corporate sponsors.

Nate Costa has high hopes for the season based on robust season-ticket sales and loyalty among corporate sponsors.

As he’s noted in the past, he can look to 2016, the year he and his ownership group brought the team to Springfield a month after the departure of the Falcons, for a blueprint of sorts. While the team has a new NHL affiliate in the St. Louis Blues, the core front-office group, including all of last year’s department heads, are back.

“That’s huge because you’re not really starting from scratch,” he said. “You’ve got institutional knowledge, people who know how to do this. So we’ve got a lot of confidence there.”

The team leadership has drawn on that confidence while facing a series of roadblocks and unknowns since shutting down the 2019-20 season early and making the decision to ride out the following season without any gameplay. Even now, the Delta surge that has brought back mask mandates is one more unexpected wrench in a long line of them.

“Our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing.”

“It seems like we get hit with something different every day,” Costa told BusinessWest. “And you just have to be able to be nimble and pivot. It is what it is. Everyone’s dealing with it — not just us, not just our industry.

“But we’re kind of in the public eye,” he went on, “and our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing. Even in the summer, [COVID] was moving in a different direction. So we’ve had to pivot and change things even since the summertime. But at the end of the day, we want to get back to doing what we do.”

One piece of good news is that public support hasn’t wavered. In March 2020, the team had 1,109 full season-ticket holders, the first Springfield hockey team to reach that milestone, he noted; the Falcons had been at 325 before they left town. Right now, the number is 989, and Costa expects that number to easily surpass 1,019 and set a new franchise high. He hopes to set a new attendance mark, too, after the AHL scheduled 29 of the team’s 38 home games on Friday and Saturday nights.

The 2021-22 promotional schedule is filled with favorites

The 2021-22 promotional schedule is filled with favorites like the Teddy Bear Toss, which collects stuffed animals for local charities.

“People are supporting us, and I think people are ready to come back out and do things and get back to some normalcy,” he said. “And hopefully, we won’t need to wear masks all season.”

Costa supports the city’s mask mandate and said the most visceral opposition to it on social media comes from people who don’t have tickets and aren’t likely to support the team anyway. Most people, he believes, understand what it will take to stage a season that won’t have to shut down.

“We are in an industry that relies on packing buildings, getting large gatherings together,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to do the right thing. And we’ll work through it.”

“At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that.”

In a wide-ranging interview conducted a few weeks before the season opener on Oct. 16, Costa told BusinessWest what the franchise has been up to over the past 18 months, what fans can expect this season — and why he feels a responsibility to stay connected to the community as more than just its local hockey team.

 

Safety First

But first, he talked about safety, and what it will take to achieve it as COVID continues to be a threat.

“It’s a lot of moving parts, but they’re necessary,” he said. “At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that. So, internally, it hasn’t been that tough.”

To that end, the entire staff is required to be vaccinated, and everyone associated with the Blues is vaccinated as well. “The AHL has protocols that anybody that’s going to be within six to 12 feet of players is required to be vaccinated, and the St. Louis organization is having their players vaccinated.”

That’s critical, Costa added. “With the close quarters our guys are in, and being on buses together and all that, it’s imperative that we have the guys vaccinated.”

As noted earlier, he’s a believer in the city’s current mask mandate as well. “I’ve been keeping my thumb on the pulse of what’s going on for the last year and a half, and I feel like I’m a de facto COVID expert at this point,” he said, adding that requiring masks at the arena is simply a social responsibility to the city, mandate or not.

During the pandemic, the Thunderbirds partnered with local restaurants

During the pandemic, the Thunderbirds partnered with local restaurants, including Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, to donate meals to frontline workers

“We want to sell the place out opening night, and we want to be socially responsible. We felt like it was probably coming at some point that we were going to have some kind of mandate, whether that was going to be mask or vaccination, and I think the mask mandate is perfectly acceptable, because then you don’t have to get into conversation of who’s vaccinated and who’s not. Everyone who comes to the rink will wear a mask, except to eat or drink.”

He admitted it’s an extra challenge to enforce that behavior among fans. “We don’t like wearing masks as much as the next guy. But it’s our livelihood. We’ve committed our resources so much to doing this the right way and bringing the sport back. Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”

One change this year is an absence of high-profile promotions like previous years’ visits from the likes of David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez. Those are expensive investments, and with no guarantees all games will even be played, the Thunderbirds will focus on more locally based promotions — and there are a lot of them, including returning favorites like a throwback jersey night (the Falcons this time, instead of the Indians), the Teddy Bear Toss, a Military Appreciation Night, the Pucks ‘N’ Paws pet night, and Pink in the Rink, which supports the fight against breast cancer. Every Friday night brings a Deuces Wild concessions deal, with sodas, hot dogs, and cups of Coors Light selling for $2 each.

“Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”

“While we’re not investing in huge promotions, there’s still a good foundation of promotions and themes,” Costa said. “We want to re-establish ourselves, get through this year, and hopefully have this in the rear-view mirror next year and really blow it out.

“We always want to provide value and not get complacent,” he added. “And I think we’re providing as much value as anyone in the American Hockey League. I’ll put our stuff up against anybody’s; I take a lot of pride in that. But it’s still a fraction of what we normally do. We have a long-term vision, and that means getting back on the ice first.”

Many of the promotions will support causes and groups of people, like Frontline Fridays, in which healthcare workers, first responders, and other frontline workers who serve the public will be honored.

“I wanted to make sure it was a season-long thing, not just one night,” Costa said. “A lot of people in our community stepped up and did the right thing, working through COVID, and we want to say ‘thank you,’ and it’s really on behalf of the season-ticket members.”

That’s because, with seven home dates left in the curtailed 2019-20 season, most season-ticket holders, instead of demanding refunds, donated the tickets back to the team, and that formed the foundation of the Thunderbirds giving those tickets away to the frontline honorees every Friday this year.

“I feel really good about what we’re doing — not only the fun stuff, but we have a community piece to it as well that will hopefully give a break to some people who have been working hard, give them a chance to come out.”

It wasn’t only season-ticket holders that stayed loyal, Costa said. All the corporate sponsors are back as well, and even though they lost those seven games of exposure, he was able to show them that the team overdelivered on attendance for the other 31 home dates. The team has also included sponsors in its social-media and community activities during the pandemic.

29 of 38 home games scheduled for Friday or Saturday night

With 29 of 38 home games scheduled for Friday or Saturday night, the team is hopeful for plenty of sellouts.

“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us,” he added, noting that the team ranks at the top of the league, among like-sized markets, in sponsorships and full season-ticket sales. “At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”

 

Silver Lining

Costa said the goal last year was to stay visible, even for just a few hours a week. That meant donating meals to frontline workers, trotting out mascot Boomer at community events, and teaming up with the Massachusetts Lottery to spotlight first responders.

“It was important to keep the community aspect front and center,” he noted, adding that the Springfield Business Improvement District stepped up with cash, allowing the team to activate more community promotions and just “keep our lights on and keep our people engaged and keep the business moving forward.”

His goal was simply to be sustainable during a difficult time with little revenue. “I didn’t want to go to ownership and ask for cash. Not that they wouldn’t support it, but I felt we had a duty to do our best, and I think we did better than we ever could have expected.”

The silver lining to all this has been growing demand for the activity for which the team exists — actually playing hockey.

“Obviously, we wanted to play last year. But what do they say — absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? I think that happened a little bit,” Costa told BusinessWest. “I think there’s a real pent-up demand for just having fun in an exciting environment, and just doing things again with our friends and family. We’re hearing from people who can’t wait to get out and cheer on the team and hopefully see us have some success on the ice.”

Still, the past 18 months have reiterated Costa’s view that the Thunderbirds are more than a hockey team, and more than a business.

“I invest my heart and soul into this thing. Sometimes people say, ‘it’s just an AHL hockey team.’ For me, it’s much more than that. I feel like we’re the lifeblood of the community. We’re at the centerpoint. Our whole marketing campaign is going to be around ‘we are 413.’ And we feel that. We want to be that type of organization.

“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us. At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”

“The last year and a half, it’s been, ‘how to we get through this and get back to what we do really, really well?’ There’s no playbook to get you through this stuff. You’re doing things on the fly and trying to make the right decisions, but you don’t know the outcome of certain things.”

He called decisions on what staff to keep, furlough, or cut back hours two springs ago were “gutwrenching,” especially because they came so quickly and unexpectedly.

“The Saturday before shutdown, we had our ninth sellout — tied for most ever, and we had three Saturdays left,” Costa said. “The next week, I had to furlough half the staff. And none of it was their fault. I mean, the week before that, we were on cloud nine. None of us thought this would happen. It completely changed our organization. And you just have to work through it.”

That said, “our goal is to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible, but also do it responsibly and do it the right way,” he noted — even if that means wearing masks a little (well, hopefully just a little) longer. “It’s going to take some time, but we’re really well-positioned as an organization to come out of this strong.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

Continuing Education

Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks

Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks are a good start to keeping AIC’s campus safe.

 

After a year when colleges offered a wide variety of learning options during the pandemic, from in-person to remote to a blend of both, the vast majority have opened their classrooms, residence halls, and athletic fields for a true on-campus experience this fall. But they’re doing so with caution, both internally — in the form of vaccine requirements — and backed by municipalities that are issuing broad mask mandates. The bottom line through all the changes? The idea that young people need the full college experience, and no one wants to risk a disheartening retreat to Zoom.

 

Everyone is tired of pivoting, Matthew Scott said. But, by now, they’re good at it, too.

“We’ve learned that our students are adaptable. They don’t always want to be, but they’ll go with the flow and make it happen. And our staff members have just rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘what needs to be done?’”

As vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students at American International College (AIC) in Springfield, Scott is just one of countless higher-education administrators who have spent the past 18 months adapting to one unexpected development after another when it came to COVID-19 and how students could best learn and interact during the pandemic.

“You want to plan in times when you aren’t in the middle of a crisis, so that you’re ready to use that plan when a crisis occurs,” he said. “But when you’re thinking through your crisis-planning process, you’re thinking of things like a fire or a hurricane coming through. Nobody planned for a pandemic. We had protocols for a specific outbreak, but not something like this.”

The lesson? “We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

The latest pivot for AIC, one similar to what most colleges and universities are doing, involves students living and learning on campus, with residence halls open and clubs and sports in full swing. But a facemask requirement is back, too, at least indoors. And AIC is also requiring students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID.

“We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

“At last count, we were at 98%, which is a phenomenal number to get to,” Scott said, noting that religious and medical exemptions are being given, but those people are required to be tested weekly, and their quarantine and isolation protocols in the case of infection differ from those of a vaccinated individual. “So far, the vaccination rate has been helping us quite a bit.”

Elms College in Chicopee has also mandated both masks indoors and vaccination for everyone (students, faculty, and staff) without a legitimate exemption.

“Last year, masks were required everywhere. Now, they are not required outdoors if you don’t have anyone within six feet of you,” President Harry Dumay said. “We don’t have distancing in the clasrooms like last year. But we’ll be functioning with a campus that is fully vaccinated.”

While students could choose to take classes in person or remotely last year, Dumay said the college is asking all undergraduates to be in classrooms this year, although remote capabilities are in place in case someone needs to quarantine.

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan for this fall, but “a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup.”

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus,” Dumay said.

When asked about pushback from students on the vaccine mandate, he said he wouldn’t use that word, exactly. “We certainly had quite a few inquiries from parents, saying, ‘is that necessary?’ Or from staff or employees asking, ‘so what does that mean if I don’t do it?’ I don’t know if anyone resigned on our campus or decided not to come because of the vaccination. There might be one or two cases, but I haven’t heard that.”

Scott said students tend to understand that vaccines not only prevent COVID in many cases, but reduce its severity in others.

At the same time, however, “college-age people are not particularly concerned about hospitalization or death because, for the vast majority of them, they’re able to weather the storm and get through it. But part of the education process is making sure they understand it’s not just about them, it’s about the people around them who might have underlying conditions they might not know about.”

If there has been any pushback, he noted, it has taken the form of questions about why both vaccines and masks are necessary.

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus.”

“We’d say, ‘yes, you’re vaccinated, and yes, that probably means there’s a lower likelihood of you contracting COVID, but if you do, you might not know you have it, and you might pass it on to somebody else — maybe a child who can’t get a vaccine, or maybe someone who’s immunocompromised,’” he explained. “For the most part, people get it. More than 1,000 U.S. colleges are requiring vaccines, so we’re among many at this point.”

 

Taking Their Shot

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal said HCC balanced the desire among many students to get back to in-person learning with the constantly changing health metrics around the Delta variant. “So we decided to open with about a third of classes in person, face to face; a third online; and another third blended of some sort.”

The original plan earlier this summer called for about 25% of classes in person, she explained, “but as those classes were filling up, we heard students wanted more of them, so we added some additional sections. Then we increased class sizes, which were lowered during the pandemic.”

Now 15 students are allowed in a class, still small enough to allow for social distancing, Royal said.

At the same time, “we were also hearing from other students who were not comfortable coming back in, given the conditions in the world. So that’s where we are this semester — we wanted to have a range of options for students so we can match whatever their comfort level is.”

HCC has had a mask mandate on campus since the start of the pandemic and has never lifted it. The college also modified its ventilation systems. “We have several classrooms that don’t have windows, and we wanted to make sure people felt comfortable in the learning spaces.”

In addition, the campus added protective barriers in many places and signage reminding students about masks, social distancing, and hand washing, as well as the need to get vaccinated.

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says the state’s community-college presidents are unified in their support of a vaccine mandate.

That is more than a nudge now, as all 15 community colleges in Massachusetts instituted a vaccine mandate last week for all students, faculty, and staff, which must be fully met by January.

“During the last 18 months, the Massachusetts community colleges have prioritized the health and safety of our communities while also recognizing that many of our students have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the presidents said in a statement shared with their campuses. “While a significant number of students, faculty, and staff are already vaccinated or are in the process of becoming vaccinated, the 15 colleges are seeking to increase the health and safety of the learning and working environment in light of the ongoing public health concerns and current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

In her own message to the HCC community, Royal noted that, “while there is no ironclad defense against coronavirus, extensive public-health research has shown that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death.”

While the UMass system has not yet instituted a vaccine mandate, UMass Amherst is strongly advising shots for all students and employees. “The science is clear that vaccination is the best way to stop COVID-19 from spreading, and our best way to continue protecting each other’s well-being,” an official statement reads.

In the meantime, individuals who are not vaccinated are required to participate in the university’s asymptomatic testing program.

UMass Amherst is also back to in-person learning, but is following public-health guidelines for wearing masks indoors and distancing where possible.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

“The use of indoor masks, required on campus and in the town of Amherst … reduce the spread of infection, said Ann Becker, Public Health director, and Jeffrey Hescock, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety, in the campus’ Public Health Promotion Center, in a statement. But they also laid out the stark facts when it comes to vaccination.

“Our data shows that, among our vaccinated population, only 1.7% have tested positive. Among the approximately 500 individuals who have received religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, 10.05% have tested positive. We urge those not yet vaccinated to consider doing so.”

They noted, however, that positive cases have been predominately among undergraduate off-campus students connected to unmasked social activities. “We have not seen any spread in academic settings. Most cases continue to be of short duration, resulting in mild to moderate illness.”

UMass makes vaccine clinics readily availabe on campus, as do the 15 community colleges. HCC offers free COVID-19 vaccinations for four hours every Tuesday, as well as COVID-19 testing six days a week on campus through the Holyoke Board of Health.

Royal was adamant that a vaccine mandate was the right call.

“I think this is in our collective best interest, for our community colleges and for our region as well,” she told BusinessWest. “At this point, the vaccines have been shown to be effective when we’re talking about preventing disease or reducing hospitalizations and deaths.”

She recognizes that people have many different perspectives that should be respected, but that the college has a duty to combat misinformation.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

 

Life of the Campus

In some ways, it has been a frustrating start to the semester, Dumay said, noting that the general feeling earlier in the summer was that masks would be optional, let alone vaccines, as COVID gradually retreated. While it hasn’t, he noted that it’s important for students to safety enjoy the full Elms experience.

“One of the distinctive features of an Elms College education … is that it offers a vibrant and nurturing environment, and not just with the instruction that happens in the classroom,” he said. “It’s all the interactions and how people behave with one another.”

College leaders believe important personal growth occurs through that interaction, he added.

“You can’t really do that with an online model. You can approximate it, but it’s not ideal. So to the extent we can, we’ll take the steps that are necessary so we’re safe and have an on-campus education, particularly for young people who are at that stage in their life where they’re forming their character.”

Like Scott, Dumay said the key lesson from the pandemic has been that it’s good to have a plan, but one thet can be modified at any given time. “We have a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup. We’re prepared to shift as the environment changes.”

The second lesson is the importance of transparent communication, he noted, because without it, people tend to fill the gaps with misinformation.

“We’re not pretending the pandemic is over by any means,” AIC’s Scott said. “We’re complying with the Springfield mask mandate right now and requiring masks indoors and outdoors when you can’t maintain the six feet. But we still have a tent set up outside; we’re trying to drive people outside as much as possible, just as an extra layer of protection.

“But the 98% vaccination rate, along with masking — I don’t want to give people a false sense of security where you don’t have to be vigilant, but we’re feeling pretty confident that we’re doing what we need to do to keep people safe.”

If a pocket of infection arises, the campus is ready to bring in more testing supplies and trigger quarantine protocols, but Scott feels like the double protection offered by vaccines and masks are the best way to keep that possibility at bay.

“There’s no one to be mad at,” he added. “I’m not mad at the mayor for putting in a mask mandate; he’s doing what needs to be done to keep the people in the community safe. But is it frustrating when you think you have a plan and the pandemic doesn’t cooperate? Of course, but a virus doesn’t cooperate.”

What makes all the planning and inconveniences worthwhile, he said, was seeing the energy of the students as they moved back onto campus a month ago.

“It was kind of a heartwarming moment seeing some of these returners … they left in March of 2020, and they didn’t come back until the beginning of this September. So when they see each other in person for the very first time in a long while, you can see it, you can feel it. They want to be with each other.

“We believe in the on-campus experience,” he added. “They’re coming here for all these things — to participate in athletics, to live in the residence halls, to eat in the dining commons. We’re on an online campus in this moment.”

Dumay saw the same energy at the Elms — and doesn’t want to do anything that might threaten to snuff it out.

“The first week, seeing students back on campus, was fantastic,” he said. “They’re happy to be here. They don’t want to be sent back to Zoom. They’re happy to be with each other. And we’re happy to see them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Doing More with Less

 

At a recent virtual seminar, Delcie Bean asked attendees to think back 20 years and ask themselves, did they foresee a time when phone books and yellow pages would not be a thing?

After all, he asked, every home had one, and they were the primary way small businesses advertised and shared their contact information with the public.

Now, “look at what’s happened to that world,” said Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT. “That’s the pace at which technology is changing. These things we took for granted, that we felt were never going to change, that were part of the fabric of our ecosystem, have changed. And it’s not just phone books. Think of all the landfills that are chock full of technology that, at one point in time, we didn’t think we could live without.”

And it’s not just tools, but the way we do business, he said, pointing out the short jumps between dominant communication methods over the past century. That idea was one jumping-off point for Bean’s virtual seminar on Sept. 15, titled “Automation: the Time Is Now,” and subtitled “How Automation Can Streamline Your Business and Offset the Labor Shortage.”

At this event, presented by BusinessWest and Comcast Business, he said everyone should ask themselves a simple question: “What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?

“What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?”

For example, he went on, “do I have employees entering data into a system that could easily be automated? Am I still doing things on paper forms that then need to be scanned into a system or, God forbid, typed in manually into another system? Do I have antiquated processes that require people to get manual approval and shuffle things around and put things in inboxes and outboxes, and do I still have tasks being done manually that are just ripe to automate?”

The 60-minute presentation focused on the benefits of automation and the ways it can be utilized to save businesses time, trouble, and expense — anything from onboarding a new employee or client to gathering information when someone signs up for something on a website, to the steps involved in the approval process when employees want to request a new computer. All of this, and more, can be automated, Bean said.

One common tool helping businesses do that today is the Microsoft 365 platform, an evolution of the Microsoft Office suite that offers subscription tiers and features including secure cloud storage, business e-mail, advanced cyberthreat protection, and the popular Microsoft Teams program.

“Microsoft has made a very deliberate, very intelligent decision to be the leader in small-business workforce automation, and they have invested infinite money in trying to do that,” Bean said. “And it’s actually paid off.”

 

Perfect Storm

The need to streamline processes through automation impacts most businesses and, as such, is a timely topic of discussion, Bean said — “maybe more than we’d want it to be.” And that’s partly because of the unique set of economic stressors that have emerged over the past 18 months.

