Home Articles posted by Joseph Bednar
Construction Cover Story

Firm Foundation

Co-owners Robyn Provost and Bob Provost

Co-owners Robyn Provost and Bob Provost

 

Marking 75 years in business is a significant milestone for any company, and when Mowry & Schmidt Inc. hit that mark in 2022, it was extra gratifying, simply because of how it had survived the worst of the pandemic.

“We stayed working; we’re that essential workforce,” said Bob Provost, the third-generation co-owner of this family business with his sister, Robyn Provost. “People trusted us, we practiced the proper protocol, and we went in and out of people’s houses and people’s businesses. We never stopped. It was tough, what was going on, but at the same time, we were fortunate because we were able to work; our guys were able to work.”

Greenfield-based Mowry & Schmidt was also able to ride a wave of home improvement that arose when people began spending more time at home, as well as working from home, a trend that has solidified into something more or less permanent.

“You hate to shout out the positives from something that was so horrible, but we were able to stay in business through the worst of it, then things picked up dramatically,” Robyn said. “And that hasn’t changed. We’re still seeing a lot of work out there, and we actually have the ability to pick and choose a little bit more, to figure out what’s the right fit. There’s always a job that’s not the right fit, and you have to recognize that and be able to admit that. But it was an interesting phenomenon that happened, how construction exploded for a lot of people — if they could make it through that initial wave.”

“You hate to shout out the positives from something that was so horrible, but we were able to stay in business through the worst of it, then things picked up dramatically.”

The pandemic years were only the latest cycle in the long history of Mowry & Schmidt, which has been doing residential, commercial, and industrial work since its inception.

“It has kind of evolved over the years,” Bob said. “Years ago, a big part of it was industrial. But a lot of the paper mills and machine shops closed down, so it bounced more to residential and commercial. Even 20 years ago, we still had some pretty substantial industrial contracts. And now it’s maybe one or two, some smaller machine shops.

“So I’d say our work base now is commercial and residential, and that it kind of fluctuates depending on the market. We used to say we were 70% commercial and 30% residential. Now we might be 60-40, or maybe even 50-50 at times.”

The firm has tackled a wide range of jobs, from large construction jobs to smaller renovations and repairs, throughout its history, a diversity of expertise that has served as a buffer against shifting trends and economic tides.

The dining room inside the Farm Table

The dining room inside the Farm Table in Bernardston, where Mowry & Schmidt performed significant work across the campus.

“We do new construction, renovations, additions, alterations,” Bob told BusinessWest. “We still do small projects, decks on homes, window replacements, door replacements, repairs. And then we do larger projects, whether it’s building a new bank, building a new restaurant, new home construction, large additions, prefabricated metal buildings as well.”

For this issue’s focus on construction, we talked at length with the Provost siblings about how their business has stayed remarkably stable over the years, and how they’re tackling today’s challenges — from higher costs to fierce competition to workforce issues — with an eye toward growing the firm further as it approaches the century mark in the decades ahead.

 

History in the Making

Mowry & Schmidt was founded by David Mowry and Albert Schmidt in Greenfield in 1947, quickly gaining loyal customers and the reputation for diverse expertise it touts today. In 1977, when the founders retired, Robert Provost (David’s son-in-law) and Georges Wetterwald purchased the company and continued to grow it. In 1990, Wetterwald retired, and Robert became the sole owner.

During the 1990s, Bob and Robyn Provost, the current owners, started working in the office — Robyn from outside the company and Bob from its job sites, where he had labored since the 1980s — to work with their father on estimating, project management, and other roles. When the elder Provost died in 2007, ownership was transferred to his wife, Marcia Mowry Provost, and today, the third generation of Bob and Robyn manage all the day-to-day operations, with the help of Bob’s wife, Jessica Provost.

“If they had their kitchen renovated, but then, 20 years later, they come back and ask you to do their deck and porch or their bathroom, I think that’s a big deal.”

“A big part of our success is repeat business, whether it’s residential, commercial, or a commercial project leading to residential work,” Bob said, noting that longtime customers run the gamut from Greenfield Savings Bank — one recent project is the restoration of Greenfield’s former library, the Leavitt-Hovey House, into a new facility for the bank — to educational facilities like Northfield Mount Hermon, Stoneleigh Burnham, and Deerfield Academy.

“One of our last large jobs was the VESH veterinary clinic in West Springfield,” Robyn added. “That was a good-sized project, and we hope to become a repeat customer and able to do more work for them.”

That job is one example of how Mowry & Schmidt continues to expand its footprint outside of Franklin County.

Mowry & Schmidt’s work for VESH in West Springfield

Mowry & Schmidt’s work for VESH in West Springfield is an example of seeking jobs outside its traditional Franklin County footprint.

“We’re not afraid of travel. We’ll go where the customer base is, and if it’s a repeat customer, I’ll go anywhere for them,” Bob said, adding quickly that other firms are doing the same these days.

“We’re competing against contractors up here that we haven’t had to in the past,” Robyn agreed. “And then, vice versa, we’re walking into places that we haven’t been all the time. It’s happening everywhere.”

And it’s happening at a time of flux and challenge in other ways in the construction world, one example being the impact of high prices, she added.

“Our costs are high, and we have to pass that on to the consumer, so consumers are facing construction costs that are substantially higher than what they maybe think they should be. So we need to explain that and get people to understand that this is the time we live in; these are the costs.”

The other major issue across the construction spectrum these days is workforce — specifically, finding enough people to do the available work, a situation that has caused many firms to turn down work they might otherwise procure.

“There’s a lot of work out there still in construction; even though the prices are high, people are paying it. There’s a demand, and that creates a demand on the workforce,” Robyn noted. “People are needed to work in all of the industries, whether they’re making the material, trucking the material, or actually installing it.”

Fortunately, Bob added, Mowry & Schmidt hasn’t seen significant employee turnover, with team members who have been on board for anywhere from five to more than 20 years.

“If they had their kitchen renovated, but then, 20 years later, they come back and ask you to do their deck and porch or their bathroom, I think that’s a big deal.”

“As for the new guys, it’s hard to find younger folks, but some of our newer folks come from other companies closing up, or a lone sole proprietor who has come to a point in their life where they don’t want to deal with the bills, the headaches, all the office crap; they just want to come in and work. That’s been a good avenue for us to find people to come in and work for us. We also have people who’ve retired from other industries, other types of work; they’ve put their 20-plus years in, and they’ve still got a lot to offer.”

Often, they’re offering those services to clients that have been loyal to Mowry & Schmidt for generations, Bob said. “We keep them because they know they can trust us, and we go in there and do their work, and we’re fair.”

More challenging, he added, is developing trust with new clients, but the firm can lean on its reputation over 77 years in business, as well as its recent performance.

“When the same individuals come back time after time to do projects in their house, I think that speaks volumes,” Robyn said. “If they had their kitchen renovated, but then, 20 years later, they come back and ask you to do their deck and porch or their bathroom, I think that’s a big deal.”

The key is honesty and open communication, Bob added. “Don’t get me wrong; in 77 years, we’ve made mistakes. It’s how you finish it out and correct those mistakes … it’s how you take care of them and make sure everything’s squared away at the end.”

The company was founded in Greenfield in 1947

The company was founded in Greenfield in 1947 and is still headquartered in the city today.

Valuing transparency extends to the firm’s expectations for its subcontractors, Robyn said.

“Our crew doesn’t do everything on a project. We do X amount of the work, but we have to rely on subcontractors, or we would not exist. And being able to find trustworthy, transparent subcontractors is something we’ve worked really hard at achieving. And we maintain those relationships as long as we possibly can. We know that’s an important part of being a general contractor because you have to rely on these people.”

 

Looking to the Future

Bob told BusinessWest he has twins — a son and daughter — who both work at the firm, but he doesn’t know whether they’ll eventually want to become part of a fourth generation of family ownership — and, besides, he and Robyn have a long way to go in that role.

“I’m still pretty young, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. So we’ll be doing it for a while,” he said. “Hopefully another generation comes along, which wouldn’t break my heart if it did. I’m a firm believer that this is a good place, and there’s always going to be a need for general contracting and construction. You just have to run it the right way and keep moving forward; that’s the key.”

Whether it’s construction and renovation, design-build projects, construction management, or even small repairs, there’s still plenty of work in Franklin County and beyond, he added.

“It feels great when you finish a veterinary clinic, but you also feel great when you know that you’ve helped somebody stay in their home by renovating their bathroom or putting up a ramp.”

“Those are good customers. Your local banks, your YMCAs — they’re strong, they’re local, and they’re good repeat business. You could have some people on the board at the YMCA, where you’re working, and next thing you know, you’re working at their house. Getting an opportunity to work for all these people and customers, it’s very rewarding.”

Robyn noted that the city of Greenfield will often call Mowry & Schmidt to tackle an urgent job for the Fire Department or Board of Health. “Unfortunately, things happen, and they need somebody local they can call at a moment’s notice, that can put together a crew and send them out.”

It’s a nimble trait, and an earned one, Bob said.

“That’s having a quality crew. You’ve got to have guys that aren’t looking at you cross-eyed when you take them out of finishing somebody’s beautiful kitchen and say, ‘come with me; we have to go board up a house.’”

Another niche has been helping elders in their homes, figuring out ways to keep them aging in place, Robyn added.

“The other thing is just being there when someone who we’ve worked for for 30 years needs a cabinet door adjusted, and they call, and we do it,” she added. “We’ll send somebody over there as soon as we can to get it done.

“I think if we weren’t able to adjust so quickly and do those small things, that would be tough for us because it makes you feel good about what you do. It feels great when you finish a veterinary clinic, but you also feel great when you know that you’ve helped somebody stay in their home by renovating their bathroom or putting up a ramp.”

It’s just one more way Mowry & Schmidt isn’t just staying busy — it’s making an impact, one customer at a time.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Lending Perspective

President and CEO Tony Worden

President and CEO Tony Worden

Tony Worden has worked at several banks in his career, of various types and sizes, but there’s something about a small community bank that … well, just suits him.

For starters, “there’s less pressure,” said Worden, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB). “I mean, we certainly have to grow, and we have to make money, but there’s less emphasis on that and more emphasis on relationships. I’m not trying to pat us on the back because I know Florence is like this, bankESB is like this, Greenfield Savings, too — we all need to make money, we need to grow, but we also get how important we are to the communities that we serve.

“There are loans we make that, at a previous bank, we never would have made,” he went on. “They just would have said, ‘no, we’re not doing that.’ But community banks find ways to stretch to get people’s mortgages done, and even on commercial loans. As a community bank, we have to think about how we’re serving our community, and bigger banks worry less about that. It’s easier for them to turn loans down because they’re not as involved.”

Worden knows a lot about commercial lending after working in that realm for the vast majority of his career before former GCB President and CEO Michael Tucker persuaded him, in 2019, to pursue that role as Tucker prepared to retire. Worden knew he’d have a steep learning curve in areas ranging from finance to IT to human resources — but he embraced the challenge.

“My thought was, someday, if I play my cards right, maybe I’ll get a chance to be the senior lender somewhere. And I got to be that here. It was not part of my grand plan to be president.”

“A lot of people get into this business, and their dream or goal is to become president of a bank. But I never really thought about that. My thought was, someday, if I play my cards right, maybe I’ll get a chance to be the senior lender somewhere. And I got to be that here,” he said. “It was not part of my grand plan to be president.”

But Tucker was convinced Worden was the right candidate to put forth internally, and the board eventually chose him over two external candidates. Worden, a longtime senior commercial loan officer, initially worked alongside Tucker as chief operating officer through 2020, then took over as president at the start of 2021; Tucker stayed in the CEO role until the start of 2022, when he retired and passed that mantle to Worden as well.

The long transition period working alongside Tucker turned out to be a blessing in more than one way. Not only was Worden learning the ins and outs of a much broader job than his previous career in commercial lending, but the emergence of the pandemic threw a major wrench into the banking world.

“The transition got stunted a little by the pandemic,” he recalled. “Obviously, I was excited when I accepted the job, and we knew COVID was a thing that was happening, but no one knew exactly what it was going to do. And literally within a week, my excitement ended because it was, ‘OK, now we have survive this.’”

Greenfield headquarters

While nine of its 10 branches are in Franklin and Hampshire counties, including its Greenfield headquarters (pictured), GCB has been making inroads into Hampden County as well.

Worden said bank leaders will be telling stories for decades about the adventure of PPP loans and everything else they had to do to help customers navigate that whitewater, but they are gratifying stories to tell.

“It’s amazing, in hindsight, to think about what all the banks accomplished. There were certainly technological hurdles because the SBA was not set up to be doing this volume.”

But in the years that followed, Worden has become accustomed to many other challenges, from a shifting rate environment — and its impact on lending — to the continued evolution of digital banking platforms, to Greenfield Co-op’s own growth trajectory.

“As a community bank, we have a responsibility to serve our customers’ needs as fully as we possibly can,” he told BusinessWest. “So we all stretch a little bit more to get loans done, to get projects done.”

 

Steady Growth

Greenfield Cooperative Bank has grown in numerous ways over the past decade, most notably by merging with Northampton Cooperative Bank in 2015, which increased its branch total from five to nine; a tenth branch opened in South Hadley in 2020, the first outside of Franklin or Hampshire county.

At the time of the merger, Greenfield Co-op boasted roughly $350 million in assets, and Northampton brought roughly $150 million, to create a $500 million bank.

“Right now, we’re just under $800 million in total,” Worden said. “So, in a decade, we’ve had about $300 million worth of growth, which, obviously, for a bigger bank or a publicly traded bank, wouldn’t be acceptable. But we don’t have stockholders, so we can grow sensibly.”

“The real growth, from a demographic perspective, is in Hampden County. And with all the mergers and acquisitions, there are fewer banks in Hampden County than there used to be.”

That said, he views Hampden County as a big part of GCB’s future, and the South Hadley branch as a jumping-off point to do more business in that region. In fact, many of the bank’s lenders have worked at Springfield-area institutions in the past and have maintained relationships there.

“If you look at the demographics, Hampden County is growing. Franklin County is not; it’s actually retracting. Hampshire County’s growing a little bit, but the real growth, from a demographic perspective, is in Hampden County. And with all the mergers and acquisitions, there are fewer banks in Hampden County than there used to be.

“So we see opportunity,” he went on. “We’ve had some success on the commercial side, and this past winter, we hired a mortgage originator from a local competitor who’s based out of Holyoke and knows that market, and we’re making a push to start doing some residential mortgages in all of Hampden County. But our focus right now is Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield because we feel like we can handle that through a branch in South Hadley, which isn’t technically in Hampden County, but it’s not that far away. So we’re taking tentative steps to be more of a presence down there.”

Greenfield Cooperative Bank

Greenfield Cooperative Bank partners with many community organizations, such as Montague Public Libraries (pictured) for programs like its bilingual children’s music and movement program.

That said, when Worden joined the commercial lending team at GCB 15 years ago, the bank had $29 million in commercial loans; that number is now $260 million, and the bank employs more lenders, credit analysts, and administrative staff.

“But we’ve also seen some significant payoffs of our loans — not because they’ve gone and refinanced somewhere else, but because they sold their properties when the market got so hot,” he noted.

At the same time, “I think the rising rate environment has made people shyer about going out and pursuing things because, again, no one wants to finance something at the top of the market and have the rates start to go down the day after they do it. So I think what we’ve seen is people kind of sitting and waiting: ‘is the economy going to tank or not?’

“As time has gone on, I think more people are buying into this idea that there could be a soft landing,” he went on. “But I think it would help to see the rates drop because I think that would get people active again. There’s a lot of wait and see at this point.”

That said, a large swath of the customer base never lived through really high rates.

“When I first started, I was a junior commercial credit analyst at Vermont National Bank up in Brattleboro,” Worden said. “And people were saying, ‘you know, if prime would just get down to 10%, that would be perfect.’ And then we were so low for so long that people started to think that was normal.”

He recently watched a recording of a Red Sox game from the 1980s, complete with commercials, and one in particular made him laugh. “It was a car commercial, and it said, ‘low, 11.99% financing for well-qualified buyers.’ Today, people would see that, and their heads would explode.”

Historical perspective isn’t the only thing separating younger from older bank customers — they have different banking habits as well, as Millennials and Gen Z grew up with technolology and are more apt to eschew physical branches.

“They go in as little as possible. They want to do as much remotely and through their phone as they possibly can,” Worden said. “That’s a new reality, making sure we have the technology and the channels for them to bank the way they want to bank.”

But there will always be a need for a physical presence and face-to-face interactions, he added, which is why banks continue to expand geographically.

“For a decade or so before the pandemic, if you went to any banking-industry events, they said, ‘get rid of your branches, get rid of the bricks and mortar; they’re expensive. The fintechs are eating your lunch because they don’t have those costs. They’re not paying real-estate taxes. They’re not paying for AC. They’re not paying for the lights.’ But now, we’re hearing, ‘lean into your branch network because that’s your advantage over the fintechs. The fintechs wish they had a building on the corner that people could walk into.’

“If everything is going well for you as a customer, maybe you don’t need to talk to somebody face-to-face. But as soon as something goes sideways, it’s nice to know you can walk into a building and talk to somebody face-to-face and deal with them,” he went on. “We, as a bank and as an industry, have to do a better job explaining to people what the value is of having someone local working with you.”

 

Different Kind of Dream

That local face and relationship banking may be even more important at a time when mergers are creating ever-larger institutions — and fewer of them, Worden noted.

“Some people say to me, ‘you must be happy when you see these bank mergers because it’s one less piece of competition for you.’ But no — I think it’s a shame that local options are going away.

At a Massachusetts Bankers Assoc. meeting he attended last fall, attendees were told there are half as many banks in Massachusetts as there were 20 years ago, and it’s estimated that, over the next decade, that figure could be halved again. “I left there thinking, ‘we have to focus on what it will take for us to make sure we’re one of those banks that survive.”

But it’s a challenge he’ll enjoy, even though it’s not one he dreamed about taking on earlier in his career.

“When it was announced that I got this job, people would come up to me and say, ‘you got your dream job.’ And I’d say, ‘no, actually, I gave up my dream job for this job.’ If someone offers you the chance to be the president of a bank, you take the job. But what’s been fun is focusing on other parts of the bank than commercial lending.”

One of those is philanthropy, and Worden appreciates being in a place where community giving decisions are made locally, rather than regionally or nationally, as is the case at larger banks.

“The decisions we make about where we’re going to give our money happen right here in this building, for the most part,” he noted. “We certainly upped our giving during COVID, and then we never went back down to the historical level — not that it was low before.”

Overall, Worden said, GCB is a relatively uncomplicated bank to run. “We’re very vanilla. I think my senior staff gets sick of hearing me say that, but I say it as a good thing. We’re not in all kinds of weird things. We stick to what we know how to do, and we do them well.”

While Greenfield Co-op isn’t among the region’s largest banks in terms of assets, it’s well on its way to $1 billion, and Worden is looking forward to that milestone.

“Things will change a little bit; there’s more regulation,” he told BusinessWest. “But it’s gratifying to see the growth and to know I played a small part in that. A lot of the reason for the success was Mike Tucker. He did a great job for 20 years; he got the ball rolling. I’m just trying to keep the thing moving down the road.”

Cybersecurity Special Coverage

Training Ground

The main entry of the new Richard E. Neal Cybersecurity Center of Excellence.

The main entry of the new Richard E. Neal Cybersecurity Center of Excellence.

 

There are plenty of ways to learn about cybersecurity, Gene Kingsley said, but none better than actually doing it.

“It’s a huge advantage to be immersed in an environment where you’re undergoing what you’re learning about. You’re not just learning coding; you’re actually applying coding. You’re not just reading a book; you’re applying knowledge that you can replicate on your next job, having had this experience.”

Kingsley, cyber range manager for the Richard E. Neal Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, was describing the value of the center, which will open later this summer, to students studying cybersecurity — but also to an industry that desperately needs an influx of talent.

The project, housed at Springfield Union Station, is just one component of a multi-million-dollar series of investments, announced in 2022, to bolster cybersecurity resilience — and the related workforce — across the state.

These awards included a $1,086,476 grant to support the launch of CyberTrust Massachusetts, a nonprofit that works with business and academia statewide to grow the cybersecurity talent pipeline by increasing career pathways for underrepresented groups, while promoting security operations to address the day-to-day needs of resource-constrained municipalities, nonprofits, and small businesses.

“It’s a huge advantage to be immersed in an environment where you’re undergoing what you’re learning about. You’re not just learning coding; you’re actually applying coding. You’re not just reading a book; you’re applying knowledge that you can replicate on your next job.”

The state also awarded $1,462,995 award to Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) and $1,200,000 to Bridgewater State University to establish a security operations center (SOC) and cyber range in each city. The Neal Center at Union Station, managed by STCC, also benefited from $500,000 in ARPA funding from the city of Springfield.

Springfield’s 6,000-square-foot center — a collaboration between STCC, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, and CyberTrust Massachusetts — aims to be a hub for advancing cybersecurity awareness, education, and innovation while battling global security threats. Its cyber range is a simulated, hands-on training environment, and its SOC is envisioned as a support service for Massachusetts municipalities, as well as regional businesses, to detect cybersecurity events in real time and respond quickly.

“Springfield Union Station has re-established the city of Springfield as the crossroads of New England, and it will soon serve as home to a state-of-the-art cybersecurity training center that will greatly benefit our region,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said during a walk-through earlier this year.

Now that it’s set to open, Mary Kaselouskas, vice president and chief information officer at STCC, is excited to see its applications for students; three STCC classes will conduct work there this fall.

“Any of the students involved in the cybersecurity courses will have the cyber-range experience embedded in that,” she told BusinessWest, “and other classes will use the range as well.”

The facility’s security operations center

The facility’s security operations center will be a support service for municipalities and businesses to detect cybersecurity events in real time and respond quickly.

And not just STCC students; other institutions partnering on the project include Bay Path University, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, Elms College, and Springfield College, each of which offer a range of certificate and degree programs in cybersecurity, computer science and programming, digital forensics, criminal justice, and more.

“This is a very important initiative,” said Doug Keevers, program director of the School of Management and Technology at Bay Path. “It definitely benefits all students in the region by providing them with a facility where they can gain practice and hands-on experience. They’re going to be exposed to mentors, professionals in the field, real-life situations, different types of things — even competitions.

“We are very focused on knowledge, and taking the intangible and making it more tangible — giving students more hands-on, real-life experience. That’s what we’re all about,” he went on. “This will not be just for Bay Path and the partners involved, but any schools who want to use this facility as a resource. That’s very important in a field that can change dramatically on a daily basis.”

 

Essential Components

Essentially, the Neal Center will provide threat monitoring and other cybersecurity services for Commonwealth municipalities and small-business and nonprofit customers. The SOC will be able to monitor, detect, and respond to cyberthreats 24/7/365, protecting organizations’ assets.

Meanwhile, the cyber range is a testing lab that mirrors real-world IT environments to provide hands-on training opportunities to local companies, universities, and other cyber-focused organizations. It will allow both students and employees of companies and municipalities to experience simulated threats in a virtual environment, including hands-on training in live-fire attacks, blue-team/red-team events (in which one team attacks a system and the other defends it), and other training models, potentially leading to certification in security fields for students.

“We are very focused on knowledge, and taking the intangible and making it more tangible — giving students more hands-on, real-life experience. That’s what we’re all about.”

CyberTrust Massachusetts CEO Pete Sherlock called the center a critical piece of the Commonwealth’s overall effort to grow and diversify the cyber workforce and address the security needs of municipalities, nonprofits, and businesses. “With its state-of-the-art cyber range, educational facilities, and security operations center, this cyber center of excellence is a world-class resource to serve the region’s people and institutions.”

For its part, CyberTrust was launched to address four key imperatives for the state:

• Boosting security, as organizations across Massachusetts are challenged to find affordable resources to defend themselves against growing cybersecurity threats and maintain resiliency in the digital world;

• Underemployment in cybersecurity, with almost 800,000 cybersecurity job openings in the U.S. — a number expected to grow — and more than 20,000 in Massachusetts alone. The center also puts a particular focus on women and communities of color, which are underrepresented in the cybersecurity workforce and frequently overlooked for employment due to a lack of opportunity to obtain hands-on experience;

• Employee training, as businesses across the Commonwealth typically do not have a location to send their employees to receive such training at an affordable rate; and

• Business and economic development, specifically a need to convene regional hubs for business development where cybersecurity entrepreneurs can establish and grow startups, or where specific industry segments, such as defense contractors, can receive specialized support.

Gene Kingsley

Gene Kingsley says the new center could be an economic boost for downtown Springfield as well as benefiting the cybersecurity workforce.

Students who train at the center will have access internships and industry partnerships that help them build experience and career networks, research opportunities that establish best practices combined with emerging technologies, and community outreach and education forums to raise awareness about cybersecurity risks and solutions.

Kingsley said it could also be an economic booster for downtown Springfield. “Obviously, more traffic downtown is ideal. The idea is bringing people from the community to upskill them. And this is a growth field; we’re looking to get people into the field right now.”

Kaselouskas agreed, noting that the new center could be a way to boost the security workforce by creating training opportunities in an easy-to-access location.

“What’s nice about the center is that it’s a centralized location available by train and bus and it’s very easily accessible,” she said, adding that the city is interested in using the center for training its own employees. “It offers them an economy of scale. It’s cost-prohibitive to buy the platform or services on your own.”

Businesses can also use the center to upskill employees, Keevers said.

“Cybersecurity permeates every industry, every field, every department. I’ve heard advisory-board members say, ‘we have an employee who has an affinity for cybersecurity; they just need some upskilling.’ So it’s an opportunity to do that.”

 

Creating a Hub

Kaselouskas said the state’s recent focus on cybersecurity investments is intended not just to buy tools and give them to businesses to fight cyberthreats, but to train the future workforce.

“Bridgewater’s center is on campus, and ours is at a different location, but the vision and goal are the same: to train students to allow them to get jobs.”

Combined with MassReconnect, the program that now makes community college free for Massachusetts residents age 25 and up — and which has boosted enrollment at STCC and other colleges — the Neal Center promises to draw more talent into a field that needs it.

“My personal passion is for Massachusetts to become a cyberhub. And I think this is an opportunity to do that,” Keevers added, noting that, while some young people are hesitant to enter what they feel is an overly technical field, cybersecurity jobs span a wide range of skills and expertise.

“It’s not one size fits all. The biggest threat in cybersecurity is people, and the best way to stay safe is to educate and train people.”

Cover Story

Current Events

Executive Director Ben Quick

Executive Director Ben Quick

 

Ben Quick recognizes that the Connecticut River, particularly the stretch that runs through Springfield, has what he calls a “checkered past” as … well, not the cleanest riverway, and perhaps a negative reputation in some corners, based on that past, that lingers today.

But those who actually use the river for recreation on a regular basis — and Quick, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club, certainly counts himself among them — tell a much different story.

“People who come to our riverfront here in Springfield for rowing or dragon boating and see what we have, between the quality of the water and the views and the infrastructure, say, ‘why aren’t there 10 clubs here? Why isn’t everybody out on this water? Why aren’t more people enjoying it?’” Quick said.

It’s a message he likes to share. “The mission of our organization is to bring guests, visitors, and residents of Greater Springfield to the riverfront for some healthy, outdoor, fun recreation. The river itself has got a checkered past, and part of our job is to enlighten people with proper information, safe experiences, and a positive takeaway, so they go home and tell their friends, ‘hey, you know what? The Connecticut River in Springfield is absolutely gorgeous, and there’s all kinds of fun stuff you can do there. Why not check it out?’”