“We’re probably all feeling busier right now than we’ve ever felt,” he said. “I know there’s a lot going on that’s causing us to have a lot more on our plates, a lot more challenges to solve, a lot more obstacles to overcome than we’ve had to in the past. So why are we taking time out of our day to have this conversation?”

Well, first of all, businesses are being forced to do more with less. Roughly 3.5 million Americans are not in the workforce but used to be — largely because of the pandemic, but not totally. Population growth has slowed, and the massive exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce has accelerated somewhat.

“That has a huge impact on the ecomomy, one we cannot minimize,” Bean noted — and one that will continue to ripple throughout organizations of all sizes at a time when everyone seems to be wearing more hats than before, juggling more tasks, and trying to keep up with less help. And that leads to more stress in the workforce.

“We’re seeing more employees comment that they feel overwhelmed, people are leaving their jobs, looking for new jobs, changing industries,” he said. “Or they’re managing the working-remote, working-in-the-office challenges, healthcare challenges … it’s a lot of stress and pressure on the workforce that’s still working.”

On the other hand, the workforce crunch has also created a talent shortage and one of the best-ever markets for job seekers, who have more leverage than before, Bean said, making it harder to hire and retain employees.

Wage growth has accelerated, and so have employee demands regarding everything from remote work to more autonomy to relaxed dress codes, he noted. “Employers are working really hard to try to manage and keep up with those demands while also managing the business.”

It’s an incredibly difficult economy, he added, and just for small employers; the situation is really trickling up to larger and higher-paying employers as well. “It’s not ignoring anybody.”

And it comes, Bean explained, in the midst of what’s known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which builds on the third (which began in the mid-20th century and was known as the digital revolution, marked by the rise of computerization). This fourth revolution is melding technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing, augmented reality, smart sensors, 3D printing, and many other advances, and promises to transform the way people live and work.

“There’s a lot going on right now that is digitizing and changing the way we interact with pretty much every aspect of our life,” he said. “And it’s happening at a rate we are very unaccustomed to handle.”

As noted, businesses trying to adapt to this fast-changing world are doing so amid all the recent challenges stemming from the pandemic and the labor situation. Small businesses also lament the growing culture of acquisition, and find it difficult to compete with larger companies with more resources, more innovation, and the ability to pay more for talent.

“All in all, it makes you feel like, if you’re a small firm, you’re in a race that’s a losing battle,” Bean said. “Exhausted? I don’t blame you.”

 

No Standing Still

But exhaustion is no excuse for inaction, he argued, before refuting the common myths around automation: that it’s too expensive, too complicated, and takes too long to implement. All are untrue, he explained during the virtual seminar, and again during a sit-down with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien during a recent edition of the magazine’s podcast, Business Talk (businesswest.com/blog/businesstalk-with-delcie-bean-ceo-of-paragus-strategic-it).

In other words, there’s no excuse for any business to avoid this conversation any longer.

“We don’t want to be the next Blockbuster,” Bean told the seminar attendees. “We don’t want to be the company that could see that things were changing, stuck to our guns, hung on, and ultimately worked their way into oblivion.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Insurance Special Coverage

Rising Tide

After a summer of heavy rains in Massachusetts — and across the Northeast, for that matter — plenty of homeowners discovered their insurance policies don’t cover flood damage, and many are no doubt considering whether they should add such coverage. And it’s a question that may be raised even more often in the future, as climate change produces stronger and more frequent storms.

Last week, President Biden sat with state government officials to talk about the growing dangers of hurricanes and floods.

“For decades, scientists have warned that extreme weather would be more extreme and climate change was here. And we’re living through it now,” he said. “We don’t have any more time.”

But it wasn’t Florida he was visiting, or Louisiana or Mississippi. It was New Jersey, which had just experienced, according to one county commissioner, its fourth 100-year storm in the past two decades. The event turned tragic, with close to 40 people dead in New Jersey and New York, many trapped in basements and cars.

In other words, the effects of climate change on storms is no longer a problem for other regions. It’s a problem for the Northeast, too.

And it’s on the minds of those in the insurance industry.

“What was once a 100-year flood is now a 10-year flood,” said Trish Vassallo, director of Operations at Encharter Insurance in Amherst. “We’re seeing things now that we never anticipated.”

Trish Vassallo

Trish Vassallo

“What was once a 100-year flood is now a 10-year flood. We’re seeing things now that we never anticipated.”

Western Mass. residents know this well after a summer of often-incessant rain, punctuated by a few big storms that left a trail of flooded basements in their wake — most of which were not covered by insurance. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“A homeowners’ policy is going to provide coverage for a hurricane or tornado — which is on everyone’s mind this time of year,” Vassallo said. “We’re covering for wind damage and hail. If the whole house blows away, we’re covering for that as well.

“But flooding is always going to be excluded,” she went on. “You need to purchase a specific flood policy. The basic policy is from the ground up — not the flood coming in from the surface.”

There are two types of coverage homeowners can add to their policy to cover floods, Vassallo noted. Flood insurance covers water damage that results from water that has already hit the ground, pouring in from oversaturated yards, flooded streets, or overflowing rivers, streams, or ponds. Meanwhile, water backup coverage reimburses the homeowner for water that backs into the home through an outside sewer or drain.

“The key phrase is surface and/or groundwater coming into the building,” said David Griffin Jr. senior vice president at the Dowd Agencies in Holyoke. “If a pipe bursts, causing water damage, or water gets in through the roof, or a tree falls through the house and water comes in behind it, that’s all covered [by a basic policy]. But if water from outside the home comes in — if the yard floods and starts to spill into the basement — you’ll need a flood policy to respond to that.”

David Griffin Jr.

David Griffin Jr.

“We’ve had so much water this summer — it’s unprecedented, and it’s becoming an issue for everybody.”

While add-ons like earthquake insurance don’t sell big in New England for a reason, flood insurance is becoming an “absolute necessity,” Vassallo said, noting that it’s required in Massachusetts for mortgages in designated flood zones. “A person no longer has the option; mortgages require it. You can’t close on a loan without it.”

Griffin said his team recently ran some numbers and found that only 3.5% of all homeowners in Massachusetts have a flooding policy. Considering that flood-zone requirement, the percentage of people who aren’t forced to buy the coverage but opt for it anyway is strikingly low.

Will a summer of heavy rain — or talk of more intense storms in the future — change that? Insurance professionals are watching closely.

 

A Disconnect?

While flooding from rushing water and rain is generally not covered by regular homeowners’ insurance policies, floods remain the most common and most destructive natural disaster in the U.S., according to the National Assoc. of Insurance Commissioners.

From 1988 through 2017, flood damage in the U.S. cost almost $200 billion, according to the Natural Academy of Sciences, and the increase in precipitation due partly to climate change was responsible for $73 billion, or more than a third of that, Investopedia reported this month. These figures include all property damage, not just homes.

Nonetheless, only about 15% of homes in the U.S. are insured against floods, according to both a report from the reinsurance company Swiss Re and a survey by the Insurance Information Institute.

Dowd said homeowners should take a five- to 10-year perspective on what potential flood damage would actually cost. “Do I want to spend 800 bucks a year on a flood-insurance policy? Over 10 years, that’s $8,000. What’s the likelihood of having a loss beyond that if I have to self-insure? You can look at insurance as a long-term budget item.”

Consumers can access a cost estimator, where they can input data about their home, including its age, location, construction style, square footage, and contents, and get back replacement-cost numbers that can help guide policy decisions, Dowd said.

And current events may affect that formula; these days, in the case of major, widespread damage, homeowners may run into supply-chain issues and shortages of wood and other materials, which can significantly jack up costs.

“If you haven’t looked at your limits in a while and they’re $325,000 and it actually costs $425,000 to replace it, you don’t want that kind of gap in case of a total loss,” he noted. “It’s important to be on top of that.”

But protecting a home from water damage — or any other disaster — extends beyond the policy itself, Vassallo said.

“We talk about preparedness — making sure people do the right thing to limit their losses,” she noted, which includes everything from securing movable items to cutting back tree branches that threaten windows and roofs. “This is something we deal with on a day-to-day basis here in New England. You want to limit your damage as a homeowner.

Griffin agreed. “There’s always a level of preparedness you need to have in order to limit damages in a storm. That’s something you want to think about — it can sometimes eliminate bad things.”

Meanwhile, after an incident occurs, the homeowner can take steps to minimize further damage while documenting their losses.

“Always take photos of loss of everything, and make immediate emergency repairs — put that blue tarp on the roof to prevent rain damage,” Vassallo said. “If you do need to make emergency repairs, most insurance companies will honor the photographs. I would recommend you retain damaged materials, which can prevent questions from arising. If you rip out the rug in the house, you don’t want the adjuster to pay you for builder’s grade, when you had a high-grade rug. That’s stuff we deal with all the time.”

The homeowner is expected to not just respond quickly to minimize damage, but to help prevent it as well, she noted. That means regularly cleaning gutters so they’re not backed up with leaves during heavy summer rains, which can lead to water pouring into the foundation and leaking into the basement — or contributing to ice dams in the winter.

In other words, “if you have gutters, clean them — but be careful on that ladder,” Vassallo said. “If you can do your preventive work ahead of time, you’re ahead of the game.”

 

Warning Signs

As he noted earlier, flooding has been on Griffin’s mind lately.

“Typically, this is the time of year when we see the biggest uptick in those types of claims, especially in New England,” he said. “We also see it in March, when the ground is frozen, and we may get two or three inches of rain, which slides across the frozen ground and into your home. But we’ve had so much water this summer — it’s unprecedented, and it’s becoming an issue for everybody.”

He said carriers have been sounding the alarm about this topic. “Storms are getting a lot stronger. It’s definitely something that’s been noted on the carriers’ end.”

They’re not alone, of course.

“Every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather. And we’re now living in real time what the country’s going to look like,” Biden said in New Jersey last week. “We can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse.”

And make sure we’re properly insured against the next big storm.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

No Standing Still

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up at the Mount — not just from 2020, but from pre-pandemic 2019.

It may not stack up to Edith Wharton’s best novels, but it’s a compelling story.

“We’ve had an incredibly good season, despite the challenge of staying in compliance with the latest CDC and local health recommendations regarding COVID,” said Susan Wissler, executive director of the Mount, Wharton’s former estate in Lenox that is now a hub for all kinds of arts, nature, and cultural programming.

In fact, Wissler said, this year’s visitorship has doubled that of 2020 — maybe not a striking statistic in itself, given the economic shutdown of that spring and a hesitancy among many people to leave their homes for much of the year. But this year’s figures are also 50% higher than they were in 2019.

Part of that success may be attributed to a decision last year to open up the property’s outdoor grounds and gardens for free. “We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety,” she noted. “We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

“We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety. We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

The house itself still requires admission, and Wissler worried people would take advantage of the free outdoor experience and leave. And maybe some did come with that plan — but many felt compelled to go inside, too. Thus, paid visitation topped the previous two years.

So did weddings, all of which were cancelled in 2020, many of them moved into this year. The Mount typically hosts about 12 weddings per year; it will welcome 26 between May and October.

Meanwhile, NightWood — an ethereal, immersive walking experience featuring original music, lighting, and sculptural elements — was a huge hit last winter, bringing in desperately needed revenue with limited attendance and timed tickets; the Mount will stage the attraction again later this year.

Still, the new focus on outdoor space — which included a lecture series under tents this summer — posed its own issues, particularly weeks when it rained and rained. “That has been a huge frustration for all culturals and restaurants, anyone focusing more attention outdoors,” Wissler said. “The weather was a punch in the stomach.”

MASS MoCA in North Adams also offers programming inside and outdoors, and found plenty of success with both in 2021. “June and July were actually our highest-attended months we’ve ever had — and that includes pre-COVID visitorship,” said Jenny Wright, the museum’s director of Communications.

“We had that brief moment after Memorial Day when we were able to lift restrictions — but we do have an indoor mask mandate in place since August 4 and require our staff to be vaccinated. But we’re very fortunate to have the luxury of lots of indoor and outdoor space on our side,” she noted, adding that, in addition to the museum’s wide corridors and spacious galleries making it easy to physically distance, MASS MoCA made good use of outdoor courtyard space this year to stage performances. “We’re very fortunate to have space on our side during this period.”

The museum’s robust artist-residency programs continued throughout the pandemic as well.

“When people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.”

“Even before we reinstated our performances, we were housing artists in residence to develop new work. That was the catalyst for us developing new digital programming. That was something we hadn’t done much of before,” Wright said, noting that the museum told artist stories with behind-the-scenes documentaries it then posted online as a way to keep the public connected even when they weren’t in the building. It’s also creating 360-degree virtual tours, starting with its famed Sol Lewitt exhibit, to post to the MASS MoCA website.

“Our mission is to make art … new art that has never existed before,” Wright noted. “When you come here and see that, it’s a powerful experience. But when people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.

“For us, it’s really thinking about ways to create multiple points of entry for people, not just the front door,” she went on. “That was something we hadn’t explored in too much depth before.”

Wissler said the Mount found similar success reaching new audiences virtually. “We were really reluctant to get into the pool of virtual programming, but COVID forced us to dive right in — and Zoom programming has been amazing.”

Specifically, events featuring guest authors have been a hit — and found a much broader audience than before. Now, an event that typically drew authors from the mid-Atlantic and New England can bring in guests from pretty much anywhere — and the potential audience has also expanded around the country and even around the world.

“That’s something we’ll continue as we move forward,” Wissler said. “We haven’t found a way to monetize it yet, but from a visitor standpoint, it’s a huge success.”

 

Dramatic Shifts

While many regional destinations and arts organizations shut down completely in 2020, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) turned in one of the year’s most notable success stories, creatively staging an outdoor, socially distanced run of Godspell in August in September — the only show featuring Equity stage actors in the entire country at the time.

Nick Paleologos, executive director, said planning for the 2021 season began in late 2020, and the general feeling as the calendar turned was that current health conditions weren’t going to change dramatically until late 2021 or even 2022.

“So we decided to build on what we learned in the summer of 2020, when we did Godspell outdoors. We planned for a modest but slightly more robust outdoor season on both our campuses, in Stockbridge and Pittsfield.”

In Stockbridge, that meant outdoor runs for The Importance of Being Earnest and a newer play, Nina Simone: Four Women, while in Pittsfield, the theater planned a community version of The Wizard of Oz, but with a slightly scaled-back supporting cast. The organization also scheduled a series of outdoor music performances.

“Then, quite suddenly, Gov. Baker decided to lift all restrictions on Memorial Day weekend, and that caught us a little off guard,” Paleologos said. “We had a planned a whole series of protocols, and now, all of a sudden, we were being told, ‘no problem, go back indoors, you don’t have to wear masks,’ all that.”

So the Stockbridge performances were shifted indoors, to the 120-seat Unicorn Theatre, while The Wizard of Oz in Pittsfield remained outdoors, under tents. While it didn’t have to mandate masks, the Unicorn did require them, even though it had recently upgraded its HVAC system.

“We decided on an abundance of caution — we would require masks and suffer any pushback there might be,” Paleologos went on. “But we encountered very little pushback. People were quite happy, even with the protocols, to wear masks for the entire indoor production. We had hardly any complaints. I think they were grateful to be back inside, in an air-conditioned space, instead of outdoors in Stockbridge during the summer.”

Meanwhile, in Pittsfield, attendees didn’t have to wear masks under the tents if they chose not to, and most didn’t.

But another “curveball,” as Paleologos called it, would follow — and, unlike Baker’s decision in May, it wasn’t a positive one. As the Delta variant of COVID-19 emerged and dramatically increased infection rates in a state where COVID had been largely under control, BTG had a decision to make. It was headed into the Nina Simone part of the season and opted to keep that show indoors — but require proof of vaccination for entry.

“Again, we braced outselves for a backlash which never came,” he said, adding that the theater did have to turn away a few people who did not carry that proof with them, even though they claimed to be vaccinated. But in most cases, those patrons requested a credit for a future performance rather than their money back, and other patrons thanked Paleologos for holding fast to the policy, he noted.

“They said the only reason they were there was because of the protocol. I think we’ve gotten to a stage where the issue of concern over spreading the virus has become almost a reflective action; I think people are kind of acclimated to that.”

 

Places in the Heart

The winter-season holiday show at BTG’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield will be held indoors, with masks and vaccination required, as well as distancing by placing an empty seat between seated parties.

In other words, the show goes on at this company that has learned not only how to pivot, but that its audience is willing to pivot right along with it.

Paleologos said the various shifts this year have not only made the organization more flexible, but have shown him that the public is willing to adapt as well — and that bodes well for any future ‘curveballs.’

“It’s been a real learning experience for us. As we look ahead, we’ve become more nimble with what we do and how we do it.”

It’s just one example of how people are seeking meaningful experiences right now and are, for the most part, accepting of whatever protocols are required to engage in them.

“I think people came out of 2020 feeling starved and lonely,” Wissler said. “They’re thinking about the Mount as a destination — a nice place to meet with friends and socialize. I think people are coming for many reasons other than tourism — it’s a great place to keep up and enjoy personal relationships.”

Wright agreed that the pandemic has driven home the importance of what destinations like MASS MoCA offer.

“After everything that’s happened over the past 18 months,” she said, “it really underscores the importance of the arts and cultural destinations during these difficult times — particularly contemporary art, which is not just reflections of the moment we’re in, but can present us with a view of what’s possible. And I think people really need that right now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Lifetime Achievement

President and CEO, Center for Human Development

Jim Goodwin

Jim Goodwin

In His Long History with CHD, He’s Seen Plenty of Lives Changed

On more than one occasion as he spoke with BusinessWest, Jim Goodwin referred to “short-termers” — employees who, for whatever reason, don’t stay at the Center for Human Development for very long, and don’t get to see the full scope of CHD’s impact on individual lives.

And that’s unfortunate because that impact, he noted, can be slow.

“One of the positives about being here a long time is you get to see how things change,” said Goodwin, the organization’s president and CEO. “We’re not working with a group of people where you sit down and have a conversation and they come away changed. It’s a process.”

For instance, he said, “people that experience serious substance-use issues often try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, and then they make some progress. When you’ve been around a while, you know failure is part of the process, and you see the change over time.

“It’s the same thing with mental health,” he went on. “Certain things in mental health never go away. It’s like diabetes; it’s with you for life. You figure out how to cope with it, how to live with it — and that is a long, hard process.”

That process may include a combination of resources, from medications to therapy to stress-management strategies, he explained.

“When you get to see it happen over time, you see that people can learn skills, they can learn to function normally with various forms of mental illness. You see the difference in people who get services and hang in there and fight the fight and come out the other end. I’ve gotten to see a lot of people come out the other end, develop those skills, and change their lives.”

“People that experience serious substance-use issues often try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, and then they make some progress. When you’ve been around a while, you know failure is part of the process, and you see the change over time.”

In his 42 years with CHD, the last 16 as president and CEO, Goodwin has seen plenty of growth; since 2005, the agency has grown from a $48 million entity to $125 million, and from around 1,300 employees to 2,000. He sees the impact, as he noted, in those individual lives changed, but it’s the sheer number of those stories, and the scope of CHD’s work, that has earned Goodwin the title of Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the Lifetime Achievement category.

“There are a lot of things I’m proud of,” he said, trying to sum up those years. “CHD has had tremendous growth over the years. And as needs have changed, we’ve been able to change and adapt and provide services in more areas.”

Opioid use is one such growth area, he noted. “Over the years, the need for substance-use services has grown substantially, and that has required us to deliver services differently.”

Today, CHD’s services span a wide gamut, including behavioral health and addiction recovery, housing and homelessness, food insecurity, youth welfare, intellectual and developmental disability, child development and advocacy, and more.

Jim Goodwin addresses those gathered to celebrate the 2018 opening of Goodwin House.

Jim Goodwin addresses those gathered to celebrate the 2018 opening of Goodwin House.

“Jim has led CHD to step in and provide services where many others would not, including to people involved with the justice system, the homeless, people with severe mental illness or disability, and many others,” said Ben Craft, CHD’s vice president of Community Engagement, who nominated Goodwin for the award.

One recent example Craft cited is Goodwin House, a 90-day residential program providing substance-use treatment services for male teenagers. The facility and its staff work to help clients not only maintain their sobriety through proven recovery strategies, but also reconnect with their families, education, and job opportunities.

“Jim has quietly built an organization that is racially and culturally diverse and one of the region’s most highly rated employers,” Craft added, “one that has grown with the needs for its services and remained nimble and innovative to keep up with the turbulent environment in which it operates.”

 

Expanding on an Idea

When Goodwin considers CHD’s impact over the years, he’s quick to include the organization’s 2,000 employees as well as its clients.

“These are good jobs with good benefits that allow people to have good lives and do work that they’re proud of,” he said, noting that the broad diversity of his team reflects the makeup of CHD’s clients, most of whom access services in a geographic region spanning from Amherst and Northampton to Hartford and Waterbury, Conn.