“People who come to our riverfront here in Springfield for rowing or dragon boating and see what we have, between the quality of the water and the views and the infrastructure, say, ‘why aren’t there 10 clubs here? Why isn’t everybody out on this water? Why aren’t more people enjoying it?’”

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club (PVRC) was established by a small group of rowing enthusiasts in 2009 to promote river-based recreational activities, sporting activities, and river access in general.

“They got together on a patch of grass a little further downstream from us and organized as a rowing club,” Quick noted, adding that they put a proposal together to occupy what is now the club’s home, at North Riverfront Park on the river’s shore, in a building that dates back to 1901.

“Since then, we have grown our organization from a small group on a patch of grass to about 50 kids, about 60 adults, and hundreds of visitors every year who participate in our programs,” he told BusinessWest. “We started off as a rowing organization … in fact, PVRC originally stood for Pioneer Valley Rowing Club. But soon after we were organized, we expanded and offered dragon boating, which is the fastest-growing water sport in the world. And we realized that we had much more to offer than rowing. So that’s where Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club came from.”

Speaking of dragon boating, the 10th annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival is coming up on July 20, and has become the club’s premier event (more on that later).

A dragon boat team navigates the Connecticut River

A dragon boat team navigates the Connecticut River in the 2023 event.
(Photo by D. John McCarthy)

“The rowing and dragon-boating programs have just blossomed,” Quick said. “They are kind of niche sports … not a lot of people know about these sports.”

But he considers it his mission to make sure more people find out every year.

 

Stern Challenge

Quick’s involvement in the PVRC began with a connection through one of his sons, who is 24 now, but discovered rowing while attending a Springfield middle school that had a connection to the club.

“One day, he came home from school and said, ‘Mom, Dad, my school has rowing, and I’m doing it.’ My wife and I were like, ‘this sounds great. Who knew we even had that?’ And as he started to get involved, we as a family got more involved too, saying, ‘this is a wonderful thing. More people need to hear about this.’”

At the time, the PVRC was volunteer-driven, with very few full-time, paid employees, and Quick and his wife, Julie, became active in the organization. A few years later, in 2015, when the club was looking for an executive director, he was encouraged to throw his hat in, and was offered the job.

“I think having a positive first experience certainly sets people on a trajectory that we’d like to see them continue on. And kayaking is the easiest way for us to help people have a fun time.”

“It was a big family decision,” he recalled. “I had no nonprofit experience; I had corporate-world experience, but no one could question my passion for the organization, my passion for the sport, and my passion for seeing the thing grow. And my family was behind me because, when you move from the corporate world to the nonprofit world, you’ve got to make some sacrifices. But for us, it was a great opportunity.”

The club has also become an ideal opportunity for people of all ages to get in the water and learn a new pastime.

A dragon boater paints the head of her team’s boat

A dragon boater paints the head of her team’s boat.
(Photo by D. John McCarthy)

“Kayaking is a wonderful first experience for on-water recreation,” Quick said. “For so many of the kids and adults from Springfield who come down here for kayaking, this is their first experience with a boat on the water, ever. And we’re super proud of that. I think having a positive first experience certainly sets people on a trajectory that we’d like to see them continue on. And kayaking is the easiest way for us to help people have a fun time.”

Kayaking is offered on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays, and throughout this summer, kayak rental — normally $20 per hour — is free, thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation, though donations are accepted.

The club offers rowing programs, including one called SAFARI, which stands for Summer of Activity, Fun, and Rowing Instruction, which is for kids age 12 and up.

“It’s kind of like a summer camp, but only a couple hours a day,” Quick explained. “We get them out in boats, we teach them safety, we teach them instruction, and on a rainy day we’ll stay on land and play some games. It’s just a two-week program to get kids interested in rowing.

“From there, the sky’s the limit,” he added. “We have a competitive racing team comprised of a few middle schoolers and a bunch of high schoolers. They race in the spring and the fall athletic seasons, as well as in the summer. We travel as far away as Philadelphia to race other programs. It’s a really cool sport, and these kids learn things that no other sport is going to teach them. They say rowing is the ultimate team sport.”

Then, of course, there’s dragon boating.

“Dragon boating is a lot like canoeing, except you’re in a dragon boat with 19 other paddlers, plus someone steering and someone drumming. So it’s a party barge, but for canoeing,” Quick said. “And we can teach someone how to dragon boat pretty quickly. It’s a short learning curve, but it’s a lifelong pursuit toward perfection. We have a wonderful dragon boating team that meets in the evenings because it’s an adult program.”

The Springfield Dragon Boat Festival, which is free for spectators, draws hundreds of people to the riverfront each summer to watch teams race, while enjoying entertainment, food trucks, face painting, crafts, and other activities. Team registration (at pvriverfront.org) ends July 10, and this year’s event will be held Saturday, July 20.

“Anyone can do it. We had a group one year that was a family reunion,” Quick said, adding that teams of inexperienced dragon boaters — companies, organizations, families — compete in an all-neophyte division. “They get one practice session, and then we throw them in a boat.”

The other division is comprised of teams of people who compete in dragon boating as a sport. “They train all winter, they lift weights, they get strong, and then they hit the water and race each other. So you don’t have those teams competing against the community teams, but they are amazing to watch. The intensity of a race is incredible. They only last one minute — the fastest times on the race at our festival will be sub-60 seconds.”

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club offers rowing activities for all experience levels

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club offers rowing activities for all experience levels.

In addition to the races and family fun, Quick noted, “we have a cultural presentation because there’s a side of the festival that doesn’t get spoken about much, but we hope will get spoken about more, which is that a dragon boat festival is an important cultural holiday in China. It’s a celebration of patriotism, and of longevity, and of life. So there is a cultural aspect of the Dragon Boat Festival that is shared by our dear friends at the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts.”

 

Pulling Together

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club presents other events as well, including youth and adult regattas, and recently, for the second straight year, it hosted the 1.2-mile swimming portion of an Ironman triathlon, which also includes a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run.

“I was told that, last year, 40% of the participants were local, and I think, for 60% of the participants, it was their first time,” Quick said. “So let’s hope that trajectory continues. It’s certainly positive for the business community, for the economy here.”

He’s also gratified that the river’s health — and reputation — have come such a long way since the 1970s and 1980s, when raw sewage was regularly dumped into the water. These days, it’s much cleaner, he noted, and when sewage spills into the river after a storm, it’s generally safe to swim or row within a day or two.

“Every time there is a spill of sewage into the river, it gets reported. And that’s a wonderful piece of legislation — I think transparency is really important to improving quality. But we do have safety protocols, and we are aware of river quality. I give a lot of credit to the Connecticut River Conservancy for spending the money and providing the resources to do weekly water quality testing.”

Beyond enjoying a healthier river, Quick simply enjoys the tranquility of the pastime.

“When you’re on the water, even right here in Springfield, and you look to the shores, and all you see are green trees, and a few buildings poking over it, you could be in Vermont. It is amazing how tranquil the river is.

“I’ve been a lifelong athlete, but I haven’t been rowing for that long; I’ve been rowing for maybe 10 years. When I came to the sport with other men and women my age, I realized this is something we can do. You know, we don’t have to have been playing this sport since we were 4 years old in order to have a fun, competitive experience. So I realized, ‘hey, this is great.’”

It’s also a lesson in teamwork and pulling together toward a common goal, which is certainly a positive experience in these often-discordant times.

“If you are not moving in complete harmony with the person in front of behind you, you’re going to bump into each other. And that can lead to some aches and pains and bruises,” he added. “But if you work together, it is such a thrill. It is such a rewarding experience.”

Commercial Printing Special Coverage

Rolling with the Changes

Co-owners Greg Desrosiers (left) and Chris Desrosiers

Co-owners Greg Desrosiers (left) and Chris Desrosiers

 

Looking back on 2020 and 2021 — when business ground to a halt for many industries, then began to ramp back up way too slowly — Chris Derosiers is grateful that Hadley Printing Co. was able to weather the storm after clients of all kinds halted jobs and dramatically scaled back on the volume of orders.

And he’s equally grateful for 2022, a historically strong year for this more-than-125-year-old Holyoke mainstay, when much of that business returned.

But the lingering effects of the pandemic years — namely inflation that has impacted Hadley Printing’s own costs as well as the marketing budgets for many of its clients — has lent an unusual inconsistency to a flow of business that had normally been very predictable.

“You hear that whole cliche term in business, ‘pent-up demand,’ and that’s what 2022 was; it was a strong bounce-back year,” he said. “But from COVID, we launched right into inflation, and prices just started to escalate, and supply chains were not quite there. And that really forced pricing up everywhere. It was a challenge, not just in our industry, but every industry.”

Hadley’s business is split fairly evenly among the educational market, direct business, and ad agencies and designers, and all three client buckets have altered spending habits in this current inflationary era, he explained; both 2023 and 2024 started slow, but eventually picked up.

“We have months where it’s all hands on deck, and then we have months where we’re looking for work or we’re catching up on maintenance because there’s not enough work in the building.”

“Inflation has caught up with everyone, and I think people are just kind of waiting to see what develops in the year ahead,” Desrosiers said, adding that even the peak Great Recession years of 2008-09 had a lesser impact on business than the past few years because that crisis ended more quickly.

“We’ve still got great things happening here. The work that we do, 98% of it is repeat customers. We really have a great staff and a great group of customers that support us,” he told BusinessWest. “But inconsistent is the right word. We have months where it’s all hands on deck, and then we have months where we’re looking for work or we’re catching up on maintenance because there’s not enough work in the building. That’s the takeaway for me; that COVID time has created inconsistency in the market.”

It has also created an environment for shops to expand their reach. Vice President Greg Desrosiers, who co-owns the third-generation family business with his brother, noted that the company is competing with printers from as far away as Maine these days, which makes sense because Hadley has also broadened its reach.

“We’ve found ourselves having to branch out and go a little bit farther when it comes to acquiring new customers,” Chris noted. “We’re going a little bit more east on the pike, and we’re going a little bit more west, trying to supplement some of that inconsistency in our business model.

Hadley Printing

Hadley Printing has been in its current location on one of Holyoke’s historic canals for the past 48 years.

“That market in Worcester has been a good one for us because there are printers in Boston, but that Central Mass. area has fewer commercial printers,” he went on. “So we tend to do well in that market because we’re priced a little bit more economically than that Boston printer who’s also coming in.”

 

One-source Solution

Hadley Printing offers a range of services, including digital printing, offset printing, and mail services, to a wide variety of customers in New England. Chris Desrosiers noted that it’s been critical to keep investing in new technology, but also to never neglect the human touch and the value of strong service.

“We have constantly reinvested back into our business every year with new equipment to better serve our customers,” he said. “But the biggest thing that I’ve seen is that people are looking to get it done at a fair price, on time, and make sure they’ve got a good product.

“We have a lot of repeat customers here because we take a lot of pride in what we do and make sure that, when we deliver, we’re delivering on time, we’re delivering a superior product, and it’s at a fair price,” he went on. “There’s always going to be that customer that’s looking for a cheaper price, but usually you get what you pay for. Sometimes, if we have a customer who goes somewhere else for a lower price, they’ll do that once or twice, and then they end up back here. That’s not to say that we’re superior to everyone else, but we do put a high focus on quality and delivering for our customers.”

Another selling point, he said, is to be a one-stop shop for all types of jobs.

“Whether it’s something as simple as a business card or anything from small quantities to large quantities, we like to be that one-source solution so that we don’t have to say ‘no’ to a customer. So we have a lot of different equipment on the floor to be able to support all of our customer demands and requests, and it allows us to service the customer from top to bottom.”

Desrosiers noted that Hadley has two 40-inch Komori offset presses that service the higher-end, large-volume offset market, but the shop can also focus on the quick-turn, smaller-volume digital market. The business has also added mailing capabilities over the last five years.

“There’s always going to be that customer that’s looking for a cheaper price, but usually you get what you pay for. Sometimes, if we have a customer who goes somewhere else for a lower price, they’ll do that once or twice, and then they end up back here.”

“We found that, usually five times out of 10, the customer is looking to have a piece mailed as well. So that’s part of that whole one-source solution — a customer can come to us and have it printed and dropped in the mail stream; we can handle the whole process,” he explained. “We’ve also brought a lot of finishing techniques in-house. We do in-house foil stamping, embossing, and die cutting. That’s something that we’ve really expanded into in the past five years.”

As a result, he said, “for any account, no matter what they throw at us, nine times out of 10, we can say ‘yes, we do that.’ We do use outside vendors, but, decreasingly so in the last five to 10 years. We’ve really set up our company to be a one-source solution.”

 

Seeking Sustainability

Hadley Printing originated in South Hadley, but in 1976, it moved to its current location on Canal Street in Holyoke, a 32,000-square-foot former silk mill alongside one of the city’s historic canals.

“It’s been a good spot,” Desrosiers said. “Up until 2006, we were renting part of our space out, but we’ve now taken over the entire building, and we’re using every inch of it.”

Because of its location, at least 50% of its power comes from hydroelectric energy. “That’s obviously a selling point. A lot of customers are looking for that environmental factor, the green manufacturing. And we have two things going in our favor there: hydroelectric power, and we’re also an FSC-certified printer.”

Certification by the Forest Stewardship Council ensures that the products in a print job come from responsibly managed forests, and Hadley Printing, which has been certified since 2011, must undergo an audit each year to retain that mark.

“It’s about chain of custody, and it assures the end user that the product was manufactured in a sustainable, green way,” Desrosiers added. “For example, we just did the UMass commencement. We printed 20,000 programs, and on the back of that program, they’ve got the FSC logo that states that it was printed on FSC paper in a sustainable way. And then it’s got a message that encourages people to either recycle that program, archive it, or share it with others.

“That’s usually driven by the customer; what it takes is a customer that wants to print an FSC order. We do about 50 FSC orders a year; it’s just an added level of service that we provide. Most businesses out there are environmentally aware, and they want to print in a sustainable way.”

While the focus on sustainability has increased over the years, the number of commercial printers in the market has consolidated somewhat — though, as noted earlier, they’re competing for a shrinking, or at least more unpredictable, pool of jobs.

“It’s a very capital-intensive business as well,” Desrosiers said. “You constantly have to reinvest in equipment to be able to produce work in an economical way and be competitive. Some of the businesses that didn’t reinvest in new equipment on their floor have had challenges being able to meet customers’ demands.

“Putting a 40-inch commercial press on the floor is a big financial commitment, sure. And you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the volume of work to support it,” he added. “But once you do have that equipment, it allows you to produce work in a more efficient way. So it’s a double-edged sword. But not reinvesting in the business is where I think a lot of companies have fallen out of being competitive in this market.”

A more predictable market, as in the pre-pandemic days, would help all players in this field, but Desrosiers knows his industry not alone there.

“Whether it’s printing, whether it’s construction, whether it’s banking, everyone is just trying to ride the roller coaster,” he said. “But overall, we’re doing well. We’re adapting to those changes. And I think we’re well-positioned in this market going forward.”

Cover Story Features

Staying True to Their Routes

 

Melissa and Peter A. Picknelly (far left and right) with fourth-generation company leaders

Melissa and Peter A. Picknelly (far left and right) with fourth-generation company leaders Lauryn Picknelly-DuBois, Alyssa Picknelly-Dube, and Peter B. Picknelly. (Staff Photo)

The past five years have brought a raft of challeges to the world of tourism and transportation.

The biggest one? Survival.

“The worldwide pandemic was tough on our industry, and many other industries,” Peter A. Picknelly, chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines, told BusinessWest. “For three years, we had the government using our tax dollars to tell people not to use our service.”

There’s a bit of edge in his voice as he brings up topics like shutting down travel, and then restrictions like social distancing that accompanied its gradual return.

“But we survived, and we’re thriving now. We’ve invested $25 million in new equipment in the last couple of years. We’re modernizing our fleet, which is what our consumer wants; they want a nice, clean, modern bus. And we’re continuing to expand our route structure,” he said, noting that Peter Pan serves about 100 locations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

“We listen to our customers — where they want to go — and we expand where it makes sense. We recently expanded to Newark, New Jersey, and a suburb right outside of Baltimore called White Marsh. And we’ve added service on Cape Cod. We’re always looking at new areas.”

But the company is also looking to the future in other ways, most notably some emerging leadership from the fourth generation of this family business launched by Picknelly’s grandfather in 1933.

“You just don’t see workers commuting to work, and if they do, they’re not working Mondays and Fridays. I mean, the full-time office worker is just not rebounding. It’s better than it was, and it will eventually come back, I think, but some businesses are just going to thrive on people that work remotely.”

“I kind of grew up just learning from him and wanting to work here,” said Peter B. Picknelly, one of three children of Peter A. and Melissa Picknelly (the company’s vice president) now working at Peter Pan. A fourth is still in college and mulling career goals.

“I had no doubt in my mind that this is what I wanted to do,” added the younger Peter, who is the company’s director of Safety & Security. “I grew up going to school and trying to better myself so I could then come into the business. That’s what I always wanted to do.”

That’s a story his father can relate to. “I’m the third generation; Peter and his sisters are the fourth,” he said. “But I never forced them into it. When I grew up, some kids wanted to be baseball players or football players. All I wanted to do was follow my father and grandfather. And I can’t tell you how proud I am that our kids chose to do that — but it was their decision.”

Peter A. Picknelly

Peter A. Picknelly, standing before some portraits of his predecessors, says there are very few family-owned bus companies in the U.S. today.
Staff Photo

Other fourth-generation leaders at Peter Pan include Lauryn Picknelly-DuBois, who was promoted two years ago to controller, and Alyssa Picknelly-Dube, who is involved with the Maintenance division. (A fourth child is still in college and mulling career goals.)

“There are very few family-operated bus companies in the United States anymore,” their father said. “Here, the fourth generation is already set, and they’re still in their 20s. I think it assures our employees and our customers that we will be around for a long time. They are doing an amazing job.”

 

All Aboard

They’re doing it at a time when public-transportation demographics might be changing, but bus travel clearly remains important.

Peter Pan specializes in travel that’s longer than a typical work commute, but within 200 miles — a distance that can be covered as quickly as flying, once the airport time is factored in, the senior Picknelly explained.

These days, most travelers are between 18 and 35 years old or over 50, he added. “They may have an automobile, but the bus is more affordable. We go city center to city center. And parking can be extremely expensive in some areas, and hard to find.”

He added that the pandemic hit the work-commuter customer base hard, and it’s still struggling, at around 60% of pre-pandemic volume.

“You just don’t see workers commuting to work, and if they do, they’re not working Mondays and Fridays. I mean, the full-time office worker is just not rebounding. It’s better than it was, and it will eventually come back, I think, but some businesses are just going to thrive on people that work remotely.”

That said, the longer-distance service — say, Boston to New York or New York to Philadelphia — is booming, especially as gas prices have remained high and cities have gone to congestion pricing.

And gas prices do make a difference, he added. “You can instantly see it when gas prices go up. Our cost of operation goes up when fuel goes up — it’s our third-largest cost. But it’s outweighed by the fact that more people seek an alternative. When fuel hits $3, $4 a gallon, you can see an instant surge.”

That said, today’s buses are much more fuel-efficient, Picknelly said, and feature an anti-idling function that shuts them off when they idle at a gate or while parked for more than five minutes (but not while in traffic).

“There are situations when the idling won’t turn off — say it’s middle of winter and it’s freezing, and you want to heat up a little bit. That will override the five-minute idle shutdown,” Peter B. Picknelly said. “Same thing if it’s too hot — to keep the bus cool, it’ll override it.”

Other features of a modern bus include better-designed seats, video and Wi-Fi, and cameras that capture a 360-degree view of the bus for safety purposes.

Peter B. Picknelly

Peter B. Picknelly, director of Safety & Security, is one of three fourth-generation family members so far to have chosen Peter Pan as a career.
Staff Photo

As for those who drive the buses — the current fleet is about 200 vehicles — the younger Picknelly said the workforce crunch was severe a couple of years ago, but hiring has picked up considerably since. “We get a lot of applications every single day, so we’re able to be a little bit more picky when it comes to the driver force.”

His father noted that hiring is easier in some areas than in others. “We’re constantly hiring. But while Cape Cod and Boston are difficult locations, with our driver forces in New York and D.C., we have plenty of applications.”

Peter Pan has been receiving more applications these days from younger people, and the company has brought on employees in the process of getting their commercial driver’s license, and even reimbursed them for it.

“It’s a very good job if you like to drive and you want to deal with people,” Picknelly said. “Our drivers choose what routes they want to operate and when they want to work. Our position is, if you like doing what you want to do, you’re going to do a better job.

“But you’ve got to like to drive, and you’ve got to like to deal with people,” he added. “We can train just about anybody to drive a bus. But you can’t train someone to have good customer-service skills. And wanting to drive is just something you’ve got to have a passion for. Because that’s what we do.”

The younger Picknelly agreed. “It’s good getting these young people on board because most of the time they’re pretty loyal, and they want to stick with the company for a long time. We have people who have been here for so long because they came on when they were younger and were extremely loyal to the company, and that’s what we’re hoping to get now.”

 

Shifting Gears

Looking to the future, Peter Pan continues to find more ways to be the transportation mode of choice for its customers, especially younger riders, and that means making their travel plans easier.

To that end, the company recently announced a new strategic partnership with Trailways, extending its network of destinations, as well as a strategic alliance with Amtrak.

“So you can take a train somewhere, and then they’ll connect to a bus, and we can take you right to the city center,” Peter A. Picknelly said, and from there, rideshares can take over. “We’re also forming alliances with Ubers and Lyfts where you can coordinate being picked up wherever we drop you off, and instantly getting in an Uber and taking it to your final destination. Because of this coordination, more and more people are saying they don’t need to drive, particularly young people that live in the big city.”

“We can train just about anybody to drive a bus. But you can’t train someone to have good customer-service skills. And wanting to drive is just something you’ve got to have a passion for.”

Statistics bear that trend out. Last year, driver’s license applications actually went down, reversing a 50-year upward trend, he noted.

“It’s so convenient. If you go to Europe, taking public transportation is always involved, and you’re seeing more of that here. It’s way more convenient, and with the amenities in the vehicle, you can work or entertain yourself while you’re traveling. You can’t do that when you’re driving.”

Peter Pan also maintains a model of managing terminals — another one of Peter B. Picknelly’s roles — in its destination cities, with amenities like food, restrooms, a service counter, and a pickup area, instead of the model of picking up and dropping off on unattended corners.

“We don’t like picking up on a street corner like some of these other bus companies,” Peter B. added. “We like going into a terminal or a specific designated area, so they can have that one-on-one personal experience with our employees if they have an issue or have any questions or concerns. We’re a customer-driven business, so we like pleasing the customers.”

About 15% of Peter Pan’s business, meanwhile, is charter service to destinations not on the regular route plan.

“Charters are very big, and in the summer, it picks up a lot. There are people who go out to Saratoga Race Course on the weekend; that’s a very popular place. We’ll take them wherever.”

One shift that occurred over the pandemic years has been a move toward online booking, his father added.

“Prior to COVID, about 50% of our riders would buy their ticket a half-hour before departure, in person. Now, 90% of our sales now are in advance. Most people are booking within three days of their trip, online.”

But, as mentioned up top, the biggest story of the pandemic for Peter Pan was … well, simply surviving it, and coming out stronger on the other side, with plans for the future and a band of 20-something Picknellys ready to evolve into stronger leadership roles.

“We’re really proud of all of our staff,” their father said. “Listen, 40% of all bus companies didn’t make it through the pandemic. We did, and we’re thriving. We’ve had to change our focus on longer-distance trips, less commuter-related, more group travel, but we’re doing well.”

Peter B. Picknelly agreed. “In hindsight, COVID was horrible, but it made us think about how we could run things differently here, and it’s been beneficial.”

Environment and Engineering Special Coverage

Engineering a Youth Movement

Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun.

Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun.

 

Ashley Sullivan can think of plenty of reasons why someone might want to go into engineering.

“It is a very rewarding field where you get to see your work benefit your family and your community,” the president and CEO of Springfield-based O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun said. “And you’re always going to need civil engineers, so there’s job protection there. There’s so much opportunity in the field, whether you want to go into construction or consulting or the regulatory side. There’s a lot of different options, and each individual can find what’s right for them.”

That said, the industry is facing the same headwinds seen in other fields these days, ranging from construction to manufacturing to insurance: retirements outpacing the number of young people coming on board.

“We’ve had a lot of retirements; as quick as I hire, we have people retire or leave the industry,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to grow, we’re trying to hire, and we make progress one year, and then a few months later, we might fall back. We’re trying to hire about five more by the end of the year, but, just like with everybody else, it’s been very challenging.

“Previously, being a smaller, local firm, we didn’t necessarily compete with the larger firms or state agencies because if somebody liked a small firm, they liked a small firm, versus a larger firm. Now we’re finding we’re going up against those agencies and larger firms,” she went on. “I’m not sure if that’s because of the hybrid or remote potential. We’ve really focused on the ones that want to work near where they live, but now it’s getting hard to do that. There are also a lot of competitive salaries out there, so we’ve had to adjust to that. It’s definitely a challenge.”

Westfield-based Tighe & Bond is at the other end of the hiring spectrum, boasting about 600 employees at 17 locations across the Northeast. The firm is growing significantly at a time when a surge of federal funding — from the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 to the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS Act of 2022 — is creating plenty of opportunity for civil-engineering firms.

“They’re requiring technical talent throughout the country to do all the work that’s coming,” President and CEO Bob Belitz said, noting that the firm has more employees dedicated to recruiting and onboarding than in the past. “We’ve made an investment in that function because it’s such a big part of our business.”

He added that the firm’s broad footprint across the Northeast makes it easier to recruit and retain talent. “Before, if somebody was working for us and got married and moved to New Hampshire, Maine, or New York, they might have to leave us to go work for somebody else because we didn’t have offices there. Now we do. From a growth perspective, it helps to be able to transfer you among other offices.”

Bob Belitz

Bob Belitz says work opportunities for engineering firms are high right now, and so is the need to attract new talent.
Staff Photo

But with some turnover to be expected in a company this size, and with a goal of growing both organically and through acquisitions, Tighe & Bond needs to onboard more than 100 new employees each year, and doing so successfully requires it to stand out from its competitors in a number of ways, Belitz said, from its employee-ownership model to hybrid work schedules; from a strong benefits program to a broad mix of projects.

Sullivan said communicating the culture of a company to job seekers is also critical.

“When we’ve had conversations where we effectively communicate that, people are very interested in working here,” she said, adding that another factor is communicating a clear path to career advancement.

“One of the things I think is so great about engineering — particularly about civil engineering or the environmental engineering that we do — is that we make our community better.”

“I am looking for future business partners. You’re working with the people that are managing the business, you’re getting day-to-day experience in that, and there’s real, clear potential for somebody to be a stockholder, be on the board of directors, and guide the company sooner than they might at a larger company. We can give examples of that. So that’s something that we try to explain. We feel that, if we’re effective in communicating that, we’ll find the right people.”

 

Mission Driven

As a civil engineer teaching at a women’s liberal-arts college, Glenn Ellis, a professor of Engineering at Smith College, said his students often come to the field from a specific mindset — namely, social impact.

“The number-one thing I hear from students is they want to do some good for the world, to make the world a better place,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re very interested in sustainability. That’s the number-one draw for many students as an engineer. And you can really make an impact on all sorts of things.”

That line of thinking resonates with Sullivan. “One of the things I think is so great about engineering — particularly about civil engineering or the environmental engineering that we do — is that we make our community better,” she said. “We’re an important part of that, and you can see it.”

Ellis noted that the industry code of ethics now includes sustainability as a key tenet, which dovetails with what his students are demanding. But he also said young people are drawn to the sheer diversity of engineering and how broadly it impacts the world.

“The more young people know what an engineer is, the more they’re interested in it. Studies show that the reason why way fewer women than men are engineers is not because women leave these programs at a higher rate than men; they leave at the same rate. It’s that they don’t go into engineering programs to begin with.”

And the time to start capturing their interest, he added — not just for engineering but for all STEM fields, where women have been historically underrepresented — is not college or even high school, but middle school.

“I say to a lot of young people, ‘you know, everything you can see has been designed by engineers. Engineers literally designed the entire world.’”

“I think that’s the time to develop a STEM identity. When you ask kids in middle school if they want to be engineers, they say, ‘I don’t know what that is,’ or ‘that’s really boring; you just work on pipes and buildings.’”

Ellis spoke with one young girl who said she wasn’t interested in engineering, but she wanted to work in the medical realm, helping to design artificial limbs that will help people.

“I said, ‘that’s engineering — that’s bioengineering.’ Young people don’t know what engineering is, so you need to introduce them at a young age, show them that it’s not just building bridges and wearing hardhats. This is a creative profession, a collaborative profession. If you want to change the world, this is the place to do it.”

And employers know talented young engineers have options in choosing where to make their mark, so recruitment, onboarding, and benefits are all critical.

“When we think about our benefit programs, we need to think about things that are important to the younger generations,” Belitz noted, and these run the gamut at Tighe & Bond from student-loan assistance to wellness programs to pet insurance, but also include a strong focus on mentorship, learning, and professional-development opportunities, including the addition of a female mentoring program last year.

“We’re also always giving back to our communities, and we try to talk about that as much as we can when we’re recruiting people,” he went on. “Hopefully that total package, along with the work that we have in the backlog, is attractive to the younger and mid-career people, who are the hardest ones to retain.”

O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun, while a much smaller firm, is also in a growth mode.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and the clients need us to get their work done,” Sullivan said, adding that the industry is facing a bit of an experience gap as veterans retire and young engineers replace them.

“We knew this was coming, so you have to invest in your people and make sure that you’re narrowing that gap continuously,” she told BusinessWest. “One of the things that we’ve done — and that I continue to do — is really invest back in people, try to give them the skills and get them the training.

“And not just the technical training, but also business development, project management, and entrepreneurial skills that get you even further,” she went on. “That’s something that I knew I had to do five years ago, and I’ve continued to do that. We just finished a big team training about presentation skills, whether in a small meeting or a large group, but it was also about team building, communication, and all that.”

 

Making a Difference

Ellis said Smith has been graduating a few dozen engineers each year, and they’re entering a market that’s tilted somewhat to job seekers.

Conversely, for employers, “it’s very challenging,” Sullivan said. “It’s just really hard to find people right now. We’ve had some people with a verbal acceptance, and then a few weeks later, they get a counteroffer and stay where they are.”

Meanwhile, Ellis hopes more young people — particularly young women — get the message early on that this is a meaningful, impactful career with plenty of opportunity.

“Women are definitely more attracted to engineering when they can be involved in messy, complex societal issues, which actually is what engineering is all about. It’s all about taking math and science and solving problems for society,” he said.

“I say to a lot of young people, ‘you know, everything you can see has been designed by engineers. Engineers literally designed the entire world. You can go into it and move up in the world and make a difference.’”

Special Coverage Workforce Development

Culture Shift

Nicole Polite, CEO of the MH Group. (Staff Photo)

 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion — commonly known as DEI — has become a well-recognized expression in the world of employment, human resources, and executive suites.

But Nicole Polite prefers the term DEIB, which incorporates the word belonging, and there’s a reason for that.

“The belonging factor is making sure that your employees feel like they’re part of a community or environment where they all feel connected, regardless of race, color, creed, and everything else,” said Polite, CEO of the MH Group, which provides a range of staffing services to client employers. “I’m glad belonging is being emphasized; I believe that’s a key factor. Because if you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, then it’s not a good space for you.”

While the term DEI has become politicized in some corners, Polite doesn’t see the concepts behind it fading in importance.

“We’re not going to move away from it. The world has changed so radically,” she said. “And the employees are the ones driving it. They’re the ones asking, ‘how are you supporting me? How do I belong here? What are the steps you’ve been taking to make sure that there’s representation here?’”

John Henderson, director of Learning and Development at the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast (EANE), agrees.

“In this politically and socially divisive world, how do we create a culture where people feel valued? That stems from the diversity, equity, and inclusion piece,” he said, before explaining what each of those terms means for EANE.

“As employees are more educated, they’re more authentic with themselves. And that creates a culture of self-value for employees, a stronger sense of belonging, which makes it easier for them to be fully engaged with the workforce.”

Specifically, he explained, diversity is about representation — not only in terms of race and gender, but in backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences.

Then, “when you look at equity, it’s about recognition — recognizing what people need in order to be successful. As a business, what do my people need in order to be successful? And what you need and what I need might be totally different. That’s why equity is so important.”

Inclusion, meanwhile, is about the actions a business takes to make people feel like they’re included.

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty says efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive workplace have to start at the top.
Staff Photo

“All three of those really create a sense of belonging. So it’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, and then you have the B, the belonging piece,” Henderson explained. “If I feel valued, if I feel trusted, if I feel I can be my authentic self at work, I feel like I belong.”

It’s a message more and more companies seem to be getting — and even reaching out for help in implementing, he added. “We do get a lot of calls and do trainings around that piece. We want people to understand that differences bring creativity and increased productivity. And when you foster a culture of respect and people feel that they belong, it increases retention rates, and it makes it easier to recruit people.”

Monson Savings Bank President Dan Moriarty has been actively been involved in DEI strategy for some time, not only at his own institution, but his past co-leadership of an executive council established by the Massachusetts Bankers Assoc. to promote DEI efforts across member institutions.

Adopting some best practices recommended by Mass Bankers, Monson Savings has created a DEI commitment statement, developed and implemented a DEI program that continues to evolve, provided DEI training to board members and employees, identified and monitored key performance metrics, and conducted periodic self-assessments of the program.

In addition, he said, the bank has reviewed numerous documents, including its strategic plan, along with communications, processes, and facilities, to ensure that potential barriers are identified and removed and that DEI expectations are reflected, while also conducting outreach and expanding the bank’s relationships with key community members and organizations.

John Henderson

John Henderson says businesses increasingly want to create a culture where people feel valued.
Staff Photo

“We’ve developed a program which is a lot about education and training, from board members to senior management to the entire staff,” Moriarty said, adding that the bank conducted an employee summit a few weeks ago to discuss topics aroud DEI that some might not be familiar with, and explaining the reasons why they’re important.

“As employees are more educated, they’re more authentic with themselves. And that creates a culture of self-value for employees, a stronger sense of belonging, which makes it easier for them to be fully engaged with the workforce,” he added. “If they feel valued, feel like they belong, they’ll be better employees and better people. I just want to enhance those communications and make DEI more transparent, both internally and externally.”

 

Welcomed, Valued, and Heard

Jackson Davis, who heads up the DEI program for MassMutual, said that organization’s strategy is focused on creating an environment that is equitable and inclusive for its employees, customers, business partners, and the communities it serves.

“When it comes to our workforce, we strive to create teams that reflect our customers and communities, fostering an environment where all employees are welcomed, valued, and heard,” Davis explained. “To do this, we’ve integrated DEI into all that we do, taking specific actions like monitoring and being transparent about our progress in increasing the overall diversity of our workforce, encouraging both a diverse candidate pool and interview panel for open positions, and providing employee benefits and supports that will help us attract and retain a diverse workforce.”

These benefits include a variety of things, from eight employee business resource groups to holistic, flexible benefits that are designed to meet the diverse, evolving needs of employees. And that investment in DEI isn’t just the right thing to do, he added; it pays off in many ways from a business perspective.

“Having a diverse workforce is important because it brings together different perspectives, which in turn can help us solve problems faster, innovate with more success, and go above and beyond for our customers in order to deliver them the best possible experience.”

“Having a diverse workforce is important because it brings together different perspectives, which in turn can help us solve problems faster, innovate with more success, and go above and beyond for our customers in order to deliver them the best possible experience,” Davis noted. “From a customer perspective, having a diverse and inclusive workforce allows us to better understand and meet the needs of those we serve.”

Bob Belitz, president and CEO of Tighe & Bond (see related story on page 20), agreed, noting that the civil-engineering firm’s roster of projects is so broad and affects so many different communities and demographics that it’s important to have team with backgrounds and experiences that are equally varied.

“I think that makes a difference, and we’re really committed to that because of the project portfolio we have,” he said. “We’re also trying to expand the schools that we recruit from, expanding our reach to produce more talent.”

A company that wants to be truly diverse may approach its strategy through many goals, Polite said, from training employees to recognize and prevent unconscious bias in their actions and comments to using gender-neutral language in outward communication, to making sure job postings and promotion opportunities reflect a commitment to diversity.

That doesn’t mean hiring based on checking demographic boxes, she added, but it may mean considering where and how employees are recruited — such as recruiting from a broader range of colleges or partnering with cultural organizations in the community or reaching out to staffing agencies that specialize in DEI.

“I also love it when I see employers have supplier diversity goals,” Polite said. “That tells an employee that they’re committed to diversity; that really shows inclusiveness as a organization. And that makes you, as a minority or someone from a different culture, feel more relaxed. It’s like, ‘OK, there is some commitment here.’ But if you don’t have those types of mechanisms set up, like how do you convey that to the job seeker? How do you convey that to your organization?”

 

Leading by Example

The answer to that question takes many forms, Polite said, but it has to begin at the top.

“You’ve got to start on the leadership level. Starting from the bottom up doesn’t typically work; you have to start from the top down. And you have to have some accountability with your initiatives, too.”

There, she paused for a moment to add that she’s trying to stay away from the word ‘initiatives’ when she talks to clients because it lacks a key sense of permanence.

“We’re trying to weave it into the employer mission, what they do every day. Initiatives change all the time, correct? So we want to make sure we’re not just doing initiatives; what can we can do on a daily basis?”

Henderson also spoke to the importance of executive leadership in crafting effective DEI strategies.

“We know it increases productivity, it increases employee engagement, it increases retention, and it makes it easier to recruit,” he said. “But some companies don’t know where to start; they’ll say to the HR person, ‘hey, create a DEI plan and implement it.’ And then the HR person has that responsibility.

“But it really has to come from the leadership,” he went on. “If the leadership is not a champion for any initiative, including DEI, it’s not going to stick. You can’t change the culture from the middle up or the bottom up. It has to come from leadership. When a leadership team decides it wants to focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, that’s a step in the right direction because it has to come from the top, not the middle.”

Moriarty agreed. “It has to start at the top. I had to start by providing leadership, advocating, training for DEI, and actively trying to foster a bank culture where we promote and support an environment where everyone feels valued and respected and has a strong sense of belonging. The goal is to have everyone be their authentic self at work.”

As Polite noted, it’s something companies of all types and sizes are taking seriously.

“I think employers are more committed than they’ve ever been. Even now, we still get a lot of requests for DEI training,” she said, adding quickly that the result must go beyond mere lip service.

“It still goes back to the commitment. As the leader of an organization, you have to draw the line and say, ‘this is what I’m going to commit to.’ A lot of employers have started to engage the topic of diversity and discrimination, and others have been too scared to touch it — not because they don’t believe in it, but they don’t want to offend, and they don’t know how to approach it.”

She recommends connecting with a consultant on hard questions — and, importantly, conducting internal surveys to gauge the workplace culture and reactions to any changes.

After all, Moriarty said, by creating a workplace where all feel welcome, the bank should become a more attractive employer for people from a variety of backgrounds.

“We’re fostering that culture where we can inspire our existing workforce, but also attract the diversity of experience from outside our walls, so they say, ‘hey, Monson Savings Bank is committed. They talk the talk and walk the walk.’”

The end goal, he noted, is a more diverse workplace, a more diverse vendor profile, and a more diverse customer base. “It’s definitely an ongoing journey along the path to do what’s right.”

Healthcare News

Earning and Learning

Dawn DiStefano, seen here with a group of Square One kids

Dawn DiStefano, seen here with a group of Square One kids, says early education isn’t a career for everyone, but those with the right mindset and heart for it will find robust opportunities there.

Dawn DiStefano says early education is “not a career path for the faint of heart,” or something to just settle on.

But for the right person, she added, it can be highly rewarding.

“You’ve got to have the interest and skills and tenacity and heart to want to work with young children. You can’t be, ‘there’s nothing else I want to do, so I’ll try my hand in childcare,’” said DiStefano, president and CEO of Square One, quickly adding that someone with those qualities she mentioned will find a field bursting with opportunity.

“If people don’t want to work in the early-education and childcare space, it prohibits others from going to work,” she said. “Businesses are hiring, and people want to go to work, but they need a place for their children to be.”

Recognizing challenges in the early-education space, the state established what’s known as the Early Education and Child Care Task Force earlier this year, focusing on the essential role childcare plays in driving the state’s economy and competitiveness — and, for that matter, the health and well-being of its families.

“Affordable, accessible, and quality childcare is a significant infrastructure needed in Massachusetts, and an imperative to drive the state’s economic competitiveness,” Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Lauren Jones said when the program was announced. “I look forward to working with my colleagues across government and with business and community partners to build a strong pipeline of early childhood educators and also enhance the system to encourage our untapped talent to fully participate in our workforce.”

“If people don’t want to work in the early-education and childcare space, it prohibits others from going to work. Businesses are hiring, and people want to go to work, but they need a place for their children to be.”

The pipeline has been solid at Square One, DiStefano said.

“Why do people want to work here? It’s not like our kids are any easier than other kids; they’re all children. But a lot of it has to do with the culture and environment at Square One. We invest in you early on, whether as a young person, just starting out in your career, or as an older adult with a midlife change of heart.”

While entry-level wages aren’t the main draw in any early-education setting, she added, Square One lays out the long-term picture. “We say, ‘here’s the career pathway. Here’s what it looks like, and we’ll be flexible with your schedule, if you want to take advantage of free classes at HCC and STCC.’”

Indeed, in recent years, the state has been actively investing in early education in a number of ways, including free programs at its 15 community colleges through the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care’s (EEC) Career Pathways Grant.

One of those, the Family Childcare Institute at Springfield Technical Community College, is currently running June 3 through July 9.

“This is a three-course bundle that will help new family childcare providers get licensed and learn how to run a childcare program in their home,” said Nancy Ward, Career Pathways Grant and Activity director at STCC. “We see this as a great opportunity for anyone who wants to open their own home-based childcare center.”

Christopher Thuot, vice president of Academic Affairs at STCC, added that such programs reduce barriers to help people in the community obtain an education. “The flexibility of the program accommodates individuals with varying schedules and commitments.”

 

State of Urgency

Meanwhile, applications for the state’s Early Childhood Educators scholarship are now open for the 2024-25 academic year. This scholarship is available for educators who work at programs licensed and/or funded by the EEC, including center-based, family childcare, and out-of-school-time programs.

And for the first time, the scholarship is available for staff who work at residential programs licensed by the EEC. The application process has also been simplified, and eligible majors have been expanded to better support career pathways for out-of-school-time educators.

“We know that far too many parents find it difficult to return to the workforce because of the high cost of childcare, and providers are facing the difficult decision between continuing in the profession they love or leaving for a higher-paid career.”

“Our administration is fully committed to supporting and expanding the early-education and care workforce. When programs have high-quality educators, they can offer better care to even more families,” Gov. Maura Healey said. “I know these important changes to the Early Childhood Educators scholarship will strengthen our supports for our hardworking afterschool educators and residential program staff, positively reinforcing a pipeline of high-quality early-education professionals.”

More than 500 scholarships were awarded for the 2023-24 academic year, an increase over the number awarded in the previous year​. As of this year, the scholarship now covers additional majors, including human services, psychology, social work, elementary education, and special education.

“Our Early Childhood Educators scholarship supports educators and program leaders to advance their careers and ensure that our youngest learners are receiving the highest-quality education they deserve, setting them up for school and lifetime success,” Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler said. “I am grateful to our departments of Early Education and Care and Higher Education for their partnership and collaboration with early educators and community partners in making this scholarship even better, reflecting current higher-education pathways and expanding access in a simpler way.”

As noted earlier, the state has also established the Early Education and Child Care Task Force, recognizing the role childcare plays in driving the state’s economy and competitiveness — at a time when keeping residents and businesses from fleeing the Commonwealth, for reasons ranging from housing to cost of living, has become a significant concern.

“If you support folks, get them into the industry by paying them to learn, they’ll probably be more motivated to work for you full-time as an employee. And in our field, we are desperate to strengthen our workforce.”

“We know that far too many parents find it difficult to return to the workforce because of the high cost of childcare, and providers are facing the difficult decision between continuing in the profession they love or leaving for a higher-paid career,” Healey said. “Childcare is central to the success of our entire state — for affordability, education, workforce, equity, and our economic potential — and together we are taking important steps toward solutions.”

The Early Education and Child Care Task Force will engage with industry and business leaders, organized labor, health-services stakeholders, housing and planning experts, working parents and caregivers, and childcare providers and experts in order to craft recommendations aligned with the following five policy objectives:

• Surveying practices of other states in reducing costs, increasing capacity, and improving quality of childcare providers and making recommendations for how such practices could be adopted in Massachusetts;

• Assessing how better coordination among state agencies could support families in accessing childcare that meets their needs, including through technology improvements;

• Identifying resources for building capacity and increasing affordability in the state’s mixed-delivery childcare system, including from the federal government, the philanthropic community, and employers, which may include exploring incentives for employers to assist employees with child care;

• Identifying strategies to recruit, train, upskill, and retain members of the childcare workforce, including by expanding apprenticeship initiatives, higher-education programs, and training opportunities; and

• Reviewing existing assets to identify potential locations to establish center-based care.

“Childcare and early education are critical enablers for economic growth in Massachusetts,” Secretary of Economic Development Yvonne Hao said. “Through this task force, the administration will take a whole-of-government approach to ensure that the state has equitable childcare solutions to meet the needs of the workforce and economy, making Massachusetts the best place to raise a family, grow a business, and succeed in a fulfilling career.”

 

Thinking Outside the Box

DiStefano said she’s excited about a new, state-level push for an apprenticeship model for early education, similar to buiding trades like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, and HVAC, where young people are paid to gain experience as they learn.

“People need to work and earn a living. People do not want to go to a four-year college and come out with debt for a $17-an-hour job. And we know our industry doesn’t start off very strong with hourly wage,” she noted. “So you’ve got to be creative. I’m excited about this potential apprenticeship model, where you’re paid to learn.

“It’s a balance, much like in other trades, like plumbing or electricity, where you go to work and you’re also training in the classroom to strengthen your formal education. And you’re getting paid to do all that, whether it’s by the business community or the philanthropic community or in a government-supported way.

“If you support folks, get them into the industry by paying them to learn, they’ll probably be more motivated to work for you full-time as an employee,” she went on. “And in our field, we are desperate to strengthen our workforce.”

What seems to be emerging, DiStefano said, is a realization that statewide investments in early education will pay off exponentially in the broader economy, allowing parents to work and businesses to retain talent.

And whether it’s through expanded scholarships, free community-college programs, or innovative apprenticeship initiatives, the impact is the same: more people able to work, learn, and generate income while doing it.

“There’s no better selling point,” she told BusinessWest. “The field of childcare and early learning is looking at the model of the trades and saying, ‘maybe we can do that.’ So I’m excited about the changes in our workforce development. This is an exciting moment to be in this field.”

Building Trades Special Coverage

Energy for Change

Professor William Halloran teaches HVAC students at STCC.

Professor William Halloran teaches HVAC students at STCC.

Dr. Fahad Khan said the HVAC program at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) has been around since the 1960s.

“Many in the field around here went to STCC at some point,” said Khan, a professor in the college’s Engineering department. “It’s a legacy program.”

It’s also a program that has seen plenty of change and evolution over the years — which has only accelerated in the past decade or so.

Take, for example, an associate degree added in 2019 that focuses on building automation and control systems. Or advances in fuel, such as the emergence of biodiesel.

“Things have evolved a lot since the 1970s; boilers have improved in efficiency,” Khan said. “We still have to use combustion; some people hope that, in the next 10 years, we won’t need to use combustion for heat, but that’s probably too optimistic.”

But changes are already emerging, said Scott Cernak, owner of Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing in Haydenville.

“The big change in the past few years is the initiative to convert people from fossil fuels to heat-pump technology, or anything electric-driven.”

“The big change in the past few years is the initiative to convert people from fossil fuels to heat-pump technology, or anything electric-driven,” Cernak said, citing a broad push among government leaders in Massachusetts to move toward decarbonization through climate-technology investments and programs like Mass Save.

“People who have the money and care about the environment enough to do it are going to heat pumps — whole-house conversions, partial conversions, a lot of it driven by Mass Save rebates and tax incentives as well. It’s been about a decade-long push, but especially strong over the last two to three years.”

A heat-pump conversion can cost to to three times more up front than replacing one fossil-fuel system with another, he noted, which is why those rebates and incentives are so critical. And the Mass Save program recently committed to a three-year plan in which rebates will not decrease.

“There’s been a lot of training for our sales and estimation staff, manufacturer trainings, climate-initiative trainings from Mass Save,” Cernak added.

In addition, “it’s been a different mindset for people heating their homes. With fossil fuels, it’s very easy to make heat, it’s very efficient, and people feel that warmth right away. Heat pumps are different. You’re harnessing electricity through the heat-pump system, and the heat isn’t as profound as the fossil-fuel heat. So there’s a level of adjustment for the homeowner. And you also need to make sure the house has good-enough infrastructure to support it.”

Scott Cernak

Scott Cernak says a focus on indoor air quality and a move away from carbonization (in the case of heat pumps) are two major ongoing trends in the HVAC world.

While heat pumps have replaced carbon fuels in many residential and commercial systems, Khan said, the efficiency remains a work in progress.

“They have improved in terms of coefficient of performance, with how much heat you can extract from the outside to the inside. That varies depending on the temperature outside,” he added, explaining that, at very low temperatures, heating costs can rise dramatically. “With heat pumps, you can end up paying a lot of money between December and February.”

One way to combat that, he added, is with water-to-air geothermal heat-pump systems that draw on the stable temperature of the earth’s ground or water sources to provide efficient heating and cooling.

The other big shift in the HVAC world in recent years has been an emphasis on indoor air quality, which was certainly accelerated during the COVID years, but had taken root even before then, Cernak said.

“Indoor air quality has become a focal point in our business as well. A lot of people with allergies and sensitivities have embraced air scrubbers or electronic air cleaners because of all the ancillary benefits. They do kill bacteria and viruses, such as coronavirus. It won’t prevent you from getting sick out in the wild, but it can help you in your own home.”

“These guys are not going to be outsourced anytime soon. You’re not going to see a robot come into the house; somebody has to do the work. An engineer can be outsourced, but who’s going to install and cut metal and lay down the ductwork and do the wiring? Somebody has to do it.”

While technologies continue to advance, Khan said, the state is also focusing on incentives for weatherizing houses, making them more efficient in terms of heat loss and gain. “We’ll still rely on combustion, at least for the next 10 years.”

 

Priming the Pipeline

With business split about 75% residential and 25% commercial and industrial, Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing handles all aspects of that name, from installation and retrofitting to new construction and service, Cernak said. “We’ve had a steady incline since our inception in 2020 — we’ve tripled our sales and doubled our workforce.”

That employee growth is impressive in itself, at a time when all building trades are struggling with retention as retirements outpace new talent in the pipeline.

“We’ve seen challenges, especially at first. But we have a strong training program,” Cernak said. “It’s been relatively easy to hire young talent coming up from the trades. They’re not ready to run their own jobs yet, so we’re training them extensively to bring them up into our workforce. The growth has to come from within.

“For a young kid coming out of high school or college, bringing them up to speed usually takes one to three years, depending on the position,” he explained, adding that internal training has been very effective in bolstering his workforce.

Fahad Khan

Fahad Khan says STCC is equipping students to take the first steps into an HVAC field that needs young talent.

Cernak said the question of whether to go to a four-year college or enter a training program in the trades is one each young person needs to make based on their interests and needs.

“But what I can offer is, we pay for training, and you start making money immediately. Even in an internship, you’re making a livable wage, and then there are frequent increases, good benefits, and it’s satisfying at the end of the day, knowing that, by providing heating or cooling or plumbing, you’re providing comfort, safety, and efficiency in someone’s home.”

Khan also recognizes the need to bring more young talent into the world of HVAC.

“There is a vacuum in this field, as a lot of folks are retiring, or have taken early retirement since COVID. We’re trying to fill the gap.”

While STCC also offers a two-year degree program in HVAC, he explained, the one-year certificate program starts with the basics, and “by the time you finish, you’ve gotten your feet wet. You’ll still require some in-field training; you’re not going to hit the road and start fixing stuff. You’ll want to shadow somebody. But we have a lot of success covering all the bases, so, by the end of the year, you can start training in an internship.”

It helps, he said, that the state offers funding for businesses to take on interns for six months.

“It helps the employer, so they don’t have to carry the burden of training somebody and paying them, and it also helps the students with training hours, and gives them a chance to see if they really want to do it or not.”

Many do, of course, and the pay is a factor; HVAC professionals can make $55,000 after a year, or up to $75,000 or more if they go into automation and control, Khan said.

“These guys are not going to be outsourced anytime soon. You’re not going to see a robot come into the house; somebody has to do the work. An engineer can be outsourced, but who’s going to install and cut metal and lay down the ductwork and do the wiring? Somebody has to do it.

“So it’s a good area to be in, with a lot of job security, and it’s not going anywhere soon,” he added. “We can diagnose things faster, make things more efficient, but in the end, somebody’s got to go into the house for the actual repair.”

 

Changing Environment

The statewide push toward climate and energy innovation aren’t slowing down, and will continue to impact the worlds of construction and HVAC.

In a speech last month to the New England Council, Gov. Maura Healey cited figures from a UMass Donahue Institute report suggesting that the $1.3 billion her administration wants to invest in climate technology over 10 years would result in $16.4 billion in new economic activity and as many as 7,000 new jobs.

The state spending figure includes $400 million in bond authorizations for capital projects, $300 million in tax incentives, and $300 million to support the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s operations, as well as an expansion in eligibility for existing offshore wind tax credits that could cost up to $350 million.

At the same time, the Center for EcoTechnology in Florence — which has been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to energy efficiency and climate impacts for almost a half-century — expects to dramatically expand its work, President and CEO Ashley Muspratt recently told BusinessWest.

“The work we do ultimately rolls up to reducing carbon emissions and shepherding in all of the benefits that come with that,” she said. “Carbon reduction can allow for a better lifestyle in terms of cost savings, health benefits, energy independence, and a more comfortable, better livelihood. We could be tackling this crisis while also paving the way to a better way of life.”

And where there’s a will, innovation will follow.

“The technology is advancing tremendously. It has been forever, but especially the past few years. And that trajectory will probably continue as manufacturers learn new technologies to heat and cool homes efficiently,” Cernak said. “The next change is a new refrigerant which is more environmentally friendly and has a wider range of capability. By 2025, every manufacturer will be affected by that.