It’s an impressive footprint for an agency born from a desire by its three founders — Bill Seretta, Kathy Townsend, and Art Bertrand — to offer community-based care. In the 1960s, Goodwin noted, community services were hard to come by, and people struggling with hunger, homelessness, or simple healthcare needs easily got lost in the system. Young people, particularly those with mental-health issues, were shuffled into state training schools that were more like prisons than centers of care.

“CHD took kids from training schools and served them in foster-care and group-home models, and started to have a lot of success,” he added. “It grew from there. These community-based models started to take off because they were so successful; then we started doing it with adults.”

Today, community-based care remains the heart and soul of CHD’s mission, but the breadth of services has expanded, with more than 80 programs that help people tackle some of life’s toughest problems — often in ways that other agencies hadn’t considered.

“We provide a combination of different types of services,” Goodwin said. “Many can be identified as a mental-health problem or a substance-use problem, but it’s often tied in with other things, especially all the things associated with poverty, joblessness, and homelessness. Many times, especially in the past, agencies would take on one component or the other; they might provide homelessness services or mental-health services. But we’ve been able to combine lots of different services to create a bigger package that does the full scope of things.”

It’s those connections — recognizing the role of social determinants of health and tackling the root causes of issues — that sets CHD apart, but it’s not easy work, Goodwin said. “Some days, it can be very difficult, but when you look at the whole picture, most days I’m really glad we’ve taken all that on.”

It also cultivates an organization with career mobility, he added, as employees can move around and take on different roles as they gain experience in other fields. “One of the good things about CHD is you don’t have to leave to try something new.”

But those connections between clinical and non-clinical supports poses a constant challenge to come up with new ideas and approaches, he added. “You have to be creative.”

Take, for example, Innovative Care Partners (ICP), which is a collaboration between CHD (the managing partner), Gándara Center, and ServiceNet designed to better serve clients in the MassHealth program for their behavioral-health needs. ICP’s care coordinators connect clients with other members of the healthcare-delivery system, including hospitals, primary care, and other providers, across the four Western Mass. counties to help ensure they’re getting needed services without duplication or inefficiencies.

“We get people to follow a set of services that speaks to their behavioral-health needs,” he said, which might include medication, psychiatry, or counseling, but the program also focuses on the factors that get people into health trouble, such as poor nutrition, high levels of anxiety and stress, and high blood pressure.

“Together, primary-care health professionals sign off on a comprehensive plan that speaks to the full range of their needs,” Goodwin explained. “That’s a change. There used to be walls between mental-health services and medical services. Everybody knew that didn’t make any sense, but until recently, it never became a focus of attention.”

 

Learning Experiences

Needless to say, the Center for Human Development has had a challenging 18 months navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. With 850 residential mental-health beds and thousands of clients accessing outpatient care, there was plenty of learning on the fly — especially when it came to telehealth — but everyone came through to continue meeting the needs that drew Goodwin to CHD 42 years ago, and plenty of others.

“We’re proud of our impact, and that includes our economic impact,” he said. “We provide local jobs, and our people are spending money in their local communities, buying homes … a lot of things are happening because they’re here and CHD is paying them. I think we contribute to the economy in a big way.”

But the main impact remains those individual lives that are changed — albeit sometimes very slowly.

“My goal from the very beginning was to have an agency people would be proud to work for and feel good about what they’re doing,” he said, admitting that the work can be tough, navigating thorny issues like homelessness, drug addiction, and young people in trouble with the law.

“That can be very difficult for the workforce,” he added. “But overall, it’s also very rewarding. It’s the type of work you can be proud of and see accomplishment.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Collaboration In Health/Wellness

Collaborators in DASHH include Revitalize CDC, Baystate Health, Health New England, the BeHealthy Partnership, Holyoke Medical Center, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, and the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.

This Coalition Keeps People Healthy in Ways Its Partners Couldn’t Achieve Alone

If there’s anyone who understands the impact of asthma in Greater Springfield, it’s Sarita Hudson.

Specifically, as director of programs and development for the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts and manager of the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, she understands the connections between one’s physical environment and health — and the factors that have consistently placed Springfield high on lists of riskiest places to live with asthma. But even the Asthma Coalition has its limits.

“We had been doing asthma interventions, working with community health workers, working with clients, doing education, helping them identify triggers,” she said. “But it’s not enough if we can’t actually fix anything in the home.”

Meanwhile, as vice president of Public Health for Baystate Health, Frank Robinson understands the many ways the system’s community health programs and providers promote preventive health and wellness.

“We had been doing asthma interventions, working with community health workers, working with clients, doing education, helping them identify triggers. But it’s not enough if we can’t actually fix anything in the home.”

Still, “Baystate would never be going out and creating healthy homes by doing environmental changes and mitigations,” he explained. “That is not the work of the healthcare system. To be aligned with someone who does that work and gets the health implications and health impacts is perfect, though — it makes a perfect marriage.”

That organization would be Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC), which does have a long history of making critical repairs, modifications, and rehabilitation on the homes of low-income families with children, military veterans, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

When these three organizations started talking — about asthma and other issues — they were intrigued by what they might accomplish by working together, said Revitalize CDC President and CEO Colleen Loveless.

“We’d been doing some of this work — mold remediation, pest control — but hadn’t formalized the process in collaboration with insurance companies and the healthcare system,” she told BusinessWest.

Now, thanks to a collaboration called Doorway to an Accessible, Safe and Healthy Home (DASHH), these three organizations are not only identifying families in need of intervention for environmental health issues, and not just educating them on lifestyle changes, but actually making the necessary physical changes to their homes.

“We started talking, and we applied for a technical-assistance grant from the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore. They’ve been doing this work for decades,” Loveless explained. “We were one of five sites awarded that technical-assistance grant.”

Baystate followed with a capacity-building grant, other state grants followed, and DASHH was in business. Since its beginning in 2015, the program has served 130 households with asthma remediation and education, as well as 101 households for age-in-place modifications. Last year, it launched a COVID-19 response project (more on that later), impacting more than 1,550 households and approximately 6,881 individuals.

“It’s a business model that shows that, by intervening and creating healthy homes through environmental remediation, removing asthma triggers, and improving the physical environment, we could reduce asthma incidence in high-risk populations,” Robinson said.

Families referred by Baystate for environmental interventions receive three to five visits to conduct testing, at the start and end of the process, and provide education on how to keep the home clean and safe. If needed, Revitalize CDC brings in services ranging from air-duct cleaning to mold remediation; from pest control to floor covering and replacement, and also provides air purifiers, HEPA vacuums, and cleaning supplies.

By partnering with health-centric organizations, Colleen Loveless (center) and Revitalize CDC was able to infuse its home-rehab efforts with a focus on wellness.

By partnering with health-centric organizations, Colleen Loveless (center) and Revitalize CDC were able to infuse home-rehab efforts with a focus on wellness.

“The goal is to keep people from having to access primary care or the emergency room, and not miss school or work,” Loveless said. “Asthma has such a ripple effect.”

 

Better Together

The initial goal of DASHH was to help older people by improving their housing conditions related to asthma and falls, most notably by providing home assessments and home repairs to help them stay healthy and age in place. Breaking down this enterprise that has earned the title of Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the Collaboration category, the individual honorees are:

• Revitalize CDC; which performs assessments and interventions for adults and children with asthma and COPD and makes safety modifications and aging-in-place improvements so seniors may safely remain in their home;

• The Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which provides support on asthma issues; measurement evaluation; support and coordination for referrals, education, and outreach; coordination and support for asthma home-visiting services; and technical assistance and support, as well as providing materials and services in Spanish;

• Baystate Health and the BeHealthy Partnership (a MassHealth accountable-care partnership plan option made up of the Baystate Health Care Alliance and Health New England), which provide referrals to DASHH through five health centers: Baystate General Pediatrics at High Street, Brightwood Health Center, Caring Health Center, High Street Health Center Adult Medicine, and Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center; and

• The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a national network that provides technical assistance on planning, database services, and access to best-practice strategies. The organization worked with the other partners on feasibility studies to come up with ways to fund interventions in the home and determine how those efforts might impact healthcare costs and decrease healthcare utilizations regionally.

After its initial success with Baystate, Revitalize CDC expanded its service area in 2019 to begin collaborating with Holyoke Medical Center and its team of community health workers and navigators. To boost such efforts, the city of Holyoke recently awarded Revitalize CDC’s Healthy Homes Program $100,000 from American Rescue Plan Act funds.

DASHH serves low-income families in Hampden County, which ranks last among the Commonwealth’s 14 counties for health outcomes and health factors for racial/ethnic groups. Springfield had been the asthma capital of the U.S., according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, until 2019, and now ranks 12th — still not the most desirable ranking, but an improvement, to be sure.

“You talk to the families, and you see that this is the kind of impact that changes their health,” Hudson said of DASHH’s efforts. “It means they can breathe easier and get the supplies they need.”

For instance, in some cases, “the ventilation ducts have never been cleaned, and every time the heat comes on, they have an asthma attack. Now they’re clean, and it doesn’t happen,” she went on. “Some of these are small, simple repairs.”

This issue has been important to Hudson for a long time, through the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, which was formed 15 years ago to address childhood asthma by improving medical and self-management of the condition, as well as by reducing environmental triggers.

The coalition focuses on outdoor air pollution and indoor air quality and has successfully advocated for new policies, including statewide regulations to prohibit tobacco sales to those under 21; green cleaning policies and procedures adopted by Holyoke Public Schools; an ordinance against burning construction and demolition debris; and asthma protocols and an idle-free vehicle policy adopted by Springfield Public Schools, among many other successes.

It’s work — not just the physical interventions, but education of homeowners, landlords, and primary-care physicians — that should be happening on a wider scale, Hudson said, not just in homes, but in schools and other older buildings where people gather.

“We really see a lot of our housing stock as old, with deferred maintenance, including so much of our rental housing. That’s why we are pleased to see more funding around whole-house renovations.”

 

Quick Pivot

Last year, the DASHH coalition began supporting patients at risk of contracting COVID-19 by providing them with essential supplies and access to nutritious food at home. It made contactless deliveries that also included COVID-prevention supplies, including disinfectants, microfiber cleaning cloths, cleaning gloves, dish detergent, food-storage containers, hand soap, disinfectant wipes, paper towels, and food from local pantries.

“These are people who were quarantining, and we were providing them with cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and facemasks — and we found many were food-insecure, so they were provided food from local food pantries,” Loveless said. “The whole DASHH program just expanded from asthma to COVID, and we’re still seeing it now.”

Meanwhile, she’s excited about seeing the coalition continue its broader work — and those regional asthma statistics improve further.

“It’s been a really, really great partnership. It’s a win-win situation — the healthcare system saves money, we’re serving more low-income families in need, and patients are healthier. So it’s really a win-win-win.”

Robinson agrees. “I think the role of Revitalize and other housing providers that understand these issues have made a difference — and make healthcare providers’ jobs much easier,” he said. “They have been instrumental partners in creating safe and healthy houses for older adults as well as creating healthy homes for folks with respiratory diseases, asthma in particular.”

The work is both deeply collaborative and, dare we say, heroic.

“I’m so appreciative,” Loveless said. “Together, we’re able to serve more people in need.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Open for Business

Romika Odedra says the branch’s layout emphasizes the customer experience.

Holyoke-based PeoplesBank recently expanded its presence in Connecticut with a branch in West Hartford. The new location is projected to help the bank grow its already considerable portfolio of consumer and commercial business from south of the border, especially in an ongoing climate of mergers and acquisitions.

 

When PeoplesBank opened its newest branch in West Hartford on August 30, it wasn’t exactly its first foray into Connecticut’s capital region. Far from it.

“This is a retail opening in West Hartford, but half of our commercial business is in Connecticut already — actually, about 60%,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing & Corporate Responsibility.

“Some is up in the Granby-Windsor-Suffield area,” he went on, alluding to PeoplesBank’s first three Connecticut locations, in East Granby, Suffield, and West Suffield. “Some is down here in the Hartford region, and it actually goes all the way down to the shore. We’re kind of catching up with this retail storefront because the commercial customers want a presence here. They’ve been saying to us, ‘come down to Connecticut.’ And West Hartford just makes sense; it’s a great community, and a good place to be.”

Aleda De Maria, executive vice president of Consumer Banking and Operations, said a growing commercial presence in Hartford County cried out for a full-service physical branch.

“The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

“We absolutely need it. The majority of our new accounts are still opened at brick-and-mortar locations. For more complex conversations, customers want to talk to a person, and they want to have that live interaction. There still is a need for that face-to-face contact.

“I think what the industry is trying to do with the self-service channels — with online, with mobile, with video bankers — is give people the ability to do the quick, day-to-day transactions when they want to, without having to park and go in and talk to somebody, and get it done quickly,” she went on. “The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

Michael Oleksak, executive vice president and chief lending and credit officer, said all those Connecticut dollars in the bank’s commercial portfolio have not come mainly from the Granby-Suffield area, but predated those physical locations.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

“We have a significant amount of business in the Greater Hartford area, specifically in the Farmington, Glastonbury, West Hartford communities and downtown Hartford, but we also go as far as New Haven and Greenwich. So our tentacles are fairly long when it comes to our Connecticut presence.

“Most of that is in commercial real estate, which tends to be more transactional,” he went on. “We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

The branch presence in West Hartford allows the team to do more commercial and industrial (C&I) lending, and complements a recent expansion of the bank’s C&I team with former TD Bank veterans, Oleksak noted.

“We have a very strong following now, and I think by having a physical presence there, we’ll become a more visible part of the community,” he went on. “We do support our current borrowers, including with a lot of their philanthropic initiatives, but it’s kind of behind the scenes because we don’t have a presence there. But with a physical presence, and with the disruption in the market with the M&T acquisition of People’s United, it will really open the door for us to be a bigger part of the community.”

De Maria agreed. “We’ve already created such a solid foundation with our name and then with the physical presence from the acquisition we did in Suffield in 2018,” she told BusinessWest. “And now, with our West Hartford presence, I think we have a solid opportunity to bring the service we provide for our commercial customers to our retail-customer world, and really marry those two sides together and make an impact.”

 

Making Contact

Many visitors to the new branch will first notice the interactive video tellers, one in the entry and one in the drive-thru lanes, bringing the bank’s total number of such machines to 22 at 17 locations. Users can call up a live teller in Holyoke who manages four or five machines at once.

“That way, we can be open seven days a week and have extended hours and not have to have people physically in the branch. And the video banker can do almost any transaction,” Bannister said, noting that Peoples is the only bank in the Hartford to offer the service. “Part of our technology story is good, consumer-facing technology.”

Romika Odedra, vice president and regional manager, said customers appreciate face time with a live person rather than interacting with a machine and the more limited options available at an ATM. And Bannister added that, with the pandemic still raging, many customers appreciate being able to conduct complex transactions in a contactless way.

“We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

“Video tellers are something we’re proud to bring to the market,” De Maria said. “It brings seven-day-a-week banking to West Hartford and our surrounding areas.”

Once inside the branch, customers will see pods instead of traditional customer lines — a model Peoples and other banks have been implementing for years. Customers can stand beside the teller and even see what he or she is looking at on the computer screen, if necessary. “In the beginning, people were like, ‘where do I go?’” Odedra said. “But it’s so easy — it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s not ‘there’s the line.’ It’s nice to have that one-on-one experience.”

The branch also employs a ‘universal banker’ model, Bannister said. “Any bank employee you see out here can do all the transactions. You can go to a teller pod or pop into an office if it’s more convenient or you just want privacy to have a conversation.” In other, more specialized offices down the hallway from the main area, he added, the bank will offer a mortgage expert, a wealth adviser, and other ancillary services.

And in front, at the main entrance, is a high table, couch, and coffee bar. “We’re trying to say to people, ‘come on in and hang out; get to know us a little bit,” Bannister said. “The thought is, we want to have sort of an open storefront.”

That’s partly to reflect the neighborhood the branch is in, with restaurants and small shops lining the streets and the shopping and dining mecca Blue Back Square just down the road.

“This area really is hopping with foot traffic,” he said. “And if you’re a bank with a retail storefront, you want foot traffic.”

Those who drive to PeoplesBank will appreciate the free parking lot the bank shares with the town’s Post Office.

“I used to work at a different bank, and that was the biggest issue we had, the parking,” Odedra said. “I’m so glad we have the parking we have. We don’t have to rush the customer out; we have time to have that one-on-one with them and invite them to have a cup of coffee.”

Bannister said West Hartford has been an enthusiastic town to work with, from its Chamber of Commerce to local economic-development leaders.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

 

Opportunity Knocks

The branch is fully staffed as well, with a mix of on-site and hybrid workers, reflecting the current makeup of the entire PeoplesBank organization. Some are West Hartford natives who know the market, Bannisher said, while some were attracted by working near all the nearby restaurants and other neighborhood amenities.

Aleda De Maria

Even in an age of mobile banking, Aleda De Maria says, people still want face-to-face interaction at branches for many services.

There’s room to expand in Hartford County, he added, with plans to open at least two more branches in the next couple of years.

“We’re coming in with a message of ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay, and we can do everything the big banks do, but with a local feel and local decisions,’” De Maria said. “And I think that’s what’s missing in banking in general nowadays — being able to bank how you want to bank but also at a community bank where you don’t have to worry about who’s going to buy them.”

That presence means civic involvement and philanthropy as well, Bannister said, noting that PeoplesBank plans to give close to $60,000 in the first month alone to local organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Hands on Hartford (which assists with food pantries and the homeless population), the United Way, Foodshare, and even two West Hartford community events the bank will sponsor this fall and next summer.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

“We feel like we’re leading with the values we want to be known by in the community, which are innovation, technology, customer service, and the community support.”

De Maria agreed with Bannister than broadening the bank’s footprint in Connecticut is a must. “We will continue to actively look for physical locations, primarily in Hartford County,” she said. “We’re not opposed to outside Hartford County should it make sense, but in Hartford County, we feel we have an opportunity for our brand to really make an impact in the community.”

And that means expanded business, including commercial lending, Oleksak said. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity in this market for us, given our size and the experience of our lending staff. We’re very diverse, and between small business, large commercial real-estate loans, and now C&I expertise, I think we bring a lot to the table. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis Special Coverage

Growing Concerns

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field, especially for smaller shops and social-equity applicants.

Everyone has seen the dispensaries and other cannabis businesses sprouting up in communities across Massachusetts — and the long lines of customers often stretching out the door. And they might think this business is easy money. But that’s far from the truth, thanks to an onerous tax situation, the illegal nature of the product on the federal level making it tough to enlist financial and other partners, and the slow march from stigma to acceptance of this still-new industry. All of that, however, could be changing, although it will take federal action to loosen some of those shackles.

Meg Sanders is a cannabis-industry veteran, most notably in Colorado, the nation’s first regulated market for legal cannabis. So she’s no stranger to the growing pains the industry is now dealing with in Massachusetts.

But as a local business owner — as CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee — she’s frustrated by them, too.

“We’re limited on what we can do with advertising, and the amount of product we can sell to a customer at a time,” she said, citing just two examples of regulations set forth by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC).

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry. I don’t think it’s helpful to individual businesses, and it’s definitely, in my opinion, not in the spirit of the CCC, which is supposed to promote social-equity and economic-empowerment applicants. But the bar for entry is really high, and the bar to stay out of trouble with the CCC is really high.”

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry.”

In other words, despite the number of cannabis businesses currently operating across Massachusetts — 267 and rising every week — this is a tough field to enter and a tougher one to succeed at, Sanders told BusinessWest.

“I think of people who are bootstrapping, mom-and-pop stores, teams that are working with a limited amount of cash, and it’s not a level playing field,” she went on. “And a lot of things we worry about in this industry are things that really do not matter. The amount of money this industry spends on packaging alone, that just goes in a landfill, is awful, and it’s driven by these rules and regs — it has to be childproof, it’s got to have 57 warning labels on it. I feel ethically horrible about the mounds of packaging in landfills. And the burden it puts on mom-and-pop manufacturers who are trying to make a really cool chocolate bar and the expense that’s going into that packaging … it’s really tricky.”

It doesn’t help, she added, that many state regulations can be challenging to interpret, mainly because the CCC is going through the same growing pains businesses are.

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum, but the timeline is still uncertain.

“I’ve seen this in other states — the agency tasked with regulating and monitoring the industry has a very steep learning curve,” Sanders said. “One investigator will tell you one thing, and another investigator will tell you another thing. So they’re not always on the same page for specific rules.”

Many of those regulations address diversion of product, she noted. “We’ve spent millions of dollars building this business. The last thing we’re going to do is flush it down the toilet trying to sneak a pound out the back door. It’s just absurd.”

So are onerous background checks to get into the industry, keeping out some of the individuals — from communities that have been inordinately affected by the Drug War — who should be able to enter and prosper, she added. “Regulators and business owners should be partners to build a better business and correct things that need correcting, understanding everyone is doing their best.”

Those challenges are strictly state-level, but others on the federal level are just as burdensome, and boil down to the fact that the U.S. government still classifies cannabis as an illegal controlled substance. That means most banks and credit unions have avoided doing business with cannabis operators, though that’s slowly changing.

“In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out.”

“The federal illegality is a big challenge, and it doesn’t stop with the banking issue,” said Patrick Gottschlicht, chief operating officer of Insa. “That’s been extremely detrimental to us, but that carries across to other companies that we can work with — payroll processors, ERP [enterprise resource planning] companies, any big national or international software companies, accounting firms, security vendors … they can’t work with us because of that federal illegality.”

That has started to shift as more professional services and banks are opening up to this industry, though many still won’t, and many that do are startups themselves, with less at stake, said Peter Gallagher, Insa’s CEO.

“There’s no playbook for this industry,” he added. “There’s been a lot of trial and error to get to where we are. In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out. People’s friends are getting into it, talking positively about it, and they see the success of the industry, and you’re seeing more willingness to work with cannabis.”

Some bills have been introduced in Washington to, if not legalize cannabis, at least decriminalize it.

“Those bills would make it easier for us, and also de-risk the industry around the margins for a lot of partners,” Gallagher said. “The trend is definitely there, but in what time frame will that happen? From our perspective, it’s been happening a lot faster than we ever expected. When we got into this, we thought the legal conversation would take 20 or 30 years to play out.”

 

Taking No Credit

Sanders is hopeful, too. “At the federal level, we have big challenges. We can’t even take credit cards. That’s so silly. We can take a debit card and cash, and that’s it. That alone would be a really big help.”

Scott Foster, a partner at Bulkley Richardson and one of the attorneys in that firm’s cannabis practice group, believes sentiment is growing that Congress will act sooner rather than later on some degree of allowing banks into the cannabis space or remove the threat of federal enforcement against entities that partner with cannabis operators.

“That will help create some stability. And the biggest thing it’ll do is allow people to use credit cards at the facilities; it’s largely cash right now. If Congress changes that law, boom — you can use your Visa card, you can use your Mastercard. And the reason that you can’t now is not because Visa and Mastercard have a particular ethical or moral problem with it — they’ve just got a legal problem.”

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Some federal bills have bipartisan support, he added, “but Congress has a lot of other things going on.” Still, with almost 40 states and territories having legalized medical cannabis and more than 20 giving the OK to adult-use cannabis, “I think the tide is definitely turning on this; it’s just a matter of how far it goes, and how quickly.”

Even without a change in the law, Foster explained, “the banking situation is getting better. We’re seeing some banks and some credit unions more willing to lend into the cannabis space now — much more than a couple years ago. They’re becoming more comfortable with lending for real-estate purposes — not for buying things, necessarily, but for buildout and for creating a space, including cultivation spaces. So that’s a change. A very small change, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal.”

The other federal law cannabis operators want to see changed is Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, which severely limits tax deductions for business that deal in controlled substances prohibited by federal law. In short, businesses can deduct the cost of goods sold, but are not allowed any other deductions or credits on their return, including for wages.

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions. Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes.”

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions,” Foster said. “Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes. And this is after they pay state and local taxes. So the federal government is making a lot of tax money off of cannabis companies across the U.S.

“It’s been challenged multiple times in multiple states,” he went on, “and every tax court and every appellate court has said, ‘Congress can change it, but they were unequivocal in what they said.’ It’s a completely constitutionally valid statute.”

Decriminalizing cannabis federally would neuter the impact of 280E on the industry, which would be massive news for cannabis businesses that are already paying higher-than-average state taxes, while their host communities get a cut of between 3% and 6% as well.

But decriminalization would open many other doors as well, like broadening the market for insuring these businesses.

“There’s a risk that your insurance company could, almost at any point, say, ‘well, what you’re doing is a violation of federal law; therefore, we’re not going to insure you,’” Foster said. “The companies are getting insurance — they’re required to get insurance by the CCC — but they’re not the traditional companies; they’re not the Allstates or the companies you see advertising. They’re smaller, specialty, boutique insurance companies that have figured out it’s worth the risk to them to get into that space because the premiums are appreciably higher than they would be for a comparable business.”

So, again, the lack of federal legislation to decriminalize cannabis is increasing the cost of doing business, he went on. “If that happened, I think the cost of insurance would go down because you’d have more competition overnight in the space.”

Another barrier to continued growth that is slowly coming down is stigma surrounding the products themselves.

“For decades, it was drilled into people’s heads that this was a bad thing,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to take time to change that, and the most powerful tool is social proof and people seeing their friends and relatives using it to either treat various ailments or enhance their lifestyle; they see they’re successful, healthy individuals, and this is just a way to improve their lives. But I think it’s going to take time.”

For example, Gottschlicht added, “we have a bedtime edible to help you sleep, and we’ve seen people who were non-cannabis users start using that and come into the space because of that. It’s incredible how many people have gotten off standard pharmaceuticals and gone to half a gummy every night. The feedback has been, ‘it doesn’t make me groggy; it doesn’t give me the melatonin hangover I’ve gotten in the past. I feel normal in the morning, and it helps me sleep through the night.’”

Hearing those testimonies from friends and family is often how the stigma barrier falls for people who have been nervous about stopping by, he noted. “They think, ‘hey, there’s some good benefit to this.’ Or as an alternative to opioids after surgery — we’ve had a lot of people come in who just don’t want to take opioids for pain after surgery; they want to try cannabis because it’s not as addictive as some of the opioids out there.”

Sanders agreed. “I personally think the biggest move you can make to convert non-cannabis users to cannabis is this one-on-one experience, people telling people, or people coming in and finding relief from something — maybe sleep issues or aches and pains. And when you convert one person, they tell someone, and then they tell someone.”

 

Business Is Blooming

It’s been fulfilling to see the industry grow, Foster said — not to mention a boost to his own professional practice.

“The big uncertainty now is what consolidation in this industry is going to look like, and when is it going to happen. Everyone knows big players are going to come in and buy up companies and create brands that stretch across the nation; it’s already occurring, though not a lot … yet.”

But as more investors become comfortable with industry — there’s that idea of breaking through stigma again — that consolidation will happen, he went on. Drawing on the beer industry, he noted there’s no Anheuser-Busch in cannabis yet — it’s all microbreweries, so to speak. But even when large, national companies spread across the space, there will always be room for the boutique experience, for small companies that continue to research and promote the effects of new and different strains.

Research that is not currently happening to the degree it could because much research, especially clinical research at universities, is dependent on … wait for it … federal funding.

But once that research takes off and the cannabis industry escapes the shackles of federal illegality — a development that industry players generally agree will happen at some point — the products will continue to become more legitimized in the public eye, and the potential customer base will expand.

“People are asking, is the industry tapped out? No, I’m not seeing that,” Foster said. “Every business that opens up has a line out the door, and every facility that opens up can sell everything it makes. So, we have not reached a point of saturation by any means.”

That ever-expanding competition is another challenge, Sanders said, but one that should benefit all players because it further legitimizes the products in more people’s minds. But it also means individual businesses need to work harder to stand out. Canna does that with a strong focus on the individual experience and locally sourced products — including its own brand, Smash — with interesting, local stories behind them.

“There’s more good people than not in this space, and we owe it to consumers who are cannabis-curious to put our best foot forward and make sure they have as much information about our products as possible, so they don’t have any unexpected reactions,” she said. “Our commitment is to great products we can tell a story about, that we understand and respect and can get behind and provide the best experience we can possibly provide, and educate our customers.”

Insa, which has a production facility in Easthampton and four dispensaries across the region, including a flagship store in Springfield, has also expanded nationally, with a production facility in Pennsylvania selling to about 100 dispensaries and a Florida license to build a production site and medical dispensaries. And Gallagher embraces the growing competition in all those regions.

“The way we look at it, this is a much bigger industry than exists today,” he said. “If we all do a good job and operate responsibly and create good quality products, it will encourage more people to enter the industry and experiment and try it, and this will get much, much bigger. A rising tide lifts all boats, and as long as you have good, responsible players in the market, it’s going to be a benefit to everyone.”

Still, he added, “it’s a tough business. One of the common misperceptions is, people think it’s going to be easy. But it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. You have to be on it every day. And when you’re dealing with any biological product, the number of variables to control are immense. So it’s extremely challenging.

“But it’s been great,” he added. “The relationships we’ve built along the way have been fantastic. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Except, of course, for some pesky federal laws.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

Firm Commitment

Peter Shrair

Peter Shrair says the two firms saw “some real synergies” when they started talking.

Springfield-based Cooley Shrair and Hartford-based Halloran Sage have a lot in common, including histories that span more than 75 years and a focus on the broad needs of business clients. But their philosophies and cultures also have a lot in common, as their leaders discovered during discussions that led to Cooley Shrair joining the Halloran Sage family last month. The result, they hope, will be more inclusive service to clients, as well as a more attractive landing spot for the young talent all law firms need to grow.

When asked what Halloran Sage and Cooley Shrair bring to each other’s table, David Shrair had to think back only 15 minutes.

“We’ve got a new, West Hartford-based client who called me and said, ‘I tried to trademark a logo myself, and I got lost. Can you help us?’” said Shrair, a partner at his namesake Springfield firm, which recently joined the much larger, Hartford-based Halloran Sage law group.

“We normally would have referred him to a firm we did business with in Hartford, who did all our intellectual-property work,” Shrair continued. “But I got on the computer and sent out a blast e-mail to partners and counsel at Halloran Sage. Within three minutes, I got one name from five different partners. I’ve connected that partner, he’s got the logo, and we’re working on it.”

In other words, by joining forces with 86-year-old Halloran Sage, an 80-attorney practice whose law expertise in the realm known as transactional business runs deeper in some areas than Cooley Shrair’s, the firm can keep its clients in house for a much wider range of matters, instead of farming them out, he noted.

“We can keep an eye on the case and make sure it’s being handled properly, which is very difficult to do when you’re sending it out to somebody else, and you have no idea whether your client is being taken care of,” said Peter Shrair, another partner with the firm. “If we’re looking at the client’s interest first, then the client gets a much better product.”

That’s one of the ideas behind what both firms aren’t calling a merger or an acquisition, but a joining together of the two entities under the Halloran Sage umbrella.

“We started talking, and we saw some synergies between what we do and what they do. And I had a thought that one plus one could equal three, with a really good group of smart people working together.”

Peter said he started talking informally to Bill McGrath, a partner at Halloran Sage, about such a relationship last year.

“Another lawyer in their office, Sue Scibilia, and I were talking about something else. She said to me, ‘you really should meet Bill McGrath. He’s a good business person and one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever known.’ And I consider Sue to be one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever known. So, we started talking, and we saw some synergies between what we do and what they do. And I had a thought that one plus one could equal three, with a really good group of smart people working together.”

Casey O’Connell, another partner at Halloran Sage, agreed.

“This has always been a Connecticut-based firm with a regional focus,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re always looking to find ways to better serve our clients and to provide the best possible legal services that we as a legal firm can provide. So we’re always on the lookout to have talented attorneys with complementary practices and similar philosophies to join our firm.”

David Shrair says the combined firm will be able to keep more clients completely in-house.

David Shrair says the combined firm will be able to keep more clients completely in-house.

After informal discussions turned more specific over several months, he went on, “there were some meetings among people with the firms, and it was determined it would really be a great fit and a way for us to collectively be bigger than we both were separately and, most importantly, to provide additional resources to our client base and Cooley Shrair’s client base to better serve our clients.”

For this issue’s focus on law, BusinessWest sat down with O’Connell and the two Shrairs to talk about why this relationship makes sense, and why both firms feel they — and their business clients — are better off because of it.

 

One-stop Shop

Business clients, after all, are at the heart of both firms’ work. Besides a shared focus on transactional law, which incorporates activities like contracts, finance, construction and real estate, risk management, restructuring and bankruptcies, board governance, intellectual property, and a host of others, Halloran Sage also boasts broad expertise in business litigation.

“That’s a service that we had not been offering for a number of years,” Peter Shrair said. “Even when we offered it, it clearly wasn’t with that depth of people. We had one or two, maybe at one point three people doing litigation, but they might have 30. And depending on the size and complexity of the matter, they have the skill, knowledge base, and depth of people to handle it.”

The firms are similar in other ways — for instance, both have a large banking practice, representing different banks, “so there’s a synergy right there,” David added.

“We collaborate very well across practices,” O’Connell said, “and that is one way where the firms can mutually help each other, with the Cooley Shrair folks bringing a wealth of transactional and business banking knowledge that really strengthens our practice areas. But we also have a very robust litigation practice.

“I would say Halloran is a full-service firm, and our litigation portion of the firm is very large and robust — we’re one of the biggest firms that focuses on litigation in Connecticut,” he went on. “And one of the reasons we have such a long history in Connecticut is our ability to provide clients with essentially one-stop shopping.”

Joining a Connecticut-based firm — Halloran Sage has five offices in the Nutmeg State — also makes sense in that three of Cooley Shrair’s attorneys were already admitted to the Connecticut bar, and the firm has worked with many clients from across the border.

This isn’t the first time Halloran Sage has taken on an established group of attorneys all at once, but most of its growth over the years has been organic, O’Connell said. For instance, it launched a New Haven office with two attorneys in 2012, and has since grown that site to 12 attorneys.

“It was a big success story to build and maintain a presence in that part of the state,” he noted. “We have an office Washington, D.C., but [Springfield] is our first office outside Connecticut with a large presence. This really broadens our reach to become not just a Connecticut firm, but a Southern New England firm.”

Client relationships won’t be disrupted, Peter Shrair said, but may shift over time.

Casey O’Connell

Casey O’Connell

“We collaborate very well across practices, and that is one way where the firms can mutually help each other, with the Cooley Shrair folks bringing a wealth of transactional and business banking knowledge that really strengthens our practice areas.”

“If it’s a more natural fit for someone from Hartford to handle something, they’ll handle it,” he explained, noting, as an example, a litigation case that came in just that morning and was referred to attorneys in Hartford. “We’re looking for whatever is best for the client — if a client can be handled better out of New Haven, we want to handle that out of New Haven. If it can be handled better in Springfield, presumably we’ll handle it in Springfield. “Really, it deals with whose practice area it fits best in.”

 

Business as Usual, Sort Of

For two firms that deal heavily with business clients — at a time when the business world has been rocked by COVID-19 — the past 18 months have gone surprisingly well, Peter noted.

“At least as far as my practice goes, there was very little change,” he said. “In fact, with the advent of Zoom and Microsoft Teams and everything else, it was probably easier because you could get different people online together quickly and have a discussion.”

David Shrair was stranded in Florida in March 2020 when the economy first began to shut down — so his firm shipped him a computer and double-screen monitor.

“I closed one of my largest transactions in years from Florida; I did Planning Board meetings from Florida, just like I was sitting in Springfield or wherever; it mattered not,” he recalled. “It’s interesting — with the shutdown and all the issues that went with it, most of our business clients continued very much along the same vein. They had their own internal problems, but the sales and acquisitions and all that still continued to go on. We have been extremely busy.”

After an initial slowing of work in the pipeline last spring, Halloran Sage’s team adjusted quickly to the pandemic as well, O’Connell said, and business has been strong from the second half of 2020 to the present. The transactional work has been more robust than litigation because court activity slowed to a crawl last year, but overall, business has been brisk, and the firm is on a growth trajectory.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities and ways to serve our clients. That includes having new attorneys come in with different specialties or outlooks or just to grow our bench and have more resources to grow our client base,” he went on. “We’re always looking to figure out how we can modify our firm or business to better serve our clients. That’s what the current combination of Cooley Shrair and Halloran Sage is all about, and certainly where Halloran wants to continue to go, to make sure we’re staying ahead of the curve and in the best position to serve our clients.”

The broader geographic reach will also benefit the combined firm in attracting talent, as attorneys will be able to access opportunities across Connecticut as well as into Massachusetts, and move around as their life circumstances change, Peter Shrair said. And David noted that being part of a much larger organization broadens the partnership track, which can also be a draw for young attorneys to settle in this region.

But in the end, O’Connell said, what the discussions really came down to was a perceived alignment in the firms’ client-first philosophies.

“We went through some internal discussions, not really to create a new philosophy, but to figure out a way to better articulate our firm’s philosophy, and we have determined that our firm’s philosophy is ‘client, firm, self,’ in that order,” he said. “In talking to the Cooley Shrair folks, we found there was a great alignment with how they deliver service, and our philosophies really align, so seemed like a natural fit when we pursued it.”

Peter Shrair agreed. “For 75-plus years, that has always been our mantra — our response time and our response to clients’ needs.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

Modern Office

Best of Both Worlds

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Looking over the past year and a half, Lisa Verville isn’t surprised the O’Connell Companies operated smoothly with the vast majority of its team working from home.

“People have stepped up, they did what they needed to do, and work got done,” said Verville, director of Human Resources for the large family of businesses that includes Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, O’Connell Development Group, Appleton Corp., and New England Fertilizer Corp.

“Now, the technical piece of it — if this happened 20 years ago, I can’t imagine it would have worked as well as it did. We didn’t have Zoom back then,” she added. “But we have a very dedicated team. I’m not surprised it worked well.”

Which is why remote work will continue at O’Connell — to a point. Starting last month, employees were required to work on site at least three days a week, and more if they want to.

“We miss everybody,” Verville said. “We have a great culture, and we don’t want to lose that culture. If people are 100% remote, I think there’s a risk of losing that — do people feel connected to their organization if they’re not here, cooperating and collaborating with their team?”

At the same time, “we know we have to balance that with what’s going on with our workers. We want our employees to be happy and feeling as though there’s a balance. That’s our goal.”

Welcome to the new, hybrid workplace, which looks to be a dominant model for employers across myriad industries, at least for the near future.

“People tell us they can do both,” Verville said. “I think it works, and allows for that work-life balance. I think people appreciate the flexibility.”

Big Y has been operating on a hybrid model for its support-center workers since early in the pandemic, said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services. And that will continue.

“Obviously, our stores are open nights and weekends, and our goal, as always, is to make sure we’re taking care of our store employees and our customers at all times,” he said. “Business needs may be different for different positions. It’s finding the right balance — making sure we’re taking care of customers but also allowing our people the autonomy to work from home.”

That’s the thinking at MassMutual as well, said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience. The company’s return-to-office approach will balance flexibility with in-person collaboration, with most employees transitioning to a hybrid model, working some days in the office and some days remotely.

Ross Giombetti

Ross Giombetti

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great. But that’s not how it works.”

“We will also continue to support fully remote and fully in-office arrangements where it makes sense,” she added. “Importantly, this approach is designed to incorporate employee flexibility, so it will look different across the company, depending on role, function, and business needs.”

With most employees working 100% remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, she explained, “we learned that we can successfully operate in a virtual work environment. That said, we also think there’s value in teams meeting in person to spur creativity, social connection, and collaboration.”

The goal now is to build on the work-life flexibility MassMutual has offered for years, while taking into account employees’ feedback from recent engagement and surveys.

“Similar to how we approach many new situations,” Cicco said, “we’ll assess and evolve our approach as we learn more about what works best for our customers, employees, and company.”

 

Culture of Caring

Ross Giombetti, president of Giombetti Associates — a leadership institute that helps businesses acquire and develop top talent — said the vast majority of his clients are currently maintaining a hybrid model and anticipate sticking with it for at least a while.

“I think most companies realized that, contrary to the initial concerns they may have had, a lot of people were very productive during the pandemic, working remotely, and it actually went a lot better than they thought,” he told BusinessWest. “So a lot of organizations realized that’s here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.”

At the same time, he added, employers are finding resistance to bringing workers back full-time because remote work has become a habit.

“If you think about how habits are formed and what makes humans comfortable with something, it takes a full 90 days for a new norm or new habit to become part of our routine. Take mask wearing — I would bet most of us took about 90 days to get comfortable and used to wearing a mask.”

Well, many employees stayed home more than five times that long, so the habit has become deeply ingrained, becoming the new norm. Giombetti also noted that many employees told to return to the office, at least part of the time, may be uncomfortable doing so, still fearful of gathering in groups.

Sue Cicco

Sue Cicco

“By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”

In other words, working at home is a hard habit to break, for many reasons. That’s why most businesses are looking at hybrid scheduling as an acceptable option.

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great,” he said. “But that’s not how it works. A lot of the advice I’m giving people is to be patient with the process, be patient with people returning to work, whether hybrid or fully. When people are back around large groups of people, there will probably be some nervousness, and we need to be understanding of that.”

At Giombetti’s own company in Wilbraham, Fridays are remote days for everyone, and employees can request to work at home any other day they feel they’ll get more done there, with fewer distractions.

“If our team needs that, I encourage it. That’s how we operate,” he said. “I think many organizations understand it’s better to measure results, attitude, and performance than where they’re doing the work from.”