“It’s ever-moving,” he added. “We have administrative staff people who are always keeping up with regulations and changes and Mass Save incentives and tax incentives and manufacturer trainings. There are a lot of moving parts, but it all makes it better for the consumer.”

Banking and Financial Services

Doubling Down

Community Bank’s branch inside Tower Square

Community Bank’s branch inside Tower Square will be complemented later this year by a second Springfield location on Boston Road.

 

 

 

When Community Bank expanded in 2017 with the acquisition of Merchants Bank, it gained a large network of branches in Vermont … and one in Massachusetts.

That office is located in Tower Square in downtown Springfield and had been NUVO Bank before hanging the Merchants banner. Located far from any other Community location — the organization has a strong presence in Pennsylvania and New York as well as its newer footprint in Vermont — it wouldn’t have been surprising had Community shed it altogether. But the bank saw value in a Springfield presence.

And now, seven years later, it’s doubling down, planning to open a second Springfield location on Boston Road later this year.

“It’s a market that’s not too far from Albany, but far enough where it’s a very distinct market by itself. And because it’s one branch, it’s been a little bit under the radar,” President and CEO Dimitar Karaivanov said. “But it’s a good market with good opportunities, and we have a really good team in the market, and the level of energy and activity in Springfield has been very hot.

“So almost a year ago, we decided we hadn’t given Springfield its rightful chance to succeed,” he went on. “We’re just one branch and have a good team, but we’re somewhat limited by the fact that it’s only one branch downtown. So we decided to kind of invest in the team and the opportunities that we have in the market, and we’re going to double our presence.”

The bank is doing so, he said, in locations that make strategic sense, and also, in some cases, investing in lower-income areas. “We’re looking at communities that offer opportunity from an economic perspective, but we also consider it our responsibility to invest in communities and bring them along in terms of growth. That’s how we’ve been selecting some areas that we’re going into.”

While Greater Springfield has been called overbanked, Karaivanov said Community Bank sees plenty of potential in expanding.

“We’re just one branch and have a good team, but we’re somewhat limited by the fact that it’s only one branch downtown. So we decided to kind of invest in the team and the opportunities that we have in the market, and we’re going to double our presence.”

“There’s no lack of competition in Springfield — there are a lot of banks, a lot of mutuals, a lot of credit unions,” he said. “But the reason that we feel like we can be successful is our team. So we’re really investing in our team. That’s how we look at expansion; it’s really people-based. Obviously, the market needs to be sizable enough for another entrant, but we feel like we’ve got a team that we have basically under-leveraged over the past several years. And now we’re trying to give them more runway and opportunity to be successful.”

 

Branching Out

As Community Bank expands in Springfield and other markets, it’s doing so, the organization explains, by reimagining the in-branch experience with clean, modern designs that encourage customer and banker collaboration, local community tie-ins, and staff that can handle a wide array of financial needs.

“Branches are still pretty important, and I think they will continue to be important,” Karaivanov said. “If you look at where most accounts, especially new accounts, are opened, it is still predominantly in the branch. People still get their mortgages predominantly in the branch. That initial contact with a financial institution is mostly in the branch.

“Now, when you open your second account, or if you are already a customer of a bank, you might go online to apply for a mortgage and other things. But to get into the ecosystem, usually the average person still starts in the branch.”

He cited the example of JPMorgan Chase launching an online-only bank six years ago, “and no one’s heard of it since,” he noted. “Instead, you’re seeing JPMorgan open branches all over the place. It’s hard to be just online. You need both parts.”

To that end, modern branch designs are different than the old, traditional model of counters and lines, he added.

“Today, the branch is really more advisory and consultative than transaction-based because transactions are easy to do on your phone, and you don’t need to go into the branch for a specific transaction anymore. But people do go to the branch for advice and for questions and when they have a problem. So spaces in the branch are designed in a much different way.”

Dimitar Karaivanov

Dimitar Karaivanov

“Transactions are easy to do on your phone, and you don’t need to go into the branch for a specific transaction anymore. But people do go to the branch for advice and for questions and when they have a problem.”

Community Bank currently boasts 28 branches in New England, all but one of them in Vermont, and its current expansion plans include the first New Hampshire branch in addition to the second Springfield location.

“Community Bank is not just expanding, but deepening our roots in New England,” said Matthew Durkee, regional president for New England. “Our branches are the cornerstone of our retail business, and each one allows us to support the community and deepen our relationships with our customers as we partner together throughout their financial journey.”

Those community relationships involve philanthropy and volunteerism in communities where the bank has a presence, Karaivanov added.

“We do a lot of that, led by our branch staff most of the time,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s in our name, right? So we live by it. Our people are involved, they’re on boards, they’re in the Rotary Clubs, they know their neighbors, they’re supporting the local schools, teams, and everything else. It’s how we distinguish ourselves. Those are our neighbors, they’re our friends, and being part of the community is just as important as being a financial institution.”

With its commitment to Springfield affirmed, he added that Community Bank could look to expand further in Massachusetts where it makes sense.

“Hopefully, as we are successful in this expansion, we would like to do more. I’m a big believer in getting behind your success. So if we continue to be successful in Springfield, we’re going to continue to grow.

“Again, this has been a little bit of an outpost for us. Meanwhile, the team’s been doing a great job. And now is the time for us to empower them to do even more.”

 

One-stop Shop

Earlier this month, Community Bank System Inc. — which encompasses four key businesses: banking, benefits administration, insurance, and wealth management — changed its name to Community Financial System Inc. to better reflect the company’s reach.

“The new name allows us to emphasize the evolution of our capabilities, solutions, and focus,” Karaivanov said. “In aggregate, over 39% of our revenue is comprised of diversified fee-income businesses, well over twice that of industry peers. Bringing all of that under the new name, Community Financial System, underscores our mission and drives our inclusiveness as one company.”

It’s a different model, he said, than financial-services organizations in which banking is 90% of the pie.

“We’re a bit of a unicorn because we have four different businesses, and the way we run the company, the bank is our largest business, but it’s not the whole business. With our benefits business, we help people with their 401(k) plans; we administer those all over the country. Or, if you’re an individual and you’re coming for a mortgage from us, we can directly give you a quote for the homeowners’ insurance as well.”

Meanwhile “if you have amounts in your banking accounts that clearly can be invested in better outcomes for you, we’ve got the wealth-management side of the house, or the trust capability. And on the commercial side, especially for small to mid-sized businesses, we can provide everything from capital to insurance to managing their benefit plans, actually helping them with HR consulting.

“It gives us a real leg up when we talk to customers because we’re not just a one-widget shop,” Karaivanov added. “We can provide comprehensive solutions.”

Restaurants

Yes They Can

 

From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital

From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital.

 

Josh Britton remembers the early, heady days of Vanished Valley Brewing Co. — and the challenging ones that followed.

He had started brewing beer in his garage around 2015 when he met Michael Rodrigues, owner of Europa Black Rock Bar & Grille in Ludlow, and Manny Vital, who owned Europa’s building on Route 21. Vital retrofitted a building out back that became the first Vanished Valley brewery; the name was chosen to honor the drowned Quabbin Reservoir towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott.

“We started that process in 2016, but the licensure took nine months for approvals at the state level. Then we started hammering it out in 2017,” Britton said. Within a year or two, the brewery was rated third-best in Massachusetts by BeerAdvocate.

“We had lines out the door,” he added. “We were only producing like 10 barrels at a time, which for that space is a lot of barrelage; it’s pretty tight in there. We were selling cans in a tent next to the building and doing well. And we were fueling Europa with our kegs. We had people show up and ask, ‘oh, where’s your taproom?’ And they found out it was just a small, 20-by-20 space.”

Rodrigues decided to retire the Europa brand early in 2019 when he saw an opportunity to expand Vanished Valley with expanded production space and a food operation, and the three principals started gutting and updating the building, and also putting up an addition.

“Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck.”

“We wanted to add the food element in a bigger retail space, so it made sense, obviously, to do it right there,” Britton said. “We worked on it all throughout 2019 while still producing beer, and then we were ready to go in January 2020.”

Everyone knows what happened next.

“We had just opened our doors, and then a couple months later, it came to a halt because of COVID,” he said. “It was an interesting time. It forced us to kind of relook at the brand and pivot and decide what fell within the guidelines of what we could and couldn’t do.”

The pivots they came up with not only kept the business afloat during the pandemic, they may have actually raised its profile.

“No place could open and serve food, but we were allowed to deliver food — and beer, for the first time in Massachusets. So we started doing takeout. We didn’t have barbecue as a food option at the time, and Mike came up with the great idea to say, ‘hey, how cool would it be to have fresh barbecue and beer delivered to your door?’

“So we added that as a takeout option, and it was the most popular one we had,” Britton continued. “Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck. We still have great barbecue today; we kept it on the menu.”

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Between the successful delivery operation, as well as two Paycheck Protection Program loans and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, the team was able to keep the operation running. “It was a stressful year, but we made it. Once we were allowed to open the doors, we took all the necessary precautions with social distancing and things like that. It kept the lights on, and it kept the brand alive.”

 

Beneath the Surface

Some of the brewery’s beer selections — 1939 Amber Ale, Cellar Hole Series, Lost Town Stout, etc. — pay homage to the history of the Quabbin.

“The name itself, Vanished Valley, is the tip of the cap to the Quabbin Reservoir and the people that sacrificed for the benefit of others,” Britton said. “We try to keep the names of the beers as Quabbin-esque as possible. Sometimes it’s hard to do, and we just come up with other ideas. But the brand itself commemorates the Quabbin area.”

At any given time, Vanished Valley makes, pours, and distributes — to liquor stores and other restaurants across Massachusetts, from New York to Cape Cod — an array of IPAs, ales, stouts, and more, he added.

“We are very IPA-heavy, but that’s not to say that we don’t appreciate and still produce the classic brands, like a good lager or a pilsner. Some of our bestsellers in-house are actually our light beers. But when we distribute, the more popular ones are the IPAs.”

Britton explained that Vanished Valley straddles two different models.

“When you’re thinking about a brewery, you can be one of three different types of breweries. You can be a contract brewer, where you hire someone to brew your beer for you, and they send it out, and that’s it. Look at Jim Koch’s story with Sam Adams; that’s how he started. Then there’s a straight manufacturing-like brewery, where all you’re doing is pumping liquid out the back door and putting it on the shelf in the store.

“Then there’s us. We’re a brewpub,” he went on. “We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub. So I don’t need to produce a ton of beer for here, but I need to produce a ton of beer for the market. We wanted to go at it from both angles.”

As for the food element, Vanished Valley serves a broad menu of appetizers, soups and salads, wood-fired pizza, burgers and other handhelds, and, of course, barbecue platters featuring pulled pork, brisket, chicken, and St. Louis-style ribs. Dinner hours are more crowded than lunch, and Thursday through Sunday draw the biggest crowds.

“We have a beer garden out there in the warmer weather, with a massive tent,” Britton said, adding that Vanished Valley now allows groups to rent the space for weddings and large parties. “We have music out there; Manny built an amazing stage for our bands. We have a firepit … all the stuff that makes for a better environment.”

Inside, the brewery has also hosted events from a murder mystery dinner to a bonsai tree event to charcuterie board design, as well as events featuring outside vendors, like a chili cookoff.

“We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub.”

“We rent this for smaller parties, too: birthday parties, anniversaries, retirement parties, stuff like that. We try to be a one-stop shop for as much as possible,” Britton said. “It’s hard to do sometimes, but compared to other brewpubs and breweries in the region, we are very, very diverse.

“I think we’re doing really well compared to a lot of other breweries in the industry,” he went on. “There have been some closures in the state, and we’re not going to be one of them. But you constantly have to tailor things to the customer, and that’s a constantly moving target. So one of the bigger challenges is staying fresh.”

 

Lager Than Life

Despite some shifts in the market, Britton said, Vanished Valley is doing well on both the brewpub and distribution sides.

“Our first struggle was dealing with the holy-grail beers — you know, what’s the next best thing? That’s what the craft-beer fanatics want — the search for the white whale, or whatever they want to call it. We were one of those whales initially, and we gained a lot of loyal customers, but there were some falloffs of people that wanted to find the next best thing.”

Another challenge has been the rise of ready-to-drink cocktails. “That sector of the industry is really doing a number on craft beers,” he said. “And now you have CBD-infused seltzers and stuff like that. So our distribution has gone down a little bit because of that.

“But our overall growth in sales has continued every year because of what we do here in the retail area with the restaurant,” Britton added. “If we were a straight production brewery, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. But on the restaurant side, the amazing customers we get here — from a local standpoint and people from out of state — have helped us stay afloat as a small, local business. We’re still very young. We’ve been going at it since 2017, but we’re still young.”

Vanished Valley also makes an effort to give back to the community, such as a beer produced to honor veterans every November, with proceeds donated to veteran organizations. The brewery also sponsors golf tournaments and gets involved with events like Ride to Remember, which honors fallen heroes.

“This is our backyard,” Britton said. “We all grew up here, and we’ve got to take care of it.”

Despite the challenges throughout the years, he added, Vanished Valley has continued to grow — from three employees just a few years ago to more than 30 today.

“We’ve done really well for ourselves. We’ve made a home for a lot of great customers that we appreciate so much. And the town has been nice to work with; they appreciate what we’re doing here from an economic standpoint. It’s just been a fun ride.”

Banking and Financial Services Cover Story

A Community Asset

 

Country Bank president Mary McGovern

Country Bank president Mary McGovern

 

Country Bank, according to its slogan, is “made to make a difference.”

Mary McGovern has taken that as a personal challenge.

“I’ve been at several institutions, public institutions, that run a little differently than mutuals, having to answer to shareholders every quarter,” said McGovern, who recently became Country’s first female president in its 174-year history. “With a mutual bank, we feel we take a different approach with our customers, and our involvement in the community means a lot to them. It’s a differentiator.”

McGovern brings three decades of context and experience — at different types of institutions — to that philosophy.

Prior to her 13-year rise at Country Bank, where she has served as chief financial officer, executive vice president, and chief operating officer, McGovern served in management roles at Danversbank, Capital Crossing Bank, and Boston Private Bank & Trust. Her areas of expertise include finance, operations, information technology, retail banking, commercial lending, financial and credit analysis, compliance, risk, sales, and strategic business and relationship development.

“With a mutual bank, we feel we take a different approach with our customers, and our involvement in the community means a lot to them. It’s a differentiator.”

“I started at Boston Private when it was a de novo with $80 million in assets. I was the 20th or 22nd person they hired. I came in on the ground floor in a finance role, in accounting, and grew with the department,” she recalled.

After that institution went public and was acquired, she left, earned her MBA, and moved to Capital Crossing in the late ’90s, doing a lot of work with distressed real estate. Danversbank, her next stop, was a reunion of sorts with some individuals she had worked with at Boston Private.

“They were like Country Bank is today, a nice, local, mutual community bank,” she said, adding that she served Danversbank as senior vice president and chief accounting officer. “But they went public in 2008 and were sold in 2011, and my position was eliminated.”

So, the same year, she joined the team at Country — and has never looked back.

“The mission is to be the bank of choice in Central and Western Massachusetts,” McGovern told BusinessWest. “I’m excited to lead as the first female president of Country Bank as we approach our 175th anniversary. It’s a good opportunity to get out and talk in the community, talk to our customers, put a new face in front of them. It’s been really exciting.”

Country Bank’s productive partnership with the WooSox

Country Bank’s productive partnership with the WooSox is reflected by its prominent right-field signage.

From a bottom-line perspective, she said, Country is doing well, even showing growth in the mortgage market, despite high rates and higher prices.

“Obviously people still have to buy and sell homes and move different places. The pipeline may not be as robust, but there’s still a lot of activity.”

On the commercial side, the bank is being selective, focusing on building lasting relationships and not targeting huge volume for its own sake, to maintain liquidity. “We’re looking for 5% to 6% growth in loans this year, so we’re keeping busy for sure.”

Geographically, the bank is in a growth mode as well. With a physical footprint that currently stretches from Springfield to Worcester, with the Ware headquarters between those two cities, County is adding two additional locations to the east this year — a second in Worcester and one in Uxbridge — while making plans to add two more branches to the west, in Springfield and another community.

Earlier this year, the board of trustees announced it had full confidence in McGovern to lead that strategy, as well as all of Country’s other operations and activities in the community. Paul Scully, who has been president and chief executive officer since 2004, remains in the CEO role.

“We are thrilled to announce Mary’s appointment as the next president of Country Bank,” James Phaneuf, board chair, said when the selection was announced. “Mary’s proven track record, dedication, and strategic vision make her the ideal candidate for this role.

“In a challenging time of food insecurity and other challenges out there, it’s important to give back to local nonprofits. They need our support to do their important work. That’s valuable to our staff, and I believe it’s valuable to our customers as well.”

“The board is confident that Mary’s leadership will drive the bank’s continued success and growth,” he added. “With her extensive experience, strategic mindset, and dedication to excellence, Mary is poised to lead the bank into a new era of innovation and customer satisfaction while maintaining its position as one of the most highly capitalized financial institutions in the region.”

 

Community Partner

Country is also well-known for its community involvement. Those efforts have focused in recent years on a number of priorities, including food insecurity, health, and education, as well as homeless shelters, senior-serving programs, youth organizations, and more.

To that end, Country reported more than $1.2 million in donations in 2023, with 463 organizations receiving grants. In addition, the bank’s team members volunteered 1,255 hours of community service in 2023, while 37 employees served on a total of 65 nonprofit boards and committees.

“We are a valued piece of the community. We try to give back to all the communities we serve,” McGovern said, adding that the bank’s financial-literacy programs continue to be a priority, as is a partnership with the WooSox — signified by a very prominent Country Bank sign in right field at Polar Park — and the team’s WooStars awards and its teacher-recognition program.

“We’re just continuing to build on a great foundation set by Paul in his 20 years here,” she added. “Being a community bank, we’re really invested in the health of our communities.”

McGovern speaks the language of community-bank presidents in Western Mass. that place a high value on local philanthropy.

“We’ll continue to do a hybrid approach. It seems to be working. The staff seems to be happy. We don’t see that changing — in the foreseeable future, anyway.”

“We’re different from a big commercial bank that’s not as worried about the individual communities that they serve,” she said. “As a mutual bank, obviously it’s important to make money, but making money also allows us to give back. So we’re trying to give back to our communities. In a challenging time of food insecurity and other challenges out there, it’s important to give back to local nonprofits. They need our support to do their important work. That’s valuable to our staff, and I believe it’s valuable to our customers as well.”

Also of value to customers is a physical presence in their communities, even at a time when online banking is dominant.

“There are differences of opinion among financial institutions, some of whom are pulling back from their banking centers,” McGovern said. “But we feel it’s important to support the different ways our customers want to bank.

“There are plenty of the younger generation who don’t want to talk to people, who would prefer to do everything online; self-service is important to them,” she added. “But we have a good component of customers who like to go in and talk to people face to face. Even younger people want to sit down and talk to somebody when they’re buying their first house; it’s an important, life-changing kind of event.”

In addition, she said, “I feel it’s important that we show our presence. It’s hard to say that you’re in Springfield without having signage there. We have a business center in Tower Square, but it’s not quite as visible as having a branch location with a sign.”

Country Bank has consolidated in some cases as well — for instance, it used to have three branches in Ware, but now only houses its headquarters and a digital banking center there. And many branches are staffed with fewer employees than in years past, to reflect how many customers bank online only.

“But while there’s less foot traffic, we’re still there to serve people, allowing customers to bank how they want.”

Other elements of the bank experience have changed over the years as well, including how — and where — employees work.

“Since the pandemic, it’s been a different way of working,” she told BusinessWest. “For some time, we were fully remote. Over time, we went with a more flexible work arrangement. So the average employee works three days in and two days out. There are some with a little more flexibility based on what kind of job it is.”

While some employees prefer to come in five days a week, and do so, McGovern added, for most of them — those who don’t deal face to face with the public, anyway — working remotely at least part of the time is a valued part of their job. “I don’t see how we can be competitive without that. I know different institutions that have lost staff when they requested people come in five days.

“So we’ll continue to do a hybrid approach,” she went on. “It seems to be working. The staff seems to be happy. We don’t see that changing — in the foreseeable future, anyway.”

 

Making a Difference

McGovern also doesn’t want to change a culture at Country Bank that she feels benefits both employees and customers.

“It’s hard to be a differentiator when all banks sell the same products, but I feel we are different,” she said. “Our people are spending a lot of their life doing something they like in an institution they like with peers they like. And we’re trying to keep that culture going.”

The challenge, she said, is understanding that employees want and appreciate hybrid work schedules, while maintaining a positive office culture whether they’re in the office or not.

“It’s a fine line managing both aspects,” she said. “But I think we’ve got a good thing going, and hopefully I can keep it going into the future.”

Restaurants Special Coverage

Good Vibrations

Andrea and Tim Monson

Andrea and Tim Monson, owners of Monsoon Roastery, are two of the original partners who brought the Urban Food Brood to life.

Almost a decade ago, Tim and Andrea Monson started a small business roasting and selling coffee, which grew to the point where they opened a retail and operating space on Albany Street in Springfield in 2019.

Not long after, the owners of Monsoon Roastery began talking to the owners of two other small businesses — Nosh, a downtown Springfield eatery, and Urban Artisan Farm, which specializes in hydroponic food production — about a concept that has now become one of the city’s most unique food-centric success stories.

“It started after COVID when small businesses were struggling to survive,” Andrea said. “We already did business with Nosh — we would carry her food products, and then they would carry our coffee. So that kind of social capital started very early on. We actually did that with a lot of small businesses. So we started to think … what if we were a small business corporation — a bunch of us kind of fighting together?”

That’s how the Monsons, Nosh owner Teri Skinner, and Urban Artisan Farm owner Jack Wysocki launched their concept, envisioning a place where small businesses could support each other in a shared space with a common kitchen and other amenities, and people could come stop by for lunch or a coffee and bring home some fresh produce, meat, or other items.

“We started to think … what if we were a small business corporation — a bunch of us kind of fighting together?”

“It took us three years to get financing and to get organized,” Monson explained. “This was an office building. So we had to transform it into food-manufacturing collaborative, which cost a lot of money. In the middle of COVID, there were a lot of shortages, a lot of delays. But we kept fighting for this dream and investing our own funds and sacrificing a lot of time and a lot of sweat equity, and it finally came together in July of last year.”

Skinner recalls collaborating with the other founders on ideas, looking into grant funding to turn the building on Albany Street — a stretch of road known as Gasoline Alley, due to the giant fuel tanks that line it — into a collaborative workspace that eventually became known as the Urban Food Brood.

“The three of us sort of came together, wanting to expand our businesses,” she said, adding that the project ran into a lot of infrastructure and renovation issues that weren’t expected, and cost more money than expected. “But now it’s flourishing,” she added.

Nosh is actually the latest — and largest — operation to move into the space, which, along with Monsoon and Urban Artisan Farm, also includes Corsello Butcheria, Happy Man Freeze Dried, Wicked Whisk, and Rocka Docka Foods.

Vincent Corsello

Vincent Corsello says the Urban Food Brood offers fresh options amid a food desert.

“Happy Man had a certified home kitchen, but he was expanding tremendously. He needed a kitchen, so he ended up taking a room here,” Skinner said. “Wicked Whisk acquired a food truck, but she also needed a commercial kitchen so she could produce her products, as she was growing as well.”

Vincent Corsello, who runs Corsello Bucheria, an Easthampton business that has expanded into the Urban Food Brood, said he took part in a pig roast on Albany Street a few years ago and was struck by the uniqueness of the setup.

“This place is magic. There’s such a vibe here,” he remembered thinking. “So I started coming — I don’t know to what end, exactly, but they were open to a collaboration. They got a grant to do a community kitchen, and I said, ‘can I be a part of it?’ And they said ‘yes.’ And then we went from there.”

 

Creating a Vibe

The building, with its community spirit and that creative vibe — the walls are lined with works from local artists, which are displayed on a rotating basis and available for sale — is a stark contrast to its surroundings, Corsello said.

“It’s in the middle of a brownfield, essentially. They call it Gasoline Alley for a reason; we’re surrounded by a million gallons of gasoline.

“I have a big window, and I did a brick facade outside the bakery so you can look through the window and see the bakers cooking.”

“But it’s easy to get to, and there’s plenty of parking, so it’s a good location,” he was quick to add. “And the vibe really attracted me to this this campus; it’s like a modern-day boys’ club, only it includes all different types of people.”

Indeed, Monson noted that she’s seen people of different backgrounds, experiences, and even religious persuasions enjoying the welcoming vibe of the space together.

“We have students, we have professionals, we have the police, we have the firefighters, we have EMTs, social workers, teachers … we have so many different people that come in here to enjoy the food or the coffee or the environment. Everybody’s here.

“The one thing I hear over and over again — unfortunately — is, ‘wow, I can’t believe this is in Springfield,’” she went on. “I both love and hate that. As a Springfield resident, a Springfield business owner, someone who grew up in Springfield, I feel like Springfield always gets the short end of the stick. There’s a lot of negative perception about Springfield. And we’re trying to disprove that. We’re saying, ‘hey, look, we built this thing, and people are coming.’

“I’ve heard, ‘this feels like I stepped into Northampton,’ which is, I guess, a compliment. But we’re not Northampton; we’re Springfield.”

Teri Skinner

Teri Skinner, seen here at her downtown Nosh location, is the most recent of the original Urban Food Brood partners to move to Gasoline Alley; she will continue to operate at both sites.

Corsello said the uniqueness extends to the business model, with the various tenants sharing one register, and the businesses sharing their products.

“So when I make sandwiches, I use Teri’s bread, and I use Jack’s vegetables. We use each other’s products to create. So you not only have an opportunity to get something for yourself, but if you like what you taste, you can buy any of those components here at the market. Plus, a lot of Springfield is kind of a food desert, and we’re small businesses offering locally created food products.”

He said patrons appreciate being able to eat or drink something on site, then bring something home to prepare.

“Anybody can come in here and get a cup of coffee, they can shop, they can get some vegetables, they can get some meat, they can get something freeze-dried. For us, it’s a model that doesn’t come without its challenges, and we’re still figuring some of that stuff out, but it’s very unique. People like a one-stop shop.”

Skinner, whose downtown Nosh location has long had an artistic, funky décor, appreciates the way the Urban Food Brood prioritizes art as well.

“People come here, and they’ll pick up some sausage and go, ‘you know, let me get a kombucha, let me get some mushrooms, let me get some spinach.’ And you go home, and you have all of this really good product that’s manufactured here in Springfield.”

“We have lots of artists that come in and display their work on a monthly basis, and then people can purchase their artwork. They’re in a rotation; if the art is there for too long, it seems like it’s just part of the décor. So it moves in and out, and there are some super talented artists that provide works for us.”

Monson said many artists have sold works in the space, or even gotten commissions based on their displays. “So it’s very cool that we can provide that.”

Skinner appreciates other elements of the Urban Food Brood vibe, like how it feels like the center of a town, only indoors and on a smaller scale, with each of the businesses acting as a storefront of sorts.

“I’m super happy with how it all came out,” she said. “I have a big window, and I did a brick facade outside the bakery so you can look through the window and see the bakers cooking. Vincent has the same idea; so do the others. That’s kind of neat.”

The complex, which is open Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., also hosts regular events, such as food truck Fridays and Thursday farmers markets from 4 to 8 p.m., which have already begun for this season.

“It’s early in the season for farmers markets, but hopefully, as the season progresses, we’ll have more and more items. We’re also going to try to do music,” Skinner said.

A sign outside the Urban Food Brood

A sign outside the Urban Food Brood lists the businesses currently operating there.

“The thing that’s great about the nighttime market is that all of our downtown Springfield markets have always been during the day, when people are at work. What are they going to do with their products after they’ve purchased them? Are they going to put them in the car or bring them back to the office? So this is kind of nice. People can just stop on their way home.”

 

Fueling Growth

Andrea Monson said the partners in the Urban Food Brood have been pleased with the organic growth of the Gasoline Alley complex.

“We don’t actively market; we rely on word of mouth,” she told BusinessWest. “And I have to say that the people who come here are very cool. They’re great customers. They’re great to my staff, they’re great to all of us, and they’re very supportive. They tell people who tell people who tell people, and now we have this amazing group of people that come here to support us.

“The cool thing is, we all have our own following. Wicked Whisk has their own following. Nosh has their own following. People come here, and they’ll pick up some sausage and go, ‘you know, let me get a kombucha, let me get some mushrooms, let me get some spinach.’ And you go home, and you have all of this really good product that’s manufactured here in Springfield.”

And it’s not just people from the city, Corsello said. Urban Food Brood has been drawing from all the surrounding towns, steadily developing a reputation … not as something vaguely Northampton-ish, but something uniquely and vibrantly Springfield.

“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “It’s only the beginning.”

Features Special Coverage

Beyond the Forecast

Dave Hayes

Dave Hayes

Like many New Englanders, Dave Hayes remembers the significant weather events of his childhood, like the Mother’s Day snowstorm that struck the region in 1977, dropping more than a foot of snow on parts of Massachusetts, and the Blizzard of 1978 that crippled much of Southern New England the following February.

But he also remembers something else weather-related from his youth: watching a Boston-area forecast, intrigued by the bright colors of the radar display, and then almost immediately watching the skies outside his living room grow dark, and a storm suddenly arise.

“Five minutes later, what was on the radar was overhead, and something lit up inside of me. I became obsessed with the weather,” he said — to the point where he’d flip between local TV forecasts to compare them. “I found I gravitated toward the meteorologist who explained why the weather is doing what it’s doing, rather than just what it’s doing.”

Hayes never lost that obsession with the weather, and it led to an unlikely, donation-funded career as Dave Hayes the Weather Nut, through which he posts and discusses the day’s current weather and upcoming forecast on social media, as his myriad followers converse about it all in the comments.

And there are a lot of followers — more than 57,000 on Facebook, in fact, and 6,600 on Twitter.

But while Hayes is widely known on Facebook today, early in 2011, he had become disenchanted with the site and deactivated his account.

“I didn’t get it yet. I didn’t understand virality and sharing with people and the idea that this might possibly be useful in some way.”

However, when a tornado struck Springfield and a host of other communities on June 1 of that year, he heard talk of his friends chattering online about what he thought about the destructive event. So he eventually logged back on and started talking more often about weather events. When an acquaintance complained that he was doing too much of that, Hayes decided to create a page separate from his personal account, called Dave Hayes the Weather Nut, where friends — or anyone else — could follow him if they wanted to.

And what a year that was for weather in Western Mass. — 2011 featured not only the tornado, but Tropical Storm Irene in August, the freak pre-Halloween snowstorm that felled countless trees, and a few other events. His reporting between 2011 and the summer of 2012 had about 200 people taking part in the local weather conversation, and his reports in the fall of 2012 on Hurricane Sandy — which seemed to be threatening New England before turning toward New Jersey — tripled that, to more than 600.

“People wanted to know what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t get it yet. I didn’t understand virality and sharing with people and the idea that this might possibly be useful in some way — a hub for weather that’s interesting. But I kept doing it.”

Dave Hayes collects raw data from numerous sources and uses it to craft his daily reports.

Dave Hayes collects raw data from numerous sources and uses it to craft his daily reports.

A blizzard in February 2013 saw Hayes’s audience crest to more than 1,000 people. “People said how helpful my work was to them. And as someone who hadn’t really launched in life yet, I wanted to be helpful to people. So that lit a fire inside of me, and I said, ‘I’m going to do this daily. This is something that people find useful.’”

When he began daily reports, which continue today, the audience doubled to 2,000, then swelled above 10,000 early in 2014, during a colder and snowier winter than any Western Mass. has seen since. Around the same time, he was laid off from a sales job when his company downsized due to the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

“Without a job, looking for work, not finding anything, I went deeper into weather reporting,” he said, and began attracting the attention of public radio, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and other media — and wondering if this could actually become a career.

 

Weather or Not

Indeed, when the page was taking off in 2014, Hayes’s father and others in his life started asking him seriously if he could make a living at this, he recalled. “I said I didn’t know. I hadn’t even thought of it. I was just doing something I love.”

But around that time, crowdfunding was becoming more popular, so he threw up a GoFundMe link.

“Without a job, looking for work, not finding anything, I went deeper into weather reporting.”

“I figured, if people want to support my work financially, they’ll do it. If they think it has value, they’ll kick me a few bucks. I linked to it during big storms, and during 2015, I produced a crowdfunded support drive, about four or five weeks, talking about different aspects of what I was doing. I was teaching myself as I went along. It was a very unorthodox way of making a living.”

But Hayes did, in fact, begin to slowly generate a steady income through voluntary donations, and while he still does some paralegal work on the side, Dave Hayes the Weather Nut is, in fact, his living now. He compares the model to Patreon, a popular site through which people can directly support artists and writers producing content.

“It’s very unorthodox, how my life has played out,” he added. “You never know what’s going to happen until you work on something and share it with others.”

In creating daily content, Hayes curates his reports by gathering information from multiple sources, gathering data and modeling from the National Weather Service, private meteorological subscriptions, and personal weather stations, then creates his own forecasts and analysis that people from across Massachusetts and parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have come to rely on.

“I’m not a meteorologist,” he said. “I pay for data subscriptions, read multiple forecast discussions from regional National Weather Service meteorologists, and obtain other trusted weather data in the Northeast region. I take all that information, along with my 35-plus years living in the Western Mass. region, and use my own process to produce my reports.”

Dave Hayes says winter storm trends can be slow-moving

Dave Hayes says winter storm trends can be slow-moving, while severe summer weather can emerge with little warning.

The next phase for Hayes will be a mobile app, which he plans to introduce in 2025, and which he hopes will replace his social-media presence, given a widespread problem of algorithms restricting the reach of social-media content creators — a real problem during fast-developing storms.

“Three out of four people look at my info from their smartphone, so I figured I need to have a way to reach people more directly, especially during the summer severe events,” he explained. “Winter storms develop more slowly. You see them building across the country over three or four days. But thunderstorms, microbursts, and tornadoes can form within five, 10, or 15 minutes.”

He plans to offer both free and paid versions of the app with different features, and will definitely retain the all-important interactive aspect, with users able to comment. After all, that may be the most compelling and popular aspect of his passion turned unlikely career.

“The way we watch the forecast has traditionally been on TV; you consume the forecast, and that’s it. There’s no conversation about it,” Hayes explained. “What I’ve tried to create with social media is a two-way street where we can go back and forth and answer as many questions as we can.”

It essentially adds another dimension to weather reports, one he’s been delighted to find so many people are passionate about.

“The way we watch the forecast has traditionally been on TV; you consume the forecast, and that’s it. There’s no conversation about it. What I’ve tried to create with social media is a two-way street where we can go back and forth and answer as many questions as we can.”

“People are talking to each other — ‘I got this much snow in Belchertown.’ ‘Oh, I got this much down in Palmer.’ It’s a whole community vibe around something that we all have to deal with. Everyone has unique lives, but we all have to deal with the weather. So by fostering this community, we can all talk about what’s impacting all of us.”

It also lends an element of “ground truth” in real time, he added. Because a temperature difference of a degree or two can turn rain into snow quickly, not only can he quickly adjust a report based on comments, but a weather forecast becomes not a static report, frozen in time, but a living, evolving thing.

 

Seeing the Light

Speaking of evolving, Hayes has taken note of the trend toward warmer, wetter winters over the past decade, as well as more flooding events. But he says he’s not a climatologist and continues to focus on his bread and butter — forecasting, reporting, and talking about each day’s weather with a growing fanbase in the tens of thousands.

Even “space weather,” as he put it, got plenty of attention recently, as followers snapped, shared, and commented on photos of the aurora borealis making a rare appearance across the U.S. on May 10. With the solar maximum not having hit its peak yet, such a shared experience might happen again within the next year or so.

“It was beautiful and otherworldly; humans think they’re amazing, and it really puts things into perspective, shows how small we are,” Hayes told BusinessWest. “But you don’t want too many solar storms. The Carrington Event in 1859 fried the entire telegraph system. One hundred and sixty-five years later, we’re a lot more reliant on the power grid for a lot of things. So while the aurora is fun to see, I don’t want to see it too often.”

Healthcare News Special Coverage

Breaking Down Barriers

Gándara’s Family Resource Centers

Gándara’s Family Resource Centers each provide a number of services for families in one location.

 

There’s no doubt, Lois Nesci said, that the COVID years triggered or exacerbated a lot of mental-health issues, which makes the multifaceted of Gándara Center more important than ever.

At the same time, the pandemic’s impact on mental health also got more people talking than ever before — and that’s good for everyone.

“The need has increased, absolutely,” said Nesci, Gándara’s CEO. “But at the same time, as we continue to break the stigma around mental health, people become more and more willing to discuss some of their struggles or ask for help. We as a society have been educating people: what are the signs people exhibit if they’re not doing well, if they’re depressed, anxious, or struggling with substance abuse?”

To help those who fall into those categories, as well as many others, Gándara’s services fall into five buckets:

• Behavioral health, which encompasses a broad array of clinical and substance-use services for adults, families, children, and adolescents, including individual and group psychotherapy, diagnostic assessments, and treatment;

• Youth, young-adult, and family services, including children’s behavioral health, foster care, and youth and young-adult residential ​homes;

• Substance use and recovery, with services include recovery coaching, peer recovery centers, and long-term residential treatment for men, women, and young adults with substance-use disorder and co-occurring mental-health disorders;

• Community and prevention, including health-education programs and initiatives that provide resources and information addressing numerous public-health areas while representing the multicultural needs of the region; and

• Intellectual and developmental disability services, which promote the health and well-being of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those with behavioral health and/or substance-use disorders.

Gándara’s mental-health services — its most robust collection of offerings — focus on a few key areas: outpatient behavioral-health clinics, children’s behavioral health, substance-use and recovery services, and adult community clinical services.

“As we continue to break the stigma around mental health, people become more and more willing to discuss some of their struggles or ask for help.”

“Gándara has always had a mission to help people at the grassroots level,” Nesci said. “We’re in communities where people live. We’re accessible and very visible. We provide the linguistic ability to meet people where they’re at, and the staff reflects the population we serve.”

As a multi-service organization with a geographic footprint statewide, Gándara targets many of its programs at specific populations, such as recovery programs for Hispanic individuals and a residential group home for LGBTQ+ youth, Nesci noted. “Gándara has always responded to individual needs in the community.”

 

Five Decades of Growth

According to its website, Gándara Center was founded in Springfield in 1977 to advocate and provide for equal, culturally competent behavioral-health services for the Hispanic community.

The 1970s saw a large wave of Hispanic migration to the Greater Springfield area, and the portion of newcomers who had mental-health and substance-use issues had limited access to services that could help them.

Lois Nesci

Lois Nesci says mental-health needs have increased, but so have the conversations around them.

Fortunately, in 1977 — and later, as a part of President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 — funding was made available to communities across the U.S. to address the mental-health needs of individuals suffering from serious mental illness, including the elderly as well as racial and ethnic minority communities.

The city of Springfield submitted a citywide application that included needs in both the Hispanic and African-American communities. This funding strengthened the city’s mental-health services and aided the Gándara Center, whch was named after Dr. José Gándara Cartagena, a prominent physician and public servant from Puerto Rico who dedicated his life to providing services for those who could not afford medical care. He also advocated for urban renewal, especially the construction of much-needed new public housing.

Gándara Center was first housed in a storefront on Main Street in Springfield and then on the Mercy Hospital campus on Carew Street. In 1982, when the center opened an outpatient clinic on Main Street, it was the only agency in the area specifically providing culturally sensitive care to the Hispanic community.

In the early years, Gándara’s first executive director, Dr. Philip Guzman, laid the foundation for what the agency would later become. In 1982, Dr. Henry East-Trou joined the team as a supervisor for the agency’s psychiatric day treatment program. At the time, Gándara had just one Springfield location and approximately 50 staff to house all of residential, outpatient, and substance-use programs. Over the years, the agency secured numerous contacts and grants, expanded services, created additional programs, and increased staff size.

In 1989, when East-Trou began shepherding Gándara Center through an unprecedented era of growth as executive director, the agency employed 100 people and served approximately 2,000 individuals.

“We’re in communities where people live. We’re accessible and very visible. We provide the linguistic ability to meet people where they’re at, and the staff reflects the population we serve.”

After 30 years of service, East-Trou retired in May 2019. Throughout his tenure, he further expanded the agency and its services, which by that time offered behavioral-health, substance-use, prevention, and educational services to more than 40 communities throughout the Commonwealth, employed more than 900 staff, and served nearly 13,000 adults, children, and families from all backgrounds.

Gándara’s foster care program

Gándara’s foster care program has been placing youth in temporary, safe, therapeutic home environments for more than 30 years.

In 2020, Nesci joined the agency and assumed the role of CEO, bringing experience working with individuals from all races and ethnic backgrounds. In her time at the agency, she has led several relocation projects, program expansions, and agency-wide accreditation from the Council on Accreditation.

Today, around 1,100 Gándara employees serve more than 17,000 clients at more than 100 locations.

“We have a full complement of behavioral-health services delivered in community-based clinic settings, as well as our home behavioral-health services for youth and families,” Nesci said. “We’ve expanded and grown our in-home services to include hospital diversion for youth. In addition to that, we also provide services for people who are struggling with substance abuse. We have six recovery centers statewide, and then we are also providing recovery coaching to individuals in the community who are in recovery.

“I’ve been here almost four and a half years,” she added, “and during that time, I’ve seen our services grow in a lot of areas, particularly in the area of substance-abuse services, our youth services, and our behavioral-health services to children and adults.”

The organization’s footprint has also grown, expanding into the Berkshires, Fitchburg, Falmouth, and Worcester, to name a few more recent locations.

 

Starting the Conversation

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but Nesci wants critical conversations to happen year-round.

“There was a time when mental health was something that was never discussed,” she said. “People didn’t understand it; therefore, they feared it. Subsequently, they made judgments about it.”

Participants in Gándara’s PhotoVoice educational campaign

The Problem Gambling Prevention: Youth and Caregivers Photovoice 2.0 program provides youth with leadership skills and knowledge to become change agents in their community, committed to raising awareness and prevention of underage gambling.

Though stigma still exists, she added, plenty of progress has been made to break down those barriers, and Gándara’s focus on cultural competency is part of that.

“When we started talking about mental health being just as important as physical health, it began to change the rhetoric around providing safe spaces for individuals to be able to get services.

“It’s very important to have a space that’s judgment-free,” Nesci continued. “When an agency like us meets people where they are in the community, as recovery coaches or with behavioral-health therapy in their homes, speaking the language of individuals, understanding cultural backgrounds, people feel welcome. They don’t feel judged. They feel like someone understands them.”

And that builds trust and relationships, which she calls the greatest catalyst for people to make needed improvements in their lives — which has, after all, been Gándara Center’s mission for almost 50 years.

BusinessWest Anniversary

Welcome to an Exciting, Uncertain New World

On Jan. 22, 1984, a good deal of the U.S. watched — for the only time, because it never aired again — a commercial that was, in many ways, more interesting than the beatdown the Los Angeles Raiders were putting on the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.

Directed by Ridley Scott, the spot, titled “1984,” used dystopian imagery to introduce Apple’s Macintosh personal computer, which would hit stores two days later, with the promise of allowing the average person access to the kind of computing power formerly reserved for big corporations.

The world would never be the same. The home computer was already a thing — it was, in fact, Time magazine’s ‘Machine of the Year’ in 1982 — but the Macintosh introduced a wave of innovation and ease of use that eventually made computers ubiquitous in both homes and businesses — for better (productivity) and, arguably, worse (a pervasive blurring between work and home life).

The latter, of course, became possible with the rise of the internet, email, and, later, social media.

“The internet has completely changed how we work, how we communicate, how we conduct business, how we learn, how we consume entertainment, and a million other aspects of our daily lives that have become so normal, we have forgotten that, 30 years ago, they didn’t exist,” said Delcie Bean, CEO of Hadley-based Paragus Strategic I.T., adding that technology is still changing things, in ways that feel unstoppable.

“If we step back and truly think about just how much changed as a result of the internet and we look at how quickly it happened,” he went on, “AI is going to have a much bigger impact in a much shorter amount of time.”

And that will require the kind of nimbleness and ability to pivot that Sean Hogan has demonstrated through his entire career, since launching Hogan Associates (later Hogan Communications and now Hogan Technology, based in Easthampton), with an initial focus on cabling and infrastructure.

“We saw the ethernet becoming a thing, and everyone needed wiring; there was no networking back then,” he told BusinessWest. “For six or seven years, we did strictly cabling. We ran it up and down the East Coast; we had a ton of work.”

After surviving the recession of 1989-90, Hogan began to see telecommunications as a huge opportunity, and that became his first major pivot.

“Back then, very few companies had voicemail. People hate it nowadays, but they wanted it then. So we started selling phone systems that could integrate with computers and voicemail. We did very well selling phone systems, started getting attention from bigger companies, and ended up selling the Toshiba name. That brand gave us recognition. As a company, we built a great base of clients; we were thinking phones would never go away.”

Delcie Bean

“If we step back and truly think about just how much changed as a result of the internet and we look at how quickly it happened. AI is going to have a much bigger impact in a much shorter amount of time.”

About 16 years ago, Hogan began to move toward its current IT management model — which, these days, focuses on managed security as much as anything else, to respond to ever-growing cyberthreats. “The help desk is still critical, but if you’re not secure, that’s the biggest problem.”

And in the next few decades, companies like Hogan’s will have to keep adapting, because opportunities, challenges, and threats in the IT world certainly will.

“We’ve been able to keep educating ourselves enough to know that we have to be willing to change and accept change as an opportunity,” he said. “We totally believe that’s our culture here. We change when we have something new to learn. We consider ourselves security fiduciaries for clients. We protect our clients to the best of our ability; that’s our number-one job these days.

“Thirty years ago, we’d say we’d provide a solid ethernet foundation and a good network infrastructure,” Hogan added. “We’re still able to do that. But if you’ve got a bad network cable, that’s one thing; if you’ve got CryptoLocker or some other ransomware, that’s a huge threat to your business.”

 

Breaking the Mold

Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT in West Springfield, shares a similar story of adaptation and evolution.

“When we started 21 years ago, the market was referred to as ‘break and fix’: if something breaks, we fix it,” he said, adding that he might do some network troubleshooting or provide very basic antivirus solutions, but in general, the work was sporadic.

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“We change when we have something new to learn. We consider ourselves security fiduciaries for clients. We protect our clients to the best of our ability; that’s our number-one job these days.”

Around 15 years ago, Northeast switched to the model of a managed service provider, providing ongoing services under contracts, doing more diligence for each client. “We created the ability to form long-term relationships with clients, understanding their networks and providing them with hardware and other services, and also networking equipment.”

The Great Recession impacted the IT world, and many businesses were just trying to stay afloat and weren’t necessarily investing in their systems, Mollison recalled, but as brighter economic times re-emerged, managed services and IT tools had become more sophisticated, with more integration across platforms, automated monitoring services, and more complex cybersecurity tools, and businesses of all kinds were increasingly recognizing the need for them.

“Things have escalated in terms of the veracity and tools used by the threat actors; they have better tools and techniques,” he explained, noting that businesses need to combat online threats not just by installing protective technology, but by training employees to recognize increasingly sophisticated phishing schemes, which promise to become more realistic and targeted in the AI era.

“A lot of this has been driven by insurance — cyberliability policies dictating that businesses must have certain elements,” Mollison noted. “We get handed policy affidavits to review what’s installed. But it’s a good conversation piece, a chance to talk about where they’re at and where they can make some progress.”

Bean, who launched a solo business fixing home computers in 2002 and now boasts a growing team of 65 employees, made his own important pivot around 2011, choosing to focus only on commercial clients at a time when residential work still represented 60% of his revenue.

It has proved to a successful decision, as more businesses have realized they need a partner like Paragus (or Hogan, Northeast, or other regional IT players) at a time when, as noted earlier, networks and cybersecurity are becoming more complicated.

“Even the large Fortune 100 companies rely on consultants and experts and advisors because this field is just so broad, and it’s touching businesses in so many ways,” Bean said. “It takes a team of experts with a lot of different experience. Even we are constantly leaning on experts and outside advisors and doing research because it is just such a broad field, and it’s changing so quickly.”

Joel Mollison

Joel Mollison

“Things have escalated in terms of the veracity and tools used by the threat actors; they have better tools and techniques.”

Mollison said there’s a reason his firm has become more security-centric than ever. “We’ve had customers come to us who have experienced a breach, dealt with ransomware, lost hundreds and hundreds of hours while the whole rebuilding process took place. They couldn’t produce anything, there were legal fees, information was compromised. A lot of those factors are at play.”

Indeed, 20 years ago, smaller businesses didn’t have much to worry about when it came to aggressive cyberattacks, but experts agree that everyone is a target now.

“The thing that’s going to cause some chaos for everyone is the introduction of AI,” Mollison said, citing Microsoft Copilot — an AI-powered tool that automates features for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams — as one example of opportunity married with concern.

“If you’re allowing a system to comb through documents, you know there might be some bad intentions,” he told BusinessWest. “In the wrong hands, somebody could gather a lot of information that could be detrimental to your organization or turn into a security vulnerability, with espionage potential. We’re going to see a lot more AI-generated attacks in the future.”

And AI isn’t going anywhere, Bean said — with all its benefits and potential worries.

“I hate really dire predictions like, ‘if you don’t do this, you’re going to be out of business,’ but in this case, I think it’s right,” he said, adding that AI could be as transformative as the internet started to become 30 years ago. “And I’d like you to name how many businesses you know that don’t use the internet in any way, shape, or form. I would imagine it’s going to be zero.”

Therefore, “if you’re not having those conversations yet, asking those questions, talking to partners, going to webinars, getting informed and educated, I think you’re starting to fall behind,” Bean added. “There’s still plenty of time, but there won’t be for that much longer. I think now is the time for CEOs and C-level staff to really get engaged, to ask questions, to get educated, and to start to figure out where this fits into their business’s strategy and life cycle before they get left behind.”

 

Future Shock

Hogan has long recognized the growing importance of cybersecurity and its continuing evolution.

“Fifteen years ago, small companies weren’t a target. You had viruses isolated to desktops, but now, everyone’s a target,” he said — and AI will only complicate matters. “You see the bad actors out there that use AI to do deepfakes, do all sorts of bad things. We’re already seeing AI with voice recognition, duplicating voices on the phone. I fear for seniors out there. I’m afraid that’s going to be an issue.”

But AI poses great opportunity as well, Bean said, especially with the emergence of predictive AI.

“It’s going to be based on your specific niche industry, where it’s going to be able to run models and simulations and solve problems within your business or give you hypothetical outcomes to new products or things that you’re thinking of developing,” he explained. “We haven’t quite seen that hit the masses yet, but it’s coming in the next 18 months. And that’s what we need to be prepared for.”

Bean cited Moore’s law, a long-standing observation in the IT world that the number of possible transistors in a computer chip doubles every two years or so.

“This is going to be exponentially faster,” he said. “We are going to see that apply to innovation, where what used to take a decade has already been cut in half a handful of times, and now happens in 12 to 18 months. Soon, that will become six months, and then three months, and then we are going to reach a point where things are changing so quickly that, for a while, it is going to be very difficult to manage until we find some kind of equilibrium and things stabilize — or we find a new normal.”

This brave new world will be a far cry from what we were seeing in 1984 (to cite the titles of two classic dystopian works), but businesses that specialize in IT will have to do what they’ve always done: keep pivoting, keep learning, keep adapting … and keep their client businesses from being overwhelmed by the next big thing.

BusinessWest Anniversary

Increasingly, They Operate as an Ecosystem

The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts has been funding the work of charities and nonprofits across the region since 1991. And its overriding mission hasn’t changed.

What has changed, at least recently, is how CFWM accomplishes that mission — specifically, moving away from specifically targeted grants into a more trust-based model. Instead of seeking to put some dollars toward a specific goal, the foundation gives to organizations in a way that puts them at the center of it and allows them to dictate how they want to spend their money.

“It’s a recognition that funders don’t necessarily know what’s best for nonprofits,” said Megan Burke, the organization’s president and CEO. “It’s the people on the front lines who are dealing with constant change in the community who know the best places to use those funds.”

The Community Foundation was moving in that direction before the pandemic, but COVID, and the urgent needs it exposed, really accelerated the process, she explained.

“If we know you have a strong mission, a strong organization, we’ll put the money in your hands and say, ‘use it well.’ We’ll ask afterward how that went, but in the moment, you know what you need to achieve and how to get there.”

Meanwhile, the mission of Square One, which began life in 1883 as Springfield Day Nursery, has in many ways remained consistent for more than 140 years.

“We’re still doing the same type of work, although the world has changed enormously,” president and CEO Dawn DiStefano said. “Children still require care for their parents to go to work. And we’re a company that cares for children and instills confidence in our community that we are a safe, healthy, and high-quality place for young children to learn and be cared for.”

At the same time, she added, much has changed.

“Probably around the time BusinessWest started,” DiStefano said, “we realized something that today is quite obvious — that you can do a lot of work with children all day, but if you’re not in partnership with families and caretakers, you can hinder permanent growth and change. After all, learning happens 24/7.”

Specifically, Square One — it took that name in 2008 to reflect its role as more than just a day nursery, but as a key foundational element in the lives of preschoolers — has made a point over the past few decades to communicate more thoroughly with parents at the start and end of each day about the child’s lessons, experiences, and mood. That way, parents can continue the conversations at home — and, in many cases, start their own, which builds trust between the parents and Square One’s providers.

The organization has gone beyond that level of communication as well, opening a Family Support Services division about 15 years ago, which includes a home visitation program for parents who request it, including specific programs for young, first-time parents and parents in recovery.

Megan Burke

Megan Burke

“If we know you have a strong mission, a strong organization, we’ll put the money in your hands and say, ‘use it well.’ We’ll ask afterward how that went, but in the moment, you know what you need to achieve and how to get there.”

“We see ourselves as partners with families,” DiStefano said. “If we can bring out the best in the child and families, they become productive members of our community, and we all benefit from that. We all do better when folks are able to engage in our world.”

Megan Moynihan, CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, said her organization’s goal since its founding 103 years ago as Springfield Community Chest has been to meet the greatest needs of the region, from early education to food insecurity to financial literacy.

“Post-COVID, we did a community assessment to really understand where the needs in the community are, if they had changed or not,” she said, noting that the greatest needs right now run the gamut from basic services, like food, to financial wellness, housing access, and mental-health support.

It meets those needs through its community service centers, where people can access emergency food supplies but also mental-health resources, including a suicide-prevention hotline. There’s also a financial-wellness program called Thrive, a partnership with Holyoke Community College on career training — in fields like culinary arts and medical assisting — and a host of other outreaches.