Galat said Big Y’s leadership learned many lessons over the past 17 months.

“One is that we can still be very productive while employees are working from home — there’s an increase in employee productivity when employees are happy. We’ve always considered ourselves a culture of caring, and this [remote work] has helped people balance their personal needs, whether it’s child care, elder care, whatever.

“I also think a big part of productivity is flexibility,” he went on. “Some may log on earlier in the morning, or at times work later at night.”

While working from home saves on travel time and can boost productivity in other ways, he admitted that it’s important that colleagues come in a few days a week to make sure they’re not missing out on the collaborative components of their jobs. Therefore, managers are expected to work on site at least three days a week, and everyone else at least two.

“Again, it depends on the business needs. That’s a very important component of it,” Galat said. “There may be weeks they have to come in every day, and there may be weeks they can work more from home. Each area supervisor works with them to find that balance based on the business needs and what’s going on in their personal life.”

Workers appreciate that kind of consideration, Cicco added. “By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”

 

Culture of Collaboration

That said, companies see value in making sure their workforce is physically present, at least part of the time,

“We think there’s value in both in-person collaboration and the flexibility created by working remotely,” Cicco said, adding that most MassMutual employees responding to surveys or other outreach preferred the hybrid option.

“We’ve learned that, while we appreciate the increased flexibility of remote work, we also miss the value we get from face-to-face meetings, impromptu conversations, collaboration across work groups, and what we learn when we’re together,” she went on. “Not to mention the social aspects — having lunch, bumping into friends around the building, and catching up over a cup of coffee.”

In addition, “we believe the connection that comes with being face-to-face brings energy, encourages innovative thinking, accelerates learning, and strengthens relationships and community,” Cicco noted. “With this in mind, we will encourage work groups to come together regularly, for the benefit of their work and their team.”

Giombetti said most of his clients offering hybrid work stress the need to be physically present at times — brainstorming and working through critical issues at a staff meeting, for instance. “Some things are best done in a room with other people. And most clients have found their employees are totally comfortable with that.”

The other challenge for companies has to do with culture, camaraderie, and the kind of collaboration that can’t be easily achieved over Zoom.

“A lot of organizations are training specifically on that topic,” he said. “While you’re honoring the flexibility of your teammates and employees, it’s important to make sure you can maintain that great culture you’ve built.”

Galat agreed, noting that, while Zoom and similar tools have their place and have been an important piece of keeping staff connected, some collaborations are more effective in person.

“We’re big on culture here — that’s a very, very important part of it. When you don’t see people at least part of the time, it’s hard to strengthen those relationships. It’s all about relationship building, and that goes back to who we are as an organization, caring about employees. Yes, we’re allowing them to work from home, but building relationships with people over the years when we don’t see them some of the time, that’s difficult.”

At the same time, Big Y has prepared a series of best practices for employees working remotely, including the need to take regular breaks. “Productivity is important getting the job done,” Galat said, “but we also want to make sure people are taking some time away as well.”

Giombetti said remote work has allowed some bad habits to creep back in, including a tendency to multi-task to the detriment of the main task.

“If you’re in the office, in the conference room, having a meeting, most of us know it would be foolish to pick up the phone when someone is talking to us because that’s just rude,” he explained, noting that it happens much more often during a Slack, Teams, or Zoom meeting. “Unfortunately, the last year and a half maybe caused us to retrench a little bit, and the amount of multi-tasking has increased. We have to guard against that.”

 

Unexpected Absence

Verville remembers the week in March 2020 when O’Connell’s Holyoke headquarters emptied for what most employees thought would be a temporary detour home.

“People did what they needed to do. There was a real commitment there,” she said. “But I personally didn’t think it would last this long. I think most people left the office and said, ‘see you in a couple weeks.’ No one thought it would be this long. And I missed everyone, so it’s great to get back to some sense of normalcy, if you will.”

That new norm seems to be an understanding among employers that their workers value flexibility, but also that the workplace culture will suffer without some face-to-face collaboration.

“It’s a hard balance,” Giombetti said, “but I think organizations that are intentional about it do it best; that’s the recipe for success.”

It could also be a recipe to attract talent at a time when many companies are struggling with hiring and retention, as many potential workers would be more amenable to a hybrid schedule than five days a week away from home.

“It’s about being able to attract and retain the top talent and finding that balance between supporting the stores — providing the tools to get their jobs done — and being accessible so that people say, ‘hey, I can work at home, and they care about me — I can take care of my family’s needs as well,’” Galat said. “It’s all about the workplace culture, and work-life balance is part of it. We want the best of both worlds.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Life on the Cutting Edge

An on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and today’s array of high-tech devices — available at all price points — offer users new ways to make their home lives more efficient, manage their work, boost their health, and, well, just have fun in more eye-popping, ear-tickling ways than ever. In its annual look at some of the hottest tech items available, BusinessWest dives into what the tech press is saying about some of 2021’s buzziest items.

 

When compared to many of the other cool tech gadgets on this list, the Amazon Smart Plug ($25) “might seem underwhelming, but you might be impressed with how much you like this smart-home accessory once you start using it,” according to spy.com. “Head out on vacation and can’t remember if you left a fan or window AC unit running? If it’s plugged into this, you can simply open up your Alexa app and cut off the power. Have a lamp that you love, but it doesn’t work with a smart bulb? Use one of these to make a dumb lamp very, very smart. On top of all that, Alexa has some impressive power-monitoring tools, so that if you have more than one of these around your home, you can figure out which appliances and electronics around the house are costing you the most money, and you can adjust your usage behavior accordingly.”

 

Meanwhile, the same site says the Anker Nebula Solar Portable Projector ($520) won’t replace a fancy, 65-inch, 4K HDR TV, “but for those moments when you’re really craving that movie-theater experience at home … you’ll understand why this made our list of cool tech gadgets.” The projector boasts easy setup, too. “Barely bigger than a book, you can point it at a wall and have it projecting a 120-inch, 1080p version of your favorite Netflix movie without needing to configure the picture settings or find a power outlet.”

 

Speaking of projectors, the BenQ X1300i 4LED Gaming Projector ($1,299) is being marketed as the first true gaming projector that’s optimized for the PS5 or Xbox Series X. “The 3,000-lumen projector will play 1080p content — so not true 4K content — at extremely low latency, which is needed for competitive gamers,” according to gearpatrol.com. “Additionally, it has built-in speakers and an Android TV operating system, so it functions as any traditional smart TV — but it can create up to a 150-inch screen.”

 

Taking tech outdoors is the DJI Mavic Air 2 Drone ($799), which menshealth.com touts for its massive optical sensor, means “the 48-megapixel photos pop and the hyperlap video is 8K — smart futureproofing for when your TV plays catchup. The next-gen obstacle-avoidance sensors, combined with the 34-minutes-long flight time, mean you spend more time shooting killer video and less time dodging trees and buildings.”

 

Smart wallets offer a convenient way to store and transport cash and credit cards while protecting against loss or theft. The Ekster Parliament Smart Wallet ($89) is a smart bifold wallet with RFID coating (to protect against identity theft) and a patented mechanism that ejects cards from its aluminum storage pocket with the press of a button. It has space for at least 10 cards, as well as a strap for carrying cash and receipts, according to bestproducts.com. “Ekster has crafted the wallet from high-quality leather that comes in a multitude of colors. An optional Bluetooth tracker for the wallet is also available. This ultra-thin gadget has a maximum range of 200 feet, and it is powered by light, so it never needs a battery.”

 

In the smartwatch category, the Fossil Gen 5 LTE ($349) is the company’s first product in the cellular wearables market, crn.com notes. “The Fossil Gen 5 LTE Touchscreen leverages LTE connectivity from Verizon, the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform, and Google’s Wear OS to let users make calls and do texting without a mobile phone.” Fossil also makes what bestproducts.com calls the best hybrid smartwatch, the Fossil Latitude HR Hybrid Smartwatch ($195), “a feature-packed hybrid smartwatch with a built-in, always-on display and a heart-rate sensor. We like that, instead of looking like a tech product, it resembles a classic chronograph timepiece with mechanical hands and a three-button layout. The Latitude HR can effortlessly deliver notifications from your phone and keep tabs on your activities.”

 

“We don’t know who will be more excited about the Furbo Dog Camera ($169), you or your pet,” popsugar.com notes. “You can monitor them through your phone, send them treats when you’re away, and so much more.” The 1080p, full-HD camera and night vision allows users to livestream video to monitor their pet on their phone with a 160-degree wide-angle view, day and night. A sensor also sends push notifications to a smartphone when it detects barking. Users can even toss treats to their dog via the free Furbo iOS/Android app. Set-up is easy — just plug it in to a power outlet using its USB cord, download the Furbo app, and connect to home WiFi.

 

“As one of the first companies to make artificial intelligence and voice-recognition technology available to the average person, spy.com notes, “Google is still the top dog when it comes to voice assistants and smart-home platforms. And perhaps its most radical move was the Google Nest Mini ($35), a small and cheap speaker that is fully imbued with the powers to command your smart home. Once you get used to the particular ways of interacting with a voice assistant, it’s rare when you have to raise your voice or repeat yourself to get the Nest Mini to understand you, even when you’re on the other side of the room, half-asleep at 1 a.m., telling it to turn off the lights, shut off the TV, and lock the doors.”

 

Tired of housework? “If you’re a fan of the iRobot vacuum, then you’ll want to give the iRobot Braava Jet 240 Robot Mop ($180) a try,” popsugar.com asserts. “It will clean your floors when you’re not around, so you have nothing to worry about later.” The device claims to offer precision jet spray and a vibrating cleaning to tackle dirt and stains, and gets into hard-to-reach places, including under and around toilets, into corners, below cabinets, and under and around furniture and other objects, using an efficient, systematic cleaning pattern. It also mops and sweeps finished hard floors, including hardwood, tile, and stone, and it’s ideal for kitchens and bathrooms.

 

Smart glasses are a thing these days, too. Jlab Audio recently introduced its new Jlab JBuds Frames ($49), a device that discretely attaches to a user’s glasses to provide wireless stereo audio on the go. “The JBuds Frames consist of two independently operating Bluetooth wireless audio devices, which include 16mm drivers that produce sound that can only be heard by the wearer, not by others,” according to crn.com. “In addition, the device can easily be detached and mounted on other frames when needed.”

 

For a next-level experience in eyewear, “virtual reality might be taking its time to have its ‘iPhone moment,’ but it is still very much the next big thing when it comes to the coolest tech gadgets,” spy.com notes, “and there is not a single VR device that flashes that promise more than the Oculus Quest 2 ($349).” Without the need for a powerful computer or special equipment, users can simply strap the Quest 2 to their head, pick up the controllers, and move freely in VR space thanks to its inside-out technology, which uses cameras on the outside of the headset to track movement. “In a time where we don’t have many places to escape to, the Oculus Quest 2 offers up an infinite number of destinations … even if they’re only virtual.”

 

Another way to escape into another world — albeit one requiring more effort — is the Peloton Bike+ (from $2,495). “Peloton’s updated bike boasts a lustrous, 24-inch-wide screen and a game-changing multi-grip handlebar that lets you always find comfortable position,” menshealth.com notes. “And the best feature just may be auto-follow, which automatically shifts the resistance when the instructor calls for it. Translation: no escape from tough workouts.”

 

Speaking of devices with health benefits, the Polar Verity Sense optical heart monitor ($90) can be worn on the arm or temple (for swimming). “It’s designed for people who don’t necessarily wear a wrist-bound fitness tracker or smartwatch, or are doing an exercise that isn’t very friendly to wrist jewelry, like martial arts, swimming, dancing or boxing,” gearpatrol.com notes. “It’s a nifty accessory for people who use Polar Flow, Polar’s free fitness and training app, or wear one of the company’s smartwatches.”

 

Meanwhile, gearpatrol.com is also high on the Ring Video Doorbell Pro 2 ($250), the next-generation version of its well-reviewed video doorbell — and it adds two big upgrades. “First, it adds a new radar sensor that enables new 3D motion detection and bird’s-eye-view features; this allows it to better detect and even create a top-down map of the movement taking place in front of your door. And, secondly, the camera has an improved field of view so that it can capture the delivery person’s entire body — head to toe — when they drop off a package.”

 

Finally, are you looking for great sound for home entertainment? With Sonos Arc ($799), users can “get immersive audio that can fill an entire house in one slim, sleek, ultra-versatile package,” menshealth.com notes. “A whopping 11 drivers power Sonos’ newest soundbar, fueling a surround-sound experience that delivers in all situations, whether you’re playing Halo or watching Avengers: Endgame.”

 

Franklin County Special Coverage

All Aboard

The Greenfield Amtrak stop

The Greenfield Amtrak stop will be busier this month with the restoration of Vermonter service and a second Valley Flyer train. Photo courtesy of Trains In The Valley

While a proposed east-west rail line between Pittsfield and Boston has gotten most of the train-related press recently, another proposal, to incorporate passenger rail service on existing freight lines between North Adams and Boston, has gained considerable momentum, with a comprehensive, 18-month study on the issue set to launch. Not only would it return a service that thrived decades ago, proponents say, but expanded rail in the so-called Northern Tier Corridor could prove to be a huge economic boost to Franklin County — and the families who live there.

 

State Sen. Jo Comerford has spoken with plenty of people who remember taking a train from Greenfield to North Station in Boston to catch Bill Russell’s Celtics.

They stepped on at 2:55 p.m. — one of as many as 12 boardings on any given weekday — and the train was already half-full after stops in Troy, N.Y., North Adams, and Shelburne Falls. Then they’d arrive at North Station at 5:15, “and you’d still have time for dinner before the game started,” Comerford said. “That was our reality in Franklin County in the 1950s.”

She shared those words last week at a virtual community meeting to discuss a comprehensive study, soon to get underway, of passenger rail service along the Northern Tier Corridor, a route from North Adams to Boston via Greenfield, Fitchburg, and other stops.

Ben Heckscher would love to see expanded train service in Western Mass.; as the co-creator of the advocacy organization Trains In The Valley, he’s a strong proponent of existing lines like Amtrak’s Vermonter and Valley Flyer, north-south lines that stop in Greenfield, as well as more ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north.

Like Comerford, he drew on the sports world as he spoke to BusinessWest, noting that travelers at Union Station in Springfield can order up a ticket that takes them, with a couple of transfers, right to the gates of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. “But there’s no button to push for the Red Sox,” Heckscher said. “It seems funny — we’re in Western Mass., and you can take a train to see the Yankees, but you can’t get to Fenway.”

But sporting events aren’t highest on his list of rail benefits. Those spots are dedicated to the positive environmental impact of keeping cars off the road, mobility for people who don’t own cars or can’t drive, and the overall economic impact of trains on communities and the people who live and work in them.

People want to access rail for all kinds of reasons, Heckscher said, from commuting to work to enjoying leisure time in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington without having to deal with navigating an unfamiliar city and paying for parking. Then there are medical appointments — many families living in Western Mass. have to get to Boston hospitals regularly, and don’t want to deal with the Mass Pike or Route 2 to get there.

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth,” he said. “So they’re going to do a really robust study, and we’ll see what comes of that.”

In addition, as the average age of the population ticks upward, many older people might want to travel but be loath to drive long distances. In fact, that kind of travel is increasingly appealing to all age groups, Heckscher added. “You can ride the train, open your computer, take a nap. You can’t do that operating a car — at least not yet. So, rail definitely has the potential to become even more important.”

State Rep. Natalie Blais agrees. “We know the residents of Central and Western Mass. are hungry for expanded rail service. That is clear,” she said at last week’s virtual meeting. “We are hungry for rail because we know these connections can positively impact our communities with the possibilities for jobs, expansion of tourism, and the real revitalization of local economies.”

Ben Heckscher

Ben Heckscher

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth.”

Makaela Niles, project manager for the Northern Tier study at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the 18-month study will evaluate the viability and potential benefits of rail service between North Adams, Greenfield, and Boston.

The process will document past efforts, incorporate market analysis (of demographics, land use, and current and future predicted travel needs), explore costs and alternatives, and recommend next steps. Public participation will be critical, through roughly seven public meetings, most of them with a yet-to-be-established working group and a few focused on input from the public. A website will also be created to track the study’s progress.

“We know it’s critical that we have stakeholders buying in,” said Maureen Mullaney, a program manager with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “We look forward to having a very robust, inclusive participation process.”

 

Making Connections

Comerford has proposed rail service along Route 2 as a means for people living in the western counties along the corridor to more easily travel to the Greater Boston region, and a means for people living in the Boston area to more easily access destinations in Berkshire, Franklin, and Worcester counties. In addition to direct service along the Northern Tier, the service could provide connecting service via Greenfield to southern New Hampshire and Vermont.

The service would operate over two segments of an existing rail corridor. The first segment, between North Adams and Fitchburg, is owned by Pan Am Southern LLC. The second segment, between Fitchburg and Boston North Station, is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Any new service would be designed so that it does not negatively impact the existing MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail service or the existing freight rail service along the entire corridor.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge asked Niles at last week’s meeting about potential tension between freight and passenger interests and whether commuter times will be thrown off by the needs of freight carriers.

“We’ll be looking at how those two intersect and make sure any additional service that could occur along the corridor doesn’t impact with freight or current commuter operations along the corridor,” Niles responded. “We’ll look at how all the services communicate and work together.”

Other potential study topics range from development of multi-modal connections with local bus routes and other services to an extension of passenger rail service past North Adams into Adams and even as far as Albany, although that would take coordination with officials in New York.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston.”

Comerford first introduced the bill creating the study back in January 2019, and an amendment funding it was included in the state’s 2020 budget, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the study until now.

And it’s not a moment too soon, she recently said on the Train Time podcast presented by Barrington Institute, noting that rail service brings benefits ranging from climate effects to economic development to impact on individual families who want to live in Franklin County but work in Boston (see related story on page 39).

With average salaries lower than those available in Boston often making it difficult to settle in Franklin County, availability of rail affects people’s job prospects and quality of life, she noted.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston,” Comerford said, noting that, longer-term, she hopes to see greater business development in Western Mass. due to expanded rail, as businesses that need access to Boston, Hartford, and New York could set up shop here and access those cities without having to deal with traffic.

The bottom line, she said, is that it’s environmentally important to get cars off the road, but there are currently too many gaps in public transportation to make that a reality.

“There was a time when you could work in Boston and live in Franklin County,” she said. “I’ve heard story after story about what life was like up until about the late ’60s. It changed abruptly for them.

“When I was elected, one of the first things I researched was passenger rail along Route 2,” she went on. “I thought, ‘we have to explore starting this again. This is really important.’”

 

Chugging Along

Of course, east-west rail is only part of the story right now in Western Mass. Running north-south between New Haven and Greenfield are Amtrak’s Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines.

On July 26, Amtrak will restore a second train to its daily Valley Flyer service 16 months after cutting a train due to COVID-19. Southbound trains will depart Greenfield at 5:45 a.m. and 7:35 a.m., and northbound trains will return to the station at 10:23 p.m. and 12:38 a.m.

The Vermonter will return to service in Massachusetts on July 19. A long-distance train originating in Washington, D.C., it has gone no further north than New Haven since March 2020, also due to the pandemic. Amtrak is also reopening three other trains which offer service between New Haven and Springfield.

According to Amtrak, ridership on the Valley Flyer fell by more than half at the Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield stations in 2020, but the company is optimistic it will return to past numbers. That’s critical, since the Flyer is part of a DOT and Amtrak pilot program, which means its funding depends on its ridership. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) will launch an advertising campaign this fall in an effort to boost interest in the service.

“The pandemic really tanked ridership — all forms of public transportation, actually,” said Heckscher, noting that most travelers felt much safer in their cars last year than among groups of people. “But since the vaccine came out, there’s been a comeback in ridership in the Valley Flyer service.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the city has been waiting a long time for the Valley Flyer, “and we don’t want to be just a pilot.”

She feels the city, and the region, will benefit from a perception that people can get anywhere from the Greenfield area, and they may be more willing to move there while continuing to work in the city. Many of those are people who grew up in Franklin County and have a connection to it but still want to feel like they can easily get to work far away or enjoy a day trip without the hassle of traffic or parking.

There’s an economic-development factor related to tourism as well, Adams said. “People in New York City, Hartford, or New Haven can spend the day up here in the country — it’s not just us going down to New York, but people from New York who get on a train, enjoy a nice stay in rural Massachusetts, have a blast, and get back on the train to go home. It’s a two-way street.”

A recent report commissioned by Connecticut’s Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), in consultation with the PVPC, reinforced the idea of rail as an economic driver, finding a nearly 10-to-1 return on investments in passenger rail between New Haven and Worcester via the Hartford-Springfield metro area.