“Understanding the pulse of the community is the number-one issue that needs to be addressed,” Moynihan said. “It can be mental health tomorrow, but in 10 years, it might solar power and how to transition to that. We know what today’s needs are, but we have to be responsive to those needs, and when community needs change, we have to change, too.”

 

Come Together

One thing the United Way has done well over time, Moynihan noted, is connecting many resources in the community.

“If someone comes in and they are are housing-insecure, we’ll call one of the outreach workers at Health Care for the Homeless and see what kind of services are out there for them,” she said as one example. “We’ve always been a connector in the community, finding where the needs are and connecting individuals to the services they need. We can’t do the work alone.”

Megan Moynihan

Megan Moynihan

“We’ve always been a connector in the community, finding where the needs are and connecting individuals to the services they need. We can’t do the work alone.”

It’s a philosophy many nonprofits were already moving toward even before COVID — and the way it isolated people and organizations — really laid bare the need to connect and work together as a nonprofit ecosystem.

For example, Burke said, someone might seek job training, but they might also face other barriers to employment, from unreliable transportation to unaddressed health issues, and nonprofits can refer clients to each other to address multiple needs at once.

“A healthy nonprofit ecosystem, made up of nonprofits of all different sizes, is the best way to meet folks’ needs. No single nonprofit can do everything; there are so many different needs,” she told BusinessWest. “So coordination and collaboration with each other is really important.”

DiStefano used the example of connecting a parent of a child at Square One with Way Finders if they’re in need of housing support.

“We serve 1,200 families a year. Most are working one or two jobs, working eight to 12 hours a day, maybe even riding the bus, going to appointments,” she said. “I’m not in the housing business, but I’m not going to say to families, ‘I can’t talk to you about housing.’ That’s a big part of our evolution.

“Society 140 years ago was harsher in its opinion that your family was your business; it really wasn’t the business of social-service agencies or the government to help your family. But as a society, we noted over time that you can ignore problems, but that only costs more money down the line,” DiStefano went on. “The more you can invest in the child, especially between age zero and three, when the brain is doing the most developing, the better off they’ll be. Why not sink every resource we have into making sure the child has the healthiest opportunities in those years?”

The Center for EcoTechnology, which predates BusinessWest by eight years, has certainly been a connector of resources, in its case programs focused on energy efficiency, sustainability, and the environment.

In the years leading up to CET’s founding in 1976, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the establishment of Earth Day saw Americans more focused on environmental concerns, and CET began its work largely in the realm of energy efficiency and home-energy audits. Today, the initial vision is largely intact, but the work has expanded into commercial waste, decarbonization, and recycled building materials.

dawn DiStefano

Dawn DiStefano

“As a society, we noted over time that you can ignore problems, but that only costs more money down the line.”

“We’re still doing energy conservation and energy efficiency. In some ways, we’ve remained true to our origins,” said Ashley Muspratt, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “But we’ve modernized some of the language and approaches to evolve with the times — for example, shifting the conversation to electrification, which is no longer about just saving energy, but shifting away from fossil fuels to electricity and renewable sources of electricity.”

CET got involved in waste reduction in the 1980s, and that remains a core area of its work today. In addition, it’s more focused now on the question of environmental justice, aiming to ensure that no communities or customer segments are left behind or harmed by the transition to a lower-carbon or no-carbon economy.

“We offer our services in dozens of languages and have made an effort to recruit multilingual staff. We also work with a translation company, so we can provide real-time interpretation on the phone or in the field,” Muspratt added. “We want to make sure we have a staff that reflects and looks like and understands the different communities that we’re trying to serve.”

That hits home for Burke, who noted that the Community Foundation adopted a new strategy a few years ago around diversity and increasing opportunity and equity in the community. To her, that means nonprofits should have staff members that share the lived experiences of clients — not just ethnic background, but, to cite one example, serving people in Franklin County who are living with limited means trying to address all the challenges rural families have.

“Having people on their staff and on their board who may have lived those experiences allows them to develop programs to be more successful,” she noted. “We’ve stressed the importance of organizations really thinking about what perspectives they need on their staff and board.

“And it’s not just so they can feel good or have a great photo that shows diversity; it’s to be more successful in delivering the services they were founded to provide,” Burke went on. “Nonprofits recognize there really is value in incorporating a lot of different perspectives in the work they do.”

 

Thoughtful Evolution

While focusing their work in a more connected way and dealing with, in many cases, greater levels of need, some the region’s most venerable nonprofits have expanded in other ways.

Square One, for instance, has grown its family childcare program, where children are cared for and learn in home settings instead of one of the organization’s centers.

“I predict, in the next 10 years, we’ll see an explosion of interest in family childcare,” DiStefano said. “Some people, post-COVID, found comfort working from home. It’s a great business opportunity; they can make money, and Square One can help coordinate these services, so we’re supporting businesses.”

At CET, Muspratt said the organization has launched a strategic plan to grow its impact by five times by 2030, because, she noted, that’s what the climate needs, and there is plenty of money at the state and federal level to do the work, as well as private funders.

“More and more philanthropic donors want to support climate work, so that pace of growth is possible,” she said. “This region has always had an environmental bent.”

The organization has grown by 20% each of the past two years, with a staff of 100 that could double if the 2030 goals are hit, she added. “We became a more remote organization during the pandemic, and that has helped us cast a wider net. It’s good to have been able to expand our pool of candidates outside the Western Mass. region, though the majority of our staff are still based in Massachusetts.”

Nonprofits also thrive off volunteers; the United Way’s Volunteer Connect program has been successful at, well, connecting area agencies that need help with people who have time and talent to offer. It’s just one more way, Moynihan said, that nonprofits are operating in tandem.

“Everyone is working hard and chasing the same dollars,” she added, “but if we do it together, do it as a community, the outcome is always better.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Colleges Adapt to Non-traditional Realities

At the recent ceremony that officially installed him as chancellor of UMass Amherst, Javier Reyes noted that attitudes about higher education are changing, while rapid advancements in technology, with artificial intelligence at the center, are forcing colleges and universities to find new ways to meet their obligations.

“How does higher education respond to these challenges?” he asked. “How do we meet the needs of today’s students — students who are increasingly mobile and more agile? How do we meet the needs of a changing society? How do we remain nimble and adapt so that our students are prepared to be active and engaged members of their communities today, tomorrow, and for decades to come?”

That’s a lot to unpack, but UMass will focus on six key areas, Reyes explained: education, research and creative activity, translation and knowledge transfer, engagement, inclusivity and wellness, and financial and operational viability.

Then, importantly, he added, “it is important to stress that these are not six independent areas. Rather, they are six interconnected areas that must work in synergy with each other to achieve our goals.”

It’s a theme of connectivity that … well, connects Reyes’ thoughts with the conversations BusinessWest had with three other area higher-education leaders as they considered how academia has changed over the years — and where it’s going next.

“There’s been an evolution in higher education,” Elms College President Harry Dumay said. “About a decade ago, we knew there was a demographic cliff coming up for traditional undergraduate students. So everyone was thinking about the non-traditional population. And Elms had a strategy of partnering with community colleges to create degree-completion programs, which was very successful in growing enrollment in college through non-traditional students.”

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), said the role of his institution has become more prominent with last year’s launch of MassReconnect, which makes community college in Massachusetts free for adults over age 25 — another example of how colleges are prioritizing non-traditional students.

“We’ve become even more essential,” Cook said. “The fundamentals of what community colleges offer are even more important, if that’s possible, than they were 40 years ago. Access, opportunity, equity — all the things we talk about in the public sector — are really part of our DNA. And it’s invigorating to be a part of this, especially with MassReconnect, with a different kind of spotlight shining on us that further underpins this value that our name represents.”

Whether attending college right out of high school or returning as part of that older, non-traditional, often career-changing crowd, today’s students are increasingly facing an economy in flux, so they need, more than anything, to learn how to learn, Bay Path University President Sandra Doran said.

“Today’s graduates will have, on average, seven careers — not seven jobs, but seven careers,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s why we’re really committed to the concept of lifelong learning.”

Elaborating, Doran said, “in the past, you’d go to school for four years, then start your career. But that’s not always how higher education works. You might be taking college courses as a high-school student, or between ages of 17 and 24, or, sometimes, when you’re 50 years old. You might be in the workforce and, at the same time, taking college courses. This continuum of being able to learn any time you need to learn — and have the courses and programs available to do that — is really important to your future. And being adept at online learning is absolutely critical.”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Today’s graduates will have, on average, seven careers — not seven jobs, but seven careers. That’s why we’re really committed to the concept of lifelong learning.”

In such a different environment from 40 years ago, she added, colleges and universities need to provide pathways, credentials, certificates, and degrees that are adaptable to people at all stages of life, not just those in that 17-24 age range.

“What we used to refer to as a student conjured up notions of sitting at a desk, taking notes, listening to a professor. But that’s not the only way education is delivered anymore,” Doran added. “People can learn forever.”

 

Into the Real World

Students are also training for a work world that’s fiercely competing for top talent — meaning not just graduates with skills, but those able to keep learning on the fly. With that in mind, Elms College recently crafted a strategic plan that emphasizes the core value of a liberal-arts education, experiential learning in the real world while still in college, and innovation.

“The employers of today are really desperate for students who are real-world ready; you don’t have to teach them how to behave in the workforce,” Dumay said. “At the same time, they can think on their feet. They have that critical thinking. A liberal-arts undergraduate education prepares students to think on their feet, articulate their thoughts, work in groups, all the soft skills that employers are looking for.”

At the same time, he said, the Elms has brought flexibility to the forefront, offering non-traditional students everything from remote options to short-term certificates and stackable credentials that will get them into careers, with growth potential, more quickly than in a full, four-year program.

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

“A liberal-arts undergraduate education prepares students to think on their feet, articulate their thoughts, work in groups, all the soft skills that employers are looking for.”

The presidents we spoke with also emphasized the importance of offering programs relevant to growth industries, like STCC’s future involvement in the Richard E. Neal Cybersecurity Center of Excellence being built at Union Station in Springfield, or its continued leadership in health sciences (at a time when healthcare deals with persistent staffing shortages), and HVAC and energy systems (as green energy continues its ascent).

“These are really, really helpful programs to have when we map out what the needs are in the workforce,” Cook said, noting that STCC’s School of Health will be renovated in a major capital project.

Doran takes a similar approach. “Bay Path has always been workforce-driven. That, again, relates back to lifelong learning — always being responsive to the marketplace, to employers. We started in 1897 as a business institute, as a reaction to what was needed in the workplace. That commitment to providing employers with a talented, long pipeline of potential employees really is a commitment to our region, and our lifelong learners.”

She, like Dumay, stressed the importance of flexible programs adaptable to the needs of non-traditional learners.

“It’s not one size fits all. Personalized education is a continuing trend,” Doran said. “We know how important it is for students to feel their college experience is valuable and works for them.”

Reyes said UMass intends to strengthen its role as a public research university in the coming years.

Javier Reyes

Javier Reyes

“We must continue to embrace our role as the primary developer of talent in the Commonwealth while ensuring that all of our students — regardless of their discipline — have the core skills, soft skills, and critical-thinking skills that will allow them to thrive in a rapidly changing economy and a rapidly changing world.”

“Fulfilling our role as a premier land-grant public research university will require us to continue to grow our research infrastructure while also expanding opportunities for students across all disciplines and at all levels to engage with research and hands-on learning opportunities,” he said, noting that, in FY 2023, UMass faculty received 1,164 research awards totaling nearly $240 million. “This is tremendous and speaks to the confidence in the research that is happening at UMass Amherst and the impact that our faculty have on the common good.”

In the current academic year alone, he noted, the campus became home to the National Science Foundation’s Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Academic Center for Reliability and Resilience of Offshore Wind, while UMass Amherst became one of just 18 institutions to receive the National Science Foundation’s inaugural Accelerate Research Translation Award, aimed at translating the research conducted in campus laboratories into tangible solutions to real-world problems.

“We must continue to embrace our role as the primary developer of talent in the Commonwealth while ensuring that all of our students — regardless of their discipline — have the core skills, soft skills, and critical-thinking skills that will allow them to thrive in a rapidly changing economy and a rapidly changing world, so that they can succeed and grow in the fields that they choose to be a part of.”

 

Better Days

Going back to MassReconnect for a moment, Cook noted that community-college enrollment had been on a downward trend in the Northeast for a while, but for both the fall and spring of the 2023-24 academic year, STCC saw a double-digit increase in enrollment, and he expects that pace to continue.

John Cook

“We’re not all the way back to pre-pandemic, but we have changed the trend, and we hope to continue to build on that.”

“We’re not all the way back to pre-pandemic, but we have changed the trend, and we hope to continue to build on that,” he said.

“We’ve been through COVID, which were pretty tough years,” Cook added. “When you combine the momentum of a major capital project and MassReconnect and our equity outlook and the fact that we’re the most affordable college in Springfield … these are wonderful fundamentals. It’s a great place to be.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Hospitals Grapple with Some Significant Trends

Twenty years ago, in the issue commemorating BusinessWest’s 20th anniversary, area hospital leaders talked about what had changed the most over two decades, and they all mentioned the same thing: a shortening of hospital stays, with procedures that once required a several-night stayover now requiring only one — or none at all.

Today’s hospital leaders are still talking about it — because the trend has only accelerated.

“The time people spend inside the hospital for various procedures has been shortened significantly,” Holyoke Medical Center Spiros Hatiras said. “When I started in healthcare 30 years ago, someone would come in for a gallbladder surgery and spend four days in the hospital. Now it’s the same day, come in and leave.

“The same with other procedures,” he went on. “People even get knee replacements and leave the same day. For bariatric surgery, they just stay one night. They used to spend more time in the hospital, so that definitely has changed.”

Dr. Mark Keroack, president of Baystate Health, noted that, around the time BusinessWest ran that story, he started seeing an accelerating shift to more procedures done in the outpatient arena — which has impacted revenues across virtually all hospitals.

“We have 1,000 hospital beds, but 60% of our revenue comes from the ambulatory side. And even in my career, things that used to land you in the hospital for a week don’t anymore. Now you’re out in a day. That is an incredible advance because of microsurgery and advanced techniques.”

The other dramatic shift regionally — and nationally — has been a trend toward consolidation. Over the past four decades, Baystate Health, and its flagship hospital, Baystate Medical Center, have brought formerly independent hospitals in Greenfield, Palmer, and Westfield under its umbrella, while Mercy Medical Center was acquired by Trinity Health, and Cooley Dickinson Hospital is now part of the Mass General Brigham family.

“Healthcare has been evolving, and how hospitals are reimbursed has become extraordinarily challenging. There’s been a shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, which is beneficial for the community, but challenging to maintain revenues to support hospitals, which communities rely on for services,” said Dr. Robert Roose, president of both Mercy and Johnson Memorial Hospital in Enfield, Conn., both part of the Trinity family.

“And as those trends continue to shift and reimbursement rates for services decrease, that has reinforced the value of being part of a large system that has scale, that can leverage strengths across the service area.”

Cooley Dickinson Health Care President Dr. Lynnette Watkins said Cooley becoming part of Mass General Brigham just over a decade ago has been a benefit in many ways, and a model for what’s happening with formerly independent hospitals across the country.

Dr. Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack

“We have 1,000 hospital beds, but 60% of our revenue comes from the ambulatory side. And even in my career, things that used to land you in the hospital for a week don’t anymore. Now you’re out in a day.”

“So you still have that community impact, but you’re also backed by a larger network,” she told BusinessWest, citing, as one example, a current, $26 million capital project that will add about 7,700 square feet to the Emergency Department, increasing its footprint by about 40%. “We would not be able to undertake a renovation like this without the support of Mass General Brigham and its ability to engage and identify contractors and work through supply-chain issues and, candidly, to finance a project as large as this.

“Also, in order to be able to recruit and retain talent, particularly in primary care, we have to be competitive in the market,” Watkins continued. “And a lot of our colleagues come to Cooley Dickinson for that great community feel and care, but also are attracted by competitive compensation and the fact that we’re part of Mass General Brigham.”

Baystate’s own growth story began almost 50 years ago with the merger of three facilities into what is now known as Baystate Medical Center — and it has grown significantly since, with the expansion of Baystate Children’s Hospital, a massive addition known as the Hospital of the Future in 2012, and other projects.

But Baystate Health also encompasses Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield, and Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer, along with a host of physician practices and a cluster of specialty services in Springfield’s North End, most notably the D’Amour Center for Cancer Care, which opened in 2004.

“People don’t have to leave the area to get their care, and to get advanced medical care — level-1 trauma, neonatal ICU, specialty cancer care, specialty pediatric care, all those things that built up over the years,” said Keroack, who will retire from a more than four-decade career in healthcare this year. “Baystate has grown to the point where we’re doing roughly 65% of the medical care in Western Mass.”

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

“During COVID, we lost hospital personnel because they got sick or their families got sick or burnout occurred and individuals decided to take time off. We also had trainees in the pipeline that, for a couple of years, did not have the ability to learn at the bedside.”

At the same time, he added, a number of small hospitals closed or were repurposed over the years, from Ludlow Hospital to Farren Memorial Hospital in Turners Falls to Mary Lane Hospital in Ware, partly because of that shift to outpatient care and the ability of the region’s larger hospitals to diversify what they offer. “It’s hard for a small community hospital to make it.”

 

Getting Back to Work

That said, all hospitals these days, of all sizes, are struggling with workforce shortages across the spectrum, from nurses to many specialists.

Keroack said Baystate employs around 13,500 people and, before the pandemic, typically averaged 600 to 700 open positions at any given time. That number shot up to 2,100 during the Omicron phase of COVID — a time known in healthcare as the Great Resignation.

“No one wanted to work in healthcare. It was scary and difficult,” he recalled. “But we’ve done an awful lot to be better employers — we’ve done a lot with workplace safety, flex schedules, employee wellness, and novel approaches to new pipelines with our education and training partners.”

With almost 1,500 openings currently, “we’re about halfway back to where we used to be,” he added. “There’s still some work to do, but we’re making good progress and heading in the right direction.”

Watkins agreed that COVID took a toll on the workforce at Cooley Dickinson.

“We’ve had shortages before, particularly in nursing, but in the technical fields as well — radiology technologists, pharmacy techs, laboratory techs — but during COVID, we lost hospital personnel because they got sick or their families got sick or burnout occurred and individuals decided to take time off.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“Even though you have interoperability, the systems are not talking to each other. It’s a mess, if you ask me, where you could have made a really big breakthrough in medical records.”

“We also had trainees in the pipeline that, for a couple of years, did not have the ability to learn at the bedside,” she added. “And learning on the screen or in a sim lab is not the same as learning at the bedside. So these graduates are taking longer to complete their training, and taking longer to onboard and orient. That means more folks, particularly those that enjoy teaching and mentoring, are really required in order to bring this new cohort along.”

That has ramped up partnerships with UMass Amherst, Bay Path University, Springfield Technical Community College, and others on targeted programs to get more talent into the pipeline, from certified nurse aides to lab techs and surgical techs.

“One of the silver linings is that it has really forced us to be creative and collaborative,” Watkins said. “We even have high-school and college students as a part of our volunteer programs here at the hospital, so that young people can get exposed to what it means to be in a hospital, and what sorts of positions there are. Doctors and nurses are important, but there are other ways that you can work in the hospital and have a great experience.”

Roose said healthcare leaders have come to understand the importance of caregivers’ concerns at a time when the industry in general is at “an inflection point” when it comes to how hospitals operate.

“We need to double down and maximize our efforts to support caregivers through systems that keep people well and transform the systems that keep people well and transform our services in ways that meet the evolving needs not only of the patients we serve, but the colleagues that are part of our mission and drive service.”

Holyoke Medical Center has taken big steps to address those concerns as well, Hatiras said, including with compensation, but the system has still struggled, emerging from the pandemic, with employee expectations when it comes to long hours, weekends, and on-call hours — and a desire for more of their work to be remote, which isn’t always possible.

That said, artificial intelligence could begin to have a broader role, not in replacing providers, but making their jobs a little easier.

“You can have a natural conversation with the patient about their condition; the doctor can tell you what your blood pressure is, the patient can say what their symptoms are, and you can have AI listening in and creating an actual note for the chart instead of someone having to transcribe it or dictate it or type it,” Hatiras said, adding that AI can process copious amounts of information and … not make a diagnosis, exactly, but augment the doctor’s own decision making.

“It could be helpful as an overlay with all the patients that come and go — ‘hey, doctor, can you check this patient based on the data input? He may need attention; he may have sepsis; he may have an infection.’ It can be a tool to assist.”

 

Evolution Continues

Speaking of technology, Hatiras noted that one of the most monumental changes in healthcare in recent decades is the electronic medical record.

“I would say there are benefits and drawbacks. One benefit is that you can access certain information from anywhere. In the old days, you had paper charts, and if a doctor was on call and needed to look at somebody’s chart, he couldn’t. Now you can look at it — X-rays, lab results, all sorts of things. And there’s certainly more data being captured this way.”

The main downside is what Hatiras characterizes as a big missed opportunity, and that’s the failure of the U.S. government, early on, to establish a bid process and choose the best electronic medical record system and make it the national standard.

“What has happened is we have a hodgepodge of a system,” he explained. “If you physically cover more than one hospital, it’s a bear; you’ve got to learn each other’s systems: how to input orders, how to check labs. It’s not easy. Secondly, you can’t train for it in medical school because what system are you going to train on? If we had a national system, we could be learning this from year one in medical school. And even though you have interoperability, the systems are not talking to each other. It’s a mess, if you ask me, where you could have made a really big breakthrough in medical records.”

Speaking of government, Keroack noted that the way healthcare is paid for has changed dramatically, especially over the two decades since Romneycare; today, 97% of Massachusetts residents carry health insurance.

And with more than 90% of Baystate patients cared for under a global budget — specifically, Medicare and Medicaid accountable-care organizations — “if we overspend or are inefficient, we have to eat the difference. It leads us to emphasize prevention, wellness, and coordination of care. It’s changed the way doctors think about keeping people healthy.”

Today, with an older population than the national average, 70% of Baystate’s payments come from Medicaid and Medicare and 30% from commercial managed care, while the average hospital in the U.S. is 40% government and 60% managed care.

“Over time, the country’s going to have to tackle the question of whether we move to some single-payer health approach,” Keroack added. “We’re not done as a nation dealing with the cost of healthcare. We have the highest cost of healthcare in the world and the most splintered, uncoordinated program of paying for it.”

Meanwhile, major projects continue locally in an effort to meet community needs, from Cooley Dickinson’s Emergency Department overhaul — the ER was built in the 1970s when ER visits were less than half what they are today — to Trinity Health’s Enfield Ambulatory Center, which will reflect that overall shift toward outpatient care.

“There will continue to be an emphasis on innovation, technology, and what will be known as precision medicine or personalized medicine as we move into the future,” Roose said, citing projects at Mercy from a new palliative-care center to an agreement with the US Oncology Network to improve services, technology, and access to clinical trials.

“The main emphasis will continue to be on compassionate care and creating experiences that are holistic and compassionate and help people along their healing journey.”

BusinessWest Anniversary

Workforce Challenges Have Emerged over Time

When you’ve been building things for as long as Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC) has, well … sometimes you enjoy the sequel.

Take, for example, the Montgomery-Russell bridge on I-90 over the Westfield River. DOC is currently renovating it, a $46.9 million project that includes deck rehabilitation, lighting and drainage improvements, and a major steel component replacement.

It’s a return of sorts for Holyoke-based DOC, which built that bridge nearly 70 years ago.

“When you have situations like that, it’s kind of cool,” said Joubin Hassanein, the company’s president. “You look back at photos of the people that were working on that original bridge, and to know that they’re kind of connected to you in some way is pretty awesome.”

With a 145-year history of major projects, from Springfield’s Memorial Bridge to Rowe’s Wharf in Boston and that city’s Leverett Circle Connector Bridge, the leaders at O’Connell’s can take a long view of what has changed in the construction industry, but Hassanein believes some of the bigger changes are still to come.

“Construction in general has been an industry that hasn’t seen a lot of change over the course of a long time — except for the period that we live in now,” he told BusinessWest, especially in the realm of technology. “We’re seeing a rapid adoption of technology into construction. We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change, and we’re heavily invested in that.”

DOC is equally invested in wastewater and drinking-water facilities, which now account for about 40% of its work, with the other 60% falling mostly into the education sector, but also healthcare, hospitality, senior living, and other areas. With two offices in Massachusetts and one each in Connecticut, New York, and Florida, it’s also looking to expand geographically.

David Fontaine Jr., CEO of Fontaine Bros., has also had a hand in plenty of large-scale public work, as well as helping to shape the landscape of downtown Springfield, from the MassMutual Center project 20 years ago to the recent conversion of the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate apartments.

“It’s great to see the momentum that’s generating for the area,” he said, adding that high schools and colleges have been another mainstay, with work at Deerfield Academy, Wilbraham Monson Academy, and a host of other schools, as well as healthcare projects for clients like Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center. “We intentionally keep a mix of work in public and private sectors. The public sector is a little less sensitive to the ups and downs of interest rates.

“Almost 70% of our work is with repeat clients, so that’s important,” Fontaine added. “When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after. But even with that fierce competition, we’ve won six of the last seven projects we competed for. We attribute a lot of that to those repeat relationships.”

When Joe Marois opened the South Hadley-based construction firm that bears his name in 1972, business was conducted differently, and he was discouraged to see some of that fall away.

Joubin Hassanein

Joubin Hassanein

“We’re probably in the early stages of a very fast-changing scene within the construction industry. And I think it’s important for companies to be nimble enough to move with that change.”

“It was a complete joy. A lot of the work we did initially was, believe it or not, on a handshake. We were doing colleges and private work, a lot of the mills, very little public work. But there was an abundance of work, and we had large crews, and it was a different time.”

Heightened competition in the private sector, however, eventually shifted the dynamic.

“As people started seeing what we were doing, they started migrating into our area to the point where the profits became problematic for us. So we migrated into the public sector. And that’s a lot more difficult — it’s permitting-intense, it’s paperwork … the process is very difficult. We’re dealing with engineers who have to deal themselves with peer review, which increases the requirements for the project substantially. We’ve had to use attorneys more in the last 20 years than in prior years just to make sure we cross our Ts and so forth.”

Ryan Pelletier, project manager for Houle Construction in Ludlow, said his firm has been focused for more than 30 years on the healthcare and hospital industry.

“That’s been our mainstay, our bread and butter. We do other things, all kinds of commercial work. But 90%, of what we do is healthcare by virtue of our repeat customers.”

His father, company President Tim Pelletier, arrived at Houle as an estimator back in 1989, working for company founder Ray Houle. At the time, the firm was building Friendly’s and Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants up and down the East Coast, as both were in serious growth mode.

Later, “Ray saw some opportunities in healthcare, and also, some of the guys were settling down with wives and kids, and fewer of them wanted to do the traveling,” Ryan said. “So the team leaned into the healthcare sector. They found some idiosyncrasies and peculiarities about the sector that makes it unappealing for some companies, but we found a niche there.”

David Fontaine Jr.

David Fontaine Jr.

“When there are fewer projects out there and they’re more difficult to get, we see fierce competition for every project we’re going after.”

COVID was an interesting time, he added, as Houle built temporary structures at Baystate Medical Center and Cooley Dickinson Hospital to handle COVID overflow, among other projects, but infection-control measures at area hospitals didn’t make things easy. “We were really, really needed, but they also didn’t want us there.”

All these firms have traveled different paths and made unique impacts on the landscape — both literally and figuratively. But they’ve shared many challenges, too.

 

Priming the Pump

One substantial change across the industry has to do with workforce — in particular, the flow of young workers into the industry, which has slowed to a trickle, something every contractor we spoke with for this story recognized.

Many years ago, Marois said, each summer, “we’d have nine or 10 or more college students that would come here automatically, and we’d hire them all. They’d stay for the four-year college stint.”

Nowadays, even vocational-school graduates are slim pickings, he went on. “It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up. We’re even advertising on television.”

Joe Marois

Joe Marois

“It doesn’t seem like a lot of people have ambitions to be in the trades anymore. Not a lot of people are showing up.”

Pelletier agreed. “The economy has been shifting. Traditionally, you got apprenticeship work in the field. Today, a lot of young people are being pushed toward college, and none are excited to come out of school with an expensive degree to go into a career where they didn’t need a degree to begin with.”

He hopes some might be drawn by rising salaries, especially for in-demand trades like HVAC. “Demand is as high as ever, so beginning wages are increasing, and the costs to us are increasing.”

Indeed, Marois said someone still learning on the job can make $17 an hour, and they could be making $45 to $50 on a public-works project not too much later. “There’s some incentive there for young people, the fact that you can start at that level that quickly. But it doesn’t seem to be enticing for a lot of these young people.”

Hassanein said some of the technology being used in construction today may draw more individuals to consider a career.

“We have a lot of connected systems and data, and being able to make decisions and being guided by that data is becoming more and more prominent in our world, where it wasn’t before. So the people you want to bring in are people that can do that type of work and can process that information and translate it to the job.”

Pelletier added that “the obvious answer is to make it more appealing, pay more, and offer more benefits, but we can also get people from different sectors, like warehousing and retail. That’s something I like to do — find people in my daily commute, at Dunkin’ Donuts or Men’s Wearhouse, somebody who has a good personality and is always working hard; I encounter them daily. They may be at a job that’s just paying the bills, and if I have a need for an apprentice, I can put them on a career path.

“Our only option at this point is to be more proactive than looking for the kids who go from trade school right into the industry,” he added. “Those kids don’t exist in large numbers anymore. So we have to deal with that.”

Hassanein added that the workforce shortage across the industry was in evidence before COVID, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation.

“When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.”

“I think our industry lost quite a bit of people in the last downturn and never really recovered. So, as an industry, we’re challenged,” he said, adding that casting a net for a more diverse workforce, including more women, would help.

Fontaine agrees, noting that Liz Wambui, the firm’s director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Impact since 2021, has made some positive headway in workforce matters.

“It’s great to see the construction industry embrace diversity in the workplace,” he said. “When we talk about the workforce, there’s certainly a focus on inclusion — a broad mix of people of color and women, people who represent the area that we’re building. We want to help them not only get into the trades, but be successful in the trades.

“That’s where Liz goes above and beyond; she works with different partners on pathways into the industry, and once someone is in the industry, she partners with them to help them transition from project to project and make those first couple of years a success so they can have a long-term career.”

Considering the current challenges, Fontaine added, “a lot of Liz’s role is focused on the workforce generally. It’s a need we have across all the trades we work with, and we’ve done some innovative things, like partnering with unions, which are very forward-thinking and helpful in coming up with ways to attract people into the trades and keep them.”

 

Something to Build On

Some of the challenges of today’s construction industry are sector-specific, like the trend toward hospitals being acquired by national players, as in the case of Mercy Medical Center and Trinity Health.

“Where that becomes a challenge is the powers that be are located elsewhere, and decisions are being made halfway across the country for things that are local,” Pelletier said. “They don’t necessarily understand the complexities of the local market.”

Hassanein said it’s a good time to work in education because many colleges are prioritizing energy efficiency and carbon neutrality, and DOC is helping them achieve those goals over a number of years. “We’re at Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and Amherst right now, for example. Those are multi-year projects.”

Some of this work is still in its infancy, he added, but it’s expanding quickly. “It’s definitely a great place to be. Almost every academic institution has a goal established, with a deadline, and until now, they’ve been kind of waiting because the technologies have been changing at a rapid pace, so they didn’t want to invest a lot too early and realize that it’s outdated. But now, the clock is ticking, and they’re all in full motion.

“We’re always evolving, and you have to be a company that’s nimble enough to evolve with the environment that you have,” Hassanein went on. “The continuous-change element is a really key part of any company’s success going forward.”

Fontaine agrees that sustainability, green building, and new technology are exciting elements of construction today, but he added that another aspect of his firm’s success is not getting too busy when times are busy.

“A lot of people will chase whatever the new sector is, whatever they think the new geography is; they want to grow just to grow and do as much volume as possible. Our goal is always to do as good a job as we can on projects where we can be successful and execute.”

Despite the workforce challenges, he added, “I think the industry is in a good place. It’s been a positive profession for the last 20-something years that I’ve been in it.”

 

 

Features Special Coverage

Seed Money

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan says the new report calls for admittedly significant financial investments — but that other regions have met such challenges with positive results.

The surprise was food science.

At least, that industry’s prominent place on a recent report outlining economic potential in Western Mass. was a mild surprise to some, Rick Sullivan said, but maybe it shouldn’t have been.

The report in question — commissioned and funded by the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) and produced by MassINC and Cambridge Econometrics — is called “Accelerating Inclusive Growth in the Pioneer Valley: A Prospectus for Transformative Investment.”

At its heart, it determines that the Pioneer Valley has considerable strength in certain industries and technologies poised to grow with the transition to a low-carbon future, specifically detailing competitive advantages — and, hence, major economic opportunity — in the realms of food science, advanced materials, and clean energy.

Sullivan, EDC president and CEO, noted that Big Y Executive Chairman Charlie D’Amour, who sat on the project’s advisory group, knows his way around matters of food science, food security, and food-delivery systems. “And I think he didn’t even have any idea about how deep the work being done at UMass was and their leadership position in this field, and how we could tie it all in together. I mean, UMass has the number-one food-science program in the country. Who knew?”

When the report was released last month, D’Amour noted that Western Mass. should capitalize on disruptive changes in the food industry. “From biotechnologies under development at UMass to innovative efforts to support local food entrepreneurs, the Pioneer Valley is situated to generate broadly shared wealth, positioning itself as a leading producer of sustainable food products.”

The report makes a broad case for transformative investment, pointing out data showing that:

• The Pioneer Valley retains manufacturing strength, but lacks growing industry clusters;

• The Valley is underperforming relative to its potential to conduct research and development and commercialize new technology;

• GDP per capita in the Pioneer Valley is half that of Greater Boston and below the metro-area average for the U.S., heightening the need for new, high-growth clusters;

• Inflation-adjusted median household income in the Pioneer Valley grew by less than 5% over the past decade, compared to nearly 9% nationally and 12% for Massachusetts statewide; and

• High concentrations of poverty undermine the potential of the region’s future workforce.

The report also details success stories of transformative investment to the east and west, with high returns on investment: the Albany, N.Y. nanotech cluster, which drew on hundreds of millions in state funding and tax incentives; and the Worcester health research and biomanufacturing cluster, which is similar to the Albany model but achieved over a longer time period and with more modest state investment.

Javier Reyes

“As the Commonwealth’s land-grant university, our researchers make new discoveries and develop technologies that support local industry and prepare the workforce required for the Commonwealth to flourish in the decades ahead.”

“The Pioneer Valley certainly has the preconditions to compete globally in knowledge industries — it is home to the University of Massachusetts flagship campus at Amherst, along with 10 four-year colleges and three community colleges. Together, these institutions develop an enormous amount of talent, as well as a significant volume of basic and applied research,” the report notes, also highlighting the region’s abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, strong healthcare and hospital systems, an international airport, advanced manufacturers, and a rich food ecosystem, from farmers and specialty food producers to larger-scale food manufacturing.

Hence, the region is ripe for dramatic investment and growth in general, and in the three sectors the report focuses on — food science, advanced materials, and clean energy — specifically.

“With these indisputable economic assets, it is striking how little proactive economic-development investment the region has seen in the past several decades,” it continues. “Blinded by Boston’s enormous output, it is difficult for many to appreciate the true potential of the Pioneer Valley.”

UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes agrees. “UMass Amherst is committed to working closely with our partners in Western Massachusetts to play a central role in fostering economic development and growth for the benefit of our region,” he said. “As the Commonwealth’s land-grant university, our researchers make new discoveries and develop technologies that support local industry and prepare the workforce required for the Commonwealth to flourish in the decades ahead.”

But, as we will see, investment means money — lots of it.

 

Not a Small Ask

Specifically, the report calls for establishing what it calls a Fund for the Pioneer Valley — a dedicated pool of resources for transformative investment in advanced industries that positions the region for growth while supporting the state’s overall economic-development strategy as it relates to the clean-energy transition.

Charlie D’Amour

Charlie D’Amour

“From biotechnologies under development at UMass to innovative efforts to support local food entrepreneurs, the Pioneer Valley is situated to generate broadly shared wealth, positioning itself as a leading producer of sustainable food products.”

Based on similar efforts, the report calls for committing at least $50 million per year in state resources to targeted economic investments in the Pioneer Valley over a 10-year period: $400 million for a strategic portfolio of innovation investments, $90 million for site development, and $10 million for economic-development implementation capacity.

To help ensure that the fund makes worthy investments and that it fully leverages the state’s capital, the report continues, each allocation should leverage additional federal and private investment at a ratio of at least one-to-one, resulting in at least $1 billion in total investment in the Pioneer Valley economy over the next 10 years.

“I’ll be the first one to sit here and say that’s a big number,” Sullivan told BusinessWest, but the results of similar efforts in places like New York and Georgia have borne fruit, and investments in IT, life sciences, and even offshore wind in the eastern part of the Commonwealth haven’t generated much spillover for the Pioneer Valley economy — meaning this region needs its own targeted strategy.

“Is there a component where we will seek state investment? Yes. Will it involve federal investment? We hope so. But at the end of the day, if it’s going to truly be successful, there has to be the private investment on the other side,” Sullivan added, pointing to the example of Clean Crop Technologies, which BusinessWest profiled in its March 18 issue, and which hopes to revolutionize food safety and production in the green-tech sector.

“Other companies are, if not outright investing in Clean Crop, they’re working with or contracting with them. Those are dollars that are coming into the region from well outside the region, and from companies that have typically not played in this region,” Sullivan explained.
“So for this to be successful for the long term, there absolutely has to also be that private investment. This cannot just be a government initiative. It can start as a government initiative, but it clearly must have private investment.”

While the federal government has been discussing ways to transition to a low-carbon future — and, in so doing, spur new forms of economic activity in metropolitan areas across the U.S. — Gov. Maura Healey has called for the development of a clean-energy corridor across all of Massachusetts, and the investments suggested in the report could dovetail with that effort.

Jay Ash

“This research illuminates promising opportunities unique to the Pioneer Valley as we develop low-carbon technologies. We must work together to help the region tap these opportunities to generate strong and equitable growth.”

“This research illuminates promising opportunities unique to the Pioneer Valley as we develop low-carbon technologies,” said Jay Ash, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. “We must work together to help the region tap these opportunities to generate strong and equitable growth.”

In the clean-energy realm, the report notes that the Valley has been a regional leader in clean energy, with ISO New England headquartered in Holyoke, extensive hydroelectric power (Holyoke Gas & Electric and FirstLight), early adoption of solar generation (conversion of the Mount Tom coal-fired power plant), and an effort to promote equitable business ownership and workforce training in the sector in partnership with the Emerald Cities Collaborative.

“Despite these advances, the region has struggled to define its economic role in the clean-energy transition,” it adds. “A robust strategy is critical because the clean-energy transition is the largest market opportunity by several orders of magnitude. Efforts to decarbonize the economy are drawing $2.8 trillion in investment globally each year, and estimates suggest spending must increase to $4.5 trillion annually to reach net zero by 2050. The Healey-Driscoll state economic-development plan seeks to position the entire Commonwealth to complete for this investment.”

Clean tech is a broad umbrella, Sullivan said, and includes the region’s broad research involving water — security, delivery systems, purification, and more — much of it from UMass, but also from a host of small companies.

“There’s a real opportunity to grow that. We’re looking at sectors that are only going to be more important in five and 10 years, not less,” he added. “The issues around water — water purity, water scarcity, water delivery — those aren’t going to go away. And they’re international problems. So that market is always going to be there. It’s an area that will grow.

“It’s the same thing with food,” he went on. “With climate change and global warming, the issue of how we raise, grow, deliver, and manufacture food isn’t going away. These are transformative in the sense that they’re sectors that are not totally built out — and they fit into the fabric of who we are as a community. They are environmentally based for the most part, particularly food science and clean tech. And they’re not going to go away.”

 

Drawing on Strengths

The report, which also drew financial support from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Davis Foundation, MassDevelopment, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, is available online at www.westernmassedc.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/white-paper-FINAL.pdf, and includes exponentially more detail than this article can convey, including specific ventures (along with specific dollar figures) by which the sectors of food science, advanced-materials, and clean energy may be cultivated.

The vision is to create clusters that become nationally recognized, drawing more companies and more investment, and make Western Mass. a dynamic and attractive place to launch businesses of all kinds, raising all boats, so to speak.

That was the goal of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), established in 1990. That nonprofit, public-private partnership was created to help industry, research universities, and state government agencies collaborate to build a technology-driven economy fueled by advanced research.

The state of Georgia provides the alliance with about $23 million annually to support its operations, from recruiting top research talent to building state-of-the-art labs. GRA also provides seed funding, legal assistance, and other services to support the researchers as they work to move their discoveries to the marketplace.

The result? Since its founding, GRA estimates it has produced a return on investment approaching $12 billion.

“We didn’t invent that model. That’s what’s happened in biotech, and that’s what’s happened in Upstate New York and in Georgia,” Sullivan said. “We’re looking to be the catalyst to get this thing to move, to show that it can work. Somebody has to tell the story of why this makes sense for Western Mass., and that’s an important part of this report. That, and we had to pick sectors that made sense.”

Ben Forman, MassINC research director and co-author of the study, is eager to see the state act with urgency.

“We have overlooked the Pioneer Valley for decades, jeopardizing its economic base,” he said. “It’s time to recognize and build on the region’s considerable economic assets.”

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Golden Opportunity

OT programs at Bay Path

While the OT programs at Bay Path involve plenty of classroom time (as pictured here), students are doing innovative work in the community as well.
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

 

When Dr. Julie Watson arrived at Bay Path University, she recognized a rapidly growing population in need of occupational therapy: senior citizens.

So Watson — who directs Bay Path’s health science doctorate, master of public health, and post-professional occupational therapy doctorate programs — had an idea to enrich the post-professional OT doctorate program, which is for working occupational therapists seeking their clinical doctorate while they practice.

“Given my experience with older adults and caregivers, I saw a need to have something that focuses on the aging U.S. population. Almost a quarter of the population is going to be older than age 65 by 2030.”

So she developed a concentration for the OTD program called productive aging. “It focuses on the idea that older adults can remain active and productive even as they’re aging — that we can maximize the independence of older adults so they can stay in their homes and continue to engage in activities that are important to them, whether that’s working part-time or volunteering or spending time with their grandkids or even leisure activities like gardening.”

As noted, the track started as a concentration for the post-professional OTD program. “Then we launched a doctor of health science degree, and I wanted to incorporate the concentration into that as well. Then we had a re-evaluation of our master of public health program. And what’s more public health than a population-based approach for older adults?

“So it became an interdisciplinary concentration,” she explained, “where students from a variety of backgrounds can come together and take four courses that prepare them to address these needs of a lot of older adults in our communities.”

“It focuses on the idea that older adults can remain active and productive even as they’re aging — that we can maximize the independence of older adults so they can stay in their homes and continue to engage in activities that are important to them, whether that’s working part-time or volunteering or spending time with their grandkids or even leisure activities like gardening.”

Those four course descriptions go a long way toward explaining how the concentration puts the ideas behind productive aging to use in the community, to help older people maximize their independence and quality of life:

• “Aging in Place” examines supports to keep people in their homes, maintaining their independence in the community — and also barriers that prevent them from doing so.

• “Chronic Disease Management for Older Adults” acknowledges that older adults are faced with many chronic diseases, from congestive heart failure to cancer, and discusses strategies to help them with their chronic conditions, to improve their outcomes and their quality of life.

• “Specialized Assessment” takes a public-health approach to evaluating communities — and the services available in those communities — to make sure they’re meeting older adults’ needs when it comes to infrastructure and programs in place to support older adults.

• Finally, “Neuroscience of Aging and Impact on Mental Health” examines the neurological changes that can happen with older adults, including cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

“I love working with older adults so much. When I was a clinical OT, I enjoyed that specific aspect of my practice,” Watson said, noting that most Baby Boomers coming from hospital care or simply dealing with normal aging want to stay in their homes, which has led to a boom in home care.

Dr. Julie Watson

Dr. Julie Watson

“It’s a win-win because students are getting the experience working with older adults, and the older adults are getting much-needed services that allow them to remain independent and have a higher quality of life.”

“I think we’re poised for a shift in how we meet the needs of older adults; we want to be educating the practitioners, the healthcare professionals, about these needs in advance.”

 

Changing Times

In a widely read article last fall, the the New York Times editorial board addressed these growing needs.

“Thanks to falling birth rates, longer life expectancy, and the graying of the Baby Boomer cohort, our society is being transformed,” the editorial board wrote. “This is a demographic change that will affect every part of society. Already, in about half the country, there are more people dying than being born, even as more Americans are living into their 80s, 90s, and beyond. In 2020, the share of people 65 or older reached 17%, according to the Census Bureau. By 2034, there will be more Americans past retirement age than there are children.”

The purpose of the article was partly to call attention to the economic impact of the shift. In Japan, for instance, declining births combined with a surging senior population has caused a wave of school closings, labor shortages, and a steep drop in revenue for retirement programs, causing Japanese people to increasingly work into their 60s and 70s. But the writers also noted opportunities when it comes to the business of aging.

“A cottage industry of products and services has emerged to help people adjust their homes and their lives for aging. A demographic shift this significant calls for a broad-based response, and the longer the challenges go unaddressed, the more formidable they become,” they wrote. “There are many pieces to this puzzle, including who will care for older people, where they will live, how our cities are designed, and how businesses will adapt.”

One barrier, of course, is funding, Watson noted.

“You’re dealing with federal, state, city, and county budgets, and this isn’t a high priority in a lot of places,” she told BusinessWest. “So, the ideas are well-received, and public-health and healthcare professionals know they’re needed, but — aside from councils on aging in all our local communities — there hasn’t been a huge shift in funding for the types of services that are needed. But we need to make these things happen, and it would be great if we could see federal, state, and local investment money into this sort of thing.”

The students at Bay Path are already applying their education to the community in ways that are mutually beneficial. The master of occupational therapy students work with faculty at Ruth’s House, an assisted-living community in Longmeadow, and also participate in a monthly stroke support group at the Enfield Senior Center.

Nora Moreno Cargie

Nora Moreno Cargie

“We are inclusive and center the work in community. These initiatives originated with older people, including people of color, people from the LGBTQ+ community, and others facing systemic barriers, demonstrating the power of proximity and the creativity of community.”

The OT department has also held an event that helps older drivers adjust their cars for optimum safety, and OTD students do projects educating healthcare practitioners and families about services available in the community for older adults.

“When we have the students out in the community with practitioners,” Watson said, “it’s a win-win because students are getting the experience working with older adults, and the older adults are getting much-needed services that allow them to remain independent and have a higher quality of life.”

 

Age-friendly Developments

Bay Path’s heightened attention on aging reflects a national demographic shift that began a couple decades ago and continues today: a U.S. population whose average age is on the rise.

That reality inspired a podcast launched by the Healey-Driscoll administration last fall called ReiMAgine Aging, which aims to tell the story of the age- and dementia-friendly movement taking place in Massachusetts.

The podcast highlights efforts to make Massachusetts a better place to grow older, including updating infrastructure, promoting volunteer and employment opportunities, expanding affordable supportive housing, increasing transportation options, supporting caregivers, and improving digital access.

“Equity, access, and justice are foundational to the age- and dementia-friendly movement,” Secretary of Elder Affairs Elizabeth Chen said when the podcast was unveiled. “We are grateful to the older adults, caregivers, communities, and organizations who shape and lead this work and who have helped us reframe aging to be an asset.”

The podcast, accessible at mahealthyagingcollaborative.org/reimagine-aging, highlights voices from statewide and community leaders, older adults, and nonprofits through six episodes: “Aging with Purpose and Meaning,” “Buildings That Bring People Together,” “Enhancing Digital Equity for All,” “Moving Forward,” “Savoring Food That Matters,” and “Shaping Compassionate Communities.”

The podcast was produced in partnership with the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative with funding from Point32Health Foundation.

“The country is looking to Massachusetts as a leader in the age-friendly movement,” said Nora Moreno Cargie, Point32Health Foundation president. “We are inclusive and center the work in community. These initiatives originated with older people, including people of color, people from the LGBTQ+ community, and others facing systemic barriers, demonstrating the power of proximity and the creativity of community.”

At Bay Path, Watson is gratified to see faculty and students to do their part in creating that paradigm.

“The productive-aging concentration is very unique in higher education, and the fact that we have students at different levels who have the opportunity to develop programs and interact with people in the community while they’re learning … it’s just a special thing.”

Class of 2024

Owner, Wind & Water Doula Care: Age 35

For a decade, Jen Walts was a high-school teacher. And she’s still an educator today — in a much different way.

“I experienced an empowering birth and realized one of the main reasons why that experience was so positive for me was that I was well-educated and had a support team that I could turn to for more wisdom and resources,” she recalled.

It was so empowering, in fact, that Walts decided she wanted to bring that experience to other women — and Wind & Water Doula Care was born.

“I knew I wanted to shift into the world of birthing, but with education at its core, empowering families to soak in as much knowledge as they can in such a transformative time.”

Offering holistic prenatal support to support families through labor, birth, and early postpartum, Walts believes in bodily autonomy and informed consent through the birth process, empowering families to identify core values that shape their birth preferences, including, in some cases, the affirming, relaxation-inducing method of breathing techniques known as hypnobirthing.

“It’s an intense understanding of the physiology of labor and birth, so they feel less anxious about the process,” she explained. “It’s not happening to them; instead, they can move through it with some valuable coping tools. I call it preparing your mind to trust your body.”

Walts has attended or supported more than 75 births and taught childbirth education to more than 100 families.

“Jen is an active listener to parents, and she offered us generous and detailed strategies from pain management to postpartum planning,” one client testified. Added another, “she exudes a reassuring and calm presence that felt so helpful throughout the shifting dynamics of birth.”

Walts said too many families fall victim to “information overload” from social media. “That can be helpful to some extent, but it can also be overwhelming and can really disconnect you from your intuition and what you want for your family. I’m working on the outside of any medical system; I want to get into what values they have, what values they want to show up in their birthing.”

Walts was recently appointed program co-coordinator for a grant-funded program that will increase access to doula care for families birthing at Seven Sisters Midwifery and Community Birth Center in Northampton, which could help fill a persistent need for doulas locally.

A big question for women, she said, is “how do I advocate for myself in a system that’s built for efficiency? We’re taking back autonomy and voice in the healthcare system.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

President, Western Mass Rabbit Rescue: Age 39

Four years ago, Jordana Starr found a rabbit. Then she decided to find some more.

“It started in 2020 when a friend of mine, a rabbit owner like me, saw a posting about a loose rabbit. So we decided to try to capture this domestic rabbit who couldn’t survive outdoors,” she recalled. “It was a success — we captured the rabbit, got him neutered, and found him a home.”

Soon after, they launched a Northampton-based nonprofit dedicated to doing that work on a larger scale, then procured space for a shelter after a large rescue of 45 rabbits. While Starr’s original partner eventually left the organization, she still leans on a group of committed volunteers who help with day-to-day operations, fostering rabbits, transportation, and more.

“There’s a nationwide crisis of people trying to surrender pets,” she said. “So we have to triage; we can’t take every pet, or we’d be handling thousands of pets. We can handle maybe 50 in the whole rescue at a time — maybe a dozen requests every week.”

For instance, “if someone is bored with their rabbit, but they’re safe, warm, and well-fed, we’ll probably turn those away. If a rabbit has been abandoned and neglected, or is very sick, we’re more likely to act in those scenarios. We get them spayed, neutered, and take care of all their medical needs — and some have high medical needs.”

The team will try to bond rabbits if someone wants more than one, and they make sure families spend time with the animals they’ll be adopting.

“When you first see them make that connection and bond — you see them falling in love — you know you’re completing a family in an important way. We know the work we’re doing is really paying off from the phone calls and letters from people thanking us. We’re not only making a difference for the rabbits, we’re making a difference for humans.”

It’s quite different work from Beerology, the home-brew shop Starr and her husband, Mike Schilling, have co-owned in Northampton since 2016. Meanwhile, in her spare time, Starr loves international travel, ballroom dancing, and performing in theater. In fact, she landed her first professional role last summer with Faultline Ensemble, playing a rookie EMT in a play called Counting Pebbles; the group is hoping to win a grant to tour the show in six cities.

“It’s about trauma and resiliency,” Starr said — both of which she’s had to navigate plenty for some furry friends looking for a better life.

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Human Resources Manager, RepresentUs: Age 31

Stephanie Slysz has long been interested in politics. In college and early in her career, she interned in the Massachusetts governor’s office and the U.S. State Department, worked at a U.S. embassy, and volunteered on a mayoral campaign.

While working as an office assistant at WHMP, she learned about RepresentUs because its executive director at the time, Josh Silver, was a regular on the station’s Bill Newman Show.

“We were nerding out about ranked-choice voting one night,” she recalled. “They were hiring for his assistant, he recommended I apply, and the rest is history.”

Slysz sees her current role as “an opportunity to grow HR for an organization that I strongly believe in, and I very much appreciate supporting the folks doing the work on the ground.”

RepresentUs describes itself as America’s leading non-partisan anti-corruption organization, fighting to fix “our broken and ineffective government.” Among its current campaigns are efforts in numerous states to implement ranked-choice voting, fight campaign corruption, and defend democracy and voter access.

Similar to how same-sex marriage, cannabis legalization, and other ideas found traction on the state level first, she explained, “the idea is to create enough momentum in these cities and states so Congress has to act on it eventually.”

As opposed to working on the ground in campaigns, where it’s easy to get emotionally invested and burnt out, Slysz feels energized to support the priorities of RepresentUs on a broader scale.

“I will always need to dedicate my time to mission-based things, whether it’s where I work or volunteering in my community,” she said, before expressing enthusiasm about the RepresentUs mission. “If you can fix the problem of money in politics, if you can make government work for more than special interests, you can fix all these other things. That is the root problem.”

Speaking of community, Slysz also chairs the Hatfield Planning Board, through which she sits on a multi-town committee organized by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to address farmland-protection policies, represents the board on the Hatfield 2040 Comprehensive Plan Committee, and more.

“I am involved locally, and that is also not partisan; I feel like it’s the way you can have the most impact on your community,” she said. “Nationally, nothing is really moving, so taking it local is the way to go. A lot of young people don’t know about their small town and their local government, but it’s not a huge lift to sit on a board or committee, build your skills, and be more connected to your town.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

Youth Mental Health Coalition Manager, Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts: Age 39

Tiffany RufinoIt’s called “I Am More Than My Mood.”

That public awareness campaign, seen on billboards, buses, and digital ads since its unveiling in early 2023, aims to destigmatize the subject of mental health and empower young people to talk about it — and, hopefully, take steps toward self-care.