“In so many ways, the findings of this study confirm what we have seen with our own eyes for decades here in the Valley — regions connected by rail to the major economic hubs of Boston and New York City are thriving, while underserved communities like ours have lagged behind,” PVPC Executive Director Kimberly Robinson said. “We now know what the lack of rail has cost us economically, and this trend cannot continue further into the 21st century.”

Though she was speaking mainly of proposed routes along the state’s southern corridor, Heckscher believes in the economic benefits — and other benefits — of numerous projects being discussed across Massachusetts, including along Route 2.

“With rail, everyone has the ability to travel long distances,” he said — and the impact, while still uncertain in the details, could prove too promising to ignore.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Small-city Living

Greenfield’s strides in municipal broadband

MJ Adams says Greenfield’s strides in municipal broadband will boost its potential for remote workers.

At a recent briefing about potential east-west passenger rail service through Greenfield, state Sen. Adam Hinds talked about how infrastructure investments — not just in rail, but in broadband access and other realms — feels like a “build it and they will come” moment.

“We’re keenly aware we are in a critical transition, a moment of uncertainty, and it feels like we’re at a time when people are making choices about the potential to live in a region like this, or stay in a region like this, based on infrastructure development,” Hinds said, noting that ridership trends on current north-south rail would likely shift as other types of infrastructure, especially digital, come online.

“Our answer to a major disruption in our society and our Commonwealth is a major investment to make the entire community stronger, that can allow anyone to work anywhere in the world,” he added. “We need to be getting it right as we think about recovering strongly.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community Development, said the city has already made strides in that all-important digital realm — strides that could help position the city as a destination for people who want to keep their jobs in larger cities, but work remotely while living in a place with rural appeal, small-city amenities, and, in their mind, better quality of life.

“We felt that, not just for residents but the business community here, we needed our own municipal broadband. We didn’t realize how important that was until everyone was on Zoom.”

She was speaking of Greenfield Community Energy and Technology (GCET), Greenfield’s municipal broadband provider, which was created several years ago to meet a growing need.

“For people who require better high-speed connection, they can actually do that here now,” Adams said. “When Greenfield started building out its broadband infrastructure, that was prompted by experiences years ago, when companies turned down locating here because the internet was not very strong.

“So the city decided not to wait anymore and made a pretty big investment on the city side, making the decision that we’re not going to wait for a Comcast to come in and provide service; we felt that, not just for residents but the business community here, we needed our own municipal broadband,” she added. “We didn’t realize how important that was until everyone was on Zoom.”

John Lunt, general manager of GCET, agreed. In a Greenfield Recorder article in December, he touted GCET’s response to the pandemic — efforts that included no-charge connections for students attending school remotely — but said the utility’s role goes far beyond that.

Danielle Letourneau calls Greenfield “a small city with big-city amenities.”

Danielle Letourneau calls Greenfield “a small city with big-city amenities.”

“Revenues tend to stay local, and municipal broadband providers have become economic-development assets to their towns,” he wrote. “Reliable service, better pricing and customer service, local development, and control of critical infrastructure — this is what a municipal provider offers.”

Danielle Letourneau, Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner’s chief of staff, told BusinessWest that the city had the foresight to establish this service well before the pandemic made it more critical. But now, it plays a role in attracting new residents and businesses that are navigating a new world when it comes to how, and where, employees want to work.

“We’ve set ourselves up well,” Letourneau said. “We are a small city with big-city amenities. But we do have a rural feel. We even have several co-working spaces; we’re recognized already for that kind of thing as a way to attract people who want to move here.”

All these amenities open the city up for new arrivals, as well as people who grew up here and want to return and raise their own families here, especially those who can take advantage of new opportunities in remote work.

“Even before COVID hit, we looked at ourselves as being a pretty attractive city,” Adams said, and building out high-speed broadband was one way to build on that. “We were seeing ourselves as well-positioned for people who wanted a small-city feel but still wanted proximity to big cities. And we were planning it before COVID arrived.”

Then the pandemic accelerated the remote-work trend, which dovetailed well with what the city was doing, she went on. “Businesses are trying to understand how to make it work, but employees are also figuring out how it works for them. Here, they have an attractive way of life as they try to work remotely, farther afield from higher-priced communities in New England.”

 

Living Room

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission in Vermont, told the participants in the passenger-rail meeting that “we’re seeing an odd inversion in Southeast Vermont where people are finding employment here but, because of our extreme housing scarcity, are living in Western Mass. There’s going to be a lag in the data availability, but it’s increasingly feeling like the exurban growth in the I-91 corridor has accelerated.”

He doesn’t know if that emigration will continue, but he also doubts families who have moved to Western Mass. or Southern Vermont for work or other reasons will want to uproot again after the pandemic, so there may be some staying power to these trends.

“We were seeing ourselves as well-positioned for people who wanted a small-city feel but still wanted proximity to big cities. And we were planning it before COVID arrived.”

Indeed, the real-estate market in Western Mass. has been booming, with the latest monthly report from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley showing sales volume up 20.7% across Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties from June 2020 to June 2020, and the median price up 20.4%.

But while Franklin County’s median price is up 23%, its sales actually fell by 10%, reflecting, perhaps, the shortage of homes to meet demand, which is, obviously, hiking those prices. In fact, current inventory of homes for sale in Franklin County is down 52.9% from a year ago.

Adams said Greenfield officials recognize the need for more housing, especially market-rate housing in the downtown area, noting that upper-level residential development would create mixed-use vibrancy downtown.

Understand how critical downtown is to the city’s future, municipal officials were getting ready to update the downtown revitalization plan well before the pandemic, identifying what the strengths and challenges were in the corridor, she explained. “We want to develop in a way that’s thoughtful and local and makes sense for the business community.”

Greenfield was also among the Massachusetts communities that received local Rapid Recovery Plan funding. “That helps us identify actionable plans we can put in place fairly quickly to ramp up the business community,” Adams said. “It means taking a look at both the public and private realms and the business mix and who needs to be at the table to make a comprehensive plan to breathe life back into our downtown.”

It’s a downtown, she said, that already offered entertainment in venues like Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center and had been talking about creating outdoor dining before the pandemic accelerated that process.

“From talking to people, the draw downtown is really experience-based now versus when we were younger, and it was a place to buy goods and services,” Letourneau said. “People come here to eat out, for world-class music venues, arts, great antique shops, stuff you can’t find anywhere else. I think it’s experiential, and it’s a good feel for downtown.”

The question now is, will the city put all those pieces together, plus the draw of well-established municipal broadband, plus possibly expanded passenger rail, and become a destination of choice for an increasingly remote workforce?

“This is our opportunity now,” Adams said. “People are reassessing where they want to be and what they want to work, and they should take a look at Greenfield.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Stating Its Case

Tony Liberopoulos

Tony Liberopoulos says Liberty Bank might be new to Western Mass., but its lenders are anything but.

Dave Glidden is no stranger to the Western Mass. banking community, and neither is the lending team he’s assembled to grow Liberty Bank — the Connecticut-based institution he currently serves as president and CEO — within this region. Liberty’s leaders believe those community ties — some of the Western Mass. team’s lenders have worked in this market for three decades — will prove fruitful at a time when customers are looking for experience and stability.

Liberty Bank is the oldest currently operating bank in Connecticut. But Dave Glidden prefers not to think in terms of state lines.

“We’ve been in Connecticut a long time, and very recently we’ve crossed the border into Western Mass.,” said Glidden, the bank’s president and CEO and a familiar figure to the Pioneer Valley’s banking community from his years as regional president at TD Bank.

The reasons for the northward push, he said, seemed obvious.

“When I looked at this opportunity and took the job, one of the things I talked about with the board and my teammates was that, when you think about it, there are so many similarities between Connecticut and the Greater Springfield market, economically and culturally; people work back and forth across the border.

“So, really, if you stop looking at state boundaries for a second, we really lend in that I-91 corridor, New Haven on up through Middletown, through Hartford, and now into Greater Springfield,” he went on. “There are many similarities in industries and types of businesses, and we know a lot of the borrowers, the centers of influence, the CPA firms, the legal firms … and we know many of the businesses.”

“Liberty Bank is new to Western Mass., but our team is not new to Western Mass.”

That’s because Glidden and Liberty’s Western Mass. team — Chief Credit Officer Dan Flynn; lenders Tony Liberopoulos, Jeff Sattler, Rick Rabideau, and Gene Rondeau; and Sue Fearn, who specializes in cash management — have roughly 160 years of combined experience working in banking in Western Mass.

“Liberty Bank is new to Western Mass., but our team is not new to Western Mass.,” Liberopoulos said. “We’ve got one of the most experienced teams in Western Mass., even though we’re the rookie bank in this area.”

With the ability to assemble a team with that depth of experience in the market, Glidden said, expansion into this region — lending activity began last year, and a commercial loan-production office is opening this month in East Longmeadow — just made sense.

“Obviously, this commercial loan production under Tony’s leadership is the first foray over the border,” Glidden said, “and we’re continually evaluating and looking at retail branch sites and how we’ll build out the franchise over the course of the next couple of years in support of the commercial-lending activities that really started about a year or so ago.”

With more than $7 billion in assets but strong ties to its local communities, Glidden said Liberty is the kind of stable institution that appeals to customers in Western Mass., especially at a time when mergers and acquisitions (M&A) continue to shake up the landscape.

“With everything that’s going on in all the banking markets, there’s a lot of disruption with M&A, and it’s projected there will be a lot more M&A industry-wide,” he noted. “So, as a bank with our size and history, and the teams we have, we’re in a unique position where we can kind of out-local national banks and out-national local banks and be that entity in the middle that can deliver services and make decisions in a very local fashion, but has the scale and the size to grow with borrowers, usually past where a lot of the other community banks are restricted due to their size.”

Dave Glidden with a map of Liberty’s locations

Dave Glidden with a map of Liberty’s locations, most of which are concentrated along, or not far from, the I-91 corridor.

While commercial lending is the main focus right now, Glidden said, he sees Liberty eventually expanding its presence to offer that type of appeal to retail customers as well. “When a bank gets acquired, customers often say, ‘my bank’s changing, my banking relationship is changing — maybe now is the time I should have the conversation with someone else.”

It’s a sense that was only supercharged by the pandemic, a time when online retailers thrived and changed people’s expectations about service delivery.

“We have to continue to deliver the right type of distribution system for our customers if we expect to gain market share and capture those who get disrupted due to M&A activity, or whatever other market event might happen,” Glidden told BusinessWest.

“There are great banks in Western Mass., super people, experienced bankers, but there’s going to continue to be disruption — everywhere, not just in Western Mass.,” he went on. “And we think, with our balance sheet and existing franchise and the investments we’ve been making, which have been significant over the past few years, to really up our digital offerings across the board, we’re in a great position to enter a great market that means a lot to the executive leadership here at Liberty Bank.”

 

Lending Support

Since launching activity in Greater Springfield, Liberopoulos and the rest of the lending team have assembled a broad variety of clients. “It’s across the board,” he said. “We’ll do loans up to $50 million for the right client, or even higher than that. We’re primarily looking at small to medium-sized businesses. We’ll look at investment real-estate deals, and we’ll look at any privately held business, if it’s the right size for us.”

Like the Greater Hartford market in which Liberty has recently expanded its presence, Glidden doesn’t see loans in a vacuum, but rather takes a big-picture look at how each loan-funded project or expansion impacts economic development in an entire region.

“It’s important, when you’re a community bank and you go into a market, that you have a strategy to align with and understand what’s going on in those markets. Who are the key economic-development companies, the drivers? Who are the key not-for-profits that we can align ourselves with and support? Because when we invest in the communities we do business in, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s smart business.”

As it eyes growth across its footprint, including expansion of retail, investment, and other services in Western Mass., Liberty is making another kind of investment, Glidden said: in its digital channels.

“Banking customers’ habits are changing rapidly. They were changing rapidly before the pandemic,” he said. “But, obviously, the pandemic forced people to adopt online channels that, before, they wouldn’t have felt comfortable with, or didn’t think they needed — but it became a need during the pandemic.”

Part of the bank’s strategy for this region includes what shape the physical footprint will take to support the services Liberty wants to provide, he noted — but that strategy must roll out in tandem with the digital one.

Tony Liberopoulos (left) and Dave Glidden

Tony Liberopoulos (left) and Dave Glidden say there’s a space in Western Mass. for a bank of Liberty’s size and local focus.

“Branches are changing, and customers’ habits are changing — they’re using them less, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still important,” Glidden said, noting that part of what he called his “aspirational three-year plan” has involved bolstering digital assets, so customers can choose how to interact with the bank.

“It’s not up to us to choose how customers do business with us. It’s for them to choose, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure we have all those channels there. Branches are one of them, as are online, digital, and live chat.”

As he noted earlier, Amazon and other online entities, particularly during the pandemic, have altered people’s expectations when it comes to retail, and banks are, indeed, a retail business — so a bank’s digital channels need to live up to those heightened expectations.

The pandemic impacted Liberty’s Western Mass. plans in another way, Liberopoulos said: by giving it an opportunity to stay aggressive when not every bank did.

“It was an interesting time. We came to work every day, took our precautions, properly distanced, wore our masks,” he said, noting that clients still wanted to meet, some in person, some by phone or Zoom, whatever made them most comfortable. And those meetings were often productive.

“We were firm believers that COVID was going to end, so we’d look at their financial performance prior to COVID,” Liberopoulos said. “We knew 2020 and 2021 were going to be difficult, but if they were strong in ’17, ’18, and ’19 — and if their interim results look good in ’21 now that we’re getting past vaccinations — we were very eager to win that business.

“When some other banks were uncomfortable lending because of the numbers they saw for 2020, we were not,” he went on. “We understood it’s about the owners of the business, the history of the business, and we were all convinced, here at Liberty Bank, that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel and we would find the right clients to work with.”

Glidden said he was “never prouder to be a banker” than he was in 2020.

“I never want to go through it again, of course, but what the banking industry did with the Paycheck Protection Program and the SBA lending as part of the CARES Act, that was a huge challenge for the banking industry.”

He praised not only his own team, but his colleagues at other banks for working non-stop in those chaotic early days of PPP last spring, and kept working to get customers the help they needed.

“I could see it was a very unique, maybe the most unique, time in my career,” he said. “I really felt an obligation as a banker, that we’re the only way this money is getting out there in this once-in-a-lifetime — knock on wood — pandemic.”

 

Community Ties

Getting back to the consolidation landscape, Liberopoulos said acquisitions can often distance a bank’s philanthropic arm from the communities in which is does business, but Liberty continues to be focused on those activities.

“The bank is very sensitive to the fact that we’re seeing consolidations, so we’re seeing less money being given to non-for-profits in the community, and one of our chief slogans now is ‘be community kind.’ We want to give back to the community where we work, where we lend, and where we live. And we’ve done that already,” he said, citing donations to Ronald McDonald House, and the Boys & Girls Club as recent examples.

“It’s certainly been part of Liberty Bank’s DNA and corporate culture,” Glidden agreed, noting that the bank’s foundation, which he also serves as president and CEO, gives away around $1.5 million per year, and the bank itself contributes in the seven-figure range as well.

“And our commitments are growing,” he added. “As a community bank, you have a responsibility and obligation to give back; all of us truly believe that. That’s why we’re here. We walk the talk. We give back to our communities. It’s what community banks should do. We’re mutual, we’re private, we’re owned by our customers, so you have to give back to those communities.”

Which is even more important in an era of M&A activity.

“I just think, given the disruption and consolidation in the market, that we’re a bank that’s still local and makes decisions locally. We give back to our communities; we put our money where our mouth is.”

As one of the largest PPP lenders in Connecticut, Liberty also felt a responsibility to support community members who weren’t customers, which is why it serviced PPP loans for such individuals. In some cases, that opened the door to a new relationship opportunity.

In the end, Liberty grew during the pandemic — by about $1.2 billion during 2020, in fact. Some of that was PPP activity, Glidden noted, but about two-thirds sprung from new market share and new customers.

“We continue to feel optimistic — 196 years is pretty old, but I feel more optimistic about the next 196 years than I was pre-pandemic, and I was pretty optimistic pre-pandemic.”

Liberopoulos is optimistic, too. “We’re new to the market, but we’re not new to banking. We’ve got an experienced, well-known team, and we make local decisions with quick turnaround time. We’ll make loan decisions on the spot, in front of a client, when we meet with them. That’s the kind of bank I’m happy to say I work for.”

And it’s the sort of bank that shouldn’t be constrained by state lines, Glidden added.

“Liberty Bank is coming to Western Mass. to be a business partner with the community. We’re not coming there just to make loans and take deposits. This is the first stake in the ground, so to speak, but I think everyone will see and feel our commitment to Western Mass. as we build out our franchise there.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Crafting Connections

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

When Hannah Rechtschaffen set about to open an art gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she didn’t envision a static space; instead, her goal was to develop a vibrant, eclectic, multi-media gallery that not only focused on local artists, but forged connections between them and the public through workshops, classes, events, and even the everyday conversations that bring to life the stories and history behind each artist and each piece. A couple weeks after the gallery’s opening, she’s optimistic those creative collisions are already happening.

 

Anika Lopes’ roots in Amherst go back six generations, so the town is special to her. But as a milliner — an artist who designs and creates hats — she has made her name in galleries and boutiques in much larger cities, especially New York.

Now, as the highlighted artist for the recent grand opening of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she feels like she’s come full circle.

“This is the first time I’ve shown in Amherst,” she told BusinessWest. “I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

“I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

The Hannah in the gallery name is Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking at the Mill District, who launched a gallery after Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation owner of the property, asked her to. But Rechtschaffen infused that task with her own vision for an eclectic, multi-media collection of rotating artists (21 are on display now, hailing from 13 different towns, with some being replaced every quarter), but also a space-rental model that continually reinvests in bringing more exposure to the artists (more on that in a bit).

“Every three months, some of the artists will turn over, so there will always be something fresh, and there will also be some carryover,” she said. “I want people to feel good knowing they’ll come back in here and see new stuff. That’s a really crucial part.”

Also rotating will be the front window space, with which the gallery will highlight a certain artist. For the opening weeks, that’s Lopes, who was on hand to celebrate the gallery’s opening on June 19.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

“In conjunction with Juneteenth, we wanted to make sure we were highlighting a local artist of color, and Anika’s work with the hats … gives us an opportunity to kind of push the boundary a little bit on what art is,” Rechtschaffen said of the front window space. “We can also have historic installations there, or we can do installations of artists who aren’t local, but maybe they’re doing work you can’t find locally, and we want to highlight it.”

History is important to Lopes, whose display at the gallery includes not only her hats, but original hat blocks created by one of first black men to have a millinery factory in the garment district of New York City — which she uses to hand-block her hat designs, which she then hand-sews.

“There’s a lot of history here, and it’s been amazing to merge this [artwork] with Amherst history as part of the Juneteenth celebration,” Lopes said. “It was just a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Amherst and what’s going on here at the Mill District, which was, in itself, such a pleasant surprise to see and experience. It’s an inspiration for where Amherst can go.”

As for the rental model, Rechtschaffen charges $20 per linear foot per month for wall space, which gives the artist use of the entire wall, floor to ceiling. She also takes a 20% commission on any art sales, all of which cycles back into the gallery for marketing, events, classes, and anything that brings more people in to see the work.

“Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

“That’s the idea — the commission isn’t just flying out of the artist’s pocket; it’s going right back into running the engine of the business side,” she said, noting that she modeled it after Woolworth Walk, a much larger gallery in Asheville, N.C., which features 230 booths in a former Woolworth’s store.

“In charging a little bit of rent, you create this ownership that artists have of the space. I want to overhear an artist say, ‘oh, I want to show you my gallery.’ I know that I’m doing it right when they have that connection to it,” she explained.

“I wasn’t sure it would translate, and especially coming out of COVID, I felt so self-conscious about putting the model out there, to charge them money up front, even if it was a low rent,” she went on. “I’m an artist; I know how hard it is. But no one batted a eye. Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

 

Art of the Matter

One of Rechtschaffen’s goals was to highlight a wide variety of art, and she’s done that, with the first 21 exhibitors — all but a couple of them women — working in media ranging from paint to felt to polymer clay. True to its name, the gallery aims to draw from local artists, meaning those living within a one-hour radius.

“We want to connect anyone coming to the Mill District with the wealth of art and artists in the area because it’s crazy how many artists are living right around here,” she said.

In addition, “it was really important to me to have both emerging and established artists sharing the space. For some of these people, it’s their full-time job, they’re artists, it’s what they do. And for some people, it’s very much on the side of what they do; maybe they want to make it a larger part of their livelihood, or maybe they’re retired and they’re just doing it because it’s a passion.”

Showing those works side by side forges connections between artists and their various media — and so does a large gathering table toward the front of the gallery, which will host classes, workshops, and “conversations” between artists and the public.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Rechtschaffen related a conversation with one of the exhibitors, Maxine Oland, a well-known local artist who operates an Etsy page.

“I was like, ‘oh, would you be open to teaching a class called Should I Bother Having an Etsy Page?’” she recalled. “Because it’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to keep it up, and there’s a cost involved. I get artists all the time saying, ‘should I bother? Is it worth it?’ What better way to have that conversation than with an artist who’s going to be honest and say, ‘well, for me it’s been worth it, and I sell X amount a month, and here’s the process.’

“So those kinds of classes and pop-up conversations can happen with emerging and established artists, and those who don’t consider themselves artists, coming and listening and learning from each other,” she went on.

Lopes sees great value in the gallery’s focus on connection, calling it a “lifeline for artists.”

“As I’ve been able to see the space and the artists coming in here, especially at this time, where people are coming out of COVID, where everyone in the arts has been affected, it’s really a place that has inspired artists,” she said. “I think it’s building confidence within artists and giving people hope.”

Rechtschaffen said the Mill District itself is intended to be a place that tells a story and builds community, which is why Jones felt an art gallery would be a strong component to begin with.

“Every artist in here has a story behind why they make the art they make, why it’s important to them,” Rechtschaffen told BusinessWest. “I can point to any one of them and tell you the backstory, and it just adds to why someone would connect with a piece and then decide to take it home.”

Stories like Susan Roylance, a longtime woodworker who, one day, carved a face and wasn’t sure what to do with it. She put it aside, but then got inspired by it, and started working in both wood and felt to sculpt whimsical characters. “I feel like every one of those sculptures is a children’s book waiting to happen,” Rechtschaffen said.

Or Dana Volungis, who worked for 24 years for Yankee Candle, got laid off during the pandemic, and started painting … only 10 months ago; her oceanside landscapes and other work belie that short gestation period. “Ten months!” Rechtschaffen said. “I didn’t even realize that when she submitted her application.”

Or Ruth Levine, who makes metal clay jewelry, but set it aside for a time to focus on being a parent and grandparent. “Now here she is,” Rechtschaffen said. “She was so empowered when she was setting her space up, saying, ‘I remember how this feels; this is great.’ She said to me, ‘if you hadn’t opened this gallery, this stuff would still be in my garage.’ I said, ‘you just validated everything for me, because I’m so glad this is not in your garage.’”

Visitors to the gallery, then, aren’t just seeing art, Lopes said. They’re connecting with history — the history of the area and the people who create art here — and maybe take a piece of that history home.

 

Animal Attraction

To add a bit of childlike fun to the gallery, Rechtschaffen commissioned Ivy Mabius, a close friend of Jones and a mural artist, to create a jungle-themed bathroom, complete with large, colorfully painted sculptures of an elephant and a giraffe. “Already, kids who see it don’t want to leave. It’s such an attraction. Kids — and adults — are going to want to come and use the bathroom.”

The general store that adjoins the gallery also features a unique bathroom — this one with one-sided glass, so users have a full view of the sidewalk and parking lot outside. But eclectic bathrooms aren’t the only connection between the two spaces. Rechtschaffen can see a time when artists who have displayed in the gallery find a space in the store to sell their crafts.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Again, it comes back to making connections and offering a wide range of exposure to local art. The front table can also be used as a co-working space, or just a spot to hang out, she added.

“This is really meant to be something people can access all the time, however they need to. The goal is for people to see great art and great work,” she went on, noting that a master cabinet maker from Cowls Building Supply built all the gallery’s walls, shelving, and fixtures on wheels, so the configuration of the gallery can be changed. Artists who want to apply to rent space may do so at bit.ly/HannahsGalleryApplication.

Rechtschaffen also envisions sharing art outside the gallery at pop-up displays, art fairs, holiday events, and other gatherings — again, with the goal of connecting local art to as many people as possible. And they’re hungry for it, she added, like one woman who came to the gallery opening and said it was her first social event in a long time.

“She was like, ‘I’m good, I’m good; this is helping.’ It’s not just about getting people back out there; for business owners and people creating these events, we have a responsibility — if we’re inviting someone into a space, we need to be mindful of what that space feels like, that it feels comfortable. I take that very seriously, creating a space like this where people can come enjoy themselves.”

As people emerge from COVID isolation, Lopes said, one positive is that many have learned a lot about themselves, and that’s especially true for artists, who can now move forward with new understanding and new vulnerability — and a new audience at the Mill District.

“We are into telling stories and making sure people get to see art,” Rechtschaffen said, “but also learn something about their community.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Banking and Financial Services

Strike Against Hunger

Andrew Morehouse thanks Country Bank

A surprised Andrew Morehouse thanks Country Bank for the $500,000 donation to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Paul Scully says he wants to “throw hunger a curveball.”

And to the leaders of two Massachusetts food banks, it was a welcome pitch indeed.

At its annual meeting on June 21, Country Bank unveiled its most recent — and largest — donation targeting the persistent issue of food insecurity in the Bay State, surprising Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and Jean McMurray, executive director of the Worcester Food Bank, with two $500,000 checks, one for each organization.

“With everything we’re hearing these days about the shortage of food and the high expense of food … the need is real out there,” Scully said during the announcement event. “It’s really exciting for us and an honor to announce we’re kicking off a million-dollar pledge to throw hunger a curveball, and we are presenting a $500,000 check to both Jean and Andrew for your organizations.”

It’s just the latest, and largest, in a remarkable show of support from banks across the region in the fight against food insecurity, which spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to be a persistent problem. Most banks in Western Mass. have ramped up their contributions to area food banks and food pantries, often significantly.

“As a community partner, we care deeply about the sustainability of our communities and the people who live in them,” Scully added, noting that this $1 million pledge reflects an recognition of the burdens many have experienced throughout this past year.

“I’m in awe of Country Bank’s generosity and so impressed by their commitment to the community, whether it be Worcester County or the four counties of Western Massachusetts.”

Newly appointed Country Bank board members Elizabeth Cohen-Rappaport, Richard Maynard, Ross Dik, and Stacey Luster presented the checks to Morehouse and McMurray at the annual meeting.

“I’m in awe of Country Bank’s generosity and so impressed by their commitment to the community, whether it be Worcester County or the four counties of Western Massachusetts,” a visibly surprised Morehouse said. “This demonstrates that Country Bank is for real, and they practice what they preach.”

McMurray was equally touched. “This was totally unexpected, but, when I think about it, Worcester, and Worcester County, is the best place to live, to work, and to give back, and we are going to put this tremendous gift from Country Bank to work so none of our neighbors has to go hungry.”

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts relies on donations from individuals, businesses, foundations, civic organizations, faith-based groups, schools, and government to fulfill its expanding mission. With the help of that support, it provided the equivalent of 12.3 million meals in in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2020 — a significant increase from meals provided in previous years, and a pace that continued as the pandemic extended well into 2021.

“Country Bank is always looking at the basic needs of folks in our communities, whether food services, shelter and homelessness, as well as healthcare — those are the primary pillars where the bank tries to make the most of its donations,” said Shelley Regin, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing.

The support for food banks comes at a critical time, not just in Massachusetts, but nationally. Feeding America estimates that the pandemic caused 13.1 million non-elderly adults to seek free meals or free groceries for the first time.

“The pandemic forced businesses and workers to make tough decisions,” said Ash Slupski, the organization’s website marketing manager. “To prevent the spread of coronavirus, many businesses were forced to close or lay off employees. This is especially true for people employed in restaurants, hotels, other service industries, and small businesses.”

Meanwhile, the needs of remote learning, especially for young children, forced many working parents to temporarily leave their jobs to be home, if they couldn’t work remotely themselves. And many faced reduced hours and paychecks when they did return to work, Slupski noted. “All these changes impact people’s ability to provide for their families now and plan for the future.”

To meet the growing need locally, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts recently revealed plans for a new distribution center and headquarters, which will be located on the corner of Carew and East Main streets in Chicopee. Construction on the new headquarters, which will be larger and more sustainably build than the current location in Hatfield, is expected to begin next spring.

Regin noted that, in 2020, Country Bank’s philanthropy exceeded $1 million by supporting 450 nonprofits throughout the region, mainly focused on helping food pantries, homeless shelters, COVID-19 relief services, veterans, and other programs that supported the everyday needs of the people in its communities.

“Country Bank really wants to make sure we’re supporting all our communities,” which extend geographically from Springfield to Worcester, she noted. “It starts with Paul, and we all follow his lead in looking for ways the bank can make a difference. We support many charities, as many banks do, but it starts with Paul; he’s a great leader in that way, and we’re all on board.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Blurred Lines

During the pandemic, work arrangements were, in some ways, clearer than they are now — in short, remote work was the norm. Now, however, businesses and their employees are grappling with balancing company needs and culture with workers’ desire to maintain flexibility regarding when and where they get their jobs done. At the center of all of this is the amorphous, yet critically important, concept of work-life balance — and how, in some ways, remote work has made it even more challenging to achieve.

The employees at Paragus IT

The employees at Paragus IT have been returning to the office — but will be allowed to keep working at home some days.

 

Getting work done during the pandemic was … messy, Delcie Bean said. But it got done.

“In the heat of the pandemic, we had to have maximum flexibility and understood that everyone was doing their absolute best to get done what needed to get done and make sure the clients were taken care of,” the CEO of Paragus IT told BusinessWest. “It was going to be messy, but we had to get through it.”

Emerging from COVID-19, then, has been a time for employers to assess what happened and what they learned about the many different ways people can get their work done — and still have time for themselves.

“What did we lose having everyone remote, and what did we gain?” Bean said. “We realized it was some of both columns A and B — there were certainly some benefits and some risks.

“Really, we found it’s very employee-specific,” he went on. “Some employees really need the structure of the office — they get up, commute, work in the office, commute, relax at home. That’s what helps them separate work from life. Others were really flourishing with a blend, doing work from home; they were good at setting up boundaries and not having their work bleed into their life.”

Despite the evidence showing that many workers flourish at home — achieving work-life balance by establishing firm boundaries — that blurring of lines between work time and family time is a concern, according to area company leaders we spoke with. The result, oddly enough, can be even less balance than before.

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time,” said Patricia Coughlin, Human Resources director at Wellfleet in Springfield.

In Bean’s case, the post-pandemic strategy that developed was to require employees to work in the Hadley office at least three days — a gradual shift, actually, beginning with one day in June, two days in July, and three days starting in August. Anyone who wants to be on site every day is welcome to do so.

Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time.”

“There are certain things that are lost when you’re 100% remote,” he said, giving examples like mentoring new employees and collaborative projects. “But if remote is working for you, we don’t want to stop you.”

He understands that some people need to be in the office to function because they have too many distractions at home.

“It depends on their personality. My home is not a distraction at all — once the kids are in school, my home is quiet, with nothing to distract me,” he said, adding, however, that there’s also nothing there to energize him.

“I need energy from other people to function at my best. We all work a little differently, process things a little differently. A lot of flexibility is good, as long as that flexibility works for both the employees and the company — but working at home can lead to issues with work-life balance if the work never goes away.”

Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank in Holyoke, said the bank’s leaders learned the organization can be effective while incorporating different types of work arrangements.

“When the pandemic hit and we had to move to a remote workforce for much of our corporate team, there was no question that our associates were dedicated and would get the job done,” she noted. “We had concerns about remote work as it relates to data security, customer impact, and overall engagement of our workforce. But we saw pretty quickly that we were able to operate, meet the needs of our customers, and keep our team engaged.”

For that reason, the bank is now working to establish a hybrid model for many roles and will continue to evaluate increased flexibility for team members. “We may also consider fully remote roles, but at this time those will be very limited.”

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Like Bean, she noted that collaboration can suffer when people are not physically working together. “It’s such a big part of our day to day that we have to ensure people can easily get things done and make decisions as a team from anywhere. We feel this is an important aspect of any sustainable hybrid work model.”

Coughlin agreed that the pandemic made Wellfleet’s leaders more aware of the different ways people not only work well, but collaborate with their peers and find satisfaction in their work. As a result, the company plans to offer hybrid work arrangements and telework options as part of its model going forward.

“We learned from our employees that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology in creating an effective work environment,” she noted. “Throughout the pandemic, it became apparent that the ‘typical’ work arrangement may not be effective for all people.”

She added that this flexible approach is an attractive model that will allow Wellfleet to expand its talent pool while improving overall job satisfaction and increasing opportunities for growth and effectiveness. Again, however, the key is communication and setting boundaries.

“Supervisors and employees should set clear expectations of work schedules, availability, and when responses to e-mails are expected,” she said. “Maintaining this communication reduces the likelihood that employees feel the need to be available while on their personal time.”

 

Unhealthy Relationship

That latter concern is one employment experts across the country have been pondering. Constance Grady, a staff writer for Vox, recently penned an article titled “How Capitalism and the Pandemic Destroyed our Work-life Balance,” arguing that, in a precarious, COVID-disrupted economy, workers became even more attached to their work, in often-unhealthy ways.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to have jobs we could do from home brought our work into our living rooms, our kitchens, our bedrooms,” she wrote. “We pivoted. We shared strategies for how to be productive and overcome the stress of trying to work during a global health emergency. We challenged ourselves to meet and even exceed our pre-pandemic goals, against unfavorable odds. Despite everything, we prioritized work.”

But treating work as a sacred object has consequences, Grady argues. “We have treated work as something to be taken home and cherished. Work is our lover. And this year, we took it to bed.”

Bean understands that risk. “We’ve always strongly encouraged employees to have work-life balance as much as possible and encouraged people to unplug at the end of the day and not resume work until they’re back in the office again,” he said. “That worked much better in the pre-pandemic world, where there were cleaner lines between work and home.”

Paragus has long offered employees ‘discretionary time’ for personal obligations and appointments, which they can make up later. “We try to give employees freedom to schedule their work around what works for both them and the company.”

But over the past year, those lines blurred, with more people shifting their schedules or even working sporadically, a couple hours on and a couple off — especially when they were helping their homebound kids navigate the world of remote learning.

Hopefully, a return to something approaching normal, even if it does include some remote work, will sharpen those lines a bit. What helps, Bean said, is making firm decisions on what the home is actually for, especially at night.

“I’m very strict. When I get home, the phone goes on the counter and stays there until I go to bed. It’s rare for me to check e-mail at home, and it’s rare for me to work weekends. I try my best to model that you don’t need to work all night and on weekends to keep up; you can do your job during your work hours, then be with your family. You need that balance, and your family needs you there.”

Beyond that, he added, employees need to decompress from work in order to be productive the next day. “You need that separation time to process. You’re never able to let it sink in and reflect when you’re just going, going, going.”

Roberts agreed. “We are concerned about the blurring of lines with people who are working at home,” she said. “We are looking at this issue to determine if there are other ways we can ensure this balance with our plan for long-term workplace flexibility.”

Ideas include encouraging employees to work in a dedicated space, and at the end of the work day, leaving that room behind and closing the door — in other words, stick to the set work schedule.

“Obviously, if a customer issue occurs at the end of our day, we aren’t walking away, but in most cases we have seen that people have done a good job maintaining their normal work hours from any location — home or office.”

Understanding employee needs helps them to create balance while meeting the company’s needs, Coughlin added.

“When people have the flexibility to manage their schedule — for example, to attend a personal appointment and make up time later in the day — that can have a really positive impact on productivity. And everyone’s different; some people are more productive early in the morning, some are more productive in the evening, and others work best within a very set schedule.”

From a company perspective, she went on, it’s important to establish general standards that allow all employees the opportunity to achieve a healthy work-life balance — and it’s important to engage with employees to better identify what is meaningful to them.

“Work-life balance, and what that means, can really vary from person to person,” she noted. “One employee might be driven by the satisfaction in completing a task, while another takes satisfaction from counting hours ‘clocked in.’”

 

Creating a Culture

The bottom line, Coughlin said, is that Wellfleet’s people are fundamental in creating its culture, so it’s important to engage with them, through various platforms, to identify and implement ways to support a healthy work-life balance.

To that end, it offers education and trainings to improve work efficiencies, as well as communication regarding company benefits workers can utilize for personal purposes. Supervisors also work closely with employees to coach skills like prioritizing tasks, setting realistic goals, and time management.

“Wellfleet believes a healthy work-life balance fosters a culture in which employees are able to perform their job duties in a productive manner,” she added. “Good balance and increased flexibility in the workplace can help prevent burnout, reduce stress, and promote overall wellness.”

The company also offers employees the flexibility to adjust their work schedules to attend appointments and encourages them to use paid time off for their personal well-being, Coughlin said. “We saw the need to internally emphasize this message throughout the pandemic, although the ways we promoted this adapted to the circumstances.”

Wellfleet isn’t the only company re-emphasizing the need for workers to take time off, even if they’re not taking as many week-long vacations as before. HR Daily Advisor recently published a story on work-life balance that included input from several employers across the U.S. noting that employees have been de-emphasizing long vacations in favor of three-day weekends, staycations, and mental-health days off — as well as taking less time off overall.

“We have always focused on promoting a healthy work-life balance, and I don’t think remote work will change the way that we encourage our team to pay attention to this balance,” Roberts said. “Some of the ways that we promote this balance is our official work week being 38 hours, generous time-off plans, and fun team events and activities throughout the year. Our managers also do a good job of making sure they balance their expectations to ensure that a healthy work-life balance is a real thing.”

At the same time, Bean said, workers at any number of companies may have begun seeing those remote and flexible work models of the past 16 months as a permanent aspect of work-life balance — or, at least, they hope so. That could cause tension down the line, as employers, already struggling to retain talent in many industries, may have to negotiate such arrangements moving forward.

“However, another part of me knows behaviors and habits don’t change easily,” he added. “We, as a country, have 200 years of working 8 to 5 and going home. I don’t know if the pandemic was long enough to permanently break this muscle memory.”

If he’s right, companies adopting hybrid models now may eventually shift back to the typical, on-site work schedule of the past.

“Maybe people will work from home more than before,” he said. “But I don’t think this was that disruptive that we’ll fundamentally change the way we do work. It comes down to a lot of factors.”

Those factors range from employee desires to company needs and what type of culture an employer wants to promote. And the day might come when the current job surplus lessens and employers feel they have more leverage.

“How comfortable are you with making a decision, if an employer tells you to come back to the office or find new employment?” Bean said. “We’ll see how those things play out, and we’ll find out if the changes are temporary or long-term — and, if they’re long-term, how impactful they’ll be.”

Until then, employees will continue to get their work done in whatever way their company allows — and, hopefully, not take it to bed.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Tim Netkovick calls it the “kicker” in the law — and it’s a kick that could bruise an unsuspecting employer.

The law in question is the state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law, portions of which went into effect on Jan. 1, with others to follow on July 1. The law essentially makes Massachusetts the most generous state in the country when it comes to allowing workers to take leave for medical and family-care reasons.

And employers need to be careful how they respond to claims, said Netkovick, an attorney with the Royal Law Firm in Springfield.

“If somebody has utilized PFML, there is what I call a kicker in that statute that says, if there’s any adverse action taken against the employee within a certain period of time, then it’s presumed to be in retaliation,” he told BusinessWest.

Indeed, if an employee challenges an employer’s actions following leave taken under the PFML law, the burden is on the company to prove there was some justifiable reason for taking the adverse action that had nothing to do with the leave request.

“The law does have a very strong anti-retaliation provision baked in. Often, these types of laws do have an anti-retaliation provision, but this one is a little unique,” said John Gannon, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser in Springfield.

“If an employer does take some kind of negative action against the employee — termination, suspension, demotion, even a negative performance review — within six months of the last day they took leave, there is a presumption that the employer retaliated,” he explained. “The employer can rebut that presumption, showing the motive for the decision is not linked in any way to paid family or medical leave use, but it does open the door to more potential litigation in this area.”

It’s a challenge to prove the action was justifiable, though not impossible, Netkovick said. Still, it’s not a headache employers really want to deal with.

“That’s a challenge we’ve seen come up a few times, where there were issues with the employment relationship before that, and then, all of a sudden, someone goes out on PFML leave,” he said. “There’s not really a lot of guidance on that yet. It might be assumed to be in retaliation, but if you can show something concrete that has happened, hopefully you can get someone to agree with you in the court system. You have to make sure you have your documents in order.”

The PFML law runs concurrently with other applicable state and federal leave laws, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Similar to the federal FMLA, a Massachusetts employee who returns to work after taking leave under PFML law must be returned to same or similar position as he or she had prior to their leave.

The new law requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 26 total weeks of leave in a benefit year. Currently, employees may be entitled to up to 20 weeks of paid leave to manage their own serious health condition, and may also receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a child who is newly born, adopted, or placed in foster care, and up to 26 weeks to care for a family member in the Armed Forces.

On July 1, employees will also be able to receive up to 12 weeks to care for a family member — the employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, parent of a spouse, or parent of a domestic partner — with a serious health condition.