It’s just one element of Tiffany Rufino’s impactful work as Youth Mental Health Coalition manager at the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

“The coalition is all about preventive methods for youth mental health, how we convene and bring together different professionals and residents across different sectors: behavioral-health professionals, private clinicians, and residents who are interested in youth mental health and want to impact change in their communities,” she explained.

Many ideas in the campaign came a youth advisory board called Beat the Odds, Forget the Statistics.

“They get together weekly and talk about topics around mental health and work to bring information to the community and build awareness,” Rufino explained. “They’re comfortable talking about mental health and encourage their peers to do the same.”

She’s learned that today’s teens are a little more open to talking about mental health than, say, their parents.

“It really becomes an opportunity to share some challenges they’re going through and recognize that other young people are experiencing the same,” she went on. “With the coalition, we’re focusing on parents and guardians, getting them up to speed on where their youth are and helping them realize that talking about stress doesn’t make you weak or inferior in any way; it’s just the reality of life.”

Rufino has worked in community and youth development for a long time, building relationships with local schools and colleges with Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts and addressing root causes of poor reading levels in schools with Parent Villages, to name two previous roles.

“I really have a passion for creating opportunities for young people, especially my community in Springfield, and making sure they have opportunities and pathways for success,” she said, adding that, through the coalition she has assembled at the Public Health Institute, she’s able to address issues ranging from stress, anxiety, and depression to the ways intergenerational trauma impacts parenting today.

“The youth are so critical because they can impact change now and in the future,” Rufino said. “It’s a really great feeling to be able to spearhead this work and see tangible results coming from young people, and even parents and guardians. It gives me goosebumps every time.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

Owner, Spill the Tea Sis: Age 38

Mischa RoyMischa Roy has long been connected with the arts in Western Mass.; two decades ago, at age 18, she was one of the youngest exhibitors at the Paradise City Arts Festival, among other high-profile events. She eventually opened retail spaces for her handmade wares and, in 2014, launched a wholesale brand called Spill the Tea Sis, selling to more than 6,000 stores across the country.

Roy moved to Florida for a while, but during the pandemic, she decided to come home and operate the wholesale business from Western Mass., but she was struck by the impact COVID was having on Northampton’s downtown.

“I was walking around Main Street and saying, ‘man, that little storefront could probably use some life,’” she recalled, so she opened a Spill the Tea Sis location there, selling unique home and gift items, in July 2022. Since then, the store has been named best gift shop by Valley Advocate readers two years running. “It’s kind of been a whirlwind of crazy growth since then. Now, it’s a million-dollar-a-year business, and we run events.”

Roy said all the candles, jewelry, and many other items sold at Spill the Tea Sis are made in-house, and she’s been able to support other local artisans as well. The store also features an active herb wall and its own tea line, and many of her offerings have a metaphysical bent.

“A lot of stores around here have similar products to each other. When somebody walks in our door, I want them to find the thing they can’t find anywhere else,” she said. “I want them to find something they love, that speaks to them.”

Last year, Roy launched a monthly block party from May to October, giving local vendors who may not have a brick-and-mortar presence, farmers, and other stores on Main Street the chance to set up tents and connect with visitors, and she’s looking forward to repeating the experience in 2024. She also brought a successful pop-up to the Big E in 2023 and plans to return this fall.

She has also spearheaded a slate of free artistic and cultural programming on Main Street and hosted events for community members to participate in, contributing to downtown vibrancy and drawing more visitors to town.

“People bring friends to town, and when they come here, they know they’re going to have an experience,” she said. “The reality is, people need more reasons to come back post-pandemic. I really enjoy making connections with our community and our customers.”

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2024

President, Iron-Lift LLC: Age 39

Jenna RahkonenJenna Rahkonen said she developed a unique set of skills during her career in manufacturing and construction — and used them to launch a business last year.

Rewinding a couple decades, she joined her family’s business, Alden Manufacturing, right out of college and eventually became director of Operations there.

“I learned a lot being involved in projects from start to finish and being in the factory when things were made,” she recalled. “I fell in love with the job, which was shocking to everyone, including myself.”

After her family sold the business, Rahkonen moved into the construction world, working in the Finance department at Northern Construction in Palmer, and later helping her husband, Alex, start his own crane-rental company, Northern Crane LLC, in the same town. There, while maintaining her financial role at Northern, she aided in the completion of 10 wind-turbine projects across the U.S. But she craved the challenge of running a business of her own.

“That’s how Iron-Lift LLC was born,” she said, explaining that the steel-erection company, which specializes in bridge construction, operates two branches out of its Monson headquarters: one that works on the state level with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Fish and Game, and other agencies; and a federal branch that has secured significant contracts, including a major current project performing lock and dam repairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s been interesting every single day, waking up and learning something new, overcoming a new challenge,” she said. “And I have an incredible team behind me.”

Active in the community, Rahkonen also volunteers with HomeFront Strong, a nonprofit organization that works to build resilience in veterans and military families. As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the granddaughter of a Korean War and World War II veteran, she wanted to give back to those who have served this county.

Specifically, she’s HomeFront Strong’s treasurer and auditor; coordinates the food-distribution program, which delivers boxes of food to homebound veterans in the Palmer and Ware area; and serves on the board of directors, where she’s involved in the annual golf-tournament fundraiser, the annual Veterans Day breakfast, and fundraising for Suicide Awareness Month every September.

“It really puts a focus on family members of veterans as well, because they all go through similar things,” Rahkonen said. “We also do storytelling, where veterans and surviving family members tell their stories to volunteers during an interview. We’re trained in PTSD and mental health, and it’s therapeutic for them to tell their story.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Director of Youth, Violence Prevention, and Court Support Programs, YWCA of Western Massachusetts: Age 38

Yhidda OcasioYhidda Ocasio knows struggle. So she knows how to connect with those who are struggling.

She arrived in the U.S. as a young girl, after her family decided to escape the rampant crime and crushing poverty of Colombia to pursue the American dream. As a young teen, she sought employment at a McDonald’s because she could bring extra food home after her shifts, and her family didn’t have to go to bed hungry.

So, in her 17 years working at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts in Springfield, she’s been able to bring deep empathy to three roles — a young-parent support counselor and case manager, assistant program director of the domestic-violence shelter, and, currently, director of Youth, Violence Prevention, and Court Support Programs. She has also worked part-time as a Human Rights officer at the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

“The YWCA has been a rewarding opportunity for me to give back to the community, and I’ve been able to apply the challenges I went through, not just in Colombia, but the barriers here as an immigrant,” Ocasio told BusinessWest. “My mom became a single mom several years after I arrived here, and she was working two to three jobs. Seeing my mom go through that struggle changed the outlook I had in regard to other women — single moms who were struggling.”

Over the years, Ocasio has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Westfield State University and Northcentral University, respectively, earning induction into the National Society of Leadership and Success at the latter — all this with English as her second language.

But that’s to be expected from someone who lives by the words in Matthew 19:26: “with God, all things are possible.” And she’s quick to express gratitude for everyone who has supported her along the way, from her mother and brother to her husband, Juan Ocasio; from the leaders at DDS to YWCA CEO Elizabeth Dineen “for her relentless mentorship.”

Ocasio has spoken at statewide trainings for nonprofits on topics like sexual assault, domestic violence, and healthy relationships, as well as addressing community events on immigration issues and refugee challenges. When she became a U.S. citizen in 2019, her colleagues threw her a huge party.

“It was a great day at the YWCA and a wonderful day to be an American,” Dineen said. “This is still the land of opportunity, and as a country, we are most fortunate to have humans like Yhidda Ocasio want to become a citizen.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

CEO, Unstoppable Latina LLC: Age 37

Paulette Piñero remembers the hours before she slipped into a coma.

It was March 2020, and she was one of the very first COVID cases in Massachusetts. “My legs were purple; they thought they might have to cut them off. I lost 40% of my lung capacity by the end of the first week. A social worker brought me an iPad so I could say goodbye to my family.”

Two years before that, she’d started writing a business plan, one that would help clients with business strategy and creativity. “But I continued to second-guess myself: ‘this is not for me,’ or ‘maybe I’ll do it at some point when I retire.’ I just felt like the dream was out of reach.”

But in February 2020, a month before she fell ill, Piñero started working with a SCORE mentor and developed a real launch plan. And when she woke from her coma, she knew she didn’t want to waste any more time.

“I promised myself, if I left that hospital, I would never put my dreams on the back burner — and, miraculously, I left the hospital. I had physical therapy for more than two years, and I was diagnosed that summer with long COVID. But I still launched my business; it was the first thing I did when I got out of the hospital.”

Before creating Unstoppable Latina, Piñero spent her career — in both Puerto Rico and then Massachusetts — in the social-impact space, working on strategy, programming, and marketing programs for nonprofits and impactful companies.

Now, she empowers women entrepreneurs by cultivating their confidence and brand positioning to embrace personal narratives, address human needs creatively, and lead industries with inventive ventures.

“The way I measure impact is, do you feel like the CEO of your business? Do you have a strategy and the tools that will move you from a side hustle and overwhelmed to stepping up as the CEO of your business and making decisions? And then, can you disconnect and be present with your family?”

That last part is especially important, said Piñero, who is also the co-author of the 2021 book Extraordinary Latinas: Powerful Voices of Resilience, Courage & Empowerment.

“This experience has allowed me to see business success as something that serves both your clients and yourself. That, to me, is more successful than just the revenue. My business is not just for helping the local economy, but helping Latinas be confident in their business and be present for their families and community.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Social Media Manager, Baystate Health: Age 34

Ally MontemagniAlly Montemagni sees herself as both a storyteller and an educator — and believes both roles are critical.

“Storytelling is my favorite part of the job. It’s just an honor to share someone’s story in healthcare,” she said, noting that she oversees all things social media — from content creation and video monitoring to analytics and reporting — across the entire Baystate Health network, from hospitals to specialty centers to primary care. “Usually it’s some real challenge, and we can put words and visuals to a patient’s story and bring it to life. It’s uplifting and validating for both the community and our team members.”

As for education, “we have an important role in providing a trusted source of information,” she explained. “That spiked during COVID; just keeping up with all the changes was a wild ride. In an age when people can put out anything on social media, to put out information that’s reliable, trusted, and comes from our experts, that’s an important role, and it’s a great way to interact with our community.”

But Montemagni’s favorite part of her job is spending time with patients and families, making sure they’re comfortable sharing their lives, and then doing so with sensitivity, as she does during the annual WMAS Radiothon for Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“That’s my favorite two days — interacting with the families and making fun content for the purpose of raising money for children in our community. I’ve cried with people. It’s all about the interaction with people and being a voice for their stories.”

Outside of work, Montemagni is a board member of Jenna’s Blessing Bags, which, for the past six years in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., has partnered with churches, community organizations, homeless shelters, police departments, and others to provide backpacks filled with life essentials to the homeless.

The charity was actually launched in Pennsylvania by her cousin, Jenna Burleigh, who became a victim of homicide in 2017. When her family decided to continue the work in her name, Montemagni brought the project to this region.

She also started a website, blog, and Instagram page called High Tide Healing, where she relates her own struggles and healing methods for grief. In addition, she has provided free photography services for worthy causes — including, recently, Rick’s Place, which provides grief support for children, teens, and families.

“It’s very, very close to my heart,” Montemagni said of Jenna’s Blessing Bags. “It’s our way of giving, turning some of that grief into purpose for us.”

And that’s a story worth telling.

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Director of Operations and Finance, Revitalize Community Development Corp.: Age 36

Chelsea McGrathChelsea McGrath knows what kind of impact home improvement can make.

“I never saw the impact until I started working here — how mold affects health, and how leaks, dirty carpets, dust, duct and vent cleaning, things that are really simple in nature can have such a big ripple effect. Poorly controlled asthma means kids are missing school and falling behind, which means the parents are missing work.

“So to come in and do a relatively simple intervention — pull up the carpet, get rid of the mold and leaks — now the kids can go to school, the parents can go to work … and it’s something that’s so easy to fix.”

That only begins to describe the broad community impact of Revitalize CDC. Meanwhile, the organization’s president and CEO, Colleen Shanley-Loveless, described McGrath’s impact since she came on board in 2021.

“Since joining us, Chelsea has hired staff, created new agency departments, and established policies and procedures to help us work more efficiently,” she noted. “Because of her commitment, dedication, and professionalism, Revitalize CDC has been able to add programs and hire and promote the right individuals.”

That includes increasing the budget from $1.3 million in 2021 to almost $5 million today, and purchasing a new facility to house the programs and growing staff. In 2020, Revitalize served 163 low-income families, impacting 657 people. In 2023, it served 650 families, impacting 2,521 individuals, Shanley-Loveless noted. “We couldn’t do what we do without her.”

Among the programs McGrath launched since her arrival is a nutrition program conducted, like the asthma program, in partnership with Baystate Health’s BeHealthy Partnership.

“We’re providing healthy food for people with diabetes or childhood obesity, and we’re able to educate people about proper food and make sure they have recipes and the supplies they need to cook food,” she said. “I’ve seen some dramatic changes — fewer trips to the emergency room, and some of the A1C scores have dropped.”

That’s real impact, and explains why McGrath tied for the highest judge scores among the 40 Under Forty class of 2024. So does her copious volunteer work with organizations like the WillPower Foundation, Rick’s Place, Yappy Tails dog rescue, and the Garden, a program at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for young people dealing with grief.

“If you’re in a position to help people, you have an obligation to do so,” McGrath said. “But I get so much out of it, too. It makes me happy. It makes me feel worthwhile. It’s not ‘why would I do that?’ but ‘why wouldn’t I?’”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

CEO, Sweetera & Co.: Age 37

Natalie MercadoNatalie Mercado always knew she wanted to work in the food space. After high school, she enrolled in New England Culinary Institute and earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts and restaurant management, then slowly rose up the ladder, eventually becoming a sous chef.

“My goal was always to open my own restaurant,” she recalled. “I did catering jobs on the side, but I never took the initiative to open up a business.”

In the meantime, she went to work for MassMutual as an underwriter consultant, a job she still has. But in 2021, she started pursuing her dream again, getting entrepreneurial help from EforAll Holyoke.

“I applied with the intention of starting a restaurant. This was all during COVID, and I was advised to rethink my business plan because so many storefronts were closing down.”

So, Mercado pivoted and launched a food trailer called Sweetera & Co., specializing in “milkshakes and over-the-top desserts.” She posts on her website and social media to let people know where the truck will be each week, and she also started catering. The enterprise was an immediate success, and still is three years later.

“I really didn’t expect it to take off the way that it did. It was a great surprise, honestly, because I had endured so many setbacks with building the trailer,” she said. “It was during COVID, so supplies were back-ordered, and trying to find reliable contractors was hard. So it took longer than anticipated. I had to get comfortable getting uncomfortable.”

But Mercado isn’t done challenging herself, with plans to launch a second trailer in Florida by next year and a storefront by 2026.

“Everyone’s like, ‘you’ve come so far, and you should be proud of yourself.’ And I am proud of myself, but I’m also hard on myself,” she told BusinessWest. “I know where I want to be, and I know I’m not there yet. But I need to give myself more credit than I do.”

She still enjoys her work at MassMutual, approving life-insurance applications and helping clients secure their future. But she sees a bigger future for herself in Sweetera & Co.

“I love the creativity,” she said. “The best part of it is seeing the customers’ reactions when they get their bubble waffle sundae or their milkshake — their eyes get really big like, ‘oh, wow.’ The feeling I get is incomparable. It really makes all the hard work and all the setbacks worth it.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Executive Director, Craig’s Doors: Age 35

When he was chosen as a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2024, Tim McCarthy was hesitant to talk about himself, firmly believing this is a team honor. “This is such a remarkable team,” he said. “It’s truly the best team in the country doing this work.”

That work is serving unhoused residents in Western Mass. at three sites. During McCarthy’s time as director, he has expanded programming to add new shelter locations, increase bed availability, and expand case-management support to residents of the region.

Currently a graduate student in mental health counseling and a member of the BEAHR Lab at UMass Boston, he has also worked to make Craig’s Doors (which was established in 2011 and named in memory of Craig Lorraine, a veteran and well-known street musician in Northampton and Amherst) a trauma-informed operation that practices what McCarthy calls “radical compassion.” It’s also the only homeless shelter in the country that provides free transportation to guests, thanks to a state-funded partnership with the PVTA.

“I just fell in love with this work and this population, and I had a vision for how it could intersect more deeply with concepts surrounding mental health,” he explained, adding that he also employs a number of former clients. “We’ve got a lot of folks with lived experience who existed in the margins. I’m a firm believer in providing opportunities for folks; a lot of people have overwhelming competence that might not be reflected in their résumé, so we try to build internally.”

McCarthy not only wants to raise people out of homelessness, he wants to close opportunity gaps he feels are far too prevalent today. “The outcomes we’re striving for are not built into the nature or ethos of this country right now. But we bring a level of competition to compassion. We’re out here trying to be the best at this work; we’re always trying to be better than we were the day before.”

Recognizing that homelessness is “the most glaring manifestation of wealth inequality,” he noted, Craig’s Doors has closed the compensation gap on its team, where everyone, no matter their role, starts at $20 per hour or more.

“That has allowed us to retain an incredible team and develop our roster. It also helps us to attract top talent within the space,” McCarthy said.

“We’re really practicing what we preach about humility and self-reflection,” he added. “We’re bringing a competitive work ethic promoted by capitalist ideals, but instead of applying it to individual wealth, we’re applying it to our principles.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

President, Lively Builders Inc.: Age 38

Joshua LivelyTired of working in the weatherization industry, Joshua Lively took the class and test to attain his construction supervisor’s license, but it got sent to the wrong state.

So … he waited.

In the meantime, “I was sick of my job, and my boss was sick of me,” he recalled. “One day, I got back from vacation and decided I’d had it, so I walked in and quit. When I got home, my construction supervisor’s license was in the mailbox, so that seemed like destiny.”

It was also a risk, with a 2-year-old daughter and his wife eight months pregnant with another child. But he immediately went to work framing and building with some friends in the Springfield area, learning from other carpenters and performing a range of different jobs, from installing above-ground pools to putting up walls for new house builds.

For the next two years, they got more and more calls — an experience Lively called “an eye-opening finishing school” and the final step to what came next: launching his own business, Lively Builders, in Montague.

“I started with a Dodge Dakota pickup truck and some cheap tools. Now I’ve got a 3,000-square-foot garage and multiple trailers and trucks. It’s grown tremendously over the past 12 years,” he told BusinessWest, adding that some of his work involves blighted properties and improvements to solve health and safety issues for homeowners. He’s also been named Franklin County’s favorite building and roofing contractor two years in a row in a Greenfield Recorder poll.

Lively volunteers his time to local government; he chairs the Montague Zoning Board, is a Montague Town Meeting member, and spent several years chairing the Montague Capital Improvements Committee.

“I like supporting the community in a nuts-and-bolts way — ‘oh, the DPW needs to repair this infrastructure.’ That’s unseen stuff that nobody wants to get into. Now I’m able to affect how the town is going to look in the future,” he explained. “I enjoy it, and I think it’s important to model this behavior for my kids and for other people in the community — to unite the rest of the silent majority who would otherwise keep quiet until someone steps up and does something.”

Lively also volunteers on the board of the Franklin County Youth Football League, even calling games in the announcer’s booth for the Franklin County Bulldogs. He also recently purchased a plane and sits on the Turners Falls Municipal Airport Commission — yet another sign that his career has, indeed, taken off.

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Owner, Kurtz Consulting: Age 30

Mariah Kurtz understands the importance of municipal government, especially in a very small town — and especially at a time of great challenge.

Over the past five years, she found herself in both, first as assistant town planner, then town planner, in Erving, population 1,665.

“I really jumped into municipal government on the hard mode. I was still getting to know the town when COVID hit,” she recalled. “I had to pivot … I guess I learned flexibility.”

Her role in such a small community was expansive. “It turns out, in a rural town, it’s not just reading and approving permits all day; there just aren’t that many permits to approve. So you end up doing a lot of other things. Like, this culvert needs to be replaced. How does that work? Who do we work with? How do we pay for it? Or, we want to plan an event to get people to come to the park, so we work with the Recreation Department to do that.

“The work was really exciting to me, talking to residents and learning what their needs were and what their desires were for their small town to flourish,” she added. “That was magical.”

Growing up in a family construction business — Westfield-based Kurtz Inc. is a notable name in Western Mass. — taught her the complexities of building and development on a small scale, and majoring in sustainable community development at UMass Amherst gave her a broader, more holistic perspective. “Instead of, ‘where do we pour the concrete?’ it’s ‘why do we do that, and how do we take into account the landscape?’”

That perspective guided Kurtz in Erving, and even more so now, a few months after launching her own grant-writing and consulting business, based in Greenfield and serving small businesses, nonprofits, farmers, and, yes, small towns.

“This way, towns don’t have to employ a full-time grant writer or planner, with the salary and benefits that go with that,” she explained, adding, “I actually never wanted to work in municipal government. For a lot of my peers at UMass, that was the traditional track, being a town planner in a local municipality. But I didn’t see that for myself.”

She is gratified, however, at effecting positive change in the region.

“With some projects, you see progress right away. I’ve done some public art projects, and there it is — you see it. But other projects take 20 years to see the difference in the environment,” she explained. “I’m most excited about helping people make those projects happen — and make their dreams happen.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Vice President, V&F Auto Inc.: Age 34

Nicole KerriganGrowing up in a family auto-repair and maintenance business, Nicole Kerrigan was certainly interested in making it her career, but she wanted to keep her options open.

She first majored in management at Western New England University, then switched to accounting, “mainly because, if I got into the business and it wasn’t what I thought it would be, I had a plan. Also, I’m very close to my family. If the business created a conflict, I didn’t want to sacrifice my family relationships.”

It turns out she needn’t have worried.

“As a third-generation leader of V&F Auto, she has brilliantly carried forward her family’s legacy while injecting a fresh and innovative approach into the business,” wrote Michael Bennett, executive coach with the Automotive Training Institute (ATI), one of myriad people who nominated Kerrigan for 40 Under Forty. “Under her leadership, V&F Auto has maintained its exemplary reputation and is experiencing substantial growth and evolution.”

Kerrigan calls ATI a vitally important factor in her growth and education, and today, she takes on numerous roles at V&F, from leading day-to-day operations overseeing the company’s social media and marketing; from communicating with customers to interviewing and hiring — and much more, including, yes, some accounting.

“I love creating relationships, overcoming challenges, and creating solutions, so my team can do their job better,” she said. “My role is to create opportunities for my team and give them the resources they need to grow and lead — to have a livelihood they are happy with and have a place they are proud to work for.”

Her colleagues say she’s acing that test. “Nicole has taken the reins in a field dominated by her male counterparts and propelled the business at V&F Auto Inc. to new heights,” Sales Manager James Dowd said.

Kerrigan is active in the West Springfield community, volunteering for a number of nonprofit and municipal organizations and events, even winning a leadership and team-development award from the Parks & Recreation department. And she’s especially proud of her role as a cheerleading coach for West Springfield High School for the past 15 years, first for the JV squad, then at the varsity level.

“I love the sport in general — it gives me great joy,” she said. “And I like the competitive aspect of cheerleading — not necessarily the sideline cheering, but being able to create routines and compete and watch the kids thrive each year, watch their skills get better and better and help them grow.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Partner, Bulkley Richardson: Age 38

Stephen HolstromWhile most lawyers say they’re in the business of helping others, some people may not put litigators in the ‘helpful’ category — at least, not at first thought.

But in representing doctors, small businesses, and others in various court actions, Stephen Holstrom said his life is, indeed, dedicated to helping people.

“Western Mass. is a small-business community, and I’m a litigator for small-business owners,” he explained. “When a business owner is involved in litigation, that impacts their whole life. When people go to court, it’s routine for me, but it’s not for them; it’s a very harrowing, stressful experience.”

As a general-practice litigator, Holstrom has handled complex tort actions, insurance cases, and complex class actions, as well as matters in connection with schools, the cannabis industry, and commercial litigation, including disputes between shareholders and land-use issues. Meanwhile, he represents hospitals, physicians, and other medical providers in medical-malpractice cases and other issues related to health law.

“I like having a varied practice,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s one of the reasons I came to Bulkley. There are needs all over the community, and I want to serve as many parts of the community as possible. That’s why I do general practice.”

And he’s doing it at a time when specialization is much more common in law firms.

“I’m a unicorn; it is fairly unique,” he said. “But you can’t reach every corner if you’re specializing in something. That’s why I’m proud to be a general litigator.”

Recognized by both Best Lawyers in America and Super Lawyers, Holstrom has also brought energy to his interests outside the firm, chairing Wilbraham’s By-Law Study Committee and serving as vice president of the board of directors of the Gray House in Springfield, which helps North End residents meet immediate and transitional needs like food, clothing, and educational services.

“The Gray House is a phenomenal organization,” he said. “It really helps people out of poverty, gives them the supports they need, and helps them get a leg up. It has a generational impact. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”

As he does on the job. “I like the thrill of litigation,” he said. “It’s a constantly moving challenge. Frankly, the day is usually a blur; there’s so much going on, and new challenges always pop up during the course of the day. If you talk honestly to litigators, a lot of them complain that it’s never-ending, but I think that’s reinforcing. That’s what we’re here to do — to deal with emerging issues.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2024

Vice President, Regional Manager, PeoplesBank: Age 35

Scott Gomes-GanhaoGrowing up, Scott Gomes-Ganhao wanted to be a pilot. But banking “kind of ran in the blood,” he said.

“My godmother was a banker for many, many years, so I had some kind of banking intuition. I worked part-time in banking all through college, so I fell into it and never left. Banking has that way of holding onto you.”

Not only has Gomes-Ganhao stuck with banking, he has excelled at PeoplesBank, consistently leading a top-ranked sales team and recently being promoted to his current position as vice president, regional manager.

That recognition “is a testament to Scott’s exceptional sales acumen,” said Lisa Wegiel, banking center assistant manager, in nominating him for the 40 Under Forty class of 2024. “His strategic approach and results-driven mindset have significantly contributed to the success of our banking operations.”

After an earlier promotion to assistant vice president, Gomes-Ganhao was selected to participate in the bank’s Leadership Challenge, demonstrating his leadership ability among his peers. He has also volunteered with an internal associate-engagement team, serving with other leaders on cross-functional strategic initiatives and being a mentor to junior associates, which has led to the advancement of several employees.

“It’s important for me to see people around me elevate with me,” he said. “I’ve been making sure the team is the main focus, that they also develop along the way. I enjoy the interactions with customers, helping them find solutions. But I also enjoy the development of the team and helping them reach their career goals.”

Gomes-Ganhao has excelled in other ways, taking leadership roles in and around his hometown of Ludlow, from serving as development chair of the Ludlow Boys & Girls Club (which honored him with its Darlene Rae Helping Hand Award in 2021) to serving as president of the high-profile Our Lady of Fatima Festa, a multi-million-dollar fair.

In fact, with almost 300 volunteer hours in the past year alone, Gomes-Ganhao has been recognized by PeoplesBank as Top Volunteer two years in a row — a remarkable achievement at an institution famously committed to employee volunteerism.

“I’m proud to be part of a bank that gives you so many opportunities,” he said. “One of the big factors when I moved to Peoples was making sure I was moving to an organization that embraced giving back. At PeoplesBank, we live and breathe that every day, not only financially, but by the hours that we contribute to the community.”

—Joseph Bednar