“There’s a department called the Department of Family and Medical Leave that oversees this whole program, and approves and denies claims,” Gannon said. “They’ve done a pretty effective job of getting the word out there about this program, particularly back in 2020 and early 2021 when it was going live. I remember seeing radio ads, print advertising, a lot of online ads as well.”

As a result, employees tended to know about it, and many held off on, say, elective surgery or put off parental leave for a newborn until after Jan. 1, so they could access the full benefits of the new law, he noted. “We did see a spike [in taking leave] in January and February, and we anticipate we’ll see another spike in July or August of this year when the family-leave components go live, and employees can take leave to care for family members with serious health conditions.”

 

A Rising Need

Patrick Leary, vice president of Work Benefits Research at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn., noted that interest in PFML started to rise several years ago, but has accelerated in recent years, especialy last year.

“More people became caregivers for their parents or other family members affected by COVID,” Leary said. “On top of that, parents took leave to care for their children when remote learning kept them at home.”

Peter Miller, a partner with Millbrook Benefits and Insurance Services in Springfield, added that Massachusetts’ PFML law offers benefits similar to a short-term disability benefit, but won’t replace the need for employers to provide short-term disability insurance.

Leave under the PFML program applies to most W-2 employees in Massachusetts, regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, or seasonal. Unlike the federal FMLA, the Massachusetts PFML law says an employee is not required to work for a minimum length of time in order to be eligible for leave. However, an employee must meet minimum-threshold earning requirements in order to be eligible for leave under the law.

Notice requirements for the new law work both ways; employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date, while employees must inform their employers of their need to take leave under the law at least 30 days before the start of the leave, and before filing an application for leave with the state. Where reasons beyond an employee’s control prevent them from giving such advance notice, they must inform their employer as soon as is practical.

Employers don’t have to offer their workers the state benefit; they can opt out of it and apply for an exemption from paying PFML contributions, but only if they purchase a private plan with benefits that are as generous as the state’s plan, and which provide the same job protections, including the anti-retaliation provisions.

“You have two options — you can deal with the state Department of Family Leave they set up, or you can have your own third-party administrator,” Netkovick said. “The private plan has to be set up to match the state plan. There’s no requirement it has to be better, but it has to at least match with the state plan.”

One reason a company might do so is because a third-policy benefits administrator offered that service, and the employer may prefer communicating with that entity over dealing with the state.

Gannon agreed. “One of the perceived advantages to going with private plans is that you do have a little more control over the administration of the plan,” he said, noting that it can be frustrating when the state gets it wrong — for instance, if an employee has been granted 22 weeks of leave rather than 20 because of an administrative error, to cite a hypothetical example.

“There’s nothing you can do to reverse that, which is frustrating for employers,” he told BusinessWest. “With private plans, at least in theory, you can reach out to the plan administrator and ask, ‘why did you approve this for 22 weeks as opposed to 20?’ With the state, it’s more challenging to do that.”

One thing is clear — in allowing employees to take amounts of leave not typical across the country, the state is layering on an additional staffing challenge at a time when companies in myriad industries are already challenged by worker shortages.

“If the state department or your third-party administrator makes the determination this person qualifies under PFML, then there’s really not much you can do,” Netkovick said. “I know that’s created staffing issues for a couple of our clients, but they’ve been able to work that out. If there’s some kind of mandated ratio, I could see that becoming an issue — you might have to hire people on a temporary basis.”

Gannon agreed it can be a hurdle, particularly since employees are eligible for leave starting from day one on the job.

“It has been a challenge from a staffing perspective, especially these days,” he said. “Staffing would be a challenge without all these job-protected forms of leave, and now we have PFML, too.”

 

Know the Facts

One key requirement of the PFML law is that employers need to put it in writing for their workforce.

“It doesn’t have to be in the handbook, but it has to be in writing, advising people of their rights under PFML and the qualifications,” Netkovick said, adding that some companies have made it a part of the handbook because they were revising that manual anyway. “But others have made it as a standalone policy that everyone has to sign off on.”

Gannon has also seen employers approach the communication question in different ways. “We’ve had clients doing a complete update of their handbook, not just to make sure they’re compliant with this law, but to determine whether other policies need to be changed,” he said, such as call-out procedures that give an employer enough time to manage absences from a staffing perspective.

Of course, those written policies need to make clear the anti-retaliation elements of the law, too. If an employee files a lawsuit against an employer for violation of the PFML law and the employer is found to be in violation, numerous remedies are available to the employee, including reinstatement to the same or similar position, three times the lost wages and benefits, and even the employee’s attorney’s fees.

That’s why training managers and supervisors on all aspects of the law is especially important, Gannon said. “They’re the ones who may not realize how strong the anti-retaliation provisions are. Depending on the size of the business, an employer may rely on managers and supervisors, and if they unknowingly retaliate against someone, it could be a problem for the entire organization. It’s important for those in supervisory or managerial roles to understand the law and how strong those anti-retaliation provisions are.”

Netkovick agreed, adding that yearly trainings on all aspects of workplace law, including Paid Family and Medical Leave, is a good idea.

“Companies need to be aware of that retaliation provision — I think that’s the key,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to keep that in mind at the beginning, so you know what the lay of the land is in case something comes up after the fact.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Moving Pictures

 

John Hazen stands beside displays

John Hazen stands beside displays of just a fraction of the products created at his company using holographic technology.

Hazen Paper, a third-generation family business that’s approaching a century in operation in the Holyoke mill district, has never stood still, expanding its operation over the years into facets like foil laminating, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. But its emergence over the past 15 years as an internationally celebrated producer of holographic printed products may be its most profound shift. Its entry into this niche was a calculated risk, the company’s co-owner said, but one that gradually paid off in a striking way.

 

John Hazen figured there was some risk in purchasing his first holographic printer back in 2005. But, as the third-generation co-owner of Hazen Paper Co. in Holyoke, he also saw the potential.

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk,” he told BusinessWest. “Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

But he was determined to build Hazen’s footprint in the world of holographic printing, and plenty of other technology at the company sprung from that first investment.

The results? Well, the numerous awards that pour in every year testify to the company’s success. Like a 2021 Product Excellence Award from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL), for a holographic consumer package.

“To magnify visual effect on a very small carton,” the press release for the award reads, “Hazen micro-embossed specially coated polyester film with ‘Mercury,’ a unique overall holographic pattern, then metallized the film and laminated it to a solid bleached sulfate board before registered sheeting. The film lamination delivers mirror-like brightness and a liquid-flash effect of full-spectrum color, as well as durable performance for clean scoring and folding.”

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk. Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

Most of those words won’t register with the average consumer. But the effect of the packaging certainly does. “This package really stood out,” one judge said. “The embossed areas are like a hallmark and impart a feeling of luxury.”

It’s the latest in a string of AIMCAL awards for Hazen, which also earned the association’s Product of the Year honors in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The latest was for a transfer-metallized carton, featuring custom holography, created for Nordic Premium Beverages’ Arctic Blue Gin, a project made with Hazen Envirofoil, which uses less than 1% of the aluminum of traditional foil laminate — one way the company continues to stress sustainability, which is being increasingly demanded by clients.

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil, earned Product of the Year honors in 2020 from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL).

In fact, it’s understanding customer needs that led Hazen to step into the world of holography with two emphatic feet in the first place. “In many ways, it’s requests from the customers, information coming in from the market — trying to identify opportunity.”

For background, he explained that the holographic industry saw significant consolidation between 2000 and 2004. In the late ’90s, holographic manufacturers were mostly small mom-and-pop shops, but that changed when larger players started buying them out. One of the catalysts was … well, toothpaste.

“When Colgate came out with a line of holographic packaging on their toothpaste … in the world of holography, the world of consumer packaging, that was a major event,” Hazen said. “They gained market share against Crest, and that’s what it’s all about. If they can pick up 1%, it’s massive. Once Colgate truly validated the use of holography, things got pretty exciting.”

Another growth area was DVD packaging — in fact, Hazen would go on to create holographic images for the DVD boxes for numerous major films, including for the likes of Pixar and Marvel. But its entry into that niche came in 2004, when it created the DVD packaging for the TV show Quantum Leap, which involved a custom hologram.

By that time, however, some of the small holographers Hazen used in the ’90s had been bought up, so it turned to one of the big conglomerates, Illinois Tool Works, or ITW, which had bought up several of the small, boutique holographers.

“We had to work with ITW, but we didn’t feel like they were using their power very well,” Hazen recalled. “We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

So, seeing the expanding opportunities in front of him, Hazen started creating an in-house holographic division.

Around 2005, “one of the companies that got acquired got busted into pieces, and we were able to start reassembling the pieces of the broken puzzle,” he recalled. “We set up our holographic lab, bought the holoprinter technology, hired some castoffs from the consolidation era, and set up a holographic lab in the basement. Since then, we’ve been able to expand.”

 

Shining Examples

Holography isn’t particularly new in the corporate world, Hazen said, noting its use on the dove image on Visa cards.

“That’s a hologram. They’ve had that on the Visa card for 40 years. A lot of times, holography is used as a branding feature, but also as a security feature. It authenticates, makes it hard to counterfeit. It’s done with money as well. That’s security holography, and it tends to be small.

“The holography we do for decorative packaging and some branding is larger format,” he went on. “We’re producing holographic plates as big as 60 inches by 60 inches. It’s not security holography and tends to be lower-resolution. But it is very unique; it’s hard, if not impossible, to replicate. And from a graphic point of view, it gives the graphic artist a mechanism for providing backlighting, for creating movement, for creating a 3D kind of effect.”

Hazen also uses a digital process — several different ones, actually, as opposed to Visa. “The Visa dove is analog — they created the model of a dove, set up lasers around a room, and got light to refract and bounce back.”

“We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

These days, Hazen Paper’s holography can be seen in hundreds of applications worldwide, from product packaging to the program covers for annual events like the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement (since 2013) and the Super Bowl (since 2004, although not in 2021, since there were questions early on about the game’s scheduling during COVID-19, and the design process has to start many months in advance).

Hazen showed off a copy of the 2020 hoops-hall enshrinement program, the class that includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. It showcases 3D imagery of the Hall of Fame’s iconic dome and spire and its panoramic interior, juxtaposed with a collage of the year’s inductees in action. The back cover is a holographic treatment of Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, where the enshrinement ceremony was held. Again, it used the sustainable Envirofoil process.

Hazen has created over the past two decades

Top: the holographic Kat Von D Metal Crush limited-edition powder highlighter carton won AIMCAL’s Product of the Year honors in 2018. Above: one of the many DVD packages Hazen has created over the past two decades.

Hazen has also added to its trophy shelf multiple times in the past year, including a Next Century Award from Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which recognizes employers, individuals, and community organizers that have made unique contributions to the economy and residents of Massachusetts. The company employs 200 people and participates in an internship program with Western New England University that helps engineering students gain experience.

“We create opportunities for young people to learn about the industry in general and our operation in particular — and expand our future talent pool,” Hazen said when the award was announced.

And back in December, the International Hologram Manufacturers Assoc. (IHMA) named Hazen Paper’s 2020 holographic calendar Best Applied Decorative/Packaging Product at its Excellence in Holography Awards.

Featuring a fire-breathing dragon with three-dimensional scales, the oversized calendar utilized an array of innovative holographic techniques to create a decorative design the IHMA called “outstanding.” These holographic designs included gray-motion for the sky background, color-motion for the dragon, and two-channel color-motion lenses and fire-motion lenses to animate the flames.

And the company continues to innovate. For example, it announced back in August it had created an innovative, two-sided promotion to demonstrate cutting-edge holographic technologies. The Hazen team designed the artwork on both sides to showcase specific visual effects with nano-holography that delivers an even more dramatic three-dimensional effect.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the promotion is that it is two-sided custom holography, transfer-metallized on both sides. “It hasn’t been done before,” Hazen said last summer. “The ability to transfer-metallize a lightweight stock on two sides with custom holography opens up the potential for use in many applications where consumer impact is key. It’s very exciting.”

 

Changing Times

Clearly, Hazen Paper has come a long way from its origins in 1925, when Hazen’s grandfather, also named John, launched the enterprise as a decorative paper converter and embosser. His younger brother, Ted, joined Hazen in 1928 to help manage the growing company, which grew rapidly in the 1930s and expanded into printing and foil laminating by the 1940s.

Ted’s son, Bob, joined the company in 1957, and John’s son, Tom, signed on in 1960, and the second generation expanded the company numerous times over the next three decades, as Hazen Paper became known worldwide for specializing in foil and film lamination, gravure printing, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. Hazen products became widely used in luxury packaging, lottery and other security tickets, tags and labels, cards and cover stocks, as well as photo and fine-art mounting.

The third-generation owners, John and Robert Hazen, joined the company at the start of the 1990s, and have continued to grow the enterprise and expand its capabilities, with a special emphasis on coating, metallizing, and — of course — holographic technology.

In 2005, Hazen Paper set up its holographic origination lab and design studio in Holyoke, and has since developed thousands of unique holographic designs and holds several patents on the processes it has developed. Shortly after, the company launched a holographic embossing and metallizing operation a mile away on Main Street.

“They always say it’s dangerous to go outside your traditional business model, outside your wheelhouse,” John Hazen said of those early days in this new niche, and particularly that plant. “We came in way over budget, at least six months behind, but that plant came to life right at the end of 2008.”

That’s right — at the beginning of a crippling recession.

“When you think about what was going on in the world, the first half of 2009 was really a scary time,” he said. “Fortunately, the business came back in the summer of 2009, and everything started to fall into place.

“Everyone’s system for making holography is different — they’re similar, but they’re different — but the one thing we knew was our system worked,” he went on. “But we went through some rough years from 2010 to 2016. We definitely overextended ourselves to get into the holographic business, and part of that overextension was the impact of the 2009 recession.”

In 2006, Hazen set up its first satellite plant in Indiana, a lamination and sheeting operation that ultimately operated 24/7, with more than 50 full-time employees. In 2016, however, it sold the plant as a strategic move away from commodity-type foil laminations to increase focus on growth opportunities in holography and specialty paper products in Holyoke.

Broadly speaking, packaging remains the broadest category of holographic work nationally, with designs seen on everything from boxes of golf balls and toothpaste to liquor packages. But the sky is the limit, Hazen said, and new uses emerge all the time — justifying that initial investment more than 15 years ago.

“It really was a startup, a technology startup in an older company. And ultimately, we really reinvented Hazen Paper,” he told BusinessWest. “The holographic technology ended up feeding the old business. So it’s like we installed a new heart in an old body.”

Not a bad return on that bag of beans.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Air Apparent

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran are serving him well today as the head of his own venture.

Never underestimate the influence of a teacher.

Or, in Scott Cernak’s case, two of them, who taught plumbing when he was a student at Smith Vocational & Agricultural High School, and proved engaging enough in the subject to capture his attention.

“I wasn’t sure which trade I wanted to take,” he said. “The plumbing teachers there were really good — I never thought I would have chosen plumbing, but I ended up liking it quite a bit.”

He likes the trajectory of his career as well. Today, Cernak is the owner of a company — Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing — that recently spun off M.J. Moran Inc., the only company he’d ever worked for, and where he latched on as an intern early in his junior year at Smith.

“I started on my 16th birthday and started liking it more and more,” he recalled. “I got into more and more things; I started doing sprinkler fitting, all kinds of pipe fitting, welding and plumbing and HVAC.”

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division.”

All of that appealed to him, but he was especially interested in the residential division, which hadn’t been a significant part of Moran’s business, but which he and two other employees started growing steadily. “At this point, I was in my early 20s and running a lot of large residential and small commercial jobs, new-construction service calls — anything from packing a faucet to doing a whole new house and everything in between.”

His success in that division led to a promotion to general manager of the company in 2016, and something bigger four years later. “I got the opportunity to buy the division that I helped build,” he told BusinessWest, “and here we are.”

The reason for the spinoff company is that Jim Moran, who launched his enterprise 42 years ago, is heading — slowly — toward retirement, Cernak explained.

“He’ll never fully retire, but he wanted to take a little off his plate right now. His sons, Chad and Kyle, who run the commercial-industrial division, don’t have any interest in the residential divison — they relied on me for that anyway — so it just made sense for Jim and myself and our departments.

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division; it worked really well for them, and it’s worked really well for us,” he went on. “We still communicate frequently, and we still collaborate; I hire them as a sub when we need extra manpower, or they hire us as a sub on some jobs. So it works out pretty well.”

Roughly eight months into his new enterprise, Cernak said his work is well-balanced, split fairly evenly between service work, major renovations for general contractors, and installing and replacing heating and cooling systems. “It’s a pretty good mix, and some of that is commercial, too — service work and small installation work.”

Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing is more departmentalized than most similar firms, he added, with a full service department.

“Most companies around us don’t have a service department; they just throw in a service call here and there. We actually have a service department that’s dedicated to service work, then we have a new-construction installation department that’s dedicated to the bigger work. That works well for our dispatching and keeping things organized and keeping the right guys on the right jobs. It’s one reason we’re able to stay efficient and continue to grow.”

 

Into the Pipeline

What first drew Cernak into the plumbing field at Smith Voke was, simply, realizing for the first time the breadth of what tradespeople in that field do.

“As a teenager, I didn’t realize that plumbing was more than just cleaning a drain or fixing a toilet. A lot of people — not just young teenagers — think plumbing is just fixing plumbing; they think it’s just dirty work. But I got to see a different side of it — learning how the pipefitting works, doing some welding and some soldering.”

“Even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people.”

He also quickly learned, by researching the field, that it’s a trade with stability and good job security. “It’s one of the higher-paid trades, so there were a lot of factors. But before that, it had never clicked to me that, hey, plumbers actually install the plumbing in a new house, too, not just fix the plumbing in an old house.”

The science of plumbing hasn’t changed much during his career, but HVAC is a different story.

“Indoor air quality has been a big factor,” he said. “Coronavirus certainly helped with that — or hurt with that, however you want to put it. But coronavirus certainly put a new spin on it. But even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people, so we sell a lot of products that help with filtration and literally zap bacteria and viruses out of the air; there are all kinds of air-cleaning products that we’re selling as part of our systems, part of our installations, part of our services. It’s not the core of our business, but it certainly is a pretty big part of our business.”

Businesses in Massachusetts took the lead on emphasizing air-quality measures indoors, much of it driven by regulations. But in the era of COVID-19, people increasingly demand high-tech air-purifying systems in their homes.

“We’d never had people asking for indoor air-quality measures — or very rarely; maybe 1% of people would ask for something like that back before coronavirus. And now, probably close to 20% to 30% ask for it specifically.”

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring, even though his industry is challenged by a slow pipeline of young talent entering the field.

Clearly, there will always be a market for plumbing and HVAC work — as Cernak said, this is a stable field — and he can see his fledgling company growing, but one challenge will be attracting talent as it does. Right now, nationwide, roughly three workers are aging out and retiring from these disciplines for every two young people who come in.

“And out of those two, probably only one to one and a half are going to make it past five years,” he went on. “So there’s a big-time shortage, and it’s going to get worse and worse.”

As one way to counter that trend, “I have longer-term goals of creating more education within our company,” he explained. “I’d like to bring a sheet-metal school in house, not necessarily from us, but probably third-party, using our facility; that’s going to help attract some people.”

Meanwhile, “we have ads out on different internet platforms, and we’re trying to recruit internally too. Everyone who works with us knows we’re looking for at least one or two more service techs on top of other positions as well. We have been hiring — four people in the past month and a half — so we’re definitely growing, and we’re on a trajectory of more growth as well.”

 

Investments in the Future

One key to achieving that growth, Cernak said, is not being afraid to invest in the kinds of things that will attract top talent.

“I’ve got an eye for talent — and I’m not afraid to hire the best and pay for the best, that’s for sure,” he told BusinessWest. “I provide the best tools, the best training, we have new, well-equipped trucks, and we’re working on getting even more trucks. So all our people have the right tools, the right trucks, and the right infrastructure to do their jobs.”

In addition, “I’ve invested heavily into software and IT systems to organize how we do our work and how we bill for our work and how we store data and how we access data, which is a huge part of the industry that people generally overlook,” he went on. “We’re not fumbling through file cabinets to find the customer’s history. With a couple clicks, we’re there. Same thing with our guys in the field — they have access via tablet or smartphone to access any of our customers’ history. When a customer calls, we know what they have already, and we know the right tech to send to the right job.”

What it adds up to is efficiency, which both employees and customers appreciate, Cernak said. “We’re very good in the service department, dispatching, getting people there. We have quite a backlog sometimes, but we’re also very good at prioritizing emergencies.”

Creating efficient systems and investing in better resources may not bring an immediate payback, he added, but he’s looking long-term — at the kind of success his mentor, Jim Moran, enjoyed for more than four decades. It’s why, when he saw an opportunity to build upon his experience and set out on his own, he took it.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ve got to go with your gut and know what’s right and do it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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